Welcome to Elsewhere
"We're here!" Thandi is looking out the upper porthole when Liz enters the cabin. She jumps down from the top bunk and throws her solid arms around Liz, spinning her around the cabin until both girls are out of breath.
Liz sits down and gasps for air. "How can you be so happy when we're...?" Her voice trails off.
"Dead?" Thandi smiles a little. "So you finally figured it out."
"I just got back from my funeral, but I think I sort of knew before."
Thandi nods solemnly. "It takes as long as it takes," she says. "My funeral was awful, thanks for asking. They had me made up like a clown. I can't even talk about what they did to my hair." Thandi lifts up her braids. In the mirror, she examines the hole in the back of her head. "It's definitely getting smaller," she decides before lowering her braids.
"Aren't you at all sad?" Liz asks.
"No point in being sad that I can see. I can't change anything. And I'm tired of being in this little room, Liz, no offense."
An announcement comes over the ship's PA system: "This is your captain speaking. I hope you've enjoyed your passage. On behalf of the crew of the SS Nile, welcome to Elsewhere. The local temperature is 67 degrees with partly sunny skies and a westerly breeze. The local time is 3:48 p.m. All passagers must now disembark. This is the last and only stop."
"Don't you wonder what it's like out there?" Liz asks.
"The captain just said. It's warm with a breeze."
"No, not the weather. I meant, everything else."
"Not really. It is what it is, and all the wondering in the world isn't gonna change it." Thandi holds out her hand to help Liz off the bed. "You coming?"
Liz shakes her head. "The ship's probably super crowded. I think I'll wait here a bit, just until the halls clear out."
Thandi sits next to Liz on the bed. "I'm in no particular rush."
"No, you go on ahead," says Liz. "I want to be by myself."
Thandi looks into Liz's eyes. "Don't you stay in here forever."
"I won't. I promise."
Thandi nods. She is almost out the door when Liz calls out to her, "Why do you think they put us together anyway?"
"Beats me." Thandi shrugs. "We were probably the only two sixteen-year-old girls who died of acute head traumas that day."
"I'm fifteen," Liz reminds her.
"Guess that was the best they could do." Thandi pulls Liz into a hug. "It was certainly nice meeting you, Liz. Maybe I'll see you again someday."
Liz wants to say something to acknowledge the profound experience that she and Thandi have just shared, but she can't find the right words. "Yeah, see you," Liz replies.
As Thandi closes the door, Liz has the impulse to call out and ask her to stay. Thandi is now her only friend, except for Curtis Jest. (And Liz isn't even sure if she can count Curtis Jest a friend.) With Thandi gone, Liz feels more alone and wretched than she has ever felt before.
Liz lies down on the bottom bunk. All around her, she can hear the sounds of people leaving their cabins and walking through the ship's halls. Liz decides to wait until she can't hear any more people and only then will she venture from her cabin. In between doors opening and closing, she listens to snippets of conversation.
A man says, "It's a little embarrassing to only have these nightgowns to wear..."
And a woman, "I hope there's a decent hotel..."
And another woman, "Do you think I'll see Hubie there? Oh, how I have missed him!"
Liz wonders who "Hubie" is. She guesses he is probably dead like all the people on the Nile, dead like she is. Maybe being dead isn't so bad if you are really old, she thinks, because, as far as she can tell, most dead people are really old. So the chance of meeting new people your own age is quite good. And all the other dead people you knew from before you died might even be in the new place, Elsewhere, or whatever it was called. And maybe if you got old enough, you'd know more dead people than live ones, so dying would be a good thing, or at least wouldn't be so bad. As Liz sees it, for the aged, death isn't much different than retiring to Florida.
But Liz is fifteen (almost sixteen), and she doesn't personally know any dead people. Except for herself and the people on the trip, of course. To Liz, the prospect of being dead seems terribly lonely.
On the drive over to the Elsewhere pier, Betty Bloom, a woman prone to talking to herself, remarks, "I wish I had met Elizabeth even once. Then I could say, 'Remember that time we met?' As it is, I have to say, 'I'm your grandmother. We never met, on account of my untimely death from breast cancer.' And frankly, cancer is no way to begin a conversation. In fact, I think it might be better not to mention cancer at all. Suffice it to say, I died. At the very least, we both have that in common." Betty sighs. A car honks at her. Instead of speeding up, Betty smiles, waves, and allows the car to pass. "Yes, I am perfectly content to be driving at the speed I'm driving. If you wish to go faster, by all means go," she adds.
"I do wish I had more time to prepare for Elizabeth's arrival. It's odd to think of myself as someone's grandmother, and I don't feel very grandmotherly at all. I dislike baking, all cooking actually, and doilies and housecoats. And although I like children very much, I'm not very good with them, I'm afraid.
"For Olivia's sake, I promise not to be strict or judgmental. And I promise not to treat Elizabeth like a child. And I promise to treat her like an equal. And I promise to be supportive. And I won't ask too many questions. In return, I hope she'll like me a little bit, despite anything Olivia may have told her." For a moment, Betty falls silent and wonders how Olivia, her only child, is doing. Arriving at the pier, Betty checks her reflection in the rearview mirror and is surprised by what she sees. "Not quite old, not quite young. Very strange, indeed."
An hour passes. And then another. The halls grow quiet and then silent. Liz begins to hatch a plan. Maybe she could just be a stowaway? Eventually the boat would have to make a return trip, right? And if Liz just stays on it, maybe she could simply return to her old life. Maybe it's really that easy, Liz thinks. Maybe when she heard stories of people who had had near-death experiences, people who had flatlined and then come back, those "lucky" people were not lucky at all. They were the ones who knew enough to stay on the boat.
Liz imagines her homecoming. Everyone will say, "It's a miracle!" All the newspapers will cover it: LOCAL GIRL BACK FROM DEAD; CLAIMS DEATH IS CRUISE, NOT WHITE LIGHT, TUNNEL. Liz will get a book deal (Dead Girl by Liz Hall) and a TV movie (Determined to Live: The Elizabeth M. Hall Story) and an appearance on Oprah to promote both.
Liz sees the doorknob move, and the door begins to open. Without really thinking about it, she hides under the bed. From her position, she can see a boy of around her brother's age, dressed in a white captain's costume with gold epaulets and a matching captain's hat. He sits himself on the lower bunk and appears to take no notice of Liz.
The boy's only movement is the slight swinging of his legs. Liz notices that his feet barely reach the floor. She has a perfect view of the soles of his shoes. Someone has written L on the left one and R on the right one in black marker.
After a few minutes, the boy speaks. "I was waiting for you to introduce yourself," he says with an unusually mature voice for a child, "but I don't have all day."
Liz doesn't answer.
"I am the Captain," the boy says, "and you are not supposed to be in here."
Liz still doesn't answer. She holds her breath and tries not to make a single sound.
"Yes, girl under the bed. The Captain is speaking to you."
"The Captain of what?" Liz whispers.
"The Captain of the SS Nile, of course."
"You look a little young to be the captain."
"I assure you my experience and qualifications are exemplary. I have been the Captain for nearly one hundred years."
What a comedian, Liz thinks. "How old are you?"
"I am seven," the Captain says with dignity.
"Isn't seven a bit young to be a captain?"
The Captain nods his head. "Yes," he concedes, "I must now take naps in the afternoon. I will probably retire next year."
"I want to make the return trip," Liz says.
"These boats only go one way."
Liz peers out from under the bed. "That doesn't make sense. They have to get back somehow."
"I don't make the rules," says the Captain.
"What rules? I'm dead."
"If you think your death gives you free rein to act as you please, you are wrong," says the Captain. "Dead wrong," he adds a moment later. He laughs at his bad pun and then abruptly stops. "Let's suspend disbelief for a moment, and say you managed to take this boat back to Earth. What do you think would happen?"
Liz pulls herself out from under the bed. "I suppose I'd go back to my old life, right?"
The Captain shakes his head. "No. You wouldn't have a body to go back to. You'd be a ghost."
"Well, maybe that wouldn't be so bad."
"Trust me. I know people who've tried, and it's no kind of life. You end up crazy, and everyone you love ends up crazy, too. Take a piece of advice: get off the boat."
Liz's eyes are welling up with tears again. Dying certainly makes a person weepy, she thinks as she wipes her eyes with the back of her hand.
The Captain pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket and hands it to her. The handkerchief is made from the softest, thinnest cotton, more like paper than cloth, and is embroidered with the words The Captain. Liz blows her nose in it. Her father carries handkerchiefs. And the memory necessitates another nose blow.
"Don't cry. It's not so bad here," the Captain says.
Liz shakes her head. "It's the dust from under the bed. It's getting in my eyes." She returns the handkerchief to the Captain.
"Keep it," says the Captain. "You'll probably need it again." He stands with the perfect posture of a career military man, but his head only comes up to Liz's chest. "I trust you'll be leaving in the next five minutes," he says. "You don't want to stay." And with that, he quietly closes the cabin door behind him.
Liz considers what the strange little boy has said. As much as she longs to be with her family and her friends, she doesn't want to be a ghost. She certainly doesn't want to cause more pain to the people she loves. She knows there is only one thing to do.
Liz looks out the porthole one last time. The sun has almost set, and she passingly wonders if it is the same sun they have at home.
The only person on the dock is Betty Bloom. Although Liz has never seen Betty before, something about the woman reminds Liz of her own mother. Betty waves to Liz and begins walking toward her with purposeful, even strides.
"Welcome, Elizabeth! I've been waiting such a long time to meet you." The woman pulls Liz into a tight embrace that Liz attempts to wiggle out of. "How like Olivia."
"How do you know my mother?" Liz demands.
"I'm her mother, your Grandma Betty, but you never met me. I died before you were born." Grandma Betty embraces Liz again. "You were named for me; my full name's Elizabeth, too, but I've always been Betty."
"But how is that possible? How can you be my grandmother when you look the same age as my mother?" Liz asks.
"Welcome to Elsewhere." Grandma Betty laughs, pointing matter-of-factly to the large banner that hangs over the pier.
"I don't understand."
"Here, no one gets older, everyone gets younger. But don't worry, they'll explain all of that at your acclimation appointment."
"I'm getting younger? But it took me so long to get to fifteen!"
"Don't worry, darling, it all works out in the end. You're going to love it here."
Understandably, Liz isn't so sure.
Excerpted from ELSEWHERE © Copyright 2005 by Gabrielle Zevin. Reprinted with permission by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- ISBN-10: 0374320918
- ISBN-13: 9780374320911