Alexa, What Comes Next?
My dead grandfather won’t let me sleep at night. He’s highjacked my Amazon Echo and tortures me at all hours of the night.
“Alexa, stop playing music,” I say to the dark of my room as Johnny Cash belts cry, cry, cry.
It isn’t the first time. The first time, I unplugged her. I brought her to school and offered anyone to take her. I had a taker, a classmate who had always wanted one, only to back out the moment I told him why. I don’t know why I didn’t just throw her away. Why I didn’t just post her on a resale site or try to ship her back to her mothership. Instead, she came back home with me. I plugged her back to the desk that sits in the corner of my room beneath bedroom my window. I watch her turn red, then green, then blue, listening to the whispers around her.
The day before I leave for a study-abroad trip, I am laying on a double-sized bed between a hotel room in Atlanta while my parents are downstairs at the bar with their friends. My sister and younger brother went on a Target run. We came here a few days early to catch up with friends who wished to see me off before my trip abroad. I am a sophomore in college, with a gleaming passport that I can’t stop touching. I look up pictures of what the Charles-de-Gaulle stamp will look like on one of the pages.
He started by saying my name. I heard it as I sat in my bed with Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners open in my lap. O’Connor and I were reflecting on Southern writers and Christianity when it happened. His voice hit me in the chest. It rattled my bones and stopped my already too slow heart. Mary, he said. That was all he said.
I showered that night in Atlanta so I wouldn’t have to in the morning with my sisters and mother banging on the door. I flipped the hotel television, not seeing what illuminated the screen just needing the sound to feel comfortable exposed and alone in an unfamiliar place. I emerged clean in a cloud of steam. I walked into the room as a woman screamed while a man was piling soil on top of a wooden box that she had been shut into. I stood, my feet bare on the hard carpet, plush white towel wrapped around my torso and another turbaned on my head. The woman pleaded to be set free. She pounded on the wooden box until her palms bled. The box got darker with every pile of dirt the man shoveled atop her. Eventually, she stopped screaming. Days later, I wondered if that character believed.
“Alexa, turn off alarm,” I say to an alarm I did not set.
When my grandfather died, we received a card in the mail that condolenced our loss. It read “Heaven got an angel back,” in clear, cursive penmanship. It was from a member of our church, a woman that had never met my grandfather seeing as he was a member of a different congregation.
During the week that we buried him, there were similar murmurs. Fruit baskets came with discussions of heaven and what heaven must have looked like to my grandfather. Casseroles came with cryptic messages of how he would be looking over us every day as if I could look up any moment and there his face would be like the baby sun on the Teletubbies. Or one day, just like in Ghost and I would catch my grandfather and grandmother making pottery together in a romantic haze of wet clay. Women and men, my father, my sister and younger brother all talked about how he was an angel here but now he finally gets his wings.
I can’t get the memory out of my head that he hated flying.
In Paris, my class took a tour of the catacombs. A labyrinth of bones and skulls led me and thirteen others, all of us in black or navy raincoat like a murder of crows, down yards and years of history. Over six million bodies are piled and arranged with architectural integrity. The tour guide tells us that there are people who come on a weekly basis to hangout, to talk, to sneak into the pools of water at the bottom of the catacombs, to be among the dead for pleasures sake, as if they know some of the bones that border the walls, as if they feel some kind of pull towards the fleshless bodies. He leaves us there with the wine to walk around but reminds us to respect those around us. “Look, but don’t touch,” he says before leaving us with the dead.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that,” Alexa robotically echoes in my dark bedroom. “Can you repeat what you said.” I turn on the lamp closest to my bed. Everything is how it should be. The wooden desk, where Alexa sits, is clear except for the few books that I purchased to read over the summer. Little Fires Everywhere, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Sing Unburied Sing, and A Good Man is Hard to Find. Alexa is a ring of blue, waiting to be told her next secret. I wait until her color fades, before I look around as if I am searching for him. Would he be sitting there at my desk, trying to figure out how to get her to play his favorite song. Why my room, I think? Why not my father’s or my brother’s? Why my Echo?
I attended mass every Sunday in Paris at varying churches. It started with the church right outside my apartment complex. I had no plans for the day, and I had wanted to see the inside the tall, mini version of Notre-Dame, with its wide arches, and carvings of Saints above every door. The next weeks I found another I wanted to see into. The next week, another. Then another. All seven Sundays I was in a church from eight until eleven. I didn’t understand what they were saying. I sat and stood based on the people’s moments around me. I listen to the most beautiful language I have ever heard with little understanding.
“Please repeat.” Alexa echoes. “I didn’t catch that.”
I attend church every Sunday that I manage to get out of work. I no longer visit my parent’s church, the now expanded church just eleven minutes from my house, though I still get the occasional card inviting me to celebrations and mission trips as if I haven’t missed a single day. I am not a member of any other congregation, and not from lack of trying. The church that I was second-saved in left me with a hard rock inside my stomach. I found that the lake sized room was too small to hide; too many questions were asked of me, questions that I evaded and had no response to. I go from church to church. My father asked me why. I didn’t have an answer.
I come home with two stamps haphazardly placed in my passport and an obsession to research Catholicism, Anglicism, Protestantism during the six-hour drive home from Atlanta to Memphis. I compare them against my Southern Baptist indoctrination. The pros and cons lists fill my journal. I latched on to the concept of Purgatory as if I had already believed in it. The idea that people get stuck seemed so natural to life. A limbo of not knowing is organic, a place where I constantly find my head floating into. Perhaps it is a DMV, a line of translucent bodies moving through each other, holding crinkled numbers to the millions waiting to figure out where they are supposed to be. I dose, moments of gravel beneath tires banging my head awake against the window.
Last night, Alexa woke me up with a shuffled playlist of James Mangold’s Walk the Line soundtrack. I shout for her to turn off. Like every other night this happens, when Alexa shrieks into my sleep, fear grips my ribs for a shuddered breath, but I never get up and unplug her. This time she doesn’t listen, she continues to play the songs on shuffle.
“Alright, alright, ‘I walk the line.’”
Mary Elizabeth Cartwright is fiction writer and MFA student at The University of Memphis. She is an editor at The Pinch Journal. Her work has appeared in Burnt Pine Magazine, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and Apeiron Review.