Two girls meet at the gates of the dead. They’re mirrored, those gates. One girl steps into the mirrors. The other steps through the gates.
Mr. Schiff is on a plane. He’s going to go skydiving.
Jane and Martin are on a green, green hill. They’re eating a picnic. It involves bread, pickles, and cheese. There’s a girl sitting with them. She’s quiet, since she’s dead, but she still munches on bread and cheese when Jane offers.
“Her name’s Iffy,” Jane says.
“Where’d you meet her?” Martin asks.
“She was over there,” Jane says. Jane points at the grass. “She was eating ice cream. So I invited her to a picnic.”
“Hi,” Iffy says.
Martin smiles a little. “Hey.”
“Your turn!” Jane says. “Tell me a story.”
Martin ponders. “A scary story? It’s almost Halloween.”
“Okay,” Jane agrees.
“A long time ago,” Martin says, “the luminiferous ether and the atmosphere were sisters, and the best of friends.”
Iffy frowns at Martin.
“They did everything together,” Martin says. “They played. They worked. They laughed. But sometimes things go bad.”
“Like mayonnaise!” Jane suggests.
“Mistakes were made,” Martin says. “Recriminations issued. Regrettable events were insufficiently regretted. And one day, while they were arguing with one another in the shape of two little girls, the atmosphere stabbed the luminiferous ether right through the heart, and through both eyes, and to the death.”
“With a pickle?” Jane asks.
“With a knife,” Martin says.
Jane frowns at him severely. At first Martin looks suave. Then he caves.
“Fine,” he says. “With a knife carved from the deadliest of Vlassic pickles, dripping with its horrid brine.”
“Yay!” Jane says. She takes a pickle out of the picnic pickle jar and bites it happily.
“Which of them do you identify with?” Martin asks, curiously.
“I’m the horrified onlooker,” Jane says. “Gasp! This one little girl has killed the other! We must fetch a doctor immediately!”
“It wasn’t like that,” Iffy says. Jane hands her a bit of bread and cheese. “It was more about how scientific concepts evolve.”
“I’ve always thought,” Martin says, “that if scientists could establish their theories by stabbing one another with pickles, they probably would.”
“Some kind of peer review thing?” Iffy asks.
“They did fetch a doctor,” Martin says. “But it didn’t help, because, you know, the luminiferous ether was dead. And the atmosphere wasn’t even one little bit sorry, either.”
Jane frowns. “Not even a little?”
“Well,” Martin confesses, “maybe a little.”
“Just a little?” Jane says.
“Well,” Martin admits, “after a while, the atmosphere felt really bad about it. But what could she do? The luminiferous ether was already dead.”
“She could go to the other side,” Jane says. “And bring her sister back!”
“It’s not that easy,” Iffy says.
“It’s hard to revive someone killed with a pickle,” Martin agrees. “You have to make an especial appeal to the King of the Dead.”
Jane waves a hand airily. “Being the atmosphere opens a lot of doors.”
“That’s true,” Martin admits. “But it closes others.”
Jane thinks. “I’ve seen that happen,” she concedes.
“So what would the King of the Dead do?”
Jane frowns. “You’re telling this story,” she says, severely. “But I guess that he’d probably make some kind of deal with her. Like, maybe, she has to do three incredible tasks to get her sister back.”
“Or maybe,” Martin says, “she can get her back, but not all the way.”
Suddenly, Iffy frowns. “Ack,” she says. She pushes upwards at the air as if trying to hold something up.
“You okay?” Jane asks.
Iffy shakes her head. “It’s too hard!” she says. “I can’t provide enough friction!”
“See,” Martin says, gesturing around broadly, “the King of the Dead was willing to let the luminiferous ether back. It can play. It can touch the world. It can run in the grass and eat ice cream. But it can never see its sister again. Because when the luminiferous ether is here, conducting light and providing a breathable environment, the atmosphere must hide from the world, behind mirrors and under the glass. That’s the bargain that the King of the Dead made. And today, just a few weeks from Halloween, is one of the days when the luminiferous ether is here, and the atmosphere is gone.”
Mr. Schiff hits the ground, hard, next to them.
“It makes it a bad day to sky dive,” Martin admits. “The ether has low resistance and doesn’t hold parachutes up very well.”
Iffy sags. “I did my best,” she says.
Jane stares at Mr. Schiff in horror. “Is he dead?”
Martin takes a pickle from the jar. He pokes Mr. Schiff with it. “Dunno,” he says.
Jane straightens her spine. She looks firm. “I don’t believe in dead people,” she says.
“What?” Martin asks.
“I’m hoping he’ll hear me,” Jane says.
“Every time a child says that,” Jane says, “a dead person comes back to life.”
“Just like that?”
Jane nods. “It used to be that there was one dead person for every living person. But children stopped believing in death, and dead people started coming back to life, and now the world’s all overpopulated. I don’t believe in dead people.”
Martin frowns. “He’s not responding,” he says.
“I don’t believe in dead people! I don’t! I don’t!” Jane shouts.
There’s a pause.
“I don’t believe in dead people,” he whispers.
“I don’t believe in dead people,” Jane says.
“I don’t believe in dead people,” Iffy concedes.
“I don’t believe in dead people,” Jane demands.
There’s a silence. Slowly, Mr. Schiff drags himself upright.
“I don’t believe in dead people,” Jane says, again.
“I can fly,” Mr. Schiff says, “you know.”
“That’s good!” Jane says encouragingly. “I don’t believe in dead people.”
“You can stop now,” Martin says.
“Oh,” Jane says.
“You know,” Martin says, “we should go to the graveyard on Halloween, and do that.”
“That would be mean,” Jane says. “Most of those people are done.”
It is the end of that day. One girl waits behind the mirrors for her freedom. The other walks down to the gates of the dead.
“You can’t go through,” says the King. “Not today.”
Iffy pauses. “Why not?”
“You can’t be dead,” says the King, “if people don’t believe in it.”