Totality, by Brandi Sperry


Prefer to read this as an EPUB or PDF?

Join our Patreon and instantly download issue 33:

I was serving pints of Leinie’s to a pair of flannel-clad retirees when the world changed, near as I can figure looking back. April 8, 2024. Total solar eclipse across a strip of North America. Theories abounded as to why that was the day when it all started, the day the first group of people went under, as we came to call it. The new reality arrived in a three-month wave, but I was way up on the shore where the land stayed dry.

Okay, I don’t speak in poetic metaphors. Those are Absame’s words.

I picture him standing with the crowd on the event field in Illinois, on a road trip from Minneapolis with his physics major pals, ready to experience the day turn dark. Not knowing what else would happen when it did. He tried once to describe how it felt—the way the him that was Absame expanded, his present identity becoming a vessel for everything that had come before. The pain of it. The beauty of it.

I was there somewhere, in the deluge of his mind.

Before the eclipse and its aftermath, I was not a whole person. I had not been a whole person for over twenty years. I was an automaton, an approximation. A simulacrum of a functional human being, pouring beers and laughing at vaguely sexist jokes to keep my tips up while the only part of me that felt real was the loop in the back of my head that never stopped, playing memories of Noah over and over.

My Noah. We were inseparable. Twins, opposites in so many ways, but completely bonded. I was a normal kid—loud, silly, bossy. But anyone could tell that Noah was special. He was quiet, observant, loving. And lord, he was brilliant. At everything, really, but of course it was the piano that most people knew about. We heard the word “prodigy” whispered by eager adults well before we understood what it meant. We didn’t realize the songs he wrote for me weren’t something normal kids could do, until they told us.

I know that after he was gone, they wished it had been me instead.

Absame was one of the very first, but the phenomenon spread. People collapsing out of nowhere into a stretch of unconsciousness, and waking up with new memories. Seeing themselves as a soldier in a foreign uniform, a worker at a forge, a hunter on horseback, a mother weeping over a bleeding child.

Past lives.

Some insisted it was just a disease, a strange new infection that addled the brain, causing hallucinations and visions. After a few months the wave died out, leaving billions untouched, with no biological pattern as to who had gone under and who hadn’t. But you only had to look at the simplest chart to understand why so many of us were unaffected. Population growth of the Earth over the history of humankind: The line climbed very, very slowly for tens of thousands of years. And then it spiked. The world had almost eight times as many people in 2024 as it did two hundred years before. We’d doubled in just the previous fifty. Which means most of us were new. Two lives, ten lives, maybe twenty—these were pretty common experiences. But the most common experience was to be brand new, living your very first life. A rookie. Like I was.

Sometimes gaining no new memories after the eclipse felt like missing out on something deeply important, an experience that affirmed the human condition. But mostly I didn’t mind. People remembered such horrible things they’d been through, dealing with the trauma all over again. And—worse—they remembered horrible things they’d done. At least I knew I’d never raped or pillaged anybody.

The true old souls were rare. Their minds swirled with the chaos of thousands of lives. These were the people who collapsed on April eighth, in those moments when the sun was gone.

Even when I decided I believed what was happening was real, I didn’t let myself hope that Noah would come back to me. After all, he could be anyone, anywhere. Locked up in a prison. Too poor to leave his home. He could have died again; he could have been a baby. There was no point in hoping. I let it be enough to accept that somewhere out there, someone who had once been my brother was living a life. Maybe that could be enough for me to start forgiving myself for the day he ran after me into the street. Maybe I could try to live a life, too.

I am opening the bar. The cook is way in the back prepping for the shift, and the busser is late. The sun gleams through the windows onto the cracked wooden floor. And he walks in.

I sigh, because he looks so young—I will learn that he is twenty, but he looks seventeen. I don’t serve minors. But his face is soft and nervous, and I wonder if there’s something else he wants. I wonder if he needs help. I ask him that. He stares at me, unable to speak.

As I’m about to call for the cook to assist, he walks to the battered upright piano shoved into the corner of the bar, a remnant from a failed attempt to host open mic nights. He sits and runs his hands over the keys, presses a few to test them. Miraculously, it’s in tune.

And then he plays.

The sound hits me in the chest and buckles my knees. I grip the bar’s edge to keep from falling as the clear, delicate notes wash over me. Finally I manage to walk shaking legs across the room and sit on the bench next to him.

When he finishes, Absame turns, looks into my eyes, and says softly, “It’s called ‘Hannah’s Song.'” I look back and say, “I know.”

That was how I got my brother back. But he wasn’t just my brother. He was a thousand other people, too. They came out of him in the way his movements would change, sometimes elegant, sometimes heavy or sharp, echoes of bodies somewhere out in the world, centuries in the ground, that had once been his. There were so many things he knew how to do, skills that bubbled up at the oddest moments. He folded me origami flowers and frogs. He could start a fire out of anything. He spoke dead languages that sounded like the word of God.

And when he sat at the piano, I could see the man that Noah would have been if he had lived.

He hadn’t even had to travel to find me. He’d been a few miles away from me for years. Born in Somalia on the day that Noah died, Absame had moved to Minneapolis as a refugee when he was a small boy, living with a distant relative after losing his immediate family to war. He had seen so much violence, felt so much pain in that life. And still he had grown up to be cheerful, gentle, loving. Like Noah had been. But the aunt who had raised him was gone, and his friends couldn’t deal with the new reality, the strangeness of his new behavior. He had no one but me.

I felt like fate had made sure he would be near me when the memories returned. Fate knew I could help him through what came next.

If you’d asked me before the eclipse, maybe I would have said that knowing the truth about life after death would improve things. Bring people together. No more need for various religions to grapple for our souls—our souls, if you do want to call them that, aren’t going anywhere. You die, and in the next instant you are born as someone else, anywhere on Earth. No need to fight about it anymore.

But the fighting got worse. Religious leaders admit they had been wrong the whole time? Of course that didn’t happen. They dug in heels, spoke of tests from God, from the Devil, from all the angels and demons they could conjure. They drowned out those whose beliefs had been affirmed, silenced anyone who argued that maybe now was the time to finally do something about poverty, about climate change—not just for the next generation, but because we are the next generation. We will continue to live with the consequences of our actions. We will sink in the morass of our own sins.

Well, there was one group that wouldn’t experience any more of the harsh world we’d made. Those who went under on the first day, like Absame, and others we met, who sought him out. A network formed: old souls across the globe, all with the same vision of what was to come.

Those lives would be their last.

He couldn’t really describe to me where they were going, but he knew that it was somewhere. It is wherever else exists, after the long, long journey of a human soul on Earth is over.

It felt excruciatingly slow to me, the way he deteriorated, slipping away. But I guess for someone who had lived hundreds of thousands of years by then, it must have felt quick. He started to forget all of the other lives he had remembered. The skills and the languages and the stories evaporated.

Noah, so recent, was the last to go. Absame knew me, he knew Hannah-and-Noah, the inseparable twins, right up until the end of those months we had together again.

Then one day, as he held my hand, he looked over and asked “Who are you?”

And then he was gone.

Hannah died a few years after that. My first death, one of those senseless American deaths that were so common in that era, an angry stranger with a gun. I was reborn into the years when we finally started to live with the truth, because as a new generation of children remembered their lives again when adolescence hit, reality became undeniable. There were some things that got better after that, as we learned to think more long term, to want to plant seeds that would grow past the end of one biological lifetime. But human nature is still violent, and horrific things still happen. It seems to me that we are on this Earth to feel pain as much as we are to feel love.

And I have felt love. I’ve never gone back to the way I let myself be in those dark years as Hannah before the eclipse, drowning in guilt and loneliness. I have loved through a dozen lifetimes now, often finding the same people again in our next incarnation, building a web of memory together.

But in each new life, the first memory that comes back to me is of Noah. The second one is the day Absame walked into the bar.

I know that it will stay that way as long as I live, through however many thousands of years it takes before my journey here is over.

Then, I will join my brother wherever he waits for me.


Originally from Seattle, Brandi Sperry now happily resides in Los Angeles, where she is primarily a screenwriter. Her short fiction has been published by Sixfold and the Citron Review. She also hosts the podcast Piece of Work, where she interviews other writers and artists about their process and creative philosophy.

Return to Issue #33 | Support The Deadlands

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top