Conservation of Souls

“Do you believe in God?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“…”

Our legs dangled over the edge of the abandoned iron-wrought bridge, long oxidized after decades under humid weather. The river below was an equal shade of rust from the clay deposits further upstream. The banks were dotted with polished pebbles. Clouds drifted lazily past the late afternoon sun. The wind was still.

Ethan tossed a handful of sand into the river, watching silently as it sank into the opaque waters. I picked at the bridge’s peeling black paint, my fingernails chipping away the layers of old lacquer. I wish I could do that to people—strip away their glossy finish to see the rusting core. If only—

“It’s not your fault, you know.” His voice was soft. 

I blinked, my eyes snapping back to the gurgling river and I felt my lungs constrict in my chest. Fault. Fault. Fault. Your fault. It’s all your fault. My hands unconsciously fumble for my inhaler, even though I know that it wasn’t my asthma that made me suddenly lightheaded. Some old man in the sky. What a joke. He can’t even make me breathe right.

“Do you—” My voice is small, and the first syllable cracks when I try to speak. I clear my throat and try again. “Do you remember the Law of Conservation of Energy?” 

Ethan stared at me, confused. Neither of us were STEM-inclined, but he humored me anyways. “Yeah, from freshman physics.” He scrunched up his nose and recited: “Energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only transformed from one form to another. Wow,” he groaned, “Ms. Sawyer must have mentally scarred me if I can still remember that.” I couldn’t help but smile at his deadpan expression. 

I’m so lucky I have him as my friend.

He paused to tap his chin thoughtfully, “I think there’s a lot of types of Conservation laws. It’s kind of how we make sense of the physical world, you know. The world is so confusing and we need some constants or rules so we don’t always feel helpless.” Yeah, I think. Science is much more reliable than religion. 

“Ethan, where do you think we go once we die?” I glanced at him as I forced out the question, my chest feeling like it’s being squeezed by a fist. Ethan’s eyes widened and he stammered, “Heaven, I guess… hell maybe if you’re bad? I … depends on what you believe. I mean, nothing could happen as well. I’m an atheist, you know. Anyone’s guess, really.” He tossed another handful of sand into the river. “What…” He swallowed, “What about you?”

My vision blurred, “Agnostic. For now at least. But I do believe in reincarnation. Not… not Hinduism or Buddhism. I meant more of… uh… scientific reincarnation.”

“Like the Conservation of Energy?”

I smile through my tears. Sometimes it’s these moments that I realize why Ethan and I were so close. He just connected the dots that my therapist couldn’t even understand. Even when my ideas or thoughts didn’t even make any sense to myself, he always knew exactly what to say. 

“Yeah,” I said aloud. “Exactly. I mean… we’re just systems of chemical and physical reactions that managed to gain consciousness. I feel like the parts that make us who we are— neurons or souls or whatever— will be ‘recycled’ in some kind of way after we die. Just like our atoms, right? Energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only transformed. Same with us— not just our bodies; our consciousness will exist even after our physical self is gone. Just in a different way.” We’ll be a part of the universe. Maybe it’s better like that.

Ethan paused. “That’s kind of cool. The Law of Conservation of Souls, perhaps?” 

“Yeah— that sounds legit.” 

Ethan blew a strand of dark hair out of his eyes. “So,” he tried again hesitantly, “Is that how you’re coping? With your sister’s death?” He turned to squint at the sun, “Do… do you think she’s still here with us? Right now?”

I stared at the river in daze. Images of hospital beds, newspaper clippings, and ventilation masks flickered through my mind. Was it? Was she???

“Yes—well. No,” I finally shook my head. “I don’t… it…” My thoughts jumbled up again and I raised the inhaler to my lips. Breathe, breathe… 

“It’s okay.” Ethan reached over to squeeze my hands, his smile tremulous. 

For some reason, I believed him.

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