In heaven, the little girl by the river introduces herself as Tala. She invites Eddie to sit with her on a mat. She tells him the Tagalog words for things around them, and explains that the children washing each other with stones in the river are imitating their mothers. Eddie is surprised by how direct and unafraid Tala is with him, unlike most children with adults they don’t know. Tala notices the pipe cleaners in Eddie’s jacket, and he makes her a little dog. She smiles, and then she tells him “You burn me.”
It is significant that as Eddie nears the end of his journey, the last place he finds himself in is a world full of children. Free of the years of pain, shame, and regret of adults, children often symbolize peace and new beginnings. Being closer to birth, children are nearer to the frontier between life and death than adults, who may not be able to process the end because they can’t remember the beginning.
Eddie is in shock, but asks her questions to find out what happened. In broken, childlike English, Tala tells him she was hiding from soldiers in a hut, because her mother told her to. Then she tells Eddie, “You make me fire.” Shuddering, Eddie realizes Tala was the little shadow in the hut that he saw in the Philippines. All of his nightmares, the darkness he had felt for years—he realizes it came from this, the life he had taken from this beautiful child. He feels he deserves all of the sadness of his life. He begins to cry and scream a “howl from the very belly of his being.” He cries, shaking, and repeats, “I killed you,” and “What have I done.” While Eddie cries, Tala calmly plays with the dog Eddie made her.
The one thing Eddie spent his life convincing himself didn’t happen turns out to be real. The darkness that has haunted him suddenly makes sense—it wasn’t just the violence of war, but the weight of having known somewhere deep in his soul that he had killed the child in the hut. His father’s lessons of toughness, Mickey’s lesson to “shoot and not think,” and the mantras of the Captain—these all failed to prepare Eddie for this moment, when the human reality of the violence he has received and inflicted in his life suddenly washes over him.
Tala picks up a stone, and tells Eddie “You wash me.” Reluctant and unsure, he follows her into the river. She takes off her blouse, showing horrible burns and blisters all over her body, and now they appear on her face as well. Shaking, Eddie scrubs the burns and blisters off of Tala, who relaxes and almost falls asleep. With her skin healthy again, Tala tells him she is his fifth person. Eddie starts to cry, and Tala asks him why he is sad. Letting go of the fact that she is a child, Eddie tells her he is sad because he didn’t do anything with his life. Tala tells him he was “supposed to be there,” at Ruby Pier. She tells him that by keeping the children safe, “You make good for me.” Then she pokes him gently, and says “Eddie Main-ten-ance.”
As with all transgressions throughout the novel, Eddie is provided a way to redemption. Tala asks him to wash away her burns, to symbolize his a chance to wash away her pain and cleanse himself of his sins. According to Tala, Eddie’s work keeping Ruby Pier safe wasn’t a waste after all, but was rather part of a divine plan providing him a way to absolve himself of his darkest mistake. When Tala calls Eddie by the name the children at Ruby Pier called him, it is almost chilling—they only just met, but it’s as if she had been there all along.
Eddie knows now that he is coming to the end of this part of heaven, and he again remembers the little girl, “Amy or Annie,” at Ruby Pier. He asks Tala if was able to pull her out of the way. Tala explains that he didn’t pull, but pushed her out of the way, and saved her. Confused, Eddie says it isn’t possible that he pushed her out of the way, because he felt her two small hands. Tala puts her hands in Eddie’s, and then he realizes the truth. Tala tells Eddie that those were her hands he felt when he died, because she was the one who brought him to heaven.
All through his time in heaven, Eddie has been waiting to find out whether or not he saved the little girl—so he can know whether or not his death mattered. Though he did save the little girl, what gave his death meaning wasn’t just that he died saving someone, but also that someone saved him when he died. Tala, whom he took life from, chose to be the person to give him his second life —fulfilling an act of absolute forgiveness.
The river now rises above Eddie, and all the children but Tala disappear. Eddie feels himself letting go of all the pain of his life. Guided by Tala’s hand, Eddie is carried along the current through endless colors. He understands now that all of the colors he has floated and swam through in heaven are the “emotions of his life.” Rising above the water, Eddie sees the beach at Ruby Pier full of thousands of families with children playing. He realizes that these are all the children, past, present and future, whom he had kept alive and safe by keeping Ruby Pier safe. He feels a sense of peace as he floats above the boardwalk. He then comes to the big Ferris wheel, where Marguerite is sitting and waiting for him. Eddie hears the voice of God say: “Home.”
Eddie finally achieves peace once he understands his purpose as well as his pain. Eddie’s range of positive and negative emotions has colored his life, and like the colors of heaven, these emotions are all equally beautiful and important. Far from being ordinary, his life has been deeply connected to countless people he saved without even knowing it. Though Eddie has long resented Ruby Pier, knowing his purpose there allows him to accept it as the setting for “home”—the place in heaven where he reunites with God and his wife.