This is a story for which I’ve never found a publisher. That probably means this story isn’t as good as some of my others but I don’t care. This story amuses the hell out of me. And there’s a lot of hell in me so that’s a lot of amusing. I started this one thinking… Well, actually, I’m not sure what I was thinking but I liked the way it developed and I was surprised by the ending. I guess I can’t stay away from small, southern towns.
The latest revision on this one is dated 2015 but the original version is several years older. I’m not sure just when I started it but it was probably before 2010.
So You’re Dead; Now What?
By Lee Wright
Here’s the deal: You’re dead. Departed. Deceased. Done.
Your new BMW sailed off a dark mountain road, plummeted more than three hundred feet, and landed on its roof. Your skull imploded, your neck snapped, you pissed your three-hundred dollar pants, and everything went black.
How long the darkness lasted you can’t say but, now, you find yourself standing on a cold, rocky beach. The car lies on its top, the roof crushed nearly even with the hood. A film of blue flame spreads across the undercarriage, pulsing in synch with the pounding surf.
What a shitty ending to a great night, you think. Earlier, you and Monica were attending your company’s swanky annual awards dinner at a country club up in the mountains. You received a plaque and an impressive bonus. Back at your table, you “accidentally” let Monica get a quick look at the check. Five minutes later, you were on the road, running full out, back toward L.A. Cresting a hill, you put your hand on the back of Monica’s head and guided her down. She didn’t resist. At some point, you closed your eyes to savor the moment—just for a second or two, three at the most, but it was long enough to miss the curve.
You see Monica’s arm protruding from the passenger window, the skin pale as fine porcelain in the moonlight. Her fingers twitch, the arm moves. She’s alive! You start for the car, but the sheet of flame that clings to the undercarriage swirls, ripples and condenses. A second later, the car explodes.
Instinctively, you throw your hands up to protect your face, but the flames simply pass over you and through you. You feel the heat, but experience no pain. Cautiously, you lower your hands and watch a column of flame rise from the wreck. It blossoms for an instant into a gorgeous luminescent mushroom before collapsing in on itself with a soft whimper. Now the flames cling close to the car again, a second skin of orange and indigo, as the great oily black cloud disperses in the otherwise clear night sky. The wind shifts, cutting across the boulder-strewn beach, and you get a face-full of an ungodly stench. Is it the burning leather? The oil? No, a voice in your head says. It’s Monica.
A wave of nausea rocks you and you turn away, gagging, hands over your face. Behind you, the car continues to burn. Salty spray clouds the air. The wind is sharp, cold, refreshing.
You look toward the sky. Where’s the tunnel and the bright light? Where’s the Angel of Death? Where’s the Redeemer they promised in Sunday School so many years ago?
You turn back to the car and see Monica’s arm on the ground. The once pale skin is now black and bubbling. But that’s not really her anymore, just as you are no longer you. So where is she? If she’s just as dead as you are, shouldn’t she be here, too? Maybe she has gone on, you think. But gone on to what? There is no Heaven. There is no Hell. You’re sure of that. Or are you?
Back in that tiny Appalachian town you once called home, you were taught to be a good Southern Baptist. But you gave all that up in college after they taught you to think for yourself. Once you started doing that, your native religion seemed antiquated and silly, much like your hometown itself. For the last decade of your life, you were an avowed atheist, but you wonder what you will be in death. And what about the common expectation that all life’s great questions will be answered postmortem? You clearly haven’t received total enlightenment in exchange for your mortal coil. In fact, you’re more confused now than you were before you drove off the cliff.
This is all too much. This afternoon, you were an upwardly mobile twenty-nine-year-old junior executive. In a year or two, you would have been pulling down high six figures and driving an even better car—maybe that Porsche you had your eye on. In another twenty years (fifteen if those investments panned out), you could have retired to a villa on an island in the Caribbean and spent your days fishing for marlin. There would have been a lady with you there in those golden days by the sea, but you know it would not have been Monica. You liked her well enough, but she was just a passing fancy, something to occupy your time until you could afford someone better looking and less opinionated.
Would you have felt differently about her if you had known her ten years ago when, thirty pounds heavier, she was waitressing her way through a junior college in Iowa? Would you have crawled out of your one-room basement apartment to share pizza and cheap beer with her? Would you have comforted her when her dream of becoming a nurse came crashing down in a blaze of latent ineptitude? Would you have reassured her that being a travel agent was just as vital a career?
A better question might be would Monica have chosen you? What would the chubby-but-cute daughter of successful farmers have thought about the son of a factory worker from rural Georgia? In those days, would she have believed that, barely a decade down the road, the soft-spoken guy fighting to overcome his southern accent would be a key player with a well-known and well-respected company? Would you have believed it, yourself?
It doesn’t matter. Even Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde, Quasimodo and Esmeralda were all still dead in the end. And here’s the worst part: It’s all your fault.
But so what if it was your fault? Who will care?
Your mother will care.
You haven’t even thought about her in weeks—maybe months, but some of your family—your mother and your sister, for sure—will undoubtedly miss you. For reasons you’ll probably never understand they have always loved you no matter how much of a pretentious and arrogant douchebag you became. They loved you when you lived under their roof, they loved you when you moved away, and they loved you when you refused to return.
You try to remember the last time you visited. What’s it been? Three years? Four? No, you haven’t been back since they buried your father five years ago. After the old man’s heart exploded at the factory where he had worked for twenty-five years, you had to go back to that godforsaken place and hold your mother while she cried. But you didn’t have to stay.
Though you’ve never admitted it—not even to yourself—you started drinking to forget that day and all the days before it. You did lines with Monica because the coke cleared your head for a while, replacing the memories of home with the raw, jittery dreams that lived underneath. The intoxicants, like everything else in your recent life were part of a big piece of sandpaper, scraping away the rough edges of your youth.
You turn your eyes toward the sky again, but there is still no great parting of clouds, no thunderously angelic voices calling you home. You could wait and see what happens, but death doesn’t seem to have made you any less impatient. If only someone could tell you what to do.
In life, you had a mentor of sorts, for a while, anyway. It was with his guidance that you took your first uncertain steps off the path you had mapped out so long ago. You eventually left him behind, but that’s the way the game is played. Advancement is for the young and ambitious.
If only you had a mentor now.
And then you realize: That’s it. You must simply do in death what you did in life. You must venture forth and seek out your own kind; find a ghostly mentor.
Not knowing exactly where to go, you walk along the beach for more than a mile until you reach the road that runs up the side of the mountain. At the top not far from the curve that killed you, is a large cemetery. You were there two years ago with a blonde from San Diego. Her name escapes you now but you remember fucking her on the well-manicured grass behind a marble mausoleum while the Virgin Mary looked on with impassive stone eyes. You were pretty drunk, but you remember her body and you remember that the cemetery is elegant, the headstones impressive, the iron gates high and ornate. Perhaps there you can find others who share both your predicament and your social station.
It’s a long walk, but you make good time. Your muscles don’t ache, your lungs don’t burn, and the climb across the gate is not difficult. In the darkness, the tombstones seem to go on forever, a sea of carefully etched gray slabs, rising and falling in gentle waves on a sea of hunter green. The flowers are nearly colorless in the moonlight, their heads bowed, as if in somber reverence. Across the cobblestone path from you, behind a bed of roses, a lanky stone corpse lies cradled in the arms of his silently wailing mother.
“Any suggestions,” you ask the recumbent figure.
You get no answer, but it’s not the first time the Son of God has met your inquiries with silence.
You use your hands to make a megaphone around your lips and call out, “Can anyone hear me? Can anyone see me? Is anyone here?”
You wait but no voice responds to your cry.
“Helloooo! I’m dead and I’m kind of lost! Little help?”
Again, no answer.
You lower your hands and your voice. “Single white dead guy, lost in Limbo, seeks non-smoking, non-corporeal female companion. Must like long, moonlit walks and haunting trendy restaurants.”
Maybe all the other ghosts have already gone out for the night. You can tell from the quality of the headstones that, like you, these were once important members of society. It seems reasonable that, even in death, they have places to go and things to do.
Think, you tell yourself. Just think. You are, after all, an educated man. You have a BA in Business Administration and an MBA in Business Management. What did you learn in college about death and the afterlife? Nothing. You learned absolutely nothing about that sort of thing because you have a BA in Business Administration and an MBA in Business Management.
After a few minutes of studious reflection, you realize that all you really learned in college was not to drink large quantities of beer before drinking large quantities of liquor. There was even a little poem to help you remember that.
Why is that all you remember? There were hundreds—maybe even thousands—of really great poems about death. But you never paid attention to any of those, did you? No, you were too busy getting drunk and trying to get laid. After all, malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man.
You look up at the sky just as a cloud passes in front of the moon and, suddenly you do remember something—a short story maybe—by someone whose name you can’t quite recall. Was it Sandburg? Frost maybe? It’s coming back to you now. What you’re thinking of is a poem by Robert Frost about an old man who goes back to a place where he once worked because, according to the poem, “home is the place that, when you go there, they have to take you in.”
You think about this for a minute then you say to the empty cemetery, “Home is the place that, when you go there, they have to take you in.” You’re not sure you have the quote exactly right, but it feels good to say it aloud so you say it again.
A very faint light has appeared on the horizon to the east. It’s probably nothing more than the first rays of dawn, but you don’t care. It’s a light and, right now, you want nothing more than to walk into it. Your feet move across the damp grass of the cemetery and the light glows brighter. As you walk, the light is warm on your face and you hear— You’re not sure just what it is that you hear, but there is definitely something there. A sound. A voice. Something!
You start to run. The light intensifies, filling the sky before you, shifting from vermilion to crimson to gold. On either side of you, the landscape blurs, shimmers then vanishes. Now, faces, places, and events whip past you like rear projection screens in some old B movie. They’re blurred and jittery, but you recognize the images: Your first love back in high school, the chunky girl with the sweet smile… Your freshman dorm room. It reeked of beer, pizza, pot, and tissues full of seamen… The cramped cubicle with motivational posters on the wall… Monica in a little black dress at a club on the Sunset Strip… Each image, each moment, each action, is but another stepping-stone on the arrow-straight path to that winding mountain road that took your life.
Your feet slap soundlessly on the smooth road as you run, a phantom rhythmic accompaniment to your silent breathing. The sky is blue now. As blue as your high school sweetheart’s eyes. As blue as the waters of the little lake in the valley you once called home.
The valley, lake and all, stretches out before you, green, fertile, and full of life. On the narrow streets, a long line of cars moves slowly toward the cemetery where your father and your father’s father are buried. You realize now what it was that you heard, what you were running toward. The sound you heard in the sunrise was the tolling of an iron bell, calling you home.
© 2015 Lee Wright