Was I dead? I had to be. The last thing I remembered was walking home from a girls night out. I was only a block from home when I realized it was darker than it should be. A black feeling came over me and I shivered. Suddenly tense, I looked around at my surroundings. The normally familiar street felt strangely ominous. Then I looked up and realized a streetlight was out. That’s all it was, I thought. Still, I picked up my pace a little as I rounded the corner, turning onto my street.
That was when it happened. A figure jumped out of the bushes. He was masked, but I honestly didn’t notice anything else about him because my attention focused on the gun in his hand. And then it exploded and so did something in my chest. I lost consciousness before I hit the ground.
But now I was back. Or at least I thought I was. I was afraid to open my eyes, afraid of what that little action might reveal. Was I in an afterlife? If so,did I have eyes to open? I didn't know, but I felt like I could open my eyes; I just didn't want to. Maybe I was in a hospital? No, it seemed too quiet. In a hospital someone is always someone moving, machines beeping, so much noise. Here it was quiet and I was grateful for that because my head was pounding and I cringed away from the light coming in through the window. I opened my eyes, then slammed them shut to escape the throb opening them produced.
Suddenly I started hearing thoughts that were not mine - curses, lewd images, and a craving for jerky and beer. What was going on? As I opened my eyes and looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings, I caught a glimpse of my arms and my clothes. They weren’t mine! The arms were covered with dark curling hair and I was wearing a grimy white t shirt. And, well, I was a man!
I was overwhelmed by a panic and was unable to think for a time, but the man got up and started moving around. What had happened to me? Had I died? How had I gotten inside this man? Why was I inside this man? What was I supposed to do? What could I do? He did not seem to be aware of me and yet I could hear his every thought. There was also a darkness in this man’s soul that made me want to distance myself from him. Was this hell? I felt dirty being close to this soul and tried to crawl into a remote corner, tried to distance myself from his degrading thoughts.
When he went into the bathroom, there was a small mirror and I peeked out of my corner long enough to confirm that I did not know this man. And yet, a feeling kept nagging at me. I wondered if this was the man who had killed me, but that was too pat. And I scolded myself for being overly judgmental. Just because this guy had a dirty interior monologue did not mean he was a killer. And besides, I did not know him, what motive would he have had to kill me? What motive did anyone have to kill me really? Sure, some people didn’t like me, but I hadn’t done anything to drive anyone to this.
We spent most of the day on the sofa watching ESPN. His thoughts were focused on the sports he was watching, with an occasional thought about needing to find more work. At one point he got up and threw some laundry in the washer. There was a dark sweatshirt I thought looked familiar, but I scolded myself saying it was hardly unique.
When it got dark, he grabbed a backpack, got in the car and drove to a rundown bar in the corner of town. He scouted the bar before situating himself in a dark corner and ordering a beer. Just as he finished the first bottle, another man showed up and my host signaled the barkeep to bring two more.
“Hey, Larry, how’s it going?” the new man asked.
Larry grunted and nodded.
“So everything went according to plan?”
For a moment I saw myself getting shot. Was that his thought or mine? He tossed the man the backpack. The other man opened it and pulled out my purse!
I barely heard the rest of the conversation as my mind screamed in confirmation of my earlier suspicions. There was only one reason this man would have my purse. He had been the man from last night! He had killed me!
When I calmed down a little, enough to be aware of my surroundings again, I realized the other man had opened my purse and removed my license. After taking a look at it, he said, “Great work. The customer will be very happy.”
Larry nodded again. The men were silent for a moment while the beers were delivered. They each took a swig while the barkeep retreated behind the bar, then the man handed an envelope to Larry. “Here’s your cut.”
Larry took the envelope without opening it. “Got any other customers?”
“Not right now, but I’ll find you when I do.”
Larry nodded, downed the rest of the beer, nodded one last time and left the bar.
He returned to the sofa and ESPN and while his attention was on the game, I tried to figure out what I had just witnessed. Obviously, Larry was my killer, but why? It seemed like he had been paid to do it, that he was a contract killer, but who would take a hit out on me? I was a single woman who spent too much time at the school where she worked. Why would someone hire him to kill me? I didn’t have any jealous lovers. My life or death could not aid anyone seeking power or prestige. And my teacher salary barely paid the bills, so no one would be getting much of an inheritance from me. I tried to muddle through the logic, tried finding answers in Larry’s thoughts, but soon his and mine became incomprehensible from the alcohol and the edges of his vision slowly went dark as we passed out on the sofa.
When I awoke to the sound of an alarm, it took me a moment to recall where I was and what had happened the day before. I cringed, expecting to be hit by the hangover that was sure to be the result of Larry’s drinking himself into oblivion last night, but it didn’t come. I actually felt well-rested. I could hear birds chirping. And someone was moving around downstairs.
Downstairs? My eyes flew open. This was not right. Larry did not have a downstairs and this was not his room. The room was still dark in the early morning light and its walls were covered with posters. And then I heard his thoughts, grumping about school starting too early and how much he hates Mondays. He got up and threw on a pair of khaki shorts and a t-shirt. And then I saw his reflection in the mirror. If I still had my own body, I am certain I would have had a heart attack. Kyle Becker?! That’s whose reflection was in the mirror.
And then a voice, the person downstairs yells, “Kyle, if you don’t get down here now, you are going to be late for school!”
Kyle’s interior monologue started focusing on his mother and how much he hated her, how he wished he could live with his dad instead. His attitude was the first thing that had happened that did not surprise me. I had been fighting against his anger and apathy all year. I also found myself agreeing with his feelings towards his mother. Every time I had reached out to her, she had blamed me for his failures. There had been a lot of little forays but the major altercation occurred over his research paper. When he did not turn it in on time, I immediately alerted his mother. Rather than promising to make sure he finished it, she railed at me,asserting it was my fault because he did not understand the assignment. I pulled him aside the next day to see if I could answer any of his questions, but he had none. When he turned the paper in a month later and I gave him a 28%, his mother went to my principal and declared I had it out for her son. I defended myself, saying the paper was a month late and contained no research, but she insisted that was my fault and hounded my boss until he asked me to just find a way to give Kyle a passing grade on the assignment. I pointed out that Kyle would not learn from his mistakes until he was held accountable for them. My boss agreed, but asked that I appease the mom so we could all move on.
As I listened to Kyle’s thoughts, I concluded she had taken a similar stance in their relationship. He was upset that she did not listen to him and insisted on controlling every aspect of his life. Despite the fact that he and his mother had been my biggest headache this year, I actually found myself starting to feel sorry for the kid. Two nights ago I had been complaining to my girlfriends about him and his mom, wishing she would stop enabling his self-destructive behavior, but I began to understand that his defiance was due to his home life and had nothing to do with me.
Kyle ran down the stairs and grabbed the protein drink and packed lunch his mother handed him. He waited impatiently while she gave him a peck on the cheek and then grabbed his backpack, yelled a reminder about having baseball after school and open the door which slammed behind him as he climbed into his car, turned the ignition, and started driving to school. He had just entered the building when Amber, a student I had seen flirting with him, approached.
“Did you hear about Miss Green?”
“I hadn’t,” he replied. She pulled out her phone and after a few taps, held it up to show him. It was an article on a local news app. “Teacher killed in robbery.” And there it was. I was dead. To my surprise I sensed some sadness in Kyle, but to be honest, I was too caught up in my own reaction to pay much attention to Kyle’s. I was dead. I had guessed as much, but seeing it in print seemed more final. But the news had it wrong. It hadn’t been a simple robbery, just staged to look like one. But I still didn’t know why.
I spent the rest of the day trying to come to terms with my death and my present situation. What was this? Would this continue? Who would I be tomorrow? It wasn’t the afterlife either I or religion had imagined.
As the day went on, I saw the red eyes of students and teachers. They made my heart swell with sadness and some positive emotion I could not identify, something that was gratifying, knowing that people cared.
When Kyle got home, his mom asked him about his day. He shrugged and walked past her without a comment before turning to her and asking, “Did you hear about Miss Green?”
“I did. Serves her right. Now she can’t ruin your grade and your future.”
“Mom,” Kyle started to protest before thinking better of it, preferring to avoid a lecture about his future at an Ivy League College and how I had ruined his grade and effectively, his life. He retreated to the refuge of his room and the games on his phone. He emerged briefly for dinner and then returned to make a half-hearted attempt to complete his homework before deciding he would just do it in study hall the next morning and going back to his phone. I began to understand that his mother was trying to force him to be someone he was not and honestly could never be. I felt sorry for him, but I didn’t know why I had awoken in his body, I was past the point of being able to help. Before calling it a night, Kyle pulled up the article about my death and read it in its entirety. I learned nothing new from it, the reporter and police had apparently fallen for the ruse. As he slipped into the peaceful oblivion of sleep, he started to wonder something crazy, but never completed the thought.
In the morning I awoke again, but this time the room was spacious and decorated in warm colors. I knew I was no longer in Kyle. This person was happy, hopeful. She was hopeful that things would turn around for Kyle now that I was dead. And it was then that I realized I was in the body of Kyle’s mom, the last place I wanted to be. Again I wondered why I was in this body. For a moment I wondered that half-formed thought Kyle had had last night, but that was crazy.
Kyle’s mom was happier than I had ever known her to be, humming to herself as she got dressed and meticulously applied her makeup. She went downstairs and began fluttering around the kitchen, preparing breakfast and lunch for herself and Kyle.
“Kyle, it is time to get up,” she called up the stairs.
Kyle came down, looking a little worse for the wear and looked suspiciously at his mom.
“Why are you so happy?” he muttered, taking the waffle she proffered.
“I just have a feeling that things are going to turn around for you at school,” she said, beaming at him. “And for me too. I think I think I might apply for the long term sub position to fill Miss Green’s spot. What do you think?”
“I think it might be weird having you as a teacher, mom. Can’t you get a job somewhere else?”
“Aww, come on, I have been teaching you for years!” his mother continued completely undeterred. “Besides, if I take over her position, I can help you get your grade up. And I know I can get your principal to hire me. I have him wrapped around my little finger.” Kyle looked like he wanted to say something in response, but thought better of it. He finished eating his waffle, responding tersely to the questions she posed at rapid-fire pace, and left as soon as he possibly could.
After he left, his mother tried on all of the outfits in her closet, trying to find the combination most likely to impress the principal during her interview. After choosing one that showed off her figure well, she went through her jewelry, ultimately deciding on studs and a statement necklace. For a little I was impressed by her upbeat attitude. She was so unlike the person with whom I had interacted that I wondered if I had been unfair to her. I wondered what had made this difference. And then I gleaned it from the edges of her consciousness. She was thinking how happy she had been that she had done it, that it had been worth every penny. Now Kyle would thrive and she would get her foot in the door to get the teaching position she had always wanted. At first I did not know what “it” was, then I began to have an inkling, and then I knew. She thought it outright, “I’m so glad I had that teacher killed. Now Kyle will be able to get into the college of his dreams and I can get a second chance at teaching.”
Even though I had begun to suspect, the internal declaration floored me and I was unable to react for some time. Now that I knew, I could feel the darkness of her soul that I had been unable to see at first because it had been masked by the blaze of her triumph. Is that why I was here? Did the universe simply want me to learn the truth? That wasn’t enough. This woman was crazy. Someone needed to save Kyle while he still had a chance. Was there anything I could do? While I was contemplating the question, her cell phone rang. She picked it up and the voice on the other end asked her what she had been up to.
She responded with a giggle, “Can you keep a secret?”
I certainly hope not.