[Warning: Language. Mention of Dead People.]
You know those films where people are too stupid to realize they’re dead? I’ve got the opposite problem: people are too stupid to realize I’m dead.
“What do you mean by ‘dead’?” Her voice like an ad for benevolent neutrality.
“I mean dead as opposed to alive. How many meanings are there to ‘dead’?”
“It can have several meanings” says she, ever so cool. “Why choose this one?”
Note to self: never get into a war of words with a shrink.
“Choice has nothing to do with it,” I spit out. “If I could choose, I would choose not to be dead, you know? Ask anyone on the passenger seat of a car wreck.”
“You mean you think you should have died.”
“I mean everything I’ve said. You just don’t walk from a scene like that and live.”
“Maybe you were lucky.”
“I keep hearing how lucky I am. How grateful I should be.”
“Nicholas.” She leans forward: “Do you know what ‘survivor’s guilt’ means?”
She must think I’m a moron. I’m tempted to say that I don’t watch reality shows. She’s in her early thirties and has the experience to go with it. In extremely different circumstances I might fancy her if she didn’t have such a knack to get on my system. I just glare at her, and she wisely changes the subject.
“Your parents tell me you haven’t been eating.”
“And what does that tell you?”
Carefully neutral silence on her side.
“I’m not eating on the sly, if that’s what you’re insinuating.”
“I’m not insinuating anything,” she says, with that same irritating smoothness. “But you’ve got to admit that no one can live without eating.”
“Glad you’re seeing my point at last,” I say with all the sarcasm I can muster.
I don’t eat on the sly. I’m just not hungry.
I’m not sleepy either.
I’m neither hot nor cold. Or if I am, I don’t feel it.
I don’t feel my right arm either, even though it was half torn from its socket.
I don’t hurt anymore, except inside.
I drift in and out of scenes, like in a film. At night I lay awake in bed, waiting for the hours to pass. Wondering if this is hell or purgatory.
At first, Mom was sympathetic. “Of course,” she’d say when I refused to eat. Then her mom instinct took over: “Just a little, darling. You need to –“
“Leave the boy alone,” my father would say. They were both very good at pretending to understand.
After a few days, the shock excuse wore thin.
“Are you anorexic?” Mom asked. I had to laugh. Anorexia would be the least of my problems.
“You’re going to fall sick,” she said.
“I can’t fall sick,” I reminded her, “I’m dead.”
“This is getting neurotic,” my father said, clearly over the sympathy thing.
“Denial” she said, as if it explained everything. Meanwhile, she’s the one talking to dead people. “Your father and I think you should see a doctor.”
“You know a good resurrectionist?”
That’s how I ended up on the shrink’s couch.
Now everyone thinks they’re a therapist. Including my friend Mitch.
“If you’re dead,” Mitch says, “how come you're still around?”
“I don’t pretend to have all the answers, OK?” I snap. “Just because I’m dead and still talking to you doesn’t make me Jesus.”
“Doesn’t make you Bruce Willis either,” he says. “Let me show you something, Nick.”
I know where he’s taking me, just as I know it’s no use arguing.
“What does it say here?” he asks when we get there.
“I can’t read, I’m dead.”
I can still read, of course. I just want to piss him off as much as he does me.
Determined to piss me off back, he reads out loud: “Javier, beloved son, etc. So how come he’s got a headstone and you don’t?”
“Same way he had a girlfriend and I don’t?”
“Next you’ll be saying he was the lucky one.”
“At least he hasn’t got everyone telling him he’s bonkers.”
“If you’re not crazy, where’s Javier then?”
Sarcasm-proof Mitch persists: “And why aren’t you?”
“Because I’m in hell? That would explain why I’m stuck with you.”
He forces a laugh but it’s an uncomfortable truth that he has become my best friend by defect. Only in a world without Javier would I consider hanging with Mitch.
“Well, there’s one upside to that,” he finally says with phony cheerfulness: “If you’re dead, you can do what the fuck you want to.”
“Except live,” I remind him.
There’s a line running in my head, that could be from a song or a poem but I can’t remember which: “Is there anything sadder than dying before you reach 20?” Dying a virgin, I guess.
Of course, some would say – have said for centuries, in fact – that dying a virgin is almost as good as dying a saint in the Heaven’s sweepstakes. Note that those who said this weren’t dead and few, I suspect, were virgins.
Surely at some point it will dawn on people that I’m not getting any older. Maybe they’ll start taking me seriously then.
Then what? A future under the glares of cameras or operating tables as doctors go around doing …what exactly? What would they do to someone they know cannot die? And now I see myself, or pieces of myself being wheeled in a courthouse while lawyers on both sides spar about the extensions of rights to “non-living organisms” and the legal definition of “suffering”.
That French guy sure got it right when he wrote about hell being other people. Maybe he only faked being alive because he knew what was best for him.
Which makes me wonder: are there others like me? And if so, do they keep a low profile because they only know too well what would happen to them if they went public? How many of us are really dead inside as we pass each other daily, pretending to lead normal lives, to be content with our lot?
And how do we find each other? Should I put an ad online: “Dead Teen Seeks Same”? I’d have to weed out all the goths, not to mention (shudder) necrophiliacs – though at least this might solve the virginity problem.
Now I wish I was not just dead but buried.
Steve has been my nemesis ever since grade school. The kind of guy who was born to be a bully because God in His infinite wisdom granted a talent to everyone and when Steve’s turn came, this was all He had left in store. On that respect, you’ve got to hand it to good old Steve: he makes the most of what he was given. Every move of his seems designed to advertise the moron ahead, like a warning sign or PSA.
I stop, just so he won’t think I’m running away.
“Is it true you think you’re dead?” he goes on. “Why don’t you prove it and jump off that bridge?”
“You first,” I say.
“What are you, scared?”
“Right, but I’ll do it if you hold my hand.”
“Is that what you told your boyfriend? I hear you were sucking his dick when –”
I walk up to him and only stop when I’m one inch from his face.
“You’re a moron who thinks he looks like Elvis,” I say. “And you do. You look like Elvis when he last sat on a toilet.”
This is a bit too much for his brain and ego to process all at once but he manages eventually.
“Better pray you’re dead, motherfucker,” he says. “Cause I’m gonna kill you.”
“And I should give a fuck because…?”
Now he looks at me with a disgusted look as if I had just spoiled his fun.
“And by the way?” I go on: “You know where we were driving from that night? Your girlfriend’s place. Had the best threesome of our lives. At least you can say we ended it with a bang.”
“Liar” he says, with such uncertainty I feel vindicated as I walk off.
The truth is neither Javier nor I got it on with Sandra, though that was really a question of timing. Sandra was still Steve’s girl officially, a mistake she seemed hell-bent on correcting that evening. When we arrived, Javier asked politely where her boyfriend was and she said: “Just left” in such a definite tone that the atmosphere relaxed instantly. Before long, Sandra and Javier were an item in the making and I was doing my best to help the process with my cocktail experiments.
Of course the fact that I was making us drunker with each round has a lot to do with what happened later on and why I am where I am today.
Granted, I don’t remember everything but that’s what you get when you mix vodka, gin and anything you can get your hands on. At some point Sandra had one hand in Javier’s and the other in mine and trying to make them fit like two Lego pieces. So basically here we were, Javier and I, holding hands with Sandra’s blessing: “Your hands go so well together.” Hers covering ours, his squeezing mine. Sandra and Javier touching heads and I couldn’t decide which was more beautiful. Like two halves of the same thing when you want it all.
If I had known this was our last evening, I would have gone for it. Wouldn’t have bothered with getting us drunk, just gone for it.
Then again, if we hadn’t gotten drunk, it wouldn’t have been our last evening.
“What do you remember?” I’ve been asked repeatedly.
It’s funny how you don’t remember some of the most important moments in your life. You don’t remember the moment you were born and, judging from my experience, you don’t remember the moment you died.
I remember Sandra’s father coming home unexpectedly early, pissed at the raid on his liquor cabinet and putting a premature end to the evening’s festivities as he threw us out.
I remember Javier and I in the car going faster and faster as we laughed hysterically.
I remember stumbling out of the car, holding my right arm with my left to keep it from falling.
And the sticky stuff soaking my feet until I realized it was coming out of me.
I remember falling on the asphalt.
We’re losing him.
Lights on the ceiling flashing past me. Me on my back. Can’t move. Can’t breathe.
We’re losing him!
Then later, being told Javier didn’t make it: “You were very lucky.”
As lucky as can be when all your luck is gone.
There were so many things I had never done, being too busy worrying about it to actually do them. Now I wonder if this is what hell is actually like: an eternity of regrets.
If I had known I was going to die so young, I would have ran naked in the street just for fun.
And told everyone to kiss my ass.
I would have robbed a bank and not let anyone stop me.
I could actually rob a bank and not let anyone stop me.
This is when I decide to rob a bank.
A stupid idea maybe, but you only die once.
Of course, the bank has to be closed today of all days so I settle for old Martin’s drugstore. An inspired choice, actually. Old Martin, who sells just about anything that people will pay cash for, doesn’t believe in banks or credit cards and openly despises those who do. He’s a cranky old fart who will yell at you if you don’t have the exact change, the kind to keep his savings under the mattress: in short, the perfect target. I can either get rich or not die trying, which would at least prove my point.
This is the kind of thinking that always gets me in trouble, part of my brain screams at me, but it’s the part I keep at the very back of my head, where I’ve stored all the unpleasantness and stuff I learned in school.
The gun I swiped from the accessories at the school drama club but old Martin has no way of knowing it’s fake. At least I hope so cause when he whips out his own shotgun from behind the counter, I can tell he’s itching to use it.
“What did you say, you punk?”
I have to remind myself that I’m already dead and technically he can’t kill me again. I swallow hard and try again: “Empty your safe into the bag and you won’t be –”
“You’ve got ten seconds to get out of this store before I start shooting.”
“All right,” I say and drop the gun. “Just give me those ten seconds, okay?” He lowers the shotgun. And while he’s got both hands full with it, I grab the cash register and run towards the door.
The first shot explodes the glass door, which actually saves me the chore of opening it with one arm useless and the other holding the cash register. As I jump through the shattered glass, a second bullet grazes my head and a tiny pink thing flies off and lands at my feet and I have just enough time to register it’s part of my left ear.
He chases after me, as bullets fly by. I feel the impact of one in my back and realize he’s shooting to kill. God knows what he will do when he finds out he can’t, and on that thought I double up speed.
I run into a side street where I can hope to lose him, and smack into good old Steve. For once his brain doesn’t take forever to assess the situation, or maybe he’s genetically wired to discern trouble. “I’ve got him!” he yells, barring me with his large frame. “Let me go, you asshole” I mumble, trying to dodge under his arm just as old Martin turns the corner and shoots.
The bullet gets Steve right in the face. The three of us stand frozen as if someone hit pause. For a second, Steve looks like he can’t believe he only got half a head left before he crumbles at my feet. Old Martin looks shocked as if he can’t believe he’s just fulfilled a lifelong ambition. He alternates stares at Steve’s body and at his shotgun, trying to either figure out or deny the correlation between the two. I can’t help feeling sorry for him. Then he turns on his heels and takes off, either to turn himself in or blow his own head off.
Something grabs my ankle.
I look down. Steve is hoisting himself up. He looks even uglier with half his face gone. Part of his brain is leaking down one side, putting to rest the notion that he lacks one. Slowly he stands up, looking at me with his one left eye, and his grin is even nastier than when he was alive.
“You’re gonna pay for this, motherfucker.”
For once, I know he’s right. An eternity with Steve of all people. Somewhere, I suspect, that French writer must be laughing his head off.
I open my eyes to darkness.
It’s so hot and stuffy I can hardly breathe.
Breathe. Something I thought I’d never do again.
As usual when coming out of a nightmare, it takes a moment to settle in. I try to get up when pain shoots through my arm. My right arm, mangled from the accident. I’m feeling pain again and even that is such a relief I want to laugh at the sheer beauty of hurting, of breathing hard, of being too hot and sweaty, of being alive. Of being awake. Even a bad dream has its good side when it stops.
And now I hear voices outside and my heart leaps with joy when I understand what woke me. Javier’s voice. He’s alive too. And valid, judging from the sound of footsteps on gravel as his voice fades away. He came to visit me at the hospital, I realize. I try to get up and find a light switch with my left hand.
My fingers only find the wall. I jerk my head up and bang it against something hard, as if the ceiling was as low as –
Suddenly I understand why it’s so dark, hot and stuffy.
This is no hospital.
It’s a coffin.
Panic as I bang as hard as I can with my left hand. “Help!” I scream with what little air I have left. I should save it before all the oxygen is used up, I realize now, but the thought only makes me panic even more. “Help! Get me out of here! I’m alive! I’m alive!”
“Did you hear that?”
“Must be the wind.”
“It wasn't the wind," she says. "It sounded like knocking... and I thought I heard someone calling out…”
“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” He clowns around to hide his feelings. So many feelings to hide.
“Stop it!” She smiles. “And my name is not Barbara.”
“I know, it’s just –”
“Don’t tell me: one of your silly horror movies again?”
Javier smiles but Sandra sees the pain in his eyes. She squeezes his arm, knowing words are useless.
“Let’s go,” she says, and leads him gently towards the exit.
It has to be the wind in the trees. Maybe this is what they call survivor’s guilt, he thinks. He won’t tell her, but he thought he heard something too. Survivor’s guilt, he repeats to himself. As they leave the cemetery, the knocking sound seems to echo in his head – and with it the memory of a once-familiar voice, now fading away : “I’m alive… alive...”