Humans can transform from solid to spirit in about half a second. I just found this out. Just a half-second ago.
I might be shocked if I weren’t so dead.
“Huh,” is all I have to say about it.
“Yep,” my wife agrees, equally shockless.
She is standing beside me along the sun-baked shoulder of a two-lane country highway, and we are both staring down into the drainage ditch. At the bottom are scattered piles of junk — a nasty trail of breadcrumbs — all leading to a battered tomb.
The tomb used to be a car. For a while, it was our car. But that was before the rock.
“How long have we been standing here?” I ask.
“I think…” My wife’s hand becomes a vapor before reforming into fingers. She points at the junk in the ditch. A tire is still spinning.
Time seems off. I count to five, but can’t tell if five seconds or five hours go by. We point out the broken pieces of what became our soul cocoon, transforming us from flesh into … whatever we are now.
“See there? Mirror. Hubcap. Bumper…Shoe?”
“My shoe,” she confirms, “Is there a foot inside?”
“Looks empty,” I tell her. I notice my hands are balled into fists. I open them. “Do we just…stay here?”
My wife says, “I’m pretty sure that…” and another pause that’s either a second or a century “…we can do whatever we want.”
“Well then.” I sound motivated, but I don’t move. “I’m gonna have a look at the wreck. Coming?”
“No,” she tells me. “I don’t want to.”
Something like a laugh springs from my mouth. It sounds like a frother steaming mud. I feel funny and I laugh again because I’m so relieved to feel anything. It feels normal and good. Feeling feels good.
I know it’s because of her.
And for the first time since we found ourselves standing on the side of the road, I look her way. I can tell my eyebrow has lifted. “You don’t want to see your own corpse? Bullshit.”
She shrugs. At least I think she does.
“It’s gruesome,” I tell her with the voice of a carnival barker. “It’s macabre! It’s the sum of a thousand nightmares. It’s…so you.”
“Nooo…Remember when you collected my blood from a nosebleed to make cake?”
“I did not.”
“You wanted to.”
“True,” she says, “But I’m just not interested in empty shells.”
And then she looks at me for the first time with the same eyebrow raised. “You want to see our dead bodies? Bullshit.”
Now I’m shrugging. “I can take the gore.”
“The sight of your own veins makes you queasy.”
“I like scary movies.”
“You like cartoon anatomy,” she clarifies. “But if it gets real...”
She squeezes her eyes shut, covers her ears, and goes “la-la-la” to make her point. It’s a good point. Clinical butchery makes me black out. But not anymore. Not after the rock.
The rock changed me in more ways than one.
“I’m still me,” I say, smiling. “I think you’re still you.”
“I guess we are. But who were we? What did we do?”
I move. I think I’m walking. But there’s no tensing in my muscles, no popping in my knees. It’s weird and slow, but good. I’m still smiling. I say, “Baby, anything we forget is probably not worth remembering!”
While I walk, she’s saying, “I remember what it feels like to hear a knock at the front door, knowing there’s a hot pizza waiting on the other side. I remember trees turning red and yellow and orange. Not like this.” She sounds disgusted. “All green…”
“I remember that,” I say.
She goes on, “I remember the first sip of great wine out of the bottle and how it changes when it’s the last sip. I remember purring cats and photographs and staying home and seeing no one. I remember our wedding vows.”
“Forever and then some,” I recite.
The mangled car-tomb is upside down and far too crumpled to look inside. I slip below the earth without digging, spying buried rocks and burrowed worms, all without dirtying my skin or clothes.
What other tricks will I discover after the rock?
My head wafts up into what’s left of the front seat.
“We’re not as gory as I thought!” I shout from the rubble.
“Not so loud,” my wife tells me. “I can hear you just fine.”
“Your eyes are open,” I say with a softer voice, just above a whisper. “You’re looking right at me.”
“Am I looking at you or…you?”
“Both of you are dead. Try again.”
“Uh…the me that isn’t a ghost?” The G-word feels funny to say. I laugh a little. It sounds less frothy and more like it used to. “Your hair’s in your eyes.”
“It’s not mine anymore.”
“I just brushed it back. And touched your face. I think your skin is cold already, but I don’t know what cold feels like with these new fingers.”
“I was always cold.”
“And you were always beautiful. Even now. Hauntingly beautiful.”
My wife pretends to snore from the roadside. It’s what she does whenever I get cheesy.
“I’m not kidding,” I say, louder again. “You wear death like it’s Chanel.”
She scoffs from the roadside. “Are you sure you’re not looking at someone else’s rotting wife?”
“I’m serious. You barely look crushed. You could have an open coffin if you wanted.”
“They wouldn’t dare.”
“Not me, though. There’s a big hole in my head.”
“Oh my love, that’s always been there.”
We both laugh at that, and I feel electricity. And also something that might be love. I remember love. I love that she called me my love.
I stare at my dead body like I’m combing through a childhood photo album. Here’s me at 7 reading a book in a laundry basket. Here’s me at 10 dressed as Freddy Krueger for Halloween. Here’s me at 40-something, dead at the bottom of a ditch, in the middle of nowhere, with a hole in my head.
Past blood and bone and gray matter, I can just make it out. “I see the rock.”
“Where?” my wife asks. “In your brain?”
“Yeah. A bit gooey. I think I can grab it.”
“Why would you?”
“A keepsake? To show…I dunno…other ghosts?”
“Do we have to? Other ghosts used to be people, you know.”
“We don’t have to be their friends. I would just say, ‘Hey there, fellow spirit. Here’s the rock that struck me dead.’”
“And they’ll say, ‘Booooo!’”
“Because they’re ghosts?”
“No, because they won’t find you as charming as you think.”
“I’m taking the rock.”
“Okay, but where will you keep it?” With patience, she explains: “You have no pockets. We have no house. Not anymore.”
“Good point,” I say, finding nothing but mist where my pockets used to be. “I’d have to carry it in my hand. Forever.”
“Uh-huh, uh-huh.” I can feel my wife nodding. She says, “And think of all the livvies. They’ll see nothing but a floating rock in the middle of the highway.”
“Living people,” she tells me. “I’m trying this new word out.”
“Hey, I like that,” I say after frowning about it for a second. “Yeah. Probably scare the livvies to death.”
“Then they’d never leave us alone.”
“How terrifying.” And I’m standing beside her again — out of the car, up from the ditch, and now on the side of the road. She’s looking up at the sky and whistling the first 8 notes of “If I Only had a Brain” from The Wizard of Oz, which she often did when she was alive. It passed the time.
She might be doing it now because of the rock in my brain.
I look where she’s looking, see what she’s seeing. It’s daytime, but the skies show us everything, all the stars and all the worlds. Thousands of satellites race by in streaks alongside a billion shooting stars. And all the clouds are funny shapes. I see a cumulus egg hatching a skeleton hand.
“That’s nice,” I say, then look back at the soul cocoon.
I try and fail to recall the crash. “It must have been a swift death. I only remember driving past that big tractor mower. The one over there in the farmland.”
I point, but the tractor mower is gone. I listen and hear the faint growl of a monstrous engine coming from somewhere in the tall grass.
“Anyway,” I continue, “I was driving when I heard a crack. Then … we were standing here. All like that.” I snap my fingers, but I don’t hear them clap or feel the vibration in my hand. I try again and again without success. It looks like I’m playing the world’s smallest violin for our interred bodies.
“It wasn’t that quick,” my wife tells me.
“Your window shattered. Your body crashed into mine. We veered towards the ditch. We flew here and twisted. We tumbled there and crunched. We rolled and I stopped breathing. We landed upside down and it got very quiet. I tried to scream, but I choked. Then I was standing here with you.”
She says all this matter-of-factly, like she’s reciting the steps of a cookie recipe.
“That must have been scary.”
“Eh.” She shrugs again. “Maybe then.”
She whistles some more, always the same 8 notes. I watch her watch the corn and soybeans, taking stock of her familiar spirit. Hazel eyes, shiny teeth, and the frail trace of a scar where a dog once bit her cheek as a child. Amazing that it’s all still there. Her skin is smooth and pale, the way corpses appear in Gothic horror. She looks the part. I imagine we both do. Even before the crash, we rejected suntans and freckles. We were born to be dead.
My wife sees me watching her. “What?” she asks. “I got something on me? Is it a bug?”
I tell her, “There’s no such thing as ghost…bugs.” But I check her scalp anyway just to be sure.
She asks me, “What do you want to do now?”
I would sigh in thought if I still had lungs. I pretend to inhale, exhale. I drum my fingers against the wind the way I’m sure all ghosts fidget when they consider options. I say, “Let’s go find that tractor mower.”
“What for?” my wife asks.
“I think we should haunt it.”
“Or at least bum a ride into town.”
She repeats herself, but slowly. “A track-ah-tor?”
“Why not? It did this to us, after all.”
When we passed the tractor mower, alive, it was cutting the tall grass maybe twenty feet away, scattering green blades over the highway. No mere riding mower, but a hulk with a sealed cab. Nothing else could have launched the rock with such force. All the rest is nature — cruel and vicious, but never armed with missiles.
I see no cornstalk catapults. No soybean sharp-shooters.
It was the hulk. It mowed up the rock in the tall grass and threw a perfect strike into my skull.
The driver didn’t stop when we crashed. He either didn’t see what happened, or he panicked and tractored himself behind green cover, or he didn’t care that we tumbled and rolled and died. How can anyone end a life and not feel a rot in their core?
I look and spot glints of sunlight flashing behind farmland camouflage. I see the glass of the tractor’s cab. It is still mowing somewhere in the thick of the grass. Or maybe hiding.
My wife considers for another century-second. “Okay, sure.”
We take our first steps across the highway and, suddenly, we are standing in the path of the giant tractor, surrounded by tall grass. Two hundred feet traveled in a blink. My wife smiles and asks if we just did magic.
“It’s all magic,” I say — even though, before the rock, I didn’t believe in anything I couldn’t prove with each of my senses.
We stand still and lock eyes with the driver, expecting him to double-take and squint and gawk and scream and clutch his chest in utter horror. He doesn’t. He can’t see us. The tractor mower rolls over my wife and me, and, in another sudden blink, we are in the cab with the driver. He’s not a he, but a she in flannel with a trucker hat pulled low. A girl of twenty, perhaps. She is looking down at her phone, thumbing a text message, waiting for reply.
I imagine a series of public service posters designed for farm equipment.
Distracted Tractor in bold print above a cartoon combine that gleefully swallows children while its driver is glued to a phone.
Don’t text and mow.
I wonder if there are ad agencies in Heaven. I wonder if there’s a Heaven. I wonder why nothing has come to collect us. I’m not worried. Haunting farmers with my wife ain’t a bad way to spend Eternity.
My wife jabs the driver in the back where a wing would be if the girl was an angel instead of a murderer.
At the same time, I shout in her ear: “Get out!” because it seemed the ghostly thing to say.
The driver obeys in electro-shock spasms. She jumps from the tractor, howling various vowels. She stumbles and limps and flees the farmland. Her fright is everything I hoped it would be.
Unmanned, the farm hulk keeps rolling, and I wonder whether it will die in a ditch or topple a barn.
“That was fun,” I say.
“But you’re frowning,” my wife tells me.
She paints an ectoplasm smile over my murky face.
I say, “I guess it all felt kinda pointless.”
“What did? Scaring her?”
“Oh, god no. Revenge for the rock. I thought it would taste sweet. But it just tastes like celery.”
“Who cares? So what? Do it for fun next time.”
My wife has always been the wisest of them all.
We push every button and pull every lever until the tractor mower comes to a stop.
I say, “Well, anyway, I’m sure she didn’t mean to.”
“I’m sure,” my wife agrees.
Another blink takes us three hundred feet away from the lulled behemoth. We are back at the roadside crash. We are together. I reach for her hand as she reaches for mine, and a spark of light ignites between us for an instant as we touch and clasp.
A cobalt Camaro drives by, flashing high beam headlights, and I realize the world is suddenly shaded in moonlight blue. The Camaro has somehow brought the night. It is backlit by stars and galaxies and the blinking red beacons of distant TV towers.
Time. Acting weird again.
The Camaro slows down as it passes the edge of the ditch where we died. The livvies inside are all aglow in their dashboard lights. We are separated by life and death, but they can see us … and we them.
Our eyes meet. Theirs are the size of bocce balls, bulging from their skulls, on the brink of escape. Both livvy jaws hinge to the breaking point. They look like a pair of airhead babies, opening wide for a spoonful of horror.
We feed them.
The Camaro nearly spills into the ditch graveyard. I reach out my hand and shout, “Be careful, you idiots!”
This makes them shriek and snap and jerk the wheel back along the center line. Their heads swivel back and forth, rubbernecking for one more look.
Or maybe their heads are just shaking a violent protest. NO, I won’t believe my eyes. NO, they weren’t real.
I think I saved their lives. What a relief. Company is my nightmare.
The car vanishes with a punch of acceleration, taking the night with it. Daylight returns just as it was a few seconds ago. The livvies are gone, but I can see their future. I listen as they tell a thousand stories about us over the next thirty years:
That’s where we saw them! The dead lovers! They’re trapped in limbo, forever searching for their wrecked car. One of them screeched at me, trying to crash us into the ditch where they died.
What a crock. I know where my car is. I just don’t care anymore.
My wife touches my cheek and asks, “Better?”
“Much,” I reply.
“They’ll call us the Demon Sweethearts of Route 24!”
Our future legacy makes her giddy. Me, too.
“We’re a ghost story now,” I say. “We’ve gone legend.”
“Let’s do it again. Somewhere else. There’s a million places to make better stories. Think of all the fun we’ll have.”
“Forever and then some.” I look deep into her soul. I squeeze her hand and feel warmth even though we’re just bloodless, fleshless thoughts and memories. I tell her, “I’m so happy you didn’t survive.”
“That’s the sweetest thing you could have said.” Her tears float up and away like defiant rain. She says, “If you were still alive, I’d strangle you.”
“I’m the luckiest dead man in the whole wide world.”
She pulls me to the middle of the road where a minivan is fast approaching. Unlike the Camaro, it doesn’t carry the night, nor do its livvy riders see us standing here.
“We’re going to leave this tomb behind,” my wife declares.
The minivan runs us over. We get scooped up, becoming invisible passengers. The livvies are singing along to some terrible song.
I break the radio.
“This is nice,” my wife says. And it is.
We’ll ride quietly till we stop in the first town or city or lakeside cabin surrounded by deep dark woods. My wife’s hand passes through the sliding door to fly on the wind. Her head is on my shoulder.
She says, “What a day.”