The Next Thing I Knew - Excerpt
Life pulled the plug on humans at two on a Sunday afternoon.
The last thing I remembered before the end (besides a particularly juicy day dream involving me, Chris Rogers, and the Halleluiah Chorus) was a blinding headache of the brain freeze variety. Everything blurred for a second and then I was on an endless grassy plain, hands pressed to my head. Other people stood nearby with headache-contorted expressions twisting their faces.
My head didn't hurt anymore but I still said "Ouch" to make things official. Others echoed the sentiment. I looked around and got my bearings. People dotted the gently undulating terrain like lost sheep. Even though the place looked like Kansas, I didn't need to tell Toto that my Facebook Places status wasn't anywhere on the planet Earth, much less Kansas. The sun looked pale, white, and totally alien.
The first person I recognized was Ms. Tate, the neighborhood Bible thumper, who, unfortunately for my sanity, was naked and sagging like rotten fruit in places I didn't think could sag. I jerked my head away before I contributed the contents of my stomach to her wardrobe.
Ms. Tate wasn't the only fashion victim in the vicinity. A scrawny wrinkled dude showed his stuff in tight cutoff jean shorts, a pot-bellied guy terrified nearby children in his red banana hammock, and a middle-aged woman sauntered past in nothing but a pink fishnet unitard. I glanced down, half afraid I'd be strutting my birthday suit or wearing something atrocious like a striped sweater skirt, but I wasn't. I wore a yellow summer dress like the ones I'd loved to wear when I was little. Thankfully, this one wasn't kiddy-sized.
Kyle, my best friend, ran over. He wore jogging shorts, black tennis shoes, and a t-shirt with a Linux penguin on it. That was pretty much what he wore all the time, attire that stuck its tongue out at the mainstream while maintaining the ability to escape enraged mobs. He glanced at Ms. Tate and just as quickly looked away. His eyes looked like they wanted to jump out of his head and run away screaming. "Lucy, what the hell is going on?"
"I'd use Google to find out, but I seem to have misplaced my house along with my laptop."
"It's like everyone in the neighborhood got teleported right out of their homes."
I reached out a hand and touched his arm. He felt solid, warm. The hairs on his arm pricked up at my touch. He stared at my finger as it traced his skin. Then he reached over and pinched me on the rib.
"Ouch!" I pinched him back.
He jumped away and laughed.
"What are you two laughing about? This is no joke." Ms. Tate's face twisted into a scowl and her hands latched onto her hips. A frumpy checkered dress with a choke collar now covered her droopy bits.
"Sorry, Ms. Tate," I said. "Just making sure we're not dreaming."
Kyle snapped his fingers. "I'll bet that's it. Drugs in the water or something. We're having a mass delusion."
"Terrorists," Ms. Tate said. "Heavens to Betsy, we're under attack."
Seeing Ms. Tate nude definitely qualified as terrorism but I couldn't count on Homeland Security to lock her away. "I think Betsy is already in Heaven." I groaned. "I just want to go home."
So I did. Just like that, I was home. But home wasn't a warm safe place full of life, noise, and activity anymore. Mom and Dad were there. I was there. If I checked the backyard my little brother was probably there too. Mom rested in a heap on the kitchen floor, a thin stream of drool leaking from her mouth. Dad lay face down on the floor in front of the TV. Dead news anchors stared blankly from the TV.
My forehead rested on the edge of the kitchen table, masked by my dark brown hair. One arm hung limp at my side. The other arm was propped on the table, a pen in hand. Correction: my body was doing that. My ghost stared at the scene and started screaming.
I rushed out of the backdoor and saw a small body half-hanging out of the tree house my dad had built for Robby. I screamed some more and waved my arms like I was fending off a swarm of bees. Tears burned my eyes and I collapsed into a ball. I bawled for a good while until the illogic of a crying ghost hit me. Ghosts shouldn't be able to feel or cry or laugh. If I was dead, I should either be burning with demons or singing with angels. Somehow I was doing neither.
I couldn't just leave our bodies lying around to rot. I turned Mom's cooling body over and left it to rest against the cabinets. Food had stained her blue sari. I turned Dad over, trying to ignore how death had robbed the sparkle from his blue eyes, and dragged him to the couch. I had no desire to lug our bodies across town to the graveyard but we deserved a proper burial, maybe next to Licks, our last dog, in the backyard.
Dad's body blipped like a skipped frame in a movie and reappeared facedown on the floor again. Mom returned to her original position. It was just like I'd never moved either of them. I probably should have been surprised, but at that point emotional overload tripped a breaker in my brain. I whimpered. I walked to my body and took the pen from my dead fingers, dropped it on the floor. About ten seconds later, the pen reappeared back in the clutch of my ashen hand. I squatted and looked into my unseeing eyes, their usual sharp hazel color now dulled and fogged. I'd always liked my eyes. They'd been my best feature. I figured they weren't my eyes anymore. My old body seemed like a dear friend that I'd never see again. I brushed the hair from its eyes, slapped its cheeks. Why was I dead? A stripe of blood had crusted under my nose. I'd noticed blood on my dad's ear. I checked my mom and saw a streak of red under her nose. What the hell killed us, simultaneous aneurysms?
Another flood of tears hit me. I rushed into the front yard and gulped a few deep breaths, trying to fight back hysterical hiccups. Outside, a cool wind blew. My summer dress billowed in the breeze. My hair danced in the wind. I felt alive. In fact, I felt better than I'd ever felt before. Well, aside from the nauseating depression hammering in my chest. Movement down the road caught my eye. I ran over and spotted Kyle pacing in the front yard of his house.
"Please tell me this is a dream," I said.
He stared at me, eyes haunted. "Everyone. It's everyone."
He grabbed my hand and marched down the street. His grip was tight, manic.
"You're hurting me."
"Impossible. You only think I am."
"Kyle, stop it. You're squeezing my hand too hard."
He stopped and spun to face me. "You can't hurt ghosts, Lucy." He grabbed a landscaping brick from the side of a driveway and pressed it into my hand. "Hit me."
"Are you crazy?" The brick vanished from my hand and reappeared on the ground.
He rolled his eyes and grabbed my hand again. We walked the streets of our Candler Park neighborhood, a quaint area just east of downtown Atlanta. Bodies inhabited the houses. Crashed cars littered the roads, the drivers and passengers dead. Dead clerks manned the registers in stores, and dead shoppers lay in the aisles. Dead joggers lay on sidewalks. Dead construction workers slumped over power tools. Dead, dead, dead. Everyone.
Life had jerked the carpet out from underneath us and left a shattered mess.
Aside from the wounds sustained from falling or crashing, the bodies didn't show signs of trauma that would indicate why they'd died. They didn't look bloated or diseased. The streets slowly filled with mourning ghosts as people returned home or to that last familiar place they were visiting before the end came.
Animals seemed to have survived the apocalypse. We saw dogs licking the faces of their dead owners and cats rubbing against the unresponsive legs of corpses. A potbellied pig squealed and curled up next to the body of a young woman with spiky green hair. Squirrels played in the trees and bird songs filled the air. We could walk right up to wild animals. Some would sniff the air and look at us but they didn't run. I picked up a cute little chipmunk but it popped back to its earlier position just like everything else in the real world did when I took it, which kind of sucked. I'd always wanted a pet chipmunk. I raised my fist and shook it at the universe.
We stopped at the Flying Biscuit where my cousin Jane worked. A sick greasy odor drifted from the back. I imagined a dead cook frying atop the gas stove and choked back puke.
"Can ghosts barf, you think?" I asked Kyle.
"I have no idea. I think ghosts can probably do whatever they want."
"Jane wasn't working today. I don't see her body."
"Want to go into town?"
Jane's dad had a condo in Midtown. She'd used it for parties since he was always away on business. Jane liked things too crazy for my tastes. She'd already done pot, cocaine, and just about anything else that would alter her state of mind. She'd lost her virginity at the ripe age of twelve to Richie Sanders who was fifteen at the time. They'd done it in my parents' bathtub when we were out of town on vacation. I'd always wanted to be a free spirit like she was. I'd wanted to give up the haughty pursuit of valedictorian and go crazy for once instead of fretting all the time about graduating early and getting into law school. But I was too much of a control freak, OCD about everything when it came to planning my life. My short little life. Maybe Jane had it right.
It should have been a long walk to the condo, but the world blurred around us and suddenly Kyle and I stood outside the high rise building just in time to see someone jump off the roof. I screamed the second I saw the body, arms wind-milling as it plummeted thirty stories.
A man in a charcoal business suit face-planted into the ground about twenty yards away. The pavement cracked around his body. Blood and brains splattered, pooled, and raced along the cracks. I was still screaming and running in place. Kyle hollered a string of curses. The cracks healed. The blood vanished. The man pushed himself up and stared at the unblemished asphalt, felt his undamaged face.
"Are you okay?" I asked between gasps.
"No." He brushed himself off, although the dust had already vanished from his cheap slacks. "This can't be real. This can't be death."
"It's something," Kyle said. "Maybe something in between."
"This is worse than death. Now I have to spend eternity with my nagging wife and mother-in-law. What did I do to deserve this?"
"I don't think there are rules anymore. Do what you want."
"I might just jump off this building again."
Kyle shrugged. "Might as well."
The man looked up. His body blurred upward to the roof.
"Wow." I wanted to do that. So I did. The surface of the high rise shot past and I joined the man on the roof.
Kyle arrived a second later. "This is too much," he said.
"Understatement of the year." At that moment I stepped on the road to acceptance. This was happening. I was dead. All my hard work and dedication toward a better future had been a total waste. And, wouldn't you just know it? The finale to my favorite TV show was tonight. Couldn't the apocalypse have waited one more day? I ground my teeth. Yep, this was Hell all right.
After reigning in my anger and disappointment, I realized that I hadn't seen my parents or brother since dying. Those first few hours of death had blurred together and I hadn't even thought about looking for them. Most of my neighbors had been there on that grassy plain, but not my parents and they'd died only a few feet away from me. It was possible I'd overlooked them in that initial flurry of confusion. Another prospect frightened me.
They might not be in the afterlife.
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