STORY: ‘STRANGER THAN LIFE: A POST MORTEM’ by BRUCE MEMBLATT
Craig Watson had no idea he was going to die that day. It was just yesterday when he and his wife walked down the same street. Janice was wearing the same skirt; the black one with the pleats. Crossing Ninth Avenue, because they parked on Tenth, Craig first spotted them out of the corner of his eye, under the streetlight, down the block, four of them, boys, a bit rough looking, fooling around, cackling, howling wildly into the night like wolves, but when he and Janice walked past them they suddenly became quiet. He knew their sudden silence meant something was wrong. There was a tall lean boy with tattoos on his arms; Craig could make them out because the boy was weaving around in a sleeveless black t-shirt. Even at night he could see the shape of the snake on his arm, a gang symbol Craig recognized from a syndicated police show.
The tall one began to whistle. Janice became stunned and suddenly pulled on Craig’s arm. He could tell she was terrified. So was he. Craig and Janice began to walk faster, not run, because if they ran the game would be up, the thugs would smell their fear, the way every strong thing that preys on a weaker thing does. It didn’t matter they knew the boys knew they were scared shitless. And the boys knew they knew as they surrounded them.
Craig decided it was their last chance to make a run for it. He grabbed Janice tight and she screamed. It was too late. The tall boy pulled a knife out. Craig’s eyes caught the metal when it met the light from the street lamp. One of the other boys came from behind. He could feel him breathe, smell his oily odor, and the queazy feeling of helplessness against impending doom sank Craig’s stomach. Then a sudden blur, a fierce movement of hands filled his vision, and he felt Janice pulling him down. They got her. Craig could see blood run past her black skirt, down her legs, while she dropped to the gutter.
His world came to an end.
The tall boy sent a knife into Craig. Pain surged through his belly. In a way he was relieved because he knew he couldn’t live without Janice. He watched the boy’s face, he didn’t have the soft features of a boy, he looked like he grew up too fast, his face was potted, half grinning, half pained, like he was about to come, a vacant look deadened his eyes. In an odd moment it seemed like he was watching a movie, nothing seemed real, nor did it seem surreal, it just seemed like he was viewing his life from a distance. Then a strange sensation came over Craig, he felt like he being sucked though a straw, every part of his being passed through something lighter than air, and instantly he could see his body on the ground next to Janice, as if he were viewing it from above, the boys standing over him and Janice, still stabbing them. He saw his own blood pool over the street and drain down the sewer, but he felt no pain, he felt nothing.
He knew he was dead, and he was surprised because he never expected death to be like what it seemed to be. He traveled through a vast dark nothingness. He saw no recognizable shapes or images, just darkness, save for what looked like an occasional black drift of smoke pass by. He heard nothing. He smelled nothing. But the odd thing was he didn’t feel much different than when he was alive, there was just a mere change of perspective, like someone pulled a switch and he was tossed into another plane, but his body felt the same. He looked the same. He was even wearing the clothes he died in. There was no sense of wisdom or sense of understanding or sense of becoming part of something larger as he was certain there would be most of his life, no sense of heaven or hell, no pearly gates, no heavenly choir, there was no sense of anything.
There was just nothing.
He continued to travel through the empty cover. He wondered if that was all there was to it, to everything, would he pass through forever, never stopping, never seeing anything new? He wanted to know if Janice was going through the same thing. Was her death like his, or were all deaths different, specifically designed for the departed like custom tires for the soul. He had to find her, he assumed they’d be together; didn’t you spend eternity with your soulmate when you died? He cried inside, when something different caught his eye. Off in the distance he saw a light. It didn’t look like a star, or anything you’d find high in the night sky. He thought it couldn’t possibly be, but it looked like a porch light. He didn’t understand how, but the light made him feel calm, and safe, and curious at the same time, perhaps he’d find the great revelation he expected after he died in that light, it was something to latch on to. Another fume of smoke drifted by and in his ears he thought he heard music, not a choir, not a trumpet, not a harp, but a small voice singing, like a child.
Soon he recognized the voice; it was his little brother’s when he was young, when they both were. He wasn’t shocked it seemed like the most natural thing to his ears. Maybe death was about going home, going back and reliving parts of your life, fixing your mistakes, figuring things out. He didn’t know. It was all a guessing game. Now everything seemed to be about movement. He saw large fumes of smoke gather before him, shifting into an enormous fog, and when it parted he was closer to the light. He could see it clear, it was a porch light as he suspected, it was the porch light on the house he grew up in.
The large white house appeared suspended in the same dark shadow he was traveling through. From his vantage point it looked incredibly tall. The side of the house seemed to rise and rise forever. The roof seemed to jut out of nowhere. One side of the house was cloaked in darkness while the other side looked like it was peering out of the shadows. The light hung on an angle and below it the porch looked clear and familar against the black sky as if it hadn’t aged.
He heard his family inside, and he was with them, at the table in the kitchen. He was the same age as when he died, sixty six, but they were younger, yet they didn’t seem to notice the difference. It was as if he woke in mid- conversation, in a conversation he had ages ago, as if nothing had changed, as if it were that day, new. He rememebered the conversation because it occured on the day he told parents he was going to propose to Janice, in fact, she was on her way over. He realized the strangest part of it as his mother began to speak; sunlight poured through the kitchen window.
“What is that strange look on your face, Craig?”
“Nothing it’s just the sun is so strong.” He noticed his mother wore the same clothing, jeans and a floppy grey sweatshirt; her hair had the blonde sheen with that wave down the center.
“Well it is mid-afternoon, are you okay? Maybe this thing with Janice is getting to you, maybe you’re not ready?”
Craig knew what was coming next his father would lift his newspaper and say…
“Leave the boy alone, Karen, he loves her, let them be.”
“But they’re so young.”
He felt the headache coming on as he did then. He wondered how a deadman could get a headache and the fact that his parents didn’t seem to notice how old he was continued to unease him, maybe he was young to them? Maybe he was just watching this, in the same way he watched his murder, maybe death was about watching, watching and movement.
Soon his younger brother would start singing louder and his mother would say…
“Jeffrey not so loud, Janice will be here soon!”
Then Craig watched Jeffrey scoot out the kitchen door, cross the porch and run down the steps to the front yard. The apperance of the front yard startled him at first but he quickly accpeted it as part of the strange goings on, if the house could be there filled with his family, then why not the sun and the front yard.
“I’m glad he’s gone so we can talk about this some more. Vince you should know marriage isn’t just about love. Life isn’t a fairy tale.”
Vince set his newspaper down on table and said, “Oh I am keenly aware of that, Karen.”
Craig felt the same thoughts fill his head that filled it then; he just prayed they wouldn’t start fighting with Janice just about to step through the door. It unerved him how easily he was falling into that moment, reverting to his younger self as if he should really be worried if his parents caused a scene in front of Janice or not, afterall, what did it matter, he was dead.
“Vince, I am serious, why do they need to be married now? What is the rush? Craig is just in his first year of college and Janice is still in her last year of high school.”
“So were we, Karen, so were we”
“And look what happened!”
“Are things really so bad for us, Karen?”
“Pardon me I forgot I was talking to the cock-eyed optimist. Is this all you want out of life, Vince? Is this really it?”
“Well, God dammit, this is what it’s about for most people a family, a home.”
“I am not most people, Vince, I need something more!” Karen cried while she tossed a chipped dish into the sink.
Craig coverd his ears with his hands as if he were twleve years old. He asked himself if he went through all he went through to return to this crazy moment in his life, and he realized there had to be a reason why he was caught in this paticular corner of the past. Regardless, soon Janice would come walking through that door and it would be worth it to see her again, even as her younger self, even if she didn’t know what was in store. Was that why he was going through this again, he wondered, to stand in the moment in time when they decided to spend their lives together, the moment that changed everything for them, and just sort of breathe it in, try to make some sense out of it? Maybe death was about putting the pieces together so you could put them away once for all.
“I know you’re not most people, Karen, you think you’re special.You think you’re better than most people!”
“I have never said that, not once!” Karen said as he reached for the garbage can under the sink.
“Maybe not in so many words but your atttitude is crystal clear, you certainly think you’re better than me!”
Craig couldn’t believe the words were going to come out, but they had to just like they did then, and surprsingly he felt as frustrated as he did when he first uttered them ages ago when he cried out, “Fucking stop it you two. Today is about Janice and me. Well today is actually about Janice and me and the baby we’re gonna have, so mom you’re fucking right, we are too young, but it doesn’t matter now!”
He saw his mother’s eyes suddenly turn cold and she said, “Well why you are screaming that out at us now, Craig we know that already.”
His father too. “Yes, Craig why all the fuss?”
It felt like everything suddenly stopped. That wasn’t part of the conversation. That didn’t happen before. This wasn’t in the past. Craig felt fear; he felt it just as overpowering and convincingly as if he were still breathing, because he didn’t know where he was or what would happen next. He couldn’t sense if he was in the present or the past or in some warp of time he could not define. There didn’t seem to be anything real he could recognize around him, just what apeared to be copies of people and events in his life, but these imitations were twisted and bent, sadistic.
“We know everything. We know your baby will never be born because Janice will have a miscarriage a month after you get married so why get married in the first place?”
“Yes, why, Craig?” His father grinned, his eyes gleamed with satisfaction.
“No!” He cried even though he knew it was the truth, but the important thing was they got past it, and they stayed together through everything, through the fifth time Janice miscarried when they decided that was enough, and they faced the fact that they weren’t going to have children. Adoption wasn’t for them, if they couldn’t have a child of their own then they simply didn’t want any, so they made their life together as full as they could with trips and freinds, and vounteer work. They thought they’d built a good life, not perfect, underneath, it still got to Craig, but he loved Janice completely.
“We got married in the first place, because we loved each other and that holds true no matter what!”
“Because you love each other,” she said mockingly. “You sound just like your father. Love isn’t enough, you could have spared yourself all those miscarriages, all that grief, you could have had children of your own. Your father and I could have been grandparents.”
“Your mother is right, Craig.”
“At least I got to spend my life with Janice. And I’ll find her here too!”
“No you won’t, Craig.” She grinned, and Craig tried to find something familar in her eyes, but he knew she wasn’t his mother and that the man sitting at the table next to her wasn’t his father, not completly,they were just shells of what they used to be, twisted debris, odd aproximations. Was that what he was now too, an augmented fragment of his former self? It didn’t matter, no matter what he was he was somehow going to be with Janice again.
“No you’re not.”
“You’re not, Craig,” the abberarion of his father repeated as if they could read his thoughts. He was no longer afraid, their smug attitude unleasehed years of pent up childhood rage, even from beyond the grave he was dripping with anger. He wondered how they could possibly know and what scared him most was the possibility that they could be right. What if he spent eternity alone? He thought when he heard something that sounded like buzzing surround him.
“You’ll see, we’ve been dead longer than you, Craig, you can wander around here forever but it will never be.” His mother whispered.
On top of the cabinets near the ceiling he saw them first, tiny specs of metal, but they seemed to move around circling like saws. There must have been hundreds, if not thousands of them, black, vicious, gathered just below the ceiling.
He jumped at their sudden arrival and at the sheer mass of the creatures.In his head he knew he couldn’t feel pain, at least he was certain that’s how it should be, yet he still shivered at the sight and the sounds of the invasion, while his parents sat across the table from him unfazed.
He bolted from his chair, determined to run, to where he did not know.
The buzzing of the metallic creatures became increasingly intense. Like termites they began to devour the walls. He watched overwhelmed as the ceiling began to be eaten away. From behind the broken plaster black shadows started to appear. The sun was an illusion, as was the yard; there was nothing beyond the house but emptiness.
He stared down at his parents; they still sat at the table, sipping coffee unffetered, even as the house was ripped away around them. He wanted to run but he couldn’t, not just yet. He had to watch.
The steely things traveled like an army down past the ceiling. The cabinets surrendered easily, even the plates and cups inside them were eaten away as if they were lint. Everything seemed to be covered by the tiny metallic feeders. The buzzing became so loud Craig covered his ears. The sounds were maddening to his form. One of the cabinet doors fell to the floor near the table. His psuedo parents didn’t flinch. The darkness outside the house became more and more visible as half of the kitchen was gone at that point. Then Craig stood next to the table and looked above at the emptiness that seemed to never end and he wondered if that was all that was left for him. He didn’t think it was possible but he thought he felt a tear form in his eye.
Suddenly, he heard the buzzing come closer and he turned down to see the feeders gathering on the top of his parent’s heads. First their hair vanished, and then their scalps apperead to disentergrate against hundreds of tiny teeth, but they still remained unfazed, as if they were at a Sunday brunch, as if they weren’t being devoured, as if they weren’t covered by the metallic mouths.
His mother’s sick abberation looked at Craig and laughed, “You know Craig you didn’t age very well.”
“Ha look at that potbelly you got there,” The other one added.
Criag could hear their laughter, through the buzzing, even as their mouths disappeared, even as their limbs were swallowed up. He thought that maybe he was wrong before, maybe death wasn’t about putting the pieces together; maybe death was about taking the pieces apart.
The house was gone. He found himself alone again in the vast nothingness that seemed to encase everything. Then he felt a falling sensation. His hands reached frantically at empty shadows and before he knew it he was inside a room. At first it was hard to see. Gradually it became clearer when he saw her on the bed, the IV tube extending from her arm, the monitors above her head. He’d finally found Janice, but they were worlds apart. He reached to touch her and he couldn’t. He realized he was in that room only as an observer, for the first time he knew he was a ghost. He watched her take in breaths, her eyes were closed but she was alive.She was going to live. They were separated concretely and finally, for when he looked at her he knew she would remarry. He’d never see her again not in any life.
He was utterly alone. Hope was some long gone mythical memory.
He took one last look at Janice, and the tear he thought he’d felt earlier somehow released.
The room fell away. Emptiness surrounded him again and his great revelation came. Death wasn’t about figuring things out, or putting the pieces together or fixing things, death was about losing everything except your soul, and suddenly he connected to millions of souls in dark corners, in crevasses, under stones and earth, or maybe sitting right next to us, in emptiness everywhere.