No matter what you think you know about ghosts, death, and what comes next, you can’t really prepare yourself for the reality. Maybe it’s different for everyone. This is what I know about my own afterlife.
I went to sleep one stormy November night after a long miserable day. I was grateful to see the day end, if I’m being honest. The irony isn’t lost on me. Because as it happens, that was the last day of my life.
The next thing I remember is a sensation of floating. The nearest comparison I can make is submerging yourself in a warm bath. There was nothing to hear or see. No sensations to experience at all. I also can’t remember having a single thought. It was almost like I became aware of my state of nothing only as I was leaving it.
That’s when I woke up in my bed. The sun was streaming through the French doors in my bedroom, which was sold me on the little rental property that was really more than I could comfortably afford, but my friend’s dad rented me the place and he gave me a discount. I turned my back to the door and burrowed deeper under the comforter that I used year round thanks to the fan I kept next to the bed for white noise. I heard birds calling to each other and smelled the cloying scent of lilacs.
Oh good. The storm must have passed. My thoughts felt muzzy, the way they often did if even the smallest bit of alcohol passed my lips. That’s why it took as long as it did to register that lilacs don’t bloom in November no matter how nice the day is. Besides, I was positive that the windows were shut when I went to bed last night.
My eyes snapped open and I found myself face to face with a sleeping man I’d never seen before. I gave a startled yelp and back pedaled away from him until I was in danger of falling off the edge of the bed. The man didn’t even stir.
Oh jeez, there’s a dead guy in my bed. I started to shriek in earnest. Who was this guy and why was he dead in my bed?
At some point I noticed another strange man leaning against the wall opposite of us. His arms were crossed and his foot was resting against the wall, looking for all the world like a cowboy, despite the fact that he was wearing a pair of jeans and tshirt. His wavy sandy hair hung in his face, but didn’t obscure the amused gleam in his sea water green eyes or the smirk on his full lips.
I realized what must have happened. This new stranger killed the one in my bed and was going to kill me too. Why else would he be standing there watching me discover his crime? I leapt from the bed and backed away from him until my butt touched the wall. I glanced down at myself to see if I was wearing clothes or not. It didn’t seem unreasonable to assume that if I were in bed with a man I didn’t know, that it might have been because I invited him there for activities I couldn’t remember. Thankfully, I was wearing a pair of pink flannel pajama pants with a form fitting tank top. It wasn’t as much as I’d hoped (full body armor would have been nice), but it was better than fighting off a crazy man while naked.
The man was positioned next to the bathroom door and halfway between the door to my patio and the one that lead from my bedroom to the rest of the house. He could intercept me no matter which direction I tried to flee. I decided my best bet would be to try to escape into the yard where my screams were more likely to be heard.
The man didn’t seem inclined to change his unconcerned pose, but I didn’t trust him to remain that way when I made my bid for freedom. I was psyching myself up to run when he said in a conversational voice, “You do realize that you don’t live here anymore, right?”
I knew it was a stalling tactic, but it was such a random thing for him to say. I flattened myself against my wall and tried to puzzle out what he was trying to say. A weird death threat? Probably. I clenched my fists in preparation for his attack. He would probably kill me, he was tall and solidly built compared with my own small stature, but I wasn’t going to just lay down and wait for him to finish me.
He rolled his eyes. He motioned broadly. “I do find your battle stance to be amusing, but we have business to attend to and I’d like to get started with that. Would you take a look at this room before you try to scratch my eyes out, Wildcat?”
I did as he asked, trying to look around the room in short bursts, while not taking my attention off of him for a second. Then I forgot all about keeping my eye on my potential killer. He was right. It was my bedroom, but it was filled with somebody else’s things. My things, girly and familiar were all gone and in their place was furniture that I’d never seen before and canvases and paints stacked against every wall. The bed where the dead man still laid was covered with bedding I didn’t recognize. And outside the open windows I could see that the trees that were bare when I fell asleep were covered in lush new foliage.
My head swam and I squatted, resting my head on my knees. “What is all this? Why is my house filled with a dead guy’s stuff?”
The man chuckled and I saw that he actually had a very handsome face when he smiled. “He’s not dead. Look, if you want. He’s just sleeping.”
I crawled back into the bed and examined the man there for the first time. He was a good looking man. His face was lightly feathered with stubble as black as what was on his head. His features were chiseled and flawless. Of course, I couldn’t see his eyes, but he looked as if he could be a model. The covers were pulled away from his body where I had shoved them off in my rush to escape him and I saw to my embarrassment that he was naked, but not before I assessed that he had nothing to be ashamed about in that department. I quickly pulled the blankets up to a modest level.
He was breathing, just as the stranger told me. “You drugged him?”
“It figures that I’d draw an idiot.” He muttered.
“What are you talking about?”
He sighed. “Don’t worry about it. He’s not drugged. He’s just sleeping.”
Now it was my turn to roll my eyes. “No way he’s just sleeping. Nobody can sleep through the noise I made.”
The man looked strangely intense. “Nobody could sleep through that noise if you were making noise that anyone could hear.”
“Wow, ok psycho, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I realize that it’s really stupid of me to stand here and talk to a strange man who is hanging out in my bedroom. “ I started edging to the patio door.
He watched me impassively. I waited for him to lunge at me, but he didn’t move even as I put my hand on the doorknob. I had the door open and eased outside before he finally spoke. “You’re dead, Wildcat. I’m not sure what your story is, but you’ve been dead long enough that they cleared out your stuff and somebody new lives here now.”
I suppose that a rational person would have kept walking, but what he was saying made a terrible kind of sense to me. It was the trees that convinced me. Bare last night, covered with spring leaves now. What caused my brain to shut down was the realization that the thin saplings I’d planted a couple of years ago had grown into real trees at some point while I slept.
I felt a falling sensation and then I was encased in the tepid nothing. My last emotion was relief.
I heard a voice say roughly, “Ok, that’s enough self pity. You need to pull yourself together.”
The voice cut through the nothing and almost immediately I felt the soft resistance of a mattress beneath me. I tried unsuccessfully to gray out and return to the oblivion, but evidently that escape was denied me. I chose instead to clamp my eyes shut and shut out the world the way I used to when I was a child. The logic wasn’t any sounder now than it was as a five year old, but it was the most attractive of my available options.
“You can lie there all day, but it’s not going to change things. You’re dead and I’m stuck dealing with you until you can make your peace and move on.”
I continued to ignore him.
He sighed. “It figures I’d get saddled with someone thin skinned. Look, lady, I’m not the hand holding type. I want to help you, I really do, but I can’t do that if you won’t talk to me.”
I finally opened my eyes and glared at him. I noticed that I was alone in the bed. The shower was running so that mystery was easily solved. The stranger was straddling a chair, facing me. He didn’t look cruel, but his features were set in uncompromising lines. No, he didn’t look like the hand holding type at all.
“Ah, good morning, Wildcat. Good of you to join the rest of the world. Again. You were in the Beyond for 3 days, in case you were interested.”
I sat up, my heart pounding. Three days gone without a hint of their passing? The growth of my saplings? How long had I been dead? The disconnected thoughts in my head finally sharpened into one imperative that blinked like a neon sign. “Where is my daughter? Who’s taking care of my baby?”
The man held up his hands in a calming gesture. His face softened. “Don’t panic or you’ll lose your grip and slide back into the Beyond.”
I gripped the sheets until my knuckles turned white. The last thing I wanted was to lose any more time. I understood what he meant though. I felt considerably less substantial as I fought to keep my anxious feelings from overwhelming all reason.
“I can help you track her down. I’m sure that’s what your unfinished business must be.” His voice was soothing.
I got myself under a semblance of control and the sensation of flying apart slowly faded. For the first time since I woke up in a stranger’s bed, I finally felt capable of having real thoughts.
“Who are you?” I asked in a voice that was supposed to sound demanding, but instead was petulant.
He ignored my whiny tone. “I’m Gabe. I’m in charge of getting you out of the afterlife and back into circulation.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know about any divine spirits or Heaven or Hell. What I do know is that the afterlife is all about recycling. Once we finish your earthly business, your energy or soul or whatever you prefer to call it, will disperse into the world and will power another little Wildcat at some point in the future.”
“More or less. I don’t worry about the religious meaning of it all.”
“So why haven’t you been reincarnated?”
He propped his head on his hand, elbow resting on the chair back. “Think of me like a therapist. My job is to help you sort through all your issues so that you can let go of your claim to your soul.”
“Why do you have a job? Who told you that this is what you have to do?”
“Are you asking if it was a divine directive from our Lord, Himself?” I nodded and he chuckled. “I hate to disappoint, but I haven’t met anyone in charge since I died. I just pulled myself out of the Beyond with the knowledge that this is what I need to do. I even know that you’re the last one I need to help before I go on to whatever lies next.”
The water stopped rumbling in the background and a minute later the bathroom door opened and my new roommate walked out with his towel loosely wrapped around his hips. I held my breath as he walked into the room, but he didn’t even glance my direction as he pulled off his towel and tossed it at me.
If I had any doubts about being dead before, the way the wet towel that fell through me and rested on the bed where my legs were supposed to be was mighty convincing evidence. I gripped the sheets again while the sense of unreality threatened to overtake me.
The sensation reminded me of how I felt for the first few weeks after finding out I was pregnant. I was a rising star with my whole future ahead of me. My GPA was 3.9, I was involved in school politics and sports, and I was one of the prettiest girls in school. There was no conceit in knowing I was pretty, it was just a fact. My long blond hair fell to the middle of my back in thick waves, but unlike a lot of natural blondes, my eyelashes were thick and dark and didn’t require any liner or mascara to frame my brown eyes.
Nobody was more shocked than I was to find out that I was pregnant, just months away from graduation. The father was my long time boyfriend, Levi Price. The only boy I’d ever kissed, much less made love with. I was practical enough to know that we would probably go our separate ways after high school. He was smart and handsome, but his goals were never as ambitious as mine. I saw myself moving to New York to get a job working as an intern in the advertising industry and eventually working my way up to partner in a prestigious firm. Levi wanted to stay closer to home and help his dad run his hardware store.
For days after I took the pregnancy test, the knowledge would spring into the forefront of my mind. It changed the way I defined myself. I’d go for hours sometimes without thinking about it and then suddenly there it was… “This history test doesn’t matter anymore. I’m pregnant.”
It wasn’t until my formally firm, tanned stomach began to expand that I finally managed to wrap my mind around the fact that this was really happening to me.
I staggered to my feet and lurched into the bathroom. My new roomie hadn’t bothered to turn off the lights yet so I just stood there waiting for the steam to clear. I needed to see what I looked like now. I couldn’t remember dying. Did I look like a zombie now? Was I covered in stab wounds or did I have a gunshot hole in the middle of my head?
I leaned against the sink and tried to get myself under control. How can I be dead?
My face and upper body slowly came into view. I looked the same as I did the last night of my life. My face was clear of make up and my hair fell over my shoulders in careless ringlets from time spent with a curling iron. I looked the same as I did when I went to bed that night.
To be sure, I stripped off my clothes and examined my body. I felt stupid when I thought about how proud I was about losing the baby weight so soon after I had Genevieve. My tanned skin was a testament to the hours I spent laying out with my best friend, Debbie. Something I made time for even after becoming a teen mother. A fat lot of good it did me now to have a perfect body. Nobody could see me.
Both disappointed and relieved that no clues about how I died were going to turn up by further examining myself, I pulled my clothes back on. The man who lived in my house now was sitting in the chair formerly occupied by Gabe. Gabe was back to leaning moodily against the wall. In life, it would have delighted me to be surrounded by two beautiful men, but being dead hadn’t done anything for my sense of child-like wonder.
“Can I leave this house or am I, like, haunting it or something?”
Gabe grinned at me. “You’ve got a lot to learn.”
“Do you think you can teach me while we go for a walk? I need to stretch my legs.”
“It’s a deal.”