Neil D. Ostroff
“Time of death,” said a tall man dressed in surgical attire. He had cotton-colored hair, a snowy white moustache, and a long beard. “1:17 P.M.”
For a moment, I didn’t know where I was. Then it dawned on me. I’m in a hospital emergency room. Something terrible must have happened.
“This doesn’t make sense,” replied a woman, who was also dressed in surgical attire. “I can’t find anything wrong with him. There’s no medical explanation. A fifteen-year-old boy shouldn’t have just died like that.”
The woman leaned over and checked my neck for a pulse. Penlight illuminated my right eye and then my left. A stethoscope pressed against my chest.
She shook her head. “Nothing. No vitals at all.”
Panic hit. I tried with all my might to speak. I tried to move my arms. I tried to get someone’s attention. I tried to scream; I’m alive! I’m alive! I can hear you! I can see you! But no breath passed through my vocal chords. My body wouldn’t respond to my mind’s commands. I lay there helpless, a paralyzed shell.
The woman turned around to look at the heart monitor. Hastily, the tall man withdrew a golf ball-size crystal from his front pocket and circled it above my chest. Blue light flashed from the crystal’s center. The tall man quickly stashed it away. Despite being in a bright, sterile room, snake-like bands of black shadow burst from the walls and dropped to the floor. The woman was busy adjusting the equipment and didn’t notice as the bands whipped up my body and tunneled into my ears, nose, and mouth.
My vision dimmed. My thinking clouded. Scenes of my life suddenly appeared in front of me as if I were standing on the sidelines observing. Everything I’d ever done played like a movie in fast-forward: standing in my crib, learning to walk, to ride my bike, my first day at WhitmoreElementary School, fishing with dad at the pier, my freshman prom with Sarah, getting my learner’s permit last month. The visions ended with me collapsing on the lawn earlier today and Sarah running toward me with a look of horror on her face.
I was suddenly back on the hospital gurney. I felt light, floaty. I lifted upward toward the ceiling, an exact copy of my physical made of cloud. I turned my head and looked down at my body. My mortal eyes were glazed and half-lidded. My face was the color of cream. A luminous cord the width of a shoelace stretched from my human head into the back of my spirit head.
Something popped inside my skull. The connecting cord turned to sparkle. I started to drift away from my body toward the other side of the room.
“I’ll notify those in the visitor’s lounge that the patient passed away,” the tall man said. “The mother, and I believe, the patient’s girlfriend, are in there.”
The woman’s face looked almost as pale as mine on the gurney.
“I don’t understand,” she said, as she peeled off a latex glove. “This boy was in perfect health!”
Sound disappeared. I shot upward through a spinning vortex of stars. I stopped and suddenly my world was bright and filled with pain, as if my skin had caught fire. I found myself standing on the front porch of my house. Shafts of sunlight were beating down from the clear blue sky. I grabbed at the doorknob and in my frenzy the momentum carried me forward through the solid wood and into the foyer. I tripped and nearly fell. Sunlight beamed from the windows like lasers.
Panicked to find relief from the burning, I ran across the hallway through the closed basement door and down the steps into the dark, cool cellar. Filamentous illumination drifted off my spirit body. I scratched my arm and my fingertips raked along what felt like real skin. I patted my chest and thighs, they were solid. All of my memories, dreams, and hopes were intact. I was an identical blueprint of my former self.
Wonder replaced my shock at the full and total realization that I was no longer living.
I went back up the steps and pushed my head through the closed door. The sun had set and the house was dark, except for the kitchen. The wall clock showed 8:45 P.M. Hours had passed in what I perceived as seconds.
I stepped all the way through the door, looked for my reflection in the windows, and saw none. The curtains didn’t stir as I reached to brush them. The carpet didn’t scrunch under my feet.
I headed into the kitchen. Glow cast by the overhead fluorescents heated my spirit flesh, but the discomfort was bearable. Ma sat at the table wearing her ratty blue robe. Her face looked chalky and devastated. Bone-white fingers gripped her coffee mug.
“Ma,” I said.
She didn’t respond, just stared ahead in a stupor.
Her lips contorted with grief.
“My husband and my son,” she muttered to the silence. “Both gone on the same day. Why? Why has this happened?”
She started to sob.
I stood in absolute shock. It had been two years since a stroke had left my father in a coma and needing constant care at Pine Brook Nursing Home. Ma and I did our best to keep him cared for and comfortable. I even got a before-school job at Pine Brook cooking breakfast three mornings a week so I could spend time with him, arriving early and talking to him before my shift started, hoping by some miracle that he’d respond. Say something to me. Anything. He never did.
Ma dabbed at her eyes, raised the mug, sipped, and then set it, hands trembling, back onto the table. I reached around to hug her, but my arms passed through her body. I felt so alive… I momentarily forgot that I wasn’t.
“I’ll be right back,” I said into her ear.
I turned and walked through the drywall, through the insulation and vinyl siding, and into the night. Moonshine silvered the neighborhood. Crickets chirped. Moths fluttered dizzyingly and bumped the back porch light. A car droned down the street.
The world was as it should be.
When I stepped back through the wall, 10:30 P.M. beamed from the stove’s clock and Ma’s sobs emanated from upstairs.
“You’re coming with me,” said a gravelly voice. “Your time on the Earthlevel is completed.”
I spun around. A cloudy essence of purple ectoplasm materialized in front of me. The shape fluctuated and then solidified into a gargoyle-like creature about the size of a man, with pointed ears, two horns on its head and one on its chin, and a wild mop of dirt and bug infested black hair. Hawk-like talons replaced hands and feet, and a long, serpentine tail coiled around one of its two antelope-like legs. Leathery wings were folded against its back. It wore a green tunic.
I backpedaled in bewilderment, stumbled over my own feather-light feet, and fell through the linoleum floor, catching between the levels of the house. When I pushed down to get unstuck, my hands passed through leaving me dangling from the basement ceiling like a person clamped in a stockade. Currents of prickly energy fizzled through my muscles.
The creature grabbed the back of my neck and lifted me up. The tingling feeling increased. My extremities numbed. Fear stabbed at my gut.
“What’s happening to me?” I screamed.
“Your soul exists at a certain frequency which allows you to bond with a flesh-and-blood mechanism,” the creature replied calmly. “Death is no more than a changing of that frequency, a shifting to a higher wavelength, one that no longer adheres to mortality. The rapid playback of your life was to imprint your identity upon your consciousness, to etch your human experiences into your reasoning so you won’t enter the Realmlevels in a state of confusion. The full realization of being dead can sometimes shock a soul into nothingness.”
My thoughts turned somersaults. “Who are you?”
“I am Methusula, your guide into the Realmlevels.”
The tingling faded and with its departure came lightheadedness. I turned to look up the stairs toward Ma’s bedroom, feeling the need to somehow protect her from this monster.
“Unfortunately, human emotions and attachments don’t die along with the body,” the creature said. “A grieving loved one often makes it difficult to move forward. The transition into the Realmlevels will be easier if you give yourself emotional permission to leave.”
I looked briefly at a framed photograph of Dad standing at the end of pier 16 and pulling against a strained fishing rod. Memories of that trip bobbed into my mind. It had been a perfect day; perfect weather. The fishing was great. It was also the first time I ever saw Sarah and fell immediately and hopelessly in love with her.
Methusula clamped my arm, flapped his wings, and pulled me up through the ceiling, passed my bedroom on the second floor, and onto the roof. It felt as if we’d flown through air.
“We must transition before the sun rises,” Methusula said, gazing toward the eastern horizon. “Earthlevel light interacts harshly with the soul.”
He faced me and his sight roved up and down. “The soul possesses the ability to create accessories it desires for the body.”
I looked down. With all the transition I’d been through I hadn’t even realized I was naked.
For some reason, my first thought was my blue school gym shorts and white t-shirt. They immediately materialized on me. Then I thought about my gray sweat suit. That materialized. Then I thought about blue jeans and my tie-dye T-shirt. They appeared. I decided to stay with that.
“Prepare yourself,” Methusula said, and raised his arms. “Your eternal journey begins now!”