Copyright 2011 by Jay Squires
"Is anyone out there? Hey... Yo... Come on! Is anyone out there?" I am flat on my back, buck naked, my arms at my side in an oddly familiar rectangular container. My feet touch the bottom. My elbows, when I push them out, nudge a boundary on either side. When I exhale in this absolute darkness, my icy breath comes back into my face, leaving no need to lift my arms to know the ceiling is not more than a few inches above me. I confirm it anyway, rapping my knuckles on the ceiling, seven or eight inches above my hips.
Only now, as panic starts to set in, do I remember that my words, oddly, had no sound to them. They were hardly more than thoughts, as though trapped in my throat. I try again: "Hey! Hey! Help me! For Christ sakes, get me the hell out of here!" Am I only thinking it? Are my lips just miming the words? How can I feel the air forced through my throat, yet hear no sound? My frigid breath is blasting its puffs now back against my face and my attention is brought to my chest which is rising and falling more raggedly now.
My chest! My chest! Shit! With sudden nausea, I slide my right hand up my stomach to my chest and feel there the six-inch incision and explore the hole beneath the flap that, like chilled hamburger, two fingers of my hand can slip into -- and do. And with it come rushing back the memories:
Three circles of glaring white light I am staring into -- staring because these eyes won't close -- and a dull, moss-green-smocked mass looms over me, blotting some of the glare. Out of the collar of the smock a sensitive orb with caring eyes and glistening sockets are above the white mask, grayed in its corners by sweat, sucking in where the mouth would be and then puffing out with his exhale. Another orb materializes beside him, eyes magnified behind his glasses. More light eclipsed. Other faces now. Clink of metal against an unseen tray. A jumble of voices, male and female:
Doctor, shall I... No use... low caliber shell ping-ponged off the ribs, exited the chest... Didn't know what hit... This poor slob tried to stop... Shoots him...Guard shoots her, dies on the bank floor... Which bank?... My God, that's where I... My sister knows the teller. Sue Zapu. Sue Zapu! What a name! Finished here. You two got the gurney? Douse the lights, okay? Sure, handball? You're on... The club at 7:30... Maybe dinner, after.
That image ends abruptly. And, now this. I've heard of these things happening before. A person rises up from his coffin at his funeral. Until today I thought they were just urban legends. But, now... "Hey out there. Open this fucking thing up, will ya? There's been a mistake!" The words form angrily, feathered with panic, in my mind.
Being unable to give them vocal expression infuriates me and further feeds my panic. I summon up all my strength and anger and push my feet against the barrier with everything I have inside me. My entire body quivers against the strain, seems now to vibrate madly, like a tuning fork, filling every crevice of my confines, then gradually funneling it down my body to my feet where there is the sound a balloon would make when stretched to its capacity. And, as the balloon bursts through at its weakest point, so I, with a wind-filled, audible wooouuufff am sucked through.
I hear the voice first, a pleasantly modulated sibilance, and now I see that the words proceeded through full lips beneath an unruly black moustache, drooping at its ends.
He smiles, watching me shoot a look to my trousered crotch, then tug at my shirt. Atop his head, a baseball cap with NY emblazoned on it, is cocked at an angle. A profusion of coarse, black hair clings to thin arms which extrude from a red polo shirt with lettering across the front asking: "Have you hugged your therapist today?" He is leaning back behind a large, expensive-looking desk, his palms webbed together at the back of his head. He is smiling, obviously enjoying my discomfiture. "Which means?" he repeats. He has crinkly skin around his eyes. These are eyes used to smiling. I feel at ease with his big, friendly face. But I don't feel at ease with anything else.
"No-no-no-no-no," I machine-gun. "Wait... Who are you?" I recognize of course that I am gibbering. "Who? And, where am I? And... And, why?"
He laughs, as jolly as Santa would (a younger Santa, before his hair turned white), then nibbles at the corner of his moustache. "It wasn't too long ago," he says, "you were asking if anyone," -- he refers to a notebook -- "if anyone was the fuck out there. Well, here I am, Johnny."
I feel ashamed that Santa had heard me use that kind of language, and it must have shown on my face because he laughs again and puts a finger alongside his nose.
"It's okay, Johnny... You may express yourself in any way that pleases you." He guides with his tongue some strands from the other side of his moustache into his mouth and nibbles while he seems to study me, still smiling -- a bizarre, lopsided smile due to the nibbling. Does the guy ever stop smiling? "So, Johnny... What did that sound you made mean? It sounded like a person who can't whistle trying to whistle."
I know the sound he is referring to. "I didn't make it. It made the sound that somehow -- I don't know -- that somehow it -- it -- it caused me to be here." Seeing the confused look on his face, I decide to cut to the chase. "Listen, is this hell I'm in? This is hell, isn't it? ‘Cause I know I don't qualify for heaven - and," I add, "you don't look a lot like Saint Pete." I see him try to stifle something with a fist over his mouth. "Or, are you interviewing me to see if hell's even an option?"
"Shouldn't it be an option, Johnny?"
"There you go with the Johnny, again. How'd you know - "
"If you think I'm the gatekeeper for hell, Johnny, wouldn't you think I'd know your name?"
"I'd think you'd do your homework."
"Why shouldn't hell be an option?"
"A lot of people don't like me -- didn't. And, some with good reason."
He takes his fist away and says through a grin, "What makes you think it's either heaven or hell, Johnny? What's the hurry?"
"I don't know that I have a whole lot of choice, Mister... Mister... Who the hell are you, anyway?"
"You really don't remember, do you?"
"If I did, I wouldn't be asking you, now would I?"
"Okee-dokee, I'm Charles Leitner -- with a Doctor in front of it. Everyone calls me Charles. And, why don't you have a choice?"
"You're a doctor?"
"A shrink -- a doctor shrink, which is only important because I'm allowed to prescribe drugs. And, why don't you have a choice?" He is enjoying this.
"You know -- because I'm dead."
"Hmmmm." He seems to consider this. "How long have you known?"
"Well, it's true , I am dead, right?"
"How long have you known?"
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