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Image by Crina Parasca

Still Here

It’s nothing like they say it is, being dead. Those people who said they traveled into the light and have spirit guides who look like dead relatives or friends are full of shit. It was nothing like that for me. There was no feeling of peace and well-being; it was terror of a kind that I never knew existed. It was being untethered, unhinged, no longer moored to anything solid and sure and certain.
But maybe that had something to do with the way I died. . .
I knew right away I was in trouble when the door shut. Like a trapped animal, something told me there was danger and if I had hackles, I’m sure they would have been raised. His eyes got this feverish, hyper-excited look; he had against all odds captured his prey and no one was coming. I was so frightened I almost couldn’t swallow and my mind raced as I tried to think of what I might say to reason with him. But at the same time, I could see that he was beyond reason. When I moved a couple feet to the left, his movements mirrored my own. I could hear my breathing now, loud in the small space, labored like someone who’d run a long distance.
In a split second -– less than a second -– I assessed whether my strategy should be fight or flight. Fight, I decided almost immediately. He was small of build and somewhat stocky but he didn’t look too strong. And flight really wasn’t an option anyway. It was fight, or relent. And nothing about who I was would permit me to relent. He was patient. He didn’t try to lunge at me or anything but the pretense of showing me the elliptical machine I was interested in buying had evaporated between us like mist.
“Sellers should offer to ship the merchandise,” he said conversationally, as though offering me advice. “And for really big items that you have to move, you should bring along a friend, if only because you’re going to need their help schlepping it to a van.”
He had a slight accent. I guessed Polish. His teeth were yellow and even from across the room, I could smell a slightly musty odor emanating from his body. Then I realized that it was me I smelled; it was fear. He reached behind his back and pulled something from the waistband of his pants. I squinted to make sense of the item which looked familiar but somehow out of context. And then he turned it on. A taser.
After that, there was a wrenching, deep, searing pain, like being burned alive. I thought I could smell something burning, and then I was flopping helplessly on the ground like a fish, gasping for my next breath which seemed tantalizingly out of reach. Soon I could feel him dragging me by the calves and saw only the ceiling, ugly and pockmarked by water stains. Coherent thought returned and I decided that he would probably rape me and let me go, that he couldn’t risk killing me because most women tell a friend when they’re going on errands like this, or have boyfriends or mothers or roommates. He had no way of knowing that I had told absolutely no one where I would be. If I lay still, it would be over before too long and then he would let me go. So I would relent after all; being raped had, in the span of two minutes, become the best case scenario.
It was all over in less than ten minutes, and when he was done he took out a very large knife, which he made a point of showing to me before he used it. And just like that, I was gone from my body. There was no floating up to the ceiling and looking down at myself from above, thank goodness. Because what he’d done, what he was doing to my body, I didn’t want to see. Instead, it was as though I was being tugged forcibly through a very small and very tight space; or like I was underwater, rising toward the surface except that there was no surface, only endless space. This, I thought, was like being born.
I went to my apartment right away, because I could be there or anywhere I wanted to be. I could think it and it would materialize. I thought of my mother and saw her immediately. She was shopping in the Food Lion near her house and she was thinking about how expensive everything was and that it made no sense, cooking these full meals when the only other person she lived with didn’t appreciate her cooking anyway. Fleetingly she thought of me, and made a note to call me about the party games for my sister’s baby shower. That made me sad so I went away from her and was drawn instead to my sister, Julianne. She was hugely pregnant and taking a bath. The roundness of her abdomen interrupted the surface of bubbles and foam. Julianne stroked it and smiled. The baby kicked and she gasped and then laughed. He was a boy. I knew this even though Julie and her husband had chosen not to find out the gender. Julie was happy in her bath but in the back of her mind was a needling worry about how close her husband Mitch was becoming to a new female associate in his law office.
I had no body, no mass, but I had consciousness and I wondered where everyone else was. I was not the only person to die today; not even the only person to be murdered. Thinking the word drew me back to my attacker. He was in the shower and scrubbing his fingernails. As the water coursed over his repellent, coarse body he whistled. I wondered what he’d done with me and in wondering I found myself in the room where I died. It was clean and everything was in place. In confusion, I looked around, going from room to room of his shabby row-house and there was no trace of me. It was as though I had never existed.
Frightened, I went home again and there saw my mother, my sister, brother-in-law and father packing up my things. My father was crying openly as he packed. My sister Julie volunteered to take the bedroom and beckoned for Mitch to follow. She handed him a small box and went immediately to my bedside table, pulling out my vibrator and wrapping it in a pillowcase. She looked under my mattress and found my journal which she stashed in the box as well. Then she looked in all of those standard hiding places that single girls have and one by one, she located all my secrets and put them aside so that my parents would never see them.
“Take this box out while they’re in the kitchen,” she told Mitch. “Put it in our trunk, don’t let them see it.”
He nodded absentmindedly. He looked sad too. I really liked Mitch.
“Did you hear me?” Julie asked insistently. “When they’re in the kitchen.”
“Okay, okay,” Mitch said.
Then Julie burst into tears and he sat next to her, putting an arm about her shoulder.
“It’s alright, sweetie, it’s going to be alright.”
“No it’s not!” she said, her voice rising. “She’ll never know the baby. The baby will never know her. It’ll never be alright.”
In the next room, my mother turned to come to Julie and my father restrained her with a hand on her shoulder and a shake of the head. He said nothing but he was thinking that Julie was right, that it would never be the same.
To be left like that, he thought. All cut up and dumped on the side of the road like trash.
And that was when I knew what he’d done with my body.
It was funny that I was unconnected to it. I was able to find, in time and space, anyone I was connected to – no matter how negative the connection – but I could not find my body. It no longer had anything to do with me.
I wished I could have been at my funeral to see who was there – doesn’t everyone wonder about that? But I missed it. Somehow in the cosmic order of things, it was an event I was not permitted to attend. I tried to will myself there but couldn’t. I thought instead of Pam, my best friend and found her at home alone. She was in her living room lying on her couch in the dark, the television on but soundless. In one hand she held the remote controller and in the other a glass of wine which tipped sideways and dripped onto her wood floor. She glanced down at the puddle of red, blinked dully and wept. I stayed with her awhile, just watching until she placed the wineglass on the floor, turned her back on the television, sighed and went to sleep.
Julie’s baby was born in the early morning hours on a Sunday. I knew it was Sunday because she had begun going to Mass ever since I died. She sometimes went in the middle of the week and lit candles. I watched her pray and listened to her hopes which largely consisted of wanting me to be okay, wherever I was, and asking for the person responsible to be found. She went into labor the night before and woke up suddenly, shoving Mitch until he was awake too. I watched as she got ready. While Mitch was warming up the car, she cried for me a little and wiped her tears away before he came back in because she didn’t want him to think that she was anything other than overjoyed and excited at their baby’s impending birth. I got to watch Evan being born, and I felt it. At his first cry, I was connected to him, just as I was to Julie and to my parents, to Mitch and to Pam; to everyone I loved. I was happy.
I was drawn to my attacker almost as often as I was to people I loved. I decided that it must be because he was a pivotal part of my mortal experience. He had two girls, nine and eleven years old and a wife who seemed a little afraid of him, or at least wary. I couldn’t hear what she thought. I could only watch her if she was in his company. I could hear what he thought though, and was surprised that it was mostly mundane. He wondered about picking up dry cleaning and whether he should bring home take-out and give his wife a break from cooking. He made plans to do one more cleaning of the gutters because there had been lots of rain and the leaves were accumulating. Above all, he thought about his properties and his tenants, most of whom he disdained. His buildings were numerous and he was quite well-off, but lived modestly. He had few luxuries in his home, and seemed not to have any hobbies. He seldom thought about me at all, and when he did it was with a mild sense of shame but no real regret. He thought about me with something akin to an embarrassing episode that he was determined never to repeat. I could not tell from his thoughts whether he had murdered anyone else, nor could I tell whether he would do it again.
I sometimes thought about where I was meant to be, and why I was not gone. Time had no meaning, but still I waited for someone or something to come and get me. I was ready to see what came next, to drift off into the sweet hereafter but I did not. Instead, I hovered and I watched and I was still here.

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