In the Unlikely Event of My Death
by John Van Allen
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Resurrection could be a real pain in the ass.
So said my old friend, Vincent. He said most people would probably feel blessed if they got raised from the dead the first time. But lifting yourself from the grave multiple times? Turned out it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Vincent even called it a curse.
This tale began just a few short centuries ago, when people drove gasoline cars, smoked tobacco, died of their diseases, and believed in God. It was a fall day that smelled of rotting leaves and scorched pumpkins.
Sunday morning silently rose from the dead of night and spread over east Dallas. Still in bed, I lay still as a corpse hovering between dream and reality until a loud clatter lifted me from the shallow grave of sleep.
I slid off the lumpy mattress, stood and stretched, life returning to my body. Cold air knifed up under my Walking Dead T-Shirt, sliced across my belly and into my armpits. Through sleep-swollen eyes, I peered out the window.
Old Vic, our neighbor across the alley, was standing hands-on-hips in front of his busted-down turquoise garage, staring at the darkness within. Hand-to-mouth, he expelled a puff of white smoke, then looked up at our apartment window as if he knew I was watching.
I grabbed a wad of my clothes and stepped over my brother, Quinn, asleep on a blanket on the floor. Head tilted back, mouth wide-open, he always seemed to be struggling to breathe when he slept.
Across the hall in the bathroom, the yellowed linoleum crackling under my feet, and a blend of mildew and bug spray gave me an instant headache. I tugged on a pair of blue jeans, slipped on a clean bra under my T-shirt, and dragged a brush through my coarse hair until it didn’t creep up out of place.
I peeked in Mom’s room and saw her flopped halfway across some stranger. She worked two jobs to support us but still depended on handouts from her boyfriends. Between work and the guys, she spent most of her time in bed when she was home.
In the kitchen, I guzzled the last of the orange juice, trying to wash away the stale cigarette smoke and weed residue that was burning the back of my throat. Easing quietly out of the apartment, I tiptoed down the concrete steps to the crumbling asphalt parking lot.
My breath rose like steam before me, and chilly air soaked through my fingers to the bone. I scraped through a narrow gap in the decaying wood fence and stumbled into the oily, gravel alley. Cramming my hands in my pockets, I ambled over to where Old Vic stood in front of his garage, his cigarette dangling from one hand.
The Rottweiler in the yard next to Vic’s growled, then erupted in a fit of bellowing and snarling. Ignoring the dog’s roar, Vic flashed me a grin. “Miss Catherine, glad to see you up and about this fine Saturday morning.”
“Cat,” I corrected. “What’re you doing banging around out here? You’re gonna wake the dead.”
A pair of dark blue mechanic’s overalls hung loose over Vic’s lanky, almost skeletal frame, and short, salt and pepper hair spread in patches over his head. He studied me through light brown, almost golden eyes.
“Miss Catherine, what’d I tell you ’bout invokin’ de name of de dead solely for ya own entertainment?”
“You never said a word about invokin’ nothin’... and it’s Cat.”
He took a puff of his cigarette, coughed and spat out phlegm and smoke. Vic had something like a three-pack-a-day unfiltered Camel habit. I mean, the guy smoked like he didn’t care whether he lived or died.
“Seriously, what are you doing?” I asked.
“Just clearin’ some space. Dat brother o’ yours up yet? Got a little somethin’ I could use y’all’s help with. If it’s hard to get him up, tell him dey be food.”
I grinned out of the side of my mouth. “I wouldn’t worry about him getting up.”
* * *
Twenty minutes or so later, we were sitting around the table in Vic’s kitchen eating pancakes with real butter and maple syrup while sausages sizzled in a cast iron pan on the stove, filling the kitchen with greasy smoke that brought memories of a time when our mom cooked. Quinn rubbed his side.
“Stomachache?” Vic asked.
Quinn frowned in my direction. “She poked me... repeatedly.”
“You pretended you didn’t hear me.”
“Why is it always physical with you?”
“Eat up,” Vic said. “Ya gonna need ya energy.”
Vic wandered out of the kitchen into an adjacent room. I set my plate in the sink, and followed. In the dim light, my eyes gravitated to a dark brown oblong box lurking in the gloomy shadows of the room. The container, probably six feet in length, had a lid sloped up like a roof and was lined with rusty metal ribs about every six inches.
“Vic,” I said, “what is that?”
“Oh,” he said, then cleared his throat. “Uh, dat dere be a casket.”
Of course, like a lot of people had caskets in their house. You know, just in case.
“That doesn’t look like any casket I’ve ever seen before.”
He eased over to the dark box, stood up straighter, and laid his hand on it. “It’s a very old, very... special casket.”
He feathered his fingers across the wood like it was an old friend, and I got to thinking it actually was an old friend, you know, inside the casket.
I swallowed hard, and moved back a step or two from both Vic and the dark box.
“So... what’s a casket doing in your living room?”
He blinked a few times, then lightly tapped the lid. “Dis here where I keep my old vinyl collection.”
He sounded like Old Vic again. I stared at him. “Your what?”
“My old records. Dis casket be the perfect place to store ’em. It be watertight, and it insulate pretty good and keep most of de heat and cold out.”
That box looked, like, centuries old. It had a keyhole big enough my finger could fit in, so it was probably locked. But watertight? Insulated? Musty, mildewed and rotten seemed more likely.
Vic moved away from the casket over to another mysterious piece of furniture. “Dis here what dey call a stereo console,” he said. “And dis be a LP.”
He held up a round, black disk about a foot in diameter with a little hole in the middle, then placed it on a silver spindle.
“Blood, Sweat, and Tears,” he said.
He picked up this little arm thing, and placed it on the spinning disk. A moment later a harmonica played a short little tune, rising and falling, then a male singer declared how he wasn’t scared of dying and didn’t really care.
Quinn joined us from the kitchen. “Cheerful lyrics.”
When the song was over, Vic had us lug the casket out to the garage. Turned out mahogany was some shit. I was kind of a tomboy and strong for a girl, but moving that casket felt like carrying a concrete slab through the yard. By the time we’d finally gotten the box where Vic wanted it, Quinn was wheezing and my arms and legs were burning.
“That thing looks like it belongs in a museum,” Quinn said, reaching for his inhaler.
“Dat be de last place I’d want it, believe me.”
Around us lay paintings in ornate frames, a couple of golden candelabras, ivory figurines, painted clay pottery, rolled-up rugs with fancy tassels, and a bunch of scrolls. The whole garage was packed with old, foreign-looking stuff like that.
Outside, Vic shut the garage door, and secured it with a padlock. He lit up another Camel, took a long drag and exhaled white smoke that rose into the treetops. “Don’t get de wrong idea ’bout dat casket in dere,” he said, clearing his throat. “I don’t aim to be trapped in no box for all eternity, even if it pure mahogany like dat ’un.”
He flicked his cigarette and watched a little breeze take the ashes. “When I’m gone,” he said, “I prefer my body be burned. Let de wind take my remains and scatter ’em.”
He barely got the words out before a coughing fit doubled him over. When he wiped his mouth with a handkerchief, there was blood on it. “I just tired,” he said. “A little rest be all I need.”
We helped him inside to his dingy bedroom, and onto a mattress dotted with little brown burn marks. Quinn went off to the kitchen to get him a glass of water, leaving me alone with Vic in a room that smelled of stale cigarettes and sickness. His boney arm fell to the side gesturing at the nightstand.
“Open dat drawer,” he whispered.
I tugged on the top drawer, but it was stuck like it hadn’t been opened in years. Finally, something cracked, and it budged.
“Take dat envelope.”
Inside the drawer, under a few bottles of expired cough medicine lay a manila envelope, crinkled and greasy from probably decades of handling. I unfolded the clasps of the envelope, and saw inside there were two keys, one small and silver, the other old, rusted, and long as my hand.
“You’ll know what ta do with, with...” He gagged on the words, cleared his throat, and swallowed a mass of phlegm before finishing his sentence. “When the time come.”
He started coughing and I couldn’t understand him. He briefly held up four fingers, his golden eyes seeming to ask if I understood. I had no idea what he was trying to say, but nodded just to make him feel better.
I went to see what happened to Quinn and the water, but by the time we returned Vic was dead asleep. I set the water glass on the bedside table next to an ashtray loaded with butts, grabbed the heavy envelope, and left.
* * *
Fall settled over the neighborhood. Gardens withered and died, leaves faded to brown, then dropped to the ground, collected along curbs, and were crushed into a slick pulp by passing cars and trash trucks.
We went to school, hung out at the apartment or the library. I looked for Vic sometimes, but he hadn’t been outside in a while. We managed to avoid Mom and her boyfriends so well I wondered if she even remembered having kids.
I awoke one night to the blare of sirens, and found our bedroom orange as a Halloween jack-o-lantern. I hopped out of bed, and looked across the alley. Flames from Vic’s house were licking the dark sky and sending sparks floating into the tall pecan tree in his yard.
“Quinn,” I called.
“Please,” he whined, “just let me sleep.”
I kicked him.
“What is wrong with...?” He sat up and stared at the window. “Vic’s house is on fire.”
“Really?” I said, stepping into my cross trainers.
We scraped through the fence slats into the alley just as a second fire truck arrived. Vic’s house looked like hell, smoke billowing into the heavens. The firemen focused on Vic’s house, not the worthless garage. They didn’t know about Vic’s important stuff like the casket.
The Rottweiler met us at the back gate of the neighbor’s fence, snarling. Lifting the latch, I unleashed the hound from Hell into the alley at the same time Quinn and I hopped over the fence into the neighbor’s yard and shut the gate.
Leaving the Rottweiler in a fit of deranged howling, I grabbed the neighbor’s hose and Quinn turned on the water full blast. I aimed a stream at the garage, but the hose wasn’t very long and the water barely reached one side.
The heat dried my eyes, and acrid smoke burned the back of my throat. As if guided by an invisible force, burning debris gravitated to the garage roof. Spinning like a million fireflies, one long strand of orange particles impacted the shingles.
Miraculously, the garage didn’t catch fire but, in the purple light of dawn, all that remained of Vic’s house was smoke, ash, and a few charred wood pillars. There was no trace of Vic, not even a bone fragment.
A cold north wind roared through the trees, picking up dead embers and sending them south toward the Gulf of Mexico. I watched the ashes scatter, and a blast of chilly air flew up my T-shirt, giving me a shiver.
Vic had gotten his wish.
* * *
The following Saturday night, I was sitting at the kitchen table opposite Quinn. He was hunkered over his laptop, his fingers pecking frantically at the keyboard, electronic gunfire erupting from tiny speakers.
“What do you think happens when we die?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” he asked, not lifting his head.
One of Quinn’s more irritating habits was responding to a question with a question.
“What do you think I mean?”
“I think we end. No more us, no memories, no soul, no afterlife.” An explosion roared from his computer. “Nothing.”
I stared at the table, shaking my head. “That’s just freakin’ sad.”
“That’s just the way things are,” Quinn said, pausing to look up. “Life’s a fragile anomaly, not even a blip on the universal radar. On the other hand, death, as in non-life, is the dominant force, the natural, normal state, the overwhelming dark matter of the universe.”
“God, Quinn,” I said, “how do you get up in the morning?”
“Science,” he said. “It’s our only real hope.”
I stared out the living room window at the ruins of Old Vic’s place. Leaving Quinn to his game, I went to my bedroom dresser and found the old envelope.
For when the time come...
I still had no clue what he was talking about. I dumped out the keys on my bed, and stared at them. The small one looked like it was for a padlock, maybe the one on the garage. The other looked like it belonged to something very old, like the old casket we’d lugged out of Vic’s living room.
I heard laughter outside, and went over to the window. Down in the parking lot, a couple was staggering toward the stairs. Mom and her boyfriend of the day were coming in early, presumably for an evening of grunting and moaning. I crammed the keys in my pocket, and went to warn Quinn.
“Mom’s coming,” I said.
“With or without?”
“What do you think?”
Quinn shut his laptop, got up from the table, and made for our bedroom. I decided there was no time like the present to figure out where to use those keys.
“Hey,” I said, before he’d gotten too far, “let’s get out of here.”
“Do you know what time it is?”
It was close to midnight. “A little adventure in the real world isn’t gonna hurt you.”
“That’s the only place it will hurt me.”
We met Mom and Random Guy on the stairs.
“Heyyy... guys,” she said. “Wherrre... you, you... goin’?”
We kept moving.
“Hey, your mama’s talking to you,” Random Guy said.
Without turning, I lifted my middle finger, jumped the rest of the way to the base of the stairs, and broke into a sprint across the parking lot.
“Wait up!” Quinn called.
I was slipping between the fence slats when he caught up, breathing hard. “Where we going?” he asked.
“Of course,” he said, coughing. “You couldn’t think of any place scarier?”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by John Van Allen