In the Unlikely Event of My Death
by John Van Allen
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
A few days later, I came home from school to find a Ryder truck pulled up to Vic’s garage and the door pulled up. A guy not much older than me was standing on the loading ramp, hands on hips. Lanky, tall, and caramel-skinned like me, I wondered if he was a relative of Vic’s. Maybe a grandson or nephew.
“Hey,” I said.
God, he even sounded like Old Vic.
“What’re you up to out here?”
He looked at me, his eyes golden and clear. “Who wants to know?”
I introduced myself.
“That short for Catherine?”
“Yeah, how’d you...”
I stared. He grinned. “Vincent,” he said, offering his hand, which I accepted.
“Feel like helpin’?”
He marched into the garage, and grabbed a crate. I followed, did the same and set it inside the truck.
“You a relative?”
“You could say that.”
“Thought so. You look like him.”
It took us nearly an hour, but we got all of the junk except the casket loaded into the truck.
“What’re you gonna do with all this?”
“Puttin’ most of it in storage. Probably sell some of it, though. I know some folks who move a lotta stuff like this.”
I nodded. “What about the casket? You gonna just leave it there?”
“Well now,” he said, clearing his throat, “that there’s a story. As it turn out, that casket belong to you now.”
I about choked. “What’re you talking about?”
“It willed to you.”
“What... you mean... Vic...”
He laughed. “Yeah, as in Mr. Victor Delamort left you that little artifact of history for ya own personal use.”
I’d never heard Vic’s last name before. Vincent strolled into the garage and I followed, the shadows deepening the further back we went until we stood before the dark box.
“I hear tell this box is old as England,” he said, his hands folded together in front of him as if in reverence. He tilted his head and feathered his fingers across the top of the box. Like it was an old friend.
“I got no idea what you’re talking about. And I sure got no idea what to do with a mahogany box. I mean, I can’t exactly lug it up to our apartment.”
“No, I don’t s’pose you could. But it be yours all the same.”
He cocked his head to one side. “Tell ya what, though, I’ll take care of it for now, least till ya get ya own place.”
* * *
I never left Texas, didn’t really wander far from our little neighborhood. It’s hard to find good work on just a high school diploma. I worked mostly waitressing. Unlike Mom, I managed not to get pregnant and had only myself to feed.
Quinn graduated college, and went on to get a damned doctorate in astrophysics. No shock there. He worked for NASA a while, settled in California, married, and had children and grandchildren. He sent money every now and then; I didn’t have to depend on the generosity of guys to afford a little better apartment. We Skyped some, but after a while the only contact we had were his checks in the mail and an occasional note.
Mom died of breast cancer before she was sixty, though I didn’t find out about it until months later. Her inheritance was a genetic gift I discovered when I was diagnosed with breast cancer myself at age forty-seven. Four years later, I was a chemo-shriveled shell in a hospice when I asked Quinn to come.
I felt sorry for him having to be there, suffering the stench of sickness and death oozing from my pores, soaking into the mattress, seeping into the walls. I understood when he said he couldn’t stay long, but it still felt like abandonment. I gathered my strength to speak.
“You just... gonna... stick me... in the ground... and leave.”
“You’ll be loved and remembered.”
I sucked in a wheezy gulp of air. “Rather live... and breathe.”
The nurse assistant appeared at the door. “You have another visitor.”
I had no husband, no-exes, children, or close friends, and knew of no one other than my brother who would come see me. A vague form stood in the doorway.
“Miss Catherine,” said a familiar voice.
I pushed myself up a little, and squinted until Quinn slipped my glasses over my face.
“You look... like, like... someone...”
“Do I?” he said.
My voice dipped to a mere whisper. “You... like...” Fatigue set in, and my breath faltered.
“Vincent,” he said. “I still have the gift he left you.”
“The... cask... cask—?”
“I’d have thought that thing belonged in a museum,” Quinn said.
“That be the last place you’d want it, believe me.”
“Who are you again?” Quinn asked.
“Just a relative of a friend who wanted Miss Catherine—”
“Cat,” I wheezed.
“to know she was taken care of.”
“What do you mean?” Quinn asked.
Everything else they said was just mumbles echoing through a gray mist that settled over me. The last thing I remember was the dull ache in my chest finally fading away, followed by a peaceful sense of floating above my bed, looking down at my hairless, pale, cancer-riddled shell... then nothing.
* * *
The backs of my eyelids glowed orange-red. My eyes fluttered open to find strange symbols and diagrams glowing bright yellow-white on all sides. Afraid to take a deep breath for fear of the pain I’d known for so long, I gasped in shallow, rapid pants, a sense of panic ripping through me head-to-toe. Was I... in Hell?
The bright light faded, and in the soothing darkness blossomed a sense of familiarity. I knew that place, that space. I’d been there before years earlier, crammed inside an old box terrified of being trapped there for all eternity.
Was I dead? A spirit maybe? Finding my fingers and toes, I wiggled them. My chest throbbed, my lungs ached to expand. My arteries pulsed, blood rushing through me to the point I thought I’d explode. No, I definitely had a body.
Had I been buried alive?
A streak of light tore through the darkness, and a face peered down at me, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. Quinn hadn’t abandoned me to the grave after all.
I felt a surge of energy, grabbed the sides of the wooden box, and pulled myself up. I sucked in a deep breath, enjoying a fullness in my chest I’d not felt in forever. I struggled from the grip of the casket, my legs stretching out long and powerful beneath me.
I was alive... and well.
Exhaling, I turned to see Quinn’s expression had shifted to one of horror. My exhilaration turned to alarm, then twisted into terror. Had I returned as a monster? Some kind of ghoul or zombie? Was I... one of the walking dead?
I ran my hands over my chest and back, legs and arms checking for feathers or scales or some other deformity only to find I was fine. Naked, but fine.
Ignoring my nudity, I lifted my arms over my head, tensing every muscle. I cupped my restored breasts enjoying their glorious fullness once again. I even had my coarse hair back, brown and bushy just like when I was seventeen years old.
“God, Quinn, I get raised from the dead, and all you’re worried about is I’m showing a little skin?”
“Whoever you are, that’s a lot of skin.”
“What do you mean whoever you are? It’s me, Cat.”
He swallowed hard. I looked around and saw I was in a storage unit surrounded by the same piles of boxes and crates that once cluttered Vic’s garage. A blanket fell over my shoulders, and I turned to see an older man standing behind me, looking pleased. A warm wave of embarrassment ran over my skin from the sides of my breasts down to my bare butt. Familiar golden eyes fixed on my face, taking me back many years to my old neighborhood and an old friend.
“Vic?” I asked.
“Folks call me Vincent this go-round.”
He handed me a pile of clothes. Stepping behind a stack of junk, I slipped into a pair of jeans, thrilled at how I filled them out again.
“How ya feel?” Vincent asked.
“I’m starved,” I said.
We went to a bar and grill near the storage unit where I got a greasy hamburger. Quinn and Vincent stared as I crammed a double order of French fries in my face, and polished off countless refills of Dr. Pepper. Vincent looked amused, but Quinn couldn’t shake the bewildered look.
“Would someone please tell me what’s going on?” Quinn asked.
I was fifty-one when I died, but looked ninety. No wonder he was confused. He was old enough to be the grandfather of the teenager sitting before him.
“Quinn, you saw me die, did you not?”
“Maybe,” he said. “I’m not sure what happened. Doctors make mistakes all the time. People wake up in the morgue.”
“Yeah, and I woke up in the casket looking... like this.”
“A little DNA testing should do the trick,” he said.
“Or,” I said, “you remember that time I found you in the bathtub with your—”
“Stop,” he said.
“I said stop, for God’s sake. I’m a middle-aged man, I’ve got grandchildren.”
“Yeah, it was as I recall. But what a great memory.”
“Okay, okay. I don’t know how, by what medical miracle, but I acknowledge you are my sister, Catherine.”
Vincent referred to the old casket as the Lazarus Box. “You recall ya first experience in dat box?”
“Yeah, Quinn locked me in the damn thing, and I thought I was gonna...”
A grin spread slowly across his face.
“Wait, that was you?”
Vincent nodded. “I always wondered if there be a way to reset the box.”
“What do you mean ‘reset’?” Quinn asked.
“When you crawled in the casket, I seized upon the opportunity to, shall we say, experiment. See if the curse of the box could be transferred to another person.”
“What do you mean... curse?” I asked.
“Oh, believe me, dat box be cursed.”
“How so?” Quinn asked.
“The truth of it be I’m tired of living, sick of grieving, weary of watching the world go crazy and destroy itself. Centuries more of dealing with people’s insanity... if the world even last that long.”
It was then I realized not just anyone could use the Lazarus Box.
“Why me?” I asked, sniffing my underarms, checking for any lingering traces of decomposition.
“To be honest, you were convenient.”
“You couldn’t have just burned the thing?”
“I didn’t say it was all bad. The first few resurrections was nice.”
* * *
I lost track of Vincent, but I assume he was eventually freed from the burden of living. I followed Quinn out to California, where he introduced me as his niece. Yep, in my second life I became my own freaking imaginary daughter.
Quinn helped me create and document a new identity and, four years later, environmental engineering degree in hand, I had my first non-waitressing job ever. It was physical, hands-on work cleaning up, basically terraforming, environmental waste sites.
Quinn and I had more in common than ever before and saw each other all the time. One of the last conversations we had was about how science held the key to immortality. But he’d said there was a downside, and it had nothing to do with a curse.
“All those discoveries won’t be implemented for decades and even then it’ll mainly be for rich people.”
“You’ll die before you can use it?”
“Maybe we could share the casket,” I said.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t relish the thought of outliving my kids and grandkids. Let me sleep on it.”
He did, several times. Until he died in his sleep at age seventy-seven. I skipped his funeral. Seeing his empty shell stuffed in some metal box would have only heightened the sting of... the curse.
* * *
Each time I rose from the dead, I moved to a new place, keeping my knowledge and skills, but taking on a different name and starting an entirely new life. I pretended I had no history until I believed it myself. I never married but had many lovers and a few friends. My lives were mainly centered around work, and they left me empty at times. More than once I stood next to the box with a can of kerosene and a lighter. But I never could bring myself to do it.
Technology advanced, and I created a bio-cyber hybrid clone of my brother, called him Quinn, and told him all about his namesake. By the time I was on my tenth life, humans learned to travel to the edge of our solar system in a day, the nearest habitable planet in a few weeks, and into the void beyond our galaxy in just a few years. Like Vincent, I grew sick of watching the world go insane, and Quinn II and I left planet Earth in search of new, better worlds.
Technology advanced and rendered the Lazarus Box as obsolete as it looked. There was no curse if everyone lived forever and, by the time I was on my fourteenth life, I finally had children. After nearly a thousand years I have not outlived any of them.
But I’ve hung onto the Box anyway for sentimental reasons like a dusty family Bible no one reads anymore. Space is cold and full of cosmic radiation and other crap that’s hard on old mahogany. So, like the lyrics to that Blood, Sweat, and Tears song, “I’ll just bundle up my coffin” in an airtight, lead-insulated antigravity container complete with Heisenberg cloaking and keep it nearby.
You know, in the unlikely event of my death.
Copyright © 2018 by John Van Allen