Still as a corpse and barely breathing, I hovered between dream and reality as Sunday morning silently rose from the dead of night. A loud clatter grated across the mellow morning, sending my eyelids rolling open like a baby doll.
I slid off the lopsided mattress onto my feet and stretched. Cold air knifed up under my Walking Dead T-Shirt, sliced across my belly, over my breasts, and into my armpits. Draping the comforter around my shoulders, I peered out the window across the alley.
Our neighbor, Vic, stood hands-on-hips in front of his busted down turquoise garage staring at the darkness within. Raising a hand to his mouth, he expelled a puff of white smoke, turned and looked up at our apartment like he knew I was watching.
I grabbed a wad of my clothes, and stepped over my brother sprawled across a pallet on the floor. Head tilted back, mouth wide-open, it always looked like he was struggling to breathe when he slept.
In the bathroom, I tugged on a pair of blue jeans and slipped on clean bra under my T-shirt. I dragged a brush through my coarse hair until it didn’t creep up out of place, and eased into a hallway that stank of stale cigarettes and weed residue. I peeked in Mom’s room and found her face down, topless, flopped half-way across some guy I didn’t know. She worked two jobs to support us, but still depended on handouts from her occasional boyfriends. Between work and the guys, she spent most of her time in bed when she was home.
I peeked in Mom’s room and found her face down, topless, flopped half-way across some guy I didn’t know. She worked two jobs to support us, but still depended on handouts from her occasional boyfriends. Between work and the guys, she spent most of her time in bed when she was home.
After guzzling the last of the orange juice, I stepped outside into a pale, cool late-October morning that smelled of rotting leaves and scorched pumpkins. My hot breath rose like steam before me, and I crammed my hands in my pockets to keep them warm. I shuffled across the crumbling asphalt parking lot, and scraped through a narrow gap in the decaying wood fence into the gravel alley. The Rottweiler in the yard next to Vic’s growled, then erupted in a fit of bellowing and snarling.
A pair of dark blue mechanic’s overalls hung loose over Vic’s tall, lanky frame, and a cigarette dangled from one hand. He had short, salt and pepper hair, and his skin was caramel colored like mine. Ignoring the dog roar, he 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.”
Vic studied me through light brown, almost golden eyes like he could see a future for me that I couldn’t see for myself. I was nearly eighteen and had no plans other than leaving our east Dallas neighborhood in my dust.
“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 ‘a yours up yet?”
“Quinn? I doubt it.”
“Got a little somethin’ I could use y’alls 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 sat 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 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.”
He wandered out of the kitchen into an adjacent room. I set my plate in the sink, and followed him. In the dim light, my eyes gravitated to a dark brown oblong box lurking in the dusty shadows of his living room. The container, probably six feet in length, had a lid sloped up like a roof and was covered with rusty metal ribs lined up vertically about every six inches creating a series of panels that framed artwork.
“Vic,” I said. “What is that?”
He cleared his throat. “Uh, ’dat ‘dere be a casket.”
“Oh.” 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 sighed, and eased over to the dark box. “It’s a very old, very . . . special casket.”
His voice altered to the point I thought a completely different person had entered the room. I mean, even his accent was different, foreign or something. 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. Or maybe the yellowed bones of his dead mother.
I swallowed hard. “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.”
I stared at him. “Your what?”
“My old records. ‘Dis casket be the perfect place to store ‘em. It be water tight, 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 water tight? Insulated? No way. 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 heavy you-know-what. I was kind of a tomboy and strong for a girl, but it still felt like dragging a concrete slab through the yard.
When we got to the driveway, we had no choice but to pick the damn thing up because Vic didn’t want the “beautiful wood” to get scratched on the rough gravel. By the time we’d finally gotten the box where Vic wanted it, Quinn was wheezing and my muscles were burning.
“That thing looks like it belongs in a museum,” Quinn said, trying to catch his breath.
“’Dat be ‘de last place I’d want it, believe me,” Vic said.
All 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 stuff like that, some Asian looking, others more like Africa and still others I had no idea.
Quinn knelt to examine the side of the ancient looking box. All but one of the panels depicted different scenes. There were images of a man and woman, sometimes in full armor standing shoulder-to-shoulder spears in hand, other times in colorful outfits face-to-face like they were dancing. It was the same man in each picture, but the women varied.
“Why is this one blank?” I asked.
“That story ain’t quite finished yet?” Vic said.
He wandered off before I could ask what he was talking about. Outside, Vic shut the garage door, and secured it with a padlock.
“Now if ‘de house burn down, all ‘de ‘portant stuff out here be safe.”
I grinned. “You planning on your house burning down?”
“Hey, it happen.”
Vic 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’s 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 room, and into a bed dotted with little brown burn marks. Quinn went off to the kitchen to get him a glass of water. Vic’s 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.
“I want ‘ya ‘ta have ‘dat envelope . . . for when the time come.”
I was about to ask what he meant, but he started coughing again. He briefly held up four fingers, then brought his hand to his mouth coughing. 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 we left.
* * *
Fall settled over the neighborhood. Red 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, came home, and hung out at the apartment. The usual boring crap.
I awoke one night in the middle of the week 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 licked the dark sky and sent 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, stared at the window, and stated the obvious. “Vic’s house is on fire.”
“Really?” I said, stepping into my cross trainers.
We tumbled out of the apartment, pounded down the stairs, and 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, sparks and glowing embers raining down in the yard and on top of the old garage.
“Oh, crap,” I said. I ran up to the neighbor’s fence, but the Rottweiler met us at the back gate snarling.
I lifted the latch, and unleashed the hound from Hell into the alley at the same time Quinn and I hopped over the fence into the neighbor’s yard. I shut the gate leaving the Rottweiler on the other side in a fit of deranged howling.
The firemen focused on Vic’s house, not the worthless garage. They didn’t know about Vic’s important stuff like the casket. The heat dried my eyes, and acrid smoke burned in the back of my throat.
“Quinn, help me with the hose.”
Quinn turned on the water full blast, and I aimed a stream at the garage. The hose wasn’t long enough to get very close, and the water probably wasn’t even getting to the other side.
As if guided by an invisible force, burning debris gravitated to the garage roof. Spinning like a million fire flies, one long strand of orange particles impacted the shingles opposite where I stood. I thought any second the whole structure would go up in flames.
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 sign of Vic, not even a bone fragment as far as I could see. A cold north wind roared through the trees, lifting dead embers and sending them south toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Quinn had gone back to bed, and I was headed that way myself when I heard it.
A blast of chilly air flew up my T-shirt giving me a shiver. The Blood, Sweat, and Tears tune I’d heard in Vic’s living room echoed all around me. He’d said the name of the song, but I couldn’t remember. Then it hit me.
It was called When I Die.
* * *
Walking into a funeral home was like stepping into the afterlife. The twisted looks on people’s faces, the whispers and creepy music, the sickly sweet scent of too many flowers. In Vic’s case, there was no body so we avoided such an ordeal.
I tried to get my head around the whole idea. I mean, how does a person go from being alive to not existing in the blink of an eye? Numb, I went through the motions at school the rest of the week. Late Saturday night, I stared out the window at Vic’s dark garage remembering the last time I saw him alive.
Below the window, a couple staggered through the parking lot toward the stairs. Mom and her boyfriend were coming in early that night. I went to warn Quinn, but caught sight of the manila envelope on my dresser. Vic’s words repeated in my head.
For when the time come . . .
I picked it up, unfolded the clasps, and dumped the contents on my bed. There were two keys, one small and silver, the other old, rusted, and long as my hand. I felt around inside the envelope, and found a crumbling, yellowed paper folded in half. With the exception of two words near the top of the page, most of it was faded and illegible.
I crammed the keys in my pocket and found Quinn in the kitchen sitting at the table hunkered over his laptop, his fingers pecking frantically at the keyboard.
“Mom’s coming,” I said.
“With or without?”
Quinn shut his laptop, got up from the table, and headed to our bedroom.
“Hey,” I said. “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.”
Of course, we met Mom and random guy on the stairs.
“Wherrre . . . you, you guys goin’?” she asked, her speech slurring.
We kept moving.
“Hey, your mama’s talking to you,” the guy with her said.
I lifted my middle finger without turning, and we broke into a sprint across the parking lot.
“Where we going?” Quinn asked as we slipped between the fence slats.
“Of course. You couldn’t think of any place scarier?”
An orange street light glared down on us, our thin shadows bouncing across the alley behind Vic’s house. Cold mist chilled my face, and I stuck my free hand in my armpit for warmth.
A gust of wind rustled the branches of the pecan tree in Vic’s yard, dry branches clacking against each other like a dried up skeleton rattling. I pulled the smaller of the two keys from my pocket and inserted it into the padlock.
“What do you think happens when we die?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“What do you think I mean?”
One of Quinn’s more irritating habits was responding to a question with a question.
“I think we end. No more us, no memories, no soul, no afterlife. Nothing.”
I lifted the garage door exposing the black interior. “Well that’s just freakin’ sad.”
“That’s just the way things are,” Quinn said. “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?”
Inside, the flashlight brightened small areas but left everything else dark as a tomb. Quinn started up again, rattling on about how science was our only hope.
“Recent discoveries may hold the key to longer lives, if not virtual immortality.”
He nodded. “Unfortunately, you and I were probably born a little too early to benefit.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I’d say we’d have to live two, maybe three, more lifetimes before most of it’s perfected, and even then it’ll mainly be for rich people.”
“So we get to watch the whole thing unfold, but die before we can use it?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“Well, that sure sucks.”
My hands collected a layer of dust and grease as I felt my way toward the back of the garage. At one point, I jerked my fingers back from something unnaturally thin and brittle that turned out to be an old cicada shell.
Unseen creatures scurried off to hide in nooks and crannies at the far edges of the building. A gust of wind broadsided the building, rattling the decrepit structure and sending dust and grit raining down into my face and eyes. Quinn sneezed, and rubbed his nose on the sleeve of his jacket. Wiping my eyes, I shone the flashlight on the dark casket looming at the back of the garage.
The image of Vic holding up four fingers flashed in my mind. The only legible words on the paper in the envelope were “fourth day.” Well, it had been exactly four days since Vic’s house went up in smoke. Something was supposed to happen. I just didn’t know what.
As I pulled the oversized key from the back pocket of my jeans, it occurred to me that there might be something valuable in the casket like treasure or something. Maybe Vic wanted us to find it, sort of like an inheritance.
“Where’d you get that?”
“The envelope Vic gave me.”
“What are you—?”
I stuck the key in the slot, turned it a little, and waited in silence.
For reasons only it knew, the Rottweiler next door let loose an explosive bellow sending my heart flapping like a wild creature trying to escape my ribcage. A wave of irritation flew over me, and I decided to hell with caution and grabbed the key with both hands.
“Be careful,” Quinn said. “It’s rusty, you’ll break it.”
I leaned on it with all my weight until it gave. Something inside the casket clunked. The box shuddered and rumbled, as if its magical mechanics were coming to life.
The casket shimmered gold, steam rose from the top, and the smell of burning wood filled the garage. We were about to go up in flames, our ashes following Vic’s south to the Gulf of Mexico.
I stepped back, tripped over my own feet, and fell into a bunch of crates knocking them over into a stack of boxes. Falling like dominoes, everything crashed into the side of the garage sending the Rottweiler into hysterics.
“Let’s get out of here,” I shouted.
Quinn helped me to my feet and, banging and careening off piles of junk, we were almost to the driveway when the orange glow faded leaving the garage once again dark as a cave. A heavy thud deep in the shadows resonated through my cross trainers up my ankles all the way to the base of my skull.
I stood paralyzed.
“What are you doing?” Quinn asked.
Part of me wanted to run, but I had this feeling something waited for me in the darkness.
“Going back in,” I said
“Okay, I’ll keep watch out here.”
“I don’t debate that.”
I stepped through the mess we’d created until my light shown on the casket. Its heavy lid rested off to one side, and smoke or steam rose from the box like it was hot. I drew close, my arms tingling, butterflies in my stomach. Standing on my toes, I peered inside.
It was empty. I sank back onto my heels, my excitement decomposing into queasy disappointment. There I was thinking something really amazing, maybe even supernatural, was going to happen when I turned that key. All I’d accomplished was to get the top off some old box. No bones, no treasure. I mean, there weren’t even any “vinyls” in there.
A creak off in the corner sent a wave of electricity through me, and I jerked the flashlight in that direction. Seeing nothing but cobwebs, dusty boxes, and dark places, I chalked it up to a rat or mouse sneaking around.
I directed the light down into the box where a series of pentagrams, arrows, and other strange markings lined the inside wall. I felt a fluttering in my belly like I was standing on the high dive at the city pool waiting to jump.
I set my light down the ground and climbed inside the casket. I had to cram my hips into the space and bend my knees in order for my legs to fit. Inside smelled damp, and the wood felt soft like it was rotten.
The dark edges of the old box rose up on all sides giving me the feeling I was submerged in shallow water. On a morbid whim, I laid my arms across my chest like a corpse, wondering what it would be like, as Vic said, to be trapped in a box for all eternity.
The light dimmed, and dust particles clouded the air.
I twisted around in the casket, but I’d jammed myself into the tiny space so tight I couldn’t move. A long shadow rose over me, then crashed down over my head and chest. I slapped at the wood, trying to push it off, but accomplished nothing against the heavy mahogany. The lid slid over the casket, slowly encasing me in darkness.
“Hey,” I yelled. “I’m still in here!”
The black nothing pressed heavy against my face, and my chest tightened like someone was standing on it. My heart thudded away like a subwoofer. I wanted to scream, but couldn’t catch my breath. I was trapped. Mindless panic washed over me, and I rocked back and forth hoping to dislodge the lid, and let in air, light, life.
A clunk restored my senses, and I waited, listening. Orange light filled the casket as all the symbols around me glowed. The cold darkness yielded to white heat, and I shut my eyes to the blinding light. As the smell of scorched wood filled the box, I wondered what it felt like to be broiled like a piece of bread in a toaster.
Then it was over. The symbols faded to a dark orange-red afterglow. The box shook, a crack of light appeared, and the lid fell off onto the floor. I twisted around until I got to a seated position, then sucked in the fresh air.
“You all right?” Quinn asked, a look of desperate concern on his face.
I struggled out of the casket, and flopped out onto the ground, curse words spewing out of my mouth like raw sewage. I patted my back, searching for burns, but there were none.
I faced Quinn, energy surging through me, ready to beat the living crap out of him. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Closing the lid like that, idiot. What do you think I mean, dammit?”
“I didn’t . . .”
I balled up my fists ready to pound him, but his eyes shifted past me to the casket. He grabbed the flashlight from the ground, and aimed it behind me.
“Look,” he said.
I thought he was just trying to distract me until I turned and saw the sides of the mahogany box. The panels along the box were blank, all the artwork had disappeared.
“What happened?” I asked.
“How should I know?”
Movement deep in the shadows sent us scrambling out onto the driveway. I closed the door, locked it, and sprinted toward the fence.
“Wait up,” Quinn called.
Instead of slipping between the splintered boards, I found footholds on the rails and scaled it in two giant steps. Balanced on top of the thin slats, I looked down at Quinn, his eyes wide, mouth hanging open. Stepping backward into the thin air, I plunged toward the asphalt and landed gently in a three-point stance wondering what the hell happened to me in that casket.
* * *
A few days later, I came home from school to find a Ryder truck pulled up to Vic’s garage and the door wide open. A guy not much older than me stood 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.
“Hey ‘yaself,” he said.
God, he even sounded like 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.
“Feel like helpin’?”
“I guess,” I said.
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 just under 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.”
“The pawn shop wouldn’t give you much for it.”
“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. He strolled into the garage and I followed, the shadows deepening the further back we went. He stood before the dark box, hands folded together in front of him as if in reverence.
“I hear tell this box is old as England,” he said.
He tilted his head and feathered his fingers across the top of the box.
“I hear tell these squares tell stories . . . or at least they did.”
I thought of all the artwork, all the women, the one man. He looked at me, eyebrows raised. I felt like a deer in headlights. Did he know?
“They be twenty-four spaces that correspond to a man’s . . . or woman’s . . . lifetimes.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“I ‘magine time will tell.”
“Well,” I said. “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 ‘spose 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 ‘til ‘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 so 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 awhile, settled in California, married, and had children and grandchildren. He sent money every now and then so 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 on 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, seeping into the bed, pervading my entire apartment. 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 . . . sound . . . just . . . like . . .”
“You mean old Vic?” Quinn asked.
I nodded. Fatigue set in, and my breath faltered.
“I still have the gift he left you.”
“The . . . cask- . . . casket?”
“I’d have thought that thing belonged in a museum,” Quinn said.
“That be the last place you’d want it, believe me.”
Quinn and I both looked at him.
“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.
Senseless, nothing . . .
The backs of my eyelids glowed orange-red like molten lava. 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.
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? Was I a spirit? Finding my fingers and toes, I wiggled them. My chest throbbed, my lungs ached to expand. Blood surged 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.”
Looking around I saw we were 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.
“Well, 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. Vincent had even included some cash, and my driver’s license.
“How ‘ya feel?” Vincent asked.
“I’m starved,” I said.
They took me 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.
“When I put my sister in that box,” Quinn started, “she was a pale, shriveled up hairless, corpse.”
“It’s me, little brother. Alive again.”
“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, this is embarrassing.”
“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.
“Twenty-four lifetimes, that’s whatcha get.”
“Now what are you talking about?” Quinn asked.
“Quinn,” I said. “Do you remember all the artwork on the side of the casket?”
“Those scenes,” I looked to Vincent for confirmation, “were from Vic’s life.”
“Lives be more accurate,” he said.
Quinn shook his head, then rubbed his eyes. “Honestly, you both sound . . .”
“Delusional?” Vincent said.
“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.” I shimmied my shoulders back and forth, creating enough jiggle in my chest to make my point.
I looked at Vincent. “What I don’t understand is what happened to all the scenes of your life? The artwork?”
“You recall ‘ya first experience in ‘dat box?”
“Yeah, Quinn locked me in the damn thing, and I thought I was gonna . . .”
“Wait, that was you, wasn’t it?”
Vincent nodded. “I always wondered if there was a way to reset the box.”
“What do you mean reset?” Quinn asked.
“I ‘spected the box wouldn’t work no more, since all the panels was filled when I passed the last time.”
I remembered the single blank panel on the casket. It must have been filled after Vic died in the fire.
“If I died again though, I’d never know for sure. When you crawled in the casket, I seized upon the opportunity to, shall we say, experiment.”
“Experiment?” Quinn said, perking up. “What kind of 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.
“I have outlived everyone I’ve ever loved or even thought about lovin.’ I’ve buried so many of my own children I’ve lost count.
The truth of it be that I’m tired of living, sick of grieving, weary of watching the world go crazy and destroy itself. If it’d been me in there, there’s a chance I’d have gotten twenty-four more lives, centuries more of dealing with people’s insanity . . . if the world even last that long.”
It occurred to me then that not just anyone could use the Lazarus Box.
“More than once I placed a dear one in that box, only to find them just as dead and gone four days later.”
“Probably not smelling too good either,” Quinn said.
“God, Quinn. He’s probably talking about his own family, his kids.”
“Why me?” I asked, sniffing my underarms, checking for any lingering traces of decomposition.
“I’ve seen many young people who be capable of great things or at least somethin’ beyond they imagination, you amongst them. By the time they realize what they can do, they youth be nothing but a memory. I kept track of ‘ya, thinking someday ‘ya might need a do-over.”
* * *
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.
I lost track of Vincent, but assume he was eventually freed from the burden of living. On the other hand, Quinn and I had more in common than ever before and saw each other all the time. We’d eat dinner together at least once a week, and talk shop.
I once offered to let Quinn have the casket, but he refused. Said it was unnatural. He died in his sleep at age seventy-seven. I didn’t go to the funeral. I had no desire to see his empty shell stuffed in some gray metal box.
Losing Quinn left an aching void. Fearing the curse Vincent described, I never married, had no children, and generally avoided long-term relationships. Damned breast cancer ended my second life just as it had the first. With the help of a business partner, I lifted myself from the mahogany box four days later, went back to college, and worked my butt off researching gene editing technology. Guess who developed the cure for my type of breast cancer. In time-honored scientific tradition, I used it on myself first and lived ninety-three years my third life.
Before half the panels on the old casket were decorated with scenes from my lives, 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 Vic, I grew sick of watching the world go insane, and left planet Earth in search of new, better worlds.
Just short of four centuries after my physical birth, humans were in near complete charge of their own evolution. Coupled with the merger of man and machine, death became a mere option. I built myself a bio-cyber hybrid clone of a guy I met on a colony more than a century earlier. He monitored my health, assisted me at dying time, and was a great lover. Vincent’s curse was defeated thanks to technology.
Eventually, I no longer needed the Lazarus Box to prolong life. But, I hung onto it mainly for sentimental reasons like a dusty family Bible no one read anymore. Space was cold and full of cosmic radiation and other crap that was hard on old mahogany. So, like the lyrics to that Blood, Sweat, and Tears song, I bundled up my coffin . . . in an airtight lead-insulated antigravity container complete with Heisenberg cloaking and kept it nearby.
You know, just in case.