Carl stood in the bathroom gazing at himself in the mirror. He turned his head to one side, then to the other. He appeared older, he noticed wrinkles and grey hairs where there was none before. He took a deep breath and exhaled in disappointment. Shit, he mumbled under his breath, stretching the newly discovered wrinkles out with his fingers. He had his fortieth birthday two days before, and like many aging men, he began to reaccess his life and where it was going. When he was younger, he’d always envisioned himself better off than he now found himself. He pictured himself financially secure with a better position at his job. Perhaps by now, he’d be a foreman, leading his own crew and making a hell of a lot more money. Instead, he found himself severely in debt and holding the same position he had five years ago. Newer and younger men had come in and passed him up in rank, regardless of how unqualified they were. He felt hopeless; the aging thing didn’t make it any better.
“You alright hon?” Beth said, peering into the door from the hallway.
“Yeah,” Carl said. “Just have a lot on my mind, that’s all.” He did his best to hide what he truly felt.
“Come to bed, a good night’s rest will do you tons of good.”
“I will,” he said. “I’ll be right in, I’m just gonna brush my teeth.” She smiled at him and walked away.
He stood there for a long time, looking at himself, almost expecting for the image in the mirror to rescue him by giving him some secret remedy. But his reflection looked almost more confused than his actual self. Thanks for nothing, he told himself, reaching for the toothpaste. He brushed hard, the bristles cutting deep into his gums. Blood splattered on the sink as he rinsed, the stinging between his teeth lingering for a long time. He gave himself one more glance before switching the light off and retiring to bed.
He laid on his back, staring up at the speckled ceiling, Beth was deep in her sleep. A grown man shouldn’t cry, at least that’s what his father used to say to him. But Carl couldn’t help but feel the tears rising and settling on the edges of his eyelids. He had never felt like such a failure as he did that night. Eventually, his eyes grew heavy, and he drifted off to sleep.
“Carl!” Beth cried out. “Carl, wake up!” He felt her nudging him firmly on his arm.
Carl attempted to speak, but nothing came out. He tried opening his eyes, then attempted to sit up, but he couldn’t move. Beth! He cried out within himself, I can’t move, Beth, help me!
He heard Beth begin to cry, then the sound of the phone dialing. “Please,” she cried out. “I need an ambulance, my husband is unresponsive, and I can’t wake him up!”
I’m right here Beth, right here! What’s going on, please help me!
“twenty-five seventy-three Cleveland Road,” she continued. “Please hurry, I don’t know what to do.” The phone hung up, and she nudged him some more. He didn’t budge.
Carl tried to move with all his might, groaning and yelling within himself but was unable to break out of his paralysis. A fear unlike any other he had ever felt in his life set in and began to plead and beg for deliverance.
“Don’t be afraid,” a voice called out from the darkness. Carl went silent trying to pinpoint and identify the source of where the voice came from.
“Who is that?” Carl said. “Please, help me, I can’t move!”
“You can’t move because you’re doing all wrong!” the voice said. “You’re trying to move with your body, you can’t move your body no more. Don’t feel bad, we all get it wrong the first time.”
“Please, I’m so scared, help me up, I beg you!”
The voice laughed out loud. “Friend, all you have to do is open your eyes!”
“I’m trying, but I can’t!”
“No!” the voice corrected him. “Not your physical eyes, open your eyes!”
Carl remained silent for a moment, then almost instinctively, opened his eyes. The room was no longer dark, but bright with a haze to it. He observed Beth looking out the window, anticipating the ambulance to turn the corner. He felt his body finally give way and begin to move. Immediately he sat up and called out to her.
“Beth, sweetheart, I’m right here! I’m okay now.”
Beth ignored him, her full focus remained out the window.
“Beth?” he said. “I’m okay now, come to me.”
“She can’t hear you,” the voice said. Carl turned towards its direction. A man dressed in a black suit sat on a chair against the wall, arms crossed, a smirk on his face. They locked eyes with one another.
“Surprise, you’re dead!”
Carl jumped up and away from the bed, his back was now against the wall, opposite the stranger. He looked over at Beth and called out to her, attempting to grab her by the arm, but his grasp went right through her.
“Weird isn’t it?” the voice said. “I know, you’ll get used to it.”
“Who are you?” Carl said. “What are you doing here?”
The voice let out another chuckle. “I’m supposed to be here Carl, I’ve been waiting for you a couple of days now.” He rose and walked around the bed over to him. “You’ll need some time to realize what exactly is going on, so please, do what you have to do. I’ll be out in the living room when you’re ready.”
The man exited the room into the hallway whistling a tune. Carl watched as he disappeared into the living room. His attention went back to Beth, she was leaning over the bed comforting Carl’s lifeless body spread out on the mattress. Carl Stood there befuddled. He approached her slowly, the view of himself laying on the bed came into sight. He rested his hand on her shoulder, but it went right through her. He pulled it back quickly.
“Please wake up, baby,” she whispered to him. “Don’t you leave me here all alone!” She broke down and sobbed, her head resting on his chest.
“I’m here Beth!” he told her. “I won’t leave you, I promise.”
She rose and walked over to the window looking for any sign of an ambulance – she saw none. Carl made his way into the hallway and into the living room, where the man said he would be. He found him sitting on the couch, his feet up on the coffee table, popping peanuts into his mouth from a bowl he had left out earlier. Carl did not understand any of it.
“What’s going on?” he said. The man turned around and gave him his attention.
“You’re dead,” the man replied, popping another peanut into his mouth.
“You’re eating,” Carl said. “Are you dead as well?”
“As a doorknob,” he said. “Oh, this?” He gestured at the handful of peanuts in his hand. “Just a cool trick one learns after a while of doing what he does. Don’t worry, I’m not actually eating them, in fact, they aren’t the real thing. Existence on this side is boggling even to those who have been here a while.”
“I don’t feel dead.”
“Trust me, Carlton, you are very dead.” He rose from the couch and walked over to him. Carl retreated as he approached. “Come now,” he said. “I don’t bite! Besides, you best to get used to me, we’re gonna be attached to each other for a while.”
“No!” Carl said. “I don’t want you near me. Just tell me how to wake up and be on your way.”
“Sorry Carl,” the man said. “I’m afraid you ain’t got a choice in the matter. None of us do.” He tossed the last of the peanuts in his mouth and dusted his hands of their residue. Carl observed him as he did it. “Come, sit.” He gestured Carl over to the couch. “I’ll lay it out for you as best I can.”
They sat staring at one another, silent and awkward.
“If your dead,” Carl finally said. “How are you sitting and eating?”
“What? Were you expecting a ghost?” He wiggled his fingers, mocking ghostly sounds at him. “I ain’t no ghost pal, well, not in the sense humans think.”
“Then what are you?”
“Spirit, just like you.” He sat up on the edge of his seat. “See, you see a body on me, and you’d be correct, that exactly what it is. Only it’s not made of flesh and bone. Those are fake bodies, you just haven’t realized it yet. Our real bodies are, well, spirit.” Carl looked at him even more confused.
“Look, dude,” The man continued. “When we were humans, we had a small glimpse of what the afterlife was like, but we didn’t know the half of it. Humans are a selfish, greedy, deceitful bunch. Making their own truth up as they go along. They refuse to believe in the unexplained, and always will because it’s just how they are. I can’t blame them, however, ain’t nobody ever crossed over to see for themselves, so I guess assumptions is all they have.”
“So now what?” Carl said, impatiently. “What happens now?”
“You mean heaven? Hell?” He smirked and let out a laugh.
“What’s so funny? Are those things not real or something?”
“Oh, they’re real,” the man said. “But we’ll cross that line when we get to it. For now, its best to process this whole life and death thing, get it out of your system before we head out.”
“Head out? I told you, I’m not going anywhere.” He stood up defensively.
“Carl,” The man said. “You can hang out here for a thousand years, you won’t be able to crawl back into that body. Trust me, what’s done is done, there’s no going back. Besides, you’re missing the point, life on that side has nothing on this side. You just can’t see it, it’s understandable.
“I don’t care how life is on this side, I don’t want it, you understand me?” He walked over to the hallway. “I want that life!” He pointed down towards the bedroom where Beth was. “And I ain’t leaving her, not for you, not for anyone or anything!”
“You don’t know what you’re saying, your body is still in shock.” He stood and tried to usher him back towards his seat.
Carl jerked away from him. “Don’t touch me! You stay away from me, you hear me?”
The man sighed. “Are we really doing this? You are dead – get that through that soul of yours! There’s something better waiting for you down at the end of the tunnel, there’s a happy ending, after all, get it? Now please, go in there, say your goodbyes, and let’s go. We have a long trip ahead of us.”
“No!” Carl stood his ground. “I’m not going anywhere with you. You can’t make me, I won’t let you!”
The man’s patience started to wear thin. He threw his hands up, walking away from him. “You’re right, I can’t make you. No one can. If you really wish to stay here, that’s the way it’s gonna be. Those are the rules, and they can’t be broken. But I warn you, it might seem like the reasonable and logical thing to do now, but I promise you it gets old quick. And once I’m gone, I’m gone! There ain’t no calling me back.”
“Good!” Carl said. “I heard what you said, and I choose to stay, so please, leave us alone!”
“I’m trying to help you, Carl, come and see what I have to show you. You won’t regret it.”
“Leave us alone!” He turned and stormed down the hall into the room. The man stood and watched him disappear. A knock sounded on the door, EMT’s called out to Beth. She ran out of the room and towards the door, opening it and letting them in.
“Quick!” she said. “In the room, hurry please!” She led them into where Carl’s body was.
Inside the room, EMT’s where trying to revive Carl, performing mouth to mouth resuscitation as one of them charged the defibrillator. Carl stood amongst them, watching it all unfold.
“Last chance Carl,” The man said, standing next to him. Carl stood still and silent for a long time.
“Go. Leave us alone.” He walked over to where Beth was and placed his hand on top of hers.
The man sighed from all his failed attempts. He turned and exited the room, never to return.
Carl looked over towards the doorway and observed his absence. He turned his focus back to the scene in front of him, uncertain of what lay before him.