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Duane Swierczynski is an editor at Details magazine who lives and writes in Brooklyn. He recently sold a story to Gothic.Net.

Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-1998 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

Life During Death

by Duane Swierczynski

     This morning I did something incredibly stupid. And I already had plenty of stupid things to do today, thank you very much.
     What happened was this: I stepped out of the shower, toweled myself off as best as possible, removed a clean pair of boxer briefs from my dresser drawer, and accidentally killed myself.
     I always thought I'd know if death were approaching. I don't deny that it can happen anytime, anywhere, and to anybody -- but I figured I'd have a little foreshadowing. But no. I was minding my own business, slipping my underwear over my legs when I lost my balance, pitched forward and slammed my eye socket into the sharp edge of my bedroom dresser. Next thing I knew, I was dead.
     This didn't seem fair. I mean, tripping over my own underwear was something I must have done a dozen times before. I'm not exactly the most agile person. Once, my wife even saw it happen. Laughed her ass off. Said it was the funniest thing ever. Was that foreshadowing? Anyway, I suppose some vital portion of my brain was punctured when Mr. Dresser met Mr. Eye Socket. I'm no brain surgeon, but something must have clotted up and whammo -- cerebral hemorrhage. Perhaps I jammed some part of my brain that regulates breathing, or basic biomechanics.
     Next thing I know, there was a woman speaking to me. "Hi, Lewis," she said.
     "Hi," I said. I was standing. I didn't remember standing up. She walked closer. Smiling at me. Her face was familiar, but every time I tried to remember, the name slipped away. She reminded me, simultaneously, of every girlfriend I'd ever had. Including my wife. She was wearing clothes, but they were indeterminate as well. Stylish, though.
     "Uh," I said, a bit unnerved. "Can I help you?"
     "No," she said.
     "Are you here to usher me into the afterlife?"
     "Not particularly." She looked away from me and down to my lifeless, one-eyed body, which was lying naked on the floor. Then it hit me: I was in my astral body. My father always read books about this kind of stuff, and I'd always like to engage him in conversations about this sort of thing. It fascinated and repulsed me at the same time. I was experiencing the latter sensation at this particular moment.
     I looked at the woman. She kept staring at my lifeless nude corpse, gray boxer briefs wrapped around its ankles.
     "Is something wrong?" I asked.
     "Well," she said, "to tell you the truth, I'm puzzled. I'm not sure why you're dead."
     "I'm no brain surgeon," I said, "but I suppose something vital was punctured ...."
     "No, no. I comprehend the physical process that led to your death. I just don't know why it's still affecting you."
     Now I was irritated. "Could it be because death is permanent?" Where were the pearly gates? The white light? My grandmother, welcoming me with open arms and can of Coke and a plate of liverwurst sandwiches?
     "You don't understand, Lewis. Death has never affected you before. But I've figured it out. While you were busy thinking angry thoughts," she paused to give me a sour look, "I scanned the universe and found the culprit: a spectral emanation from a passing meteorite beyond the moon. The trail fell right through your apartment --"
     "Whoa," I said. "Slow down, sweetie."
     The woman smiled at me, like a special Ed teacher smiles at a severely mentally challenged four-year-old. "Of course, you don't understand me do you? You know nothing about your gift. The very nature of your gift erases all knowledge of its existence."
     "Some gift." I looked down at my naked dead body.
     "I suppose you might as well know, now that it's all over. You see, Lewis, you possessed a unique trio of psychic abilities: short-term time travel, telekinesis, and auto-memory erasure. Whenever you accidentally died, you'd simply go back in time a few seconds, steer yourself out of harm's way, then erase all memory of the incident. Your life would continue, as if the accidents never happened."
     "Accidents, plural? As if to imply this sort of thing happened more than once?"
     "It's happened quite a bit," she said. "You're not exactly the most ... agile person in the world. "
     "When have I died? I mean, before?"
     "Goodness ... when haven't you? Just in the past six months alone .... " She paused, taking a deep breath. "Okay. Let's see. Okay, two weeks ago you were helping your landlord carry an old air conditioner into his basement."
     I remembered that. Damned thing was heavier than an Oldsmobile, and after we were finished dragging it down into the cellar, I'd stepped into a pile of cat shit in the front garden and tracked it through the apartment. Ruined my appetite, but it was nothing life-threatening. I told the woman that.
     "Wrong. You tripped on the concrete steps and the AC unit fell on top of you, crushing your throat."
     "Really?" I gulped.
     "Yes. But you traveled back 10 seconds, changed your foot position, blanked your own memory, and finished the task with no further difficulty."
     "Except for the cat shit I stepped in."
     "Why didn't I use my gift to avoid that?"
     The woman sighed and shook her head.
     "Okay, what else?"
     "Do you really want to me to go on?" she asked.
     "Come on. I have to know."
     "Okay. Two months ago. You. A subway platform. A speeding subway car, entering the station. A really, really engrossing magazine. You look up -- pow. No more Lewis."
     "Two and a half months ago. You. Playing with one of your cats. Claw swipe. Jugular sliced. Blood jetting ten feet across the room. No more Lewis."
     "Which cat?" I demanded. "Buddy? Chickenlips?"
     "You see? And I'm just getting started!" the woman exclaimed, stifling a laugh.
     This was a lot to absorb. I'd always been aware of my basic human frailty -- I mean, such a complex machine, so many things that could go wrong. But to find out that my life was this incredibly fucking tenuous, glued together by unconscious psychic abilities? This was too much. Not to mention that my built-in safeguard didn't even work this time.
     "So what happened this time? Why couldn't I save myself?"
     "As I was saying, a spectral trail from a passing meteorite seems to have passed through your apartment, negating your psychic abilities. So you actually died this time."
     "Great. Just fucking great." The old passing meteorite trick. Gets you every time. I wondered if they were going to mention that in my obituary. ANDRESSON, LEWIS. Unconscious telekinetic time-traveler survived by loving wife, Meghan, and two cats, one of whom accidentally sliced open his throat in an erased incident two and a half months ago. Snuffed out by class-D meteorite passing the Earth's moon.
     The woman looked at me with sad eyes, then turned away. She knelt down beside my dead naked body, and touched my chest with her fingers.
     I must have stared at her, staring at me, for close to an hour. There was nothing else to do.
     Finally, I spoke up. "Isn't there anything I can do?"
     The woman looked up. "What do you mean? You're dead."
     "I mean, what I am supposed to do? I've been standing here for an hour."
     "Time has no meaning here."
     "Where is here? Look, I know I been a little delinquent in my duties as a Catholic, but I'm sure something can be worked out. I was a church organist for about four years in college, pulling two, sometimes three Masses every Sunday .... "
     The woman's head jerked up, startling me. "Quiet!" she said.
     I was quiet. The moments passed. Finally, I asked: "What?"
     Her nostrils flared, as if she were sniffing for evidence of smoke. "Shhh!"
     More moments passed. The sun set. Fields of flowers grew and wilted. The Earth shot around the Sun, again and again and again ....
     Finally, the woman sighed. "There seems to be have been a cosmic reprieve," she said. "The meteorite passed out of range before expected. Your psychic abilities will be restored in time, as it turns out."
     "You mean ... I'm going to live?" I squealed.
     "Don't worry," she said, smiling with a touch of sadness in her eyes. She stood up and reached forward to grasp my arm. "You won't remember any of th-"
     And suddenly my knee buckled, but my left leg pushed up to support it, and my body righted. I pulled my boxer briefs up over my hips. Snapped the elastic around my waist. Adjusted my crotch.
     I looked at the sharp edge of the dresser and thought, Man would that have been bad if I'd tripped.
     My wife came in from the next room. "You okay?" Her robe was open, revealing the soft curves of her breasts.
     "Fine," I said, staring. But in that instant I realized I was lying, because it all came rushing back. The death woman. My astral body. Time travel, telekinesis, auto memory loss ... .
     Oh fuck. My grasp on reality was slipping. What mad universe was this where death lurked behind every action, and the only escape was unconscious abilities no one believed in? Worse yet, that could be negated why whims of the cosmos? How could I walk through life with this hideous knowledge? How could I ever put underwear on again?
     "My God!" I screamed. I was wigging out, big time. "MY GOD, DO YOU REALIZE HOW BADLY WE ARE ALL FUCKED!?"
     Meghan rushed over to me and grabbed my shoulders. "What are you talking about? What's wrong?"
     Goodbye, sanity. Time to start barking like a dog and pissing my pants. Ack. Ack. Ninnyferg. I grabbed Meghan's shoulders and shook her soundly. "WE'RE DOOMED! DEATH SURROUNDS US! THE MIND CONTROLS EVVVVERYTHING!"
     Meghan gasped, then started to cry.
     Instantly, I froze, watching the tears form in her eyes. It killed me.
     Which must have done it, because time slid back. The scene with the woman replayed ... then erased.
     My wife came in from the next room. "You okay?" Her robe was open, revealing the soft curves of her breasts.
     "Aside from the fact that I almost killed myself?" I replied. "I'm fine."
     I shuffled forward, then yanked my boxer briefs up over my hips. I rubbed my temples. God, my mouth was pasty. I needed a can of Coke, bad. I could tell already, this was going to be one of those days. Felt like I was forgetting something important, but the more I tried to recall it, the more it slipped away. Another item lost.
     And I already had a million stupid things to do today, thank you very much.