I never imagined my own death. Why would I? I was thirty-six years old. I had years left, or so I thought. I changed my mind about that when I woke up in the morgue. The dead body…my dead body laid out in front of me, provided a good indication that I no longer needed to draw breath. My eyes were open, and I could almost imagine I was staring at myself. Yet I struggled to look away from the shell I used to inhabit. My eyes wandered from my bruised face to the red mark on my neck, as if I was punched and strangled.
I closed my eyes. Maybe this would be gone when I opened them again. I’d have a laugh at the weird dream I had about being beside myself in the morgue. A brief memory popped into my head, hands gripping my arms, then the image faded. I opened my eyes to find my corpse wasn’t gone though. It seemed to be taunting me for thinking I could make it not real.
“Did somebody do this to me?” I asked my dead self, only to receive no response. She just laid still. I wondered if all dead people looked like…well…like they had been scared to death I suppose.
I watched enough crime shows to recognise the signs of a murder. I recalled those same crime shows. Copying what they did seemed like my best option. The first step was to examine the victim. I took a deep breath, although no air went in or out of my body, but the action remained the same. I twisted my head from side to side. I stretched my arms like someone preparing for a boxing match or an intense workout session might do. It helped to imagine I was looking for clues about what happened to a fictitious character. If I stopped to dwell on the reality of my death, I might have panicked. It also helped to have no recollection of the circumstances leading up to my death. I remembered my family and Paul.
“Paul,” I heard myself say. I felt a warm and familiar smile appear on my face, the same smile that formed on my lips whenever I thought of him. It faded a second later. Would I ever see him again? How would he learn where I was or what happened to me? Would he be upset? Okay, that last question seemed like a stupid one. He was bound to be upset. I imagined the state I’d be in if the situation was reversed. Devastated didn’t cover it.
A small rumbling sound jolted me out of my thoughts. It couldn’t be my stomach. Ghosts don’t get hungry. I looked at the wall as a silver lift door materialised out of the brickwork. I took another glance at my body, only then did I become aware of the slash starting at my right breast and ending at my stomach. Someone had cut me; I really was murdered. I knew I wasn’t suicidal — but even if I had been — I ruled out the chances being able to cut myself open that much without passing out before I finished.
The lift pinged and the door opened. I walked no more than ten steps, only stopping to glance back at my remains when I was standing next to the open lift. My corpse looked much further away than it should have been.
I don’t remember stepping inside, but I found myself in the lift. Some people might have chosen to step back out, but the buttons caught my attention. Instead of the usual ground floor, first floor etc; one arrow pointed up and another pointed down. I tried them both, but nothing happened. Then I spotted a circle. It was lit up and I hesitated before pressing it.
I closed my eyes as light flooded the small space. The doors clicked shut, then jerked forward, instead of moving up or down.
When I looked again, I was stood at the gates of my old primary school. I always believed the gates of Heaven would resemble those gates. They were big and golden, almost shining in the sunlight. I was shorter. I could tell I had shrunk in height by how much closer to the ground I was.
“Ouch,” I yelped in a much younger voice as someone pulled my hair and ran off. I realised I was around the age of seven again. I remembered the scene as I yelled, “Paul.”
Chasing after the boy brought back memories of how this ended. I tried to get my legs to stop running, but I had no control over my younger body while I chased the seven-year-old version of Paul around the playground. My mum arrived to collect me, like the first time this happened.
“Why does Paul always pull my hair?” I asked, despite remembering my mother’s answer.
“Maybe he likes you,” she suggested.
“Boys are weird,” I announced.
“Sarah, you’re so smart. It took me twenty-five years to figure that out,” my mum joked.
Without warning, my surroundings disintegrated, then reformed around me. I remembered the new scene. It was the following day. I ran up to Paul before school started, and handed over half of my chocolate bar.
“My mum says you like me. That’s okay,” I told him. “I like you too.” I leant forward and kissed his cheek.
“Urgh, gross!” he exclaimed, rubbing at his entire face as though it would spread. “I don’t like you,” he yelled, then scurried away. A teacher found me sobbing on the playground tarmac when I was supposed to be in class.
The playground evaporated, and I was in the lift again, moving backwards this time. The door opened. I found myself outside a morgue and at the right height again. The lift vanished, but the people walking and driving past didn’t react as though they had seen anything unusual. That’s when I spotted him heading towards me. If my heart still worked, it would have sped up.
“Paul,” I cried out as he walked away from the morgue. “Paul!”
This was the Paul of the present day. As I caught up with him in the nearby car park, I noticed he looked tired and his eyes were red from crying, I found myself hoping those tears were over me.
“Please,” I begged, “you have to be able to see me or least sense that I’m here.” All our years together should mean we shared a connection which would tell him I was still around. How could he not sense me? I reached out to touch his arm, my hand passing through without so much as a shudder from him. “Please,” I whispered.
“Hi,” he said, although it sounded more like a sigh and he didn't sound happy or surprised.
“Oh, thank God,” I gasped, not caring about his lack of enthusiasm. I’d snap at him later. For the moment, it was enough for me that he realised I was still with him. I knew we had a strong connection. There was no reason he shouldn’t pick up on my spirit still hanging around.
“Is she inside?” I heard my mother’s voice from behind me.
It struck me, Paul was talking to her, not me. I wanted to cry, except it turned out I couldn't do that anymore either.
“Yes, but you shouldn’t go in. She’s not how you remember…” Paul began.
“I want to see her, I admit it’s been a while because…never mind. She’s still my daughter,” my mother insisted, dabbing her eyes.
I leaned closer to check for any actual tears. It wouldn’t be the first time she pretended to cry.
I felt a pull, taking me to somewhere else, but tried to stand my ground.
“No,” I demanded. “I need to know,” but the magnetism was too strong, yanking me away from the street into what felt like nothingness.
I became trapped in darkness, maybe for days. Time spread out like the dreams I used to have of endless corridors that went on and on, never leading anywhere. I had to close my eyes because my mind started playing tricks on me, making me believe I saw movement in the dark. At first it was just shadows, then my eyes created the visible outline of a woman, curvy with long hair and someone else. I couldn't make out who either of them were or determine the gender of the second person. I only knew that I didn't want to watch, because something bad was about to happen to the woman.
When I dared to open my eyes the darkness lingered, but I knew I was in my bedroom. I could just make out Paul lying there in the middle of the bed we used to share. It reminded me of the times I used to get up and read books on my tablet as he slept. Occasionally, I’d glance up from the vintage reading chair and perceive his outline asleep on the bed.
My comfort at seeing the familiar sight quickly turned to annoyance at him for taking over my side of the bed. I didn't need sleep anymore. His actions still seemed so careless. Shouldn’t he be putting my favourite item of clothing over a pillow and falling asleep with his arms around it, maybe while crying? I didn't want him to suffer. It didn’t seem like he had just lost his fiancée though. I took a step forward to have a closer inspection. Although his eyes stayed shut, I guessed he was awake. I could always tell. He spent all his time thinking, except when he slept. That’s the only time he ever looked peaceful. I saw that he appeared to be far from peaceful so close-up. His eyes twitched, and his mouth hung open as if he wanted to call out for help. Maybe he was asleep after all. He was having a nightmare, but I experienced a twinge of relief.
“Paul.” I knelt by the bed and whispered his name.
He didn’t hear me. As my eyes adjusted, I noticed the damp on his cheeks. I felt a rush of guilt over my earlier thoughts and longed to wipe his tears away, then soothe him by rubbing his back the way he used to like.
“How long have I been gone?” I asked.
Again, no answer. Even before I spoke, I understood that my words were wasted on him. I needed to listen to my own voice, if only to confirm I was still there, even if I wasn’t all there.
“That’s it,” I thought out loud. “I’m just crazy and I’m in a psychiatric ward.”
Although, I knew deep down that as crazy as everything seemed, it was all real.
“Paul,” I said again. I cried without actual tears once more, which made me feel worse and like I had turned into my mother. “I don’t understand why this happened. None of this makes sense.”
I reached out my hand to touch his face, but he didn’t react. Could he really feel nothing when my hand passed through into his jaw? I snatched my hand back, freaked out by the unnatural sight. Horror movies never struck a chord with me. Crime drama maybe, but not make-believe monsters or ghosts. Of course, I understood by that point, ghosts do exist. Monsters, I’m not so sure about, other than the human variety.
I had no sense of time to determine how long I stayed crouched by the side of the bed, before the familiar droning of the alarm broke the silence. I never understood how anyone ever believed the awful noise might be a good way to start their day.
Paul dragged himself out of bed to get on with his day. I always told him he worked too hard. He was the type of guy who would wheel himself into work with two broken legs unless somebody stopped him. Who would stop him from pushing himself too hard now?
“Now is not the time to be strong,” I called out after him as he went into the bathroom. I admit I was a bit riled at him for going into work at a time like this. I mean, I died. Didn’t that grant him some time off? I assumed it to be his way of coping, by trying to get things back to normal.
Ten minutes later he left for work.
“Bye then,” I called out as he ambled out of the door. By now I’d given up on him ever seeing or hearing me, but it presented itself as a better alternative to saying nothing.
I wondered if I should go after him. If not, what should I do all day while he was at work?
I thought of my mum and sister. I hadn’t seen my mum since that night outside the morgue, however long ago that was. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d seen my sister, or my final words to her. I decided to check in on my mother.