|Image by Sven-Steffen Arndt via Wikimedia Commons|
Author Note: This story is the first chapter of a novel.
I was surprised to wake up in the bathtub because I only took showers. Events would overshadow this first fact of the day, and its significance would only come back to me later. I found myself fully dressed in my only suit, the one that served for weddings, interviews, and funerals. The wedding ring I had buried at the back of a dresser drawer fit loosely on my left hand and an old watch was strapped around my wrist. At least I was dry.
I tried remembering my last thoughts before waking, but everything seemed far away. I wasn’t even sure if I had gone to bed the night before. Was I dreaming? I didn’t think so. Hallucinating? Not likely. I lived a pretty clean life: no drugs, no meat, and hardly ever alcohol. What time was it? My watch said 10:10. Where was my phone?
I got up and stomped my foot farther into my shoe. It wasn’t tied with my slip-proof knot, just a normal shoe knot that I had abandoned at the age of 12. And as I moved around, my underwear was slightly twisted and there were sock wrinkles trapped under my feet. I looked in the mirror, expecting to see a moustache, kitty whiskers, or profanity drawn on with marker. My face was unblemished, apart from the hooked nose that I could blame on no one but my parents. My hair wasn’t even mussed, and the circles under my eyes from too many nights at the office had faded. I had to admit that I looked better than I had in months. I winked at myself in the mirror and opened the bathroom door.
I stumbled and scraped my knuckles on the doorjamb. The cat at my feet had long grey and black fur, and was the size of a small dog. It rolled to its back and looked up at me.
“Darius?” I said. This wasn’t right. Darius had died of leukemia, and was buried in the back yard.
“About that,” he said to me, “I have always been Stormchaser-Prime, Handsome-above-others, Spiderbane, but I suppose that was too much for you to handle. I’ve always felt that ‘Darius’ didn’t do me justice.” He licked a paw and ran it over an ear. “There, I feel better now. How are you, Roy?”
“Confused,” I said. “You’ve been dead ten years.”
“Understandable,” he said. “Transistions are always difficult at first, but you are doing remarkably well so far. Most monads spend their first moments wailing and carrying on.”
“From Leibniz, seventeenth-going-on-eighteenth century philosopher, though he didn’t get it quite right on his first attempt.” He stared at me. Several seconds went by before he blew out a breath and rolled to his feet. “Very well, call it a spirit or a soul. Welcome to the afterlife, Roy. You died a week ago.”
“But I’m an atheist.”
Darius flicked his tail. “And I’m Buddhist. I guess we we’re both disappointed.”
I should have been having a tougher time with the situation, but something in me accepted it. I said as much to Darius.
“Eventually, every monad comes around. Some quicker than others, though a few stubborn ones are still holding out. That cat that you replaced me with for example.”
“Rocky? You knew about him?” I had taken in the stray a few months after Darius had died. Unfortunately, Rocky had a habit of breaking for the front door whenever I opened it. One time I couldn’t get my foot wedged in his path and he made it out onto the street, right in the path of a passing pickup truck. I buried him next to Darius.
Darius sighed. “Yes, that one. Otherwise known as Fearsome Emptybelly the Swift. Catholic, did you know? He’s wandering around convinced that this is all purgatory and we need only to repent enough to find a door to Heaven.”
“How do you know he’s wrong?”
Darius smiled in some cat-way that didn’t expose his teeth. “Come along, Roy. We need to go see a man about a pyramid.”
Darius led me through my house, as empty as the day I moved in. If I concentrated, I could sense the presence of furniture, though maybe that was just my imagination or old memories. The windows looked out onto one of those cloudy days of autumn, a time after the trees had lost their leaves and the grass had turned brown. Darius led me to the glass patio door and looked up at me.
“Do you want out?” I said, out of reflex.
Darius sniffed. “I can leave anytime I want. The question is, can you?” He sat on his haunches and flicked his tail. “Go ahead and try.”
I placed my hand on the door latch. It wiggled, but wouldn’t turn.
“You have to want to leave,” Darius said.
“It’s jammed or something,” I said. I locked and unlocked the door, thinking it might be the latch, but the handle still wouldn’t turn.
“Oh well,” Darius said, and walked through the closed door. His body passed through without breaking stride or dislodging a single hair of his coat. He sat on the other side and licked at the fur on his chest.
I rattled the door, leaning with all my weight.
“There’s not really a door there, you know,” Darius said in a voice unmuffled by the glass between us. “Once you accept that, you can manipulate it all you want.” He seemed to be laughing at me.
Okay, I thought, there’s no door. Maybe that’s why the latch wouldn’t work. If that cat can walk though, so can I. I took a step back, then closed my eyes and rushed forward. My head connected with the glass with a sound like a muffled gong. Light and pain blossomed in my head, followed by another crack to the back of my skull as I hit the floor. I got up, and probed at the painful areas with my fingers, half expecting them to come away bloody from a split cranium. Darius was laughing openly now, rolling on his back from side to side.
“I give it a 9.5,” he said.
I cared for that cat for ten years and cried for him like I never did my mother. “You miserable varmint!” I spat. I stood and aimed a kick at the door. My foot sailed through the glass and pulled me with it, past the jamb and onto the patio. Darius scampered out of the way and into the back yard. I fell on my deceased tuchus, and let out a pitiful moan.
“You see?” Darius said. “You can do it, just don’t think so much. Come on, let’s go.”
At the edge of the yard, the world seemed to end in a fog but for a shadowy portal. Darius walked though it without looking back, and like an idiot, I followed him.
There’s probably a word that exactly captures that feeling you get when you’re tipping back in a chair and almost go over backwards, but then catch yourself at the last minute. Whatever that word is, that is what it felt like as I went through the portal. On the other side, my home had disappeared and Darius was waiting for me on a sidewalk in front of a two-pump gas station. In the dusty window, a WWII-era bomber on a tin sign advertised the availability of Victory! motor oil.
Darius trotted past the pumps, which if the dials were to be believed would dispense gasoline at five cents a gallon. I pulled my eyes away in time to see Darius walk through the door as he had back at the house, heedless of the CLOSED sign hung on its middle. I could see an indistinct figure on the other side of the dusty glass, standing behind a counter. Perhaps out of habit, and perhaps to save myself embarrassment, I pulled on the door’s handle rather than trying to ghost my way through it.
A bell rang above my head as I entered, and dust fell in my hair. Darius and the figure behind the counter looked at each other for a second, and Darius let out a sigh.
“Do not over-worry, Stormchaser-Prime,” the figure said to Darius, “I required decades before mastering the nuances of afterdeath.” It turned to me a raised a hand. “Salutations, Roy, Caregiver-of-Stormchaser-Prime, Handsome-above-others, Spiderbane. I am called Scarab, and I welcome you to my humble dwelling.”
Scarab stood about as high as my shoulder, and I was never a tall man. He seemed thin, unnaturally thin, if that word applied in this place. Bald-headed, and sporting a narrow pointed beard, Scarab dressed in a threadbare tunic that hung over a chest that seemed to cave inwards. His dark skin had an ashen cast, but his eyes were bright and regarded me as a pawnbroker might a watch.
“So, Stormchaser-Prime, might I inspect what you have brought me? Is he coming or going?” Scarab asked my cat. Darius flopped on the floor and thumped his tail.
“Just an assessment for now, Scarab,” Darius said. Scarab nodded and came from behind the counter holding several tuning forks between his knuckles.
I took a step back. “Darius?” I asked.
“Don’t be a baby, Roy,” the cat said. “Scarab here isn’t going to hurt you. He’s just going to see how much you’re worth in the afterlife.”
“How much I’m worth?”
Scarab nodded and held up a tuning fork. “May I?” I shrugged and reluctantly nodded. He knelt and began holding the tuning forks to my right knee in succession. “We all of us come to this place with the things our bodies were interned with, from the poor of the Potter’s Fields to the wealthy Vikings with their glorious boats, or the Emperors of China with sprawling palaces on the hill.” He moved on to my left knee.
“So what’s that got to do with what you’re doing?”
“In this place, like in the living world, there are things monads want that they do not possess. One can trade the items they happen to have, or use an alternate form of currency.” He brought his tools to bear on my right wrist, each tuning fork making contact for the briefest of moments before another took its place.
“And that currency is?” I asked.
“Time,” Scarab said, and moved to my other wrist. I looked at Darius.
“He’s kidding,” I said.
“Not at all,” Darius said. “This place isn’t the end-all of existence, all monads have a finite time before they are compelled to move on.”
“Heaven, hell, the next incarnation, who knows? The upshot is that some monads want to take a shortcut, while others choose to delay. We buy and sell that time. Scarab is my broker.” Scarab smiled as he put a tuning fork on my forehead.
“I’m being appraised?”
Darius sighed. “Think of it as an inventory of your assets. Don’t worry, as your agent, I’ll get you the best value for your trades.” He licked his stomach fur then added, “Minus my commission, of course.”
I didn’t know which was more confusing: the concept of an after-afterlife or that I was being represented by my former pet. I was about to object to Darius’ self-appointment when Scarab put a tuning fork over my heart. A sound like a gong erupted, and Scarab stumbled.
“Imhotep’s nipples!” Scarab squinted at the fork. “Revenge!”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“You mean you didn’t know?” Scarab smiled and set his tools on the counter. “You were murdered.”
For the second time that day, I just stood, numb. Scarab put a hand on my shoulder.
“You are a restless soul, fellow monad. You have the potential to manifest in the living world to extract your revenge. Very valuable. I’ll give you five hundred years for it.”
Darius leapt to the counter. “A thousand years, six months, and a week,” he said.
Scarab threw up his hands and looked to the ceiling. “Is he going to hire a professional renevant? I doubt he was that important. I could go as high as six hundred and five days.”
Darius hissed. “Says the man who spent two thousand years sending his mummy on an overnight trip through the British Field Museum. Eight hundred and three quarters.”
Scarab pointed a finger in Darius’ face. “I lost my fortune when they took me out of my tomb! Ten million years’ worth if it was a day! That’s why I can’t do any better than seven fifty and a weekend, I’m not a charity.”
“It wasn’t your tomb! It belonged to your pharaoh!”
“I designed it, and the ungrateful jackal had me killed to keep its secrets. I earned that treasure the hard way!”
I walked out of the shop and sat on the curb. It took Darius five minutes to notice. He rubbed his head against my knee.
“What’s wrong, Roy? I talked him up to 780 years, five months, and six days. That’s a good deal.”
I looked down at him. “I woke up in a bathtub this morning. Someone killed me, and I want to know why.”
“Are you sure? You’re already dead. Forgive, forget, and make a helluva profit. Living well is the best revenge, they say.”
I shook my head. “Living well? Are you serious?”
Darius sneezed. “I never could figure you out Roy. Maybe that was part of your charm.”
I scratched him behind his ear. “I want to know why. Will you help me?”
Darius walked away and stopped when he was out of reach. “Fine. Though if you ask me, you’re making a mistake.”
I smiled. “I made a lot of mistakes throughout life, why stop now?”