Lethe

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Chapter 49

Chapter 49: Interface

My sinuses fill and sting with seawater. I tumble, unable to discern which way is up. I surface momentarily to see the cat spinning, Roddie fighting to keep it afloat. The churning sea drags me back under. Water intrudes into my lungs. I sink.

I spot a light below my feet and kick towards it. I surface to calm seas, the sky baby blue at the horizon deepening to royal overhead, no longer the pewter and cobalt of Lethe. There’s a real sun riding high, not an orb. Wavelets reflect like many-faceted mirrors.

My flesh is gone. My body is a mere boundary sketch, a field of forces outlining what was meat. I can push a bit of water with my hand but most of it swishes through me as if I were a sieve. I feel neither hot nor cold. I can only distinguish solid from liquid. I am what you call … a ghost.

One would think a ghost would be buoyant, but I plummet after drinking in the merest glimpse of that earthly sky. Viridian water closes over my head. Everything darkens as I sink and drift. I panic and grab onto a passing gelatinous strand. Big mistake. It clings and drags me back through the interface where I’m blasted by wind. It releases me and slithers from my grip like a greased snake.

I splash down, my form turned opaque. I am a Shade now, no longer a ghost, although the distinction seems moot. I feel no less numb.

The interface between living world and afterlife seems much like the film separating soap bubbles, each bubble a separate universe. No wonder so much flotsam ends up on Lethe’s beaches.

My flesh returns, a slimy film of skin at first, and then it thickens and fills with muscle and bone.

Just before a wave drags me under, I catch a glimpse of Roddie alone in the cat, sails fully open, racing from the Pounder. The other two columns have reconstituted and waiting beyond the trench. I see no sign of Sabonis.

A current sweeps me along, I fight it, but a deep drowsiness overcomes me, threatening my consciousness.

I panic at the thought of washing ashore again on those black sands. This is not the world I want, though here, at least I have flesh. I have a difficult choice to make.

When I see the light appear before my feet, it is no contest. I fill my lungs with water and duck under the surface, kicking and flailing to reach it. I break through to sunlight and again my flesh is gone. Again, I fail to stay afloat.

I kick and squirm, struggling back towards the light, but my efforts prove futile. Eventually, I abandon my effort and let the sea take me. But this time, the current tugs me away from the interface. When I sink, it is only deeper into darkness. No strands come to save me. I slip ever downward like a dead leaf.

Crap. What have I done? I’m not sure what I expected. It would have been nice of course to end up back in Cortland fully fleshed, step out of my crushed car intact, ready to pick up where I left off.

I suppose I knew in the back of my mind that things might be more complicated and less ideal—things always were—but I never expected to be sinking to the bottom of the deep, black sea.

My semi-buoyancy only extends the torture. I drift downward for what seems like hours, shifting direction as I shunt along cross-currents and sub-currents. It’s like a tangle of urban interstates down here with on-ramps and off-ramps, merges and splits.

If only I had a do-over, I would have let Lethe take me. At least there I could feel; I had some semblance, some pretense of life. Here, I am nothing but a shell. In all the days since my death, I’ve never felt deader. I wish I could just blink out of existence.

In life, deep water had always spooked me, and now here I was, floating to the bottom of the sea. I feel a panic attack coming on. If I had a heart it would be pounding. I feel no physical discomfort. How can I? I have no physique. Though my panic may be virtual, it feels no less real.

At least it’s easy with senses so numb to go blank and deny the horror of my situation. I force myself to daydream about pleasant things, meadows and warm beds and such, anything that distracts me from my disturbing new reality.

When I finally hit bottom, I don’t even notice at first. I feel no impact, just a cessation of movement. I just assume that I’ve spun out into some eddy.

I lay still, cultivating blankness, but what senses I retain eventually intrude when some creature tries to wriggle through me. I don’t even know what it is, a worm or an eel, but it is a persistent little bugger. I crawl off on what passes for hands and knees and lay back down.

I can’t help noticing that my head lies lower than my feet. I recline on a slope. It makes me wonder.

I stand and test my legs, and discover that the spongy auras that define my feet can indeed generate a physical push, even against the soft silt. So I climb uphill, hoping, at least, to find a place that the light can reach.

I take long, bounding strides like an astronaut walking on the moon. The water resists me more than a vacuum might, but no more than an atmosphere resists flesh and blood.

I plant one foot after the other and repeat, on and on, never tiring. I can go on forever, circumnavigate the globe if I want. The movement revives and inspires me. Much better than laying in the silt. A spark of hope flares in the cold embers of my despair.

Something large and amorphous flutters past. A school of fish maybe? It’s too dim to see anything.

The slope plateaus. I maintain the same vector across the flat sea bed until it begins to rise again. I climb without hesitation.

At some point I realize I am looking at ripples in the sand, criss-crossing the sea floor. My inward focus is so intense and the light has increased so gradually, I hadn’t noticed the change. The faint but clearly human footprints trailing behind me and the modest clouds of silt I raise with each step both thrill me. I exist!

The gentle slope steepens until I am climbing the equivalent of a cliff. I surmount it with no more effort than if it were level. When it plateaus, I realize this must be the continental shelf. I must be approaching land. I step up the pace and sprint across the sea bed, exhilarated.

I thread my way through beds of seaweed as the sea bed brightens and I spot the disc of the sun overhead. I follow along an unstable ledge of silt and gravel to a gap harboring a strong and murky current—a river bed.

I follow the canyon, anticipation building. The hull of a boat passes overhead, inboard propeller churning. I smile inwardly. Now I knew this had to be Earth, not Lethe.

Oyster beds and rocky reefs flank my passage. Crabs and lobsters clamber, oblivious to my presence. I find a collapse along the canyon wall and climb into the shallows.

Vertical shapes loom before me. Tree trunks? No, pilings. A whole row of them. There is a pier overhead.

Something dangles in the water before me. It looks like a centipede. It’s a sand worm baited onto a hook.

A cable stretches down to a concrete block embedded in the mud. I haul myself upward, hand over hand, easy going for someone a few hairs beyond neutral buoyancy.

I break through the water surface, relieved to be among air-breathers again. My euphoria is tempered, though, by the realization that being out of the water doesn’t feel a whole lot different than being at the bottom of the ocean. An outboard motor sounds tinny and distant even though the boat passes right beside me. The landscape looks grainy as high-speed film; colors seem faded and tinged with sepia. My sense of smell is gone.

I climb onto the pier feeling wobbly and ephemeral. If someone tied a string to me I think I might make a good kite, though stiffer gusts seem undeterred from passing through me.

From what I can tell, my shape is taller, bulkier than I had been in Lethe. I see the world again from a familiar height, as a moderately tall male, not that it matters without the flesh to prove it.

A strand of hotels and casinos stretches before me beyond a boardwalk. Big red letters on their rooftops read: Trump and Caesar’s. The place looks familiar.

I am alone on the pier but for a black man with a surf rod. A carton of bait and bucket of striped bass sit at his feet.

“Hello!” I say. My voice comes out all muffled and distorted, or is it just my hearing? It’s not like I have ears.

The man gives no indication that he even heard me. I move closer, and speak louder. “Hello!”

The man flinches. He would have stumbled off the pier if not for the rail. He looks through me and around my general vicinity but can’t seem to fix my position.

“Someone there? Someone say something?” he says.

“Can you tell me … I was wondering … where we are?” I enunciate as clearly as I can, but it sounds to me as if I’m gargling through a kazoo.

“A-A-Atlantic City,” says the man, stepping back, squinting. His eyes have found me.

I don’t wish to terrorize him any further, so I turn and walk away. This was not at all what I had in mind when Sabonis talked about going back. What good does being here do me? If Gina freaks out the way this guy did, then what was the point? Why did I bother coming back, if I can’t touch her, or hold her? I really do wish I could just blink out like a candle flame.

I glide down the pier past restaurants and gift shops overlooking a beach. Upon reaching the boardwalk, I veer across to a set of stairs that brings me down to street level.

Down some street I go, putting distance between me and the cursed ocean. It sinks in that I’ve done it. I’m really here. But my numbness annoys and distracts, prevents me from enjoying the experience. I miss the flesh I possessed in Lethe. I don’t care if it was female, it was flesh, it was human.

At Pacific Avenue I wait for the light to change before crossing, though I don’t know why I bother. Would I even notice if a truck ran me over?

A kid wearing an over-sized Cavaliers jersey walks into me, makes me stumble. He darts away and slaps at himself like he’s covered in bees, squinting at the corner where I stand. Maybe I do have to worry about trucks.

After I cross, I go out of my way to bump people, ruffle their newspapers, spill their Starbucks, just because I can, and am grateful for confirmation that I still have substance.

One woman is too engrossed in her texting to even notice my shove. Another guy frowns and shrugs me off as if I am some downdraft. An older fellow grumbles, blaming my bump on a passing stranger. Somehow, these actions fulfill me; they make me feel more connected to this world.

I have to be careful, though. Some folks do seem to notice me. They stop and stare as I bound along the sidewalk. A Westie on a leash comes up, wags its tail, sniffs my foot.

I stop at a news kiosk to read the headlines. “Sestak ousts Specter in Pennsylvania primary.” The date reads May 18, 2010. It was just as Mr. Corduroy said it would be, difficult as it was to believe at the time. Counting all the days I spent floating and roaming around Lethe, weeks should have elapsed since I passed, but instead, here I was, one day after my death.

It means I’ve gone back in time, re-entering the living world only moments after my death. It explains why Sabonis didn’t cross over with me. He died in 1999.

It also means that my funeral has yet to occur. My family and Gina are probably still in shock. My parents will be flying up from Florida. My little sister Diane will be coming up from college at Stony Brook, everyone converging on the little ranch house on Elm Street where I grew up.

Funeral arrangements are probably underway. Will they bury me in Cortland? They had better not ship me to Florida. But why would they? Our family has roots in Cortland. One set of grandparents and an uncle are buried there.

I picture Gina hunched on her sister’s sofa, inconsolable. I need to reach Cortland quick. I race down the Avenue, searching for a bus station or some way to get North in a hurry.

Tour buses pass me, carrying senior citizens to the casinos. I see city transit, but no long distance lines. I am pondering hopping into the bed of an F150 pickup truck stopped at a light when I notice a sign bearing the blue and red vectors of an Amtrak logo.

I cross a busy avenue, past a playground and spot a bunch of parallel train tacks behind a fence. I slip beneath, and leap down a concrete embankment from a height I never would have attempted in life. It’s not as if I have to worry about breaking bones.

I follow the rails to the station and slip onto an express train north, pulling myself up into the overhead rack to keep out of everybody’s way. Some lady puzzles over why her bag won’t fit when it looks like there should be plenty of space. I give her a hand and slide back to make some room.

I rest, not that I need it, nor that sleep or dreams are even possible. Hours later, we reach Penn Station, New York. Signs direct me to the Greyhound terminal. I look around for a schedule, finding a touch screen display by a counter. I’m hesitant to try it, but it works. The glass mists up where my fingers tap as I home in on the 8:20 pm bus to Syracuse, stopping in Cortland at 5:05 the next morning. A little boy with a sucker walks up and watches me, his eyes rapt.

When the bus pulls in and begins to load, I slip into the open luggage compartment. I don’t dare ride up with the passengers. There are too many kids on board and they seem to notice me. I lie back on some suitcases, comfort not an issue. The lumpier the better—it makes for more interesting pressure points, gives me something to feel.

I spend tedious hours bouncing around the pitch black compartment, trying to guess our location from stray snatches of conversation during stops and strips of light seeping through the seams of the hatch.

The luggage compartment creaks open. I peer out at slick pavement, neon puddles and a haze of drizzle. A woman gazes out the plate glass of a brightly lighted waiting area. The sign above her head reads: Binghamton. Another hour on the road and we’ll reach Cortland.

The driver drags a suitcase out of the bay and tosses in a duffel bag. He squints into the back where I recline on a garment bag, staring as if he senses something wrong. I lay still until he slams down the door.

The bus swings one way, then another around corners. Its brakes snort at light after light until we’re finally accelerating and riding smoothly on the highway again.

Water hisses off the tires. It’s raining harder out there. I am vaguely aware of a draft of cool, damp air but I don’t feel cold. There’s no hint of discomfort or pain anywhere in my form, not even in my trick knee. What I would give to shiver, to ache.

I am getting nervous about Gina. I desperately need to contact her, but have no idea how she will react to seeing me. If I just show up at her place, she might just freak. But if I texted or tweeted her in advance, would she even believe it was me? I decide not to decide, but to play things by ear.

When the bus pulls off the exit ramp, I know exactly where we are—it’s Exit 10 onto Port Watson Street off I-81. I’ve come this way a thousand times before at least. I follow every stop and turn in my head, the rattle of the bridge as we cross the Tioughnioga River, the pothole in front of the Hess station. So I know exactly when we pull up to the County Office building on Central Avenue.

The cargo door lifts. I scurry out past the driver. He leaps back, spooked, as if a suitcase has disgorged a brood of rattlesnakes.

I’m off down the sidewalks, heading straight for Gina’s place on Pendleton Street, no longer worried about discretion or finesse. I just need to see her ASAP.

My feet don’t quite splash but ripple the puddles as I go. The sky is socked in grey, stifling any hint of sun. The damn birds sing on regardless. Their levity offends me.

I pick up a Cortland Standard from someone’s driveway. Handling the rolled-up newspaper is a bit awkward, as my boneless fingers feel like they’re made of silicone. I manage to work it out the plastic sleeve and slip off the rubber band. I lay it flat, plastering its pages on the wet concrete.

MAN DIES IN FREAK STORM, says the headline.

One? Only me? How is that fair?

The entire front page is devoted to the storm. MICROBURST, NOT TORNADO, SAYS WEATHER BUREAU, says another story. Buried inside, I find my obit:

DANIEL T. TOMPKINS, 22, died May 17, 2010, in Cortland. A memorial service will be held Friday at 10 a.m. at St. Mary’s Church. Interment will follow in Cold Brook Cemetery. Friends may call on Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m. at Gray-Fallow Funeral Home. In lieu of flowers, family requests memorial contributions be provided to Cortland County Life and Rescue Squad.

I am to be buried in Cortland. That’s a relief. Calling hours are tomorrow, the funeral two days hence.

I leave the newspaper stuck open on the driveway and continue on, passing through neighborhoods that look like they’ve been bombed. A swath two blocks wide but running all the way through town seems to have taken the brunt of the micro-bursts. Much of the damage has already been cleaned up but the dismembered carcasses of giant trees still litter many lawns. Oozing stumps are all that remain of the giant elms that once shaded these streets. Blue tarps covered dents in the roofs of houses. Slabs of sidewalk tilt nearly vertical by upturned roots.

The sight stirs a memory of the sudden and crushing pressure that took my life. It happened so quickly, I am surprised I had time to register a memory. I try to take a breath, but there’s no air to be had.

I pass onto a street spared by the storm. Boughs of sugar maples overhang the walk. New leaves adorn them—floppy and unblemished, innocent and chartreuse. The lilacs are blooming late this year. I have no need for a nose, seeing them suffices to conjure their perfume.

I jog in the bouncy, jaunty way that seems natural to my new form. Coming to Route 13, I cross without bothering to break my stride, not worrying about the pulses of morning traffic beginning to rumble down its length.

Gina’s block lies just ahead. I approach with trepidation, filled with the crawly tingles that pass for stress in a ghost. I pause before her duplex, beneath the mountain ash, desiccated berries from the season before, littering the dewy grass at its base.

I walk up onto her porch. The screen door is latched. I try squeezing through the mesh, but my cheek just squeezes flat. Passing through solid objects might work in the movies, but not so much for me. So much for popular conceptions of ghosts.

I consider knocking or ringing the doorbell. But it’s not even six a.m., and Gina’s not a morning person. Besides, showing up dead on her doorstep is not the best way to introduce her to my new condition.

I walk around back, checking every casement window, finding each locked. But a dryer vent protrudes from a piece of painted plywood mounted in a window hole.

I kneel and pry at the edges with my rubbery fingers. It wiggles a bit, but I don’t have the grip I need to pull it loose. I slam my shoulder into it. No dice. I have mass, but not quite enough.

I back up into the yard beneath an apple tree in bloom, and take a running leap at the window, feet-first like a missile. The board breaks free of the trim holding it in place and collapses inward. It clangs off the top of the dryer and clatters against the basement floor.

I am inside, draped and dangling atop the dryer. Surely this sufficed to awaken the dead, but I hear no movement upstairs. Is Gina even home?

I clamber off the dryer and climb up the basement stairs. The door creaks open into the kitchen. I see flowers on the table, sympathy cards from Gina’s friends, Ziplocs with brownies and chocolate chip cookies, a teddy bear.

I step lightly around the corner to her bedroom. Stealth comes easy to those like me.

The door is open. I slip around the jamb. The bed sheets are in chaos. The poor thing’s been tossing and turning. Wait, she’s not alone.

I may not have a heart, but I discover a core that clenches as painfully as my heart ever did. Gina’s in bed with some guy I don’t recognize. His furry arm is draped over her bare torso. A condom wrapper lays crumpled on a night stand.

I am frozen to the spot by a churning combination of anger and horror and grief. I want to run. I want to do harm. I want to cry. I can’t do anything but stare.

Turns out, I can feel pain after all. I feel plenty right now. I crumple to the floor, sobbing dryly until I can’t bear being there anymore and I crawl away, back into the kitchen.

I am about to slink back into the basement, but I see a pad of sticky notes on the fridge. I pick up a pen, fisting it to keep it from falling out of my grip, but I can’t figure out what to write.

I scribble: “Bye, love DT.” Lame. It looks like the first scribblings of a three-year old. I drop the pen on the floor and flee into the basement and out the open window hole.

I run all the way back to Port Watson, wait for a Walmart truck to come barreling down, and leap in front of its bumper.
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