“Are you alright Frank?” The voice behind him asked.
Behind him was (of course) a very relative term, more like a guess. In front and behind, as indicators of direction become incredibly relative when you are lying on your face and the pain in your jaw is racing through to the rest of your head like a runaway freight train. The masked outlaws had killed the train operator, unhinged the trailers and the locomotive was now steaming ahead at full speed toward the canyon at the end of the line.
God, in his head Frank could even feel the vibrations and the clackety clack of the train’s wheels charging over its splintered wooden tracks.
I’m vibrating, I’m having a fit. Frank thought.
The fist which merged with his face had by all reasonable accounts come out of nowhere, and yet he had known it was coming. It had connected perfectly – like Ali upper cutting a tall, untrained toddler (in Frank’s mind, everything could be compared to the Great Butterfly somehow wrecking something) – to the spot between where his meagre, patch-stubbled jaw line ended and the first of his three chins started. Frank had seen punches like this before. One of his favourite pastimes was scanning the internet for videos to make time go by faster. Bully underestimates victim and boxer defends girlfriend from thugs were amongst his favourites. He loved the way the punchee’s eyes rolled back a split second after contact. He would sit in front of his laptop imagining a chiselled, fit version of himself standing up to some injustice and landing the perfect punch – the intruder/mugger/would be rapist’s eyes rolling back and maybe a tooth or two gliding through the air in slow motion.
“Frank, get up” The voice insisted.
“Yes, kind stranger. This is not my first rodeo…all shall be well” Said Frank as he got himself up using his arms, his legs still feeling limp. He lifted himself into a downward-facing-dog position and proceeded to perform clumsy push-ups.
“All shall be well? Frank…focus!” The stranger’s voice was adopting an irritated tone now. Frank had still not looked up to see the face of this (kind) stranger. He continued his queer exercise routine, going down ‘till his chin touched the concrete, ass in the air and counting out every time his arms straightened.
“You’re too fat to reach six, and you seem to be drawing a crowd. Now stop making a scene and get the fuck up. I am here about the question you posted. About your…your incident.”
Frank’s sanity returned and he got to his knees. Those words had sent shivers up him. Goose flesh covered his arms in an instant. He looked up, his eyes struggling to focus. The lights above the entrance to Joey’s Lounge were behind the stranger and all Frank could make out was a dark blurry silhouette. A hand reached out and he grabbed it. The stranger’s strength pulled his considerable frame up as is if he was a toddler – training level irrelevant. As he reached the upright position - facing the stranger - Frank’s left knee buckled, nearly bringing him down, but the stranger’s arms were beneath his armpits in a flash, holding him upright. Their faces almost touched.
“Might I know the name of my saviour?” Frank asked, and realized his voice sounded muffled and mumbling. Mental clarity was slowly returning to him, but he still sounded like a damn fool, at least that’s the way it was in his own ears.
Was I doing push-ups?
“Martin…and yes” the stranger answered, showing no sign of whether or not he also thought Frank sounded idiotic.
“Yes what? Push-ups?” Did I say that or think it?
“Doesn’t matter big guy, let’s get going.”
Frank had required nearly an hour to fully recover, assisted no doubt in some small part by the half-full mug of black coffee in front of him. He did not recall ordering it, nor did he remember arriving at this place. He was in a small room, seated in a booth with red seats curving around in a U-shape, the sort of seating arrangement one would find in a fifties diner…except his current location was no fifties diner. The air was dank, smoke lay thick against the low roof and more floated upward from pipes and hookahs at half a dozen tables scattered around the room. The red brick walls surrounding him on three sides were decorated with photographs of rock and metal bands…the classics. There was one of Black Sabbath, another depicting Mick Jagger seemingly making love to one of his trademark scarf bound mic stands while serenading a crowd of at least thirty thousand at a stadium-like venue. One was of Kiss – make-up black & white – Simmons’ tongue protruding from his mouth further than any human’s should.
The fourth wall was behind the bar. Wooden shelves mounted on it displayed whiskeys, brandies, vodkas and all manner of liqueurs. Between the shelves was a mirror, surrounded by rounded fat light bulbs, emitting a faded yellow light – the kind of bulbs one might expect to see framing some starlet’s mirror, backstage in a dressing room at a Broadway theatre. The mirror seemed to have an unnatural depth, or to be concave, and everything it reflected appeared to be bending to an unseen force at its centre, somehow being swallowed by it.
Frank found his own mind being lured in by it but his attention was soon yanked back by Martin’s voice.
“You believe you died” the man stated, staring at him without so much as a hint of what he was thinking. Frank felt like a captured witness in a KGB film - tied to a chair with a flashlight pointed at his face, blinding him, and behind him a giant fan slowly rotating.
“Tell me how many times.” The interrogation continued…“Have you surpassed seven? Are you blinking normally? The lights…are the lights around you changing yet?”
“No…I…no. What? Blinking? Died…no, I am here” Frank was stuttering now. Gasping for air. His hands were fumbling around in his pockets. Where the hell is my inhaler?
Frank, silence! You don’t have asthma. You do not, nor have you ever owned an inhaler. You will now answer my questions.
Three instructions; clear, concise and probing. But probing for what?
“What the fuck!?” Frank’s voice was quivering as he half screamed, half exhaled the curse.
This is in my head, HE is in my head.
“Compose yourself, and do NOT bleat like that again. You are once again drawing unwanted attention to us, and the barman…” Martin’s eyes motioned toward the bar, “The barman will not need much convincing to toss the likes of you out of his establishment. You have the look of a clumsy, undersexed frat boy, and your undoubtedly well-deserved bruise is starting to blacken.”
What is this? Frank tried to compose himself – as instructed.
It had happened a few weeks ago.
Frank had been at his dad’s good whiskey – home alone and five doubles down – when he felt his stomach calling for a top-up. Big boy needed food. Man hungry. Man eat. Frank sat up in the recliner and set his laptop aside on the seat beside him. He had been watching videos again.
Stumbling to the kitchen, he passed through the dining room in the dark and crashed into the enormous dining table. The crash knocked over the elaborately flowered glass vase his father had given Moira as a wedding present, and it went rolling toward the edge of the table. Frank did not move, he simply stood staring at the vase as it rolled closer to an impending fall. All he could do was think of how this monster of a dining table must not have been leveled correctly if the vase was so easily rolling to one side. The vase made a slight turn and rolled over the edge. It went tumbling to the tiled floor, and upon impact, shattered. Glass went shooting in all directions.
“Shit.” Frank whispered to himself.
He paid the accident and the possible repercussions no mind and continued his journey to the kitchen. As he walked he realized his feet had been cut by shards of fine glass strewn across the dining room, and he was leaving bloody footprints behind. The alcohol must have numbed his senses because he felt nothing. He would clean it later.
Man brave. Man need… What did man need?
Man need ham, mustard and cheese. Man need a plate upon which to place said delicacies. Plate is in top cupboard’s top shelf. Man is short and round. Man will climb onto counter in order to reach top cupboard’s top shelf.
Frank lifted his right leg like a dog preparing to mark a tree. He placed his knee on the counter and raised an arm to grab hold of said cupboard’s doorknob. Propelling himself upward with his grounded leg, he pulled on the doorknob in his left hand to further help his cause. The plan seemed to be working, but as his formerly grounded leg approached the counter top, his right slipped off. The full weight of Frank’s body went hurling toward the floor and the right side of his head collided with the edge of the granite counter.
“Frank! What in god’s na…”
A woman screamed and it pierced his ears. Everything was muffled. His eyes opened and he looked toward his father’s voice. He realized he was on his back in the kitchen. His father was running through the dining room – glass crushing under his shoes as he approached the kitchen.
“Moira! Call an ambulance, NOW!” His father sounded scared, panicked. His father had never sounded either of those in Frank’s presence.
“FRANK! Don’t move my boy, don’t move.” His father was crying as he knelt over him. His hands were shaking and covered in blood from where he had run his fingers softly through Frank’s hair, careful not to move his head.
Frank heard the sirens approaching down the street, and remembered being lifted into the ambulance. He squinted his eyes so as to see through the red opaque curtain that was blocking them. It must be blood. He saw a human figure - surely his father - sitting in the corner of the ambulance as it sped toward the hospital. The figure was motionless, but it was facing him. A woman was kneeling over him asking him if he could hear her. He tried to nod but he knew that the rocking motion of his head was none of his doing.
Where are my thumbs, where are my hands for that matter? I can’t feel anything.
Frank heard the siren overhead. He heard intermittent beeps. Then Frank heard a long beep.
What? NO!!! He thought, screaming in his own head.
Darkness engulfed him and the last thing he heard was a single word, and he would have sworn it was spoken by the figure in the corner:
Frank woke up as sunlight was creeping through the venetian blinds in the television room, streaming light into his eyes. He sat up and surveyed the area around him. His laptop had slid off his lap and fallen to the floor. He jolted down onto his knees to recover it, hoping that no damage had been done to it. Once he was sure his precious plaything was undamaged, he raised his head, and his eye caught something which made him freeze.
He was looking past the recliner in the direction of the kitchen, through the dining room. There was glass on the tiled floor scattered in all directions. He looked down at his knees, right then left. His hand went up to his right brow and he felt the bump, sensitive to his touch.
“No…fucking…way.” Frank said, sounding like a bullfrog, his throat clogged up with mucus. “It can’t…where?…but the ambulance?”
Frank heard the metal on metal scraping of a key entering the gigantic front door’s slot, and his head spun around. The door opened and his father entered the room, followed by Moira. Frank’s father was a former army Colonel, and his frame was what was to be expected from a fifty-five-year-old former drill yard instructor; His handlebar mustache graying from age, his face solemn and strong, and his eyes grey and unforgiving.
Moira was a short skinny shrew, always wearing a pair of stilettos to make herself appear of a respectable height. She was wearing a thick faux-fur coat – Colonel Smith would never spend his hard earned money on real fur. She came to sudden halt as she entered the room. She screamed. It was the ear piercing scream from Frank’s dream, and hearing it again sent chills through him.
“My vase!” the scream died down long enough to utter the words, then continued.
“Bloody hells woman,” Frank bellowed, “My ears!”
Frank had hardly finished his plea for silence when there was a strong hand grasping his shirt collar. His father’s strength half pushed, half lifted him forward in the direction of the dining room.
How is this happening? Frank thought. I died…didn’t I?
The next few hours were a combination of shouting (his father’s), crying (Moira’s) and begging (all three of them, but for different things). By the end of it the decision had been made, and Frank would have a week to “vacate the premises” …his father’s words. Moira had suggested – after calming down – that as a student, he needed his own place and his father – now also calm – had agreed, if only to save his new marriage. They would be paying half his rent and giving him a substantial food allowance to get by on. It was up to him to find a place and make all the necessary arrangements. After all the terms were agreed upon, Frank offered – overwhelmed by guilt more than a desire to do the right thing - to help sweep up the well-scattered remains of the vase, but his offer was refused and he was ordered to his room.
As he sat at his desk - laptop undamaged and open in front of him - he attempted to recollect the details of not one, but two versions of the previous night. He was torn between feeling scared or embarrassed. In one version he died in an ambulance on the way to Westside Medical Centre – yet how he knew the name of the hospital the ambulance was heading to was another mystery – and in the other version he had simply knocked his head on a counter and woken up with a ringer of a headache. In both versions he had destroyed his stepmother’s prized possession and would no longer be staying in the Smith Mansion.
I died, and…didn’t.
He logged on to his favourite forum – Freeyourmind.com - a site dedicated to the darker side of life, where thousands of ‘believers’ could exchange theories, opinions and recollections of the strange and unexplained. Frank felt at home here. Any subject was accepted, and one could always find someone willing to agree or collaborate, no matter how far out your concept might be. This was the perfect place to find out what the hell had happened to him.
Good Day the post read…
Fellow purveyors of the unknown. I require your assistance
I fell, and fell still further. I knew my end and met my designer
At my end he uttered a single word; unum
Alas, no after was found, and the true only continued
Now I sit with the remembrance of a passing which both was and was not
Has such been known by another amongst us, or is it folly to be whilst not being?
The forum had none but one rule: all questions relating to or referring to the afterlife shall be presented in ‘old timey rhymey’. Who was Frank to deny the wishes of his overlords? Rules were rules, and to be completely honest, he kind of liked this one. He was a geek out of his closet, and proud of it.
Martin was staring at him, still awaiting answers…
“Yes…I believed that I died three weeks ago, but time has cleared my mind and I know better now.” Frank sounded convincing, even to himself.
“You speak shit; tell me of what your designer said. Tell me of…Unum”.
At the sound of the word Frank tensed up. He remembered it now. It was all flooding back into his memory and he was feeling trapped. He saw the red curtain over his eyes, he smelled the disinfectant of the ambulance, the woman was there again asking him questions he had no way of answering. He remembered the dark figure sitting in the corner. He heard the word being spoken, but it was not muffled or unclear in any of the ways it had been that evening with the noise of medical apparatus surrounding him. It was clear now, whispered into his ear by as he sat in the booth facing Martin.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood upright and he heard the over-moistened lips speak the word.
Martin was staring at him, muttering something. His eyes were open wider than Frank had seen them all night, and a single tear ran down the side of his nose.
“Martin, tell me please.” Frank said, his voice soft as if speaking to a frightened child. “Tell me what happened to me…please.”
Martin’s eyes jerked and met Frank’s.
“This means we can get to him. We can get to him before he turns he always returns to during the lifetime of his new host and has not made contact in eighty years.” Martin was rubbing the index finger and thumb of his left hand together. Frank saw this but took no notice.
“Who…who is he?”
The rubbing continued and Martin started muttering again.
“Martin, talk…don’t you start making a scene, that’s my job.” Frank giggled nervously, not meaning to but unable to stop.
“Unum, unum, unum. It is the first contact. You are marked. He is back and this time I will not let him slip though my fingers.” Martin whispered in a tone that was starting to make Frank feel even more tense than he had upon remembering the word.
What have you gotten yourself into Frank, He asked himself.
His eyes returned once again to the fingers rubbing together, now so fast that they were starting to blur. Frank noticed - with equal parts horror and amazement - a small wisp of blue smoke rising from between them. He reached forward and grabbed Martin’s wrist, not noticing the burning heat of the man’s skin.
“Tell me who the fuck he is! I thought it was my father sitting in the corner of the ambulance, but it was him wasn’t it?” Frank shouted, now rising out of his seat, but whether out of fear or terror, he did not know.
Martin looked straight at him, and his fingers stopped moving. He directed his gaze at them and then back up at Frank. Frank uttered a scream as the heat of Martin’s skin against his fingers caught up with him. He yanked his hand away and looked at Martin, his eyes urging the man to answer his question.
Martin said one word…