I died on a Thursday, if I recall correctly. I could easily blame it on the weather, but it was a nice sunny day, not too bright, not too cold, and I just wasn’t paying attention. I just HAD to see who texted me… a telemarketing text. When I looked up, I was already into oncoming traffic. The last thing I remember seeing with my physical eyes was the word “Freightliner”, I heard a squeal of rubber on asphalt and then the flash.
I opened my eyes to see nothing but pavement. I stood up, dusted myself off and turned back to witness a grizzly scene. The entire front of my car was compacted, crushed by the massive frame of the semi that I collided with. I surveyed the damage and, I still shudder to this day when I saw myself. I was barely recognizable. Blood everywhere, bones protruding through skin, limbs mangled, I felt like I was going to throw up. But then I heard a voice behind me and I knew exactly who it was.
“Michael Aaron Kozlowski?” The voice was deep but not intimidating, not as fearful as I had imagined all these years and from all the movies I had seen. I turned around to see him. There was no robe, no scythe, just a skeleton in a plain black suit and overcoat studying a clipboard and checking his pocket watch. He looked up at me.
“Mr. Kozlowski, am I correct?” the vacuous sockets of his skull had the expression of weariness and employee burnout.
“Yeah, that’s me.” I responded.
“Good. For a moment, I thought I got lost on the way. You’d be surprised how many Michael Kozlowski’s there are in the world.” He was very matter of fact, not this hulking foreboding figure that I was expecting. My curiosity got the better of me. I walked from the wreckage and approached him.
“Wait a minute. If you’re death then where’s all the… the…” I lost my words for a moment, but he was happy to assist.
“The robe and sickle.” As he chuckled, his bones rattled under the suit. “Can I call you Mike?”
“Sure, that’s what everyone else called me.”
“Mike, name one person you know, aside from religious folk that wear robes nowadays?”
“You got a point. So… ” I lost my words again, but was quick to find them “..so how does this work?”
“How does what work?”
“Y’know.. the whole death thing?”
“Oh.. OH.” he chuckled again “…almost forgot to do my job again.” He quickly switched his focus back to his clipboard and flipped through several papers.
“Ah, here we are. Michael Aaron Kozlowski..” he trailed off in an indiscernible mumble for a moment and then rose back to audible clarity
“…age 41…” I watched as his boney finger traced the information on the page, from line to line and section to section.
“…died July 27, Two Thousand….” I knew what day it was, but I guess he had to go through all of the particulars as part of his duty.
“…sudden fracture of the skull, succumbed to multiple internal injuries, hemorrhaging, blunt trauma, collapsed lung, DAMN… that was a nasty one, wasn’t it?” I grimly nodded, trying to be as patient as possible.
“…survived by Kathryn Avery, wife, and Jacob Thomas, son…”
“OH SHIT!” He stopped his read-through of his documentation and looked up at me.
“I completely forgot about Katie and Jake”
“Well, you’ve been through quite a lot in the past 3 weeks.”
“Well I know but… wait a minute. Three weeks?”
“Yeah, the general processing and admittance takes about 4-6 weeks. We’ve been standing here for three.”
“Yeah, I know. Only seemed like a few hours?”
“..I was going to say minutes, but… really? Three weeks?” He held up his pocket watch, pressed a tiny button on the side which allowed the cover to swing open and reveal the beautiful antique face. The face seemed to be normal, except there were many more numbers than the standard twelve.
“Time moves much slower in the afterlife, Mike.”
“How many numb…”
“Are you serious?” I smirked as if he were playing a joke on me.
“Douglas Adams had it right.” He said as he closed the watch pack up and placed it back in his left breast pocket. “Now where were we?”
“I was remembering my wife and son.”
“Oh yeah. What about them?”
“Well, if I figure it correctly, I’m a ghost right now, right?”
“Technically, but..” He turned up his clipboard to show me the lavender sheet of paper with his orders on it, “…I’ve got orders. Says here that..” He trailed off again, running through the items in another section of the paperwork, “…you’ve been pretty much of a good egg. Helped others when they needed it. Diligent worker, Loving Husband and father. You’re getting your wings, Mike.”
“Wait.. I’m going to be an angel?”
“What?! HA!” He snorted out a laugh. I didn’t even know a skeleton could snort “… no no no. That’s just a phrase we use to say that you’re going upstairs, and not… well, y’know.”
“Well that’s a relief, but…”
“Well, do I have to go now?”
“Mike, where else are you going to go?”
“Well, I’d like to say goodbye, if I can.”
“Sorry. That’s against the rules.”
“Eternity has rules?”
“Well, they’re more of guidelines than rules. You don’t want to get yourself tangled back up into the world of the living. It’ll only lead to anguish, Mike.”
“What do you mean?” He motioned for me to follow him. We began to walk down the road where the accident originally occurred. As I looked around, I noticed that the accident had been completely cleared away, and we were walking through streaks of red and white as we crossed the freeway. He put his hands behind his back and looked out towards the horizon.
“Mike,” he sighed “…when I died back in, oh… when was it… ugh.. I can’t even remember, I was confused and disoriented just like you were. The reaper that gave me his spiel was a lot less… personable. Y’know.. the whole black robe and all that jazz, like you thought. I was in my mid-twenties and I was killed in battle, riddled with arrows actually. And my first thoughts were of my bride back in our village. Since the reaper wasn’t as friendly, he just said NO.. IT IS FORBIDDEN. To which I said “Fuck that.” and I took off. I ran for eons to get back to my village. But, when I finally got there, I didn’t take into account the time change. Time moves differently here, and instead of a couple days for me to return, it was a couple decades. My wife had already remarried and had a new family of her own. I was devastated.”
I stood there enamored by his tale.
“Trust me, by the time you get back to your family, they’ll have moved on, and many years will have passed. If you truly love them, just wait a little longer, they’ll come around.”
“What ever happened to your bride? She had to have died. Did you two ever meet back up?”
“We’re not here to talk about me, Mike. This is your time.” With that, he took a small device out of his right hand coat pocket. It resembled a Game Boy with it’s green screen and a couple red buttons on the console. He slid his clipboard under his arm and typed in a few commands that were answered with a series of heavenly chimes and tones.
From above, above, a single ray of light bore down upon the two of us. He looked at me and smiled a skeletal grin.
“Going up?” The light got brighter and brighter until I was forced to close my eyes. I was curious to see what was waiting for me on the other side. I was excited to see all those who passed before me, but… but I just couldn’t get over the fact that I wouldn’t see my own funeral. I couldn’t get out of my mind that I would miss all of Jake’s milestone moments. He just started kindergarten, so I would miss teaching him how to ride a bike, helping him with his homework, teaching him how to drive, sending him off on his first date, watching him graduate high school and college, being there for his wedding, never meeting my grandkids.
At that moment, I dove out of the beam of light and back onto the freeway, the red and white streaks flew past me forwards and back, disorienting me and causing me to tumble over the guardrail and plummet the hundred feet below under the overpass.
I landed with a deadening thud. My vision was blurry and the ringing in my ears slowly ceased. I could see Him look over the edge and down at me. What was just incoherent sounds soon transformed to His voice bellowing down to me.
“HEY! Mike! Are you alright?”
Now was my chance. I was far enough away from Him that I could make a break for it. I calmly stood up, dusted myself off, and looked up to see Him looking down at me, leaning over the guardrail.
“How do I get back up?” I cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled back up.
“Don’t worry, I’ll come down to you,” He answered. In a flash of white smoke, he was gone. I took this opportunity to run like Hell. I scurried away from where I was and headed in the direction of where I used to live. I darted through the trees and bushes that were underneath the freeway, frantically trying to make me way back home. I ran for about a minute before *POOF* He appeared through that same puff of white smoke and towered over me. I ran full force into his body and bounced back about six feet, and landed on my ass.
“What the HELL do you think you are doing, man?” He scolded. “Didn’t you hear what I told you? By the time you get back to your house, everyone will have moved on! You’ll be heartbroken because they will have moved on without you.”
“I don’t believe that for a second!” I shouted back. “I loved my family with all my heart. And they loved me. I refuse to believe that I will ever leave their thoughts.”
“Mike, I’m telling you, just wait and they’ll…”
“NO! I can’t wait. I need to…” a lump, the size of Montana rose up into my throat, and I was left speechless for a moment. I swallowed it back down, and with it, my eyes began to well up and overflow. I looked down at my shoes. I just now noticed that even though I had been running through the dirt and mud, they were still spotless as the day I bought them.
“…Did you have kids?” I asked Him.
“What?” He was puzzled. I did my best to compose myself, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Jake. The tears were now running down my cheeks.
“When you were alive, did you ever have kids?” I think he finally knew where I was going with this line of questioning.
“No,” He sighed. “I died before we were able to try.”
“Then you have NO idea the kind of pain I am going through right now. There are certain things that a father needs to do with his son so that he grows up right. I needed to be there for him, and now, I won’t be able to. I was robbed of that chance to make sure that I could raise him to be the man he needed to be. I was robbed to experiencing his successes, his failures, his joy and his sorrow. I can’t be there for him. And you just want me to WAIT?”
He stood there, silent.
“Fuck YOU! Fuck your guidelines. Fuck this bullshit that they’ll just move on. My son meant SO MUCH to me, and I’m just supposed to say, oh well, shit happens, he’ll be fine. NO! I REFUSE TO ACCEPT THAT!”
He nodded his head for a moment, took a deep breath and looked back at me, sternly.
“I know I can’t reverse time. I know I can’t just can’t come back to life. THIS I can accept. I just want to say goodbye, and that I’m sorry I’m not going to be able to be there for him. Sorry for everything I’m going to miss.”
He brought his boney hand to the bridge of his nose, and rubbed. Looked down again, and sighed.
“You just don’t get it, Mike.” He looked back up at me.
“But, you’re not the first. Some people just accept death and go with the flow. Others, like you, rebel from square one.” He took the device out again. “Gimme one second.”
A series of chimes and beeps emanated from the device as he pressed some buttons and waited for a response.
“OK, Mike. I can respect the fact that you want to see your son. That you want to at least tell him goodbye, and I know I’m not going to be able to change your mind about this. So, I’ve requested from the boys upstairs that you are granted a temporary free pass just to see this thing out.” I wiped the tears away from my eyes at the news that I was going to be able to see my son.
“There’s just a few conditions. First, I have to go with you. I have been assigned to your case, so I have to make sure you don’t go all poltergeist on me. That goes on my permanent record, and I’m not having that. Second, as soon as you say what you need to say to… Jake, was it,” he double checked his clipboard, “I make the call and we head upstairs, immediately. Do you understand?”
I giddily nodded my head and reached out to shake his hand. He immediately pulled it away and held it up to stop me from getting any closer.
“Whoa, whoa whoa. Don’t shake my hand just yet, Mike. You’re the one that wanted this, and you may not be happy with what you see.”
He turned away from me and pressed a button on the device. As it began to whirr and beep, he checked his clipboard once more. The device gave a tiny DING and he studied the screen.
“OK, your old house is roughly, 5 miles South, Southwest of our current location. I suggest we get back up to the freeway and walk from there. It’ll be much easier on flat ground, OK?”
I nodded and looked around. I had been running so fast that I completely lost track of where the freeway was. He pointed a skeletal finger to our right, and I headed in that direction. I started to smile. I was going to see my Jake again.
We were walking for about 3 miles amongst the red and white streaks along our sides when I finally decided to look up at the sky. It was night, and the stars shone so vividly, that I could easily see the Milky Way band across the deep indigo sea. I stopped walking. He continued.
“Hey, wait a minute!” I beckoned. He finally stopped and turned around.
“What?” He mumbled.
“OK, explain this to me. The streak to our left and right are obviously the cars passing back and forth along the freeway, going at their normal speed, but to us, time is moving so fast, that they just appear as these streaks, right?”
“What are you getting at, Mike?”
“What’s the deal with the sky?”
“Why isn’t the sky and the sun and moon moving at the same speed? Shouldn’t it be light-dark-light-dark really fast, just like everything else.”
“Hmm, if I remember correctly, it has to do with the speed of light. You see, since we are moving so fast through time, the sun isn’t up long enough for it to hit your eyes, so it’s always night. For the same reason, you’ll never see the moon in the sky either.”
He was right. It was just all stars and clusters and nebula.
“Wait a minute?”
“What is it now, Mike?”
“How fast ARE we going?”
“That conversation we just had…”
“ A week.”
A week!! We’d been walking a couple hours and that conversation just took a minute or two. I didn’t like where this was going, but I HAD to see this through. I think He started to sense that I was finally starting to see things his way.
After about 4-5 hours, we finally reached my old house. It was still there. The paint was different, and there was a few different cars in the driveway, but the house still stood. I ran for the front door, but He stopped me, held me by the arm.
“Hold on there, Mike. Did you forget about the time difference?”
“What about it?”
“Well, if they’re going at the speed I told you about, how are you going to be able to sit down and say goodbye to your son?” I contemplated the situation, and turned to Him with an expression of worry.
“Don’t worry. I can slow things down a bit, but I can’t do it for long. Just long enough for you to get your goodbyes in and then we’re off, ok?” I waited for Him to bring out his device once more, press a couple buttons and then I felt and heard time slow down. It is one of the most unusual events a human being can ever experience. Imagine you are in the center of a record player, spinning at 77 rpms and suddenly, someone puts their finger on the record and slows down it down. The world simply lurched to a slower pace, and the sound was equally disturbing. A soft, high pitched whirr suddenly increased in volume and choked back the pitch until it was a low hum, a familiar hum – the hum of life. I could hear the wind, the traffic, the normal sounds of my old neighborhood. I was back and it was a glorious sound to behold.
“Alright, now you can go in.” He let go of my arm and I ran to the house. I thought about knocking, but I almost forgot, I was dead. So I just walked on through the door.
The house was different. It was mostly the same furniture, but there were somethings that were askew. The family portraits used to be on the far wall, that connected the livingroom to the kitchen. The kitchen table used to be rotated ninety degrees… little things.
The other strange thing was that all the lights were on, but there were no people. Why would Katie leave all the lights on if no one was going to be home? I began to walk around the house. I walked slowly down the hall to where the bedrooms were. First, on the left was Jake’s. The door was open so I didn’t need to pass through to peer in. The room was empty. Even the carpeting was gone. It looked like no one had used that room in years. A knot was beginning to form in the pit of my stomach. Something wasn’t right. I continued down the hall, and to the right was our old bedroom. The decor was certainly more… modern than how I remember it. The walls were a different color. As I panned across the room, my eyes finally reached the bed. Under the covers lay an old man, tucked in tight and looking like he was on his last legs.
What the shit?
Who the hell was this guy? And then I thought, Katie may have remarried and time had passed, this may be her new husband. I looked around the room for more clues. I didn’t see any pictures of Katie and me, or Katie and her new husband, so the identity of this man was still a mystery.
His breathing became more forced and he began to cough. Whoever this guy was, his time was almost up. Suddenly I heard a clatter coming from the hallway. I turned to look as a group of people slowly walked down the hall and into the room, surrounding the bed. I looked at all of the people, and surprisingly didn’t recognize a single one.
“HEY!” I shouted out. I turned around and He was right behind me, holding his device up and reading its display.
“Yeah?” He said, still studying the screen of the device, the glow lighting up his skull.
“What is this? Who are all these people?”
“This is your family, Mike.”
“What?!” I turned back and looked. I looked very hard at all of them. “This is not my family. I don’t recognize any of these people.”
“Think of the time, Mike.”
“Think of the time? The hell does THAT mean?” Then, I heard one of the children speak. They had approached the old man in the bed and held his hand. Tears began to roll down their cheeks, as they could barely get the words out. As the words left the child’s mouth, that knot in my stomach forced its way up into my throat and I immediately began to sob giant tears of regret.
“Goodbye Grandpa Jake.” The old man turned his head to the child and I could finally see his face clearly. The eyes, the mouth, the one crooked eyebrow. It was my Jake. All grown up and now, at the end of his life. He was able to do it all without me. I looked around the room again and studied all the photos. There were pictures of him with his wife, and his kids, I saw the progression of them grow up, and Jake grow older. I saw a photograph of him, much younger than he is now sitting with an older woman. I looked closer. Katie. He was sitting with his mother. Her hands were clasped together on her lap with her left hand on top, wedding band absent. After all these years, she never remarried. I continued to look at the photos, and saw all the experiences he had that I missed.
“I missed it all.” I mumbled to myself. He came up behind me and put a hand on my shoulder.
“I tried to tell you, but you were too stubborn. I figured you had to learn for yourself. As soon as you get whisked away, we have a constant connection back down here, you could have watched it all, been there every step of the way. All you had to do was wait.”
The tears were uncontrollable running down my face now.
“What do you mean WAIT? How long? How long would I have had to wait?”
“Five minutes, tops.”
“I had to find out the hard way too, Mike.”
Suddenly, Jake gasped, his eyes rolled back into his head and the color faded from his face. A loud sound blared from the device and He took notice of it. He pressed a few buttons and then put it back in his pocket.
“Well, looks like I have to take both of you.”
“What?” I spun around. It started low, but a wind began to blow inside the house. I couldn’t feel it, but I could definitely hear it. It grew louder and louder until it was as boisterous and roaring as a tornado. I plugged my ears and waited for it to pass. I was facing Him at the time, and he pointed behind me and slowly spun me around as the winds blew. Jake began to glow and as the wind blew more fierce the light grew brighter. It grew so bright that I was forced to cover my eyes the light penetrated my eyelids so I was forced to turn back around. The wind died and the light diminished. I opened my eyes and uncovered my ears. The people surrounding the bed were all crying. But Jake, old Jake stood in front of the bed looking at all the people. After looking upon on all of his family members that he would be leaving behind, he turned towards me and Him.
He instantly recognized Him and knew what was to follow.
“Jacob Thomas Kozlowski?” He said in the same tone in which he uttered my name to me. Jake nodded.
“You know who I am, right?” He asked the old man. Jake slowly nodded. Jake’s attention soon turned from the tall skeleton in the suit and overcoat to me. He looked at me and concentrated, studying every feature of my face. I couldn’t look away. It was the first time I saw my son’s face since I died. I did my best to compose myself, but it’s not easy when you have waiting to see someone just one more time.
“Well, because of this guy,” He gave me a friendly shove, “I will be taking both of you upstairs. You’ve had a good life, Jake. Both of you have. Come on, now. Kathryn is waiting.”
Both of us turned our focus to Him.
“Katie?” I blurted out, and at the same time
“Mom?” The old man stuttered. It was at that moment, when it clicked for Jake. I slowly looked back and him and he returned my gaze. Tears began to well up in his eyes, his lip began to tremble and magically, the years started to melt away. Soon I was looking at the man Jake grew to be. And that’s when he said it, the one thing I missed from the moment this journey began.