Whipping the Dead | Jen Finelli

04 Whipping The Dead

 

 

 

My van understands death better than most people do. She dies about three times every day, usually when we pause together at a stop sign or a red light, and once she died in the middle of the highway as we passed a McDonald’s on the corner of I-95 and 17. She died there because that McDonald’s had a huge play complex that wound towards the sky like a space-station, and it reminded her old frame of days carrying my cousins and me as we squealed out toddler stories about space-magic—back when her color was true to the sky and the fuzzy bed in the back of her 1991 Dodge Cargo Van body was set up like a couch. Back then the grown-ups made us all wear seatbelts so we didn’t break our heads open like my brother did.

But my cousins are all strippers now, my brother got surgery for his scar, and I don’t wear a seatbelt anymore.

Recently, my car died in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She died four times that trip, which is a little much even for her, not because the winding road was too steep, but because my grandparents used to take her on lovers’ escapades through those mountains. They would park her in the forest like a little cottage on a hill, soft navy curtains drawn and papery shades pulled down as they did what lovers do, and on the return trip my grandfather would run his withered hands over her faux-leather steering wheel, gaze over at my grandmother sleeping in the front seat beside him, and catalog everything that’d happened into stories for us about my grandmother’s fears of black bears and the chirp of the titmouse.

But my grandmother’s dead now, and the curtains hang untied, flopping in the windows like the sagging skin of a thin arm freshly pulseless.

I didn’t let her stay dead, there in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so we hummed along the winding road again and her blue paint peeled back to let her rust mimic the autumn leaves as she groaned and creaked and babbled about the wind. I leaned my elbow out the open window—open because without air conditioning she got stuffy, even in the fall—and patted her side to let her know I was listening. But my other hand floated on the steering wheel near the ignition, in case she died again.

I was going to visit a college friend, hoping that perhaps she’d like the plush, armoire-like upholstery of my grandmother’s front seat, and perhaps my college friend would invite her friends to fill the wide empty back seats behind me. Then maybe we’d be full again, all of us, and together we’d drive down to the Whitehead Cliffs, park overnight to look at the ancient stars, and in the morning hike the trail through the twisty woods to dig shark fossil teeth out of the aged sandstone by the beach.

But my friends always called her the stalker van, and not everyone wants to ride in a van that dies.

The fifth time we stopped, it was not because the van died, but because a building called me from outside my right-side window, from my grandmother’s side. In college, I only studied the history of places I never went, like Osaka, Japan, forgetting the kinds of old magic that hides in blue mountains and worn fiddles—the building made me remember.

It wore a gravel-colored roof; nondescript walnut-colored boards framed two plain square windows, peering out at me behind the beige-brown tree trunks like an old hound in an animal shelter. It was a pain clinic about a hundred meters off the road, without a driveway or anything for a car to approach. The GPS clipped to my dashboard said I could buy Excedrin here and book appointments with the pain management specialist, and I trusted the GPS.

Gravel, and then forest dirt, spewed under my tires as we raked to a stop. I peered into the woods for a bit, and then at the road beside me. “I hope I’m far enough off the road,” I muttered to the van. “I don’t wanna be too far off the road.” I didn’t say why, but the place looked like somewhere you’d see a pretty young college girl, straight out of soft-core, walk into as a chainsaw fires up off-camera. I could become that girl.

But you don’t become her by reading old setsuwa and bungaku and arguing with dead poets about crickets in term papers written in the back of a rusty van.

I needed to trust the GPS. I’d started having migraines again, and I didn’t know when I’d get another chance to stop for medications—I didn’t take time for stuff like that back at school. Besides, curiosity can’t kill the cat: in one of the setsuwa far older than my van, the cat wards off demons from an abandoned temple. And the GPS said.

Like every single girl with a 1991 Dodge Cargo van, I carried a pink Taurus revolver in my Hello Kitty purse, right next to the pocky and the weathered book of Manyoshu poetry, and I checked with a steady hand that the weapon lay ready as I climbed down from my grandmother’s side. I slammed the door with my back and paced into the woods, cautious but unafraid, my hand inside the purse and my mind quite open to whatever I might find. The leaves hanging around me hadn’t quite turned red yet, and a soft wisp of wind, not quite strong enough to be called a breeze, drew my face towards their sunny glow. “See the tree leaves, and pick the yellow ones with wonder,” wrote the Manyoshu’s Lady Nukata. Like Nukata, I thought, I would pick autumn over spring, because in the thick lime foliage of spring and youth and vitality you can’t see two feet in front of you, and I want to see.

It was a real clinic, inside. That part didn’t matter much. I paid for my Excedrin and waited while the lady counted it into a bottle. A cracked, dull, snuff-colored door, in the corner, caught my eye. I thought this was the bathroom, I would say, if anyone asked.

I opened the door.

The true waiting room stretched before me, an infinite hallway with a row of chairs on either side: the line of people, and I suspect also the wait time, was eternally long—much, much longer than that little building could ever contain in a normal universe. A nurse marched down the middle of the row, her pudgy face the kind of drill sergeant stern you see at church potlucks but want on your side if anything comes to blows. She was alive.

But the people in the waiting room chairs, like my grandfather’s Dodge, were not.

They moved. They blinked. Their ashen bodies did what people do. But they wore the unmistakable facial expression of the corpse at the open casket funeral, if you let him keep his eyes open—the wide stare that looks beyond you, in you, that seems to know something you don’t and doesn’t quite say whether that knowledge makes for cruelty or mischief: “I’ve seen things beyond strange, and I laugh at you a little, and I am a little jealous of you, and I want something…”

You may have seen that face in your dreams; it might hint at suffering, but more than that it contains something huge and hidden, the whole reason people fret at doctors and take long pathways around cemeteries and avoid buying life insurance and close their ears when pastors talk about afterlives. It is the giant we hide from that hides from us when we stare back—death itself inscribed in a private, ubiquitous message all over their otherwise perfectly fine faces.

The waiting room nurse glanced at me once, as if checking my vitality, and then never again. The eyes of the dead businessman nearest me glittered at the door, and he leapt to his feet, rushing at it—

Crack! A whip sliced across his hand. The nurse growled at him, brandishing it again—the dead man cried out, shrinking back into his seat. A white-haired woman raised her hand, staring at my face with her mouth half-open to plea—

“Sit still!” roared the nurse. The whip cracked again; the old woman whimpered.

I stood still for a moment, my stomach churning with uncertainty as I watched. The nurse would dart from the end of the line to the door, without moving, it seemed, the instant anyone opened his mouth, or fidgeted in her seat, or looked at me for too long. She’d beat them with the butt of the whip; slash them with its burning tip; threaten to strangle them with the cord. So they didn’t speak much. The living keep a strict lock on the words of the dead.

And yet somehow the nurse’s face offered them no ill will. Am I supposed to see her as a hero, the guardian of segregation, forcing silence on history to keep it from plotting to overtake today?

I don’t know how long I stood there, but with the open door behind me long forgotten it seemed she’d let me do whatever I pleased. I glanced down the long row of chairs and stepped towards the businessman. His eyes never met mine—they would not focus through death’s face—but they pointed at me. My heart-rate sped up. My breath sounded louder with no one else in the room breathing. Did he bite? His cry of pain, when she hit him, still rang in my ears. My muscles tensed to pull me back in fear.

But the old dead poets heard his cry and drove me forward, half in compassion, half in morbid fascination, like the time my van hit an opossum, and I got out to help, and it bit me.

“Are you okay?” I asked. “Are you hurt?”

“Please. I need to visit the office,” he whispered. “And I need a ride there. I left my report unfinished, and my partner’s gonna catch hell for it in the morning. The boss is an unforgiving ass. She’ll fire him before they find me dead. I know her, I know this. My partner’s got kids. He can’t lose this job. I’ve gotta finish my report. Please.”

As soon as he said please, and no one hit him, the hallway near me exploded with whispers like a thousand treetops rustling under a gathering storm. “Please,” they begged.

“I need to leave a picture for my granddaughter,” said the white-haired woman.

“I need to let my dog out of the house so he doesn’t starve.”

“My Mommy didn’t get my painting I drewed her.”

“I need the morgue to know how I died. They need to warn my family.”

I took a few steps deeper into the hallway, pushing like an explorer past the hands reaching out like parting jungle leaves. “Nurse!” I called. “Can they lie?”

“I beat ’em if they do,” she called back, never looking at me. The whip cracked somewhere down the hall.

“Can you tell if they lie?”

“Do you want my job? Because training’s for those who want this job. Otherwise shut your head.”

The dead. Do we see them as evil, I wondered? Those approaching death—are they weak, to be pitied, like Benedict Arnolds unable to resist the temptations of defecting to the other side? Does holding your breath make you evil?

It was only one last good deed—one last report for a friend—a yellow leaf, that fleeting autumn request—I would close the door behind me. I wouldn’t unleash the floodgates of the grave. Just one man, one grandmother, one or two others—the nurse was only one, and they were so many! What would happen when they understood that? Perhaps by opening the pressure valve just a tad, I could prevent an explosion. One little act of kindness from the living. I turned back to the door, keeping eyes on the nurse over my shoulder.

But with eyes only for the mistakes of the past ones, the nurse refused to look at me and my pulsing veins, even though my fingertips were laced with old gasoline.

So my living presence shielded the businessman, blocking the nurse’s gaze as I pushed him ahead of me to the door and stacked the grandmother and the others in front of him, still watching the nurse. My mind spun, but I marched my six escapees out into the lobby. Is it wrong to talk to the dead? To save them? I closed the door with a deep breath; I waved them to stay in the corner where the attendant behind the counter couldn’t see them. I picked up my Excedrin. I waited for the secretary to turn back to her computer, and with a casual swagger I stole the dead out of her office.

The world outside now seemed misty and grey, ghostly and strange. No more wind graced the trees. “Discovering this place would make the known world real,” I muttered. I didn’t know what I meant by it.

The businessman and I talked as I guided him to my car. I don’t know what about. The important thing was that we talked, a dead man and a living youth, his heart still and mine thrashing the whole time.

Did I lock the door behind me? Did I unleash disaster? The nurse would have stopped me, right? Just letting a report finish, opening a door for a dog, moving a painting from under a bed to a mother’s bedside, pointing out a detail to a mortician…helping a little girl find her grandmother’s portrait.

My old van, the stalker van, swayed and dipped under the weight as everyone climbed in. I glanced at the businessman’s face again as he scaled my grandmother’s seat. His knowing gaze hadn’t changed. Danger or terror? Cruelty, or mischief? Longing, or hunger? Death. It was all still there, clear eyes penetrating past cold skin.

“I know a man who can bring you back to life,” I said. “Not like undead, I mean real life.”

The businessman didn’t reply. Maybe he didn’t want to come back to life. Or maybe he didn’t believe me. Or maybe he didn’t think at all—maybe the dead are animal, hungry, only parroting real-life selves like mirrors and shadows. Maybe I could die. Maybe I had died already.

Yet when I looked away from his face, I could see the autumn leaves more clearly, brilliant yellow shining against the fading ghostly world, and as they fluttered down, onto my old, cracked windshield, I fired up my ignition, dangled my hand out the window to pat the side of my full blue van, and drove the dead down a road clear of spring.

She did not die again.

 

Dedicated to the study of history.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jen Finelli is a world-traveling scifi writer who’s ridden a motorcycle in a tropical monsoon, crawled inside a flaming car, hunted Greek poetry on the walls of a city’s underground tunnels, and showered under a jungle mountain waterfall. Among other things. She’ll have her MD completed in 2017, right after she releases her novel about a comic book character who shoots his author.

 

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