By Benjamin Davis
Welcome to “What Happened When Frank Died.” In this column, for as long as I’m allowed, I’m going to kill Frank. Like—a lot. Worse, every two weeks, he will then be subjected to a multiverse of afterlives: absurd, funny, brutal, depressing, wild, creepy, heart-wrenching afterlives. Some will be based on existing theories, some on my own demented imaginings. In each, Frank will begin anew, searching, as always, for his lost family in the messy business of the many potential Great Beyonds. Frank (thankfully) does not remember his past-afterlives. Yet, attentive readers who pick up clues along the way will be able to solve the mystery of what happened before Frank died.
Frank died. The light of the room became a pinhole; he squeezed through like toothpaste, from a wrinkled wet corpse into a standing, clothed old man.
He stood at the entrance to a long, white, narrow hallway with doors on either side. A woman stood in front of him. She had one of those perpetually-familiar faces. An actress, maybe. He tried to place her; it felt like identifying a particular pancake in an unfamiliar stack. She had brown straight hair pulled back. Frank knew she was either a childhood sweetheart or every woman he’d seen in an exercise bike commercial.
She was wearing white — a snug set of scrubs. Frank looked down at his own body and saw that he was wearing the same.
The woman peeled apart her thin lips and said, “Frank Morgan?”
“Yes ma’am,” Frank said. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say, ‘Who else would I be?’ but then said, “Oh—wow!” He shrugged his shoulders again. The pain that had rested between the blade of his left shoulder to the bottom of his ear was gone. He turned his neck this way and that. The woman waited.
She had a clipboard under one arm. She took it out to scroll through a list with one finger, stopping on a line. “This way,” she said, and turned.
She walked and Frank trod behind, rolling his shoulder this way and that with a smile that almost gave way to a giggle.
The woman spoke as she walked. She had an even voice that fit her even face and even hair. “I assume we can do away with the usual pleasantries, under the circumstances?”
Frank looked down at his own wrists. There was no blood, no wounds. They were smooth and fresh. He felt a sudden urge to lick them.
“No, ma’am,” Frank said.
As they passed door after door, Frank saw that they had no doorknobs, but featured tiny windows looking out onto a variety of landscapes. In one he saw a mother nursing a newborn babe. In another, there was a young boy sitting, fixed to a computer screen. Then a young woman getting married, then an old man fishing.
He stopped at a particular door—it was an old, crusted room. He saw an old woman tied to a chair. A man stood with his back to the door, a match in one hand, a red canister in the other. The old woman was laughing and wet. Frank could swear he heard the man laughing along with her. He placed his hand to the door and felt it vibrate with laughter and then the man dropped the match and the whole room went up in flames.
The door became hot. Frank wanted to back away, but he pressed closer, his eye nearly touching the glass as the laughing became screaming. And then there was a blip. It felt like a blink, but Frank was certain his eyes never closed. The room was back, the woman was in the chair, the man stood over her with a match and the red canister and then the laughing began anew.
Frank felt a hand on his shoulder and jumped a little.
The pancake lady leaned against the wall beside him. Looking more closely, Frank began to sense there was something sinister about her. His body wanted to step away from her, but he stood his ground. He looked again into the room of flames just before it blipped back. He turned from it to the woman and frowned. “Is this hell?” he asked.
The woman tipped her head to the side and smiled. “There is no hell, Mr. Morgan. No hell, no heaven, only this. You’ll understand.”
She turned and stepped aside. She motioned for Frank to walk ahead of her. He did, slowly, allowing himself to glance only once back through the window of flames.
Frank tried to ignore the windows as they continued on, but he couldn’t help glancing once or twice: the light from a vibrant sunset, flashes of a disco.
Frank obeyed. He turned.
The woman stood by the frame of a door. “This is you,” she said.
Frank moved closer; he looked in. It was a beach in the late morning. It was the kind of scene that you could smell just by looking at it—the salt, the sand, the sea-smoothed gems of smashed beer bottles. There was a boy sitting in the sand by the tide. He was sifting through the mud, pulling out all manner of rock and shell. The boy looked up and Frank understood.
He turned to the woman and she nodded. “Frank Morgan, 1961, at seven years old. Happiest moment recorded in your lifetime.”
Frank looked back through the window. The boy that had been him sifted deeper in the mud and pulled out a perfectly round sand dollar.
“No,” Frank said. “No, this is not right—no, I need to find my son. I am here for my wife and son; this isn’t right.”
A wave of annoyance passed over the woman’s face and she smiled again, tighter around the corners. She placed one hand on the door and pushed. The smell fell over Frank and the sound of the ocean pulsed into the narrow aisle where they stood. He could feel the sand between his toes without needing to take a step. He turned away—turned his back on the woman and the door.
“No!” he said, again. “My boy is here. I need to find him. I—” Something grabbed Frank’s attention in the window across the way. A woman in a blue dress. He stepped forward.
Frank ignored her. He moved closer to the door across the hall and saw through the window a room he knew, a room from his own home. Frank knew the room, the woman, the young boy in her arms.
“Sara!” he called. He banged on the window. The woman inside didn’t turn. Frank could see the smile he knew, the deep blue eyes that he missed. He banged again and again on the glass, but it made no sound. He turned back. The lady with the straight brown hair looked bored, almost sleepy.
“You let me in that room,” he commanded her. He stepped forward and grabbed her by the shoulders. He pointed to the door where his wife was now rocking their young son to sleep.
“You let me in that room,” he said again.
The woman looked down at Frank’s hands and said, “Okay.”
“Okay, Mr. Morgan.”
Frank let go. As he did, he fell. It felt as if gravity had shifted around him and instead of falling down, he fell sideways onto the beach. The sand broke his fall.
He pulled himself up and lunged for the hallway where the woman stood, where across the way, his wife waited. But before he’d managed to stand, the door was already closed, and as he reached the window, the young woman was gone. He stared across the hall, through the window of the opposite room as his wife rocked back and forth.
Then, he turned to the empty beach. The breeze caught his panic and blew it away. He walked toward the water, the smell of sea and sand washing through him, cleaning away all of his pain. He made it to the water’s edge and looked down. He felt something hard beneath his toe and bent to clear away the sand.
There, snug and waiting, was a sand dollar. He sat and began to wipe away the mud in the tide; no longer an old man, but a young, strong curious boy of seven. Then, as if from the heavens, a new, larger sand dollar slipped in with the tide and the boy picked it up. He looked at it, smiled, and thought, “This is the best day ever!”
Benjamin Davis has stories & poems in 25+ literary journals like BOOTH, Hobart, Maudlin House. His first book of poems, The King of FU (2018), was such a smashing success it shocked the indie press who printed it into an early grave. He is now working on his first six novels.