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 fell hard onto something soft. It moved. It made a sound.
Frank looked down between his legs and, apart from his own genitals, he saw the face of an old man. The man looked as surprised as Frank felt. Frank almost said, “Sorry,” but something sharp jabbed him in the right side of the head. He turned; a naked young woman was glaring at him.
“Hand!” she said.
Frank looked at his own hand and saw that it was resting on the woman’s breast.“Ah!” he cried. “Oh, I am sorry, Miss, I—” He looked past her; as far as he could see, bodies were everywhere, some mounded a little higher than others—people piled together, uncountable knees and elbows, legs, hands, feet, arms, attached to bodies with heads of different sizes and colors poking out. And most of the heads were screaming. It didn’t smell like Frank imagined it should—not like B.O. or fetid crevices. It smelled simply of skin.
Frank was startled back into his immediate surroundings as the woman grabbed his hand and threw it off her.
“Pervert,” she said, and tried to stand but fell and crawled away from Frank as the bodies beneath her called out, “Gah!” and one shrill voice said, “That’s my eye, you bitch!”
Frank felt uncomfortable watching her crawl, so he turned away and scanned the scene ahead of him. Everything he saw was the same: an ocean of limbs, as far as he could see.
Frank looked down. The man tapped Frank’s leg with one arm and pointed to the other that was trapped beneath..
“Oh! Sorry.” Frank lifted his leg so the man could free himself.
“Cheers,” he said, and shifted a bit before closing his eyes and seeming to doze off.
“Do you have a sense of humor?”
Frank turned left toward a deep, melodic voice and saw a large man, covered in hair. From the knee, this man’s leg disappeared beneath Frank’s buttock.
“Sorry,” Frank said and tried to shift his weight. He looked behind the man. Many of those closest were either sleeping, crying, screaming, or staring, dead-eyed, up at the pale sky above. He pressed his hands into his face and tried to breathe, to think.
“Please don’t do the freak-out thing. You look like you’re going to do the freak-out thing. Just—don’t,” the large man said.
Frank slid his hands back and frowned at the man. His eyes were a sharp blue, more alive than others around them. He smiled.
Frank asked, “What? What is the freak-out thing?”
A few yards in front of them, a teenage boy fell from the sky. He sat up and looked around at the endless sea of squirming meat. His eyes bulged and he joined in the chorus of screams, “Oh God! Oh God! Where am I? What is this? Help! Help!” The boy began to cry.
The large hairy man winced. “That,” he said. “Oh, would you shut up!”
The boy only continued to scream. He got up and began scrambling away over the crowd.
“It’s no use!” the man called after the boy.
He turned to Frank. “It really is no use. This is it, as far as you go in any direction. Except up, I guess,” the man looked idly skyward at the expanse of gray nothingness, “Oh, well. What’s your name?”
The man wiggled his arm free of an old woman napping beside him and held a hand out to Frank. Frank took it.
“So, you got a sense of humor, Frank?”
“Well, this feels like one of those eternal damnation sorts of things and I’d hate to be stuck in it next to someone without a sense of humor.”
Frank looked beneath him, then craned his neck to see how far he could catch the distance, but saw nothing new. “Are we stuck here?” Frank asked.
“Look around you! What do you think is under those perfectly nice folks under you? It’s more perfectly nice folks. Perfectly nice folks, all the way down.”
“Who knows; it just keeps piling up.”
“Coming in the same way you did. The same way I did a while ago. I scrambled a bit and finally settled on this nice fellow here.” Charlie motioned to a face peering out from between his legs. “Who incidentally doesn’t have a sense of humor. And now, you’ve come and fallen on top of me.”
Frank took it all in. While he considered his situation, Charlie ripped a bit of hair off the head of the old woman next to him. He put it in his mouth and began to chew on it. She jerked her head up and glared at him.
“What’d you do that for?” she snapped at him.
He shrugged. “I’m bored. It’s not like you need it.”
She slapped his face. “It is a matter of dignity!”
Charlie rolled his eyes at Frank. Then he waved his hand out over the crowd, looking back at the woman. “Are you serious?” he asked her.
She yanked Charlie’s arm back under her, muttered something and went back to sleep. Charlie put a finger to his lips. Frank watched as he slowly reached back down and ripped an even larger tuft of white hair from the woman’s head. She jolted up and socked him on the jaw before rolling over with both arms cupped over her head as a shield.
Charlie looked back at Frank. “So, you got a sense of humor or not?”
Frank ignored the question. “There is no way out?”
Charlie gave him the same look a parent might give a child who’d just asked for another damn bedtime story.
“Look. You’re welcome to try if you’re feeling particularly nimble and want to thrash your way through a sea of confused people. Huh? Yeah, I thought not.”
“So, this is hell, then?” Frank asked.
“Depends who you ask. I personally believe we are actually all just back to being sperm and this is one great big ball-sack.” Charlie laughed a loud and full laugh. It fought outward against the cacophony of screams.
Frank only stared. When Charlie had caught his breath, he sighed.
“No sense of humor then, huh?”
“I have a sense of humor. I just don’t find anything too funny right now.”
“Well, tell a joke, then! I promise it will make you feel better.”
“I don’t know any jokes.”
“Bullshit. Look, tell a joke. If it doesn’t make you feel better, I’ll shut up.”
Frank thought for a moment. There was a joke he used to tell his son. He tried not to think about his him, then, buried under dozens of other people, terrified. Frank shook his head clear.
“Uh…where did the generals of Rome keep their armies?”
Charlie sighed. “Yeah – yeah. I’ve heard it.”
“In their sleevies,” Frank said, ignoring him, and then immediately began chuckling to himself, remembering how much it had made his son laugh, even though he had been too young to get it. The laughter doubled, then tripled, then became uncontrollable as Frank found himself unable to contain his grief at the absurdity of everything he was seeing. Charlie stared at him, stone-faced. Frank wiped a humor-filled tear from his eye. Charlie twirled his finger through a single hair on the old woman’s head and made a fart sound with his lips. Frank took a deep breath.
“I’m going to go,” he told Charlie. “I’ve got people to find and if it takes an eternity, well, looks like I’m in luck.”
Charlie shrugged. “Oh, well.”
Frank went to move and as he did, he felt his arm get slammed down into the poor old man beneath him as a large, nude man fell from the sky on top of it. The man looked into Frank’s eyes, then at the vibrating mass of horror, and finally at Charlie.
“Do you have a sense of humor?” Charlie asked with a hopeful smile.
The man’s eyes went wide, and he began screaming. “Oh God! Oh my God!” he said, over and over.
Charlie rubbed the middle finger of his free hand into his temple and closed his eyes.
“This is going to be a long fucking eternity,” he said.
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.