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.
Content warning: This story contains descriptions and discussions of suicide.
He opened his eyes — the steam from the bath hadn’t dissipated but the pain and the dizziness were gone. Frank pulled his arms out of the muddy red water. They no longer felt heavy. He looked down at his wrists, open, but cold and still, as though they were plastic mockups to be studied in eighth-grade biology. He touched a finger to one, then the other. There was no pain.
“Let’s go.” A child’s voice broke the silence. Frank looked around. A fair-haired girl of about ten stood leaning against the door; her face was soft, blank, and bored. She had a long black shirt that went to her knees; on it was printed thick white letters: YOU’RE DEAD!
The girl followed Frank’s gaze down to her own shirt, then back up at him. She shrugged.
“Saves time,” she said.
Frank frowned at her. “Who are you?” he asked.
The young girl rolled her eyes and turned around. She jabbed her thumb up over the shoulder to point at the big-bolded text on her back: Death. She turned back to Frank, smirking.
Frank didn’t know what he’d expected when he shut his eyes for the last time, but it wasn’t this. He smiled at her. “Proud of yourself, huh?” he said.
She held up two fingers and pinched them together in front of her face.
“Just a bit. Now come on; I’m here to take you.”
“Take me where?”
“Where is there?”
Death shrugged. “How the hell should I know?” Her bored little face started to sour. “I don’t have all day,” she snapped.
“So…” Frank wondered aloud. “This is it, you’re Death, then? You’re missing a few inches, aren’t you?”
Death stepped forward, Frank saw that her eyes were black, though not like solid black gemstones. They looked like a child had tried to color in a pair of eyes with a thick black marker and hadn’t quite managed to stay inside the lines.
“It doesn’t matter who I am,” she growled. “Get out of the tub and I’ll be Mary-fucking-Poppins for all I care, but I’ll still be Mary Poppins with better shit to do than bicker with a sick old man.”
Frank held up his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay – I’ll get out, just…” He nodded down at the concealed lower half of his body.
Death relaxed a little, her eyes back to little balls of black in white pools. “Do you have any comprehension of how many assholes have died naked?”
“Ten?” Frank asked.
Death didn’t flinch or smile. She just stayed silent until Frank felt he might’ve pushed one button too many. “Okay, okay,” he said, “but those assholes didn’t die within reach of a towel I bet, so could you…?” He pointed to the rack beside Death. She reached out without looking, snagged the towel, and threw it at Frank. Frank caught it.
“Well?” Death said.
Frank didn’t quite know how to say it, so he just waved his hand at her whole body. For the first time, Death looked surprised. “What the fuck are you doing?” She looked down at herself. “What? Is something on my shirt?”
“Uh—well, no. You know, you’re a…well, a child, right?”
“But you look—”
“Oh for fuck’s sake.” Death covered her eyes with one hand; with the other, she gave Frank the finger.
It was as good as he was going to get. He stood up. He wrapped the towel around his midsection and took a breath; it felt off somehow. He took a breath again, then a third. His mouth and chest were moving, but he felt nothing fill inside of him.
“Weird,” he whispered to himself.
Death moved her hand from her face and said, “Finally.” She turned and walked straight into the wall between the towel rack and the linen closet. Frank stepped from the bath and through the wall after her into darkness, and then, light. There was nothing, nothing in all directions except the back of Death’s head, walking away.
“Excuse me!” he called to her, jogging to get in-step.
“Yeah?” Death said, without turning around.
“Do you take everyone who dies?”
“I sure hope so. Not sure what use they’d be to anyone else.”
“Can you tell me where I am going?”
“I told you, I don’t know.”
“Well, if you don’t, who does?” Frank asked, frustrated.
Death stopped and turned to him. “Can you please appreciate how many times I have been asked the same questions? Oh, so many. So, so, so many. I’m sick and tired of it. For once, I’d appreciate it if someone would ask for something new…but no.” She made her face slack and said in a deep, dumb, mocking tone, “Duh, where are we going? Why am I dead?” She rolled her eyes. “Please, I’ve heard them all, trust me, and I have answers to none of them. So please, just walk.” She spun and stormed off ahead.
Frank trotted up beside her, matching his stride to her pace.
“What is the average number of pickles you can fit in a pickle jar?” he said. He looked down at her with an eyebrow raised and went on. “Hm, how many smoked ham bones can a three-hundred-pound man eat before he dies?”
“What are you doing?” Death muttered.
“You said you’ve heard every question. So, what about…how many three-legged dogs does it take to catch a five-legged rabbit?” Frank couldn’t help smirking.
“And now you think you are the first clever jackass to die. Yes, nothing new,” she said, staring straight on.
Frank thought for a moment, then said, “How many jumping-joes can a fish-bunny gobble up before flip-sliding through a loop-de-loop?”
Death glanced up at him. Frank was openly smiling now.
“You realize that I exist outside of time. Therefore, anything you can possibly ask me you’ve already asked me and so, yeah, I’ve already heard it all.”
“Well, that’s not fair,” Frank said.
“Life isn’t fair. Neither is death. Now, please walk.”
“One more question.” Frank’s smile slipped from his face.” Did you take my wife and son, too?”
Death didn’t respond.
Frank stopped walking. “I’m not moving until you answer my question.”
Death paused and faced him.
“You realize there is no turning in any direction. Look, go ahead — take a minute.”
Frank looked around. Still nothing.
“Mhm, thought so,” Death said, “So, standing there like a child isn’t doing anything for you.”
Frank scowled at her. “Did you take my son here, too?” he said firmly.
Death shook her head, annoyed. “Frank, what did you do?’
“I— well— ” Frank held up his hands to show his split wrists.
“Not that, idiot. Your job. What did you do for your job.”
“I was a history teacher.”
Death clapped her hands. “Perfect. Now, would you remember every student you’ve ever had?” Frank opened his mouth to respond. Death held up her hand. “No, wait! Better yet! Imagine you’ve been a teacher for millions of years, and thousands of versions of you all sharing the same headspace have been teaching all those billions of students for every moment of your existence. Got that image good and tight?”
Frank tried. “I think so,” he managed.
“Wrong. You can’t; you can’t possibly have that image because it is beyond your comprehension. But! Cut that image in half, then half again, then half until your brain reaches the limits of its powers of calculation and even then! Even then, try to remember one of those random, insignificant, whiny little morons.” Frank didn’t know how to respond so he glowered at her. She met his gaze, then sighed and said, “Now, can we please keep going?”
Frank thought about staying there. Standing in the nothing until someone with better manners or better answers came along. But then, as though she read his thoughts, Death turned. “Look, I’m it. So, don’t be a dick,” she said flatly. And walked on.
Frank looked left. Nothing.
Frank looked right. Nothing.
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.