By Benjamin Davis
Credit: Nikita Klimov, @ni.nikita.ta on Instagram
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.
He stood up out of the cold dirt. It was dark. He felt around himself and placed his hand on something knobby. A tree. He held it there, waiting for his eyes to adjust.
His hand slipped.
A scream cracked the dark air.
Frank leaped away.
The scream became a moan. The moan became sobs. Then, silence.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Frank looked up. “Who’s there?”
The voice met a laugh. “Not exactly who.”
She leaned in. Frank blinked. Things came into focus. She had wings, and horns, and red eyes. Behind her: black trees, heavy gray skies.
“Then what are you?”
“Not a what either.”
“Will you tell me where I am?”
“Leave me alone, then.”
“I’ll see you soon,” she said.
There was a rustle, a snap. The scream rang out again. Frank held his ears. When it faded, he straightened up. He looked around at the forest and then at the forest floor,littered with branches.
He walked over to a big sturdy tree and placed his hand on it. It was warm. It felt sad. He put one foot on a lower branch and hefted himself up. He climbed higher. About halfway up the tree, a branch broke. The scream started but faded fast.
“What are you doing?” it asked.
Frank started. He slipped and fell back to the forest floor.
“What the hell? Was that you?” he asked the tree. Getting closer, he reached out and snapped off a twig. Beneath it, a set of soft red lips.
“Hello?” the tree said. It sounded scared, sad.
“Hello,” Frank said. He frowned. “What’s your name?”
“Hi, Melanie. Can you tell me why I’m talking to a tree?”
“I’m not a tree,” the tree said, stronger. “I’m—”
The tree fell silent. Frank reached out and snapped another branch.
“A girl!” the tree finished.
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Are you somewhere else?”
“No. I’m here. I’m always here and always will be, I suppose.”
“Do all the trees here talk?”
Frank broke off another branch.
“Do you know why you are here?”
There was a pause. “Yes. The women like to tell us.”
“The flying ones. They come and they break our branches. They taunt us.”
“Why?” Frank asked. He felt like reaching out and laying a hand on the tree in comfort but resisted.
“For what we did to ourselves.”
“What?” Frank asked.
The tree did not respond as bark grew over the spot where the lips had been.
Frank looked down at his own wrists. He noticed a few leaves growing from the wounds, and ripped them off.
“So, all of these trees are people?”
The tree was silent. Frank reached out to break off another branch. He stopped. He walked to the tree beside it and snapped a branch. This one yelled. A deep voice emerged from two thick bearded lips.
“Fuck off you dick-blooded cockroaches,” it cried. “When I get out of here…!!”
“Hey!” Frank yelled.
“You bat fuckers, I’ll-”
“Hey!” Frank shouted over him, “I’m not here to torment you. I only want some answers!” Frank called out.
“Oh,” the tree said, “You sound new. How are-”
Frank cracked off another branch.
“Where am I? What’s going on here?”
“Ah, right. So — long to short since you’ve only got short, you’ll be a tree soon and some flying shitbags are going to break your branches off — which hurts by the way — and torment you for all of eternity, or, well, so far…”
Frank stepped back. He felt his legs growing stiff. He shook one violently. In a desperate spasm. He stopped.
“Thank you,” he told the tree, and took off running.
As he did, he grabbed branch after branch of each tree he passed. As they broke, screams tore through the forest. But he yelled louder. He yelled only one thing.
One name. Sara. If he could find her, they could find David. They could be together again.
The branches cascaded around him as roots grew from his toes into the earth. He ripped them with each painful step, shouting, “Sara! Sara Morgan!” He ignored his skin growing hard and rough. He ignored his legs trying to pull together into a trunk. He only listened, for the tiniest hint.
Then, he heard it. In the cacophony, a small voice cried out. “Frank?”
He turned back and ran toward it.
“It’s me, it’s me,” he said.
He moved slower and slower, each creaking step, his knuckles becoming knobs, his fingers blossoming into thick black leaves as he slammed an arm down on the branch of the tree. A pair of gently wrinkled pink lips emerged.
“Frank,” they said, “oh, Frank, what have you done?”
Frank’s eyes became knots, his legs fused together and he sprouted into the gray sky, rising further and faster, unable to respond.
Benjamin Davis is the author of a novella, The King of FU (Nada Blank), and shorter works appearing in Star 82 Review, Maudlin House, 5×5, Cease, Cows, and elsewhere. More of his work can be found at benjamindaviswriter.com.
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