Dedicated to Peter Meindertsma
The love of my life and the next.
Without you, this book would have never existed.
Dogs in Business Suits by Deanna Suckling
Published in 2014 by Deanna Suckling
On the web: http://corpsetea.tumblr.com/
Please send errors to Deanna.Suckling@gmail.com
Publisher: Deanna Suckling
Editor, Art Director, Designer: Deanna Suckling
Copyright © 2014 Deanna Suckling
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording or any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.
Hey, when you see all these billions of messages, can you just send me a keysmash or lol or :) so I know you're ok?
Cause it's not even saying you're seeing these and you've been gone for a long time when you usually stay up late so....I just had a random worry that something bad might have happened to you.
It was a Sunday night, naps all day always made it difficult to go to bed at a reasonable time for a 6:30 a.m. wake up for work in the morning.
It had been two hours of messaging her boyfriend.
She had watched several mindless videos on Youtube and tv show episodes on the Netflix account they shared. Well, it was his account, she just so happened to have him logged in on her computer from all their Saturday date nights and sometimes happened to click on a movie or tv show now and then. She still giggled whenever a romantic comedy popped up on his recommendations, knowing that her flood of watching them had permanently changed his queue forever.
She checked the clock on her laptop again.
She wasn't the most sane of people. Then again sane is relative. For most people these days, sane just meant keeping your mouth shut long enough to make it to bed and sleep until you have to wake up and keep it shut again. If dogs decided not to walk on four legs and chase their tails, instead replacing them with coffee and a job at a local newspaper, we would tell them to stop. They're animals. They shouldn't do things that don't come naturally.
Sometimes she wondered if dogs thought the same of humans.
She checked the clock again.
Time went so slow in moments she wanted gone. But with him, time went so fast she felt like she was on a roller coaster with no safety rails or seat belts.
Desperately grabbing for something to hold onto.
It was usually him.
Lately, she had bad dreams. She wanted a better house. She wanted to live on that roller coaster all the time. She was battling a weird maternal instinct she never wanted to awaken. She wanted to be a stepmother to his son. She didn't have plans. She didn't know where she was going. She was a dog in a business suit, drinking coffee. She wanted to chase her tail...
Message seen at 12:03 a.m.
A long pause that felt like an hour but really was just five minutes. Too long of time spent waiting for a reply to all her messages. Then she couldn't wait.
Holy fuck, you don't realize how worried I was. lol
No response again for some time. Even after a few more hurried messages.
So can you send me something so I know the person showing these as read isn't a police officer who just happened to find your phone after you got in a car wreck?
She tried to keep a lighthearted view on it. She worried too often. He was usually busy. He was fine.
She didn't want to think about if he wasn't fine.
He had to be fine.
She loved him and if the universe was just, then that should make him invincible. All people who were in love should be. Life sucks too much already for a sad ending to a romantic comedy or even romantic drama.
Love should just make people invincible and happy.
You are ok, right?
It was getting too late. She had to wake up in six hours and work for eight. But she was worried. What if he got in a car crash? What if she had been too honest about the weird maternal instinct she was developing for him? What if someone he loved had died? She didn't want him to disappear.
….When people talk about death, they always say that you see your life flash before your eyes or a light at the end of a long tunnel.
All he saw was Christmas lights. Blue. Red. Blue. Red. A pause of yellow.
It was quiet. He couldn't move his head in the the headlights of the red car. Or he thought it was red. There was very little time to catch the sight of it barreling towards him and there was nothing in his line of vision but the pavement, the curb of the sidewalk on the other side of the road, and the long line of twinkling Christmas lights tied together by the dark green of their cord.
Blue. Red. Blue. Red. A slow drawn out purple.
It had sped its way through the red light at the intersection, hitting him and only stopping after the tires crushed one of his legs. That was the last sensation he had felt. Coldness in a place that shouldn't feel cold. A strain then snap of excruciating pain before going numb. He couldn't tell if that was the only place he was injured. He was numb all over now. Silent.
Yellow. Blue. Red. Purple. Green. Red. Red. Blue. Purple. Yellow. Green. Red. Red. Red.
So much red. Red was touching the edge of his still vision. Tainting the pavement and growing out.
White. A flashing white. It was his phone. Laying there just two feet from the red.
He desperately wanted to reach out and grab his phone. Text her. Tell her he was alright and would be home soon. That he would see her tomorrow for an impromptu date and even bring her flowers, chocolate, gummy worms, anything to make her smile. She would text back laughing, asking him who he was and what he did with the real Alan.
The phone interrupted its own white flashing with another stuttered flash of white. Another message.
He had been texting her right before the speeding car had ran the red light. They were talking about how she had started to develop feelings towards him and more importantly his son. She was starting to feel motherly and it was scaring her, after all, she was terrified of having children and disliked a lot of things that came with pregnancy and parenting. And yet, she felt like a stepmother to his child and wanted to know if that was alright. She was confused and worried that she was overstepping her bounds. She was often, but he usually chuckled and let her know that if he had a problem with it, he would have said so earlier.
His son. Rylee. He didn't want to grasp that painful thought just yet.
Red. Blue. Red. Blue. Red. Blue.
The colors of the Christmas lights were drowned out by the flashes of red and blue. It was still silent, but he knew what the source was. The booted feet of a policeman walking silently across his still vision confirmed it for him. He couldn't see anything other than those boots for a long time.
White. A pause. White. White.
The white flash appeared on his phone again, once, then twice in succession. It was just visible behind the black boots. He knew without looking that Erynn was worried.
The boots moved after a moment and more lights flooded the space of his frozen vision. There was a rush of boots and dress shoes passing him, someone kneeling over him and flashing a light in his eyes. The woman checking him turned off the tiny flashlight after a moment, a grim expression on her face. He thought that she could have asked him if he was dead instead of blinding him for a solid two minutes with that horrid penlight, to which he would have replied that yes, he was, thank you very much and could she please pass him his phone so he could message his girlfriend that he loved her very much and text his ex-wife that she better take care of their son or he would haunt her ass until the end of time.
Speaking of time, how much had passed?
What looked like the metal leg of a gurney was wheeled out in front of him, then he was hoisted up and onto it, his only warning was his vision as all other senses had forsaken him just after the red car had decided to use him as a crash test dummy. It was then that it hit him that this was not a joke, not something to laugh at, not something that he would recover from and tell to friends at a bar later, but reality. Cold stone harsh reality.
He was dead.
That's when the panic hit him. He was dead. He was dead and he was slowly being zipped up into a black body bag. He was dead and wouldn't see his son again! He was dead and wouldn't see Erynn again! He was dead!
The zipper on the bag caught at just below his knee. Notably, it was his right knee, the knee he injured seven years earlier in a frankly embarrassing marching incident while he was in the air force. It also happened to be the leg that had been ground into a lovely mush, the paramedics tossing what remained of his foot under the grotesque stub. That leg just had it out for him.
The zipper finally tugged free and slowly made it up his body, well, corpse now, he guessed. He was terrified. The heavy black void of the inside of the bag was swallowing him whole and he knew, just instinctively knew that once that darkness zipped over his eyes, it was over. This last moment of clinging to this world, clinging to his son and girlfriend in the living world, would be gone, just like him.
He didn't know what to do, so he did the only thing his soul was screaming at him that he wanted to do. He reached for his phone with a dead hand he could not move. Reaching, straining, willing the limp, blood soaked hand to move through the deaf world and grab his phone.
Rylee. Erynn. Rylee! Erynn!
Everything crashed into him at once, worse than the red sports car had. The sirens were deafening. People were talking and shouting and gasping with tears in their eyes, gawking at the tragedy much in the way humans do, with awe, fear, and a dreaded excitement. The pavement hit his shoulder hard and he collapsed to the ground in an ungraceful heap. It hurt and was cold. The lights were blinding and he was wet with red.
White, paired this time with a small barely audible beep.
He had his phone in his hand. Without waiting for the screams of people around him in answer to a dead man falling out of the body bag and off the gurney just to check his phone, he hit the button at the top of the screen to display the messages.
The clock flashed 12:03 a.m. at him as he looked at the messages. He stopped. It had been two hours since he was hit by the car. That couldn't be right.
Suddenly the sounds around him stopped, making him look up from his phone. The street was empty. There were no police officers or bystanders staring at the bloody stain that had been his body. No evidence that a car had hit anyone in the intersection other than tire marks where the sports car had skidded on its brakes before cracking into him and eventually stopping halfway over his corpse. It was the same quiet night downtown that it had been before death had decided to screw him over.
He just laid there in the middle of the street for a moment, curled up on the ground in his gray hoodie with a blood soaked hand in his dirty blonde hair and the other wrapped around his phone. It had been two hours since he was hit by a car, but he was laying there as if he had chosen the street as a comfortable bed for the night after losing a rather epic fight with a gang of red paint cans.
Holy fuck, you don't realize how worried I was. lol
Alan stared at his phone. He was holding it and she knew he had seen her messages. He could touch it!
He sat up quickly, about to reply to her message and tell her everything and how downright fucked up things were right now and how he thought he lost her and his son and...
There was a gross squelching sound as he sat back on his knees and slid slightly. He looked down. His right leg was still a gross mush just under the knee, his shin unrecognizable as anything other then a red paste. The white of bone was sticking out, broken into pieces that looked like shrapnel all along it. His foot that was connected by a shred of muscle that hadn't given up the ghost just yet was bent at an odd angle that made him grimace. The whole front of his hoodie was red, a few large holes from being dragged a few feet over rough pavement where visible. Under them, a thick paste of red mush like his leg and the left side of his ribcage was concave in a way he knew wasn't normal or survivable. The sleeves of his hoodie were torn badly and the same road burn was along his arms, blood still dripping onto the pavement.
He was dead. He was still dead. He was still dead and sitting where he had died with his phone in his hand.
You are ok, right?
He steeled himself, lifted the phone and hit the empty space to start typing a reply.
No. I'm dead and I love you. Please make sure Rylee grows up loved. Please don't fall apart without me. I love you.
His fingers went right through the phone when he tried to type the message. He tried again and again but only succeeded in frustrating himself further. With a heavy sigh that he knew probably wasn't possible with half his chest caved in, he gave up and just sat there. His eyes looked over the words again, not leaving them even as a car drove right through his incorporeal body.
You are ok, right?
Then he scrolled up and read every message she had sent that evening, even those he had seen before his untimely death and answered. She had worried. Erynn had sent him messages all through the two hours, most were her simply talking at him and hoping he would sum up a reply or comment when he got around to them. But there was one that caught his eye more than the others.
I just got a really bad feeling, Alan. Like the worst spike of anxiety ever. Where are you tonight?
It was sent the exact time the car had hit him. Not only had she worried, she knew. And there was another one sent just a few minutes ago, lighthearted and just sent so Alan could easily comfort her with a joke that yes, he totally was dead and Satan was showing him around the V.I.P. lounge and handing him a rather good rum and coke.
So can you send me something so I know the person showing these as read isn't a police officer who just happened to find your phone after you got in a car wreck?
He halfheartedly attempted to reply again, but his fingers phased through the phone every time he tried to message her back. They were solid when he used them to scroll up and down the messages, but the second he tried to send word back to the land of the living, his hand was suddenly translucent and unable to even feel the glass on his finger tips.
He couldn't do a thing but watch her frantic messages come in and read. Reread. Reread again.
He blinked as a red light covered the usual flashing white of a message on his phone. The battery wasn't low and that light usually only appeared when it was. That confused him as he glanced over the screen. A small little circle was sitting in his received messages, an icon that wasn't familiar to him. He pressed it.
“You'll drive yourself crazy doing that.”
Alan jumped, dropping his phone onto the pavement as the voice erupted from his phone's speakers suddenly. The phone bounced against the ground hard then landed with its screen facing the dark night sky, a large red dot with a phone receiver inside it glowing on the mostly black screen.
“You might not want to do that. If you break the only tie you have to the living world, you disappear to some place you really don't want to go.” The voice was younger then him, female, and very familiar. It sounded faintly concerned but soft, like it knew the terrifying truth of death already and the worse horror of finding out that it wasn't actually where everything ended. “You're still here after all. So I know you don't want to leave just yet.”
Alan knew that voice. He heard it several days a week when their busy schedules allowed it. He had heard it moaning, laughing, and rough from just waking from a long sleep. That soft concern was often only used when she asked if his knee was hurting him more than usual or when talking about how much he was missing his son and wondering if they should take the seven hour trip up to see him.
“Kinda. Anyway, I'll explain that later. You need to pick your phone back up. When you're not touching it, it's not incorporeal. The next oncoming car could easily crush it and like I said, you don't want that.”
Alan scrambled over to his phone, dragging himself over to where he had accidentally tossed it while dragging his nearly amputated leg behind him. He picked it up and examined it. It was mostly alright, a small scuff on the black case and the special cover he had on it to protect the screen but other then that, it had survived the rough treatment. He looked over the screen to see it was entirely black except for the red circle in the middle that almost looked like an enlarged end call button.
“Now, time to pick yourself back up. You had the strength to pull yourself into binding with an object in the living world, I'm sure you can pull yourself together enough to stand up.” Erynn said, a huff of quiet laughter echoing through the phone after as if laughing at her own words without making a big show of it. Alan glanced down at his mutilated leg.
“I kinda don't have full function of both my legs right now.” He wasn't sure what else to say. This was all overwhelming and he knew he should be asking so many questions or panicking or losing his mind, but he felt distanced from it all and he was talking to Erynn. He had thought he lost her just moments ago, well, two hours ago but he couldn't remember that much time passing and his heart was still beating like a racehorse from the flood of panic and adrenaline. It worried him for a second that he could feel it beating, wasn't he dead?
“Focus, Alan.” Erynn giggled through the phone's speakers. “You're not held by the same laws of the living anymore. You can stand up. Just try. For Rylee and Erynn.”
He hesitated, knowing that he could feel his heart beating in his chest even though it should have been still and worried more then anything about the pain he would feel if he moved to stand. But at the mention of his girlfriend and more importantly his almost five year old son, he braced himself against the ground with the hand not holding his phone and slowly raised his left leg under him before pushing up and putting his weight on both of his legs. He stood up.
To his surprise, there was no pain. When he looked down, he was fine. There were both his legs, perfectly normal and clean. His jeans and hoodie were intact if not a bit dirty, just like they had been before the accident that took his life. For a moment, he wondered if he hadn't actually died. Maybe he was dreaming.
“See? There we go.” Erynn's voice dripped sweetly from the phone before dropping down into that concerned softness. “Now then, maybe it's time we met up and I explain a thing or two more about where you are. And before you try walking off and ignoring the fact that yes, you are dead, well, yeah, you are. Sorry.”
“Okay.” Alan said, not sure what else to say as he stared at the phone in his hands. He wondered how he was talking to Erynn if he was dead and if it wasn't her, then who was using her voice to speak to him. “How do I find you?”
“I'm at the end of the street, near our usual bar. Just keep walking.”
Alan nodded, then voiced his agreement despite knowing that she could somehow see him. He was confused and his heart was in his throat, yet he felt an odd calm over his mind. It was like his body, if he even had a body anymore which thinking on that made a pit open up in his stomach, knew that something was very wrong but his mind knew that this was how it was. How it was supposed to be.
No. It wasn't supposed to be this way. He had Erynn and Rylee to get back to in the land of the living and he would be damned if he was going to die at twenty-nine and leave them behind to mourn and fall apart without him. He knew Erynn would. She loved him like no other and was just managing to get her feet in a life of happiness she deserved. He couldn't have her thrown back into her depression like this. She was just managing to find that happiness or at least something like it.
And Rylee, his son, would be turning five this Christmas. Erynn and him were going to make time to go see him and bring him an old gameboy Erynn had kept from her childhood with a bunch of little games. Alan had already started Rylee down the path of video games with an old Nintendo system, one that was the very same he had when he was little older than Rylee. They were going to experience having a little family together and the thought of having the chance to be the stepmother she wanted to be made the brightest smile glow on Erynn's face.
He had to get back. Erynn and Rylee needed him and as much as he wouldn't tell you if you asked or even got him drunk, he needed them just as much.
Alan took a few slow steps, testing his ability to walk on legs he wasn't sure were even solid. He passed the long string of Christmas lights strung in the window of the bar he had been facing when he had been hit by the car. They made him pause and look at their flashing colors for a long moment, the thought crossing his mind that they were possibly the last things he had seen with his living eyes. Erynn had loved Christmas. It always put her in a very romantic mood that was almost sickeningly sweet.
Purple. Yellow. Blue. Red. Purple. Green. Red. Green. Red. Blue. Purple. Yellow. Green.
He tore his eyes away and made his way down the sidewalk, walking towards the Ugly Hound where Erynn and him often spent time together when they felt like a night out on the town. It was a rough establishment, mostly an oak bar where the scantily clad Hound girls danced and helped up other women onto the bar so they could shake their asses for fun. There where a few bar games setup and tables in the back where the less wild drinkers would sit back and enjoy the show rather than participate. Erynn always wanted to sit at the bar and was always the first woman to say yes to getting up on the bar with the Hound girls, always laughing and a bit tipsy from the hard ciders she loved to sip.
The street was empty except for the few people and cars passing by, no one willing to brave the chilled air long enough to hop bar to bar. No one noticed Alan. Even as he passed through a laughing couple, they didn't notice him trying his hardest not to bump into them. The girl with blonder hair than him holding tight to her girlfriend then doubled over from her laughter and phased right through his chest. He realized then that he didn't really need to dodge the living he was walking among. He still tried to move around them as best he could, not wanting the constant reminder that he was more than likely a visitor here than the resident he was before. That thought was greeted with another emotional punch to the gut.
Alan crossed the street, not bothering to look for cars this time as he had already lived that danger and was paying the price for it. The Ugly Hound was open but different than the last time he had been there. The lights were no longer warm but an icy blue that shrouded the bar in a cold light. It was empty except for the bouncer at the door and one bartender standing behind the bar rather than dancing on top of it. It was unusual for the party bar and it unnerved him greatly, though he knew that feeling wasn't going to go away anytime soon. He was sure.
The bouncer nodded at him as he came up to the door, able to see him and allowed him to enter. He looked no different than the other people walking along the street, except there was a thin line across his neck that looked to have been a part of an old realistic Halloween costume the man had forgotten to take off several months after the event. Alan didn't feel the need to ask if the man was dead as well. He already knew.
He walked up to the bar and took a seat on the black puff of a bar stool. It was mostly quiet in there, the jukebox playing a soft rock song in the corner at a barely audible volume but there was nothing more. Alan glanced at the mirror just above the bottles of various alcohols and mixers, seeing himself in the reflection and noticing that he looked normal. A bit tired but normal, save for a small patch of red on his hoodie hovering over his heart. Blood. More than likely a small reminder that he was dead in case he decided to let that important fact slip his mind.
The bartender appeared in front of him, knocking him out of his daze and leaning on the bar like it pained her to stand up straight. She had black natural hair and skin darker than the oak she leaned on. Her brown eyes rested on him but were unfocused like she had just chosen to rest in front of him rather than take his order. Alan didn't recognize her from the usual staff of the Hound girls.
“Anything I can get you, honey? Or are you waiting on someone?” She asked, her eyes blinking slowly and still not focused on him.
“Um... No, I'm good.” Alan said, glancing around the bar and seeing that it was still empty. The bartender went to stand up straight again but he turned back to her, realizing that if there was anytime for a drink, now would be it. His throat was really dry all of a sudden. “On second thought, yeah. I'd like a rum and coke. With Sailor Jerry.”
“Alright, sweetheart.” She gave him a sleepy smile before walking to the collection of alcohol lining the wall of the bar, grabbing a glass as she did. He watched her grab the bottle of Sailor Jerry rum and set the glass on the counter, reaching under the oak to find the drink fountain hose. She poured the rum in thickly as she filled the glass with coke, making the drink stronger than Alan normally took it but he could forgive her. He could use a stiffer drink about now anyway.
Alan didn't jump when he felt arms wrap around his neck loosely from behind him, knowing the action and who was doing it before he could become startled. He had been the target of the gesture many times before to know that face pressing into the back of his neck.
“Hey.” He said, surprised to find a smile on his lips and the wave of relief in his chest. He didn't realize just how scared he was that he might never get to feel her do that again.
“Hey, Alan.” Erynn's voice muttered into the skin of his neck as she rubbed her cheek against the crease where his hoodie stopped and the bare skin of his neck began. Her skin was cold and made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end as she held him, the cold sinking into him through his thick gray hoodie. “Glad you made it. I was worried you would just disappear and let the darkness take you. I'm really glad you didn't.”
Her arms loosened and fell back to her sides as the bartender placed his drink in front of him, a tall glass of hard cider next to it as if the bartender had known what the woman behind him was drinking already. The bartender graced them with another sleepy smile before walking away with a bit of a limp and disappearing into the back of the bar to restock.
Erynn sat down next to him, taking the hard cider from the bar and sipping at it with a soft sigh at the crisp apple taste that hit her tongue. Alan would have smiled and shook his head at the bliss on her face except he had finally gotten a full glimpse of her.
Her skin was an ashen white tinged with blue as if she had not taken a breath in a long time. She looked cold and was wearing a thick sweater, the black and white pattern familiar to him but it was more worn in then he had seen it. Was it an older one then the one she bought a few months back near Halloween?
Next, her hair was lighter. No longer the chocolatey brown that came to her chin, it was white and shined in the glow of the bar light as if it was luminescent itself. It was shorter than it had been the day before when he had seen her, less styled and more like she was in the process of growing it out. She looked like she had about a year ago but deader... It suddenly clicked for him.
“You're not Erynn.” The words dropped from Alan's mouth before he could phrase them better. The woman sitting next to him gave him a sad smile, her eyes green and beautiful to him as they had always been.
“Not exactly, no.” She lifted her glass to her lips again and took another sip before setting it down onto the bar. “That's what I came here to explain. That, and to help you get your second chance.”
“Okay. Let's start with you. I think I get it but... I'm confused why you're here.” Alan leaned forward so his elbows rested on top of the bar, his body still turned slightly towards her. He grabbed his drink, surprised to see the lime on the edge of it. He took the lime between his fingers and squeezed it into the dark brown liquid, wondering how the bartender knew how he liked his rum and coke. Erynn took a deep breath, catching his attention again as her small smile dropped into a sad and guilty one.
“People who have near death experiences come here.” She took another short sip of her hard cider before continuing, her posture turned away from him and shoulder slumped slightly from the weight of what was on her mind. “Those who nearly die or die for a few minutes before being revived come here. It's a sort of limbo hidden behind a veil in the living world. We're here but not here.”
Erynn looked up into the mirror, noticing the grim look on her own face before shaking her head and laughing softly at herself. Alan reached out and placed a hand on top of hers, the two ashen hands clutching the glass the cider was in were small compared to his. He took one and laced their fingers together, meeting her eyes when she looked over at him. There was a long moment of quiet, the drumming of the soft rock behind them echoing in the bar around them. She smiled.
“Before I got help, I ended up here a few times. I remember all the times I've come here when I arrive but when I go back to the living world, I don't remember this place at all. The only thing I remember back there is desperately wanting to see the person I came back for.” Erynn leaned forward and Alan let her kiss him. She pulled back after a moment, still looking to have a weight on her shoulders but she seemed to be carrying it better. “Each time, an echo is left behind. I'm Erynn from a year ago. The last time I came here and before you helped me get the help I needed. Thank you, by the way. I can sometimes find you and her here and she's... I'm so much happier. I can wait all eternity to have those memories and I'll treasure all of them.”
“You were the one brave enough to get help. I had nothing to do with that.” Alan interjected, but before he could go on, Erynn had a finger on his lips.
“Yes, but you helped her every step of the way. You motivated her whether intentional or not so... Just accept my gratitude and my help.” Erynn kissed him briefly again, her lips curved into a smile before she broke away from him with a small giggle and a sip of her hard cider.
“Okay.” Alan conceded with a smile and chuckle. He drank some of his rum and coke. It was more bitter than he usually had it and strong but the lime made up for it rather well so he took a few long sips before setting it down, somewhat tempted to take one of the ice cubes in his mouth to chew on like he sometimes did. “You mentioned that people leave echos. So am I an echo now?”
“Nope.” Erynn poked him hard in the chest, making him cover the spot and let out an exaggerated ouch to tease her. She shook her head at him and laughed. “Nope. You're not an echo. All of you is actually stuck in limbo right now. Well, all of you except your body. That might be in the process of being carted to the morgue right now. Again, sorry.”
Alan shrugged and took another long drink, knowing he should react worse to that news but it had been a long enough day in such a short time already. He stared at his reflection in the mirror. He knew he would just exhaust himself further reacting to every mention that he was dead and no longer in the same world as Erynn and Rylee. He tried hard not to show how much that thought hurt.
“But don't give up hope, Alan.” Erynn tightened her hand that was intertwined with his, making him meet her eyes again. “The fact that all of you is here is a good sign. Most people who die just disappear into the darkness and they don't even get a chance to show up here. You're here for a second chance!”
“You keep saying that. What does that mean?” Alan asked, rubbing a thumb across the back of her hand to make her grip loosen just slightly. She had a real grip when she got excited but she knew when to lighten up so he didn't lose all feeling in his hand. Though technically, he shouldn't really be concerned about that at this point.
“It means you have a chance to go back to the land of the living. To go right back where you were and live the rest of your life.” Erynn smiled widely, her emerald eyes betraying just how happy she was at the thought. It just stuck him that his death might have caused her panic and pain as well. “It'll be hard and difficult and you'll end up leaving behind your first echo, but I know you can do it. You have such strong reasons to go back. That's almost always the deciding factor for everyone who manages to go back. You need to have to.”
“So how do I? I lost two hours just trying to get here. Erynn must be panicking back in the living world. I hope she went to bed instead of staying up crying over the news that I'm dead...”
“That will all depend on you.” Erynn pulled her hand away from his to pick up her drink and take a long gulp of it, ending it with a big satisfied sigh before glancing up at the mirror and looking at the two of them in it. Alan joined her after a moment of scrutinizing her, trying to read anything from her but she just kept her eyes on the mirror. “It's different for everyone but always hard. Death doesn't want to let go of those in its grasp. And it will hurt more then dying. And you will have to live with the memory of it if you ever come back here. You're echo has to live with it as long as you live as well.”
Erynn met his eyes in the mirror, her expression serious and severe. He noticed that her breath was shaky despite how hard she was trying to look strong to him. Alan nodded, resisting reaching out and pulling her to him like he did so many times before to stop her from crying or falling into an anxiety attack.
“So Alan... Do you want to see Rylee and Erynn again?” She asked, her voice tense and strained as if she was trying to hold it back from becoming shaky and unclear.
Alan didn't hesitate. He reached out for her hand, taking it in his as he broke their eye contact in the mirror, his free hand tilting her head to him as he kissed her. It was a long moment as she relaxed into him, murmuring into the kiss softly as the tension and cold melted from her body. In that moment, she was reminded why she fought so hard to come back for him so many times before and why death was the last thing she was afraid of when she was with him. Erynn had the hand not holding his tangled in his hair when they finally pulled apart, her eyes dreamy and happy when he finally replied.
“More then anything.”
“Okay.” Erynn whispered softly, looking into his eyes blue enough to make the sky jealous. She loved this man. “Okay. We should get going then. The longer you're here, the more likely you'll be stuck here. There are rules, after all.”
“Should I know those rules?” Alan asked, moving to tuck a stray white hair behind her ear so it was no longer in her face. She shook her head, loosening the strand again. “Too complicated to explain in a short time?”
“More than you can guess. The only important thing you have to know is that this world is governed only by Death's rules. Death will give you a chance to go back, but it's only a chance. It's not a guarantee.” Erynn paused to let that sink in. Alan nodded, looking unperturbed at the information so she continued. “And when I said it would be more painful than dying, I mean that Death will do its hardest to make you want to stay dead. It'll throw everything at you and do anything to convince you to stay. Death is the master of dirty tricks, so please, be vigilant to what's going on in this world while you're here.”
“I got it. So how do we start? I'd really like to get back to the land of the living before Erynn... Before Erynn falls apart at the bad news.”
Alan felt his throat seize up at the thought of his lovely Erynn hearing that he was dead. He could practically picture the shock in her face before she shut down completely, denying it violently before locking herself away from the world and losing the energy to do anything. He had seen her like that a year ago when the stress of work, family and him had gotten to her in the most horrific way. He wasn't always the perfect boyfriend, but he vowed never to see her like that again and treat her right. She was happier now... or at least until she heard that he was gone. His mouth felt too dry and he lifted the rum and coke up to take a long drawn out swig of it.
“You still have your phone right?” Alan pulled out his phone from the pocket of his hoodie where he had stashed it when he entered the bar. The screen was still black with the strange glowing red button in the center that looked exactly like the end button that usually appeared when he was calling someone, except that was all that appeared on the screen. He looked over it, confused since he believed that Erynn had been the one to change it to that strange screen but it was still there. “Good. Now, all you have to do is hit the end button.”
“The end button?” Alan paused, not sure why that made something icy drop into his stomach. It sounded more ominous than he liked. Now that he thought about it, didn't she just say that Death would do anything it took to keep him here. “How do I know I can trust you?”
Erynn looked slightly alarmed at the question then a slow proud smile spread across her face. She leaned over and kissed him deeply. He let her and closed his eyes for a moment, really missing Erynn more than he would like to admit but he knew he would feel hollow if he didn't accept this kiss just for a moment. He didn't see her hand reaching across him and a long finger tap the end call button on his phone, he only felt it and a grip of cold seize his body. Then she was gone.
When he opened his eyes, he realized that she hadn't left. He had.
The room around him had tall vaulted ceilings with towering pillars at the four corners of the room, the pillars made of thick polished obsidian that seemed to loom like they were made of the void itself. The walls were covered in a beautiful muted blue wallpaper smeared with black decorated with the images of what looked like tiny stars dancing in the distance. The floor was a dark marble, black with odd cracks of light azure that glowed with the white candles littering the room to illuminate it in a warm but strangely cold glow, contradicting how his body wanted to react to the temperature in the room.
It was a huge cathedral area, lofty in height and could fit the two rows of dusty pews inside it, but was far too small to fit those and much else. In front of the grayish blue wooden pews stood an old style elevator shaft in the middle, black iron bars winding along its shaft in beautiful curves that looked as if it was made of the vines of flowers rather than cold hard metal. The elevator's iron bar doors where the entrance to the lift was were shut, the elevator not there just yet.
“Where am I?” Alan asked the barren room, puffs of visible warm breath leaving his lips and fading into the growing icy air around him as he spoke. He crossed his arms over his chest and pulled them tight to try and ward off the biting frost of the room but to no avail. Funny enough, the memory of Erynn giggling and joking that his body heat was so high he could heat up a whole room came to mind. She had poor circulation and often had ice cold hands and feet that felt nice in the summer but made him just shiver worse in the winter. She had a habit of cuddling up to him at all times of the year, but she was getting better at pulling a blanket over her hands and feet in the winter until they warmed up on their own. He always smiled at how considerate she tried to be toward him.
A voice pulled him out of his thoughts of Erynn. It was coming from the speakers of his cell phone again, the red end call button still the only thing glowing on his screen.
“Where you need to be.” It was Erynn's voice still, echoing through the empty cathedral clear as a bell and filling the whole room.
“Am I dead dead now?” Alan asked, starting to bristle and fume at the thought. He didn't know if he could trust her anymore, if it was even her he was speaking to. He couldn't even be sure it was Erynn at all, echo or not. All she had told him could have just been lies to trick him into leaving Rylee and the real Erynn behind to mourn and fall apart without him in the living world.
“No.” The reply was simple and soft, her tone that of the one Erynn used when she was sure Alan was mad at her. He didn't know if that pissed him off more or if he should take a breather and apologize. What if it really was Erynn's echo? He didn't want to yell at her if she really was there to help him. There wasn't anyone or anything else here that could guide him back to the land of the living and he wasn't too sure he could figure it out on his own either. He was stuck.
“Okay... I still don't trust whoever you are.” Alan looked around the room and saw there were no other doors other than the shut iron grate leading into the elevator shaft, which stood silent and almost seemed as if it was beckoning to him. “But I don't have any other choice. I don't have any leverage here but I have to ask one thing from you. Do you promise this is actually a chance to get back to Rylee and Erynn? A real chance?”
The phone was quiet for a long moment. He felt the tension build inside him, a thought crossing his mind of throwing the phone onto the ground and stomping on it, willing to rather break his tie to the living world then play some game that was all a lie for something's amusement. He wouldn't be a toy for whatever was watching him. This was serious and he wasn't going to dick around with the thought of Erynn crying alone over him and Rylee growing up without his dad.
“Yes. I promise. This is a real chance to live again. A real chance to be with Rylee and Erynn again. I promise.”
“Then, I'm guessing I need to get on that elevator next.” Alan looked up as a high pitched clanging suddenly filled the room, the heavy metal chain hanging in the dead center of the elevator shaft cranking up and shifting noisily as it pulled something up and up. It chugged and strained against the weight it was carrying as if it was a heavy burden to bear. There was a loud hiss of what sounded like steam from a large engine as the elevator arrived, the silver box halting into a resting position and sitting there unmoving.
Alan felt his skin crawl from something other than the low temperature of the room. The elevator's iron bar doors slid open with a quiet grating sound, revealing the sleek steel interior of the lift that stood out in the room as the most modern piece in it. It seemed to call to him to step inside as the chill of the room bit into him through his hoodie. He took a few steps forward cautiously, his eyes scanning the interior as if expecting something to emerge from it. The prickling on his skin did not go away and he felt tense, like an animal that was being hunted.
He wasn't alone in the room now.
“Hmm? What's going on?” Erynn said, her voice distant like she was facing away from whatever she was using to talk to him. There was a commotion on the other end. Some distant yelling, a low scream, what sounded like a bar stool being knocked to the ground and heavy breathing from Erynn as if she was scared. “Y-You're not allowed in here! How did you even find this place-?!”
Erynn screamed through the phone making Alan jump and call out to her through the other end. The open elevator still loomed in front of him as if it knew what was going on. It pinged as the sound of a struggle and screaming played from the speakers of his phone, feedback overlapping with the sounds as his phone tried to keep up with the ruckus that became louder. There was the sound of scratching and banging as things were knocked over, a scream that wasn't Erynn dying out halfway through and the heavy breathing of her running.
“Erynn, what's going on?” Alan asked, the sounds of fighting and screaming fading into the background. Erynn was breathing heavily through the phone speakers, sobbing here and there when she could get the breath. She was scared. “Erynn, calm down. What's going on?”
“I don't know!” She gasped, the sounds of her running slowing into a walk and then stopping. There was a shuffle of fabric before muffled sobbing was the only noise he could hear. He knew she had gotten away and more than likely found an alleyway to duck into and curl up. She was panicking and scared. He pressed the end call button, not to break the connection but in hope that it would take him to wherever she was in that moment.
Nothing happened. He was still standing there in the cold of the cathedral room with the elevator pinging softly once more for him to get on.
“Erynn.” Alan made his voice soft but audible enough for the scared echo of his girlfriend to hear. “Erynn, how do I get back to you? I'll be right there as soon as I can, but you need to tell me how to get back to you. I don't know how.”
“Neither do I.” Erynn sniffed, another sound of fabric rustling and a murmur telling Alan that she was desperately rubbing at red wet eyes. “All I knew was how to get you where you needed to be. Everything else is... It's different. It's all dependent on you. I don't know where you are and I don't know how to get you back here. Where are you?!” She was sobbing harder now.
“Erynn... I'll try to get there. Just tell me where you are and I'll find a way to get there.” Alan knew she was amidst a panic attack. He didn't know what had happened but it sounded bloody and terrifying. He had to get to her or she'd hyperventilate and cry until she felt safe again. That could be hours and he would be damned if he let her suffer through that alone.
“I'm-” She shrieked. There was a loud, deafening crack then absolute silence.
“Erynn? Erynn?!” Alan shouted at the phone, but it was quiet. He tried hitting the end call button furiously, but it only glowed at him in response. He turned and kicked one of the wooden pews next to him, the dust rising in clouds from it as it shook. It did nothing but make his foot ache from the harsh treatment.
Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping.
The elevator was pinging constantly now, signaling for him to get on loudly and persistently. With one more glance around the room to confirm that there really was no other way to go, Alan walked toward the elevator. He stopped just in front of it. It was empty and pristine other than two strange scorch marks on the steel floor in the center of it. They looked exactly like foot prints. Foot prints that were his size.
After a minute of staring at the inside of the elevator and hearing its continued pinging, he knew he had to go. If anything, he had to find Erynn. Whether he could trust this 'echo' of hers or not, she was still enough like the woman he loved that he couldn't stand aside and let whatever was on the other side of that phone conversation take her or worse, hurt her. He still didn't understand this world or if it was even possible for Erynn to get hurt as an echo, but he wasn't going to assume that there weren't horrible things that could be done to the soul here. They were bound by Death's rules and not the usual rules of the living. Though he didn't know all or even any of the rules, Death had times it could be cruel. He knew that much.
He took a deep breath and exhaled it heavily, the cold of the room making it plume out into a wisp of expanding white fog. He stepped inside the elevator, the iron doors shutting behind him in a grinding motion before clanking together and locking.
The pristine steel interior shined in the light of the four electric lights from the ceiling onto the shining metal floor, making the entire room bright except for the blackened marks in the center of the lift. There was a control panel with the standard buttons of up or down on the right side of the iron doors.
Only one button was glowing as if beckoning him to press it, up. He glanced at the down button, furrowing his brow at how it looked to have been torn from the panel, scorched black like the footprints in the middle of the lift with circuits sticking out of it every which way. He hit the up button, feeling heat from the sparking button below it as the elevator dinged pleasantly. It shook roughly as if dislodging itself from something before slowly rising upward smoother then he would have expected.
Alan looked down at his phone, still resting in his hand and silent. He ran the tip of his tongue over his bottom lip, remembering that not more than a few stray minutes ago he had been kissing Erynn. And now he had no idea where she was, only that she was scared and wanted him. Needed him. She always did when things got bad. It wasn't his choice, it was hers and she had accepted and embraced that he could always make her feel better in the most abhorrent of situations. He only hoped that this lift led to wherever she was.
There was a chance that it wouldn't. His main focus was to get back to the land of the living. Saving Erynn's echo could lose him his opportunity for a second chance, he knew that. He also knew that he couldn't just listen to Erynn sob and scream from terror without trying to comfort her, to help her. He had come a long way from how he was a year ago. He wasn't going to go back. He loved her and was learning to fall in love with her.
Alan wasn't going to be that old Alan ever again. Not after how happy he had seen Erynn when things were finally better, when they both had grown.
The elevator suddenly lurched under Alan's feet, making him clumsily stumble. He clutched his phone, too close to dropping it as the lift suddenly lurched again and started to swing. He stuffed his phone into the pocket of his hoodie, still holding it tightly but hoping there would be less chance of him dropping it in there as he grabbed at the smooth wall beside him in an attempt to not topple to the floor of the elevator.
There was heavy creaking above him along with a loud clink of metal on metal. The lift fell downward a few feet before stopping abruptly, forcing Alan to slam his spine against the back steel wall. He grunted in pain before the lift fell into full free fall, his stomach going into his chest where his heart kicked a huge surge of adrenaline into his system, He was falling weightlessly in the confines of a steel trap with no way out. There had to be a bottom of the elevator shaft surging towards him at breakneck speed and all he could do was breathe heavily and panic at the thought of impact. He was dead, but in that moment he forgot all about anything but the inevitable crash.... and Rylee... and Erynn.
He crashed down with the elevator, his body hitting the steel floor with enough force to feel like he had just cracked his skull open and shattered his ribcage. The sound of it was tremendous and he was sure it had busted one of his eardrums.
It was the strangest thing that in that moment he remembered Erynn smiling at him and telling him about her fortunes from the cheap fortune cookies she got in various takeout boxes when she was eating for one some nights. The silly fact that she had told him that she hoped that good things were really coming her way. Alan had shrugged and said maybe, if you really believed in those sort of things. Erynn had shaken her head at him. She said that she liked to believe in the good ones.