Stepping Out of My Grave by David Berardelli

EXTRACT FOR
Stepping Out of My Grave

(David Berardelli)


Stepping Out of My Grave

PART 1

THE JOURNEY

 

Chapter 1

 

When I opened my eyes, I found that I was standing on the lid of a casket in an open grave.

Not a pleasant experience, to say the least. I would have preferred just about any other setting—except, maybe, standing on the ledge of a thirty-story building. Or crawling on a wing of a plane in flight. 

But this was bad enough. I was standing in a cemetery and it was late in the day. Anyone could tell it was a cemetery—the gravestones were dead giveaways, please excuse the pun.

A giant swell of heat rushed up my back.

Casket. Grave. Cemetery. 

Definitely not a good omen.

Possibly the worst omen one can think of. 

I closed my eyes again and held them shut. When I opened them again, I was convinced I’d find myself in my own bed, awakening from some strange dream. I have strange dreams all the time. Some involve misshapen creatures running around, making weird noises, others a beautiful leather-clad woman whispering sexy things in my ear. Most are nonsensical, pointless vignettes, usually starring members of my software company.

But I knew that when I opened my eyes again, everything would be all right. I might even find myself in a dream with Leather Babe this time.

I opened them. My heart sank.  

I was still standing on top of that damned casket. No Leather Babe, no creatures. No one from the office.

Was this real?

It couldn’t be. For one thing, it made no sense. I didn’t even know how the hell I even got here.

Only moments ago, I was crossing the road outside my apartment, heading for the mailboxes. 

What the hell happened?

I was a logical sort of guy. I had to be, given my profession as one of the heads of a software company. My career depended on solving problems.  One important thing I’d learned long ago was that to solve a problem, going back to its source was the best way of figuring it out. You did it calmly and carefully and if you didn’t panic or lose your train of thought, you’d eventually find your answer.

I could solve this. I knew I could. All I had to do was go back and take it step by step.

Last thing I remembered, I was leaving my apartment. I was alone, had finished breakfast and just made a fresh pot of coffee. Then I went outside to get my mail. 

I live by myself in a two-bedroom garden apartment in Winter Park.  My place sits in one of those newer developments they’ve stuck in the middle of a cleared field that was once someone’s farm in the old days, before Disney and Universal Studios and everyone else turned the quiet little town of Orlando into the mega-mess it is today. By the time the apartments were finished, the once-peaceful area was surrounded by a shopping plaza, two strip malls, a mega theater, a foreign car dealership and half a dozen filling stations. Everything is within walking distance. 

Our mailboxes stand in metal clusters across the street at each corner. A mere fifty feet away from my front porch. The posted speed limit is 15, making the process of grabbing your bills and newspaper convenient, safe and much less traumatic than crossing a main road or major highway. 

I crossed the street as I normally do. I remember listening to the agitated squawking of the sea gulls one hears regularly in Central Florida. I also remember thinking that if I closed my eyes and forced myself to drown out the heavy wash of traffic noise, I might well imagine myself on the beach, watching the bikinis parading by.

When I was about three-quarters of the way to the boxes, the roar of someone’s tricked-out muscle car or pickup tore into the warm breeze somewhere on my right, shattering my beach vision. I didn’t think too much of it at the time. About a quarter of a mile from our entrance, Semoran Boulevard constantly roars with heavy traffic. When the wind is just right, it sounds like the flow is directly outside the door. In Florida, peace and quiet quickly become fond memories. The longer you live here, the less the commotion fazes you. 

Although my mind hinted that a freight train was quickly coming up behind me, I knew that didn’t make sense. The closest station was miles away. Even if it was closer, a freight train wouldn’t be allowed to enter the complex. 

My mind had played tricks on me countless times before.

What was different now? 

The noise was loud. Hell, it was deafening.

An instant before I could turn around to determine its source, something huge and solid slammed into my side. The next thing I knew, I was flying through the air. 

Such a sensation can be strangely pleasant. In my own case, I wasn’t able to properly enjoy my sudden catapult. An intense pain exploded from my side, branching outward. A heavy gushing of severe heat poured down my legs and up my back. An avalanche of bright new pain spread throughout my body when I landed.  

I lay on my back, unable to feel the hard pavement beneath me. As I lay there, the screeching of brakes reverberated behind me. A piercing scream bounced off the buildings on my right. It sounded female, but you just can’t be too sure about such things any more. More screeching of brakes resonated farther down. The constant groan of distant traffic filled my head. The shrill cackle of the gulls seemed even more agitated than moments before. 

The pain in my back ebbed. 

The sounds diminished. 

A warm, heavy blanket of blackness consumed me…

When the blackness finally lifted, I was standing in a rectangular hole in the ground in the middle of a graveyard.

Standing there, wondering what the hell happened. 

And most of all, wondering what I was doing in a graveyard

I closed my eyes again. Back to the source. 

What happened next? The ambulance ride? A hospital bed? Visitors? A wheelchair? A kindly orderly pushing me outside? Thanks for your business, Mr. Mild…take care…hope we don’t see you again…

Think. Remember. Retrieve any images floating around that make this predicament more logical.

I remembered only the front porch outside my door, the smooth pavement separating my building from the curb, and the mailboxes at the corner. Traffic sounds, a scream or two, the screeching of brakes…and, of course, the deafening roar slamming into me.

Nothing else.

About a hundred feet away, three figures—two middle-aged men and an elderly woman, probably in her seventies—wandered down the grassy slope, toward the highway at the foot of the hill. All were sloppy-dressed and looked like they’d just come from a soup kitchen. I yelled at them.  They glanced my way but didn’t lose a step on their way down the hill.

The sight of someone standing in an open grave, I imagined, wasn’t something the average person wants to see close-up.

I scanned the graveyard, then turned back to where the threesome had gone. There was no sign of them.

Strange.

An old man appeared from behind a cluster of scrub oaks about thirty yards to my right. He was smoking a curved briar pipe and shaving a small block of wood with a penknife.

“Hello.” I tried a smile, but my mood prevented me from giving it all I had. He’d just have to settle for my half-assed attempt.

He stared at me for a few moments, then sauntered over.

His pipe smoke, tangy and thick, grew stronger as he drew closer. “Hey, sonny,” he said in a high-pitched voice. “Ya new here?”

“What gave me away?”

“Haven’t seen ya before. Young, ain’tcha?”

“Thirty-six.”

He shook his head and clucked.

“How’d I get here?”

He shrugged. “How d’ya think?”

My first thought immediately went to the idiot in the truck. 

But I didn’t want to go there. I chose humor instead. With humor, you can overcome a lot of unpleasantness.  

“Well, it’s been a while since I’ve had such a wild dream. I had a pastrami sandwich the other night before bed. I have this issue with gas. It does weird things when I’m trying to sleep. Pastrami always—“

“You’re dead.”

“What?”

Ya hard of hearing? You’re dead.”

“Dead?”

His grin lit up his tiny gray eyes. “There ya go.”

It slammed into me. I trembled.

“You…sure?”

“Yup.”

“Positive?”

“Yup.” 

Dead. I was dead. Gone. A spirit. 

Nothing left but darkness. For eternity. 

No more apartment. Or company. Or women. Or sex.

Don’t panic.

Logical. Be logical. It’s what you do best.

“I can’t be dead.” I knew how ridiculous that sounded, but I just couldn’t grasp the reality of the situation.

“Everyone dies, sport.”

“I’m too young. I’ve…I’ve got…stuff to do.” I didn’t have anything specific in mind. My car needed a tune-up, and I had to do something with my underwear drawer. I kept tossing my socks in there. No big thing, of course. But every once in a while I ended up a sock short, and it was beginning to bug me.

I felt I had to justify my existence…somehow... 

But it sounded lame the moment it left my lips.

He pushed a heavy wad of gnarled gray smoke toward me. It dissipated almost immediately in the warm breeze. When it vanished, I saw his seamed face more clearly. I could almost see the darkness directly behind him.

“Guess what?” he said.

I was afraid to ask. “What?”

Ya just ran outa time.” He turned and walked away.

“Where are you going?”

He shrugged. “Don’t matter none, does it?”

I didn’t want to be left alone. The realization of being dead rocked through me. I wondered how I could stay on my feet.

Maybe if I could get him to talk to me, I could find out more about…about all this... “What are you making?”

“That don’t matter none, neither.”

“Then why do it?”

“Why not?” 

“Are you sure I’m dead?”

A nod.

“How do you know? I mean, really know?”

He shook his head the same way my parents and teachers did when I said something really stupid. “How d’ya think?”

It registered coldly. “You, too?”

There ya go.” He left, chuckling.

Dead. I was actually dead.

Here I was, Jason Mild, co-founder and vice president of MilCo SoftSystems, Inc., standing in spiritual form in a hole in the ground. Killed by an idiot who didn’t let speed bumps—or wandering residents—slow him down.

This was it? The?

Dead? At thirty-six?

I turned to say something else. 

Like the other three I’d just seen, he’d disappeared.

I was alone. And dead.

Talk about being down and out . . .

No one tells you about weird stuff like this—possibly because no one actually knows. No one alive, that is. 

All we know is what we see. 

We see the funeral guys dumping the corpse into a heavy-duty black sack. They take the corpse to a place where a gaggle of rich professionals stand eagerly over it like a flock of sweet-smelling vultures. What they actually do, they won’t say. But what we gather is this: they remove the corpse’s clothing and then perform some really disgusting procedures to the body. They take out what is no longer needed and pump in formaldehyde. Then they apply powder, makeup, glue and thread, turning the corpse into a well-dressed clown. They arrange the clown carefully—like some fancy window decoration—in an expensive, polished box. 

For the next couple of days, a crowd of people stands over the box and talks about how important they were to the deceased and how much the deceased loved them. The box is then closed, wheeled outside and shoved into the back of a sparkling black limousine. At the cemetery, some empty words are said and an incomprehensible line or two from the Bible is quoted. The box is lowered into the ground and later covered with dirt.

Kind of pointless, when you think about it. Especially the dressing-up part and the lying-in-the-box part. 

I don’t remember any of that. But I’d seen what those high-priced, sociopathic ghouls did to my parents a few years ago. I’m glad I wasn’t awake to see whatever was done to me. I was obviously zoned out at the time. Maybe flying around somewhere, waiting to touch down—I don’t know. I don’t remember much of anything after being smeared. 

What mattered was that I was dead.

And that I didn’t want to stay here. 

I decided to climb out.

Standing here was bumming me out. If I was indeed dead, I didn’t have to spend eternity standing in my own freshly-dug hole, did I? The old man didn’t. Neither did the other three I’d seen a few minutes ago. 

If they didn’t, why should I? 

The old man even had things to do. He had a pipe to smoke, a block of wood to whittle. Mind you, those things were a tad insignificant for a guy like me, who used to wheel and deal daily in the software business. But right now, little tasks like that seemed just as important as the business proposals, bank transactions and problems with ex-wives and ex-girlfriends I’d dealt with during the last ten years.

Amazing how things changed so quickly.

But rather than stay here and analyze everything, I decided to see what all this mystery was about.

I immediately discovered I didn’t have to climb out. I merely thought of climbing out and found myself rising—as if the air beneath me had actually pushed me out of the hole—until I was standing on the grass a foot or so from the hole itself. 

Good deal. Apparently death, like most everything else, had a perk or two up its sleeve.

Hopefully there would be others.   

The roar of heavy traffic rushed up from the foot of the hill. Just beyond the skyline, the coppery moon glinted in jagged shards behind the distant pines.

Last I remembered, it was around noon—which is when I usually pick up my mail. But now it was obviously well past six in the evening, and traffic was very heavy. Rush hour. In Central Florida, rush hour usually lasted three hours. 

It hit me again.

I’m dead.

Truly dead.

Could my day get any worse?