(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)
(Previously: Old Habits)
The seagulls dived upon the Myrtle Beach tourists and liberally scooped up bites of their corn dogs and churros faster than you could say “There’s a leopard taking a nap in the foyer.” While few people in Myrtle Beach had ever seen a leopard — much less a panther taking an afternoon snooze (a rare though not entirely unprecedented act in South Carolina) — they remained surprised and affronted by these impressive descents, which recalled the nimble gullshaped Stuka bombers from nine decades before. The Germans had, of course, built six thousand of these deadly planes, which had gleefully dropped bombs on thousands of people with that uniquely destructive gusto that white supremacy tends to bring out in its deranged acolytes.
But this wave of destruction had been largely forgotten by most South Carolinans, who were more interested in memorizing statistics associated with the Clemson Tigers and condemning Dabo Swinney for any perceived solecism in coaching — both foolproof methods of initiating conversations with strangers in bars.
And even if the largely uneducated clusters who gathered upon the beach during the summer months had known a few basic details about one of the most abominable wars in human history, the Third Reich’s mass military production was no match against the ferocious commitment of seagulls, who openly copulated under docks and on seaside rooftops with a randy glee that outdid Giacomo Casanova at the peak of his fuccboi prowess. Moreover, the seagulls were at least decent enough, despite their primitive animal minds, to not target Jewish people. For them, all humans were fair game. Which made the seagulls superior to ape-descended life forms on at least one front.
Every spring, the seagulls mated and popped out eggs and built nests. And by May, there were thousands upon thousands of new seagulls ready to harass helpless humans on the Eastern Seaboard. And these natural instinctive acts of gull lust and fledgling mayhem were decidedly more remarkable (and certainly less pernicious) than anything that an evil and hideously overpraised Nazi pilot like Hans-Ulrich Rudel had accomplished in his sixty-six years.
What nobody knew, however, was that seagulls could see the dead.
Ali Breslin first started to get the inkling that she might be dead when people didn’t acknowledge her friendly hellos or give her darting supercilious glances because of her sherpa beanies. She had been told by her agent to develop a fashion style to stand out and Ali had settled upon a rotating set of pastel hats — all lined in a soft jersey knit. And the people of Myrtle Beach, who already had to contend with the obscenely rich sneering down on them from their Dune Coves McMansions, had cultivated a natural antipathy to anyone wearing a sherpa beanie.
Granted, many Americans — with their incessant ghosting of lovers and job applicants and their distressing refusal to recognize people who work in retail as actual human beings — could be reasonably categorized as the living dead. Late-stage capitalism had made it evermore easier to become something of a zombie. But when Ali approached a snack bar set up on the boardwalk and tried to order a cheeseburger, she was stunned when the man behind the counter could neither see nor hear her. And she really knew something was wrong when she scooped out her phone from her purse to check on her current Amazon ranking (like most authors, she checked this no less than sixteen times a day) and text a few friends. Her fingers melted through the phone in a fine mist. She was incapable of summoning so much as emoji. On the other hand, this also meant that she wouldn’t have to sext anymore with that cute guy she had met on Bumble.
“What the fuck?” she screamed.
But nobody heard her. Families walked past her. No creepy men catcalled her. She waved her arms frantically, but none of these people saw her.
There had been moments in Ali Breslin’s life where she resolutely wanted to have nothing to do with people. Which was something that made practicing journalism a bit of a catch-22. You needed people to talk to you in order to write a story. On the other hand, you often loathed making a cold call to a potential source. Because the idea of interacting with these people in any way filled you with the type of dread that most regular people apply to filing their taxes or wondering if your former spouse’s divorce attorney would uncover some sordid embarrassment during the vicious rounds of discovery. And you complained about it because, well, writers are the biggest and most annoying complainers on the planet. Not even pampered billionaires complain as much as writers do. While other people quietly went about the unpleasant duties of their day with a quiet grace and a buttoned-down humility, writers were unapologetic and often wildly exhibitionistic victims, often when there was nothing particularly significant to worry about. And this incurable self-absorption is one major reason why so many non-writers secretly detest writers with the combined BTU heat of a thousand habanero peppers. It is also why certain bald Brooklynites engaging in fun but incredibly insane online creative experiments during the month of November feel the need to parody them in the most scathing manner imaginable. If writers could learn to shut the fuck up and abandon the foolish geocentric model that they still live by and maybe develop a smidgen of interest in other people, then literature would not be considered the least of all arts in the early 21st century.
Now that Ali no longer had the option to court or avoid people, she started to miss their vagaries and vacillations. And she even regretted choosing the writer life when she had lived.
She hadn’t quite recalled what had brought her to the boardwalk in the first place. She had still been committed to carrying on with her investigation to publish new material in magazines and write new chapters for the paperback edition so the saps would be forced to buy her book twice. She had some dim memory of arranging an interview with Benjamen Stroller, that seedy master operator who had resisted her requests for an on-record chat for years, but who had somehow changed his mind when her book started taking off and gaining considerable media attention. But after that, it was all a blur, as it often is for people who die.
When people die, there’s usually about a twelve hour fog, which includes the final two hours of their lives. You never remember how you died or what the exact circumstances were behind the death. And this is particularly useful if you died in an especially embarrassing manner. The soul — if there is anything left of it — usually needs time to acclimate to the ridiculous inconvenience of being dead. Your newly dead corporeal form, decidedly more ghostly and more abstract than its living fleshy counterpart, also needs time to readjust into something that is a bit more aesthetically pleasing — particularly if you have died in an especially gruesome way.
“Hello! Does anybody see me?”
Now if a newly dead person is especially arrogant, she will often shout like this a great deal longer than those who are humbler and more accepting of this regrettable state of affairs. And because there is no actual handbook — no Being Dead for Dummies that you can purchase at the River Styx Bookstore — it is often a great shock for newly dead narcissists when they no longer realize they are the center of attention and they can’t easily manipulate people anymore. When the once famous writer David Fitzroy had passed into the undiscovered country, he was such a supercilious and insufferable blowhard that he spent six weeks screaming at people until he finally accepted his rightly deserved irrelevance. Fitzroy became so desperate for attention that he spent several decades haunting the Space Mountain ride at the Magic Kingdom, but the thousands of kids were too dazzled by the strobe tunnel with the constantly flashing blue lights to care. And it was so depressing that Fitzroy wondered if he could off himself again. But he couldn’t. Because he was already dead.
Ali Breslin was not as arrogant as Fitzroy, but, because she as a writer, she was still smug enough to attract the swarm of seagulls who were now spiraling in the air above her. Their eyes bulged as they saw her and they began to squawk very loudly. (85% of the time, seagulls are squawking because they have just seen a newly dead human.)
“Would you shut up?” said Ali.
The seagulls responded with more squawking and they begin to swoop down on her, making passes right through her spectral body. Which was incredibly annoying to say the least. When she held her arms up and made feverish gestures at the birds to knock it off, this only galvanized the seagulls, who flew within her and made increasingly impressive arcs where her lungs and liver used to be. They seemed to very much enjoy this.
“Recently dead?” said a very familiar shadow to her left, somehow managing to lean on the boardwalk rail.
“Wait, do I know you?”
“It took me about a year to learn how to lean like this, you know. More difficult than learning how to ballroom dance. Because you don’t actually have any physical weight anymore.”
“You’re so familiar.”
“Oh, I get that a lot. You may know me because you may have read it.”
“You’re a writer. A writer I know! I’m a writer.”
“Well, I regret to inform you that the dead don’t read. You see, the dead trees are very upset about their corpses being used for paper. Oh look! There’s a few of them right now!”
The shadow pointed to a ghostly group of conifers walking along the edge of the surf. It reminded her of the Ents in The Lord of the Rings. Trees — true to their nature — lumbering forward in a slow undulating pattern. Their uprooted tendrils trailed behind them, casting rakes in the sand that only the dead could see and that would be quickly smoothed over by the waves.
“You see, the trees can actually move here. The dead have less weight. And the trees understand this better than anyone. And they torture the Chinese.”
“The Chinese? The trees are racist?”
“No. But they invented paper. Cai Lun — the guy who invented paper — is actually in a witness relocation program right now. Poor bastard. It’s not as if he could anticipate the human appetite for reading over the next several centuries. Although I don’t know why the trees still care. People are reading far less than they used to.”
Another seagull flew through Ali.
“This is so annoying.”
“Don’t worry. It only happens during the first week. It’s almost as if the seagulls came up with their own answer to sitting shiva. But instead of the dead getting an opportunity to heal, we’re pestered by these little bastards.”
“Seagulls stop seeing you eventually. But, for now, you’re their main focus of attention. That is, until they see some food dropped by a tourist.”
“What happens when the seagulls die?”
“Nobody knows. Dead gulls don’t seem to make it to purgatory. Nobody knows why.”
“Maybe we should leave.”
“You know, I could show you a few leaning basics. You’re going to need a lot of new hobbies, you know. Because from what I understand — and I’ve only been dead for about five years — you’re apparently dead for all eternity. At least that’s what the other dead people tell me.”
“How the hell did I die?”
“You see, all spirits have a bit of natural buoyancy. It was Orv Wright who taught me that. He was the first serious dead leaner. And you know what they say? If it’s time to lean, it’s time to clean. But since we dead don’t make messes, we can lean all we like. It’s actually quite relaxing!”
“Orville Wright? You mean, of the Wright Brothers?”
“He lived longer than his brother Wilbur, you know. But if you ask me, Wilbur’s a bit of a prick. The guy never comes down to earth anymore. All that whining about dying young of typhoid fever. Well, my death was far more embarrassing!”
“I’m sorry, but you look so…”
“Familiar? Yes, you just said that. And I think I know who you are.”
“You’re the silly woman who wrote that book about me.”
“Wait. You can’t be…”
“I was a writer, yes. These days, I’m a leaner. Quite frankly, I find leaning far more rewarding.”
And then it suddenly hit her. And she felt so stupid about only now recalling the voice that had appeared in those creepy videos. But the dead do have a lot of brain fog in the first twenty-four hours.
“You’re Paul Van Kleason!”
“Well, that used to be my name. These days, I got by Aelius.”
“Named after the sun. That’s something that Pontius Pilate suggested. Also an asshole, by the way. But then you’d have to be to crucify Jesus, wouldn’t you?”
“Does Jesus exist?”
Ali had never been especially religious. More of an agnostic than anything else. But if there was one singular faith that ruled the world of the dead and that humanity had invented countless insane rituals to explain, she wanted to know about it.
“You see, that’s the funny thing. Nobody has been able to find Christ in the afterlife. If you ask me, I think they made him up. Though Pontius swears that the guy did actually exist and was apparently very good at parties — you know, the whole water to wine act. But he was not the hero he was painted as. More of an insufferable blowhard. Believe it or not, I once ran into Bartholomew.”
“Yes. Utterly hated Jesus. Regretted having anything to do with him. He sounded like some roadie who was stuck on a bad concert tour and had to finish the job. Never meet your heroes, I suppose. And unfortunately you’re probably going to run into many of them. Me? I haven’t run into Jesus yet. I don’t know anyone who has.”
“So this is the afterlife?”
“Honestly, the Jewish people had it right about Christ. If you ask me, Jesus had more in common with P.T. Barnum than Gandhi. John Lennon has some funny ideas about Jesus. But at least he’s free to say anything he wants in the afterlife. He’s in North Dakota if you want to meet him. Apparently, he insists on inhabiting places that involve Dakota. He’s also weirdly obsessed with the number nine.”
“Is there a god?”
“None that I’ve seen. Nobody seems to be in charge. It’s just a rampant free-for-all. There’s no heaven or hell. Though there are certain communities, which is where most of the dead end up.”
“Yeah, a little bit like that. People like to socialize. It gets lonely wandering around the earth and not being acknowledged. But I honestly prefer to be down here. It’s fun to check up on other writers. Particularly the ones who thumbed their noses at me at book parties. And you learn a lot about people. How often they pick their noses. How often they masturbate. Man, you’d be surprised by how nasty people get when they believe that nobody is watching. And the porn they watch! It’s pretty disgusting. Everyone seems to have a weird kink! Sometimes it’s good to be dead.”
“I was never quite able to figure out how you died.”
“Well, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure myself. Those last two hours of your life, you know.”
“Always fuzzy. And it didn’t help that they doctored the autopsy report.”
“Ben Stroller, Bill Flogaast, all those people.”
“But I tied the connections directly to DC.”
Dead Paul laughed.
“Oh dear. Washington had nothing to do with it.”
“But Senator Rollins.”
“Oh, sure, he trained my wife and her best friend. But he’s merely an opportunistic numbskull.”
“He’s considered one of the most promising figures on the right.”
“So you bought into Stroller’s con.”
“He hooked me into his ring for a good six years. I was ready to go public. But then I ended up here.”
“You were murdered?”
“Probably. I don’t know for sure. But I honestly haven’t cared. I’m more interested in leaning.”
Paul then leaned with great subtlety against a live tree just off the boardwalk.
“Should you be doing that given them?” asked Ali, pointing to the three conifers continuing their great saunter along the beach.
“If the trees see me, they’ll consider this a form of camaraderie. Trees actually enjoyed providing shade to us. They didn’t mind it when we built houses on their branches. Even when we used the wood from other trees. Because every treehouse is a mortuary of sorts. And the sap that runs down branches? That’s tree grief.”
“How did you learn so much about trees?”
“A guy by the name of Alex Shigo. He’s considered a hero among the trees because he spent so much of his life trying to understand them. He’s sometimes called in to mediate disputes between the trees and the Chinese. Oh, and that’s one other amazing thing about the afterlife. You can understand everyone.”
“Well, that’s too bad.”
“I put in hundreds of hours into Duolingo. I guess it was all for nothing.”
“Your name is Ali Breslin, yes?”
“Well, I hate to break it to you, Ali, but most people — even the greatest figures in history — live pointless lives. Their achievements are usually forgotten within ten years. And we’re all left to watch ourselves become increasingly irrelevant for eternity.”
“That’s a lot to take in.”
“It’s not even the most depressing part of being dead.”
“Well, what is the most depressing part of being dead?”
“Learning who Sophie truly was. That’s why I don’t visit her anymore. She was a bigger part of the ring than anybody knows. Oh sure, they tried to pin my apparent murder on Ezmerelda. But Ezmerelda was innocent. Innocent of murder, that is.”
“She walked away from OnlyFans.”
“Do you want to know why?”
“It was that last video she made.”
“True. But did you ever find out the guy she was blowing on camera?”
“I had experts analyze the video. We did models of body types, but we couldn’t find him.”
“That’s because the guy had enough money to cover it up.”
“Wait a minute. You’re not insinuating what I think you are.”
“I am. You see, the guy was Ben Stroller.”
(Next: The Dead Journalist)
(Word count: 46,305/50,000)