Maggie had conditioned herself to be calm–not quick to panic, or prone to anxiety. And while she used to be one for exuberant passion, the way things were now, she had to control herself. Unfortunately, despite every precaution the attacks continued.
She felt their approach. A gray cloud appeared on the horizon and moved toward her. Once caught under its shadow, everything just. Slowed. Down. Like the energy in the mainspring of a clockwork motor relaxing until it stopped. And she was frozen.
She was usually locked in a few minutes and, though her body was paralyzed, she could hear. If her eyes were open, she could see. And her consciousness remained intact.
Three or four times a week, it’s not a suggestion; it’s a command: “You will stop and smell those fucking roses.”
A forced break until God, or whatever, tightened that spring and she could live again. Her body always restarted. And this is what she thought as she heard the zipper at her feet.
Just a little longer this time.
Maggie felt plastic on her cheeks as the zipper closed above her head. The space reminded her of the inside of a latex glove or balloon. Her go-to calming image was empty rooms with white walls, devoid of emotion. But floating balloons were nice too.
Wheels squeaked as the coroner pushed the gurney. The man had pronounced her dead a few minutes prior.
Idiot. Maggie wished she could see his face. But this attack had happened while her eyes had been closed. The coroner had confirmed no heartbeat, felt the chilly temperature of her skin, and made his call.
Now that pushed adrenaline through her veins.
The sound of pills tumbling inside a bottle. “No point wasting the county’s money. Another stupid kid who took too many hoppers.”
She wasn’t a stupid kid. She was an independent, thirty-year-old woman coping quite well with her cataplectic attacks, thank you very much.
Five years before though, it’d been like spilling a barrel of monkeys–a chain to which losses kept being added. The first had been losing her career. An entire concert couldn’t stop because a violinist froze in the middle of Rachmaninov’s symphony. She hadn’t touched the instrument in years.
Goodbye nice apartment. Goodbye car. Since she couldn’t allow herself to express anything, relationships with people? Negative. And she was lashed forever to medication that only helped sometimes, but made her feel abnormal all the time. She hadn’t felt like herself in five years. And that was a big motherfucking monkey.
But the monkeys had to return to their barrel. There was a new set of life rules, and the best way hang on was to start over somewhere new.
A tiny apartment and stress-free job delivering groceries on a bicycle. She tried to forget she’d been anything else.
A “stupid kid” would still be dangling plastic monkeys. Two car doors opened close to Maggie’s head.
She was certain she’d survive an autopsy. The medical examiner would make his incision and immediately know. Cadavers had stagnant, contained blood, like cutting into an orange. There was pocketed juice, but nothing flowed. He’d know she was alive and wouldn’t proceed. It’d just hurt like hell.
In her head, she sighed. I should be bat-shit out of my mind.
But her current situation was testament to the necessity of eliminating emotional triggers.
You’re in this mess because Daniel got to you.
The engine started.
“Go to forty-second. I don’t have time to wait for a mortician to get his ass over here.”
Forty-second Street was on Maggie’s grocery delivery route. It was a quiet neighborhood with four customers: an elderly couple, a retired officer, nosy Ms. Perkins, and Daniel, who never left his house.
Another grandpa to gawk at my ass, Maggie had thought a year ago when she was handed the new customer’s order.
A dirty old Redenbacher hadn’t answered the door though. Daniel seemed more than normal. He was well dressed and handsome in a mysterious way. He’d thanked her and taken his groceries. He hadn’t asked her to help put them away or narrowed his eyes as if trying to telekinetically remove her clothes.
Daniel became her favorite, especially after teasing information from him.
“Ms. Perkins told me you never leave the house,” Maggie had said three months into his deliveries.
“I wish I had time to spy on my neighbors.” Daniel took the grocery bags.
“I’ve never met someone with agoraphobia.”
“That’ll continue to be an outstanding goal. I’m not afraid to leave my house. I just prefer not to. If I choose to go outside, I go outside.”
He’d stepped onto his porch and bowed in the direction of Ms. Perkins’s house, which almost made her laugh. Due to the gray cloud though, a grin was all she could give.
“I’m calculated in everything I do,” Daniel had said before smiling and reentering his house. “Thank you for stopping, Maggie. I hope you enjoy your afternoon.”
He didn’t like to talk for long.
Probably a reason behind that too. But it was best. If she hung around, he might succeed in making her laugh. The mainspring would loosen, she’d lock up, and the charming recluse would think she was the weirdo.
“Pull around back,” said the coroner.
In her mind, she rode her bicycle along Forty-second Street. There wasn’t even a barbershop out of someone’s home. Possibly, the coroner had misspoken. After all, the man wasn’t able to differentiate a live person from a dead one.
I’m going to sue him, Maggie thought as the engine cut.
It’d happened before that people in a cataplectic attack were deemed dead only to wake in morgues. And there’d absolutely been lawsuits for mental anguish.
She envisioned waking. She’d blink, and it was like pushing through a surface of water. A gasp for a deep breath after being constrained to imperceptible ones. And though it would take a while for Maggie’s strength to return, she was free! Until next time.
I’ll scare the shit out of the mortician and demand a lawyer. That guy with his face on park benches will take my case. It’s going to be huge.
The rear doors opened at her feet.
“Girl could’ve lived another fifty years,” said the coroner, his voice punctuated by whining gurney wheels.
And I will. On your dime, sir. With your career in my pocket, and balls hanging from my rearview mirror.
This would be an interesting story to tell the park bench lawyer. And Daniel.
“You know why your groceries are late? I spent last night in a mortuary. I could’ve been with you, but you closed your door in my face.” That’s what I’ll say.
Her strange customer was the closest thing she had to a friend. And Daniel had no idea how difficult it’d been to devise a scenario where she’d be safe around him.
He could take her hand or wrap his arm around her. The gray cloud would be summoned, but in the theater’s darkness, Daniel wouldn’t know. And at first it seemed he’d accept her offer that afternoon.
“You said you weren’t scared to leave your house,” Maggie had pressed when he hesitated.
“I just don’t like to.”
“Fine, I’ll bring a DVD.” She’d make sure the lights were down.
“I don’t think so.”
Maggie chewed her lower lip, struggling to keep calm. Empty rooms with white walls.
Daniel wasn’t married. He wasn’t gay. He wasn’t busy – he only diddled around with his computers. Yet he wasn’t vaguely interested in spending more than a few minutes with her?
“It’s nothing personal. I can only enjoy companionship like this for short periods of time.”
“Well, I’m not going to watch a couple of fucking Looney Tunes with you.”
He smiled. “I’m flattered, Maggie. And I apologize that I must decline.”
She heard Daniel’s door lock. She managed, God knows how, to keep her mortification at bay until she got home. When she let it fly it was a lightning rod to the cloud.
Maggie let the wind-down claim her. She went to sleep. But when she woke, she still couldn’t move.
And that’s what brings us to “The Adventures of Cataplectic Wonder Woman” – the girl who’s periodically trapped inside her body, and can’t get a date with a mental case. She heard a screen door shut.
“I’ll call after I’ve found her family. And yes, I know you can only hold on so long before you have to do something.”
There was no reason to believe the situation would advance to “something.”
They don’t bury people alive anymore. But I’ll tell him that. “Daniel, I was almost buried alive.” God, such –
“Got it–only on the rocks. Bring her in, please.”
Maggie knew exactly where she was.
The sound of the gurney folding. The screen door again. Footsteps. The stiff plastic movement as her bag was placed on a table.
“Christ, your house is a damn refrigerator.”
“I like the cold.”
And then two men walking away.
A door closing. Deadbolt sliding.
Silence for several long seconds.
“I was hoping for someone to talk to. You see, I have a problem…” He trailed off. “But introductions. You’re Margaret. Thirty. Overdose on stimulants.”
A paper turned and a tapping pencil.
“You’re probably interested in what’s going to happen. But there’s no need to be afraid. I’m here. And even if you’re dead, Margaret, I still love you. You’re the only ones I can talk to.”
A flat object clicking on the table – a clipboard perhaps.
“And don’t worry how you look. It doesn’t matter. I’ll fix it anyway.”
The zipper ripped down. A few wisps of cool air swept into the bag. His house really was a fucking refrigerator – the air had a satin, frosty feel to it.
He paused. “My name is Daniel. I’m an embalmer. That’s all I do, because I prefer not dealing with funeral directing politics. All I care about is you.”
The bag’s sides unfolded from where they’d shrouded Maggie’s face.
“Well, this is unexpected. Convenient. But unexpected.”
She felt his smile.
Daniel had paced his living room after shutting the door to Maggie. She’d been bothering him for a while. Not with the litany of questions or reports on what neighbors said about him. She worried him because he liked her. And it wasn’t a good thing. Because she was alive.
He wanted to go out with her and see a movie. But they were out there. The only people who came through his doors had been drained of what made humans dangerous animals. But the dead loved everyone.
It doesn’t matter who I was, or who I am now. Daniel had paused when she made her proposal. You’d have a problem with both.
He liked that Maggie walked with her hands outside her pockets, took his porch steps two at a time, and always wore long-sleeved shirts, despite warm weather. She seemed vivacious, but not too vibrant. How else could she talk to Ms. Perkins about salt water taffy for thirty minutes?
Daniel had decided Maggie was somewhere between the dead.
But, if I told you, you’d be like everybody else. And he’d closed the door.
He felt bad about it. Even if she didn’t cry he knew rejection hurt, and he hated being party to it.
So I did something I fundamentally oppose, but didn’t want to. Getting to know her is such a risk. I need someone to help sort this out.
Unfortunately, there was no one on the tables and his refrigeration unit was empty. A funeral home had picked up his last friend, a woman who’d died of a pulmonary embolism. Daniel had spoken to her of Maggie, but he hadn’t known Maggie was going to ask him out.
“There’s a patch of tulips in my yard. Yesterday, her blouse matched their middles. Chartreuse. Do you like that color, Cindy?”
Cindy had been sitting in a rocking chair. He’d placed two knitting needles in her hands after noticing that her pointer fingers were slightly crooked from looping yarn for years.
They’re real, not like dolls. Life has rubbed off, but they’ve left the unpleasantness behind.
“I was thinking I should give her a few. I bet chartreuse is her favorite color because she wears it more than any other.” He gave the rocking chair a nudge. “What do you think?”
Cindy was the doting “new grandmother” type that spit-cleaned her children’s cheeks. She reminded him of how he’d have liked his mother to have been. He pictured Cindy saying what his mother would’ve said if she’d loved him.
“Daniel, you’re a nice young man. Give her the flowers.”
“She might think I like her.”
“It’d imply I might want to talk to her more or take her out.”
“You do though.”
“Even rats learn to get through a maze based on electric shocks. I know which turns lead to shocks.” Daniel pushed her rocking chair again. “If I told Maggie the truth she’d flip.”
He took a knitting needle from Cindy’s hand and tucked his fingers inside her palm.
“Think how this plays out in the ‘best’ scenario: I give her the flowers, we go on a date. She likes me. I like her. And then she finds out.”
“No.” Daniel removed his hand and stood. “To you, I’m an ordinary guy, but Maggie wouldn’t see it that way.”
Cindy also liked to garden. She had a dark tan on the back of her neck, and there’d been dirt under and around her fingernails. He couldn’t take her outside, but he lowered the top of his window shades to let the sunlight on her face.
“Thank you, Daniel.”
He’d been disappointed when Cindy was taken. It was too bad they couldn’t stay. He could keep making repairs to impede the decay. No one wanted to stay with the embalmer long term.
But I need help deciding what to do about Maggie. Daniel walked back and forth. God, send me anyone, please.
He had a tendency to waver in his faith of God, but when his phone rang, the scales tipped toward belief. And when he read in the coroner’s report that she was around his age and the death was recent?
Then he’d found Maggie herself in the bag.
Maybe I should start going to church.
But instead, since she was listening, he said: “Well, this is unexpected. Convenient. But unexpected.”
Daniel unfolded the plastic and pulled the bag from under her body. “You’ll feel better once I’ve freshened you up. It’s important to many people for you to look alive.”
Maggie must not have been dead long. Her skin wasn’t as cold as most bodies, or her joints as stiff. He pressed his fingertips under her wrist; however, he felt no pulse.
But you’re special. People are at their best when they’re dead though. You should tell her that, Daniel.
“You look beautiful.” He caressed her cheek.
He felt sure she’d say “thank you.”
Cindy would’ve advised him to just tell Maggie. But customarily he didn’t have someone he already cared for, so he felt he had to be softer about it.
“You’re probably surprised.” Daniel stepped away and returned with a pair of scissors. Her blouse was torn from efforts to revive her and he guided the scissors up the garment. “About what I really do.”
There was no sign and all drop-offs and pick-ups happened away from the prying eyes of Ms. Perkins. He preferred honesty, but didn’t like making people uncomfortable. Which had made the phrasing of Maggie’s question regarding what he “did,” favorable.
“What do you do with computers,” she’d asked.
“What everyone else does, I’m sure.”
“No, do you repair them, build them, or what?”
“Something makes you think that’s what I do?” Daniel glanced at Ms. Perkins’s house.
“What else could you be doing besides something with computers?”
“Building a time machine.”
“You’d need a computer for that, see?” Maggie gave that wiry smile he felt she used when she tried not to laugh.
“Well, I have a few computers that I do things with.” He took the grocery bag. “Thank you for stopping.”
“When you use your time machine, will you bring something back for me?”
He considered responding, but he’d been chatting with Maggie for several minutes and his internal timer buzzed. It was dangerous to have more than brief encounters with anything alive.
However, Maggie was sensitive to his predilection of keeping things short. She’d winked at him and returned to her bicycle. That day had been when he started thinking about her favorite color and if he should give her the tulips in his yard.
“You never talked about you.” Daniel said aloud to her body. “But you can tell me about yourself now.” He had a cloth damp with disinfectant that he smoothed down the side of Maggie’s neck.
Daniel hummed to himself as he swept his cloth across her skin and waited for her to say something. They always did. It was impossible to hide the important. Things and experiences left indelible marks.
Knitting. Gardening. Smoking. Baking–
He’d turned her right arm and found the type of clue he was looking for. Too easy.
It was a tattoo of a stringed instrument’s bow. And though it was only four inches long, the intricate details told him several things about Maggie.
“You’re a violinist.” Daniel checked other customary placement locations, but found no depictions of the instrument itself. The only tattoo was the meticulously drawn bow. “The clearest way to tell the difference between a violin and any other stringed instrument via picture is the straight angle of the frog.”
She had been the musician herself, since when he touched the skin under the fingernails of her left hand he felt calluses from the strings. But she hadn’t in a while, since on bringing that hand to his cheek, the sweet, sap rosin smell wasn’t there.
“And you’re sad about it. You wear long sleeves so you don’t have to see and remember what was important to you.”
These inferences could be incorrect, but still, he imagined her confirmation.
“Yes, Daniel. That’s right.”
“I’m sorry for whatever caused you to stop playing your violin. You should’ve told me about it. It helps to tell people things.”
“You tell me something in exchange for what I told you.”
He ran his hand through her long hair, curling the ends around his fingertips.
“I’ll tell you why I do what I do. Because you’ll still love me, even after you know.” Daniel scooted the chair closer to her body and propped his left elbow on the table. He leaned his cheek on his arm and petted her hair. “I knew from when I was young. Not that I had this attraction to the dead. I knew about me. I knew I was an invisible boy.”
It hadn’t been entirely his family and friends’ fault; he was willing to forgive them. Everyone saw a normal child. He was a girl. And even his best friend, Krystal saw Chelsea and wouldn’t see Daniel.
“We grew up together. And I loved her very much.” He sighed, and when he inhaled, the smell of Maggie’s shampoo made him close his eyes. “You remind me of her. That’s why I switched grocery services. When you wore the white blouse under blue coveralls? She wore something like that once.”
Krystal shared her secrets with him. Mostly gossiping whispers, but she told him deeper things too. She confided how she’d seen her stepfather hit her mother and how her uncle had molested her when she was six. And he’d been compelled to tell her more serious things as well. How he felt he wasn’t a girl, but a boy named Daniel. His arm falling over her wasn’t an accident and he thought about kissing her. How he wanted to take care of her.
“I thought she’d understand who I really was. She had to see it. It’d been a light bulb for me, so when I told her, she’d put it together.”
One of the many wonderful things about the dead – they comprehended everything.
“You don’t need to go on, Daniel.” he heard Maggie say.
“This is why I love you. Because you feel what I feel.” He cleared his throat before smoothing his hand over her brow. Her skin still seemed to retain some of its living warmth from his touch. “She didn’t. At all.”
Daniel had broached the topic carefully with Krystal. She’d be the first person he’d reveal his secret to, and he knew there was a possibility it wouldn’t be well received. So he left himself an out by presenting it as more idea than fact.
“Have you ever thought you were different, Krystal,” he’d asked. “We’re not like everyone else. We climb trees and fix bikes instead of painting our nails and playing Dream Date.”
Even though it was more profound whatever he did, whatever he wore, whatever motions he was expected to carry out as a girl, weren’t truly him. Any time that name was said, or those pronouns were used, the boy inside would shrivel. An eraser was trying to wipe him out, inch by inch. Every day the boy’s flesh was being carved away and fed to the outer shell of the girl. The real Daniel was dying. He didn’t expect Krystal to understand that though.
“That’s being a tom-boy,” she’d said.
“What if we were actual boys though?”
“Like man-ladies? Gross.” Krystal laughed.
“What if I was?”
“I don’t think you can go lady-man. Only man-lady. But if it is a thing, even if I ignored how nasty that is, you’d always be the same person to me, Chels. A man-lady is always a man. And you’d be a bearded lady.” Krystal had laughed. “But you’d get me tickets to the freak show, right?”
“Daniel,” he pictured Maggie interrupting him. “She was a child. It’s not an excuse to be cruel, but don’t you think immaturity and lack of knowledge should be considered?”
“Absolutely. I’m not upset about it. I wasn’t even upset about it for long then.” Daniel smiled at her still face. “Because shortly after is when I discovered what changed my life forever.”
When Daniel slept over stayed at Krystal’s house, they shared her bed. And a week after his attempt to disclose his secret, he woke up in the morning. But she didn’t.
“I touched her skin and it was cold.”
“Weren’t you upset? Afraid?”
“No. I was free. Because she was free.”
When Krystal was alive she could say unkind things. She could judge. But she became a different person after she was dead. He could tell her anything. With that hypercritical brain chip decommissioned, Krystal would listen and understand when he told her that he was Daniel, and he loved her. She was perfect. Kindhearted, empathetic, supportive.
“And because she was rid of that narrow-sighted part that would’ve hated me, I could do the things I dreamed of doing as Daniel that I never could’ve done before.”
He could touch her. Caress her hair. Hold her. Kiss her. Anything he wanted. Because she was dead, and it was impossible for her to reject him.
“And did you?”
“Yes, I did.”
At fourteen, when she’d died from an undiagnosed heart condition, Krystal had been his first. But he’d relearned the same lesson. How people as a whole, especially those closest to him, didn’t seem capable of accepting him as Daniel. His family fought the change. His remaining “friends.” Even after he started hormones, changed his name, had the surgeries. Still, they refused.
Until they died, which brought them around. He’d heard death called “the great equalizer.” It was.
And there wasn’t a single living person in the world who knew. Plenty of the dead, but no one who still breathed had any idea that he was a necrophile, or why.
“And are you going to do that to me? All those things?”
“Some people I just talk to.”
“But to me. Are you?”
Daniel stood and looked at Maggie’s body. She was lying naked on the table. Her right arm was still turned with her palm up, the frog of her violin bow tattoo at the seven o’clock position.
He gathered her body and carried her out of the room. There was nothing more to say.
Maggie regained consciousness after the sun streamed into Daniel’s bedroom. She was still frozen, but she wasn’t surprised.
There’d been a few times where she’d felt the key tighten the spring, but then Daniel said or did something and all tension was lost again. The gray cloud would be recalled. When he’d first touched her skin and caressed her hair on his embalming table. When he found the hidden tattoo. When he’d spoken to her with honesty and tenderness. She lost it. Repeatedly.
She wasn’t sure what he was thinking she said, since there were pauses when he spoke, but what she would say when she snapped out of this thing:
You need help, Daniel. I can see why you’d think this way, but it’s not normal.
But because Maggie could visualize his hurt expression, she’d add:
I’ll help you. I wouldn’t have turned you away.
She’d also tell him about the cataplectic attacks. Because she should’ve trusted him as well. Additionally, she’d tell him that he was right about the violin.
I’ll even try to play for you, if you’ll understand that I might have to freeze.
If she were honest, though, she wasn’t sure things could work out.
How many other bodies have been in this bed? Would you be able to stop? Maggie wondered.
She felt the sun on her forehead and his arms around her. She judged that he was asleep by the steady breaths on her hair. And far above her, the gray cloud began to shift.
A phone rang.
Hang on! She tried to not let urgency leap into her thoughts when he woke and pulled her closer.
“Good morning, sweetheart.” Daniel kissed her temple.
The cloud nudged back, and she remained imprisoned in its shadow.
The phone rang again.
“I hope you rested well, but let me take this call, okay?”
His left arm remained curled underneath her, but it felt like he leaned his body away. She heard an object move across a surface.
“Good morning. How can I help you?”
A muffled voice. She tried to concentrate on the empty rooms with white walls.
“No problem. I can have her ready this afternoon.”
“Ready this afternoon?”
What now anchored Maggie in the cataplectic state wasn’t empathy. It was terror. If she didn’t snap out of the attack soon, as in hours soon, possibly minutes soon, Daniel could unintentionally kill her.
“Did you hear that,” Daniel asked, his right arm folding around her again. “Mr. Forest reached your mother. He’ll be by around three, so I’ll grab a shower and then we’ll get started.” She felt his hand caressing her cheek. “You’re not worried, are you?”
Oh, I’m more than worried, Daniel.
“It’s not bad. All we’re doing is exchanging your blood.” He kissed her hair and she felt him shift to leave the bed. “And we’re removing things that will cause your body to break down.”
I still need those things!
“It’ll just take a few hours.”
Maggie pictured him gathering his clothes as he talked.
“I’ll use your carotid for the injection and the jugular for the drain. We attach the machine to your artery and it pumps the solution in. It’ll actually be like you have a heart beat again.”
Daniel sounded so jovial, while Maggie felt she was going to black out.
I’ll be dead seconds in. But she listened anyway.
“–I aspirate what’s inside your organs. And we’ll refill them before sealing you. After that we’ll set your face, and don’t be afraid of the needle injector. It’s one quick pull to set the wire into your jaw.”
There were no thoughts. Nothing.
“Not that you don’t look wonderful now. It’s for everyone else. If it were up to me, I’d keep you how you are.” His fingers were curling around her hair, his lips on her forehead.
“Give me fifteen minutes?”
Maggie heard a door close and running water. Her fifteen minutes began to count down.
Fifteen minutes! I have fifteen fucking minutes to live, unless I snap out now! Come on body! Survival instinct! Don’t you want to live?
The tractor beam held tighter.
You know you have to let go. Calm. Down. Maggie. Think: empty rooms with white walls. Empty rooms with white walls.
She chanted the mantra, focusing on the emotionless image instead of the ticking clock. Honing her thoughts to nothingness rather than thinking of being attached to an embalming machine in less time than it took to make a fucking TV dinner.
EMPTY ROOMS WITH THE PASTIEST FUCKING WHITE WALLS IN THE GOD DAMN UNIVERSE.
And at last it budged.
The key turned.
The spring tightened.
Maggie opened her eyes to the ceiling.
She took her first gasping breath in more than twenty-four hours as she heard a door open. All her muscles were weak, but still, she had movement! She was obviously alive! And she didn’t have enough strength to raise her head, but she felt Daniel watching her.
“Daniel!” Maggie coughed, her throat dry.
He didn’t answer, but she heard him approach.
“Daniel! I’m really alive! Can you say something, please? I’m –”
“That is very unexpected,” Daniel said. “I’m sorry to say, though, it’s not convenient.”
Maggie was staring at the ceiling. But then her eyes were closed as the pillow was held over her face for several long minutes. And, as expected, the embalmer had her ready that afternoon.
James Stryker is a central-Pennsylvania author who enjoys writing speculative and literary fiction. Themes in his work focus toward diversity in the LGBTQ spectrum and the voice of underrepresented or misunderstood viewpoints. His debut novel, Assimilation, was released by Momentum/Pan Macmillan in 2016 and has been praised as “an amazing piece of speculative fiction skillfully blending contemporary issues faced by transgendered individuals with a Frankenstein-ish, god-playing sci fi.” Two additional novels that showcase transgender characters and challenges are expected to be released by the beginning of 2017.