"Lighter than a Feather"

Anna is nineteen and on his way home from work when he’s dragged behind a building by unfamiliar hands. He barely has time to register what’s going on before his assailant produces a scalpel and cuts his throat. There is a split second of pain before Anna feels a weird tug from somewhere behind his lungs; there is a strange sensation of disembodiment, and suddenly he’s floating over his own body.

He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do (what does one do when one’s dead, anyway?), so he sits down on the cleanest cardboard box he can find, leans against the dirty brick wall, and waits. Anna’s killer is dressed in all black, and dark hair pokes out from underneath the black cap on his head. His eyes are determined, and he works mechanically. Anna watches with morbid fascination as the killer peels the white shirt off Anna’s limp body and, with strange surgical precision, cuts into his chest, extracting his heart from between his cracked, splayed ribs. He places his heart in one of those insulated lunchboxes, places that in the small red cooler that has been at his knees this entire time, and closes it with a snap. He leaves the alley. All this in under ten minutes.

Anna considers crying, but he doesn’t. Instead, he sits there. He’s there when the first rat creeps tentatively from behind a cardboard box and scurries toward his body’s leg, nose twitching as it weaves up his thigh, towards his open chest. He’s there when a policeman walks by on a routine patrol and nudges his cold shoulder with his toe (what the fuck, he thinks), there when more squad cars arrive, there when the crime scene technicians begin examining the scene. He’s there when the medical examiner takes his body away on a stretcher, there when the police finally call his mother, and he’s there when the police finally pack up and leave. He’s there, staring at the yellow tape and the white chalk outline until he feels a tap on his shoulder.

“Hi.” A boy with kind brown eyes smiles at him from under a mop of black hair. “Sorry I’m late.”

“Late for what?” Anna regards him curiously, and the boy rubs the back of his neck, smile going sheepish.

“You know you’re dead, right?” Anna nods numbly. “I’m here to take you away. Into the afterlife, whatever you want to call it.” He shrugs.

“Oh.” He stands up, brushes his jeans off, and accepts the boy’s outstretched hand.

“Luke,” he says.

“Anna.”

“Well, Anna. Nice to meet you.”

“So…what is this?” Anna kicks a pebble as they walk down the sidewalks, and starts when it skitters across the pavement. They’ve been walking for hours now, taking all the routes that she knows by heart: school to the gelato shop she works (worked) at a couple of blocks away, the gelato shop to her favorite restaurant on the Lower East Side, the restaurant to the theater downtown that Benjamin had taken her to for their first date, and then they just wander. They don’t go anywhere near Anna’s home.

She knows that no one is supposed to like being dead, but simply walking down the street is discomforting. Noticing people see right through him as She walks down the street next to Luke is discomfiting, frightening, forces her to recognize what She doesn’t want to.

“What’s what?” Luke stops in front of an ice cream vendor’s cart and holds a finger up. Anna looks around; no one else seems to notice the cart: their eyes slide from the brick building behind the vendor to the boutique one unit down. The sky above them is fading, a slow progression as dark blue melts away into dusky gold.

“This.”

“The ice cream cart?” Luke raises an eyebrow while handing the vendor money, and the vendor laughs. “Thanks, Jinki.”

“Forget it,” Anna mutters. She jams his hands into his pockets and walks off, and She hears Luke’s light steps as he chases after him.

“Hey, hey.” Luke grabs his arm. “Look, I’m sorry. I was kidding. I’ve been dead for a long time, okay? I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in your position.” He unwraps the ice cream bar and offers it to Anna, and Anna takes it grudgingly.

“It’s not about being in my position. I just…don’t understand this place,” Anna says quietly. She and Luke are walking around Central Park now; the sun is rising slowly, and Anna can see the flecks of brown in Luke’s eyes, beads of slowly melting frost on individual blades of grass, and the silhouettes of tall, proud trees.

Luke slips his hands into his pockets and tilts his head back, squinting against the intense light. “What place?”

“This…afterlife.”

“Who said this was the afterlife?” Luke’s tone is teasing. “It’s not. It’s easier to call it that, and I guess in a sense it is one, but it’s more like a layer over the world that we know. Everything that you know is still here, and still the same, it’s just people that are alive can’t see us, hear us.” He smiles distantly. “Want to sit here for a while?”

Anna sits down, legs splayed out. The grass feels dry though it looks wet. Luke lies back beside him and takes his ice cream back.

“Any questions?”

“About what?”

Luke shrugs. “Being dead.”

Anna studies her feet. She’s wearing her favorite pair of ballet flats; the funny thing is, she doesn’t even remember getting dressed that morning. She reaches back and runs her fingers through her hair, smoothes the creases in her T-shirt, touches the frayed hems of her jeans. “A lot,” she admits. She breathes in deeply. “Why am I here? Is there a reason? Did I do something wrong?”

“I couldn’t tell you that.” Luke closes his eyes.

“What’s this body I’m in? Is this what my soul looks like? Or my spirit?” Anna tugs on the hem of his shirt. “Am I really wearing this, or is this just another layer? How am I sitting on the ground? Wouldn’t I just fall through? I mean, like, the ice cream guy? Did the cart come with him?” She pauses. “I’m pretty sure I walked through a person on the way to the ice cream cart.”

Luke sits up. “No living person can see you; you had to have noticed that.” Anna nods. “It’s animate versus inanimate, and conscious versus unconscious. You’ll walk through people when they’re awake, you’ll be able to touch them when they’re sleeping. You can sit on anything you want, stand on anything you want, but gravity doesn’t apply if you don’t want it to.”

“So it’s whatever I want it to be.”

Luke laughs. “Not even close.”

“Then what is it?” Anna smoothes his hair down, flicks his bangs out of his eyes. It feels different.

“It is what it is. You’re in and then you’re out. It just depends on how long it takes.”

Anna frowns. “That’s not a real answer.”

“Well,” Luke says, after some thought. “Maybe I don’t have all the answers.”

Anna’s silent for a moment, before opening his mouth hesitantly. “Can I ask you something else?”

“Sure.”

“How long have you been dead?”

Luke laughs. “Eight years. I was nineteen. I tried to save my dog when our house caught on fire.”

“Oh.” Anna traces circles in the grass. “That’s noble.”

“I guess.” Luke throws a blade of grass at him. “She lived.”

Luke dozes off, leaving Anna alone for half an hour. She’s only guessing on this, because the hands of his watch have stopped at 2:06. She watches people mill around the park as the last rays of sun disappear behind skyscrapers. There are other people like him and Luke here; She watches a small girl walk through a mother, but crash into the stroller the mother is pushing. The girl falls to the ground, looking like she’s on the verge of tears, but the mother keeps walking, oblivious.

Luke finally wakes up, produces a deck of cards and offers to teach Anna how to play gin rummy, and She agrees, because it doesn’t seem like there’s anything else to do. This also gives him more opportunities to question this not-afterlife She’s landed himself in.

“Am I allowed to visit people I left behind? Like my mom. I haven’t seen her since…this morning. Or my boyfriend? I was supposed to call him when I got home, and he’s going to worry that I haven’t gotten back to him yet.” Anna examines the cards in his hand, avoiding Luke’s eyes. She pulls one from the fan and slaps it down on the picnic table, and Luke studies it, sighing heavily.

“You’re forgetting that you aren’t alive,” Luke says, looking at his own cards. “You shouldn’t visit them, anyways; makes moving on easier.”

“I should’ve at least been able to go to my funeral or something, right?” Anna says, watching as Luke puts a card down and chooses another one. “I just need to know that they’re okay.”

“You actually don’t.” Luke frowns, eyebrows knitting together.

“Then what’s the point of me being here?” Anna throws down his cards, ready to throw a tantrum like she hasn’t since she was six. “Do I have a mission? Do you have a mission?”

Luke shrugs, the tilt of his mouth indifferent. “This is my mission.” He slaps a card face down on the table. “Rummy. I guide souls—whatever—and take care of them until they’re ready to move on.”

“So I do have a mission,” Anna says. “Otherwise I would’ve moved on by now, right.”

“Or,” Luke says, taking Anna’s cards from her hands and slowly shuffling the deck, “you’re just not ready to.”

Anna narrows her eyes. “How do I know I can trust you?”

“You just do. Who else do you have here? Bottom line,” Luke says definitively. “You’re not supposed to drop in on anyone. It won’t make it any easier for you, and it won’t make it easier for them, either.”

What would you know, Anna thinks defiantly. Luke’s eyes bore into hers, and she looks away.

Anna escapes the next chance she has, and checks in on Benjamin. She’s there just in time to watch as Benjamin’s mother slowly opens the door to his room and steps in, phone still clutched in her hands. Anna watches her mouth shape words, watches as Benjamin, who has been sitting at his desk (cell phone in hand, waiting for Anna’s call, she realizes) stares at his mother in disbelief before his shoulders slump and shudder with sobs.

This is a relationship in retrospect, Anna tells herself as she crouches on the fire escape. She shies away when Benjamin climbs out through the window and unknowingly sits next to Anna. Benjamin’s fists are clenched in the soft cotton of his sweatpants as he stares out at city skyline, and Anna wants nothing more than to hold his hand and tell him that she’s fine, more or less. I can’t touch him, she remembers, as she tells herself not to cry.

She does anyway, smoothing her fingertips over Benjamin’s forehead as he sleeps, pressing away persistent wrinkles and watching his face slacken as he slowly falls deeper and deeper into sleep. His breathing is shallow and there are dark circles under his eyes, and it is only when he’s sleeping that Anna allows herself to cry. Her tears drip from his cheeks to Benjamin’s, and Benjamin mumbles Anna’s name in his sleep.

“He can probably see you in his dreams,” a somber voice says from her right.

Anna jumps and turns to see Luke.

“Can he?” She’s expecting to be scolded, and she closes her eyes, wiping her cheeks defiantly, but nothing comes. She opens an eye.

Luke turns to him and smiles lopsidedly. “Who knows? But it’s nice to think of it that way.”

Anna nods, unsure of what to say. “It is.”

She drops in on Benjamin again when Benjamin visits her grave the next morning, after the funeral, which Anna doesn’t go to. (The idea of attending her own funeral is weird to her, despite having wanted to go earlier.) Benjamin’s suit jacket hangs loosely on his skinny frame, and a bouquet of birds of paradise—her favorite flower—dangles from his fist. He kneels in the wet grass and dirt and places the flowers gently at the base of the tombstone. Anna perches on the tombstone and watches him.

“Hi,” he says after a while. “I know I haven’t been here in a while, but my dad’s been trying to ‘snap me out of this’, whatever that means.” He shrugs. “I don’t get how you snap someone out of grief, but I guess if anyone can do it, it’s my dad.” He pauses, and Anna notices the tears that have started trailing down his cheeks. “I miss you. A lot. And I wish you’d let me walk with you that day instead of saying that you’d be fine on your own, and I wish I’d insisted and not let you go alone. And I know it’s mostly my fault that you’re dead right now and I wish”—his voice breaks—“I wish I could get you back. I had a dream about you last night, you know. We were at the ice rink at Rockefeller Center, like our first date, after the movies, but no one else was there. And we were just…skating. And it felt so nice. We were holding hands, and it’s like I could feel that weight in my hands for real, just like every other day that you weren’t…dead.” The tears are running unchecked down his cheeks, dripping on the lapels of his jacket. Anna reaches forward to push the hair from Benjamin’s face, and jumps when her fingers pass through Benjamin’s hair, his forehead. Anna recoils, looks at her hand curiously, and watches as Benjamin rubs his tears away with the back of his hand and runs his fingers through his hair in apparent frustration.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispers weakly. “I could have saved you.”

This is more than Anna can take. She slides off the tombstone and runs.<

“I told you,” Luke says, bumping shoulders with Anna. Anna buries her face in her hands and wills herself not to cry.

“It was different from just watching him sleep. Hearing him talk was…” She trails off. Luke wraps his arm around Anna’s shoulders; it’s heavy and surprisingly warm.

“Of course it’s different.” Luke laughs lightly. “Hearing them talk always is.”

“He blames himself,” Anna says after a beat. “He shouldn’t, though; it’s my own stupid fault. He offered and everything, but I told him no, and I just…”

Luke looks at him passively. “So you’re not going to visit anyone else, right?”

“You’re not mad?”

He shrugs. “You’ve got to learn for yourself, don’t you?”

“Yeah. No,” Anna says numbly. “I’m not going to visit anyone else. I don’t think I could.”

He’s lying. Anna checks in on his mom the next night. She’s still grieving, though not as intensely as she had the night that Anna died. His dad is calm, composed, and probably keeping it in for his wife’s sake. Anna’s grandmother died a year ago. He hasn’t seen her on this plane and naively assumes she has passed on.

“You said you wouldn’t do this again.”

Anna shrieks and almost falls off the grandfather clock. “What’re you doing here?” he hisses, indignant.

“Making sure you don’t do anything stupid,” Luke says with a glare. “I shouldn’t have to babysit you.”

“I’m getting closure.” Anna crosses his arms and watches his mom move around the small kitchen, turning off the rice cooker and adding salt to the pot on the stove.

“This isn’t closure.”

Anna raises an eyebrow. “I’m learning for myself.”

The look Luke gives him is half exasperation, half genuine anger, and wholly pitying. Anna hates it.

“If you want real closure,” Luke says, “your killer’s dead.” He hoists himself off the clock and lands on the ground neatly. “Talk to him. It’ll help.”

“Do you need help?” Anna’s dad asks below them.

“No,” Anna’s mom replies. “I don’t.”

His dad looks at his mom uncertainly. “Are you sure?”

“Just go,” his mom snaps, and his dad recoils slightly.

“Okay,” he says quietly.

“My killer?” Anna looks away from the exchange and at Luke.

“He died last night.” Luke shoves his hands into his pockets. “Go talk to him.”

Anna looks at him skeptically.

“You’re lucky in that sense,” Luke says. “At least you have someone you can question.”

“I’m lucky I was killed?”

Luke shakes his head. “Go talk to him,” he repeats quietly. “It’ll help.”

Anna follows Luke out of the apartment. As he walks through the door, he hears a dish shatter. When he looks back, his mom is crouched on the floor, crying and picking up the pieces.

Her killer’s name is Sean. He’s twenty-three, tall, handsome, and looks entirely unapproachable. He’s sitting on a bench in Central Park, hands clasped in his lap as he looks around the deserted park.

“He died two days ago,” Luke tells Anna as they walk toward Sean. “In a knife fight. The police found his body in an alley.”

The irony doesn’t escape Anna. “Who’s his guide?”

“Guide?”

“I have you, right? You’ve been helping me this whole time.”

“I’m not really a guide.” Luke shrugs. “I’m just making sure you don’t fuck up.”

“You’re a liar, too,” Anna says casually. Luke eyes him, but says nothing. “I don’t want to talk to him,” Anna says decisively. Luke looks at him expectantly, and Anna sits down right there, on the jogging path. “What am I going to say to him? Hi, nice to meet you, I’m Anna, by the way you killed me?”

“You need to come to terms with the fact that you’re dead,” Luke says, crouching beside him.

“Who says I haven’t?” Anna traces shapes in the dirt, avoiding Luke’s eyes.

“The last time I visited my parents was six years ago.” Luke sits down across from him, crossing his legs. “You have to understand: your parents are your connection to the real world. Once of you let go of them, and all the other people you love, you can move on.”

Anna swipes at the dirt it’s smooth again. “You’re still here. You haven’t moved on.”

“I’m here because I have to be,” Luke says, when Anna opens his mouth. He takes Anna’s hands in his, squeezes them reassuringly. “I just know that doing this is a good thing. Honest.”

“But how do I know I can trust you?” Anna asks, again, and Luke’s expression softens.

“You really don’t have anyone else, other than me, do you? Listen, I was like you when I died, but I didn’t have a guide. I kept going back to my parents, kept checking in on them and seeing how they were doing and then one day, bam, I’m told that I’ve got 150 years of guiding to do. You don’t want to be like me.”

“So there is a god?”

“Fuck if I know.” Luke smiles. “What I do know is that you need to do this.”

“Okay,” Anna breathes. “Okay.” He gets to his feet, dusts off his jeans, and looks down at Luke. He nods encouragingly, and Anna walks to the riverbank.

Sean looks up when Anna stops in front of him. Sean’s eyes are arresting, but Annas pushes this thought to the back of his mind as he extends his hand.

“Hi,” he says. “I’m Anna. You killed me.”

Sean’s lips tweak up at the corners. “Hi, Anna.”

“Did you regret it?”

They’re under a tree, a safe distance apart. Anna picks at blades of grass idly while Sean lies back with closed eyes, arms folded under his head.

“Hmm?”

“Killing me. You were alive for longer. Did you feel guilty?”

Sean sits up. “Isn’t that kind of a given?”

“No,” Anna says. “You’re not acting it, at least.”

Sean looks at him appraisingly, and Anna meets his gaze. “I did. I’m Christian.”

Anna presses her lips together and squints at him. “I know.”

“I felt guilty,” he concludes.

“That’s not a given,” Anna says. “If you’re a human being with a conscience, you would feel guilty. You don’t have to be Christian for that.”

He looks at her appraisingly, and Anna squirms under his gaze. “What’re you?”

“Religion-wise? Buddhist. Do you think I’m a heathen?”

His glare is sharp. “God accepts all.”

Anna scoffs. “Sure.” There’s an uncomfortable silence, which he breaks again. “Okay, really. Why’d you kill me?”

Sean regards him coldly. “I needed the money. Black market, you know.”

“No,” Anna says. “I don’t. I’m not…like that.”

Anna can almost see Sean’s temper flare. “Like what? Desperate?”

“You’re getting mad at me for being mad because you killed me?” Anna regards him coldly.

“I have a younger sister. Had,” Sean revises, looking away. “She had leukemia, and we didn’t have the money to pay for her treatment. My parents both work dead-end jobs. I’m barely paying for med school. We’re cut off from the rest of the family. I did what I had to.”

“What the fuck does that have to do with me,” Anna grits out. “I’m only nineteen. I have—had—a life.”

“My sister deserved the same chance,” Sean replies dully. “She was only thirteen.”

“So you took one life to save another? How is that fair?”

Sean shrugs. “It is what it is.” Anna remembers Luke saying something exactly like this, about the afterlife, and thinks that maybe life and death aren’t so different after all.

“Do you regret it?” he asks again.

Sean considers this. “No.” He pauses. “He lived.”

Anna watches him for a couple of seconds, and Sean looks away from him, as if suddenly all the righteousness has left him. “Thank you,” he says.

“For what?” Sean watches as he stands up.

“Nothing,” Anna says. “Just…thank you.” He walks away.

“Closure, right?” Luke grins up at her.

“Were you like this with all the souls you guided?” Anna glares as she sits down next to him, and he offers her his ice cream cone, presumably as an apology. “Yeah, though. I think.”

“It gets better,” he says, after a few moments of silence. “In any case, if you’re ready…”

“For?”

“Moving on.” Luke turns to look at her. “If you’re ready, just say the word.”

“You’re rushing me.” Anna frowns.

Luke shrugs. “Most people don’t want to stick around.”

Makes sense, Anna thinks. “Can I ask you one last question?”

Luke sighs dramatically but nods. “Yeah, go for it.”

“Will he get a guide?” Anna points to Sean. “I think he needs one.”

Luke seems to consider this, and then nods. “I’ll take care of it.”

Anna smiles. “Okay, and this is the last question for real: Anything I need to know before I go?”

Luke reaches forward. “Is your heart lighter than a feather?”

Anna blinks. “What?”

“Just something to keep in mind.” Luke smiles, and it is fond and reminds Anna a bit of Benjamin. “Close your eyes, Anna.”

Luke’s fingers touch her forehead, cold and solid and firm. There’s pressure, and then there’s nothing. When Anna opens her eyes, Luke is smiling gently at her. There’s something balanced on his fingertips, blindingly bright.

“Bye, Anna,” he says.

And suddenly, she’s floating.