“Am I dead?” I ask.
I’m supposed to be dead.
My mother smiles. “No.”
This would be reassuring, except for the fact that she’s supposed to be dead, too.
“I’m alive,” she says. “We’re both alive. We’ve been waiting for you, Denton.”
Everything spins, and I’m fairly certain the contents of my stomach are about to splatter onto my undead mom’s face. But then the spinning stops.
My mom stares at me, more curious than concerned. I don’t know if I should believe what she’s said or if this is even real, but I’m too damn tired to go anywhere else.
I nod and walk inside.
“Up this way,” she says, stepping over an empty can of Mr. Pibb and pointing to a set of stairs. I immediately feel relieved. If this turns out to be some kind of afterlife, stairs that ascend seem like a good sign. Heaven, baby!
But the stairwell smells like fish sticks. And farts.
“It’s just this one flight,” my mom says, her dark curls bouncing as she leads the way up the concrete steps and stops at a door marked 2D.
Of course. 2D. As in: a second dimension. As in: the afterlife.
Wow. Here we go.
My mom grits her teeth, fiddling with the key. “Haven’t figured this stupid lock out yet,” she says. Guess it makes sense there would be tight security. You wouldn’t want any ol’ schmuck to be able to get into heaven.
“Whew,” she says as she finally pushes the door open and gestures for me to head inside. “They don’t make it easy, do they?”
“Exactly,” I say, pushing past her to see what’s in store for me in this other dimension. “Oh.” My hopes quickly evaporate. There are no babies playing harps. There are no Skittles raining down from the ceiling. I’m staring at a room with nothing on the walls and only a few pieces of furniture.
This must be a way station between life and heaven.
“Denton,” my mother says, locking the door and then coming to stand right in front of me. “You’re here. At last.” Her eyes sparkle.
“Yeah,” I say. I can’t believe I’m chilling with my mom’s ghost.
“You’ve grown up into such a handsome young man.” She touches my cheek with her cold ghost fingers, and I flinch. “Sorry,” she says, retracting her hand.
“No, it’s . . .” I can’t finish the sentence. My brain is a swirling stew of words, images, and question marks, but none are staying put long enough for me to get a handle on them.
Here’s what I do know:
Today--well, technically yesterday at this point, since it must be, like, three in the morning--was my deathdate.
By which I mean, you know, the date I was going to die? Which was determined by a highly advanced test that is given to every baby born in the US? Which is known to be one hundred percent accurate?
Right. So, my deathdate was yesterday.
And I lived through it.
Just . . . did not die.
Or so I thought.
Because now, to add another slice of insanity to this WTF pie, I’ve arrived at the New York City address given to me by doctor-guy Brian Blum, and my dead biological mother opened the door.
So I’m pretty sure I did die.
I finally formulate a question: “We’re ghosts, right?”
“What?” my mom says, a grin blossoming on her face like I’ve just mispronounced a very simple word.
“I mean . . . ,” I say. “You’re a ghost. And I’m a ghost. Right?”
“Oh, you poor, confused boy,” my mom says, cracking up. “I already told you: we’re alive, Denton.”
“This isn’t, like . . . heaven?”
My mom laughs harder. “Oh, Jesus. Let’s hope that if there’s a heaven, it’s more appealing than this shit hole.”
So this is not heaven.
And I am not dead.
And I am standing here with my mother.
“I’m sorry to laugh,” my mom says, wiping tears from her eyes. “I know you’ve been through a lot. But you looked so sincere when you said it. We’re ghosts, right?” She imitates how I looked when I said it, and I notice the parts of her that do, in fact, look like me. Same mouth. Same slightly oversize nose. Different hair, though. And different eyes.
But there’s no doubt this is my mother. I know this should be an emotional moment, but I feel nothing.
“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” she says.
Understatement of the century.
“I thought you . . . ,” I say. I blink three times, my eyes feeling like they’ve been coated with a thick layer of glue. “You’re supposed to be dead. You died giving birth to me.”
“I know, Denton.” She looks at me with a sympathetic smile, like she feels bad that I’m the only one not in on the joke. “That’s what was supposed to happen. But it didn’t.”
“You’ve been alive this whole time?” I ask. “Just living here?”
“Oh,” my mother says, running a hand through her brown curls. “I don’t live here. This is a temporary situation. A place where we could . . . welcome you.”
I stare at the walls, thinking there might be a welcome, denton! banner I didn’t notice when I first walked in.
“I know it seems impossible,” my mom continues, “but we both survived. I was part of a team that created a powerful virus, and eighteen years ago, when you were in my womb, we injected this virus into you, and then I contracted it, too. The virus kept both of us alive.”
I blink some more. I can barely understand what she’s saying. She’s definitely using the word virus a lot, though.
“The rash you had,” she says. “Purple with red dots . . . That was the virus in its activated state.”
The splotch. She’s talking about the purple splotch that started at my thigh and then spread to cover my whole body. Even in my addled, exhausted state, I remember being purple. “Okay, cool, yeah,” I say, the shock of this new reality starting to ebb away. “It was in its activated state. Fantastic. That makes perfect sense.” I giggle a little. Maybe it’s because I’m ridiculously tired, but suddenly everything seems hilarious.
“Here,” my mother says, putting her hands on my shoulders, steering me toward a flimsy-looking gray table and guiding me down into a folding chair. “I’m sure you’re hungry. I got you sesame noodles and broccoli. Does that work?”
“Hell yeah it works,” I say, not entirely in control of my own words. “Gimme!” I pull the clear top off the black plastic container in front of me and fling it to the side.
“Wow, okay,” my mother says, nodding like she’s impressed with my initiative. “There’s a fork there, but I can find you chopsticks, too. Options!”
“Go for it,” I say. “The more utensils, the merrier.” I pick up the fork and start shoveling noodles into my mouth as my mom digs around the tiny, uninviting kitchen, aggressively crumpling various paper bags in her search for chopsticks.
This feels like a strange dream, but I don’t care. I’m very hungry.
“Bingo!” my mom says, triumphantly holding a pair of chopsticks in the air before sitting down and slamming them onto the table. I continue inhaling noodles. “Geez,” she says, “it’s like you’ve never seen food before in your life. Was Lyle feeding you at home?”
It’s jarring to hear her say my father’s name. I look up at her, a couple of noodles hanging out of my mouth.
There’s a quick double knock at the door, which startles the crap out of me and sends the mouth-noodles flying. They land on the table in this formation that looks like a miniature man doing jumping jacks, which cracks my shit up. My mom puts a finger to her lips, so I cover my mouth. She takes silent steps toward the door and puts her ear to it.
A low, muffled voice says something I can’t quite make out (sounds like hippie giant sewer), and my mother opens the door to let in a tall man in a gray jacket. He has thin blond hair and a craggy face, and he stands politely with his hands in his pockets as my mother shuts the door behind him. I’m still smiling because of the noodle man.
“This,” she says to the stranger, “is my son Denton.” She gestures to me, and I’m touched to hear pride in her voice.
“ ’Sup, homeboy,” I say to the random blond dude. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word homeboy before, but now seems like a good time to start.
The man gives me a confused nod. “It is pleasure to meet you.” He has some sort of thick accent, maybe Russian.
“This is Dane,” my mother says. “He’s part of our movement. He--”
“Part of our what-now?” I interrupt. You can’t just casually throw out a word like that without explaining it. “Movement? What do you mean by that?”
My mother looks to Dane. “Denton’s very tired,” she explains, like she’s trying to excuse my strange behavior. She turns back to me. “You don’t need to worry about the movement right now. But Dane is on our side, and he needs to do some quick tests on you.”
“Tests?” I say, my inner red flags flapping wildly. “No thanks! Pass!”
“How you feel?” Dane asks my mother, really hitting the f. She doesn’t respond. “Is he deaf as well as tired?”
“Denton,” my mom says. “He’s asking how you feel.”
“Oh, he’s talking to me?” He must be one of those people who look past you even when you’re the one they’re talking to. “I couldn’t tell, because of the . . .” I start to point to Dane’s lazy eye, but then I stop. It’s rude to point.
“Yes, I talk to you,” Dane says, suddenly unhinged. “Who else? How you feel?”
“Look,” my mom says. “Denton thought he’d be relaxing in a coffin by now, not getting pestered with questions by a couple of people he just met. Let’s cut him some slack.”
I’m not sure if relaxing is the right word for what I thought I’d be doing once I was dead, but I appreciate my mother coming to my defense.
“Sorry,” Dane says, one apologetic hand floating in the air. “I get antsy because car is parked illegal out front. Just don’t want ticket.”
“Well,” my mom says, shaking her head, “that’s your problem, isn’t it? No one forced you to park illegally.”
Dane snuffs out air through his nostrils and looks toward the blank wall behind me. “I am sorry I put on pressure,” he says. “Worry for my car overcomes me.”
“That’s okay, man,” I say. “I loved my car, too.” A tear comes to my eye as I think about my small silver car, Danza.
Dane perches on the chair formerly occupied by my mother and stares at me intently. (Well, as intently as he can with that lazy eye.) “I do not know if your mother has told you yet, but you are very important person.”
“Excuse moi?” I say.
“So that is why I need ask these questions and do tests. Please tell me how you feel.”
“Uh, well,” I say, looking to my mother, who nods vigorously. “I guess I feel like I want you to tell me more about this whole me-being-an-important-person thing, because it sounds both interesting and intimidat--”
“No!” Dane interrupts. “How you feel in ways of health?”
“Oh,” I say, trying to understand why exactly I’m being shouted at by this Eastern European. “Well, I mean, I’m alive, right? Which is much healthier than being dead.”
Dane clenches his jaw and looks down at the table. “You making joke?”
“I guess so,” I say. “Sorta.”
“This now is important. Save jokes for your mother later.”
“Dane,” my mother says. “Denton can make a joke if he wants to.”
“Fine,” Dane says, arms in the air. “I think important situation as this one calls for serious, but you are always joke joke joke. I see how son is like mother.”
He thinks we’re alike. That’s oddly comforting.
“So,” Dane tries again. “You feel healthy? Yes or no?”
“Yeah, pretty mu--”
“YES or NO?”
“Yes,” I say, annoyed that Dane had to come here and ruin all the fun.
“You had the purple all over?” he says, gesturing with one hand to his arms, legs, and chest. “With the red dots?”
“I did, yes.”
“And it turn all red?”
“It did.” I can still see those moving electric red dots, the way they combined and solidified at the end of my deathdate, making me look like a red freak instead of a purple one.
“What happen when it turn red?”
“It was pretty nuts,” I say. “As parts of my body changed color, I stopped being able to move them. Once all of me was red, I was, like, paralyzed, which turned out to be a good thing when I was in that car accident. I didn’t get hurt at all.”
For the first time since I walked into this insanity, I think about my dad and my stepmom, how I left them in the hospital after we all got in that car accident. I hope they’re okay.
“You see?” Dane whispers, looking to my mom. “I tell you this was possibility. . . .”
My mom is shaking her head, one hand on her mouth covering a huge smile about to bust forth. “Wow . . . ,” she says. “That’s . . . I can’t believe this.”
“What?” I ask. If I have to sit here, I want to at least understand the exciting thing that’s happening.
“It means the virus worked even better than we anticipated,” my mom says, looking just past me, like she’s trying to imitate Dane’s lazy stare. “It means the others should also survive. And if it turns out you--” Her eyes lock back onto mine. “Oh, it means so much, Denton. We did it!” Then she looks to Dane, her arms spread wide. He rises from his chair, and they share an awkward celebratory hug.
“This just the beginning,” Dane says, mid-hug. “We are finally ready.”
“I know,” my mom says, a bit teary-eyed. “I know.”
“Um, okay,” I say, rolling my eyes for the benefit of approximately no one. I feel like I’m watching the season finale of a TV show I’ve never seen a single other episode of. Not only that, but it occurs to me that my mom hasn’t offered to hug me since I arrived.
As if she’s received a transmission of my thoughts, my mom breaks from Dane and walks over to me at the table. “Denton, come here,” she says, suddenly pulling me into a hug. She smells like coconut.
“All right,” Dane says, sitting back down across from me. “Must do tests so I can leave.”
“I’d still prefer to pass,” I say.