You know what I can’t stand? People who go on and on about “bigger questions” as though it made them seem enlightened. Always rambling on about “the meaning of life” or “the democracy of death,” making big pronouncements, philosophizing, bullshitting. It’s not because I think they’re pretentious, or because I think they’re wrong. I know they’re wrong.
I know what it’s all about: Nothing. I know what’s beyond death, too. It’s not heaven or hell or Nirvana or rebirth. It’s something altogether more grim.
I’ve heard that the peoples of the prehistoric world believed that the afterlife was more or less exactly like this one. All we were doing in the here and now was preparing to work after we died. I guess that’s what passed for philosophy before high priests and deep thinkers. And you know what? They weren’t that far off. Death and life aren’t that far removed, really.
My name is Duncan Prince, and today I’m going to tell you about the time I almost – almost, mind you – died. It’s up to you if you want to believe what you’re about to hear, but if you don’t, it will have consequences. It had consequences for me.
It was all so sudden, but I suppose that’s just how it is. I never even saw it coming. There I was, walking down the street just like any other day. There was a loud noise, and then silence and blackness. My life didn’t flash before my eyes – not enough time. One second I was here, in the warmth of the world, and then I was gone. It wasn’t really unpleasant – it wasn’t really anything, just shadows and senselessness.
I don’t know how long I was in that place. Time doesn’t mean much in the land of the dead. But bit by bit it passed, and I regained the use of my senses. I was standing alone in what appeared to be an impossibly large cavern. Hollow out the Earth and walk around inside, and I assure you it still won’t be a tenth of the size of this place. Somewhere off in the distance, I could see traces of movement and dots of light – signs of life in the strange place. I tried to walk towards it, but something held me back. It was like some force was intruding on my will, ordering me to stay put.
“You don’t want to go there, kid. That place is for corpses.” The voice came from behind me. A hand rested on my shoulder, and in an instant that force spun me around. I found myself facing a man who…how do I even describe him? He wore robes that changed in color and style every time I blinked. He had a constant faint shadow on his face, and every time I looked straight at him his features were slightly different. The only consistent things about him were the eyes – bright and piercing, with a faint yet unmistakable glint somewhere behind them.
“Of course,” he continued, “if you want to die, I can’t very well stand in your way. All I ask is the briefest moment of your time. Believe me, it will cost me a lot more than it costs you.”
“What’s going…” I tried to speak, but I couldn’t feel my lips or tongue. I couldn’t feel anything.
“Oh, sorry, I always forget this part. Speaking, walking – it’s handled differently here than it is on Earth. That’s what I hear, anyway – we’re not allowed to go up there. Here, it’s all a matter of willpower. Give it a try, will you?”
Slowly, a picture emerged – the loud noise, the coldness, the fact that I couldn’t feel anything. I reached down inside myself and pictured myself moving. It felt like I was controlling my body with marionette strings, but at least I had control. “Am I…dead?”
“You’re a quick learner. Duncan, isn’t it?” The man reclined against nothing in particular. “No, you’re not dead. You’re almost dead. On the brink, teetering between worlds, neither here nor there.”
“That’s why I’m here,” he said. “There’s a lot to explain, but I’ll spare you the metaphysical details, as you seem like the kind of person who wouldn’t appreciate the lecture.”
Regaining control of my head, I looked around. There wasn’t anything to see – a void stretching endlessly in all directions. It wasn’t even blackness, because blackness still has characteristics. It was nothingness, the absence of anything we might use to describe it. I turned back to the man. “This…doesn’t look like heaven.”
The man grinned. “Humans always have such a specific image of the afterlife. No, this isn’t heaven. It isn’t anywhere. I’ve suspended you outside of normal time so that we could have this chat. You were about to have a very nasty accident, you know.”
“The noise…on the street.”
“Precisely. You see, what I do is all a matter of timing. I can’t bring someone back from the grave, but if I’m watching the right place, I can pull someone out of harm’s way…if I want to.”
“Then, I’m not…dead.”
“Not yet.” The man walked in circles around me, with that invisible force turning me so that I always faced him. “You see, the people in charge of your destiny have decided that this is your time to die. You’ve spent all your good time.”
“’Spent’ it?” There was something strange about this man’s words. They shifted around about as much as his appearance. “You…make it sound like my life is currency.”
“Well it is, Duncan. Time is the only currency that holds purchase for the dead. They all want more, and they’ll do anything to get it. That’s where I come in.” He stopped pacing, and as he did I felt the force that had been supporting me fade out. I struggled to stand, using all my will to keep my senseless legs steady.
“I am what they call a life merchant,” continued the man. “I am blessed with a surplus of time, but am unable to use it myself. Instead, I exchange it for favors with both the living and the dead. As the former, you are especially valuable to me, and thus, you are in a fantastic position to make a deal.”
I didn’t like those words. Everything he said sounded very Faustian, very impure. But that’s easy to say now, among the living. When you’re face to face with an uncertain fate, it’s a lot easier to ignore your own concerns. “What kind of deal?”
“Well, obviously I have no need of your money or possessions. I will take my trade in favors. You will return to your old life, and in exchange you will work for me until you have repaid your debt. It’s a good trade, no? A few measly little favors in exchange for decades upon the green earth.”
“What kind of favors?”
“Well, I don’t know just yet. I can assure you that you will never be called upon to do anything too shocking, if that was your concern. Well, what do you say? Do we have a deal?”
He extended his hand to me. A million thoughts rushed through my head. This man scared me, and yet he was my only hope. And I certainly knew I didn’t want to stay in that place any longer. Reluctantly, I took his hand.
“Are you going to make me sign a contract in blood?” I asked.
“Don’t be silly, Duncan, the verbal contract is enough. Believe me, I can easily recover my debt if you defy me.” He laughed. “Sorry, just a bit of levity. I’ll contact you when I am in need of your services.”
“Hold on. What’s your name? How will I know when you contact me?”
“We have no need for names here, but to many I am known as the Borderliner. Remember that sobriquet, you won’t have any difficulty recognizing me.”
Suddenly, a shock shot through my brain. My eyes filled with swirls of color and my ears filled with noise. I could feel the air whipping around me, catching and pulling at my skin. Slowly, the sensation faded, and everything grew clear. I was standing on the sidewalk, surrounded by people all looking my way. I turned and saw a cracked slab of concrete laying just feet behind me. It was the mother of all close calls.
A man ran up to me. “Shit, are you okay?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You want to go to the hospital? We’ll call an ambulance.”
“No thanks, I just need to lie down for a while.”
I went back to my apartment and stared at the ceiling, trying to make sense of what I’d seen. Was it head trauma? A concussion? Nothing had struck me in the head. I hadn’t seen the slab, so it wasn’t shock. But it couldn’t have been real, could it?