I think I’m dead. Only, I’m not a ghost. And I’m pretty fucking sure this isn’t heaven.
Dirt freckled with sagebrush, grass, and wildflowers stretches out behind me. In front of me, a grove of trees grows into a forest as the land slopes upward. The sun looks ready to pop and bleed across the dusty sky. My skin prickles as beads of sweat collect in my five o’clock shadow. Ghosts can’t feel shit like that.
Yet if I’m not dead, why isn’t my body broken? My truck crashed into the oak tree at high speed. The airbag punched my head back with neck-breaking whiplash. Then tinnitus, a whiff of gasoline, and finally, blackness. It was the kind of crash you don’t walk away from. But as far as I can tell, I don’t have a scratch on me. My wrecked truck, the tree I crashed into, and the road are nowhere in sight, as if I’ve teleported to the middle of nowhere.
In the moments between blacking out and waking up here, my life flashed before my eyes, just like they say. Time ballooned, making space for thirty-six years in a matter of seconds.
Some of it played like a movie. Other moments, more like rapid-fire snapshots.
I’m nine years old and new in the neighborhood. Shy, with an almost unintelligible stutter, making friends isn’t easy. My mom has arranged a play date with the twin boys next door.
As Kyle and Aaron argue in my backyard over whether we should play pirates or zombies, I stutter through a compromise. They listen as patiently as third graders can…so, not at all.
Finally, I run into the house, find a sheet of paper and a pencil, and write down my idea. Pirates who find a treasure map. And the gold is buried on…Zombie Island.
At the time, I think I’ve simply found a way around my stumbling voice. But in pre-death hindsight, it’s the moment I became a writer.
Christmas mornings. Learning to ride a bike. High school wrestling matches.
Then, my first—and last—cage fight. I’m twenty-nine and a fresh blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with about six months of Muay Thai training. It’s only a local amateur bout, something to check off my bucket list. Just for fun.
But it turns personal real quick.
While my opponent and I chat before the fight, he notices my stutter. After years of speech therapy, it’s better, but still there, and it flares up when I’m nervous. I’m introduced to the crowd as Alex “Pretty Boy” Baker, my nickname at the gym. It wasn’t my choice. My coach submitted the name without telling me.
Gavin “Lightning Fists” Rinker laughs from his corner and shouts, “Let’s go, P-P-P-Pretty Boy.”
Early in round one, I shoot for a double leg take-down. My opponent, a former wrestling champion, sprawls. I spend the next thirty seconds struggling to get back to my feet. As soon as I do, he lands an elbow, cutting open my upper lip. It will leave a scar.
Round two, he knees me in the ribs, cracking one of them.
Final round, he shoots in for a double leg. Exhausted and in pain, I let him take me to the ground, but luck into a triangle choke, my legs around his neck and one of his arms. With everything I have left, I lock down the choke. He taps. I win.
My wife, Elizabeth, tells me later she watched the whole thing through her fingers and begs me to never do it again.
As my world faded and I watched the last bits of my pre-death, “Alex Baker, this is your life” hallucination, I hoped to see our good times. Our wedding day. Wedding night. I wanted my last thoughts to be of her body. Her smile. I wanted to see myself burying my face in her hair, breathing in her vanilla-scented shampoo. I wanted to hear her laugh.
Instead, I saw her sitting on the ground, back against the wall, blood pooling between her legs.
The final miscarriage.
I’m holding her hand and staring at the ground because I don’t want her to see the disappointment on my face.
Look at her, you stupid fuck.
She’s scared. Shocked. Grieving. And alone.
The images faded away, blackness creeping in.
No. No, no, no.
This couldn’t be the end. I needed to talk to Elizabeth. Tell her I love her. That I forgive her. Beg her to forgive me.
Our dog, Kevin. I needed to take him on one last walk. Earn my black belt. I needed to say goodbye to my parents. Thank them for everything.
And I needed to finish my book.
In the storm of should’ve, could’ve, would’ve, that final failure hit hard. If I die, who’s going to finish the story?
With that thought, everything went black. I woke up here, left to wonder if I’m dead or alive.
The evidence is pretty damning: high-speed crash, life flashing before my eyes, and teleported to the middle of nowhere. And then, of course, there’s the woman.
Her name is Mabie Nightlady. And she doesn’t exist.