DREAMING IN SUBTITLES

CHAPTER ONE

THE DAY I DIED.

I clawed to the minutes. Hoarding time, captive in a vacant black. 

“What a trooper,” one nurse kept saying. “She sure is holding on, isn’t she?”

“Not going to be here much longer,” the other nurse murmured, her voice a breath so my family wouldn’t hear. “Just too stubborn to die.” How many tragedies had she seen before she’d made apathy into a shield? I should’ve felt sorry for her, but I couldn’t. I’d become the tragedy. 

This agony didn’t hurt like pain should. It was an edgeless cavern between soul and skin, pushing pressure, trying to force me free. My eyes betrayed me, refusing to open. My heart rattled at the cage of my ribs. Every beat, every breath, a cadence: 

Inhale, ba-bum, please Loralay, exhale, ba-bum, it’s time to die.

Behind my eyelids memories danced like music notes in a motif, keeping time with the heart monitor’s tempo, playing along with the song of hospice. The song of goodbye. 

But I wasn’t docile, and I wasn’t done. I was angry.

One life? That was it? One chance to watch everything fall apart. What was the point of living when your born naïve? I used my stolen time to fantasize another try, calculating changes I’d make if I could adjust the past. What if I convinced Dad not to leave, saving Mom from depression? Recognize the signs and stop our neighbor killing his family, or prevent my father-in-law committing suicide, or just go back to when my fingers flicked the turn signal, sliding into the next lane in front of that old beater truck. A driver on the hunt for insurance fraud, pressing his foot to the gas when I was half in, so it’d look like I’d swerved. 

The split second that stole everything.

“Are you still in there?” My husband Drew asked. He and my daughter stayed with me, stroking my arm, holding my hand. I tried to squeeze back. Willing my mind to move with such tenacity that, if by any chance I was the hero in a comic book, my dormant telekinesis would awaken in me. 

But it was a stupid idea. I never moved.

Drew brushed back the hair on my forehead. He hated my bangs. Worst surprise haircut ever. I thought I was keeping things fresh, but when I came home, he’d smiled through a grimace, asking how long until they’d grow out. I’d only maimed my hair four days before the accident, so he shouldn’t have trouble finding a good photo for the funeral bulletin. 

No, I thought. I’m not going to die. But time was scratching at the cracks of my fingers, slipping free.

Please Loralay, ba-bum, please die.

My nine-year-old daughter leaned in, whispering promises like secrets. If I came home, she’d be a better daughter. She was sorry for the water stains. Why was that the last thing? I’d even yelled. Like leaving a wet towel on the piano bench was the most unfathomable tragedy. Horrible last words were a cliché I never thought I’d be on the other side of, but it’d left her with guilt.

The curtain opened again.

“Bye Mama,” Makenzie said. 

“We’ll be right back,” Drew said, but I didn’t know if he was talking to me or our Makenzie. “Just gonna get some dinner.”  

“I don’t want to eat,” Makenzie said, “It doesn’t feel right. I wanna stay with Mom.”

There was a shuffle. The sound of coats rubbing together in a hug, Makenzie starting to cry. They didn’t walk away, standing there, as if I’d get up to say goodbye. 

I would have. I wanted to.

I listened to my daughter’s sobs echoing in the hall. It was stupid, the way hospitals weren’t soundproof, making everyone share each other’s misery. I wanted to nuzzle her into me, shelter her. Be Mom. 

If only I could make it right.

But once they were gone, there was no sound. Not even when Death pulled back the curtain. 

No bony fingers laced around a scythe. No halo, harp, or cloak. He didn’t fit any mold for anyone. He was the everyman.

You can tell a lot about a person from the way they dress. The style of their shoes, the cut of their hair, but Death wouldn’t allow that. He kept changing. One moment he wore a tight purple blazer, then a mustard-yellow flannel. And if frame, race, or age, gave away a hint of information those kept changing too. First plump, then well defined, hair slicked back, then wavy blond. No, it was short cropped black. No, he was bald with a goatee. An abyss of bodies, transforming like an oil spill in the sun, shimmering shades of honey that wouldn’t settle.

He was emotionless, like the face in a coffin, disorienting, like the emptiness when life is gone, and he came abruptly the way all death comes. If nothing else told me I’d still know who he was because I could see him, all versions of him, when I couldn’t even open my eyes to look at my Makenzie. 

“Good morning, Loralay,” Death said through ever-changing lips. His voice was a thousand things at once. Masculine, but quiet, milky, but deep. I hated the way it called and calmed me at the same time, telling me to move in closer so I could hear.

I sat up. It should’ve been impossible. All those monitors and medical devices strapped to me, not to mention I’d been paralyzed, but now I came up as easily as water finds its level. I zipped around, expecting to see my body left behind like a double-exposure spirit in a B-flick film but I was still tethered to myself. No corpse, just freedom. Cords and bandages slipping out of existence.

I checked my hands first, worried I’d never play piano again. Next, I patted through my hair. No matted blood, no section of skull cut away because of brain swelling, just messy curls of brown hair tangled down my back like I’d been sleeping. 

Only, this wake-up was intended to be my last.

I looked around the room for the first time. It was cramped. Ugly mauve-pink walls, a window overlooking a parking lot, an array of medical devices on wheels. Impermanent objects ready for rolling away when my impermanent life was gone. 

Death stood over my bed. He was eyeing some unfinished Jell-O on a tray, probably brought in for my daughter. Flick, he was a ruddy tween in blue jeans. Flick, he was a middle-aged woman with an underbite. 

And he was closer.

“It’s not fair!” I said. The words had been sealed inside me for so long they were buoyant, floating to the top of my throat without a thought. “I’m not ready!” I grabbed the bed’s assist rails as if they could tether me.

“I can see that. Didn’t even finish breakfast.” He didn’t smile. Not one of him.

“That’s not mine. I . . .” This wasn’t what I wanted to argue about. I had to stop whatever was coming next. Maybe I should have been in awe. He was an Angel, right? A majestic creature, force of nature, my personal appointment with the rider of the pale horse. Or maybe I should’ve questioned my sanity, but anger is action, not questions.

“So,” Death said, taking off his gloves. Unlike the rest of him, they were unchanging. Worn leather, sometimes the same color of his skin. His gloves hit the bed in a vacuum of sound. 

Pat.

Pat. 

Then nothing. A new reality where only he and I existed.

“That’s why I’m here,” he said. “You should have come to me. You’ve been holding on too long.”

            “It can’t be time yet,” I said. “It wasn’t enough.”

“That’s not how this works,” Death said, morphing from a little boy into a dreadlocked man in a basketball jersey. The changes were making me dizzy, but I wasn’t going to ask about them. Nothing that might move us off topic. A new fear was rising in me. A fear that his quiet voice could distract the world’s existence, causing everything to fade. 

“It’s not? Then why am I still here?” 

“Because you have more choice then you think you do.”

I looked at Death in the eye, right at the center of his pupil. I didn’t understand how, but it was the only part of him that stayed anchored. Those pupils were bottomless. Not empty but a black spot of ocean, teeming with things unnamed and unseen, things bigger than me. I looked away, shaking my head.

“Choice?” I asked, holding my resentment as a weapon. “Then why aren’t I home with my family! Where’s my happy ending?”

Death’s many hands gestured beyond the hospital curtain.

“They’re not far off, but where would that take you?”

My head jerked up. My daughter and husband must be just down the hall, probably still close. My legs fell over the side of the bed like the first few drips of a waterfall. Plip, plop, then all of me. 

I took one glance at Death, now a biker with a Santa beard, then bolted past the curtain, leaving my room. Bare feet slapping on tile.

A few doctors stood in the hall, looking at a chart, paused like department store mannequins. Stripes of light came from a large window, slashing the ground in orange. Leaving Death’s side everything was turning that color. Icy-orange. The color of creamsicles, or an overexposed photo. From the Doctors to the mass-produced art on the walls, all of it coated in an odd, dreamy way, growing darker at the edges of my vision. 

Death didn’t try to stop me, letting me run along the timeless hall, searching until I could see them. Hold them. Become the superhero and squeeze back. 

I could finally see my Drew. His arm around our girl, frozen mid-step, reaching to push open a swinging door. The last time I’d seen him I’d been brushing my teeth as he dressed for work. He’d reached past me to grab his razer, kissing my cheek mid-sway, surrounding me in the scent of lemon pomade.

Now Drew was disheveled, hair cascading over tired eyes. When did he start looking so old? Maybe I hadn’t noticed it because no one looks their age when they’re smiling, and Drew always managed to smile. Even a sad little grin when he stubbed his toe, committed to not burdening anyone.

My last failure would be taking that smile from him.

I slid my arm around them both. Their clothes moved, but I was holding immobile hands. In this place, this prison, they were only supple statues, suspended in a moment.

“I’m here,” I whispered in Makenzie’s ear. Her fingertips were cold. “I love you,” I said. I was crying. Mostly because I wanted something else to say, something bigger. But love was the only word English gave me.

Death was there. A teenager, then a thin man with a broken nose, appearing ahead even though he hadn’t followed me out of the room.

“Get away from us!” I screamed. My voice didn’t echo like it should. This was the soundproof room I’d wanted for my daughter, only too late. Everything was too late, an entire life of too late. I couldn’t stop him and being powerless made me savage. “You won’t touch us! Nothing will make me leave. Put me six feet under and I’ll claw back to them. In all this miserable life everything’s been taken from him, from me, but not this time! I won’t die!”

Flick, flick, flick. Faces moving ever closer. The deep of his eyes was growing, burring us. I threw myself in front of them, blocking Death’s path.

Flick, flick, fli—

I slapped Death. Hard. Hard enough that his head jerked to the side. But my hand hadn’t hit anything like skin. He was smooth, cold. Stone. 

The walls started to melt, all orange, bunching up thick like an overflow of lava. I screamed, reaching back for my family, but I was falling through the floor, spinning. 

And then I was back in my hospital bed like I’d never left. No more orange filter.

I’d won. He’d let me go. Jacob wrestles the angel and gets a new name, I slap Death and get a second life. 

Then I saw his gloves at the foot of my bed. 

“You don’t understand,” he said. I turned to see him looking out the parking lot window. “Me, coming here, dressed in reflections, it’s no small thing. You’ve been gifted.”

“Gifted? Oh, thanks for taking me when the last thing I did was yell at my daughter!” I tried to kick his stupid gloves off the bed. 

My foot slammed into something like a brick wall. The Gloves hadn’t moved. I sat up, looking at them.

“Stubbornness is a gift,” Death went on. “It’s often thought of as a trait to overcome, but stubbornness for the right reasons is integrity. It could’ve been your strength, but you spent this life pretending you weren’t enough. Stubbornness to belittle your own value. That’s a gift misused.”

I wasn’t listening anymore, I was trying to pick up those gloves. Maybe I could use them, overpower him with his own weapon, but it was like trying to lift a semi-truck.

“Are you even listening?” Death asked. There was the tiniest bit of amusement to his voice, the first sign of personality. It halted me, making me look back up into those eyes. 

“I’ve been told to take you,” Death said. “But only if you refuse the deal.”

“Deal?” I asked.

“You should know, you brought me here. If you agree to the conditions, your experiences will be prolonged with a new life. I don’t understand why, you’ve suffered enough, but it’s not for me to understand.” I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. A deal with Death seemed like a bad idea, the kind smarter people warn you about. “You think your life would have been better if you’d known more, acting sooner. Wishing for foresight before your time. A story where you’re the hero.” 

“No,” I said. “There’s more to it!” But he was right. Those were my deepest desires. I just didn’t like them lumped in sentences short enough to fit on a postcard. It made me feel as insignificant as I was. “What would be the point of living again? I get a chance to watch the lives around me fall apart.” Death didn’t answer. Coward.

“If I go back,” I said. “I’ll still end up here. I was a stupid kid. There were so many times I could’ve. . . But I didn’t know! I did what I could. All the good intentions in the world don’t matter when the moment’s gone. Oh, but good thing I was stubborn before I died and abandoned my daughter.” I cried harder now, silently, and this time for myself.

“Lying in bed, thinking of your failures.” Death said. “You’re not alone in that. Sometimes that’s when people call me, asking for it all to end. Well, you are different. I haven’t been slapped before. That was new.”

“You deserve it,” I said. 

“You misunderstand your choice. You can come with me and leave the suffering, or you can try again. This time burdened with the memories you’ve been bitter over all these years.” I sat up straighter. Death looked like he expected me to say something, but I wasn’t about to interrupt, not when things might move in my favor. “This life would be over. No coming back to this point again.”

“You mean I won’t end like this?” I looked around the room, a place I never wanted to see again.

“Not if you change the variables.”

“What’s the catch?”

Death sighed. 

“That is the catch. All of it.”

My skin started to crawl, but there was nowhere to run.

“So, everything’s up in the air? Maybe I’ll step on a beetle, and my daughter never existed. That’s ludicrous. I’d never risk her.”

“It doesn’t work like that. Your daughter will exist. You can’t unknit a person.”

“So, it’s all fate then? What’s the point in trying if I can’t change anything?”

“It doesn’t work like that either.”

“Then what does it work like?”

“You die tonight, and you come with me, or you die tonight, and you start over again.”

My fingers tightened on the bedsheets.

“So, I die and get nothing,” I said. “Or I live and make a difference?”

I laughed, right in the face of Death. Another cliché I never thought I’d be on the other end of. I liked this one better. 

“You already did make a diff—”

“Deal,” I said. 

His words stopped abruptly. Sound then silence, like a recording cutting out. His face was still shifting but this time through an index of people I knew. My mother, my father, childhood friends. My husband, my daughter. 

And then myself.

I was looking into my grey eyes, my parted lips, and then there was nothing.

I was nothing. 

I was starting over.