Those who live to tell what death is like never do. The experience makes intuitive sense the way a dream does. Describe it for someone else, and you may as well be making up words. There are some who forget they have ever died and go on with their lives still fearing the supposed inevitable end. Which begs the question, how many times can one survive death and forget about it? There is no known limit to this.
Julie was alone in her black SUV, a kind of portable night. Outside the temperature was nearing the triple digits, and an excavation along the bridge slowed traffic to a standstill. Her first thought was an invitation to rage, mercifully short-circuited by a prospect of relief. She had nowhere to be. Her official plan was to stop at her health club on the way home after today’s staff-training seminar, but the only thing she looked forward to at the health club was the spa. Although she had eaten junk food in the reception area and wanted to work it off, she felt so gross in the crowded hotel conference room which got staler by the minute that the thought of sweating, even in an air-conditioned gym, revolting. This construction gave her an excuse to go straight home and have a bath. She and Jeff had no plans for this evening since she didn’t know how long the seminar was going to last. Also, there was an audio book she wanted to listen to but never had the time. Whenever she thought of it she was on the freeway, hardly a safe place for messing with her bluetooth.
Now at a dead stop, even grateful, stealing glances with satisfied smugness at the misery around her she started the program. A series of introductory lectures on the history of Eastern Europe. Her ancestry went back to that area pretty quickly, but she wasn’t interested in anything post-AD. The idea that 99% of human history was unwritten had always fascinated her, but it was not something she was willing to risk a financial future by getting a degree in, so her elective interests had always steered toward that. Reading a book in the evening put her to sleep so she decided to try the audio versions. She could study it on the web if supplementary material was required and when she better understood things there were a few museums in the surrounding cities that she had her eye on learning about and maybe even, gasp, volunteering in.
A dull thud from the side of the road shook the car and she grabbed the steering wheel even though she was in park. Heads turned in the direction of the sound. Several giant tractors were on the side of the bridge, all at various angles digging into the hill. The sound must have come from one of them.
“And that should be enough to give any thinking person pause,” said the professor on her program. Annoyed that she had been distracted, Julie backtracked and was once again absorbed into life in the Caucus Mountain range.
What she didn’t notice was: on each side of the bridge, sleek black cars with minimal red and blue lights at the top of the windows lined the highway. Uniformed personnel with heads down scuttled out. Apparent bursts of steam shot up in between cars, and if she’d been in the helicopter overhead, she would have seen a crawling black river, edging from one side of the road to the other. The men from the black cars ran in between the stopped traffic with small tools, pushing back whatever it was. Combustive steam or smoke forcing their heads back. Drivers tried to lower their windows and look out but they were quickly ordered to not move and told that there was no danger. Just some runoff they didn’t want getting to the other side of the bridge. The uniformed men were quick. This was not a river they were trying to stop, but refugees of a sort.
Julie’s back passenger door opened, jolting her out of ancient times. The smell of char accompanied the person who lunged into her back seat. He whispered screams with what little breath he had. His skin was burnt and black nearly all over. She yelled at him to get the fuck out, but he continued to look through her as she fumbled with her own door. Slammed shut the moment she opened it. She stared into the sunglasses of one of the government men. He was not going to let her out.
She never felt the hands on her shoulders or the teeth on her throat. For Julie, death was like waking from a dream. She was alone in the car. The car lurched like with a hiccup, and then floated gently upward. A moment ago she had been parked, but she couldn’t remember where. Intuitively, she knew that cars didn’t float and understood that she was dying. She looked around for someone to tell, just to inform them for practical reasons, but there was no one. As the car rose higher, the blue sky turned whitish, like with cloud cover. Like when she lay in bed on a weekend morning, not wanting to wake, but unavoidably knowing that the sun was up. She knew she would forget everything, an unavoidable reality that had no point in being argued with. Just time for the next breath. She did allow herself a few moments of luxury to bathe in the cloud-white blank before rejoining the world.