Tapping the steering wheel with his fingers, marking time to the tune from the radio, Turner resignedly watched the slow afternoon traffic, waiting for the green arrow allowing him to make his turn. He left work half an hour early to beat Friday’s inevitable crush, but it seemed other drivers had the same thought. Well, he did manage to void most of the rush hour. Another fifteen minutes and he’d be relaxing in his apartment nursing a rye whisky. A dinner with Carolina would round off a very successful day. His project to upgrade the bank’s short term bills trading system finally received approval and his team could start development. The IT Director of Special Projects even condescended to smile at him, hinting at promotion and a hefty pay increase.
Yes, sir. Things were on a roll for Tom Turner.
The arrow turned green and he nodded, easing the BMW into a left turn, instinctively glancing right—in time to see a battered Ford pickup racing through the intersection. Staring at the driver, a cigarette hanging from his mouth, Turner knew he was going to get wiped out and there was nothing he could do about it.
“Ah, shit,” he muttered as the pickup roared toward him, followed by blaring horns and the screech of brakes. What was worse, he still had fifteen grand to pay off on his car, wondering if the insurance would give him a new one. This would mean that he’d probably miss dinner with Carolina. Damn.
Making no attempt to stop or swerve out of the way, the pickup slammed into Turner’s car. He felt his neck snap a moment before dazzling white light flared in his head.
He had read about near-death experiences and seen documentaries where people found themselves floating in the operating theater, watching the surgeons work on them, hearing everything they said. Turner wasn’t sure what to make of the situation when he found himself floating above the mangled wreckage of his beloved car, the pickup ripping it almost in two. It didn’t look good and he wondered how badly he’d been hurt. Definitely no dinner with Carolina.
His project! That shit Roberts would now probably take over. The bank could not afford to wait for Turner to get out of the hospital, which meant no promotion, and he could kiss that pay rise goodbye.
The intersection was a snarl of stalled cars, people milling around his BMW and the pickup, cars slowly edging around the wreckage trying to get away, not anxious to hang around for the cops, ambulances and fire brigade tenders to arrive, adding to the confusion. A tough looking young guy peered into the BMW and immediately pulled back, face contorted in disgust.
“He’s a goner, a mangled mess,” Turner heard him say.
“This one’s still alive, but trapped,” someone shouted as they wrenched open the pickup’s door.
“Better wait for the ambulance,” another man suggested as he pulled out his cell and punched in numbers. “I’m calling 911.”
Turner willed himself to float down until he was level with the BMW’s window. One look at the bloody mangled mess, he grimaced. Drifting higher, it slowly dawned on him that he wasn’t having a near-death experience, but that he was actually dead, the realization shaking many of his preconceived notions. There was supposed to be a long tunnel and a bright light at the other end marking the doorway to heaven or something, with souls waiting to embrace him. Apparently not. It also looked like the local priest had it all wrong, too.
This, Tom old boy, will take some adjustment to accept.
Instead of feeling anguish at having his life cut short by an idiot, Turner actually felt great, relieved that he would miss eighteen months at least of office politics, budget hassles, battling for project staff, and fighting an impossible schedule. As program manager, it would all land on him, smiles and congratulations for getting the project approved forgotten. Life would become a drag once the bean counters sank their talons into him. He’ll miss Carolina, though. They had something going, which most likely would have blossomed into a more lasting relationship.
Two police cruisers, sirens blaring and lights flashing, arrived on the scene. The cops started directing traffic, urging sightseers to move on. Why do people relish watching the macabre? An ambulance pulled up, pried loose the pickup driver and hauled him off, followed by Turner’s evil wishes. The fire brigade crew had to use the jaws of life to cut through the twisted wreckage of his BMW to get at the body.
It was then that he became aware of somebody near him and looked up. A young woman dressed in a blue blouse and black skirt smiled and waved at him, floated some twenty feet from him.
“Hi, there,” he said lamely, startled to see her.
Still smiling, she nodded and said something, but he could not hear her words. With a wave of her hand, she drifted off.
Looking around him, he saw two young boys, an old bearded man and an executive type hovering above the scene. He shouted at them, but they simply shook their heads and pointed at their ears.
“That’s great. I’m in a world of ghosts who can’t hear anything,” he muttered sourly.
How come he could hear everything else? It appeared to be a mystery he needed to resolve, and he had an eternity to figure it out. The thought made him pause. Did he have eternity? Was death going to be spent drifting around the world until he went insane from sheer boredom, having seen everything, having learned everything? Say, if he had endless time on his hands, there were lots of things he wanted to study. Perhaps death wasn’t going to be that bad after all. Wait a minute; he couldn’t interact with the physical world! Or could he? Something to follow up.
Looking around, he frowned. If every dead person ended up—wherever this was, he should have been hip deep in ghosts, but the sky was almost empty. Even as he digested the thought, one of the youngsters began to glow, then popped out of existence.
Was his current state merely an interim situation before his soul—for want of a better description—was processed and shuffled somewhere else? That was a question of imponderables. He would simply have to wait and see what happened. In the meantime, he should say his farewell to Carolina.
Willing himself to go higher, he scanned the city’s skyline. Making like Superman, he arrowed toward Richmond. Carolina had the day off, preparing something special for their dinner. He wondered how she would take the news of his death.
The apartment block where she lived loomed ahead of him and he headed for the ninth floor. Two elderly men waved at him as they flew past. Staring at them, he belatedly waved back. Maybe he should explore the possibility of finding a friend or two. Without being able to converse?
Drifting closer to the kitchen window, he saw it empty. Maneuvering to the bedroom window, his mouth sagged as impotent rage surged through him like fire. Carolina, her amber hair spread across the pillow, slim arm around Roberts’ neck, winced in ecstasy as Turner’s senior project manager pumped into his girlfriend. Without thinking, he clenched his fists and willed his body to close with the son of a bitch and his two-timing girl, only to shoot straight through them into another apartment, bursting out the other side of the building.
Teeth grinding, Turner slowly unclenched his fists. He now understood why Roberts hadn’t come in today. Bastard!
Carolina! How could you do this to me!
Calming down, he allowed himself a wry smile. She did not know Roberts like he did. The smooth talking shithead had wormed his way into her pants, and she would deserve what she’d get if they hit it off.
The sun had turned into an orange ball, bathing the city with shadows. Skyscrapers, their lights blazing, turned downtown into a surreal wonderland. With all his life’s cares and worries swept away, Turner decided to have some fun as he swooped toward St. Kilda’s red light district. He had never been tempted to go there, but was always interested to know how business was conducted by the experts. He now had an opportunity to see it for himself at close range. This should be good.
But it didn’t turn out to be that good. Anticipating to see feverish action, the voyeur in him salivating, in reality it was no different from watching a porno movie. Worse, as real life amateurs could not compete with staged professional actors. The hookers looked bored throughout the act, and the men, mostly elderly probably cheating on their wives, grunted and groaned through their pathetic performance. Turner didn’t even get a hard-on, the situation deflated by two male ghosts smirking at him in one room.
Dejected, he flew high into the sky and stopped to watch the blaze of city lights below him. Up here, he had a measure of peace and contentment, even happiness, something he hadn’t felt in a long time. His work rewarded him with a luxury apartment—his dad would probably sell it off now—an upmarket car, a wonderful girl—an ex now—and parents who didn’t interfere. He reminded himself to see them sometime. As the only son of a moderately wealthy family, he’d had everything. Everything except happiness, he realized. Money, a good job, status, did not translate into happiness as he thought they would. Where had it all gone wrong?
Gazing at the quarter moon, he grinned and stretched out his arms as his body arrowed into space. He had no sensation of speed or movement, but when he glanced back, Earth was a blue orb hanging against a black tapestry filled with stars.
On his right, Mars beckoned. He would give it a go once he overflew the Moon. Always interested in astronomy and cosmology, he could indulge some of his fantasies to see the Solar System for himself. If he could only write down what he would see and give those NASA boys a shock.
He didn’t know how long it took to reach the Moon, but it felt like a long time. There simply wasn’t any way he knew how to measure time. Seeing the gray Lunar landscape draw close, a profusion of craters everywhere, he felt mildly disappointed at his lack of excitement. He had seen documentaries of Apollo landings and knew what to expect, which perhaps dulled his enthusiasm. Nevertheless, swooping over the forbidding landscape, he felt a measure of awe at what nature had produced. It would have been cool to see a UFO right then…
Venturing over the dark side, he could see very little and returned into daylight, seeing Earth as Armstrong must have seen it, a small blue-white ornament, beautiful but fragile. Leaving the gray craters behind him, he flew toward home.
* * *
A day came and the sun was slowly sinking into a still sea. White breakers smashed themselves into creamy foam along an endless stretch of yellow sand. Gulls hovered above the churning waters, waiting to plunge in for a morsel. Turner sat on the sand and watched the gulls, the surf and the sun. Cloud tendrils, lit with fire and gold, stretched over the western horizon. A soft, mild breeze stirred the spiky grass around him. No one was in sight, not even other ghosts.
He had spent over a month exploring the planet, seeing all the famous sights, from the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, and wonders like Machu Picchu. He soared over Everest and plunged through fiery volcanoes. He even flew into the raging waters of the Niagara Falls—a silly stunt to do, but invulnerable, he dared everything.
The ocean deeps gave him a fright. Plummeting down into total darkness, he was amazed to see glowing creatures out of nightmare. With all the turning and twisting, he could not tell which way was up or down, and had a moment of irrational panic, fearing he would be trapped in eternal blackness forever. Once he thought it through, the solution was simple. He kept flying until he saw light and burst through the surface to an expanse of an endless ocean.
Now, sitting on an abandoned shore, watching the breakers roll in, he wondered if this was all there was. Is this how he was destined to spend eternity? Roaming Earth and the Solar System? There were always the stars, but he was not that desperate yet. He had seen people and children suddenly pop out of existence, perhaps into another life. Would that be his fate one day? Would that be his moment of redemption? But if he flew away from Earth, would that moment pass him by?
He did not believe in God or the afterlife, preferring to look at his current predicament as merely another step in man’s existence, however startling the experience. Whatever ‘he’ was now, his consciousness, his being, clearly had substance beyond the physical body. If his current situation was simply a transition to something else, he was keen to experience it.
After seeing so much of Earth—he was still to venture into deep space to see Mars—he became bored. This had not turned out to be as much fun as he anticipated. Undertake a project of study? Perhaps later. One thing was certain. He would have to devise some program that would keep him occupied and motivated, or he risked descending into depression, and perhaps actual insanity. If there was a hand of God watching over him, Turner hoped He would send his soul to wherever others had vanished.
Seeing the red sun disappear, leaving a glowing horizon, he was struck by a novel idea. He had seen the film The Core, and always wondered what it would be like to see the Earth’s center for himself. Now, he could indulge his whim. Smiling, he lifted his arms, rose a few feet and turned upside-down. Still wearing a grin, he drove himself into the yellow sand.
Nothing but darkness. He knew the Earth’s solid shell was some twenty miles or so thick, which shouldn’t take him long to traverse. Then 1,800 miles of the mantle before he reached the outer core.
When he did break into the upper mantle, it was still dark, but he could perceive a dull red glow. Probably energetic photons emitted from radioactive decay. It was nothing like The Core showed. He kept arrowing down. At least he thought it was down, the background roar of moving magma loud in his ears.
After what had to be many hours, tempted to turn back, the red glow intensified and he suddenly found himself bathed in yellow light shot through with tendrils of white. He had at last reached the outer core. Nodding with satisfaction, he continued down.
It seemed like an eternity had passed before he saw darkness looming ahead of him approaching abnormally fast. Stopping with considerable effort—the layer of darkness tugging at him—he realized he had reached the rotating semi-solid inner core, the dynamo that generated the Earth’s electromagnetic field. From what he knew, the core was mostly nickel/iron with a gamut of heavier elements. Farther in lay the radioactive center that fueled the entire process. His knowledge was sketchy, but what he was seeing matched what he had read.
Feeling that he was being drawn down, he clenched his teeth in an effort to stop himself drifting.
Was there any value going farther?
His curiosity satisfied, he reached up with his arms and willed himself to fly to what he supposed to be ‘up’. Any direction away from the black core would be up. After a while, he looked down and his mouth sagged in astonishment. He had not flown away from the core at all! Moreover, it appeared to be closer, which wasn’t possible. No physical force from the real world could affect him. Yet, he reminded himself, he could see and hear what went on. Even now, the core’s heaving mass hissed in his ears.
How was it possible for the core to draw him toward it?
Just before he sank through the glowing boundary into darkness, the answer hit him. Gravity somehow interacted with the dimension his soul occupied, capturing him in its embrace. And what waited for him at the core’s center? Why, other ghosts who became bored. Did they ever pop out of existence into another life, releasing them from a hell of their own making?
As darkness closed around him, Turner screamed, but of course, there was no one to hear his screams.