On a bright, sunny Tuesday morning, Caroline Toohey woke up.
This in and of itself was not unusual. Caroline woke up all the time. Some days she woke early. Others she woke late. But no matter the time, she always woke up alive.
Except today, apparently.
She blinked and looked down at herself, this body encased in top sheet and blanket. Well, wasn’t that inconvenient. And she’d had so many plans for the day, too.
Or, well. She could still get up, right? Mind over matter and all that. She could roll with this. People died every day, and they all learned to live with it.
She got out of bed and tugged at her nightgown. Then she paused. Dead people didn’t wear nightgowns. What, exactly, did they wear? (Caroline didn’t know very many dead people.)
In the end, she pulled out the dress Philip had bought her for their anniversary last year. It was a size 6. She hadn’t been a size 6 in almost a decade, but Philip didn’t know that. Philip had only remembered the anniversary because his secretary put it in his calendar. The secretary he was banging on and off whenever he stayed late at the office. He hoped Caroline didn’t know that. But she did. (The anniversary, not the banging.)
She pulled the dress down over her head. It stretched tight around the belly and made it a little difficult to breathe. How convenient, then, that dead people didn’t breathe.
She turned and headed to the kitchen.
Dinastia sat at the dining table, spooning cereal with one hand and thumbing her phone with the other. “Good morning,” Caroline said. She opened the fridge, then stopped. Oh. Dead people didn’t eat.
She closed the fridge.
“Mm,” Dinastia said. She looked up at Caroline and paused for a moment. Why was Mom wearing a dress? Well, it hardly mattered. Dinastia was the type of girl to whom very little mattered because there was an entire world inside her smartphone and it was very important she engage with it AT ALL TIMES. She looked back down at the tiny screen and wrote “#horriblefashionsense #weirdmoms #fml” on Instasnap. Then she panicked until the first ❤ popped up. It was Aubrey. Good. It had better be Aubrey.
“I’m dead, by the way,” Caroline said.
“Mm,” said Dinastia. “#drama #parentingfail #donewithlife.”
Caroline blinked. “What?”
Dinastia rolled her eyes. One could not deal with a mother this early in the morning, not with everything already going on in the world. Like that guy named Steve she didn’t remember friending, who had just posted his fifteenth selfie of the morning. Dinastia had already ❤ -ed Selfies #1-14, so she wrote “omg this is the best one yet!!” even though it looked really very much the same as all the others. Then she yawned. All this connection made her tired.
(Steve was from weekend science camp two years ago. He didn’t remember Dinastia either.)
“Well,” said Caroline. “I’m going out.”
“Mm.” It was rare Dinastia acknowledged her these days; sometimes talking felt like breathing smoke into an air purifier.
Caroline headed for the garage.
The sun’s rays warmed her skin. She enjoyed it as much as a dead person could (which, as it turned out, was quite a bit—who knew?) as she got into the car. Sure, dead people didn’t drive, but she wasn’t about to walk to Philip’s office. That was just silly.
Philip worked in one of those huge glass skyscrapers downtown, the kind of place where you looked up and up and thought how cool must it be to work in a place like this, with a view to die for! And then you saw that view one day, and the next, and the next after that, and then it wasn’t to die for anymore. Unfortunately it didn’t turn out to be much to live for either, especially for Philip, who’d worked there for ten years.
He was a little surprised when Caroline walked into the office, but also relieved because he wasn’t banging the secretary right then even though he’d been thinking about it. She (Caroline, not the secretary) had never visited him at work before.
“Caroline,” he said, and then, because they’d been married fifteen years and were extremely happy and close, added, “How may I help you?”
Caroline glanced at the floor-to-ceiling window behind her husband’s desk. Rumor had it a banker had thrown himself out one back when the stock market crashed. Caroline hoped he, too, had woken up that morning already dead, if only so that he wouldn’t have been surprised on the way down.
(The banker had, in fact, awoken that day very much alive. Which made things all the more regretful because it turned out he’d changed his mind about the jumping around Floor 51.)
Caroline opened her mouth to speak, which was when Philip’s phone rang. He put up a finger and answered it on his Bluetooth. (He thought it made him look snazzy, like those models in the business magazines. And he did look like them, if each of those models had swallowed a walrus and shaved in the dark.)
“Philip Toohey here.”
“I’m dead,” Caroline said.
“Are you listening?” Caroline asked.
“No, I’m here.”
“Well, all right,” Caroline said. “I just thought you should know that.”
She left Philip’s office. “We’re honored by your business,” her husband said on her way out.
En route to the cemetery, Caroline texted Irene. They were best friends from college, and had been meeting for cocktails once every couple of months whenever one had a fleeting thought about the other. Caroline liked Irene, even though it sometimes felt like they were just having the same conversation over and over. (They were, in fact, having the same conversation over and over. “Hey, it’s so good to see you! [Glance at phone.] How are you? [Glance at phone.] How are the kids? [Glance at phone.]” This had been going on for sixteen years.)
“I’m dead,” Caroline wrote.
No response. She thought about texting more but couldn’t think of anything else to say. (Caroline and Irene’s text conversations tended to mirror their in-person conversations.) So she shrugged and pulled into the cemetery.
The director on duty was named John. John had not had a good week. John had complimented a coworker on her skirt and she had filed a sexual harassment claim against him. John had been talked to by his boss and forced to attend two days of seminars with titles like “Diversity: We All Are One!” and “The Importance of RESPECT!! In the Workplace.” John was feeling really very done with most things in life.
Caroline walked in and said, “I’m dead and would like to be buried.”
John squinted at her. Dead people usually didn’t walk around and talk and declare themselves dead. But then again, what did he know? He’d said Jayna’s skirt looked nice and look where that had gotten him.
Probably best just to play it safe.
“Okay,” John said.
Some time later, he lowered the casket into the ground with Caroline inside it. He grasped the lid and paused. “Are you sure about this?”
“Yes.” Caroline smiled. “This is where I belong.”
John thought about debating her. Then he thought about having to attend another bunch of seminars, probably with titles like “The Importance of RESPECT!! For Dead People.”
He closed the casket.
In the new darkness, Caroline took a deep breath and hummed with contentment. The first handful of dirt splashed onto polished wood. Whump.
Waiting between classes, Dinastia wrote “#classessuck #fml” on Instasnap. Aubrey ❤ -ed it and replied “tell me about it lol”. They stood next to each other in the hallway and giggled at their phones.
Philip took another Very Important Call (it said so on his calendar, in the secretary’s handwriting). The secretary closed the door behind her as he loosened his tie. (This was a Very Important Call.) He wondered what Bluetooth model he would order the next time.
Irene glanced at her phone, saw Caroline’s text, and frowned. Hadn’t she texted back? So hard to keep track of all those messages, all these people who needed her. She replied “LOL!!” and nodded and went back to looking at shoes.
In the silent darkness of the casket, Caroline felt a flicker of uncertainty. Was she really dead? What if she wasn’t? What if she actually was alive, and Philip and Dinastia didn’t know she was here, and what if they panicked, and what if Irene cried, and if she just pressed her palm up against the wood and pushed—
Caroline blinked. No. Dead people had no bonds. Dead people had no connections.
She settled back and breathed in the scent of leather, wood, and freshly turned earth. The soil rumbled around her in a soothing hum. The casket groaned and creaked with the weight, singing a soft lullaby. Here there were no distractions: no ringing phones, no stilted conversations, no bright screens flashing everywhere she looked. Just the casket and the earth, and finally she was here, she was connected, she was one with the world around her.
Caroline sighed and closed her eyes.
She had never felt more alive.
Kai Hudson is a clinical psychologist living in California. The fact that she listens to weird people talking about weird stuff for 40 hours a week obviously doesn’t affect her writing at all.