One: Not As Expected
Dash died from two bullets to the head at fairly close range. The wounds were of a degree that when he woke up, he didn’t remember anything after walking up the steps to his house. That wasn’t exactly true. He remembered one very loud noise, very near him. It should have made him duck. Apparently he hadn’t had time.
“That’s interesting,” he said, lying on the ground in the leaf and needle litter, looking up into the branches of a thin grove of pine trees.
Apparently death wasn’t what he’d been led to believe. Perhaps it was the afterlife that wasn’t what he’d been led to believe. Dash lay for some time, feeling the wind on his clothes.
He lifted his arm in front of his face. He was wearing the same shirt he had worn as he climbed the steps. He felt himself: he had his same sleeveless down jacket on. Yep: no hunter would fail to notice him in the woods. Apparently someone had failed to notice him on the steps of his own house. Or not.
Finally he sat up. Around him stood youngish white pines and blue spruces and an Eastern hemlock or two. There was one grandpa pine among them, clearly dead but still ruling the roost.
Why would Heaven have dead trees in it? Why would Hell have white pines in it?
“Because,” Dash said out loud, “I definitely died. I know I died.” He put his hands down and pushed himself up, and began walking around in loose circles. He was pretty sure it was good to take some cool-down laps after rising from the dead.
He felt his face, his neck. He had a look at his hands. No, he was pretty sure he was not a zombie. He chuckled. Well, it can’t be Hell, he thought, my sense of humor is still there. He blew air out his lips. What to do.
Dash started his walk again, swinging his arms, and three steps later he kicked into something. Bending down, he picked it up. It was a .32 pistol.
“Ah,” he said. “The murder weapon.”
Dash stood there holding the gun. He wasn’t very happy holding it, especially since he was pretty sure it had fired the bullets that had killed him. He put his left hand to his head and felt around: front, side, back. No holes. He grinned as if at a private joke; perhaps it was just some sort of relief. He looked ahead through the trees: that way, on this lovely summer day, he could see the trees thinning toward the edge of the grove. He was pretty sure there was a body of water through there.
Dash emerged from the pine grove and stood marveling. “It’s Poplar Lake,” he said out loud. “But where’s Sheridanville?”
A metallic noise behind him made him stiffen. A woman said, “Drop the gun.” Not used to commands such as that, Dash curtseyed a little and let the pistol fall harmless to the leaf litter. He straightened and was about to say something when the woman went on, still in cliché mode: “Now turn around. Slowly. Don’t get smart.”
“Why start now,” said Dash to himself. He turned, and he couldn’t keep from smirking just a little. And there she was. A brunette, about thirty, black pants, white tee shirt, black light jacket. Pistol. Large pistol.
“Beretta,” she said. “.40 caliber.” She turned her steel grey eyes from Dash to her weapon, which she turned so she could look at it sidelong. “Does the job, I’ll say that. Did it on me.” She pointed her gun at his gun, on the ground. “That one did you?”
“Uh, yes,” said Dash. “Um, you have the advantage of me, Miss—!”
“I’m Liz,” she said, not quite lowering her gun.
“So,” said Dash, and then he couldn’t think of anything else to say. Actually he could think of lots of things: so, I’m dead, are you? So, can I retrieve my murder weapon? So, care to tell me what’s going on?
“So you just died,” said Liz, who was less afraid than Dash was to make a direct statement. “How’d that happen?”
“I don’t know. Two bullets to the head.” He looked down at the gun, then up again. “Say, Liz? You look familiar.”
“Do I. You don’t. Who put those two bullets in your head?”
“I do not know,” Dash said with precision. “Liz. Elizabeth?” She nodded. “As in, Elizabeth Leduc?”
“Yeah,” Liz replied guardedly.
“I did,” said Liz in a remote yet proud tone, “write a few stories for the Globe, yes, as a freelancer.”
“You got shot,” he said with a little laugh. Then he cut it short. “Um, like me. So you’re dead. But you got shot like—!”
“Six years ago, yeah,” said Liz. “Boogie Carter shot me personally, it was quite the honor. Pity it meant no one saw my little folder about him.”
“Oh, but they did. That’s why I recognized you, see? You’re in the news again. Well, okay, you were—um, I thought ghosts sort of sensed—well, not ghosts—dead people, you know, you’d sense when live people were talking about you.”
“Ghosts? Live people? Look, pal, you and me, we’re as alive as we were before, we’re just alive in Second World. See—wait, back up. What news again?”
“Well, sister,” said Dash, “it’s your lucky day. Boogie Carter got shot down yesterday in a raid. I guess he didn’t get your little folder—he went on the run after you got shot, and they finally caught up with him yesterday. He’s dead.” He looked at Liz as though it was good news, but she sure didn’t seem to take it that way. “Seriously,” said Dash, “we’re dead?”
“Yes, Mister—? We’re dead and now so’s my good friend Mr Carter.”
Dash stood looking at the woman with the Beretta. “Um, so,” he said. “You have his gun. Um, so does that mean he has whatever they shot him with?” She just rolled her eyes. “Well, look,” said Dash, with a dash of exasperation, “I’ve had a hard day, all right? There’s a lot I don’t understand. I mean, how could I? Someone blew my brains out this morning.”
“With that thing? It must have been aimed well, that’s all I can say. It’s a pea shooter. Boogie did worse than that to me, and he did it five times.” She looked at her gun again: she seemed to feel half pride, half dread and half the old knowledge of a childhood friend for it. “Or six. Five or six.”
“So, just tell me. What are the rules? You guys going to try and kill each other again?”
Dash blinked a couple of times at the directness of her answer. “It’s that cut and dried? I mean, is that a rule or something?” He looked down at his own murder weapon. “Do I have to—?” He looked up at her. She was biting her lip. “You said this is Second Life? Second World? What?”
“Second World. It’s my term for it.” She looked around. “Nice place, huh? Pity it doesn’t seem as real as First World. Still, it grows on you. It’s as real as it gets.”
“So if you kill Boogie or Boogie kills you,” said Dash, “sorry for speaking so bluntly, but then what?”
Liz shrugged. “Maybe there’s a Third World,” she said. She looked at her gun. “I don’t plan on finding out, but if there is, I sent a few bleepholes there already.”
Dash found himself smiling, almost laughing. “Seriously? You’re what, a gunslinger? You read much Stephen King? No. Raymond Chandler? Dashiell Hammett?”
“Dashiell Hammett? I read some of that.”
“Well,” said Dash, “I was named after him, although my father didn’t get the spelling right. I’m Dash, okay? Liz, Dash. Dash, Liz. Okay. So what now? We have a quick draw contest and see which of us gets to find out if there’s a Third Life?”
“Third World,” said Liz. “And I’d win. You’d already be dead.”
He laughed. “I’m sure you’re right. Gunslinger. I’ll just call you Roland. Roland the Dice.”
“But I don’t,” said Liz. “That’s one thing I don’t do. Because I don’t actually know if there’s a Third World. I don’t aim to find out. A lot of people die and wake up again and they just assume they can die again and again and again, but who knows?” She looked around at the universe. “I don’t trust it myself.”
“That’s the first thing you’ve said that I really, really agreed with,” said Dash. “So. Seriously. Who did you kill?”
“A guy who tried to take advantage of me,” she said. “And a couple of folks who tried to steal from me. Some nut this one time, who just came at me as I was peeing. And my boyfriend.” She smirked.
“Your boyfriend from before?”
“No, he was my boyfriend here for a few years. Ralphie. We got in a fight.” Her smirk turned off. “I don’t want to talk about it.” She looked Dash in the eye. “People act differently when they know they might live again. Not necessarily worse, but differently.”
Dash looked at Liz, waiting for something else to come out. She had been shot dead by a famous gangster, about whom she had compiled sufficient evidence to put him away for life. But then she found herself here in this Second Life, and evidently she was quite the murderer here. A guy tried to “take advantage,” a couple who “tried to steal,” someone who “just came at her,” and then what, a boyfriend? “So all these people are in the Third World now,” he said finally. “Is that where you’re planning on sending me? Geez, the Third World. You couldn’t come up with something better?”
“I’m sorry you don’t approve. It’s not like it matters. No traveler returns, you know.”
He stared smiling at her still. She got slightly flustered and pocketed her Beretta. “That’s Hamlet, isn’t it?” he said. “The undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns. That’s rich.”
“Yeah,” said Liz, “five points for Gryffindor and all, okay?”
“So, Stephen King and also J. K. Rowling references are good? Shakespeare too, I guess? English major?”
“Well,” she said, “it sure wasn’t journalism. I could still make successful use of the subordinate clause.” She half smiled. “Want to come back to my place? Just don’t try anything. With that pea shooter of yours.”
“I’ve never fired a weapon in my life,” said Dash, “and here I’m talking to the lady that killed her boyfriend for snoring. No, I think I won’t be trying anything.”
“It wasn’t just snoring,” said Liz, “though he did do that. It’s down by the lake.”
“Is that Poplar Lake?” asked Dash. “It looks exactly like it, but not quite.”
“Is it bigger than you remember?”
Dash stopped and thought about it, taking in the vista. “Yeah,” he said finally, “I think it is, now you mention it.”
“Then it probably is this Poplar Lake you’re thinking of. Come on.”
Dash turned and followed Liz down the meadow where he sort of remembered downtown Sheridanville being, such as it was. But he was dead and things were different. No, death was certainly not as expected.