I Feel Dead Inside
I woke up dead. At the mall. Still dressed in the (hideous) mango chiffon bridesmaid gown I was wearing when I died. My hair was still pulled back in an elaborate ponytail that was meant to look windswept, but trust me, it would have survived a tsunami. This proves that if you use enough product, your hair can endure things the rest of you can’t. My shoes sparkled in the light. My french manicure was unchipped. I was surrounded by waves and waves of mango chiffon.
Isn’t this perfect? I had actually kept my mouth shut, opting not to tell the bride that I’d never be caught dead in mango. Now here I was. Dead. In mango.
I knew without even a tiny flicker of doubt that I was dead, but I didn’t want to know it. (By the way, that’s my specialty: knowing things I’d rather not know.) And just for the record, I didn’t have the white-light-and-loved-ones-coming-to-welcome-me-because-death-is-a-wonderful-thing transition to the afterlife. Oh no. It felt like I was on a malfunctioning ride at Six Flags and the staff had abandoned us in an electrical storm. I rose up, up, up and took a sharp turn to the right, then a big drop, then a loop, then suddenly rose up again, going faster. So yes, my afterlife started with motion sickness. Nice.
And now I just wanted to slow down the rushing river of panic that was flowing through my veins. FYI: mango chiffon will make you sweat more than usual.
Jst added 15 min to #ProjectReadathon w @PenguinRandom by reading @judysheehan 2 support @SavetheChildren #ReadWell
The place was crowded with the ever-so-typical mall suspects: crying toddlers, frazzled parents, laughing teenagers, exhausted store employees, and overweight mall cops. I waved my hands in front of one of the cops and shouted, “Hey! Can you help me? Please!”
He yawned and checked his phone. Why? Because he couldn’t see or hear me. Why? Because he was alive and I was dead.
High over our heads was a multicolored star with these words stretched across its middle: MALL OF AMERICA. (Which is in Minnesota. I never ever once considered that the afterlife was in Minnesota. Did you?)
New York City was where I lived and where I died before my time. And you could say that Manhattan is a giant mall, with subways in place of escalators. This was my first Minnesota visit, and so far, sorry, no, I was not enjoying it. I stayed on my brown modular bench, in my ugly dress and shoes, rocking back and forth, holding myself together at the elbows. It seemed like the thing to do. There were roller coasters off in the distance, so the rumbling sounds of passing conversations were punctuated with high-pitched screams, which was sort of perfect. Keep screaming.
But then the screams stopped. The crowd thinned out. I watched the shoppy shoppers head home to face their buyer’s remorse.
And now is the time to say that this mall was huge. It was ridiculous. It was stupid big. It was like a massive, fake, shiny city. The bright, patriotic Mall of America sign was like a colorful North Star. There was a kiosk with a cheerful and insanely complicated map. So this place was four stories tall, a million miles wide, with approximately three billion stores. Plus roller coasters.
There was a big TV screen above the map, which suddenly lit up and blared an ad for CBS This Morning. It was loud, bright, and absolutely terrifying. I stared at it like it was a roaring dragon. But it stopped midsentence as the lights began to dim all around me. One by one, the escalators stopped moving.
The mall turned sort of dark, but it wasn’t empty. It still had me.
Off to my right, I saw something move. A person. No. Two people. No. Three. They were walking toward me. Slowly and at an even, steady pace. A chill zapped me from my spine to my skull.
“Hello?” I called out. “Can you hear me? Can you see me?” I stood up and got a better look at them. All three were youngish, all staring off into the distance as they walked toward me. Closer and closer.
“Hey!” I shouted. “What do you want?”
They didn’t speak a word but kept coming closer. So. The thing to do when you’re scared for your life (assuming you’re actually alive) is to put on your best tough New York voice and yell, “Back off!”
And then run like hell.
The escalators were stopped, but I leapt upward, two steps at a time, to the next level. I mentally kicked myself for not watching any zombie shows when I’d had the chance as I turned and saw two more, walking along on this level. I leapt to the top floor, with nobody following me. They just kept walking, as if they hadn’t noticed me. Youngish, spaced out, silent. Were they everywhere?
I stood in front of a darkened multiplex and asked, “Now what?” right out loud.
The deep, hard silence all around me was interrupted by a click-clack click-clack coming from the escalator. I spun around and caught sight of a pair of truly unfortunate shoes, worn by a cheerful young woman speed-walking toward me. She wasn’t a slow-walking zombie. And. She could see me.
“Hi there!” she said, confirming that yes, she really could see me. “They were having some very big sales today or I would have found you sooner. You picked a busy day to die, missy!” She had sparkling blue eyes and blond hair braided over her head. She was dressed in a bright blue polyester suit that made her look like she was applying for an internship at Me So Corporate, Incorporated. Her shoes were like horses’ hooves.
“Welcome!” She clapped her hands in delight. “I’m Bertha!” She looked like she was my age, but she sounded like a cartoon grandmother, with a faint Irish lilt to her voice. (And who names their kid Bertha? Doesn’t that qualify as child abuse?)
“So then. You’re Sarah. And you’re really rather dead. But you didn’t move on, did you now? No siree! You’re a bit stuck, aren’t you?” She kept answering her own questions as she took me by the arm (please don’t invade my personal space) and guided me into a narrow hallway. (BTW, when I was alive, I never let anyone guide me into a narrow hallway.)
“You have unfinished business, Sarah. You were murdered, and you’re a bit upset about it.” She said this as if she were saying, Oh, you spilled the milk, but don’t cry over it, okay?
“Um, wait up, there, Bertha,” I said, taking my arm back to its rightful, solitary place. “I wasn’t murdered. If I really am dead, I died from food poisoning. It was accidental.”
“Oh dear me.” Bertha sighed and led me to a side exit marked AUTHORIZED DTTW PERSONNEL ONLY. ALARM WILL SOUND. She pushed past as if she had all the authorization in the world. And after all that warning, we just ended up in a Bed Bath & Beyond.
“Aren’t you just a bundle of unfinished business!” She took my hands (!) and sat me down on an ugly ottoman, while she sat on an even uglier one.
“What does DTTW mean?” I asked, already dreading the answer.
“Dead to the World,” she explained patiently. “The living can’t come in here. They can’t even see it.”
(Sorry I asked.) “I may be dead, but I’m not murdered-dead. That’s completely worse,” I reasoned (sort of unreasonably).
Bertha had an air of I-know-everything-oh-you-poor-fool. “You were poisoned, Sarah. Murdered. Killed. Slain. I’m quite certain of that.”
“But I didn’t have any enemies. Nobody would want to kill me,” I insisted. Because I was right.
She started to say, “And yet, someone did,” but I cut her off. “Okay then. Who killed me?” I asked. “And why? It makes no sense. Why would someone kill me?”
Bertha just smiled some more at me, which became more and more infuriating.
“It’s so nice here!” she replied. “This mall has everything. The living don’t notice the dead here, what with the bright lights and the sales and free samples. Most malls are haunted. Did you know that? The Boy saves this extra-big one for New Yorkers. Rather a tough town, isn’t it? We get our fair share of murder victims.”
The boy? What boy? I looked around, but Bertha kept talking. It was as if this were a long, memorized speech (badly performed) and if I interrupted her, she’d have to start over. And nobody wanted that. She cleared her throat, crossed her feet at the ankles (so ladylike), and clasped her hands in her lap.
“I’m here to help you let go of your old life. All that attachment, all that connection. You have to say goodbye to it all.” She leaned in a little closer, and I thought she was enjoying this. “And here’s how you’ll do it: you’ll get to revisit a day from your life. You’ll go to your funeral, and you’ll work with me and your fellow dead to let go of your old life.”
“What, like group therapy for the dead?” I smirked, trying not to throw up in my brain.
“Yes! You’ve got the idea,” she declared, totally missing the fact that I was mocking her. “And if you can finish the stuff that has you tied to the living world, then off you go to your next life! Isn’t that lovely?”
“What if I can’t?” I just had to ask.
She touched my arm (!) and answered, “You will. I’m really good at this!” I didn’t believe her. I thought she could tell. “Let me take you up to our floor. We have our very own stores, separate from the living! Isn’t death such fun already?” And with that, she directed me past an elevator on the side wall of the store. She was a little too good at dodging my questions. (And if we were going upstairs, why didn’t we get in that elevator?)
“But what about my murderer?” I asked. “What happens to him? Or her? Or them?”
Bertha shook her head and half-smiled. “You’re asking all the wrong questions, Sarah.”
Funny. These seemed like pretty good questions to me. But before I could respond, she clapped a white bracelet onto my wrist like a handcuff. It changed to a dark crimson red when it came in contact with my skin.
“Why did it turn red?”
“Because of you,” Bertha explained. “You’re not ready to move on. Your unfinished business is flowing through you like blood used to flow through your veins. I’ll be watching that bracelet closely. When it loses its color, you’ll move on.”
She hurried onto an escalator, and I hurried right behind her.
“How long does that take?” I asked. “What’s the average time?”
“It’s entirely up to you,” she said. (Don’t you hate that kind of answer?)
“How do I finish my unfinished business?” I asked.
“I’ll help you. I’ll be your death coach.”
“My what?” I asked, even though I’d heard her. I just couldn’t believe her.
“Your death coach!”
“Your death coach!”
“Your death coach!”
I toyed with the idea of seeing how many times I could get her to repeat it, but then I dropped it when we reached this new floor. We were in the upstairs of the Bed Bath & Beyond, looking out on a whole new floor of the mall. This one wasn’t on the map. Bertha rompy-stomped forward in those shoes. (Oh, those shoes!)
“Well, look at you! You died in such a fancy gown! A touch too elegant for everyday, don’t you think?” she said, which immediately made me question her taste level. (This dress was a faux Alexander McQueen, if McQueen had suddenly lost all of his talent.) And yes, I knew that she was changing the subject. “On our floor, you can take whatever you want. It’s not shoplifting, it’s just taking!”
There they were again: those quiet people, walking slowly through the mall, just like the ones I had seen before on the lower floor. They walked at that same slow, even pace. It was sort of hypnotizing. But I turned my attention back to Bertha.
“Why are they walking around like that?” I asked, pointing to the people around us.
Bertha’s expression changed from bright to nervous/controlled/badly-acting-another-memorized-speech.
“They’re mall walkers. A bit like zombies but minus the aggressive tendencies,” Bertha explained. “That’s what happens to you if you fail to move on. They’re stuck in a sort of dream state, trapped in their own awful memories.” She shuddered as a sad girl with straw-colored hair stepped past us.
“Why don’t you wake them up?” I asked.
“They have to wake themselves. They have to choose something different. Never underestimate the power of free will, Sarah.” Bertha shook her head, staring after the girl. “Poor things. They suffer so. . . .” She turned her attention to me, revving up her energy. “You mustn’t become like them. Do whatever you have to do and move on.”
Bertha fished through a huge briefcase that might have belonged to a little girl dressed up as Business Lady for Halloween. She handed me a sheet of paper with printing on both sides and a measly little golf pencil. Before I could read any of it, she said, “And it would be oh so helpful if you would complete this questionnaire for me. It will help me help you.”
“Does anyone know who murdered me? And why?” I asked, but she ignored me. Maybe I should have pushed her harder, but I couldn’t. Death started to feel like rain settling on my cheeks. It was here, no escaping it. And soon, I knew, my skin would be soaked. I shook my head slowly.
“I’ve got three other fairly recent arrivals, just like you. You’ll meet them tomorrow. All of them were murdered, all of them are young and not quite over it. My specialty!” Her energy level made me wonder about her caffeine intake.
“Okay. Fine. If you won’t tell me who murdered me, can I haunt my family and friends like a ghost and find out who did this?”
Bertha’s voice turned hard. “No. You mustn’t even consider that. People who go back and haunt the living get stuck there. They watch the living go on without them, forget about them, grow old and die. But the ghosts remain, roaming the earth forever. Powerless and useless.”
It felt as if the mall had just grown ten degrees colder. The knot of fear in my head was sort of like brain freeze. I didn’t think my day could get any worse after dying all alone (in this dress), but it had.
Bertha looked down at her sad shoes. “You’ll see your family at your funeral and say your final goodbyes then. We don’t haunt the living. We let go, and we move on.”
“Are you completely and totally sure that I was murdered? Really?” I repeated it louder, harsher, but she waved me away, which I hated as much as I hated having my personal space invaded.
Excerpted from I Woke Up Dead at the Mall by Judy Sheehan. Copyright © 2016 by Judy Sheehan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.