It began in the hospitals with what seemed to be an epidemic of miracles. The most recently dead came back first. People whose heartbeats had just flat-lined a second earlier suddenly sat upright on their gurneys and beds and looked into the confused faces of those around them.
“I was dead,” they would say, a statement we would soon grow tired of hearing. “I was dead, but not anymore.”
People with large holes in their chests, whose vital organs were unidentifiable masses of tissue and congealing blood, looked up into the faces of the doctors and nurses who had just given up hope.
“Sew me up, please,” they said politely. “I don’t want to make a mess.”
And the doctors obliged, even those doctors who, as a matter of principle, never do what a patient asks. They sewed up those who had suddenly and mysteriously come back from the dead and sent them out into the world with a ruptured heart or the merest suggestion of a liver, thinking that the patients would die within an hour or so, that this could all be explained medically, and why not let them have one last chance to walk among the living?
But they didn’t die. They walked out of the hospitals with their families and went to dinner. They went home and coaxed their spouses and lovers to bed. They told everyone that they had died and come back, that they had been given a second chance. They tried to explain that this was different from the type of near-death experience we hear so much about, when the heart stops beating and valiant surgeons are able to start it up again. They told us that this was true resurrection, but we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand.
Meanwhile, frail old women returned to houses that had already been cleaned out by vindictive and venal children. Men with prostates the size of baseballs came back and had instant erections. Children who before death had been too weak even to smile at the endless stream of cartoons and the sad, gentle caresses of their parents began to whine and complain about the tubes and wires that kept them confined to their beds. And their parents, who had been grieving, unhooked them and wept uncontrollably while their now-living children pestered them for toys and snacks. In maternity wards, women whose babies had been whisked away from them, whose screams of “What’s wrong?” had not been answered, watched the doctors’ and nurses’ backs for a clue and saw slumped shoulders and bowed heads as the doctors turned to tell them the news. These new mothers were as shocked as anyone else when they heard their babies’ healthy cries.
At first we didn’t care why it was happening. We were too grateful. But as more and more of the dead came back, we began to look for explanations — mostly religious ones, of course, even though the resurrected all vehemently denied the existence of a heaven or a hell.
The next wave of resurrections came in morgues and in the back rooms of funeral parlors, and were witnessed by professionals who specialize in death. Then the dead began to come back at funerals and wakes. While the mourners were trying to convince themselves that death is not the end, their tears evidence of their failure, a banging erupted from inside the coffin, or a hand reached over the side of an open casket. Those who had been presumed gone forever sat up and asked about lunch, wondered if there was corned beef, and if so, was it the good stuff; and when they found out that the lunch meat had all been bought at the supermarket, they began to rail against cheap, soulless food. There were more than a few cases of bereaved widows having heart attacks at the sight of their husbands sitting up in their coffins and saying to one of the mourners, “Willie, you bastard, you’ve got a lot of nerve showing up here and acting like you give a damn.” The dead widows could not be revived no matter how much they were prayed over. The husbands whose wives had died upon seeing them alive again mourned with a sincerity that many had been unable to muster before their deaths. They sat on the floor of the church or funeral home, cross-legged and weeping, holding their dead wives’ hands, saddened in a way that shocked their family and friends. Their grief was complete and deep and real, and those who had been dead were able to embrace their grief, to be pleased by it in a way that filled many of us with envy.
Many Christians assumed that this was the End of Days, and that Christ was coming back to judge them all and claim the virtuous. These believers began to gather into cults. In their single-minded devotion, no one in these cults paid attention to the news that, after the initial wave of resurrections, death was occurring normally again. Some of the cult leaders decided, as a demonstration for the skeptical, to kill themselves and thus prove that all death had been suspended. They ceremoniously stabbed or shot themselves in revival tents and on street corners, but they died just as the shocked widows had died, or else were critically injured and extremely embarrassed, and even though some followers prayed over the deceased until the bodies stank and the health department had to come and remove them by force, the newly dead stayed dead.
Those who had risen from the dead instantly understood their situation in a way that we couldn’t. They all vigorously agreed that there was nothing supernatural about what was happening, but we largely ignored their testimony. They were too sure of themselves, too sanguine about the situation. In retrospect, though, they were the only ones who had a reasonable reaction.
Even though the newly dead did not come back, people who had died even longer ago continued to be resurrected. The dead arose in reverse chronological order, with the wave of resurrections moving back through time so regularly that it was possible to predict when certain people would arise. Throngs of cheering fans met celebrities at their grave sites, where, like all the other resurrected, the famously dead appeared whole, unmarred by the accidents or self-inflicted wounds that had killed them. A list of upcoming resurrections began appearing in newspapers right next to the list of notable birthdays. In any eleven-hour period (ten hours and fifty-three minutes, to be exact) a day’s worth of dead returned, meaning that during the total of twenty-seven months in which the dead were brought back to life, four and a half years’ worth came back. Still, this pace was too slow for some. We didn’t get to ask Amelia Earhart or Jimmy Hoffa about their mysterious demises; we wouldn’t be able to ask the Founding Fathers their opinions of what had become of the country they had established; neither Elvis nor John Lennon would perform again; and we would never get to meet Jesus.
It was the regular rate at which the dead returned that first alerted the physicists to the true cause of the resurrections. They ran some calculations and concluded that the phenomenon was the result of an experiment at the new particle accelerator, the largest one ever built. The experiment was supposed to answer the last remaining questions about the creation of the universe. Instead it provided a new set of questions that the physicists had not expected.
Not that the dead’s awakening had come as a complete surprise to them. During the planning stages for the experiment, when they were traveling to meetings and staying up late in their hotel rooms, poring over calculations in an atmosphere oddly reminiscent of a slumber party, saying whatever popped into their heads, someone said, “You know, if this goes wrong, we could possibly create a wave that reverses the direction of time.” And some of these normally serious scientists actually giggled mischievously at the idea, as they had when they were children and mixed together everything in their mother’s kitchen cabinets, hoping for an explosion. They calculated the probability of creating such a wave (some said it was more of a bubble, and a considerable amount of time was spent discussing its shape), and they figured out that if they had run the experiment once a second since the creation of the universe, there would be only a 20 percent chance of a wave having formed — a chance so small, they thought, that it wasn’t even worth mentioning in their funding proposals.
As the numbers of the previously dead grew, however, the physicists were pressured to rectify the situation quickly. There were concerns about the legal status of those who returned, questions about wills and insurance benefits, population issues about how the world would function with so many people. In democracies we debated what would happen if the resurrected were given the right to vote.
The physicists began to hold tense, secret meetings. They were interrupted by the arrival of a colleague, one of the architects of the accelerator experiment, who had died before it was actually carried out.
“Go home,” they told the formerly dead man. “Be with your family.”
But those who have experienced death cannot be pushed around. They know their minds too well. The dead physicist had been married to his work, and even though the meetings were concerned with how to stop the dead from coming back — and possibly even how to send back those who had already risen, himself included — the resurrected physicist found the challenge irresistible. Like many scientists, he was willing to participate in his own potential destruction. He offered a possible solution to the “problem,” as it were: a series of nuclear explosions, precisely timed and set off at the epicenter of the wave, could create another, faster temporal wave that would catch up to and negate the one that was causing the dead to rise. The once-dead physicist stood in what used to be his office, his elbow on a filing cabinet, a styrofoam coffee cup in his hand, and said with a playful half smile that if the explosions were not precisely timed or were a fraction of a percent too powerful, then the wave would grow too large and could possibly knock some of us into the future.
He sipped his coffee and allowed the implications to sink in. The other physicists were worn out by all of the late-night emergency meetings, but he was sharp and fresh, even though he never left the office, never trekked beyond those sterile, fluorescent-lit rooms to visit the home where his wife and daughters eagerly awaited his return. He had never felt useful at home, never felt as if he had any purpose there. His family loved him, but for some reason it had made him uncomfortable when his daughters would throw their arms around his neck while he was lost in thought. He loved them all, but he would rather think about them than actually be with them. He had known that in life but had never had the courage to act on it, to structure his life around what he really wanted. Now he did.
There were those, of course, who arose from the dead and went straight home. Freed from the distractions that plagued them in life, they loved their families more intensely than they had before, but many of their family members felt violated by all of the attention. Wives who, when their spouses had been alive, had prayed and wished for their husbands to notice them, found themselves stifled by all the love and affection. Over the years these wives had altered themselves to fit their husbands’ behaviors; not only did they find it difficult to change back, they weren’t sure they wanted to. They went to bed with their husbands and felt young again, felt the excitement in their stomach, but there was no real pleasure in it. They weren’t sure they found this revived romance more desirable than shuffling around the house unnoticed. Their husbands would come up to them while they were doing the dishes, grab them about the waist, and kiss them gently on the neck, but the women did not necessarily prefer that to the days when they could be safely ignored — until they no longer wanted to be, and were free to pick at some small flaw of their husbands’ or to salt some old wound.
The dead, however, were always clear about what they wanted, and that became a burden to the rest of us. Some of the resurrected had no family, or no family who wanted to take them in. They existed in a kind of legal limbo and often found it difficult to support themselves. Strangers offered to take the returned dead into their homes, but as a rule the resurrected were poor houseguests. They drank in houses where alcohol was forbidden; they blew smoke in children’s faces; they made unwelcomed sexual advances and complained incessantly about the cooking and the housekeeping. They were unconcerned with social conventions, and others’ feelings mattered only to the extent that they fit the formerly dead’s conception of how life should unfold. They were often called “selfish,” but that word does not express all that the dead were capable of. It does not clearly describe those ascetics who, when they came back, adhered to strict diets or lived in self-imposed poverty. It does not explain those who were committed to putting an end to war and hunger and abuse, those who tenaciously fought against the endless stream of indignities that most of us, if we notice them at all, feel are the natural and unavoidable consequences of life. Many of the dead were ruthless in their opposition to injustice, wherever it was to be found, and their single-minded focus was often blandly criticized by those who had never been dead as “impolite.”
It’s true that those who had been dead were rarely polite, but as with the word selfish, there is so much that impolite does not say. When the dead returned, they were brutally honest. A mother might say to her children, “You can stop looking at me like that, like you pity me because your father hasn’t shown up. He’s walking around again, I’m sure, but he’s avoiding you as much as he’s avoiding me.”
“Let me tell you something,” she might say, leaning heavily on the kitchen counter, sweat dripping into her ample cleavage. “He hasn’t found anyone new. He’s in somebody else’s living room watching TV, telling whoever was stupid enough to take him in to get him a sandwich and leave him alone. That’s who he is. There’s nothing more to him and there never has been. So I don’t want your pity anymore.”
But, because habits are not easily broken, the mother would be forced to move away from her children to avoid being the object of their pity. She’d lose weight and become unrecognizable to them. She’d take lovers younger than her sons and smile when her children called her filthy names to her face.
Those who returned from the dead, even though they had reason to believe that they would now live forever, did not have time for others’ expectations. Some tried to explain to us the overwhelming brilliance of it all, what it is like to awaken to the sights and sounds and smells of the world as a fully conscious person. Those who have never lost the world don’t notice the weight of air, the tug of gravity, the smell of our own skin. We are distracted by things to clean, things to buy. We occupy our minds with the lives of others or spend much of our time wanting and dreaming. Or else we are consumed by the unrelenting desire simply to stay alive, to survive the world unscathed, and we filter out everything that is not relevant to that goal. Even in the most serene situations — napping on a flat, warm boulder after a long hike, or lying naked next to someone when there is nothing calling you away — even in those situations when we forget that there are such things as threats, the habits of survival keep us from seeing all there is around us, keep us from feeling it all as intensely as we could.
But those who had died were no longer compelled to seek survival for its own sake. What mattered to them was the hum and whir of life happening and the unending pull of their own desires. At any given moment, the resurrected could provide endless lists of reasons to stay in the realm of experience. Without having to stop and think, they could describe the sublime pleasure of dreaming while half awake, or the simple wonder of shifting a car, of knowing how to time the hands and feet properly. They could describe the raw, jagged feeling of scraping a razor through two days’ growth of beard or, after a night of drunken indiscretions, the emptiness of regret. Those who had come back from the dead did not differentiate between the good and the bad the way the rest of us do. It was all experience to them.
And there was no sentimentality in their enjoyment of life, no looking back. Those who had died were interested only in the urgency of now. Even with a presumed infinity of moments ahead of them, they refused to take a single one for granted. Those of us who had never been dead could not fully understand their deep reservoir of passion. It scared us, and when the physicists announced that they had found a way to send the dead back, it was our fear that allowed us to follow through with the plan.
We didn’t speak openly about this fear. A few rogue ethicists declared that we were about to undertake the greatest mass murder in the history of the world. But none of us was able to speak the truth publicly: that the dead were a reminder of something we wanted to forget. Sitting on our couches, impossible to ignore, they constantly reminded us of our own finite lives begging to be lived.
Still, the idea of sending them back did make me feel rather queasy, especially when I thought about my dear old aunt.
My aunt had lost control of her car on the interstate and been crushed beneath the wheels of a semi loaded with grapefruit. She’d been unmarried, so when resurrected, she came straight to our house. We were ready for her. We had set up a room and prepared a special dinner. We were just about to leave for the cemetery, dressed in our Sunday best with our poster-board signs the children had made, when she showed up at the door. (We had miscalculated, not knowing the exact time the truck had crushed her.) We hugged and had a good laugh at her having to walk the mile from the cemetery. She had never been one to complain about minor inconveniences, or to take offense when none was intended, and even real injustices she had borne with patient dignity. Since she’d had no children of her own, she had cared for everyone else in a way that had made me, as a child, fantasize that she would take me away and raise me as her own. Death had made her only more patient and unaffected by the rude and inconsiderate. We’d be in the drugstore and overhear someone complaining about the dead, about how pushy they were and how we’d all be better off when they were gone for good, and my aunt wouldn’t flinch. If the speaker looked at her, she’d just smile pleasantly at him.
My aunt was an early riser and so was usually the one to find the mess left on the kitchen floor by our incontinent dog. We would wake up bleary-eyed and grumpy to find my aunt mopping the floor, with our little dog yapping at her heels. She would speak to it in soft, gentle tones, saying, “Your tummy feels better now, doesn’t it? You were just all blocked up.”
It broke my heart to think of her leaving us again, but like everyone else, I was sometimes jealous, and frightened at the sight of her, and it was those feelings that kept me from joining the protests against the removal of the dead.
Many who did protest the project were concerned about the cost. The plan the physicists finally settled on required building a new particle accelerator, even larger than the one that had caused all of the trouble. (The nuclear explosions were deemed impractical.) There was a narrow window of opportunity for sending the dead away. If the wave grew too big, it would be impossible to build an accelerator large enough to reverse it. There was no time for debate or finger-pointing. The project had to be finished, and when there were cost overruns and technical glitches, taxes were raised around the world, and money poured in.
In the weeks before the accelerator was completed, my aunt seemed unaffected by the possibility of her impending redemise. Throughout the world, the dead were trying to disrupt the project, but my aunt seemed nearly oblivious. She cleaned up after the dog, washed the dishes, cooked, and did our laundry, all with a smile on her face, genuinely pleased to be doing something that made us happy. The only change I noticed was that she seemed to hug the children a little longer at night, and she would give them sweets when she thought we weren’t watching.
“I’m sorry,” I blurted out to her once, while we were chopping vegetables together in the kitchen.
She touched me on the cheek and gave me a smile but said nothing. What was supposed to be a comforting gesture left me with that particular brand of guilt we feel when betraying those who want what’s best for us.
There was no official announcement when the accelerator became operational and the ripple in time was sucked back. The dead simply began to disappear as suddenly as they had arrived. The reversal was particularly cruel for those who had come back most recently, and therefore disappeared first; some had only a sliver of life, a small flash of consciousness before they slipped back into the void. Those who had been back longer knew what was coming, and that made them even more aware of what they had wanted in life. They had lost the world once before and knew exactly how to behave this time.
They left as they had arrived, in regular, predictable intervals. As my aunt’s time approached, we all grew anxious. We could not calculate the exact moment she would go, so on the day she was scheduled to disappear, we wouldn’t leave the room, afraid she’d be gone when we got back. She busied herself with mating socks and brushing my daughter’s hair. I felt we should have a ceremony of some kind, but we couldn’t figure out what to do. Neither a party nor a funeral seemed appropriate. So we sat in the living room, my wife and the kids and I, and waited. We cried a little, but unlike the first time my aunt had left us, we cried more for her than for ourselves.
When her time came, she didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. We all felt something strange in the air, a twinge of electricity. There was a faint metallic taste in the back of my throat, and when I looked over to where she was sitting, I saw her with a sock in each hand, having just found a match, looking surprised and a bit scared. Then she quickly faded away. The children ran to my wife for comfort, and from my chair I held my wife’s hand, squeezing her fingers. And when, in a few months, all of the dead were gone, we were left with an emptiness in which echoed the hollow, lingering cries of those we had sent away, their plaintive pleas of “More, more, more.”