Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Seven Minutes in Heaven

A ghost town lived down the road from us. Its bones peeked out from over the tree line when we rattled down Highway 51 in our cherry red pick-up. I could see a steeple, a water tower, a dome for a town hall. It was our shadow. It was a ghost town because there was an accident, a long time ago, that turned it into a graveyard.

I used to wonder: what kind of accident kills a whole town? Was it washed away in a storm? Did God decide, “Away with you sinners,” with a wave of His hand—did He shake our sleeping Mt. Halberk into life? My parents said I was “morbid” when I asked these questions, and told me to play outside. So I would go outside, and play Seven Minutes in Heaven—freeze tag with a hold time of seven minutes, the length of time it takes for a soul to fly to God—with Allie Moore and Jennifer Trudeau. When the sky turned dark orange, we would run back to our houses and slam our screen doors, and after my parents tucked me in I would sketch a map of the ghost town by the glow of my Little Buzz flashlight: church on the bottom of Church Street instead of the top, school on the east of the railroad tracks instead of the west. Then I would draw Mt. Halberk, and take a black sharpie, and rain down black curlicues on those little Monopoly houses until every single one was blanketed by the dark. When I got older, and madder, I would draw stick-people too—little stick-families walking little stick-dogs, little stick-farmers herding little stick-cows. And last, the darkness.

When I was in junior high school, they told us the truth: the accident was industrial. The principal stood up in the auditorium and said there used to be a factory over there, in that town, and one day there was a leak of toxic gas, and people died over there, in that town. A long time ago, he said, nothing to worry about now. Some parents were angry; they said kids were getting upset. But a gas leak sounds a lot less scary than a volcano, ask any kid.

Nobody would talk about it, except when we needed to dwell on something bad. Some families said a little prayer for the ghost town during Thanksgiving, so they could be grateful for something. My uncle Ben, the asshole, told my cousins that he would leave them there if they misbehaved. Politicians in mustard suits pointed across the stage of the town hall and said, “My opponent supports the kinds of policies that lead to the kind of accidents that empty out towns like Manfield.” That was the ghost’s name: Manfield. I lived in Hartbury.

• • • •

Allie Moore was afraid of bats; she didn’t like the way they crawl. Jennifer Trudeau was afraid of ice cream trucks, and nobody knew why. We only knew that when she heard the ring-a-ling song coming around the corner she’d rub her scarab amulet, to remember the power of God.

Me, I was afraid of skeletons. It was mostly the skull, the empty hugeness of the eye sockets and the missing nose and the grin of a mouth that could bite but couldn’t kiss. But I also hated the rib cage and the pelvic butterfly and the knife-like fingers splayed apart in perpetual pain. It made me sick to think about what waited for me on the other side: the ugliness, the suffering. My parents took me to church and Pastor Joel promised that there would be none of that in Heaven, when I finally exhausted the cherished life that Almighty God had given me, when I finally decided my seven minutes were up and I was ready to go. “But that won’t be for a long, long time from now,” he said, patting my head. “So run along.”

That was all well and good, but Pastor Joel didn’t stop the nightmares. He didn’t stop that Hell-sent skeleton from crawling out from under my box spring, clacking its teeth, tearing my sheets and then my skin. I would try to run but could never move, and those rotten bones would clamp like pliers around my neck, squeezing and squeezing until I woke up. I stopped telling my parents; their solution to everything was sleeping pills. The only thing that calmed me down was drawing and destroying Manfield, to remember that I wasn’t dead like them.

It was Miss Lucy who stopped the nightmares. Miss Lucy loved Halloween, and come October she decked the classroom in pumpkins and sheet-ghosts and purple-caped vampires. She also hung a three-foot skeleton decal from the American flag above the white board. I could not stop staring at it, because it would not stop staring at me. “I know ol’ Mr. Bones is kind of creepy,” Miss Lucy whispered after I refused to go to the board to answer a math problem. “But you shouldn’t be scared of skeletons, Amanda. You’ve already got one inside you.” Then she reached out her finger and poked me in the chest, in what I suddenly realized was bone. I’m proud to say that I only wanted to dig myself apart for a few gory seconds before I realized that Miss Lucy was right, that a skeleton couldn’t hurt me if it was already part of me.

“Memento mori,” Miss Lucy said. My parents thought she was witchy, and corrected things she told us about the Pacific Wars—we never promised that we would help Japan, we never threatened Korea. She was gone by next September, and a woman with puppy-patterned vests had taken over her class. Mrs. Joan didn’t like Halloween. Parents liked her, though.

• • • •

I was seventeen the first time I went to Manfield. Allie Moore’s boyfriend, Jake Felici, decided it would be a hard-core thing to do for Halloween. Jake was a moody, gangly boy who played bass guitar, and Allie’s hair had turned a permanent slime-green from years on the swim team. They were the captains of hard-core. Allie invited me and Jennifer Trudeau. Jake invited Brandon Beck, who I loved so frantically that I thought it might kill me. So while other kids in Hartbury were drinking screwdrivers in somebody’s basement or summoning demons with somebody’s Ouija board, we piled into Jake’s beat-up Honda Accord and drove down Highway 51, Brandon and his perfect chestnut hair smashed between me and Jennifer Trudeau.

We were expecting something like those old Western gold-miner towns—wood shacks, rusted roadsters, a landscape still dominated by barrels and wheelbarrows. We were expecting something that had been cut down a hundred years ago, when companies were still playing around with chemicals like babies with guns, before regulations would have kept them in line. But that was not Manfield. Manfield had ticky-tacky houses and plastic lawn gnomes and busted minivans. There was a Java Hut coffee house, a Quick Loan, a Little Thai restaurant. That is, Manfield looked just like Hartbury—only dead. Only dark.

We were standing in what had once been the town’s beating heart. Jake’s flashlight found a now-blinded set of traffic lights. Allie’s flashlight found something called Ram’s Head Tavern. Taped to the inside of the tavern’s windows were newspaper clippings from twelve years back: the local high school had won a track meet; an old man had celebrated sixty years at the chemical plant that would kill them all; and they had held a harvest fair not so different from the one we celebrated in early October. Kids in flannel struggled to hoist blue-ribbon pumpkins, white-haired grandparents held out homemade pies, a blonde girl with a sash that read Queen of Mount Halberk waved, smirking, to the camera. Hartbury was the only town on Mt. Halberk now.

“Are you sure this is safe?” asked Jennifer. “What if there’s still poison in the air?”

“It’s not like it was radiation,” said Jake, trying to muster up the certainty to be our Captain Courage. “Gas dissipates, so it’s all gone now.”

Allie echoed him enthusiastically, but she also pulled her plaid scarf higher up her neck. I looked at Brandon, but he wasn’t looking at me. No, Brandon was hanging back with meek, slight, big-eyed Jennifer—telling her that it would be all right, kicking pebbles in her direction. None of it seemed real. I saw the five of us standing like five scarecrows, five finger-puppets, five propped-up people-like things that were, nevertheless, not people. My heart was pounding like a wild animal inside my chest. I wanted to get out—out of Manfield, out of my body. I don’t know what I thought was coming after me. I could only feel its rumbling, unstoppable and insurmountable, like the black volcanic clouds I had once drawn descending upon this town.

No one else seemed worried about the fact that everyone had lied about how recently the accident destroyed Manfield, and in the years to come we would never ask our parents why. I suppose we assumed that they had been so traumatized, so saddened by the loss of their sister town, that they decided to push Manfield backward into the soft underbelly of history. “They never said when it was exactly,” Jake said, in their defense, “just that it was a while ago.”

A while. All our understanding of time is made up of slipshod words that you can rearrange to cover up the fact that somewhere, somebody was wrong. In a while, Brandon Beck started dating Jennifer Trudeau. In a while, I decided to leave the state for college. For a while, I dreamt of my parents driving five-year-old me to a harvest festival, buying me a pumpkin, crowning me Queen of Manfield, and then leaving me to vanish into a gently-swirling fog.

• • • •

I gave myself an education at Rosewood College. I learned that Seven Minutes in Heaven was not, in fact, a kind of freeze tag, because it was not, in fact, the length of time it took for a dead soul to reach God. I learned that boys would lie to you about hitchhiking across the Pampas to get you to sleep with them, and I learned they probably wouldn’t call. I learned that I had no memory of several headliner incidents that took place the year I turned six—not the three-hundred-person Chinese passenger aircraft that was mistakenly shot down over Lake Dover a hundred miles from where I grew up, not the earthquake that killed sixty in Canada, not the Great Northeastern Chemical Disaster that saw a pesticide gas cloud submerge Manfield and then float westward toward Hartbury—and that I actually had no memory of kindergarten at all.

My parents couldn’t help me. I would call and they would grunt and hum and rummage through the kitchen drawers; when they got anxious, they needed to fix things. My mother remembered so many of my little childhood calamities—how I once tied our puppy Violet to my Radio Flyer and made her pull me “like a hearse”—but she didn’t remember much from the year that Manfield gave up the ghost. So I tried to forget that I’d ever forgotten anything by drinking, making sure I met enough new people at each party that I’d be invited to another. I’d eventually cycle through everything and everyone, throw up in every floor’s bathroom, memorize every vintage poster for every French and Italian liqueur on every dorm room wall.

I had hoped to get along with my freshman year roommate, a poker-faced redhead named Georgina Hanssen who was also from a small town, but Georgina was not the bonding type. She lived and breathed only anthropology. She had pictures of herself holding spears in Africa and monkeys in Asia, and eventually the truth came out that her parents had been missionaries, and she had been raised Mennonite. Sometimes she ate dinner with me in the white-walled cafeteria, and we would take turns insulting the slop that passed for food, but she didn’t give me any ways in, and at night she would turn down hall parties to hunch over her weird yellow books and munch her mother’s homemade granola bars. One morning I woke up drunk, half-in half-off my bed, and found her staring at me like a feral animal, like she was seeing me for the first time. “What are you reading,” I asked, the only question that could start a conversation with her.

“A History of Forgotten Christianity,” she said. Her finger scratched an itch on the open page. “For Professor Kettle’s class. I’m on the chapter about cults of universal resurrection.” She paused, then started reading. “Cults of universal resurrection have experienced cyclical fortunes throughout American history, typically reaching peak popularity during periods of economic depression. An estimated three hundred and fifty such communities have been documented across the Northeastern region. They are commonly found in small towns with high mortality rates due to exposure to natural disasters, poor medicine, and unsafe industrial conditions.”

Something slithered around my shoulders. “So?”

Georgina took a deep breath. “Cult-followers believed that God had bestowed upon them the power to return the dead to life. When an untimely death occurred in the community, church pastors and town elders would quickly perform a ritual to prevent the soul from leaving the dead person’s body, holding it in a state of “limbo” until the more elaborate resurrection ritual—often involving a simulated burial and rebirth—could be performed. Although resurrection rituals varied, all cults of universal resurrection held the dung beetle—famously worshipped by ancient Egyptians for similar reasons—in high symbolic standing, as the insect’s eggs emerge from a ball of its waste. Rather than Christ the divine worm, cultists worshipped Christ . . .”

“Christ the divine scarab,” I finished. Yes, I had learned that line in Sunday school, along with God bestows the gift of life unto those who have faith, and yes, we hung scarabs on our Christmas tree, but only as a reminder that God was all-giving and we were His life-possessing children, and I had no idea what that had to do with bringing people back from the fucking dead.

“So? What happened to them?”

“During the Great Evangelical Revival, they were mostly pressured to convert to mainstream Christianity.” A fingernail scraped a page. Something tore inside me. “Mostly.”

• • • •

I left school after my freshman year. There didn’t seem to be much point in staying. I went into the city, because I couldn’t go home—not to that town full of the walking dead. Not to Pastor Joel and whatever he had done to us on the night of the gas leak. Not to my parents. Before I burned their pictures, I would search their frozen smiles for some sign, some hollowness, some fakery, some deadness in their eyes. Depending on how much time I’d spent with Brother Whiskey and Sister Vodka, I sometimes found it, sometimes didn’t. Regardless, I took their money—I had to, what with the economy and the price of liquor. They sent me Christmas cards with green-and-gold scarabs on them, and on the off-chance that they had the right address I burned those cards along with a lock of my poisoned bleached hair, because Lily Twining said she was a witch and that was how you severed family ties. “Doesn’t purify your blood, though,” Lily warned me, cigarette jammed between her teeth. “Believe me, I’ve tried.”

When I was twenty-three my Aunt Rose, wife to Uncle Ben the asshole, died of a stroke. My parents picked me up at the bus station with glassy eyes and the old red pick-up, and oh how I longed to slide back into a gentler, dumber time when I could simply be their daughter, Amanda Stone, twenty-three years old. It did not work. Memento mori. I remembered.

Things had changed in Hartbury. My favorite Italian restaurant on Church Street had gone out of business, replaced by a plasma donation center. Everyone looked like ghouls, the skeletons that we all should have turned to grinning through their sagging skin. And a new dog—a black and white spaniel—came bounding off the porch. “Where’s Violet?” I asked.

“Violet died last year,” said my mother, without a hint of sadness in her voice.

“Life is cheap,” I replied, rubbing New Dog behind its ears.

My parents didn’t know what was happening to me. They were frightened by my tattoos: a black outline of my sternum where Miss Lucy poked me, followed by three black ribs on each side. They were worried about Brother Whiskey and Sister Vodka, not realizing that those two had seen me through a lot of darkness. They were embarrassed by how I behaved at Aunt Rose’s funeral. They didn’t understand why Pastor Joel’s numb routine of o death where is thy sting and o grave where is thy victory made me hysterical with terror and laughter. I went to Manfield on my final night in town, and took New Dog with me—like Violet, this mutt had immediately adopted me, apparently willing to overlook the question of whether or not I was undead. I said I was going to see a friend, as in hello darkness my old friend, and my mother asked if I was going to see Allie Felici and her new baby. “Sure,” I said, and slammed the screen door.

Manfield looked beaten-up. Windows had been broken into, storefronts had been tagged with unimaginative graffiti—a reversed pentagram here, a FOREVER LOVE there. Another car with an unfamiliar set of self-indulgent high school stickers was already parked at the mouth of the main street, and it didn’t take me and New Dog long to find the occupants trudging along in the half-light, posing for pictures while making stretched-out corpse-faces. We crept behind at a safe distance, New Dog and I, just close enough to hear the sharp edges of words.

“You hear about that other town that got hit with the same stuff, except nobody died?”

“Why? They closed their windows?”

“No, joker. Look, my mom was a 911 operator. They got so many calls from Hartbury that she thought the whole town was toast, just like Manfield. But when the rescue workers got there, freaking Hartbury just closed up and told them to go home, said everything was fine.”

At Aunt Ruth’s funeral, my father told me that I had no respect for the life this town gave me. I said that he had no respect for death. I said that if he respected life so much then why didn’t he just dig up Aunt Ruth and bring her back? His face collapsed like a withered orange. “Aunt Ruth was ready to go,” he said. I flailed out of his grasp like a wildcat. I ran to the parking lot over the graves of strangers who had decided to stay dead, under the watchful eye of the great green stained-glass scarab in the window of the church. But I am a scarab, and no man.

• • • •

It sounds romantic when you first hear it: seven minutes in heaven, seven minutes for your soul to board its tiny interstellar ship and set the coordinates for God. Seven minutes for you to change your mind. But that time is spent in nothing but the dark. The empty. Just like underneath Manfield’s carefully preserved skin, behind the Ram’s Head Tavern sign forever creaking in the wind, there’s nothing but gas masks and body bags.

The world was changing, very fast. I had stolen food out of children’s mouths, helped a man I loved pilfer from plague corpses, thanked God I wasn’t pregnant because I didn’t want a calcified stone baby at the bottom of my stomach. I’d seen a lot of skeletons, but only on a cross-country bus in the dead of summer did my own return to me—howling, ushered in by smoke. Its bones were just as coarse as I remembered, but its agony was so much deeper, that much richer. My skeleton had grown up. That time, I let it win. I unclenched my fists and let go. I let God.

I woke up when we stopped to let new passengers barter their way on in exchange for gas. Outside my window, one man was beating another to death for whatever the dead man had in his bag—soldiers who couldn’t have been older than fifteen ran off the survivor, the killer. I might have tried to see what I could salvage from the dead one, as ghouls go after corpses, but was interrupted by an old man on the other side of the aisle with rotting teeth and a black fedora. He called me young lady, though I felt like I’d lived forever, and asked where I was from.

It was a question I hated answering. Sometimes I named the state. Sometimes I lied. Sometimes I said something crazy—“outer space” or “hell” or “beyond.” That time I told the truth. Memento mori—the skeleton made me. I told him about Hartbury, about the harvest festival. I told him about Seven Minutes in Heaven. I told him about playing dead—laying frozen in time in a bed of fallen leaves, waiting for someone to pluck you back to life.

“Can I tell you a secret? I died there.” The shadows of nearly all my bones were tattooed across my body—I wanted to command the world to pay witness to my death. “I’ve died.”

The old man grinned and wiggled deeper into his suit, as if he and I and every other loser on that bus were buckled into a fantastic Stairway to Heaven. “Join the club, living dead girl.”

• • • •

The third time I went to Manfield, I was thirty-four. I walked, because my sponsor was big on cold night walks with a backpack filled with stones, to symbolize the burdens we all carry in our Pilgrim’s Progress. I was alone, save for the county dogs that smiled at me with bloody gums as they trotted up and down the cracked remains of the interstate. New Dog, whose name turned out to be Buttons, had been hit by a car on Highway 51. I invited my parents, but they frowned sadly and wondered why on Earth I’d want to go. “That’s a dead town,” they said.

How strange I must have always seemed to them. They must have spent my life blaming themselves for my choices, wondering why I wasn’t more like sweet little Jennifer Trudeau, who had her head wrenched off in a freak accident with an ice cream truck. Seven minutes in heaven can’t undo that kind of fatality. “It’s peaceful there,” I said.

So it was. There was a stillness in Manfield that you couldn’t find in Hartbury, because when the blanket of death came for us we kicked it off and were left naked and shivering in the world. But in Manfield there was grass carpeting what had once been the sidewalk, vines crawling up Ram’s Head Tavern, rabbits nesting in the seats of long-gone drivers. Rehab always stressed peace in our time—there are some dragons you must appease, my sponsor said, because there’s no fighting them. And truth’s one such dragon.

A new flock of teenagers had landed in Manfield. Two girls, three boys, all on crippled bicycles whose parts had been cannibalized for the war effort. I hid behind a termite-eaten column as they wobbled past.

“You know this place is haunted. My older brother knew a guy who went up here on a dare and saw a ghost . . . a girl with a dog. One of them red-eyed demon hellhounds.” In hiding, I smiled. Buttons was going to live forever. “I think that guy got deployed.” As had Brandon Beck, his perfect hair shorn down to the scalp before he left for the front. The town used to hold candlelight vigils for his never-recovered body, before his parents passed and so many others followed in his footsteps. “I think he’s dead.”

Everyone was dead; everyone was alive. A fighter jet roared overhead, right on time for its appointment with the grim reaper. The teenagers stopped their pedaling to watch the angel pass, and I took the occasion to run silent and deep, head down, fire in the belly.

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Nadia Bulkin

Nadia Bulkin

Nadia Bulkin writes scary stories about the scary world we live in, three of which have been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. Her stories have been included in volumes of The Year’s Best Weird Fiction and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, and in venues such as ChiZine, Fantasy, and The Dark. She has two political science degrees and lives in Washington, D.C. She can be found online at nadiabulkin.wordpress.com.