It was the middle of a high-wind, full-sun summer Sunday when the Wagners heard a big bang from the backyard and looked out the kitchen window to see a dead man. He was in a closed and broken oak coffin, a lot better looking than Joe’s had been, and one foot with a black shoe was kicking out of the bottom end. At first Beth stalled, just like her black Camaro had a habit of doing on the way to work, but then the baby pulled on her hair to kick-start her and she went outside with a rolling pin.
Beth circled the smoking, broken coffin in the rising dust of their dry backyard. The lock had broken off. She would have run to get a tarp and call the police if she hadn’t heard a faint human moan coming from inside.
She leaned down closer and heard it again: a long and muffled “oh.” Boys from the high school, she concluded. Their fathers never gave them enough work. She didn’t know why those cow-tippers chose this house, given she was no waitress at Chickpea, but she’d stopped wondering why things happened since Joe died.
“Yeah, have a good time in there, you little freak,” she said.
Beth and the baby stayed away from the kitchen until dinner time. Then the evening news from Omaha switched from coverage of a plane crash near the Sandhills to the pale and sickly complaining about drug prices, the baby pinched her nose and whined for food, and Beth went to reheat chicken from the night before. While she waited she looked out the window. There was only a half-moon, but she thought she saw the coffin lid thrown open. Good, she thought, they’ve gone.
Except then someone knocked at the door. All rational thoughts fell out of Beth’s head and she stood there in the kitchen with her back to the noise, trying to breathe, until the baby shouted, “Mommy! There’s somebody!”
Somebody. A no-name. A stranger, a vagrant, a criminal. A convict from the penitentiary down the road. She grabbed her rolling pin and pulled the door open with a hard twist and a snarl—but on the other side was a much less imposing creature. A slight man in a gray suit stood on her stoop under the flickering porch light, swarmed by moths. He looked sick and powdered and foreign. Beth clenched the rolling pin.
“Hello,” he said, but it was barely recognizable as a human voice. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Hello.” That time it came out better. “Can I use your phone?”
Beth narrowed her eyes. “Why?”
“Because . . . I’m . . . trying to figure out how I got here.” The stranger scratched at the suit like it itched, like it wasn’t his. “I’m sorry, I know this must seem strange to you. I’m, uh . . . I’m unarmed.”
Joe had said something very similar when he first met her. She was stranded in her Camaro as usual and when he stopped his jeep behind her she immediately rolled up her windows. “Miss, I’m unarmed!” Joe had shouted from the other side of the glass, waving his empty hands. Just as she had then, Beth opened the door another few inches and silently let the stranger in.
He smelled musty, like an unclean lab, and dragged himself down the hallway with stiff jerks that looked painful. When Beth handed him the phone he nearly dropped it, and after he dragged himself to the kitchen for privacy he could not seem to make his fingers work with the buttons. He kept muttering. He kept starting over.
The baby looked at her mother as if she’d let in a coyote.
“He just needs to use the phone, Janelle.”
In a minute the man came back into the living room, holding the phone in his hand like a dead raccoon. “My brother didn’t answer,” he muttered, “and my mother hung up on me.” He wheezed for a while in contemplation and then looked at Beth. “Where are we?”
“Bermuda,” said the baby. The man looked shocked. His bloodshot eyes swung back to Beth for confirmation. “In McKinley County, Nebraska,” the baby finished, resting her plump chin on her plump fist and raising her eyebrows at the stranger. “In America,” she added, when his eyes didn’t get any calmer.
“Where did you think you were?” Beth asked.
“I live in Denver.”
“How did you get here?”
“I don’t know.”
Paranoia climbed up her spine, demanding she expel this stranger from her territory, but he looked like such a deer in headlights. She’d run over her share of those—her dodgy Camaro liked the taste of blood. He had their gentle brown eyes, soft as a newborn’s. People didn’t have eyes like that these days. People didn’t knock on strangers’ doors. Beth chewed her nail. If she shooed him away he’d either knock on McCormick’s door and get his head shot through, or knock on the Samsons’ door and get arrested—and by the looks of him the cops would assume he was either a terrorist or a mobster without bothering to notice what a deer in headlights he was. No, she was going to save this one.
“Well, maybe you’ll remember later,” said Beth, taking her thumb out from between her lips. The microwave started beeping. “We were just gonna have dinner, do you want some?”
The man looked even more bewildered. “You’re very kind, Mrs. . . .”
“My name is Hamzah al-Faraj.”
Beth managed a smile.
Weeds with tender white and yellow flowers curled up and over the coffin as if to bind it to the earth. For years this was a yard nothing grew in, but all at once insects with metallic exoskeletons were walking floral vines like tight rope; all of a sudden, the soil was moist. Eventually a green tide would turn the broken coffin into a hill.
On his first day with the Wagners, Hamzah spent hours extracting the splinters he got pounding his way out of the coffin. He was in a hurry to forget it. Waking up inside that tiny dark death trap with the worst bodyache of his life hadn’t been pleasant, and besides, all he really wanted to do at first was eat. Even the stuff he didn’t like, even the stuff he knew was unholy. He took out goods the Wagners had forgotten they had: jars of fermenting preservatives, take-out from chain restaurants that had closed and moved away, cookies in aluminum foil from many Christmases past, vegetables growing colonies in the bottom drawer. He ate it all, expiration date be damned. He never got sick, so he ate more, and his dead exterior sloughed off like snakeskin. The ache faded. He ran laps. Bermuda was a strange place to discover joie de vivre.
And because of this he did wonder if the baby was onto something when she asked him how dying was. The neighbors were not angelic, but sometimes at dusk rings of light did crown them.
“I think you’re our present,” said Janelle. She was sitting on Beth’s lap and staring at Hamzah with the eyes of an old judge in the rich dark quiet of the night. “To make up for Daddy. Mommy, you remember, like when you took the broken toaster back to the store and came back with a new one.”
Later, on the staircase, Beth apologized to Hamzah for Janelle’s presumptuousness. She also wanted to ask him why he wasn’t trying to hitch a ride back to Denver, but she was afraid of giving him ideas. She went to sleep holding her breath, waiting for the big wind to knock down their house of cards.
And as the living slept, voices gathered on the roof. Like squirrels they pawed at the shingles and scrambled from corner to corner, hissing to each other and searching the roof for weak spots. They pressed their proto-lips against the asphalt rectangles and whispered, “He belongs to us!” Beth mistook them for the radio, and when she heard their demands, she just hit the buttons next to her bed. At last one voice fell through a tiny hole in the roof onto the cold pillow next to hers, crying, “Give him back!” so up close and personal that Beth did sit up and shout into the dark: “Joe!”
But it was not Joe who’d come back, and this she remembered in the morning when she saw Hamzah in the kitchen, pouring juice for Janelle. This she remembered every time she heard her gap-toothed baby laugh. Sometimes she did need to put her hands on the man’s face to realize that this was not Joe—this was the deer in headlights.
“Joe,” she said in the bathroom, looking up at the crack in the ceiling, “I love you. I hope you are all right with this. I hope this was your doing.” She thought about what Joe said in the hospital near the end—be good to yourself, Beth—and nodded bravely. “I know this was your doing. Goodbye. I love you.” And then she went back out and had breakfast with Hamzah and Janelle.
It was only when Hamzah moved to the upstairs bedroom that the voices on the roof found him. Then he’d wake up tossing in the sheets, asking Beth for mosquito repellent.
Whenever anyone knocked at the door, Beth closed her eyes and felt Chinook winds rock her knees. There it was: reality, Joe’s gravestone, the dentist’s office, the dying Camaro, the crass combine harvester world that ripped the seeds off the stalk and left behind mannequins of straw. She could try to ignore it, yes, but it would stand out there through seasons of sleet and fire with hunched shoulders, knocking.
She had let the world take Joe. She would not knuckle under like that again, so she always made Hamzah hide upstairs before answering the door.
One Saturday it was McCormick, red and sweating with his hands on his hips and his Colt .44 Magnum dangling. “Say Beth,” he said, “you heard about that plane crash in the Sandhills? The plane goin’ to Milwaukee?”
She chewed her lip.
“There’s this huge chunk of metal in my backyard and I can’t figure out where the hell it came from. It almost looks like it came off a plane. You wanna see it?”
It was a reminder she did not need. Hamzah’s mother lived in Milwaukee and Beth knew this by now. She could slam the door in McCormick’s face and the backyard could consume the coffin whole but the wind was picking up. The cards were shuddering like her bones.
Hamzah found her sitting at the table. “Beth?”
“There was a plane crash east of here,” Beth said. She pulled out an old newspaper, the one she’d saved. “It was going to Milwaukee. Everybody died. Including you.”
He pinched his hand. It hurt; that was a good sign. “I didn’t go on any plane,” he murmured.
“My neighbor has something that looks like a piece of a plane in his yard, okay? You must have fallen out while it was going down!”
She’d gotten very loud by then. Beth wiped the wetness off her face and pointed at the front page.
Hamzah looked at the smoking black wreckage and the helicopters circling it like scavengers. It had been a 737 once. The cranes would come back from Canada and wonder why the hell there were human bits in their nests.
“I didn’t get on any plane,” he said, “and I woke up in that thing out there, remember, not some airplane seat.” He cautiously put his hand on Beth’s shoulder. “I wasn’t on that plane. I didn’t die.”
Beth looked up, wiping her nose. He was trying to smile and when he squeezed her weak bones, her heartbeat slowed. His other hand folded up the newspaper and she buried that ugly air crash under the bills and credit card offers and other unwelcome guests.
But they both knew that he’d been dead. Even Janelle dropped a roadkilled squirrel in their backyard, hoping to bring it back to life. It stayed dead and smashed, and in the wake of Janelle’s disappointment they buried the poor thing in the moist dark soil. From its body sprouted an even denser wilderness of weeds and insect eyes. The Wagners spent their days in the jungle they had grown and went to sleep listening to cicadae. It was just as well, even if they got eaten up by chiggers, because the ghosts were getting out of control.
They had begun by manifesting in mirrors, as well as in doorways and around corners—but then as rotating shadows only, tricks of the light. Then one night Janelle woke up in the middle of the night to see dark pillars of smog bent over her, voices begging her to “give him back to us.” Janelle ran to her mother’s bed, but they were only too happy to follow her there, leaving burn-marks on the carpet.
Hamzah suggested they move. He didn’t say back to Denver but Beth suspected it was what he had in mind. That only made the hauntings worse: the day after he made the suggestion they started growing bodies.
It was life as a perpetual wake. They came in all forms, from all places—some old and some very young, in cotton sweats and business suits. From the ceiling and the floor they watched the living eat dinner. When their billowing faces got too close Beth would swat them away. But before they floated away they would breathe hot cobwebs down Hamzah’s neck, and when they grew stubby burned hands they would press those to his skin too.
Their touch scalded, but only for a moment. Beth touched his arm when he jolted for the tenth time. “Just leave it,” she murmured. “They’ll go away on their own.”
But they stayed, all the way through primetime television. They crowded round Hamzah and piled their hands on him, and though he shook them all off like mayflies they began to leave behind a dull ache, a stiffness.
“Are you okay?” asked Janelle. “You look sick.”
Hamzah turned his head to answer her and his eyes suddenly swung up toward the ceiling, then down to the floor. He stumbled and grabbed the arms of the chair.
“Hamzah?” Beth stood up, but he could not meet her eyes. Instead he leaned his head down between his knees and squeezed his neck until something seemed to rattle his spine, making him seize up with a cry. Janelle shrieked along with him and covered her ears.
Beth tried to grab onto his limbs to steady him, but even if she put all her weight into it she could not stop the awful contortions of his face. “Hamzah, what is it? What?“
In a moment his body slowed down, and his facial muscles drooped. He opened his eyes, and he was the deer in headlights again—panicked and stuck. Beth gave him her sweetest smile, trying to reassure him that she was no semi-truck.
“What is it?” she asked again, not above a whisper.
“I felt my bones breaking. I smell . . .” He took a deep breath. All she smelled was the ghosts’ charcoal. “Asphalt and metal. And blood. My blood. God, it’s strong, Beth.”
“The car that hit me.”
Beth’s jaw dropped and she took a hesitant step back, through a cloud of ghosts. “A car hit you?”
One of the ghosts put its hands over his eyes. Beth jumped at it, screaming at it to get away from him, but Hamzah had already seen the headlights of the Chrysler come charging out of downtown Denver, the first in a stream of traffic. A golden demon—an angel? Drivers had trouble at dusk. So did pedestrians. The half-light deceived them all. He shouldn’t have stepped onto the street. But he didn’t think the car was so close. Then all of a sudden the car was right there, up against his legs with the force of three hundred horses. His body flopping like a fish.
“Yes, and I . . .” Hamzah winced. “I didn’t get up. Beth, I’m dead, I died.”
Beth immediately shook her head. Her fingers kept catching in the knots in her hair. “But we knew . . .” she whispered. “We know . . . you came back, Hamzah.”
He was looking at the ghosts. Some were missing noses, others eyes. Some wore dangling oxygen masks like yokes. They smoldered, he realized, because they were still in the fires of the 737. He stood up, sweeping past Beth and her protests, and started stumbling toward them. “Why are you here?” he asked.
Some of them looked away, suddenly shy, revealing bloody ears. He reached out his hand for them and they faded. “Please,” he said.
Finally a few of them on the other side of the room murmured through null mouths, “Come back, passenger. Come away with us.” And then the others joined, kneeling at Hamzah’s feet like lepers in the rain: “You, the one who fell. The man in the cargohold. The missing.”
“The cargohold,” Hamzah muttered, putting his hand to his suddenly sweaty forehead. The room was swinging again—the carpet seemed miles away, and it seemed to be crawling with the bodies of the dead.
“Don’t listen to them!” Beth’s voice interrupted. “Hamzah, it doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter what happened then! What matters is you’re alive now!” She was fighting through the ghosts—they were getting thicker all the time. Janelle was curled up like a snail, an isolated little bundle of pink and blonde lying low under the passing storm. Her mother tried shoving one of the ghosts into the television, but her hands just went right through.
“If my coffin was in the cargohold . . .” He cupped his mouth, feeling motion-sick. “I’m part of that flight.”
“Come away with us . . .” the ghosts warbled, pawing at his clothes, making his knees pulse with undead pain. “We can go together. We can leave the fire together.”
“No!” Beth shouted, but he could see that she was drowning. Their funereal smoke was making her eyes water. “I am not going to let you take him too!”
Hamzah outstretched his hand to her, open and empty as it had been from the very beginning. His hand shot through the ghosts and Beth grabbed hold of it. For a second she stopped screaming. He was still whole. Something was still whole.
“Let’s talk,” said Hamzah. “Come on.”
They went to the bedroom and talked. The ghosts thought Beth was preparing to kill him, and except for a lingering old man ghost trying to hide in the grains of the wooden closet, they wanted to give them privacy.
“They’re still in the fire,” he whispered. “They won’t leave without me. Beth, they’ll never leave you two alone.”
“I’ll take it. What about you.”
He sighed, knowing what she would say. “What about me.”
“What if you came back for us?” She lifted her head and stared at him with her mouth open, as if it was what she had wanted to say all summer. He touched the corner of her mouth and her chapped lips tried to smile. “Maybe Janelle was right.”
“As a present for you,” said Hamzah, effortlessly returning the smile. “Right, maybe that’s right. But maybe it’s been long enough.”
Beth covered her eyes. “But we still . . .”
“Everything dies, Beth.”
She looked at him. His hands were in her hair; his eyes were bright but tired. She kissed him.
In a few hours Beth gathered the strength to go to the medicine cabinet. She passed the congregation of ghosts without word, and this time they courteously seeped out of her way. Then she returned to the bedroom and softly closed the door. Softly was the way the world would end.
By the time the man from the National Transportation Safety Bureau arrived at their rickety house on Coolidge Street, Hamzah was back in the coffin he’d come in. The yard was still blooming, and the NTSB investigator looked shocked to be wading through high grass when the house itself looked so tame. He looked back at Beth, holding out his clipboard like a wing.
“Aren’t any snakes, are there?”
Beth shrugged in her bare legs. “They’re probably not poisonous.”
The investigator resumed goose-stepping toward the exposed coffin. “And you say it fell out of the sky the day of the crash?” She nodded. “There was something wrong with the cargo door, you see, ma’am. Caused the whole damn crash.” He shook his head as Beth listened to the wind. “Must not be nice having a coffin in your backyard.”
Beth shrugged. “He was good company.”
The investigator laughed and Beth took a deep, lung-searing breath. She could smell fall coming from over the Rocky Mountains. Black birds like boomerangs crossed overhead, and the trees were the color of fire.