Saturday, August 18, 2012


A Fantasy/ Urban Fantasy/ Magical Realism story.  A story set in the modern "real" world with a single fantastic element. 

A man experiences a miracle.  A miracle is not always a good thing.


S.E. Nordwall

It was being called “Spontaneous Cellular Regeneration” and by a few other “science-y” sounding names that he couldn’t quite wrap his tongue around so as to avoid the inherent religiosity of the term “resurrection.”  There were some terms he found insulting and, thankfully, only a few people in the media used them before getting the idea that they should stop.  It didn’t matter what anybody called it, the fact that it had yet to be explained remained to frustrate everyone involved, not the least of which was its subject.

Alfred Stiff (and that was his real name) rubbed his left arm where blood had been taken as he walked the pleasant paths of a sunny cemetery.  It was close to the hospital – a few blocks over.  The man had not needed to drive, which was a good thing, as he had yet to get his license back. 

“At least it wasn’t bone this time,” Mr. Stiff muttered to himself.  Why the staff had to use huge horse-needles on him, he did not know.  It was then that it occurred to him that he’d seen a horse being given veterinary treatment once and the vet had used very tiny and delicate needles on the animal.  Lucky beast.

Alfred walked to the plot where his own grave lay.  It had yellow police-tape staked up around it.  The tombstone reading “A. Stiff” was still there.  If nothing else, Alfred thought, his family had a sense of humor that came in a lovely shade of black.  The grave had been kept separate on the request of people who were investigating his case.   

The man vaguely remembered clawing his way through dirt.  He had no idea how he broke the seal on his coffin.  According to investigators, it had popped loose on its own somehow, but a busted coffin was hardly the miracle here.   

Alfred Stiff had been alive just about a year now.  Before that, he’d been dead for ten years.  He was being called the “Great American Zombie.”  Most of the country seemed to regard him as a huckster even though he’d had very little, if any monetary gain from his adventure and his status had brought him enough suffering to make him wish he’d stayed dead.  Alfred really wasn’t a zombie, though.  He may have been one in the most technical sense and that is where he preferred to the term “resurrect,” even as his doctors were trying to find some other term for him. 

His body was currently healthy.  If he were a “zombie,” he would be rotting, or at least not be in possession of his own, sharp mind.  He was inexplicably healthy for someone who’d been pumped full of embalming chemicals and buried.  If there had been no witnesses to his “wakeup” or said witnesses had not been confirmed as mentally sound, what had happened to him would not have been believed by anyone.  As it was now, accusations of a hoax and of severe mental illness ran rampant. 

Mr. Stiff felt profoundly sorry for his witnesses.  Because of the accusations of mental illness, they were considered by many to be even less “human” than he was for being a freak.  He’d had some trouble with that.  His legal status was “deceased” – since there was no precedent for someone in his situation. 

Alfred sat on the edge of the trail and looked at the sky.  “Wish I could remember Heaven,” he said to himself.  “Maybe it would be easier.  Hmm. Maybe it would just make things more complicated.” 

Mr. Stiff did not remember anything between his falling and rising.  He remembered dying, yet he had not fully registered what it was at the time.  After that was the sensation of cool fresh air, the feeling of dirt under his fingernails, and after that, the discomfort of people poking and prodding him on a hospital bed.  It was all vague, but he didn’t remember a misty Heaven, a fiery Hell, or a life spent reincarnated as a squirrel or whatever else was supposed to have happened to him.  He greatly annoyed disbelievers in those sorts of things as well, on account that he did not dismiss the possibility that his spirit went somewhere and that he simply did not remember it.  “We all sleep.  Not all of us remember our dreams,” he’d say. 

Mr. Stiff had quite a time when he was on one of those cheesy talk shows.  He’d been hesitant to appear on one of those things that served, in his eyes, to perpetuate the stereotype that people who watched daytime network television were idiots.  The spiritual guru that had been on the show had pressed Alfred intensely on the subject of the afterlife and of spiritual “awakening.”  Mr. Stiff had felt sorry for him, or something along the lines of “almost sorry” simply because he’d always found it hard to feel much for the rude and the way the guy leaned into his personal space was something he found creepy. 

He’d had nothing to give the guy, having decided to remain honest.  No light, no peace – not even darkness or a “void,” to disappoint some members of the studio audience as well as the strawman skeptic that had been brought on the show, who’d apparently hoped to hear that his experience had been like deep sleep – maybe not the “death” part, but the “dying” part.  From feeling a “punch” and realizing he’d been shot in the chest, to the sensation of falling to the floor, to the vagaries of “waking up” – for all that was in between, Time had not existed for him.  He’d let the skeptic down mightily when he’d failed to see his “lack of time or anything” as proof that there was definitely no afterlife.  As far as Alfred was concerned, his experience wasn’t proof or disproof of anything at all.  He was letting people of science try to figure out why his body was alive again, but all he could give them was his body. 

That was the way those talk shows worked:  They put two people of opposing views on along with a main guest because not only does debate get going, the studio audience gets riled up into a frothy mass.  Conflict attracts viewership, and if the truth lies somewhere in-between, the truth be damned for the ratings.  This was one of the reasons why Alfred saw them as television for idiots and only made an appearance because of the money that was offered for his upkeep and to his family. Still, he outright refused the televangelist that had come to him.  Morons and sensationalists he would work with while cringing just a little, crooks he would not work with at all. 

“What’s wrong with a cross on your tombstone?” Anne said as they stood before Alfred’s grave. 

“Nothing, really, but…” Mr. Stiff answered his sister. 

“You are not lacking for company,” Anne suggested, “and you always believed in your own way, even though none of us have been active in the church for a long time.” 

“It’s not bad in and of itself,” Alfred answered, “It is what you thought I would have wanted.  I do not find it an offensive symbol; I just fear others might someday” 

“You fear others might someday...?” 

Alfred sighed.  “I think that sometimes symbols are more important to people than reality… or actual people.  With the way the world’s going and all of the bad stuff we hear about hypocrites and criminals in the churches, well… along with a lot of other unfortunate associations… I just fear that someday our world will change enough that people in the future will see crosses like we see swastikas today.  The stupider ones will raid graveyards like this, knocking over the headstones in hopes of desecrating the memories of folks they don’t think deserve to be remembered… not that it will really hurt them, being already dead, but still…”

“That’s a harsh vision.”

“Even swastikas weren’t originally and always evil,” Alfred muttered, “They’re symbolic of fortune and suchlike in some cultures – some Far East luck-symbol, at least before the West got a hold of it.  Most folk think in the negative, I suppose – Easier to gain a bad association than a good one.  A little bad use or bad press can wipe out thousands of years of good fortune.”

“So, you’re saying you don’t want people to assume things about you.” 

“Exactly,” Alfred said with a smile.  “The cross is not a bad symbol; it’s just that it has both good and bad associations.  As long as I have breath to speak, I can justify whatever I happen to be associated with.  I can explain why I follow the good parts of something and reject the bad.  Maybe people won’t believe me, but at least I can have my say.  I am powerless when I have no breath, though.  I know that better than anyone alive today.”

Alfred Stiff had moved in with his sister and her family shortly after the media storm had begun to die down and the hospital released him.  Anne had to procure him lawyers to win that right.  Having been deemed a subject valuable to science and having legally given up the rights due to the living upon his death, his general personhood was something that had to be earned for him in court. 

There was mention of vivisection and even dissection after “killing him again” to get a thorough look at all aspects of his body and brain early on.  The individuals that suggested these things had been quickly dismissed from the project.  The team that worked with Alfred in trying to figure out what had happened to him and what was going on with his body, for the most part, cared about his welfare and happiness – if for nothing else than the fact that a happy, cooperative subject was the easiest kind of subject to work with. 

They had not wanted to release him to begin his life anew, preferring that he live at the hospital twenty-four-seven, but that was most of Mr. Stiff’s contention with the main team.  He came to the hospital as a study subject to a job now.  He had eight-hour days with two days off per week.  Their tests and sample-taking often hurt, sometimes, quite a bit, but the man knew his value to science and hoped that study on him would help people someday.  In the keeping of a willing subject, giving Alfred Stiff his freedom and basic rights helped his morale, but he was still glad that his sister got lawyers involved and that it was down on paper and in record that people like the mad-scientist idiots who’d first observed him couldn’t get their way without ramifications.  As he saw it, no one in the world ever had rights that didn’t have to be fought for. 

For his part, Alfred’s hope was that knowledge gleaned from the studies would save people near death or bring back people lost to sudden tragedy.  He hated to be selfish, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to see everyone in the world resurrected as he was – at least with the world as it presently existed.  

He sat in a chair in a clean room decked out in tones of white, blue and machine-chic  watching a favorite old television series on a laptop resting on a desk before him. 

“Oh, I love this episode!” one of his doctors said.  The red-haired woman leaned over his shoulder to watch. 

“It’s a bit mind-trippy,” Alfred replied.  “I’m not sure physics would actually work that way on the ship, even in the weirder depths of space.”

“Not to mention the giant space-octopus.” 

“That, too.” 

“You really like space operas, don’t you?  They’re all I’ve see you watch while you’ve been here.” 

“Better than talk shows.  You haven’t seen me watch the couple of cooking shows I like.  I figure that’s our future.  Not the space octopi, but the stars…”

“I bet you wanted to be an astronaut as a kid.”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“I was always more interested in biology than astrophysics.” 

“Well,” said Alfred, “If you crack me, figure me out… I’m… kind of hoping the world will save the widespread resurrecting until we reach the stars and find some planets to terraform and all that good stuff. Some might say that we need a ‘new heavens and new Earth’ for such a change in the dynamics of life.  We might need a really big heaven and lots of ‘Earths.’  Think about it.  If we bring people back willy-nilly, folks will have to stop making babies to make…Earth…work.  As it is, I still get hungry and need to breathe and, of course, I take up space.  I don’t think I’m immortal, just…returned. We’d glut up the planet real quick if everyone who died got brought back as a normal thing.” 

“Have you ever wanted children?  It would appear to be possible for you, given that all of your systems seem to be intact.” 

“My ex-wife and I thought of it when we were first married, but held off actively trying until the time was right.  Good thing, too, since we didn’t last long.”

“She hasn’t come to visit you.  I’d think she would, Miracle Man.

“Eh. The breakup was ugly and so was she.” 

“Such an evil grin!  ‘Miracle’ or not, I guess we can’t call you a saint.”

“Don’t you even dare.”

Alfred Stiff decided at once point or another that people were more or less fictional to each other.  He didn’t think that reality was a subjective matter or that human beings did not actually exist or anything as overreaching as that.  What he concluded from his observations was that people had a tendency to create their own narratives concerning others.  People made guesses as to what a given other person was like, what their motivations were and their thoughts based upon appearance, position and a few mannerisms. 

Since there was no way of knowing what and how a given individual thinks apart from what they chose to share with others, this shorthand and the little narratives that came with it were, in Stiff’s reckoning, the best mere mortals could do.

If everyone’s mind was like his own, the world was made up of people living complicated inner lives that they’d never share with even those closest to them, not just out of privacy but out of sheer complexity.

This was apparent in a study of history.  It seemed that when a person had made themselves some fame and were long-dead, everyone quoted them.  If they were vindicated by history and people thought of them as “good,” their every speech-quote and scrap of writing that they left behind were used as evidence of being on a group’s side.  If a person was infamous, their every quote was analyzed and used to connect them to their enemies. 

Alfred hadn’t made much use of the Internet ten years ago, but his sister had a fast connection and several household computers – some old and scavenged, one expensive and new.  Alfred had read that the name for a particularly popular phenomenon on some of the forums he’d take a look at was “Godwin’s Law.”  He wondered if there was some kind of positive form for it, a “Jefferson’s Law,” considering how often the quotes of Thomas Jefferson were used by people of every political party as supposed support for their more-often-than-not purely modern agendas. 

The longer you were dead, the longer you were “nice and safe,” and moreover, useful. 

It was a little more unsettling when it came to the rewritten memories of people who knew and a deceased person in life.  After a while, those could become distorted, too – “absence makes the heart grow fonder” as was the common saying.  Alfred learned this intimately in regards to his own life, his own death and his own family.    In the case of his ex-wife, who bothered to meet him once after his “awakening,” he’d become more demonized over the years in her personal narrative of him.  For his part, he felt sorry for her new husband.

Dealings with his sister were more distressing in that she had never stopped loving him, but had changed him slightly in her mind. He found that she was surprised and offended by some of his little mannerisms.  Alfred cursed rather causally, for example, except around her two boys.  It wasn’t anything novel that had come about after his awakening – he’d always remembered firing off an expletive every once in a while when something wasn’t working right, when he was untangling electrical cords or had received a particularly annoying bill in the mail.  (He asked Anne how his dept collectors got word that he was alive again.  Her response was that they’d never acted as if he’d died.  They just forwarded bills to next of kin, addressed to him, for the entirety of the decade.  The same thing happened with requests to re-subscribe to magazines).    

“Could you tone it down?” She’d asked him when he was trying to fix the hinges on the screen-door of the family porch. 

“I dropped a screw.  They’re hard to see, the little buggers.  The boys are at school, what’s it matter what I say?” 

“You never used to be like that.”

“Hmm?  I don’t recall ever doing anything different…” 

Anne stood still for a moment. 

“Something wrong with you?”

“I just realized something.”


“You’re right.  I guess… I just didn’t remember how you spoke in the little moments…”

“What are you talking about, Anne?” 

She began weeping.  “After you d-died…” she whispered… “I forgot…It seems like I just forgot so many little things about you.”

“I’ll watch my language for you if you really want.”

“No!  Please, be yourself! It’s just… this whole business is weird.” 

“I know,” Alfred said, stepping over to his sister and wrapping an arm around her.  “What’s happened to me is something that hasn’t happened since the time of myths. I wonder, like everyone else, if it really happened at all…”

“I don’t believe in collective hallucinations,” Anne replied, “And I know you weren’t a twin. I saw you in an open casket after being done up.” 

“When a thing happens that everyone tells you shouldn’t have happened, you begin to doubt it and doubt yourself.  It is okay, Anne, don’t cry.  Maybe some would rather I stayed dead than gotten lucky so as not to disturb what’s ‘supposed to be,’ but I know that you aren’t one of them. You’re my little sister and nothing’s going to change that.

“Has your medical team figured out hide or hair of it?” Anne asked. “It’d be nice to have some explanation beyond it just being a ‘miracle.” 

“Eh,” her brother said, separating from her and picking his screwdriver up again.  “Maybe I was revived by a fairy or someone, somewhere made a pact with a shadow-demon that can bring people back from the Land of the Dead.”

Anne laughed.  “Dylan and Francis will have to show you the little game-room they have set up.  Compared to the games we used to play, the graphics on theirs will blow you away.” 

“I never asked what you did with my old consoles.” 

“We kept them. They’re also in the game room, though the 1980’s- beast is up in the attic.”

“Have the boys ever played with that one?”

“Nope. The old games are with it, though in an old crate.”

“I shall have to dust it off and bring it down and school them,” Alfred said with a grin.

“This is all we could get,” Francis said as he showed off a game-case of some title that “Uncle Al” had never heard of.  “It’s from a few years ago, outdated…”

“But the used stuff is cheaper, anyway,” Dylan finished for him.  “I like used games better – that way I can read reviews online so we don’t waste our money on lame-ass crap.”

“Your mother shouldn’t hear you say that,” Alfred scolded. 

“We say worse!” Francis said, sticking his tongue out at his older brother. “The trick is to listen for her at the door when we’re playing one of the fighters so she doesn’t hear us…” 

“I bet you come up with some creative insults for each other,” Alfred said.

“Play with us, Uncle Al! We’ll play whatever you want to play first!”

“Yeah, and maybe next week, you can talk Mom into taking us to the game store in the city.  They were going to build a Lana’s Castle a couple of blocks from here, but…”


“When you… what mom said… you know…” Dylan struggled.

“What he means to say,” Francis butted in, “is that there was this big protest from the town council and people, since the guy who killed you liked videogames.” 

“Oh, that…” Alfred said, biting his thumbnail. 

“We’re lucky Mom even lets us play stuff,” Dylan explained.  “She doesn’t let us play the really cool stuff, though, nothing really bloody and awesome.” 

Among the game-cases, “Uncle Al” found an old favorite of his.  He and Dylan sat side-by-side on the carpeted floor with controllers playing a player-versus-player swordfighting title.  Francis watched, eager to play the winner, but cheering on his uncle.

Mr. Stiff had known Dylan.  The child was two years old when he’d embarked on his adventures in coffin-stuffing.  Francis was new to him, born a year after his murder.  It warmed his heart that the children had an appreciation for some things that he did not think they’d have an appreciation of.  Videogames were expected, but not the titles he knew.  Though the game he was playing at the moment had a roster of characters with fierce and sometimes improbable-looking blades, the carnage was bloodless, with damage shown in light-flares and effects to the character’s hit-point bars. 

The man thought, as he played, to the young man who’d killed him.  He had not remembered his face very well from the incident.  Most of what he knew came from news article archives he’d read.  The kid had been twenty-two years old and had been an ex-employee of Steve’s Market, a small grocery store that Alfred had stopped off to in the evening after work. 

Alfred did remember the contents of his shopping basket that night: There was a frozen chicken-fried steak dinner because he didn’t feel like cooking anything for himself that night, nor picking up another burger from sack made transparent by the grease.  There was a box of nasal-decongestant pills because he could feel himself coming down with a minor cold, and he’d grabbed a bottle of some cheap off-brand cola.   He’d walked to one of two staffed registers (Steve’s had yet to install a do-it-yourself scanner station) when the kid had come in – dark, messy hair, black denim jacket and white tennis-shoes that were falling apart (Alfred had no idea why he remembered that).  The next thing he knew, the kid had pulled something from his coat and there were several sharp popping sounds, some screams, and something that felt like a mule-kick to his chest. 

He felt wetness before he felt pain, but he suddenly could not breathe.  He looked down to see red splats on the floor, felt his knees buckle and that was just about all he remembered before the sensations of cold grave-dirt on his fingers and some doctor shining a light in his eyes.

According to what he’d been told and what he’d been able to see in news video and article archives, he was one of four people killed in the rampage, including the gunman. There had been very few people in the little market at the time.  One other man who was a customer of the store was shot in the head.  A little girl had taken a body-shot and died at the hospital.  Her mother was wounded as well as the clerk at one of the registers.  The young assailant had, after seeing what he’d wrought, eaten his gun before police even arrived.   

Alfred Stiff had visited the graves other than his own, including the grave of the murderer.  From what he’d read, the boy had been very troubled, not that it was an excuse in any way for what he’d done, but the man felt more a sense of sorrow over the whole ordeal than a desire for revenge.  He did not hope for a Hell for the boy.  If he carried any anger, it was over the dead little girl and the random man he never knew rather than for himself.    

He had inexplicably “gotten better,” after all.  He thought the little girl should have “gotten better,” not him.  If it was the whim of a God, perhaps a dark sense of humor or trickery was involved. Perhaps his fate was the doing of a capricious writer.  Maybe the little girl was very happy in a Heaven he couldn’t remember and wishing her back wasn’t something she’d want anyone to do.  Maybe nothing was involved save some bizarre quirk of biology and there was no one to blame or to beg a different outcome of.  All he could do was to leave some flowers beside the headstone of the girl he never knew and move on. 

And play videogames with his nephews, who were glad to have an Uncle Al.

Reports on the young killer noted, among other things, that he had been quite an extensive videogame hobbyist and a few of the kid’s favorites - according to his relatives and what had been found in his home that had been listed in one article - were some of Alfred’s own favorites.  There was a title or two he’d never heard of and a few he’d avoided (although an adult gamer, he generally found himself much more fond games featuring swords and sorcery rather than gun-filled historical simulators or gritty things that were supposed to be set in real-world locations).  Still, to keep a gaming store – something he would have welcomed in the community – out even partially “in his name” seemed a little harsh. 

The articles also had what he felt was a disturbing emphasis on the killer being a “loner.”  Alfred wondered just why, whenever someone who was gregarious did a notable mass-murder or attack with that as an intent, the news media would print and do sound bytes proclaiming how “appalling” it was that such a normal, social person would act out like that, but whenever someone who happened to be an introvert flipped their pancake for whatever reason, their introversion was portrayed “normal for unstable people.”   Alfred was living under the care of his sister’s family at present, but in his previous life, he’d lived alone and liked it.  He’d tried the marriage-thing, and it hadn’t worked out.  He’d enjoyed his solitude and, like friends of his he rarely saw because they also enjoyed their solitude – he’d stockpiled books in his apartment, not guns.

Being an unwilling and unwarranted “martyr” for keeping gaming culture out of the neighborhood wasn’t as bad as being used as an unwitting shill for other things, but it still annoyed him. 

It was another reminder of how powerless the dead were.  He assumed he’d be in that state again eventually.  Given basic mammalian survival-instinct, inevitability had always bothered him, but now it bothered him even more.  His “name” could be used for or against damn near anything.  

Perhaps he’d request to have a symbol from a game-universe etched on his new eventual tombstone instead of a cross.  He knew of a harmonious arrangement of triangles that could be nice…

The memories had deepened to an extent he never could have predicted. 

Alfred found himself hugging his sobbing sister again.  This seemed to be happening on an ever-more-frequent basis.  Some little mannerism would set her off either because she’d remembered it from their youth together or because it seemed, somehow, out of character only for the woman to be given a reminder that it wasn’t. 

More than that, Anne had constructed memories of her brother that never were, because they never could be.  She had so many scenarios for which he’d been absent that she’d imagined “If Alfred was here” for.  By his off-hand comments and the small actions of his day-to-day living, he’d been shattering her illusions without even meaning to. 

“When did you change politics?”  “You never liked shows like that.”  “The Al I knew wouldn’t put up with that garbage they’re doing to you at the hospital – you were always so defiant, what happened to that?”

“Ssssh,” the big brother told his little sister, rubbing her back.  “Isn’t it natural for people to change?”

“But…” Anne said with a tiny choke, “You haven’t… you really haven’t.  It’s only my mind that’s changed you!  I feel like… I don’t even know you anymore sometimes, but it’s not your fault.  You do something unexpected, then suddenly my mind tells me I should have expected it, that it’s my addled mind to blame.”

“Your mind isn’t addled.  It’s just human.” 

“I-I…I’m worried that I cherish the memory of you more than I cherish… you. You, Alfred.  It’s almost like…”

“You wish I’d stayed in the ground…”

“No! Never that!” 

“The dead are supposed to stay that way… you said your goodbyes. You had closure. Then I had to wake up and mess it all up. I reopened all of your wounds and I can’t even be the person your mind wrote me to be, what your heart really wants me to be…”


“Absence makes the heart grow fonder and distorts the memory.”

“I can make new memories of you.”

Alfred sighed.  “I received a miracle I never asked anyone for, but that doesn’t mean a miracle was a good thing.”  

A. Stiff looked at the grave with the marker that read “A. Stiff.”   He plucked a small wildflower from the path-side and placed it before the marker, bending down past the police tape.  The man smiled at the thought of laying a flower on his own grave. 

In some ways, existence itself was just a kick in the pants, but it had its bright spots, too.  He’d been made a stranger in his own world, a foreigner to his own life.   He was largely out of the news now, his “miracle” having become mundane – it wasn’t that it had been replicated in any way or even figured out, it’s just that life went on.  News would be a breakthrough on his case or another one like it occurring.  For now, he was relatively free.   

He was not sure that the miracle he’d suffered was a good thing, but for the time being, he’d make the most of it. 


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