Tim Reiss told me about you.
I need you for the night of November Fourth.
Unlike many of your clients, I want very little from you. I’m conducting an experiment about the afterlife. You will not be harmed. You may even be bored.
I need you to make my heart skip a beat. I’m sure you’re familiar with that.
If you’re interested, respond with a location.
I get this email on a Thursday while scanning Yelp reviews of expensive restaurants, so of course, I say yes.
“There isn’t that much of a difference between getting paid for sex and getting paid to kill me,” Clara says, her fingers twirling the stem of her enormous wine glass. “Both are illegal. One’s just more illegal than the other.”
I press my thumbprint into the warm bread the waiter just brought to our table. She couldn’t wait for appetizers before bringing this up.
In part, it’s my fault. If a woman who looks like Julianne Moore hires you for the night, it’s probably too good to be true.
“The technology is there, and I have the equipment,” she says, sipping the red. It stains her lips, which are oddly relaxed as if she’s rehearsed this speech before. “I’d be dead for no more than a minute—two minutes, tops.”
She emailed me a link to what she’d purchased “through a third party” and said she’d successfully tried it on her cat. That statement made me want to kill her a little bit, but not enough to be convicted of murder.
“I don’t get why you’re even doing this,” I say. “Can’t you just take peoples’ word for it that the afterlife is real?”
“No,” she says resolutely. “You can’t believe what someone says for publicity.”
And here I am, supposed to believe what this woman says about returning from the dead. “If the machine defaults, then what? I get put in prison for murder.”
“I’ve made up paperwork, and my lawyer is aware of the situation. I wouldn’t just leave you out to hang for this.”
I don’t know her well enough to believe that. “You have an answer for everything.”
“I’m a woman making eight figures a year,” she bites back. “I didn’t get here without being prepared.”
“And you don’t have someone to do this for you.”
The remark deflects off her like candlelight to the diamonds in her ears. “Not anymore,” she says. “Cancer’s a cunt.”
I stifle the urge to take pity on her; I don’t want to be sucked into this. “Is that why you want to die?”
“There’s no guarantee I’ll see anyone,” she said. “Not to sound insensitive, but this is about boredom. I’ve afforded everything that’s supposed to be interesting. And it fell flat.”
She is a psychopath. “You’re insane,” I say before I can catch myself.
“You were raised by two parents, went to a decent school, and you’re screwing for money so if I’m insane you’re in the same boat as me,” she shoots back. “Have you ever wondered why you’re alive?”
I roll my eyes. “I guess.”
“What did you come up with?”
Tearing off a hunk of bread, I chew before I answer her. “I don’t know.”
“I don’t think anyone knows,” she says. “Until they’ve died.”
I watch her eyes to see if they pop out, tracking any possible twitch. There’s nothing. If I hadn’t heard her words I would’ve imagined she just told me about a new business plan. There is nothing but logic in her gaze.
“Can’t you just do this in Japan?” I ask. “Is this normal there? I feel like they’re always doing crazy shit.”
“This isn’t normal anywhere,” she responds. “Hence the interest.”
“But it’s been done before? Successfully?”
“I told you I’ve done it myself.”
“On a cat. Which is really fucked up, by the way,” I say, gauging a reaction. She rolls her eyes.
“Don’t act so high and mighty. People kill animals all the time.”
I take a few sips from my wine, which tastes good for wine but not hard enough for this conversation. I want to ask for bourbon, but wonder why I’m still here. As I sit here with four hundred dollars of a reservation fee I can get up and leave with the story of a woman who wanted me to kill her. It would be enough material for several parties, and enough money for a few fancy dinners on my own.
“There’s something in this for you,” Clara says, crossing her legs elegantly under the table. There will never be a day when I can do that without bumping my knee. “I’m willing to pay a lot. I’m ready to suggest you to others who will do the same.”
“How much?” I ask, casually interested.
“How much would it take?”
I think for a moment, of a life where I can do anything. I think of an obscene number. “Ten million dollars.”
“Make it twelve,” she says, and the noise leaves the room. My heart is in my head and I feel the wine in my throat. “Twelve million dollars. For less than an hour of your time.”
On the way to Clara’s apartment, I ask to see the legal papers and she provides me with a copy. The only legal document I’ve ever taken part in was a restraining order against a client. This one is ten times thicker; it looks as if someone has written a manuscript of the Bible. It’s dense and she knows I won’t be reading the whole thing.
Maybe it’s her plan to bury me for this. Yet it seems a little far-fetched that she would die to incriminate a stranger. I have to stop making logic out of this. There is a check for twelve million dollars in my purse. Twelve million dollars. Tax-free.
I’m not even thinking of what to do with the money. That thought barely went through my mind after I found an excuse for doing this. If Clara comes back from the dead I may never be afraid of anything again. From what I’ve read of people coming back, there’s a lot of warmth and light. Overwhelming feelings of love and a renewed sense of compassion. It doesn’t sound so bad, really, but like her I have a small sense of doubt stem from not knowing the subjects. I want to know, not enough to kill myself, but enough to get paid for temporarily killing someone? Maybe.
“Do you believe in Hell?” I ask, almost off-handedly. As if Hell is such a stretch to two people who will murder or die to figure out what does exist.
“You think people who’ve never died can tell us what happens when you do?” she asks, then gives an absentminded small laugh. “I haven’t heard any witness say something about Hell. Are you worried?”
The more I think about it, I’m sure I’ll go there if it’s real. “A little.”
“Whatever is real, we’re going there anyway,” she says. “Seeing it doesn’t change anything.”
Clara shows me how to hook her up to an EKG, and jokes dryly how I could have been a nurse.
“I suppose it doesn’t pay well,” she says quietly after I don’t laugh.
“You could have gotten a nurse,” I respond.
She punches a few buttons and the screen glows, oddly familiar with the medical dramas I’ve watched. “No one used to obeying the law would do this.”
“For twelve million dollars?” I ask.
“Hmm,” she says, her mind not in the conversation. “Maybe I figured you’d be fine with what happens.”
“With what?” I ask, though her tone said nothing.
She brushes me off and pierces her own skin with a needle for the IV, or whatever it is that’s hooked up to her machine. I stare at it, averting my eyes from her fingers as she lays medical tape over her inner elbow. “When the machine hits 62 degrees, I want you to keep me under for ninety seconds.”
She gestures to the large digital timer on her bedside table. We’ve gone over this before but seeing her blood stream through tubes as she speaks the instructions gives me chills. She continues to talk for a few minutes before her speech starts to fade.
“Just…” she trails off, her eyes struggling for engagement in my direction. “Stay…”
Her mouth stops moving, though I hear a few humming noises as if she’s still trying to communicate. I realize under her lipstick that her lips have turned blue. The only color left in her cheeks is blush and bronzer, her lack of circulation illuminating disguise. In the contrast I can see a few scratch marks, that I imagine are a result of her pet experiment. Her eyes fade in and out, and her eyelids start to flutter closed. I watch them, something inside of me yelling to look away.
It has been seven minutes since she last spoke and her body temperature reads 88 degrees. Glancing back at her face I see her eyes open now, wider. I wonder if this is what fear looks like without facial expressions. For a few seconds, I have a strong urge to save her life.
As crazy as this is I want to know where she’s going if she’s going anywhere. I’m not a religious person, the only experience with religion I have being a brief stint in Sunday school when my parents needed free babysitting. I remember the ark was a big deal for me, but don’t know if they taught us about Hell. Maybe they figured we were too young to have to learn about it. Their talks were mostly packed full of angels and Jesus’s love for all of us, even the weird kids in the back that picked their noses and stuck what they found between the pages of the Bible.
I stopped believing when a Jewish girl in my second-grade class told me if I stuck up my middle finger God would send me to Hell, right then and there. That night I must have been curious because I did it underneath the covers, and the fires of the underworld didn’t open beneath my canopy bed. I’d thought they might. If God wasn’t watching me committing this heinous sin, I figured, He’s probably not out there.
Her body temperature is down to 81 degrees and her eyes are dead. Occasionally they shift. Her breathing is so shallow it’s almost nonexistent. She told me the machine will move oxygen for her, to just pretend that she’s meditating or in a deep sleep. Unfortunately that’s not so reassuring when you’re used to people who snore.
Something soft brushes my leg and I scream, feeling like I’ve just shed a layer of myself. I stare frozen down at the floor and see a cat, what must be her cat, staring up at me. It looks more cute than scary and I pick it up, letting it nestle into my lap as it watches its owner.
“Now you get revenge,” I say, and the cat purrs. I wish it could speak; maybe Clara would have believed what it saw.
Clara has passed hypothermia and I feel like her body has chilled the entire room. My skin has goosebumps and the cat’s fur feels cold and almost threatening. Softly it leaps from my lap to the bed, padding over to lie on Clara’s chest. As if her breathing wasn’t already shallow enough.
I watch the monitor– 73 degrees now. I wonder if Clara will be known as my strangest client. Of course, there are always odd ones, but a little research and I’ve learned to expect the guys who want to wear diapers or ask me to pee on them (one of the reasons I never eat asparagus anymore). The man who suggested me to her, Timothy Reiss, is a longtime client and who often requests that I wear a full burka to see him. He works for the Pentagon.
I look around her room for a sweater or something to warm me up and for some reason my heart slows when I see her closet. It’s nothing to close a door but I’m on edge with this whole temporary murder thing and wonder what’s inside. I could get up and open it, look to see, but I shouldn’t leave the monitor. Ninety seconds, that’s all she can be dead for, the most precise timing I’ve ever had to deal with. I think I’ll probably flip the switch at eighty-five seconds just to be safe. That’s enough time to see the afterlife, I think.
Hopefully not too much time.
As her temperature hits seventy, cold sweats are running through my body. I feel nauseous. Even the cat seems nervous, and has risen to its paws from its place on Clara’s chest. It moves instead to her feet and stands there, occasionally glancing at me but mostly keeping its eyes on the dying woman in the room. I wonder if the cat is happy about this, the shoe being on the other foot now. Maybe it doesn’t want me to flip the switch.
68 degrees. I could flip it now, but don’t know if this is something a person can go through twice. She seems like someone who’d try it again, and if there’s anything at all out there I don’t think it’ll let her come back after tricking it. As it stands we’re fucking with some serious power here and I do not want anything bad to happen to me over this. Please don’t let this be the thing that opens up the underworld to suck me in. Because maybe flipping the bird just isn’t bad enough.
I don’t want to go to Hell. Just about everything in my life means that my only hope is it not existing in the first place.
Her temperature is 65 degrees and my stomach’s halfway up my throat as I watch it slowly drop to 62. The machine beeps and I almost faint.
In the end I left before Clara woke up, phoning 911 beforehand so she’d have someone with her when she regained consciousness. What I know from Tim Reiss is that she’s happy, and she’s a yoga teacher now. He’s asked me if I wanted to know what she saw. He’s also asked me if I’d be willing to put him through it.
I have possibly permanent scars on my arms from what happened after she died. There are things in my head that I cannot un-see, though I’m not sure if I ever saw them. I know I felt them. Someone didn’t want her to come back. Clara, possibly, because she later sent me a package with a thousand-dollar cashmere sweater and a note saying:
Sorry for what I did when I was dead. Thanks for flipping the switch.
I want to ask her for her cat. I don’t know if I can wear the sweater. I can afford to buy one of my own now, but I haven’t really made a dent in the money she gave me. Instead, I’ve gone to church, not just church but temples and mosques, trying to hit up every religion to see if one matches with what I experienced (except for Scientology and Mormonism—I’m not crazy). And maybe a religion didn’t get it right. But who knows; there are literally thousands of them.
The only logical thing I can think of to do with the money is travel the world. Maybe I’ll go to India and study yoga and pretend to be Julia Roberts. Or I’ll take a road trip across the United States like Jack Kerouac. Everything that I can do is already a movie I’ve watched or a book I’ve read, but maybe I’ll find something different.
Because you can never take someone’s word for it, you know? You still have to figure it out for yourself.