Description: There are things Patrick Boyle will never forget: the sound of his own neck breaking at the moment of his death in the fall of 1970, the sweet taste of his mother’s chocolate cake, and the awful day his parents abandoned him in his childhood house-turned prison.
Nineteen-year-old Patrick wonders for decades if God has forgotten all about him or if he’s being punished for some terrible crime or sin over a lovely forty years trapped in an empty home. But when Sara Oswald, a strange woman with a mysterious past, buys his house, old feelings reawaken, and a new optimism convinces him that she’s the answer to his prayers.
Things are never simple, though, especially when she begins channeling the memories of his life and death in her writing.
Whoever said dying was easy was full of crap. Patrick Boyle remembered slipping down the carpeted stairs, wincing and grunting as he dislocated his shoulder with the first jolt. His skin flayed off at the hip when his shirt rose up while skidding across a hard edge, a sensation he vividly remembered as lingering and grinding. And finally, he was fully cognizant of the pain as his neck made a sharp, juicy cracking noise when he crunched head first on the landing below. It wasn’t easy, and it sure as Hell wasn’t fun.
The pain faded just as quickly as it happened, but then he groaned in humiliation as the piss stained the front of his tan corduroy pants seconds after he officially died. His mother’s high-pitched screech drew his attention away from the sensation of hot fabric sticking to the inside of his thighs, although not so much that it didn’t occur to him it was pretty far out that he could still feel his body. It was a sure bet he was dead – if the blank look in his wide open eyes and the fact that his heart didn’t seem to be beating was any indication. And, you know, being able to see himself and his mother from across the room made it pretty obvious. In fact, he seemed to be able to see the scene from all directions: from above, from the left, and from the right.
Arlene Boyle obviously didn’t realize her son was dead, though. At least Patrick didn’t think so – otherwise, she probably wouldn’t have poked so hard at his dislocated shoulder with a firm but shaking finger and yelled his name. It was kind of strange; getting jabbed should have hurt, but he didn’t feel a thing at that moment. Well, except the beginnings of a persistent panic that tied his useless intestines in phantom knots.
“Patrick Michael Boyle!” rang through the house, echoing in the narrow stairwell of wooden steps and slippery, rust-colored shag carpeting runner. When Patrick’s corpse didn’t even so much as flinch, she slipped into Mom mode, quickly and efficiently calling someone, maybe the operator or the hospital or something. She probably couldn’t allow herself to even consider that her “little miracle Patty,” as his mother liked to call him – something about not being able to have more children – might not be okay. That’s just the way she was, though: calm and optimistic. Patrick and his father liked to joke she was queen of ignoring the obvious.
The good news was when he looked down again, he stood beside his dead body… in his own body. His spiritual body, he supposed. And his corduroy pants – the ones on his non-dead… or undead, whatever… body – were dry as a bone. Yeah, maybe it wasn’t the best thing to ever happen to him, but on a day when he was due to meet his Heavenly Host earlier than anticipated, he’d take what he could get.
Pancakes had been the key to Patrick’s undoing, the reason he got out of bed in the first place. The scent of vanilla and butter woke him, swirling around his pillow like a thick cloud and making him shift restlessly beneath his covers. His stomach rumbled, urging him downstairs. The smell had even interrupted a fairly good dream involving Susan Dey, inappropriate considering this might possibly have been his last full day of freedom. Unless Patrick had some exotic disease, wet dreams would occur in the presence of a dozen or more other guys for the next few years.
Patrick felt kind of like a bad ass… at least for a few moments after his heart had ceased to beat. Dying was a downer, especially when he was just nineteen years old, but he grinned smugly anyway. It wasn’t the perfect solution to escaping Vietnam, but dying on the stairs had to be better than getting shot up in a rice paddy. Tomorrow he’d been scheduled to report to the draft board office in Philadelphia for a physical exam, a pit stop on his way to the war. He’d nearly sh*t himself when his number had been chosen in the draft lottery, although he shouldn’t have been surprised since his birthday had been assigned a relatively low number.
At least now his mother could bury a good-looking body, not that it would likely make her feel any better about the situation. But it would have to be at least some comfort. Janice Hobbs’ brother had his head half blown off in some god-forsaken village during a surprise attack, and at the funeral the month prior, his parents had insisted on an open casket. Patrick’s mother had remarked to the neighbor over coffee that the Army had done a “spectacular” job of making poor Stevie Hobbs presentable, but all Patrick saw when he glanced into the coffin was Stevie’s pale waxiness, a too-flat nose, and a sunken cheek on one side that looked kind of like Silly Putty.
The worst his mother would have to deal with – aside from burying her kid – was trying to get the stench of urine out of the carpet in her stairway and straightening his head out, which admittedly looked pretty wrong, now that he had another look. He hoped she would take care to make his hair look foxy at the funeral; it had taken six months to grow it out to just the right length. The hot blonde girl who worked at the record store on South Street in Philly said it looked cool last week. Patrick groaned to himself, lamenting the waste of his perfectly-feathered hair. He didn’t think God would really care how boss his hair was, though, and Mom was probably going to be too upset to give a rip.
Patrick snorted, rubbing his neck absently. No pain there either, but it had to have been busted. The crunching sound had been loud and unpleasant, like the crack of a bat against a baseball heading over the baseball field fence. “This is so crazy.”
His brain raced – it was hard to focus on just one thing, but maybe that was okay. God would probably send for him any second, so he should get his thinking done now. Remember as much as he could before he had other things to think about… like not falling off his cloud in paradise or losing his harp.
His father had been bizarrely unconcerned when his birthday had come up in the draft lottery, and his mother – true to form – had pretended March 16 hadn’t been chosen… until about a week ago. Then she started talking to Mrs. Timmons, the librarian. Apparently Mrs. Timmons’ nephew had been court marshaled or something when he didn’t show up for his physical a half dozen times. He was serving something stupid like fifteen years in federal prison. Patrick’s mother had told him quietly she didn’t want him to go to war, clutching his sleeve in her vise-like fist one afternoon.
“You’re my only son,” she’d told Patrick solemnly, eyes wide with panic and glistening with tears. “I don’t care what your father thinks. It’s not like I’m going to tell him… but I want to find a way to get you out of it.”
“Oh, come on, Ma.” He’d patted her awkwardly on the shoulder, faking confidence. “Don’t worry about it. They won’t want me anyway. I’m not exactly Army material.”
He knew from watching his friends and acquaintances get drafted; it didn’t matter if he was a one-eyed, pigeon-toed idiot – the government would still have his ass in basic training within weeks.
Patrick wasn’t interested in spending time in prison for skipping his physical, and he definitely wasn’t planning to spend the rest of his life in Canada as a draft dodger as Ginny Burns, his old girlfriend, had suggested two nights before his plunge down the stairs. On the night his group of friends drank pilfered beers at the abandoned lot on the outskirts of town, she’d been full of opinions.
“But Tim Rimmel’s cousin did it,” she’d protested, tipping a can to her lips with slender hands. “I think he went to British Columbia.”
The air that night had held a chill to it, a crisp feeling that brought to mind thoughts of dead things and football. Ginny shivered and inched closer to the fire he’d helped build in an old, rusted trash can. At the time, Patrick had been thinking about how glad he was he and Ginny could still be friends after he’d broken up with her. Thinking back, he wished he would have kept dating her – at the very least, he could have had one last grope, one last home run before checking out.
“I heard he’s working on a ranch or something like that.” His friend, Andy, pulled his fringed vest over a concave chest and blew out a long stream of cigarette smoke. The cherry of his cigarette danced in the dim light, the fire shadowing over sharp features.
“Well, I’m not making a run for Canada.” Patrick drained his Pabst and crushed the can, tossing it over his shoulder into the pile of aluminum that grew each weekend. “It’s probably cold as Hell, and my dad would kill me.”
Ginny flipped her straight, pale hair over her shoulder, grinning. “Oh, yeah. He’d be pissed.”
He knew exactly what Ginny’d been thinking – his dad was an Army vet who had served in the Korean War. His father had firm opinions about draft dodgers; he’d made it perfectly clear it was Patrick’s duty to serve his country, no matter what he personally thought of the war. “Chickens,” his father had called those who made a big deal about service, and that was among the nicer terms he’d used. “Go***mn pu**ies” was his dad’s personal favorite name, though. Patrick was no pu**y, and sure as s*it wasn’t a chicken.