Denise organized the chairs in a circle, each no more than six inches apart. She sorted the donuts on the tray so each had its own space, none touching. The coffee was positioned to allow for steady traffic and conversation.
Denise smiled and watched each person enter the room, grab donuts, gulp coffee, and slid chairs out of position. She stayed silent, reminding herself this was part of the healing process.
This was only the first meeting of Brought Back. She’d expected more attendance, but six was a good start. Word would spread after she started helping people.
Once everyone was seated, she began, reciting the script she’d written and memorized days before. “Hello. I think we’re ready to begin. I’m Denise. Dee for short.” She paused and giggled, though no one else did. “Welcome to ‘Brought Back.’ This is a safe space, so feel free to share. It’s exciting to see so many people willing to open themselves up. The Trinity Church has been kind enough to let us use this room for our meeting. I brought the coffee and donuts, so please help yourselves.” She extended a hand as she’d rehearsed.
“We all have questions, like why me? What did I do to deserve this? By talking, we can learn from each other and hopefully help each other adjust back to a normal life. We all deserve to be here. Now, who would like to start us off?” She waited. “Anyone?”
A hand went up. Denise checked his name tag. “Yes, Steve, would you like to start us off?”
Steve had donut crumbs congregating down his shirt and atop his protruding stomach.
“Sure,” Steve said. “I haven’t been to a meeting like this before. I’ve never done therapy.”
“That’s okay, Steve,” Denise said. “Just tell us your story.”
“Okay. I’ve been back for six months now. I died four years before that. A heart attack. Not hard to believe, right.” He gestured to his sizable frame. “Too much stress on the ol’ ticker. I was only 41. Still am, by my count. Doesn’t seem like I aged while I was dead.
“It’s not like I’m the fattest guy around. There are lots bigger than me. I’ve tried diets. I walk upstairs, sometimes. It doesn’t seem fair, really, but then, I’m not supposed to complain. I died, but I came back. I just woke up in my coffin, pressed the alert button they put in there, and got dug out. The doctors couldn’t explain it. Said it might be something I ate.”
Steve took a sip of his coffee and coughed. “But I ask myself, why me? Why bring me back? Why am I so…lucky? That’s what people say, that I’m lucky to be back. I’m blessed. God smiled on me. Bullshit. This is some big joke. I can’t get a job. I used to sell insurance, but I can’t even get insured. Too much risk. I go in for an interview, and they see on my record ‘deceased,’ then ‘returned.’ You can’t hide from that.
“All my credit cards were canceled. My bank accounts were closed. I didn’t have a will; who has a will at this age? My brother got everything. He says he’ll help me out, cause we’re family. Asshole.
“But the worst part, after all that time dead, when I’m supposed to be decaying, I wake up like this, like no time has passed. I’m still fat. I still have high cholesterol. And I keep eating.” He brushed the crumbs off his shirt.
Denise leaned forward and clasped her hands together. This was the first speaker at Brought Back, and she wanted him to leave feeling proud of his accomplishment. “Thank you for sharing, Steve. I think we can all relate a lot to your struggles. Have you talked to your brother about your feelings?”
“Steve, I think it’s a good idea to talk to him about how you feel. You might find out there’s a solution you haven’t thought of. We don’t want to take our second chances for granted. Does that sound like a good idea?”
Steve shrugged, then nodded.
“Wonderful. See, isn’t this great progress,” Denise said, making sure she made eye contact with each person in the circle. She hoped everyone who shared would have just as successful an experience as Steve, and that she could be a valuable resource to them. Having supportive people was integral to the healing process, and she wished someone had been there for her. “Now, who would like to share next? Caitlin, how about you?”
Caitlin looked young and pretty, though it was hard to pin down her age. Her clothing was outdated and baggy, seemingly plucked from the cheap section in a vintage store. “Um, hi. Uh, what do I say?”
“Tell us about yourself. Start with what happened to you.”
“Okay. Well, I died a while ago, like, 1996. In a car crash. My parents were driving. I don’t know if this is normal, but I remember what happened after. It wasn’t a white light, but, like, I was somewhere else, in this field with tall grass and trees that grew different kinds of fruit. There were other kids there, all different ages. I was one of the older ones. They called it the Playground. They said some kids were chosen to go there…after. It seems I was chosen, whatever that means.
“I wasn’t much for playing. I’m too old for that. I had just started wearing makeup and could go to the mall by myself when this happened. It was so unfair. My friends, they’re old now, like with kids and houses. A nurse showed me Facebook, and I looked people up, but like, what am I supposed to say to them? They don’t care about me. They have grownup things now. I have to go to school, but like, I was popular before, but now, I have no idea what’s going on.
“I wish I knew what happened to my parents. Did they go somewhere else, like the Office Building dimension? Are they going to come back, too? I don’t remember what happened before I came back. I just woke up in my bed, but it wasn’t my bed or my bedroom. My posters were all gone, and the walls were even a different color. Other people lived in my house, and everything had changed, and they called the police on me and said I was on drugs, but I wasn’t. They found my aunt, and she told them what had happened, and she cried. She’s so old now too, and I live with her and that’s fine, and I go to school, and I just have to live like this from now on.”
Caitlin sunk in her chair, arms crossed and legs stretched out in her stone-washed jeans.
“Thank you Caitlin,” Denise said. “This is hard, especially so young. You’re very brave for coming here and sharing your story. Do the other kids at school know what happened to you?”
“Yeah, it got around. Most of them never met someone brought back before.”
“Has that helped you make friends?”
“No way. They think I’m a freak. I don’t know the right music or the right clothes. My aunt won’t even let me have a cell phone. She says I won’t know what to do with it.”
Denise spread her hands wide. “Maybe if you’re more open about your feelings, you’ll find it easier to make friends. It can be hard, much like moving to a new school, where you worry you’ll never fit in or that you don’t belong.”
“But I don’t belong! I’m fifteen years away from where I belong. That’s not something you can fix with talking.” Caitlin’s voice cracked as it raised in pitch. She sunk even lower in her chair.
Denise shifted in her seat, suddenly feeling off balance. She planted her feet flat on the floor and sat straight, with her hands on her knees. “Caitlin, yes, it’s okay to be confused, even angry. You lost your parents so young, on top of all this. Talking is the best way to process what’s happened, and to see it for the gift it is. This second chance, it’s not something that everyone gets. It’s a blessing, and we’re lucky to have it.”
Caitlin looked at the floor, hugging her stomach, tears trickling down her cheeks.
This was part of the healing process, Denise reminded herself. She’d hoped her guidance would be better received.
“Who would like to share next?” Denise asked, hearing her enthusiasm wane slightly.
No one rose their hand.
The remaining four people looked at anything but her.
Denise made her choice. “Natalie, why don’t you share?”
Natalie was dressed in an expensive pantsuit with even more expensive shoes. “I’m fine.” She sat crossed legged, staring at her perfectly manicured nails.
“I really think you should share.”
“I said I’m fine.”
“Natalie, it’s good to share.”
“It’s not like any of this matters.”
“This is the only way we can help each other. Why don’t you explain why you’re here.”
“Ugh, fine…well, you all know how some people get sent to AA after they’re caught drunk driving. Well, I’m the first asshole to get in trouble for dying. This is to help me adjust. Got it, I’m adjusted. I’m fine.”
Denise hadn’t wanted to force anyone to speak, but it was important to keep the momentum moving. “Keep going, Natalie.”
“Fuck.” Natalie spread her legs and leaned forward. “I was only dead for a year. I didn’t miss much. I had to watch the last season of ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ Not hard to catch up.” She paused.
“Still me? Fine. Going back to work was a cinch. I looked at a few charts, and I’m back in business. Commodities trading. Making money out of nothing. It’s so easy, I don’t understand why more people don’t do it. But, whatever, I’m good at it. My company basically begged me to come back. Begged. They said I could take it easy, as if I ever wanted to take it easy.
Natalie cracked her knuckles. “I’m told I can be a bit intense. People are scared of me in the office. They were before, I’m a shark, but it’s different now. Before, they’d nod, pretend to be nice in the hallway, then talk shit behind my back, not that it mattered. I have a corner office now. Huge windows, a great view. Only partners are supposed to have corner offices, yet they made an exception for me…” She returned to crossing her legs. A spot on the floor seemed to catch her interest more than looking at the group.
“How do we know we’re really back?” she said. “I like to think I came back because I pissed the Devil off. I died skiing, actually. It was a very exclusive resort in Vail. Epic trails. I smashed into a tree. I think the snow was bad. It didn’t feel right. Maybe it makes sense why my wife didn’t believe I’d come back – I’d been turned into a pancake.
“Well, ex-wife at this point. She moved on. Not even a year, and she’s already shacked up with another bimbo. Now that’s some bullshit. I didn’t expect her to wait forever, but not even a year? I’m not sure she wanted me back. No séance, no psychic medium to summon my spirt. No voodoo technology sold on those late-night infomercials. I’d like to think I’d have tried one of those if it had happened to her. But no, my ex-wife moved on right away. She’s keeping the house. I could sue, apparently there are grounds for that. I’d paid for it, and my life insurance is supporting her and her lover. Seriously, I’m alive, working a hundred hours a week, and she’s living in a fucking mansion, eating caviar paid for by my death.
“Supposedly, instead of being split in half by the tree, I was like, split between dimensions. Not that I get deep into that shit, but that’s what someone tried explaining to me. I do remember it being hot and thinking I was in Hell, but it wasn’t torture exactly. Just uncomfortable. Then I just popped back into place, on the top of that fucking mountain in my fucking underwear. I almost died all over again.
“So, basically, my wife doesn’t want me back. She reported me for harassment because she’s living in my house, and I wanted to tell her I knew what she was doing, which was apparently too emotional, so now I have to do fifty hours of community service and anger management for six months. This is supposed to count. Is that good enough for you?”
Denise nodded in the most sympathetic way she knew, slowly, with her head tilted to the side. “Yes, that was very good, Natalie. Doesn’t it feel better to share?”
“It’s okay to have strong feelings after being brought back. It’s important to feel them constructively – ”
“Fuck constructively,” someone said. “This is a waste of time.” Rob was seated across the circle, with a tattoo on his neck and a face that seemed to be stretched out like thin pie crust.
“I’m sorry?” Denise asked, feeling her body tense.
“We died. We came back. This isn’t something therapy can solve. We need an exorcist.”
“This is just about understanding the gift we’ve been giving.”
“Gift? You call this a gift?” Rob waved his bony hand in the air. “I died of an overdose. It wasn’t one of your innocent little accidents. No, this was my fault. I get that. I deserved to die. What I didn’t deserve was to come back.”
Denise clenched her teeth. She wanted everyone to be happy. Life was supposed to make people happy. This was part of the healing process. “You’ve got a second chance.”
“My brother didn’t get a second chance. He was a cop. He got shot entering some apartment. Or what about my mom? She went to church every Sunday. Got a damn aneurysm out of fucking nowhere. Why do I get the second chance? I don’t deserve it. I woke up, and guess what? I’m still addicted. I still have to go to meetings just to make it through the day.”
“But you’re here now,” Denise said. She couldn’t think of anything else.
“For some of us, it’d be better if we’d stayed dead.”
The meeting ended. Steve took the last of the donuts. Cups lay on the floor, knocked over, some with liquid spilled out. There were more used cups than people. Denise took the pile of napkins she’d left out and started cleaning.
She heard footsteps approached and worried it was the deacon about to throw her and her group out. The first session hadn’t gone as she’d planned, but it was important work. It was important to have support and community and people in her life. She needed to heal. She needed this group.
The footsteps squeaked on their approach, more like sneakers scraping along the tile. She looked up and saw a boy barely over ten. He had mop brown hair and a Superman t-shirt.
“Hi young man,” Denise said, still kneeling on the floor.
“Hi,” the boy replied. He glanced at the crumbs on the table.
“Are you lost?”
“Where are your parents?”
“My mommy’s in another meeting.”
“She left you alone?”
“She let me play with her phone.” He held out a phone in a pink case.
“That’s nice. Are you looking for something?”
“Do you talk to dead people?” He pointed to the sign by the door.
“No, we’re a support group.”
“For dead people.”
“Not exactly. We’re for people who came back from the dead.”
“You came back from the dead?”
Denise felt her throat tighten. “I did.”
“Doesn’t that mean you’re a zombie?” He squinted, as if checking for signs of zombism.
“It’s not like that,” she said. “I’m completely alive now.”
“How did you come back?”
Denise swallowed deeply, making her chest hurt. She touched her head, not realizing her hand still held the dirty napkin. The scar was still there, no matter how she styled her hair over it. “I fell down. In my apartment. I hit my head on the edge of a table. It was very bad. A few days later, I woke up, and no one had seemed to notice I was gone.”
Her chest throbbed, and she worried it was a heart attack. It became hard to breathe. She dropped back, sitting on the floor, hoping she didn’t scare the boy away.
“My daddy died,” the boy said.
“I’m sorry,” Denise said between wheezing.
“That’s what my mommy’s doing here. She’s talking to my dad.”
“You mean she’s in grief counseling?”
He shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Do you go to meetings too?”
“She says I’m too young and that I won’t understand.”
Denise nodded. He was alone. He needed help to deal with his loss. “But you do understand, right? Would it help to talk?”
“My mommy cries when someone talks about him.”
“Do you cry?”
“Sometimes. When my mommy isn’t looking.”
“It might be good to share your feelings with your mom.”
“Can you help me?”
Denise tossed the wet napkins to the side and rose back to her knees. “Sure, of course.”
“Can you bring him back?”
“You bring people back? Like you woke up. Can you wake my daddy up?”
“But you have to help. No one else will. If I bring him back, then mommy won’t cry anymore, and we’ll be happy again and not sad. I thought he’d come back. I saw him lying down like he was napping. Sometimes he’d pretend to be asleep and then start tickling me and we’d laugh, but my mom wouldn’t let me climb on top of him this time. She said this wasn’t the same and that he wouldn’t wake up. But you woke up? People come back, so why can’t my daddy?”
Denise wanted to look anywhere, do anything, go somewhere, as long as it wasn’t looking at the boy and watching his eyes well up like fish bowls. She wondered what part of the healing process this fit into. Nowhere, in the hundreds of self-help books and therapy sessions she’d attended had she found this answer, the one she’d hoped this group could finally give her.
Why did she come back?
What was the point?
There was nothing to say, except the truth, which she only now realized.
She pulled the boy into her arms. He started crying into her shoulder, and she cried into his. He squeezed her neck with a strength beyond his size.
It felt good to cry with someone.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “This is just a support group.”