My name is Danny Orchard. It might ring a bell. I wrote a book a while back, a memoir of my near-death experience. A surprise, top-of-the-list bestseller from the moment it first appeared. Twenty-seven languages and fourteen years later, I still catch people reading it on the subway. I never introduce myself to tell them the story’s mine.
It’s made me an authority of a sort. A death expert. One of those third-tier celebrities who is invited to give after-dinner speeches at dentists’ conventions and service club fundraisers, a public figure who comes cheaper than a Super Bowl quarterback and has a more interesting story than a retired senator. Everyone remembers that spot I did on 60 Minutes when I showed my mother’s Omega watch—the book’s evidence that heaven is real—and Morley Safer’s eyes seemed to well up.
My book can make one other claim, namely its inspiring the formation of the Afterlifers, a community for those who’ve traveled to the other side and returned. You’d never guess how many of us there
are out there. The last time I checked there were a dozen chapters across North America and a handful in Europe and Asia, too, each group meeting on a monthly basis to discuss the effect of NDEs on members’ lives, marriages, beliefs, work. They get together in the usual cheap, disheartening venues: church basements, HoJo conference rooms, linoleumed community centers. It’s like AA, except with booze.
I used to get asked all the time to be a guest at one of their gatherings in Miami or Toronto or Amsterdam or L.A., and sometimes I’d accept if they paid my way, but mostly I claimed to be too busy “working on something new.” A lie. The fact is, I’d had more than my fill of tearful recollections of angels taking the form of beloved first-grade teachers or the feelings of joy someone had in seeing their dearly departed, haloed and at peace, telling them not to be afraid.
Because it’s not always like that.
Sometimes, you should be afraid.
Still, it was a habit I couldn’t shake, like putting on a tie and going to church on Sunday, and for years I attended the monthly meetings of the local Boston chapter. I sat at the back and almost never spoke to the group, a priestly figure the other Afterlifers tended not to bother once they’d had their dog-eared copy of my book signed.
“So why do you come?” the chapter’s leader, Lyle Kirk, once asked me as he tossed a twenty onto the bar for the beers we often found ourselves drinking after a meeting. “Why show up if you’ve got nothing to say?”
I surprised myself by telling him the truth.
“Because you’re the only friends I have,” I said.
Followed by a thought I didn’t say.
And you’re not even really friends.
Lyle was a good guy, though, a Revere contractor who specialized in eaves troughs, manageably alcoholic, his nose a burst kernel of popcorn in the center of his face. His heaven was a bit unusual. An eternity spent rolling around on the grass, a diapered infant being tickled by the family dog as it licked spilled applesauce off his belly.
“To each his own,” he’d said with a shrug at the end of his presentation.
One night, four months ago, I sat in the corner of the banquet room of a Cambodian restaurant on Beacon Street. Maybe a dozen or so Afterlifers in the chairs in front of a lectern with crackly speakers built into its base, the mic unnecessarily on, so that every voice was turned to ground sand. And what did the voices talk about? Heaven stuff, for the most part. Repeating their tales of a glimpsed Forever. The sailboat trip with Mom. The hand-holding walk on the beach with a dead husband. The football game where the Hail Mary pass is caught every time. When Lyle asked if I’d like to speak I declined as usual, saying I was just there to offer support. But these people didn’t need support. They needed to get on with their lives before life was taken away from them and that walk on the beach was all they were left with.
Lyle was about to close the meeting when an arm went up.
An elderly woman smelling of clothes left too long in airless closets, sitting directly in front of me. She asked if there was time to tell her story. Lyle told her there was always time for someone who “knows what you know, sweetheart.”
It took her a while to make her way to the front. Not just the coaxing of an arthritic hip slowing her down but some deeper reluctance. When she turned we saw it wasn’t shyness. It was everything she could do to make the crossing from her fold-out chair to stand before us because she was quite plainly terrified.
“My name is Violet Grieg. My experience is a bit different from yours,” she said.
Her skin lost all its color in the time it took to speak these two sentences, the circles of rouge on her cheeks standing out like welts.
“Our father,” she started after a full minute, then paused again. I thought she was about to recite the Lord’s Prayer. I even lowered my eyes to join her in it. “When he was alive, our father was what everyone called ‘a good man.’ He had that kind of face, that kind of laugh. A family doctor up in Skowhegan where we grew up—delivered babies, doled out the pills. ‘Your father’s a good man,’ they’d say. But what in the good goddamn did they know?”
She shouted this last part. A furious blast into the mic that turned into a shriek of feedback.
“How can you tell a good man from bad if you don’t live with him, if you don’t have to trust him?” she went on when the noise had retreated. “A good man. It was an act! ‘I’ll just go upstairs to say goodnight to the girls,’ he’d say. Our mother never stopped him. It was just my sister and I who . . . knew what he really was.”
She made what I thought was a move to return to her seat, but it was only a step back to shake her head. A dizzy spell, or sudden chill. When she spoke again her voice had lowered to an unsettling growl.
“I tried to kill myself a year ago. But suicide—that’s a sin. That’s what the good book says. It’s a law.”
One of the Afterlifers got up and left, gesturing at his watch as if he had somewhere else to be.
“I was dead and gone,” Violet Grieg went on, her eyes fixed over our heads at the room’s back door, as if expecting someone to enter. “Taken to a place where the most terrible things I’d known happened over and over. It would’ve been like that forever except this world decided it wasn’t through with me yet. I came back. And now I see him all the time. Hear him, too. Coming up the stairs to wherever I try to hide. Wherever I go, he follows.”
Her forehead shone with sweat. The skin over the knuckles gripped to the lectern’s sides so thin I expected it to tear open, easy as tissue paper.
“I’ll stick a chair under the doorknob, lay pillows against the crack under the door so I don’t have to see the shadow of his shoes. I’m like a kid again. Lying in bed. Trying not to move, not to breathe. Watching him walking back and forth like he’s looking for a key to open the door. Sometimes he does.”
Lyle glanced back at the rest of the room with a seasick grin of apology. One of the fluorescent lights near the front started flickering. A strobe that lent Violet Grieg’s face the waxy stiffness of an antique doll.
“?‘Only a ghost,’ my sister said, but I told her no, it isn’t that. It’s different. It’s more,” she said, her hands shaking the lectern so badly the woman sitting directly in front of her slid her chair back a foot.
Then the shaking stopped. Her eyes fixed on something at the door behind me. Something I didn’t see when I turned to look.
“When I died and came back I brought my father with me,” she whispered. “Unlike you people, when I passed, I went the other way. I went down. And that man . . . that filthy sonofabitch put his arms around my neck and hitched a ride all the way up!”
That’s when she fell.
Even though I was the farthest away, I was the first to reach her. Throwing some chairs aside, jumping over others.
By the time I knelt next to her and slipped a hand under her head she was already coming around. When her eyes rolled back into focus I could see how all the rage had drained out of her, leaving her trembling and boneless.
“You’re going to be okay, Violet,” I told her. “Just a little fall, that’s all. You’re going to be fine.”
She looked up at me and I knew that she’d come here as a last hope, and that hope was now gone.
I felt I knew something else, too.
It was her father she’d seen at the back of the room.
After the paramedics came and she held my hand all the way on the gurney ride into the ambulance, Lyle and I headed down the street to O’Leary’s, where he ordered a round of Jameson shots.
“Thanks for coming tonight,” he said as we clinked glasses, the whiskey dribbling over our fingertips. “Sorry about that one at the end, though. Jesus.”
“Not her fault.”
“?’Course not. Just, those ones—I think of them as Underworlders more than Afterlifers, y’know? They tend to bring the mood down a few notches.”
“Demons will do that.”
“Holy shit, Danny. You believed her?”
“I’m speaking figuratively.”
“Yeah? Well, she sure as hell wasn’t.”
Lyle raised an index finger to the bartender to signal more of the same.
“What about you? You’re the expert,” he went on. “You’re the guy. What do you know about that stuff?”
“Nothing, really. But I’ve thought about it more than a few times. Who hasn’t?”
“I suppose,” Lyle said, not liking where this was going all of a sudden.
“Just follow me for a second here. Most people’s NDEs are positive experiences, right? Or maybe mysterious. A little troubling at worst. ‘Go toward the light!’ versus ‘Don’t go toward the light!’ At the end of the day, what difference does it make?”
“The light’s going to take us eventually.”
“That’s right. For most of us, the good light is waiting. But there are those—not many, but some, like Violet there tonight—who don’t have a lovely little visit over there.”
“Because they go to the Other Place.”
“You tell me. How do they describe it?”
“It’s different for every one of them. Each of us has to find our own place.”
“Except in those cases, the places are bad.”
“The worst,” he said. “The moment when shit went south on them and they started on a different path. From being harmed to doing harm.”
“Have you noticed any other pattern about them?”
“Let me think.” He put a thumb to his chin, but it slipped off and he returned his hand to the top of the bar. “Almost always something to do with where they grew up. The place they were scared of most. The hallways of their school, their uncle’s basement, a night swim with their mom where the mom didn’t make it back. Most of the time, they can’t even talk about it.”
“And I’m guessing there’s not a lot of them coming to the meetings.”
“If they do come, they stop after one or two times. I can pretty much guarantee you we won’t be seeing Violet Grieg next month.”
This time, Lyle bent to take a sip from his glass without picking it up.
“People like that, what they’ve seen—it’s too much,” he said, giving his head a shake as the whiskey burned its way down. “And they can see they don’t fit in with the rest of the group. I mean, we try to include them. But there’s only so much including we can do. We’re all ‘Heaven is great and wonderful and waiting for all of us! Oh, sorry, except for . . . you. You’re just fucked.’ It’s not real uplifting, y’know?”
I pretended to take an interest in the Celtics game that was winding down on the TV.
“Why’re you asking about all this?” Lyle put to me after a time. “You know someone you think might have gone where Violet went?”
“No, it’s nothing like that,” I lie. “Just keeping some things in mind for my next book.”
Lyle Kirk is a semiemployed drunk and one rung down from a full-blown crackpot, but he isn’t stupid.
“Can’t wait to read it,” he said.