A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO COMING BACK FROM THE DEAD – Derek Heckman

What everyone assumes is right: the Midwest pretty much is just corn. Outside the cities it’s like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Field of corn. Field of corn with a pasture. Field of corn with a farmhouse. Repeat.
There’s a Stephen King story Jake has read, one of his favorites, “The Jaunt.” Set in a future that has discovered teleportation, it describes people traveling between planets. The transportation is instant. The only catch is that you have to be knocked out to do it. For the body the movement takes seconds; for the mind it takes an eternity. To be awake during a jaunt is to come out of it insane.
Traveling in Illinois strikes Jake as not all that different. The corn is an intermission of sorts, something that it’s fine, and maybe even advisable, to nap through. Stare at it too long, and you could very well lose your mind.
That’s what he’s doing now, though. Staring. From the passenger seat of his father’s car, he watches the wall of corn rush past, searching for a sign or two in this endless replay of stalks. Back in February, when he went up to St. Anthony’s, the view might have been from a different planet: an endless expanse of gray-brown fields, empty and jagged and stitched with snow; the trees now in leaf at the back of the corn were just spidery cracks in the ice-gray sky.
See there? he tells himself. When you went up to Chicago, everything was cold. Now you’re coming back, and the world is in blossom. The future is bright. Good things are ahead.
It doesn’t really work. He knows that all the growth out there just means it’s spring.
“Still it’s pretty cool, though, huh?”
Jake returns his attention to the inside of the car. His father is driving. His mother is in the backseat, having insisted that Jake take shotgun. Silent since they started out, she is also staring at the corn. Beside her is Jake’s single piece of luggage, a limp black duffle bag fraying along the seams. On top of it, she has placed the folder she was given at his discharge: carbons of all the paperwork, his prescription information, the names of a therapist and a psychiatrist he will start seeing later this week, bills. Jake can’t see these things, but he can feel them all back there. He imagines them morphed into the shape of a bratty child, giggling and kicking his seat for the whole ride.
“What?” he says to his father.
His father looks at Jake skeptically, as if he can’t believe he’s just asked this. “The Bluetooth,” he says, gesturing at the console. “I think it’s something else.”
Jake might have known. His father got this car a month ago, just after his big promotion at CAT. It’s the first fully new car the family’s ever owned, and the trip so far has been spent walking Jake through its many opted-for features: moon roof, back-up camera, outside temperature displayed on the rearview. His father must have been itching to show them off all April.
“No, it’s cool,” Jake intones. This has been this morning’s responsorial psalm, and Jake, a good Callaghan, has said it every time. He’s heard about enough by this point, though, and so, as if making conversation, he adds, “Seems like a lot of cars have that now.”
His father sniffs: touché. “Yeah, I guess it’s getting pretty standard,” he says, and for the single beat of silence that follows, Jake thinks they’ve reached the end of it. Then his father sticks a finger nearly in Jake’s face. “But!” he says. “You know what’s not so standard?”
He pushes a button, and after a moment Jake’s thighs begin to warm. It feels a little like he’s wetting his pants. He points his toes, discreetly arching his legs.
“Seat warmers?” he says.
His father snaps, then points at him: Bingo.
“Don’t know how we did without ’em,” he says. “Over the winter? A godsend. I mean, you wanna talk about chestnuts roasting…”
“Guess how many times he’s told that one.”
Jake glances at his mother in the rearview but can only see her neck, slender and ropey, next to the blue 73.
“God, Hal, turn that thing off,” she says.
“What?”
“It’s seventy-five degrees out. Jake doesn’t need a seat warmer.”
Jake’s father frowns at her but switches it off. “Your mother’s still sore because they cost a little extra.” He flicks his eyes to the mirror. “But when we went up to your aunt’s for Easter, she slept like a baby, there and back.”
“That wasn’t the only reason I passed out getting there,” she says, and Jake understands that she means his father’s conversation.
“Wasn’t the only reason when we were coming back, either,” his father says, and Jake understands that he means Jake’s mother was hitting the wine.
Jake looks at the road, slithering Bible-spine straight ahead of them. They have approximately two hours of this to go.
In the pocket of his sweatshirt, he flicks the corner of his copy (now officially his copy) of Frankenstein, which he lifted from the small St. Anthony’s library. He’s really surprised that he got it out; he received so many hugs today, he was sure someone would notice. Still, he’d had to take it; it wasn’t a decision at all.
His first few weeks at St. Anthony’s, he was just this side of comatose. Fucking up a suicide attempt does not do wonders for low self-esteem, and most of the hours in those initial days were spent on his bed, on his side, facing the wall. Eventually, though, the meds took root, and one day he found himself with an urge to check out the library. The first book that caught his eye was this one. So the legendary monster had first appeared in print—who knew? Jake figured it would be like the King novels he loved, easy to read but expertly written, cool and compelling and sort of fucked up.
It surprised him how different it was from the movie; the producers might have overheard the plot at a noisy party and gone from there. The book-monster, for example, is not some moaning lurcher. He’s frightening but also extremely eloquent. He reads poetry. He speaks French. It’s scary because he’s beastly and insanely smart.
Yet what really drew Jake into the book was how instantly relatable he found the Monster to be. He tells Victor over and over again that he hates being alive. As the only whatever-he-is in the universe, he is on some next level of lonely, and that in turn makes his life one giant, unique agony. No one feels for the Monster because literally no one can. He’s so full of rage about all this that when Victor denies him his one request—a lady-monster, the only thing that could, conceivably, empathize with him—he goes apeshit and kills Victor’s entire family. The whole thing ends with the Monster’s promise to burn himself alive.
“Zoe doesn’t like ’em,” says Jake’s father. “Says they make her feel like she’s pissing her pants.”
Jake perks up at his sister’s name; this is the first time anyone has said it since his discharge. Smash-cut to Zoe in his hospital room, a few hours after she found him. She was standing by the bed he was strapped to, sprays of her long, honey-blonde hair plastered like cracks along her forehead and jawline. Her freckles looked like chicken pox against her suddenly white-washed skin. Even dazed and drugged and recently dead as he was, the expression on her face still made Jake think of the Iliad, of the scene where Hector, having just returned from battle, armored fiercely and splattered with gore, is proudly presented with his infant son, who looks up at his father and instantly starts screaming.
They have not seen each other since.
“How’s she doing?” he says.
A silence drops into the car, as if both his parents are holding their breath. His father speaks to the rearview. “You want to answer that, or should I?”
Jake looks back at his mother. She’s still staring out the window, thumbing the collar of her light blue shirt and turning her foot in a small, idle circle. “She’s doing fine,” she says to the corn. “She is.” Then she shrugs—What else do you want from me—and picks a speck of lint off her jeans. “She just needs to sort some things out, is all.”
“That’s one way to put it,” his father says.
Jake looks back and forth between them, waiting. It’s a classic Callaghan move, this shutdown, a retreat into silence that’s very nearly a plea: For God’s sake, please. Don’t make us talk about this.
“Guess she’s hitting that age,” he says, and the car itself seems to sigh.
He gives the spine of Frankenstein a squeeze.
At his discharge, the head of the hospital said that Jake had shown “miraculous improvement” during his time at St. Anthony’s. “We’d love some testimony if you have a few minutes,” he said, grinning, and everyone in the room laughed. It was like that all morning. Back-slapping. Smiling. Good luck, Jake! Take care! Everyone was happy that he was getting out. No one except his therapist—who mentioned “re-entry issues” as casually as a parent shrugging off “the terrible twos”—seemed to see that he was headed back to a life he’d tried to bail on five months ago.
Passing through a speed zone they roll to a stop in some small, recession-slapped town. One cirrhotic bar stands wheezing on the corner in front of them. Another sags across from it, dark and totally empty. Next to Jake is a church, clapboarded and smoke-stack colored, with a squash-yellow letter board tilted out in front. HALLELUJAH! it says, in a message clearly forgotten since Easter. HE IS RISEN!
Hallelujah.

Yes. That.

*

Good afternoon, ladies and gentleman, and welcome to your guided tour of historic Peoria, Illinois. Today, we’ll be focusing on the depression. No, not the Great Depression. On this tour we’ll be seeing points of interest from the single worst period of Jake’s entire fucking life. We’ll get started right away, as coming up on our left here is the Peoria-area Goodwill headquarters. You Jake-buffs will remember that Jake worked at a Goodwill with his best friend, Luke, for two whole years before simply not showing up anymore. No, he didn’t quit. That’s a common misconception. He just walked out one day and straight up never went back. Never mind that the pay was good. Never mind that he liked it. He woke up one morning and burnt that bridge to the ground!
If you’ll now look to your right, you’ll see the Starbucks parking lot where Jake dumped his girlfriend of eight months, Erin Koenig. The story goes that he had been ignoring her texts and refusing to meet her for as long as two weeks before the shouting match that closed their relationship.
This, of course, is the legendary Chinese restaurant, known to Jake and his friends as “The Place,” where, before Jake lost his shit with Nora Lieberman and threw a plate at the wall, they were the owner’s most regular regulars. There’s the community theater where Zoe was last a munchkin / flying monkey, and from where Jake forgot to pick her up three times while lying motionless in his bed. Here is the corner where he openly wept in the arms of Luke Reilly. I should note that these are the same streets Jake drove on recklessly all winter, secretly hoping that a patch of black ice would spin him into a tree.
Keep your eyes peeled, folks, because pretty soon we’ll be coming up on the house Jake was living in the night he decided to—
“You all right, Jake?” his mother says.
They are driving down War Memorial. On the left is Emo’s. (Peoria landmark, folks, and site of decidedly happier times. Chocolate sodas with his grandmother. A sundae split with Erin at the dusk of their first real date.) There’s a line that stretches nearly out to the street. At the metal tables around the building, families and old couples and beanie-headed hoodrats lick cones in the shadow of its trademark clown head, blooming like a weird white rose from the roof. “Dr. T. J. Chuckleberg,” Nora called it last year. At night, a light in its red nose blinks, but now the space for the bulb just sits there, like an oddly artful bullet hole.
Blinking, Jake realizes that he’s been holding the grab handle beside him.
“Yeah,” he says to his mother. He clears his throat. “Yeah. I was just, you know, feeling carsick. Haven’t ridden in a car in…”
“Do you want us to pull over for a sec?”
“We’re almost there,” his father says.
“Well, if Jake’s going to throw up—”
“I’m not,” he says. “I’m fine. It was just for a second.”
Jake doesn’t look at his mother, but his father nods, believing it.
“That’s good,” he says. “Want you to have an appetite for the steaks I’m cooking up tonight.”
“I thought those were a surprise,” Jake’s mother says.
“What? He was gonna find out when I started grilling. These are some real beauties, Jake. Picked them out myself. Sixteen-ounce ribeyes. Thinnest marbling you can imagine. Got some potatoes, some asparagus from the farmers’ market. Oh, and hey, you won’t believe this, but I found this little liquor store in Pontiac that sells that root beer you kids drank up in the Dells. Roger’s. God, you loved that stuff! I bought a couple bottles. We’ll crack it open with the steaks.”
“Sounds great,” Jake says, and is able to smile once.
From University Street, they turn into their neighborhood, a hilly line of two-story houses with two-car garages and fat green lawns—quite possibly the subdivision on which all subdivisions are based. The wallpaper pattern of the corn has here been translated into American flags and minivans. Hopscotch courts are sketched in front of every other house. At least one lawn in every four is being mowed by someone’s dad. The rest are dotted with hula hoops and fallen bikes and jump ropes.
The boxy orange-white of a U-Haul interrupts the scene on their street. Five months ago this house, directly across from Jake’s, was owned by his third-grade teacher, an older woman who lived there with her husband and child-stand-in corgis. Now a large man in a muscle tee is taking a box from someone inside the truck, while his three sparrowy daughters flit around the yard. A real-estate sign still swings by the driveway, sashed with a large red label: SOLD.
Jake is just about to ask his parents when all this happened and why, when the man’s wife steps down from the U-Haul holding a lamp shaped like a chess knight. She is deeply tanned and athletic-looking. She’s wearing denim cutoffs and a black tank-top stretched brow-raisingly far across the chest. With her brown hair pulled into a bouncy ponytail, he can see that she has a tattoo of the bass clef on her neck.
A pulse thrums in Jake, a single dubstep beat. At St. Anthony’s, he was cautioned that his meds might dampen or altogether kill his sex drive. In the last several weeks, however, the effect has been the total opposite. His final days at the hospital, he was puppy-like in his distraction by thighs and tits and asses. More than once he got looks for staring. Quickly and covertly, he masturbated whenever his roommate was out. A sex dream a week has now become his minimum.
His dick stirs and begins to look around. The backs of the woman’s long, taut thighs are red; she must have been sitting for some hours on the truck’s leather seat. As she walks, her faintly tan-lined shoulder blades roll slowly beneath her skin. Left. Right. Left. Right.
“Jiggity-jog,” his father says, and the feeling leaves Jake like a switch flick.
The house seems to turn and face them. There are its white walls and peaked gray roof. There are its lightly chipping front porch and old swing. There are its lilac bushes, its single tall tree. Somewhere up above the garage is his room.
A breeze blows across Jake as he steps out of the car, a brief whiff of lilac and fresh-mown grass. A sprinkler is going a couple houses down, and up the street, behind a house, some children are laughing and splashing in a pool. He opens the back door of the car to get his bag but pauses when he sees it coiled on the seat, a snippy, now-dozing animal that he must move without waking.
“Did you remember to move that exercise equipment out of Jake’s room?” his father says. He grabs the bag before Jake can get it and walks to the house, grinning at him.
During the drive, they stopped for gas in a small town somewhere way out in the corn. As they drove down the main street, every local looked up as they passed: the men out smoking on a bar’s front porch, the people walking in and out of stores, the children riding their bikes up the street. The feeling Jake has now, stepping into the house, is similar. It’s as if he’s wandered into someplace that can tell he doesn’t belong, as if everything he can see from the foyer—the furniture in the living room, the stairs up to his and Zoe’s rooms, the sliver of kitchen visible thorough the dining room—is watching him, just in case, from the corner of its eye.
“Zoe!” his father calls out, so loud and brusque that Jake startles.
When the sound has echoed and faded completely, there comes from upstairs a thickly muffled “Yeah?”
Jake kneels to untie his shoe. At the top of the stairs, beneath a large mirror that reflects their high ceilings, a statue of an angel smiles down on all she sees—though from this angle she looks as if she’s slyly drawing away, her smile one of amused condescension: Oh, honey. You’re trying so hard, aren’t you?
“Come down here,” his father says, walking to the kitchen. “Your brother’s home.”
His mother goes down the hall to the bathroom, and his father again yells “Zoe!” just as a door above them opens.
“Do you want me to freaking sprint?”
Jake looks up and does a double-take. Descending to the foyer is a lanky girl with black hair cropped in a mangled pixie and earrings that look like talons, tapping against her neck. She’s wearing a sheer black tank-top and black jeans that extend tightly down to black-nailed feet. Her freckles are as faded as the chalk drawings out on the street. Leather and metal and feathered bracelets bounce against her wrists. She stops with her arms crossed, three steps up.
Jake works his shoe off and stands. “Hey, Squeak,” he says.
“Hey.”
“Well,” their father says, walking back into the foyer. “You gonna give him a hug or what?”
She rolls her eyes and slips down the steps. Hugging Jake around the stomach, she kicks up her foot and smiles at their father. Then she steps away, and her face falls back into its scowl.
Their father shakes his head and turns to Jake. “I’ve gotta go get some lighter fluid, but the steaks are marinating in the fridge. You should take a peek if you want. They’re some real beauties.”
“I will,” Jake says.
“You want some help with that bag before I go?”
“No. I’ll get it.”
“You sure?”
“Yeah.” He picks it up quickly, as if grabbing something out of a fire. “I’ve got it.”
His father nods but still stands there, checking a mental list. Finally he tosses his keys in his hand once: Yup, and starts for the door. He has his hand on the knob when he pauses and comes back to give Jake a hug. “Welcome home,” he says, then leaves the house whistling.
Jake and Zoe stand alone in the foyer. He remembers reading about a room somewhere acoustically designed to mute all sound. When the door is shut, it becomes so quiet you can hear your own blood flowing.
He swallows. “You know,” he says, “there’s something really different about you. Did you grow any? Are you taller?”
She flicks her eyes up, the only part of her face that moves, and he blinks at this sudden slap of brightness. They have the same eyes, the whole family does—a tie-dye, paint-strip starburst using all the shades of blue. It leaps out from Zoe like the flash of a ghost in a horror movie, and then she is sweeping back up the stairs.
Jake’s mouth falls open to stop her (I’msorryI’msorryI’msorryI’msorry races through his head), but their mother, coming down the hall, gets to her first. “Well, hey,” she says, rubbing lotion into her hands. “When did you roll out of bed?”
“I don’t know,” Zoe says. “Like an hour ago?”
“I left you a note in the kitchen. About the laundry.”
“I saw it.”
“You plan on, you know, doing anything about it?”
“I’m in the middle of something.”
“I repeat the question.”
“Yeah. When I’m done. Can I go?”
Their mother waves her off. “Be gone,” she says, “before someone drops a house on you, too.” When Zoe’s door slams, their mother looks at Jake. “Are you hungry? You want lunch?”
“No,” he says. “I’m all right. I think I just wanna, like, shower and stuff.”
“Okay. Well, let me know if you’re hungry when you’re done. I’ll fix you something.”
“I will.” He starts up the stairs.
“You all right?” she says behind him, and Jake turns. She gestures. “With that bag?”
From the steps, Jake looks down at his mother. She seems, in most ways, just another part of the house. Maybe a little bit wary about his being there, but on the whole resigned to accept him and to make him feel at home. Only her eyes blaze brighter than her welcome. Only her eyes, like Zoe’s, hint at the unhappy graveyard on which everything here has been built.
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s really not that heavy.”
“Okay.” She smiles. “Just making sure.”
He pauses at the top of the stairs to look at himself in the mirror. He doesn’t look good. His skin is none too tan, and his eyes seem poised to disappear into the wells of purple that have pooled underneath them. His shaggy blond hair is a barnyard mess of rooster tails and cowlicks. Hay-colored stubble runs down his jaw, clustering fuzzily on his upper lip.

He turns, and there, at the end of the hall, the door half-open but the light switched off, is the bathroom. He glances down toward Zoe’s room. It is shut up tight, and jagged, angry music seeps from below the door. He takes a breath the way he’s been taught, slings the bag over his shoulder, and continues to his room.

Author’s Statement

It’s been five months since Jake Callaghan died. He can’t believe it either. After almost a year of battling an ever-worsening depression, Jake tossed in the towel in January by tossing back some pills in his bathroom. Saved at the last second by his younger sister, Zoe, he’s spent the time since then in a mental hospital in Chicago. Today he returns to Peoria, and to everyone he tried really hard to leave behind: his parents, his friends, his ex, and Zoe (who’s now treating him like the madman who tried to kill her brother—which, Jake guesses, he technically sort of is). A Beginner’s Guide to Coming Back from the Dead depicts Jake’s attempt to figure out what it means to be alive, or more precisely, what it means to be alive again. Now that everyone knows about his crippling disease, now that everyone who loves him knows they weren’t enough to save him, and now that he has to live among these people, in this world, once again, how is he supposed to do it?
Ever the giant, unabashed nerd, Jake starts seeking to understand himself and his predicament through pop culture. Books, movies, TV shows, and songs form a tapestry of metaphors about depression and resurrection. He imagines himself as a zombie in Night of the Living Dead. He diagnoses depression in Odysseus and Frankenstein’s monster. He finds a hymn about living with depression in Bruno Mars’s “The Lazy Song.” All the while, he seeks to repair the relationships that his suicide has cracked and to restore his life to what it was before he attempted to end it.

The novel is meant to be a portrait, not of a mind in turmoil, but of one on the mend. It wants to know what we do after the trouble leaves us, when we’re strong enough to attempt to clean up the mess the trouble has caused. What does it mean to come back from the dead? What emotional tolls does a resurrection take? How do we repair ourselves? What does such an idea even mean? By standing with Jake as he tries to figure it out, I hope to come out of writing this book with a greater understanding myself.

Derek Heckman was born in Peoria, Illinois, and got his BA in English from the University of Iowa. He holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Montana in Missoula and has spent the last two years teaching writing to grade-schoolers with the Missoula Writing Collaborative. He is currently in the middle of a stressful but very exciting move from Missoula to Boston, Massachusetts.