I was struck by lightning a few days before my seventeenth birthday. It killed me quite badly. Scorch marks, a complete shutdown of my respiratory and cardiovascular systems and my favourite shirt was ruined.
It was the hottest day of the year and our dads decided to have a picnic at the local park with me, my younger brother and sister, and our surrogate mum. On the scale of weirdness, the subsequent storm comes second to the picnic. We were a family under an unspoken social stigma, lacking most social skills in a social environment, so you can imagine the awkwardness. I guess it was Dad 1’s way of dealing with that. “No wi-fi here,” he said as he set out the sandwiches. The rest of us exchanged a look of horror – Dad 2 included, and we promptly turned on our mobile data. It was a far more expensive day out than any of us could have anticipated.
About an hour in, the fluffy white clouds bled to dark grey. They hesitated for a moment as if to say, “watch this”, then unleashed heavy raindrops that stung our skin. Dad 1 scooped everything up in the picnic blanket and we raced back to the car for shelter. I was two–maybe three–steps away when the first bolt of lightning struck me down. In that moment, I smelt overcooked chicken, wet dog and piss.
The thing I remember most about my little death was hearing everything that went on outside my body. Dads, mum and my sister were screaming, bawling their eyes out. I even heard my emotionless mess of a brother hiccuping with fear, “Is he –? Is he… dead?”
I’m not sure if I speak for all corpses or if this was some strange precursor to… well, I’ll get to that part. But, if that’s not the case, then, the dead are conscious. And in my opinion, that’s seriously messed up. Like, how long are they conscious for? Is it just while the brain activity ceases? Is it forever? Imagine being on your deathbed, your wife’s telling you how much she loves you, wishing she could spend more time with you. All that soppy shit. You’re convinced you’ll die a happy man. You close your eyes and you die. Then you hear her say, “Thank fuck.” You’re rightly confused, maybe even pissed off, but you’ve got to be pissed off blind and paralysed for goodness knows how long.
Fortunately, my parents only complimented me in death.
“My beautiful boy,” mum said between her wailing.
Dad 2 was sobbing on top of my chest, praying like I’d never heard before. “Please beat again. If there is a god, I’ll do anything. Just let him live.” Maybe someone heard him. If I had to place bets, I’d say Zeus. Not long after the ambulance arrived and my family had been told to move away, lightning struck twice. My corpse doubled forward and like that, I was alive again. Heart racing, ragged breaths, all seeing, all feeling again. Weirdly my first thought was not that I’d just died, but how undignified I felt lying in a puddle of piss. Sure, it was the last thing anyone else noticed, but it wasn’t something I was in the habit of doing. But, I digress.
I turned to face my family, their mouths hung open in disbelief. The paramedics shared the same expression. “He was dead,” one of them said. “I checked. His heartbeat, his pulse – I swear, there was nothing.”
“It’s a miracle,” mum said.
That was one word for it.
I made the news. You know, the light humoured, less depressing segment towards the end. Footage of my reanimation (someone had been filming me when I died) was watched all over the world. I became something of a global sensation, everyone’s favourite talking topic and the latest meme. From showing off the lightning shaped scarring from the back of my neck to my torso, to attempting to answer questions the experts couldn’t, this life was a little crazy. “I’m just a freak of nature,” I joked on one television show. A roar of laughter from the audience ensued.
The fun and games eventually died down. But that wasn’t the only thing dying.
The following year, Dad 2 announced he had three months to live. I was hysterical. Rolling on the floor, gagging with laughter. Everyone else joined in, even him. Perhaps he didn’t want to make it too awkward for when I finally clicked on, when I finally saw the seriousness behind his smile.
Dad 2 was my biological father. He was ‘number two’ for the simple reason that his sperm won the race to the egg. Dads had agreed on the loser, so-to-speak, claiming the ‘number one’ title, so both felt a sense of pride when I came along. Dad 1 fathered my siblings, but they kept their numerical order. While I loved them equally, I had something of a softer spot for Dad 2. It remained unspoken, but it was there if you looked for it. Whenever I was the only one laughing at his dumb jokes or when I did something to make everyone proud, he’d have the biggest grin, as if to say, “that’s my DNA son”. It wasn’t until his dying breath that he said those words.
As he lay on the hospital bed, his hand in mine, I felt him go limp. It took a while for me to look higher than his shoulder, but, when I did, I saw a man sleeping well, a smile on his face. Having told him about my consciousness during death, he asked to be buried with his old iPod Shuffle and a set of headphones. We spent a bit of money to have a plug socket built into his coffin and that was connected to a solar panel on his headstone. He firmly believed none of the three-hundred-and-seventy-two songs, consisting of mostly Cher and Lady Gaga – looped forever, could possibly get boring if it would distract from the eventual sound of earthworms crawling into his eye sockets as his body decomposed.
The following months were sombre, but Dad 2 was always there in spirit. Or at least that’s what mum said. Ever since my ‘death’, Mum had encouraged us to go to church every Sunday. “You were brought back to life. It was a gift from God,” she said. “We prayed for you to come back to us and you did.”
Who was I to question the existence of a higher being? She wasn’t wrong, resurrection was a proven thing now. The only thing I might have questioned was, why me? Sixteen-year-old me was the epitome of teenage stereotypes: acne prone, addicted to video games, living off crisps and pot noodles and going through whole packs of tissues in a matter of days, but rarely because of flu. Surely there were more deserving, god-fearing people than me.
But that was when I believed this was some kind of gift.
By the time I was twenty-seven, I had somehow maintained my boyish good looks. In fact, hold up a picture of me when I was eighteen to one of me nearly ten years later and you’d never see a difference. Somewhere along the line, my younger brother had surpassed me in both height and facial hair. That was a sad day. But it only took a punch in the gut to preserve my status as alpha male. “You are still my bitch,” I said as he bent over groaning.
A couple of trips to the doctors and they determined my body clock was three times slower than the typical human. “The lightning strikes must have changed something chemically or biologically. I’m sort of at a loss myself,” the doctor had said. “Well, it’s safe to say you’ll never need aging cream.”
Dating was difficult. A beautiful woman once walked into a bar having matched with me on a dating app. She sat down and after ten minutes of awkward conversation, she finally said, “Look, you seem nice and all, but you’re clearly not thirty.”
“Well, ever since I was struck by lightning, I age really well,” I told her. “Too well.”
She sniggered, downed the rest of her drink and pulled her handbag up to her shoulder. “I’m sorry, but I don’t make a habit of dating children.” She started towards the door.
“I’d avoid dating children completely if I were you.”
A filthy look and a quick exit became the norm with subsequent dates. Even women in their early twenties didn’t want someone who looked like their toy boy. I thought about dating people who looked my age. A twelve-year age gap wasn’t unheard of, but somewhere along the line, morals had kicked in and the idea of thirty-year-old me hooking up with a teenager was a perverted fantasy at most. Admittedly, I was a toy boy on a few occasions and I don’t know if I just attract this sort of older woman, but they all seemed to have… very acquired tastes. Well into my forties I would wake with a start, feeling my wrists for rope burns and candle wax.
Since graduating from university at thirty-four, chemically and perhaps mentally still seventeen, I moved to Africa as an electrical engineer to help wire newly built schools and homes. If I did something good during my very long life, it was that. Those were good years. Then, one day, I felt something. Like a bomb going off five-thousand miles away, but only I could feel the tremors. I knew that day I had lost another parent.
I couldn’t leave the country right away, but I went back to England for the funeral. They buried him next to Dad 2, an iPod in his coffin as well. In the fifteen years since his death – exactly fifteen years to the day, Dad 1 never looked for anyone else. In fact, my sister believed his heart stopped beating because it had broken fifteen times too many. Every year was a reminder of who he’d lost.
“How beautiful would it be if that’s what happened?” she had asked.
While the idea of repeated heartbreak did not strike me as ‘beautiful’, I could see where she was coming from. They were together now. That’s what she meant.
“One day – not too soon, I hope – we’ll join them,” mum said. “We’ll be that strange little family again. Dads and the rest of us.”
Unfortunately, that would be a family without me.
Mum died about ten years later. Cancer struck the family again. My brother died from a heart attack in his eighties and, nearly a decade into the new century, my sister, who was ten years younger than me, died of old age. She was ninety-nine. Sometime after mum’s death, I lost contact with my siblings, but I think it was deliberate. I guess I made them feel old, looking twenty-five while they approached their seventies, wrinkles and aching galore. Regardless, I felt guilty. Not because I hardly saw them, but because I had outlived them. They had families, something worth living for. Other than the odd fling that never lasted longer than a month, I never settled for anyone. Love seemed impossible for the ageless man.
And then, out of nowhere, I fell in love.
I couldn’t have met her at a better time in my extraordinarily long life. She was twenty-nine, I was a hundred-and-twenty-nine, but I could pass for thirty. By the end of the fifty years we spent together, I don’t think the age difference was noticeable. She once said, “Age is just the number of years you’ve been alive. Some people will look or feel older than their years, while others feel younger. When it comes to love, as long as two people are compatible, that’s all that matters.”
Within a year, we got married. We travelled the world. We had two children.
I had no idea that, at my age, I was packing viable sperm, so when she said, “I’m pregnant”, I think we were both surprised. We settled down and raised them in New York, but once they’d grown up, just like their parents, they went their own ways, travelled, fell in love, had children. We were so proud.
My marriage stayed strong. Every day she seemed more beautiful than the last and not once did we picture a world without each other.
Until we were forced to.
Because like everyone else in this world, she wasn’t made to last.
But surely, I didn’t have to as well.
“You could live another lifetime if you wanted, maybe another two, three, four. You’re still aging, just… slowly.”
“No, I’ve lived long enough,” I said, looking at the photograph of my family on the bedside table. “I’ve seen far too many people die who should’ve outlived me.”
“That’s not up to you to decide. It’s not immoral that you live longer than the rest of us. The universe made you this way.”
“Well, the universe is a bit shit. I’m a hundred-and-ninety and I look younger than you. That’s not immoral, that’s just downright sinful.” She laughed at that, but the pain in her chest returned. She blinked back tears.
“I love you too much,” I said, leaning in to stroke her hair. “You see couples fall out of love the older they get, but that never happened for us. I could live another lifetime, but only if you’re there.”
She wrapped her arms around me. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”
“Well, in that case, if there is an eternity after, you know… then, I want to spend it with you. When you go, I go too.”
“What about the children?”
“They’ll join too,” I said, “just, not too soon.”
“No, I mean, would you really leave them behind?”
“They’re not children anymore. They don’t need me anymore.”
“What about their children?”
“Would you really put that burden on them?”
“What’s the alternative? I grow older and I outlive them as well. Then, I outlive the grandkids. There’s only so many times a man can go through that. If both of us go out together, they grieve for us at the same time and they never grieve for a parent again. I’ve lost three. And when you’ve lived as long as I have, grieved as much as I have, you’ll see that what I’m doing, it isn’t selfish.”
We both knew when her final day had arrived and I was ready to leave this world alongside her. I lay next to her on the hospital bed, listening to her breathing, hoarse and painful, slowing with every hour. I drunk the fatal concoction I had prepared. Her eyelids fluttered and she managed, “Goodbye… my love.”
“See you in a bit,” I said.
But I woke up.
Determined to join her anyway I could, I overdosed on every pill I could find, but they were no use. I walked into the sea until my lungs filled with salt water, but woke in hospital several hours later. I sliced my wrists open in the bathtub and waited. Blood had dried into the tiles, but within a few hours the wounds had healed up.
Not only was I the oldest man on the planet, I was the man who couldn’t die as well.
Perhaps I was a zombie. Not in the sense that I had rotting flesh and a craving for brains, but I’d seen over a century’s worth of post-apocalyptic films to know a single bullet to the brain was the most effective method of killing them. I did consider it. But then, what if I survived that too? Starving my brain of oxygen and bleeding out hadn’t worked, what good would a bullet do? And if there was an effect – knowing my luck – I’d end up an immortal vegetable.
I figured I was on the right track. I needed to destroyed the brain completely if this was to work, so logically I flew out to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I found a high point and…
“Before you jump, tell me your story.”
I turned around to see an elderly man sitting on the rocks, a flask in hand, his backpack flung to the side.
“You’ve got the rest of your life, why not?”
I hesitated, but, there was something about his voice – all deep and booming, that’s what I did. I don’t know why, but I told him everything. He didn’t interrupt with any questions or advice, he just listened until I reached the end. Here.
“Do you know what I think?” he said.
I sighed, “Go on.”
“You’re selfish. Like, really selfish.”
I sniggered, “What gave it away?”
“Well, if you age three times slower than the average person, then you were still a teenager in… your fifties. I imagine that had an effect on you. No, you’re selfish because you have family out there. Children, grandchildren, cousins, nieces, nephews and you act like you’re lonely. Grief is a burden we all bear. You lost your parents, your siblings, your wife, well boo-hoo! So has every old man aging like normal. Me, for instance. You don’t see me jumping.”
“What are you doing up here, then?”
“I saw you on the way up. You looked like you’d made a decision, but you were hesitant at the same time.”
Now I was the one listening. I had answers for everything he was saying, but neither of them left my throat. In fact, I wanted him to keep talking.
“You essentially just told me your life story and not once did you mention any of your friends, anything you did with your life. And I’m sure there’s plenty you did do. You focus too much on the bad. Happiness isn’t permanent, but neither is grief. Your problem is not that you’ve been cursed with a long life, it’s that you’ve used it all wrong. Now here you are romanticising your own death when you could live and be something.”
“You want to die, so you can be with everyone you’ve lost. Live for the same reason. Find that family of yours before they go too. Yes, you’ll probably outlive them, but one day, I think someone will outlive you. You’re not going to live forever. You’ll die when God says you’re ready, when nature, however abnormal, takes its course. If you want to be reunited with your family, I think you’re going about it the wrong way.” He screwed the lid on his flask, climbed to his feet and put on his bag.
“I gotta get home to feed the dogs. I didn’t think I’d be out here this long, they’ll be feral when I get back. You can meet them if you like? Bessie, she’ll lick you to death if… you know, you don’t do it yourself.” He chuckled to himself, then started down the path.
“Um, thanks,” I said, “but I’m… I’m thinking about it. Not meeting your dogs. I mean, I’m sure they’re great – most dogs are, but… I came to jump. I have reasons why I still might. But I… and thanks to you, I might not.”
He tilted his baseball cap forward. “Maybe you just needed to listen to an American.”
“It’s not what I’d write in my autobiography,” I laughed.
“As long as you write it, I don’t care if you leave that out.” He carried on without looking back.
I stood, looking over the edge at the four thousand foot drop, then I looked ahead, taking in the beauty of the whole canyon. Something crossed my mind and I smiled.