a short story by Brian Osburn (2012)
Blink on. Blink off.
Takes no faith at all
for the lost soul on a journey
Up the ivy-covered wall.
It would be hard to find anyone as smart as Dr. Gilbert Zhen. While a young man, Zhen had steadily climbed to the top ranks in his graduating class at Princeton. During those days, he dated a beautiful girl from nearby Smith College. Her name was Elizabeth Morgan, but he called her Betty. They fell deeply in love, and married each other as a graduation present.
Gilbert took a teaching position at the University of Maryland and not long into his tenure, they had their first child; a boy they named William. A year later, they got their baby girl and named her Antoinette.
Zhen worked tirelessly; continuing to teach while pursuing his doctorate. In no time, Zhen received a PhD in biology and considered entering medical school.
His young family was poor, but they were wealthy with love for each other. Betty encouraged Gil to follow his goal and attend medical school. Gil carefully considered all his options and agreed that it was the right path for him and their family. He had always been interested in research, so perhaps he could get a job with a drug company after medical school and earn a nice living for his family.
His choice was set and he began medical school that August. Once again, he worked as hard as any man could. It would have been easy for him to put all of his efforts into his work and his studies, but Gil was an amazing man. Incredibly, he still found the energy to enjoy his growing family and share precious time with them. The Zhen's were on target to fully experience the American dream.
Gil was able to take off from his studies for only one full day during that semester. That day happened to be Christmas Eve. He and Betty decided that a perfect way to spend the day was to visit the grandparents who only lived a hundred miles away. So off they went as a family.
Towards the end of their journey, the Zhen's were on a charming two-lane New England back road. The kids were singing Christmas carols. Betty sang with them. Gil smiled with a deep contentment. He was about to finish his first semester of medical school with top-of-the-class marks. It was Christmas and all was right with the world.
Just minutes later, as their minivan crested a steep rise in the road, Gil's heart stopped. A large pickup truck traveling at a very high rate of speed was also at the top of the hill with Gil, but the truck was in Gil's lane and driving in the opposite direction. Zhen could do nothing. The two cars hit head-on at a speed that sent the minivan's hot engine into the passenger compartment.
Betty, Will and little Toni were killed instantly. Zhen was brutally injured, but lived. The driver of the truck, a drunken city-councilman who was headed for another bar down the street, was not hurt except for a scratch to his forehead. It had taken Zhen five years of tireless effort to create a perfect life for his family; one horrific moment to lay it all in ruin.
The next two years of Zhen's life were spent in living nightmares.
The first of these terrible times was the funerals for his family. Zhen could not walk on his broken legs. He had to be wheeled into the funeral home and to the grave site.
Zhen's parents, Betty's parents, and everyone in attendance wept uncontrollably. It was weeks before either he or anyone on either side of the family could feel anything other than overwhelming grief. Gil wept openly for a month. As time passed, his broken body began to heal.
He was learning how to walk again when the trial of the city-councilman finally began. The proceedings were not conducted before a jury. The judge alone would determine the outcome. The trial was over in a single day. The councilman was found guilty of vehicular manslaughter, yet received only three years in prison.
Not long after that, Zhen learned that the defendant only carried the state minimum on his car insurance, so Zhen received only twenty-five thousand dollars for the death of his entire family. He sued the councilman, and was awarded a three million dollar judgment. Predictably, the councilman promptly filed for bankruptcy.
In the span of two years, Zhen's life had been laid waste. In that second year, the city councilman was given probation and released from prison, the civil trial ended, and the final payment to the cemetery and funeral home was made. Zhen was a broken and hollow man. He took what was left of the twenty-five thousand dollar insurance payment and put it into some stocks and forgot about it.
After a total of three years had passed, Zhen went back to teaching at the University of Maryland, but never returned to medical school.
And for years after that, his life consisted of going to work and then going back home to an empty and sad house.
In his twentieth year at Maryland, Zhen was well known as a hard, cold teacher of biology. Those students who worked hard, he fairly rewarded. Those who shrugged off his class, he burned.
For a man who knew practically everything on the subject of being biologically human, Zhen was becoming less humane with each passing day. He was an expert in anatomy and could recite for hours, if encouraged, the litany of body parts to be found in a man, and the function and possible malfunctions of each of said parts.
However, Zhen's soul had become comatose long ago. He denied that he even had a soul as a human soul was nowhere to be found on the finite list of human body parts.
Slowly and steadily, Zhen had traveled to a dark destination.
He was unforgiving of everyone who had offended him. The drunken city-councilman, the lenient judge, the students that mocked him in class; Zhen held them all in utter disdain.
The students who did not know of Zhen's tragic past wrote off his behavior as the mannerisms of a bitter, old man. In reality, Zhen was the epitome of hatred itself, though he hid his feelings as best he could from those around him.
Still, he remained a complex and thoughtful individual, and it was during this, his twentieth year at the University of Maryland, that Dr. Zhen began to seriously consider the final fate of his long dead family.
His strong, natural curiosity began to focus on human consciousness and death. He read hundreds of books on any subject dealing with the afterlife and even took a lengthy sabbatical to travel the world in search of the answers to the questions that had formed in his mind. He spoke with holy men from all the world's faiths and searched among their ancient texts. He even became a student again and took graduate-level theology classes. Of course, he attended these classes at another college some distance from his own so as not be discovered on his admittedly personal quest.
His zeal (if he had ever had any since the accident) for teaching students had waned. He was no longer confrontational in the class, and his students suffered from his lack of interest. Whereas before he had produced hundreds of some of the most respected physicians in the country, he would be lucky if now only a handful in any semester would rise up to achieve “top” status. His attention was still on his quest for answers to questions that had no answers to be found except, possibly, through direct personal experience.
It was based on this revelation, that some things could only be “known” experimentally through an experience of human consciousness, that Dr. Zhen hatched a desperate plan. If his questions about death needed experience to provide answers, then experience is what he would seek. And after all these years and all this pain, why not!
Dr. Zhen was fortunate in the timing to seek an experience with death. Advances in medical knowledge might well enable him to have that death experience and still live to tell the tale.
His journey to the other side of life would be lengthy and fraught with danger. The plan for such an endeavor was simple enough; die, stay dead, and then return to life with the answers to his questions. The devil was going to be in the details because what Dr. Zhen was attempting had never been done before without the person permanently becoming a fixture in the afterlife, if it existed, which he highly doubted.
Dr. Zhen did not intend to merely poke his head in death's door. He wanted to stick around for awhile.
An acquaintance who was an expert in the care of trauma patients; the exact type of specialist that Dr. Zhen needed to successfully conduct such a bizarre experiment was Dr. Ben Friedberg. Friedberg worked in the emergency room of a prestigious Baltimore-area teaching hospital and had once been a student of Dr. Zhen. In time, Zhen contacted Friedberg, briefly laid out his idea, and proposed a meeting to discuss “certain details.”
Friedberg accepted to meet on short notice with his old college professor, yet there was an uneasiness in his acquiescence to discuss “something that was both intriguing and important to mankind.” Those were Zhen's words.
He remembered Dr. Zhen to be, in a word, eccentric. And that was being kind. It would never have been his first choice in how to spend an evening, but he would have to speak face-to-face with Dr. Zhen about this plan of cheating death.
Dr. Zhen was wet and haggard when he limped inside the late-night coffee shop in downtown Baltimore. A strong Nor'easter had swept in earlier that evening. Accompanying the strong rain was copious lightning and thunder. As Zhen shook out his over-coat and hat at the establishment's threshold, a large bolt of lightning hit somewhere close by. It was quickly followed by the crack of powerful thunder.
Not one to be frightened by a simple thunderstorm, Zhen had a moment of whimsy. Another bolt of lightning lit up his countenance, revealing a barely detectable smile as small rivers of rain water ran down his wrinkled face. Zhen mused that this would be a perfect night to have a macabre conversation, for Baltimore was the hometown of Edgar Allen Poe, nineteenth-century America's most renowned poet of darkness.
Downtown Baltimore had been Poe's haunt. Zhen wondered if perhaps Poe had ever visited this particular building back in the early 1800s when it housed some other business. Zhen mused that Poe would have enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversation to come.
Dr. Friedberg was already seated and enjoying a latte. As Zhen took his seat opposite him, Friedberg made a hand gesture to the bored counter-help to set both men up with a round. The server nodded and went to work frothing foam. Friedberg offered his hand then to his former professor. Zhen accepted Friedberg's open hand and gave it a strong, brief shake. “You're never late, are you professor?”
“Never,” replied Zhen, “You know how I feel about such things.” Friedberg smiled. Indeed, Zhen was adamant about punctuality. He was once known to frequently lock the doors of his class to keep out late-coming students. “I believe I was once a victim of your locked door policy.”
“And you never were late again, were you Dr. Friedberg?”
“Never,” he replied as two hot lattes arrived at the table. Friedberg took a spoon to his and stirred it as he tried to formulate a way to start a dialog with his strange mentor. Another bolt of lightning struck outside, more distant this time. A second or two passed before its thunder rattled the plate glass window they were seated against. “Professor,” Friedberg began hesitantly, “what you propose is quite, uh, very...”
“Yes,” he replied, but that wasn't the word he had in mind.
“Yes.” That word was more like it, he thought.
Friedberg shifted uncomfortably in his seat, raised an eyebrow and nodded his head. “I'd like to try and understand your motivation for attempting a stunt like this,” he said with a tone that bordered on chastisement.
“And that is why we're here tonight, Doctor Friedberg, although I can assure you, this is to be no stunt.” Zhen put his cup down and continued. “Let's begin with a question to you,” he suggested. Friedberg agreed with a nod and returned the steely gaze of his mentor head-on. “Tell me of your experiences during the Great Depression.”
Friedberg smiled, let loose a chirp of a laugh and put down his cup. “Tell me of your own, Professor,” he replied. The year was two-thousand eight and Friedberg was barely forty years old.
Zhen himself was barely in his sixties. “I cannot,” Zhen replied in earnest. “I wasn't born yet.”
“Nor I,” stated Friedberg.
“Tell me of your adventures during the French revolution, then.”
“The Middle Ages, perhaps? What about the time of Christ? Tell me what it was like to walk amongst the dinosaurs, Ben.”
Friedberg didn't say a word. He put his elbow on the table and used his hand to hold his head in a thoughtful pose.
“You find my questions senseless, don't you?” Zhen coyly said.
“Professor, they're ridiculous.”
“Before you lose interest, let me further explain.” Zhen paused and bent over the table. His pause was long enough for the sound of the rain hitting the plate glass window to briefly take over the conversation. “You can't tell me about these things because you were not conscious during them.”
“Professor, you're testing my patience now. We've covered that.”
“Wait let me finish my thoughts and you'll understand.” Zhen leaned back and took a quick drink of his latte and then continued. “Each person who has ever lived never had any memorable experiences before being born. It's quite impossible to describe, the nothingness before memory. That is why my questions do not make any sense. Until a person's memory kicks in, there is no sense of time, no sense of anything at all.”
Friedberg slowly nodded. “That is understandable. You really cannot describe anything before your own personal memory engages. Even the first two or three years after birth are a blank to most people because their means of storing data at that time is incompatible with, shall we say, subsequent iterations of operating system software.”
“You were always quick, Ben,” Zhen said with a wry smile. “In a nutshell, humans blink on.”
“Okay, I agree. What we mean by the human experience, it blinks on.”
“There's more! Humans blink off, too! And you'll know this to be true when I explain. Human consciousness and the unconscious are closely tied to memory. They're all intertwined like ivy.” Zhen interlocked his fingers to illustrate the point. “Now, imagine this human ivy on the side of a wall, which represents time in human terms. The ivy crawls up the wall, which supports it. As long as there is wall to climb, the ivy attaches itself to it and continues. However, and this is the key, the ivy cannot go through the wall to the other side. The wall itself which supports it acts as a barrier to prevent it from crossing over.”
Friedberg continued to listen intently.
“What I'm trying to say is this. Human consciousness is a function of time. When time is up, so is human consciousness. There's nowhere else consciousness can go. It was supported by time and when the wall ends, the ivy necessarily ends. Do you understand?”
“Yes, and professor, I must tell you that what you're suggesting here flies in the face of what every major religious faith on earth teaches. What you're telling me is that just as human blink on, when they die, they also blink off.”
“I don't subscribe to that professor. I always believed that human consciousness extends beyond this plane of existence.”
“And what proof do you have that a heaven or hell exists? None. And what proof do you have that human existence extends beyond our own time and space? None.”
“Thus, you have the mystery of faith, Professor.”
“I know BAD_WORD well what it's called, and I have none, you hear!” Zhen barked.
He had become visibly agitated. A long silence ensued as Zhen realized he had crossed a line that could endanger his relationship with his former student. Things needed to calm down, but as if to put the exclamation point on his rant, another bolt of lightning with powerful thunder struck nearby.
Friedberg felt that he had heard enough and rose from his seat. “Perhaps it is best if I...”
“Wait, please Ben.” Zhen had reached out to Friedberg's hand and was holding onto it.
A pained expression crossed Dr. Friedberg's countenance. He sighed and slowly sat back down.
Zhen let go of him to search for a handkerchief to wipe his head, but settled for a napkin that had accompanied his coffee. He regained his composure and then continued. “I want to find out if what you believe is the truth, Ben. I have to know. Because I fear that our conscious, subconscious and memories are all as mortal as the human body itself.”
“Professor, you know I respect you to the utmost degree, but I'm about to end this discussion.”
“Don't pull the plug on the discussion, Ben. Pull the plug on me, instead.”
Friedberg was not amused by Zhen's last comment. “People have died before and been brought back, professor. You'll discover nothing by doing it yourself.”
The professor sat back and left his hands on the table. 'I want to be dead longer than any of those people. I want to be dead for at least an hour.”
The trauma doctor sat back in his seat and left his hands on the table. He let out a long breath. This last statement of Zhen's was beyond the pale of reason.
Friedberg was well aware of the new medical breakthroughs that showed human heart muscles and brain cells were non-necrotic even after an hour of clinical death and that it was actually the re-infusion of oxygen that caused sudden, massive cell death. The answer to bringing someone back from the dead after an hour had passed would be to reintroduce oxygen to the body in diluted amounts and slowly raise its concentration over time. Of course, some chemical or drug regimen and a lowered body temperature would be factors to consider in developing the overall processes for bringing someone back who had been dead for so long. All this flashed through the trauma doctor's mind in an instant. “What you propose, Professor, has never even been attempted before. You don't just expect me to lay you down on a gurney, kill you off, and then try to bring you back to life an hour later, do you?”
“No Ben, certainly not. This project will require intense and dedicated research.”
Friedberg continued with his misgivings. “Even if I could figure out a way to revive you, after an hour or more, you might have severe brain damage, and if not, then severe heart damage.” Friedberg's expression softened. He looked thoughtfully at his old college professor. “Why do you need to seek this particular information that you will naturally find out in the course of time?”
Zhen thought back to that terrible day when the lives of three people he deeply loved were snuffed out in an instant. As sure as he was of his own existence, Zhen was also sure that if there were ever three people who deserved an eternity in heaven, it was Betty, William and Toni. But over time, Zhen had convinced himself that had God truly existed, He never would have allowed such a horrific event to have occurred. So Zhen denied God's existence. He entertained no visions of his family waiting for him in a 'heaven-like' place.
Zhen paused for a long time before responding to Friedberg's query. “I can't explain that to you. Suffice it to say, I'm strongly motivated from within. But before you make your final decision, let me offer you an enticement to help me with this project.”
The trauma doctor's response was instantaneous. “I'm ready to say 'no' to you now, Professor, regardless of anything you could offer me.”
Zhen smiled a little and bobbed his head. “I can offer you the use of the medical facility at the university and two million dollars to conduct research for one year to discover the secrets of bringing someone back from the dead after an hour.”
Friedberg was shocked! “What funding agency has endorsed that?!”
“I'm funding this project myself, Dr. Friedberg. But so that you'll know where the money came from, I will tell you that I made a fifteen thousand dollar investment over twenty years ago.” Zhen shrugged and smiled. “Who knew Microsoft would become so successful?”
“How did you get the university to allow you to use the medical center?”
“The very same way I'm getting you to help me, Doctor; with a little donation.”
“So you're offering me the use of the university's medical center and two million dollars for one year of research?”
“That's the deal.”
“And if I am unsuccessful in discovering the methods you seek?”
“Then we'll reevaluate after a year. But I'm hopeful that you'll figure everything out well within that time frame. Will you accept?”
“I'll have to take a sabbatical from my work,” Friedberg said, before pausing a moment. “I would want a quarter of the money to support my family for a year,” he said, then paused again. “And I would need a small staff and complete autonomy within the medical facility to conduct experiments without any attention being drawn to me or my work. If it got out that I was trying to do something as unethical as this, I would be ruined.”
Zhen tilted his head and smiled. “You'll have to report to an Institutional Review Board, who by the way, doesn't agree that these experiments are unethical. But other than that I can guarantee secrecy for you and your work and I agree to everything else. Will you think about it?”
Friedberg bit his lips hard and slowly nodded his head. “Alright, Professor. I will think about it.”
A weird thrill surged through Dr. Zhen as he rose from his seat and stuck out his hand to his former student, which was politely accepted and given a firm, brief shake in return. Zhen quickly dawned his hat and coat and paused to say, “Please call me at your earliest convenience with your answer,” before leaving into the wind and rain outside.
Friedberg left the establishment a short time later to return to his home. A powerful bolt of lightning struck somewhere well off in the distance. Booming thunder followed. The eeriness of the night and the conversation with Dr. Zhen had spooked Friedberg to the bone.
In a short time, he decided to accept the offer, but in his heart, he had the most serious of concerns. Nonetheless, he called Zhen the next week and agreed to his proposal.
Within six months, and after many attempts, Dr. Friedberg managed to resuscitate a trained rat after it had been dead for an hour. It took another month of tests on the rat to determine that had suffered no apparent organ damage of any kind. It was a milestone in biological science, yet Friedberg did not celebrate the success. He knew that Zhen's reaction to the experiment would be, and it came to pass.
Zhen ordered Friedberg to begin conducting experiments on chimps right away. Friedberg argued that it was too soon, but Zhen, of course, won the argument.
Friedberg's work was secret to practically everyone, but his experiments were still subject to the scrutiny by the Institutional Review Board. Zhen warned Friedberg not to skew his results or to try and unduly influence the board when he presented his findings to them. Friedberg did as he was told and presented his preliminary findings without bias. Nonetheless, he was still shocked when he was given authoritative direction from the board to proceed with experiments on primates.
It took two months and the lives of several chimpanzees before Friedberg was able to bring one of them back from the dead. Friedberg tested the chimp for a week and found no damage to any organ. So he tried again on another chimp. This time, Zhen was in attendance for the experiment.
Even though he wore a surgical mask, one could still see the amazement in Zhen's expression when Friedberg successfully resuscitated the chimp after an hour of its being dead. Subsequent tests on this chimp proved that it too survived the ordeal no worse for wear.
Zhen was ecstatic, but Friedberg was not. A rat and a chimp are complex life-forms, to be sure, but they are not human. To Zhen, it was all a wash. Zhen believed that all that had to be done was to ramp up the chemical regimen using a simple body-mass ratio calculation (which Friedberg had used to determine between the rat and the chimp), and then duplicate the procedures for inducing death and then life. In Zhen's mind, it was so easy and straightforward that he wanted to proceed immediately. Friedberg advised him one last time against this unwise decision, but Zhen again stayed true to his course. This decision, of course, was made without the consent or knowledge of the review board.
Within a week, two nurses placed Zhen within a special container located in one of the medical center's operating rooms. They were gowned from head to toe. He could only see their eyes. This was a precaution taken by Dr. Friedberg; the three of them were gowned in such a way so as to not be identified should something bad happen during the experiment. No video cameras were allowed, and Friedberg had personally ensured that none had been secretly hidden within the room. Friedberg made sure that this was Zhen's moment, and Zhen's moment alone.
The container Zhen had been placed inside was similar in size and shape to an Egyptian sarcophagus. He was kept warm using heated towels placed from chest to toe. These towels were replaced with new ones frequently. Dr. Friedberg administered a tranquilizer to Zhen. He asked, “How are you feeling today, Professor?” while leaning over the coffin-like container.
“I'm well,” he replied. Zhen could see the frown in Friedberg's eyes above the mask.
“This is your last chance to change your mind.”
“I'm not doing that,” Zhen flatly replied.
“Okay, Professor. Let me tell you again what to expect. I've given you a tranquilizer that will prepare you for the anesthesia. Once you're fully under, we're going to lower your body temperature using this vessel you're inside. Next, we will slowly introduce the chemicals into your bloodstream using the IVs we've placed in your veins. The chemicals will act as an insulator and anti-oxidant in your blood. As we do this, we will slowly begin to decrease the amount of oxygen you breathe. We will also introduce helium into this mixture. Finally, once your body is perfectly prepped, we will stop your heart and you will die.”
Friedberg pause for effect, but Zhen remained calm and focused.
“An hour later, we'll begin to warm you and reintroduce oxygen into your system, but only in small amounts. We'll do this while slowly cleaning your blood of the chemical agents. At the critical point, we will restart your heart and begin ventilating your lungs again. God-willing, you will recover consciousness. Do you have any questions?”
“No, but I do want to thank you for doing this for me, Ben.” Zhen could sense the frown fade from behind the mask.
“Alright then, we'll proceed,” Friedberg said with authority and commitment.
That was the last memory of Dr. Zhen...
...until he awoke. Zhen fought to regain consciousness in the same manner as someone who had just had surgery would; while in a fog. Friedberg was there standing above him, still fully gowned. Zhen coughed a few times and then settled down with steady respiration and eyes seeking focus.
Friedberg smiled. “I think you're going to be alright, but you need to rest for a long time. I'm looking forward to hearing what you have to say about your time away from us,” he said to Zhen knowing that the professor was still officially unconscious from the experience and could not yet see or hear him. Friedberg turned and walked away.
Zhen fought his way back, slowly. He could barely sense the ventilation tube that was stuck down his throat. A few more minutes passed and then Zhen blinked on.
And then with equal suddenness, he began to thrash about on the gurney. His IV tower crashed to the ground and as it fell, it pulled the needles out of his arm. He pulled hard on the tube down his throat, and out it came, but it hurt for it to do so. When it popped out, Zhen screamed. “Nooooooo!”
Friedberg had not yet left the room. He quickly rushed to Zhen's side and tried to hold him down, but it took him and the two nurses together to stop his apparent convulsions. “Professor!” cried Friedberg. “Professor! What's wrong?”
“Oh no,” Zhen said as he blankly stared at the ceiling with eyes glazed over with tears. “I was right!”
“What do you mean?” asked Friedberg while noting that every muscle in Zhen's body was as wound up as a rubber band.
“I was right about death, Ben.” Zhen turned his gaze to the horrified countenance of Friedberg. “I was right Ben. There is nothing out there! There's nothing out there at all!” he exclaimed.
Many years later, Dr. Zhen was ready to die for good. His palatial home that he had purchased from the royalties earned from the sale of his numerous books had become his hospice.
His books on the absence of life after death had sold millions. For years now, Zhen had been the bane of every religious faith on earth. His books had caused the start of numerous suicidal cults around the world. There was one cult in particular that took the lives of five-thousand men, women, and children. Many people were glad to know that he was finally dying.
A staff of nurses cared for him around the clock. Of course, they were there only to see to his comfort. Zhen was dying for real, and nothing was going to stop that.
It was on the last day of Zhen's life that a much older Dr. Ben Friedberg happened to show up for a visit to his old college professor. He was a heavier man now, and his hair had fully turned to silver. As he was brought in, the nurses excused themselves from Zhen's room. Friedberg settled in for a quiet chat with his one-time mentor. “Professor, how are you feeling?”
“I feel terrible, Ben. But I'm glad that all this is about to blink off for me.”
Friedberg tried to manage a smile, but it was more like a wince. He drew in a deep breath and exhaled the following sentence. “Professor, I need to tell you something important. You didn't die before.”
Zhen, who could barely see through swollen, red eyes, turned and faced Friedberg, who was gently nodding. The look on Zhen's face was one of complete confusion.
“It's true,” continued Friedberg. “You didn't die. I didn't kill you. All we did was put you out with anesthesia.”
“But no, you didn't...”
“Yes, Professor. I came here today to tell you the truth after all these years. You never died before. It was all a hoax.”
“But...why?” Zhen managed to hiss.
“The truth is I really didn't think I could bring you back at that time. I didn't want to take the chance with your life. In the end, the techniques were sound, and I've become a wealthy and important man because of its success. I just wanted to come and tell you the truth, and to thank you for having given me the opportunity to discover the secrets of bringing people back from the dead.”
Zhen's mind was fine; it was his body that was dying. And in that instant, Zhen hated Friedberg as much as he had hated anyone; including the drunken city-councilman who had killed off his family. His final, awful wish was that Friedberg would be the one to die today.
That moment of realized hatred passed away quickly and was replaced by stark fear and dread. Friedberg's revelation meant that Zhen was clueless about death. Where once existed a calm ocean of assured knowledge inside of Gilbert Zhen, a boiling cauldron of doom and fear now erupted.
A single tear fell from his eye and he drew in his last breath. The tear was shed in absolute terror and fear. His whole body shuddered for just a second as Zhen fought to live on, but he failed to do so. His last memory was the blank expression of his former student staring at him as he died.
Per his instructions, Zhen's ashes were interred with those of his wife, Betty, his son, William, and his daughter, Toni. No one save for a funeral home employee was in attendance when Zhen's ashes were placed in the vault with the other three containers within. Zhen's parents had long since died themselves and he had no brothers or sisters. He had no friends. Zhen had lived his miserable life as alone as if he'd lived in a prison's solitary confinement cell. No one cared that he had lived, and no one cared that he had died. Not even Dr. Ben Friedberg made an appearance at Zhen's entombment.
The funeral home employee turned the key to the small vault to lock it and then placed a new bronze plaque over the door to forever seal it. The plaque now showed the name of Gilbert Zhen along with those of his family. Once again, they were together and this time, it would be for eternity; but they would be together only as urns of ash.
It was ironic that even though Zhen had been tricked and had never died before, in the end, he was proven right; at least for him as an individual. He did blink off when he died, but not because that was the only option in the afterlife that was available. No, Dr. Zhen blinked off because he was full of hatred. He blinked off because he had never shown mercy or kindness. He blinked off because he did not have any faith in a conscious eternity.
For if Dr. Zhen had discovered faith, mercy, and unconditional love, he would have also discovered this fact; that his family continued to exist in a wonderful place and that his absence from them would provide the only disappointment they would ever know in their new life, a life he could have enjoyed himself for all eternity.
And had Zhen visited his family's vault more often at the cemetery while he was alive, he would have seen the analogy he presented to Friedberg years ago play out.
He would have noticed the ivy covered wall that stood behind their interment site. He would have seen that over time, the ivy steadily climbed the wall and yes, it could not break through to the other side.
But after time had passed, when the ivy reached the end of the wall, it was not the end of its journey.
It simply crawled over to the top to get to the other side.
“The Deaths of Dr. Zhen” is a short story by author Brian Osburn and is featured in the compilation work entitled “Tales of Fear, Fantasy, and Fiends – Volume 1.”
Search your e-Book retailer to read the other short stories “The Clone – In Vitro” and “The Juniperus Chronicles.”
Thank you for reading this work of fiction by Brian Osburn.