Todd Martin died the way Chicagoans once voted—early and often. But really—that is, pathologically—he died the way narcoleptics fall asleep: at inappropriate times and places. It would not be accurate to say that Todd was like the “living dead,” as when he died, for as long as he remained dead, he was not alive; nor would it be right to say he was like the “walking dead,” because when he died he didn’t move. When Todd Martin died, every so often, he behaved as any other dead person did. It’s just that he didn’t stay dead. Todd Martin revived, usually feeling refreshed, typically unharmed (if his corpse had not been molested), occasionally with some explaining to do.
Although he had first died when he was nineteen and in college—in his dorm room late one night, while reading for a required class in the history of philosophy—it was fifteen years between the onset of his affliction and its correct diagnosis, which came as the result of his dying for the first time in the presence of others, whereas previously, if improbably, he’d always died—and revived—alone. But at age 34 Todd had the good fortune to die not only in a public place but a public place near a research hospital. Between his sudden, unobtrusive death at a carnival (riding a carousel horse, remaining upright in the saddle even after both the ride and his heart had stopped) and his evaluation by and consultation with a physician, Todd scared several nurses and a resident almost to death themselves, by coming to life again—just as suddenly and unobtrusively as he’d died—as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and seemingly none the worse for the experience himself.
Doctor Freed was a specialist in the field of abstruse diseases and naturally fascinated by Todd’s unique condition—the doctor thought it was not unlike an acute coronary syndrome known as “stunned heart,” in which cardiac muscles believed to have died will, days or even months later, resume their normal function, having been merely resting very deeply, as it were. Because there had been zero reported cases of Todd Martin’s particular ailment, Dr. Freed had the privilege and prerogative to name it, and he named it thanatolepsy—from the Greek for death plus a suffix meaning “to take hold of”— thanatolepsy being a panalogical conundrum characterized by periodic overwhelming excessive (temporary) lifetime mortality.
It was a week after he’d been admitted—in which time he hadn’t died again—while waiting outside Dr. Freed’s office in the hospital that he met a woman about his age, also waiting for Dr. Freed. But while Todd sat on a couch in the waiting area, the woman sat in a wheelchair, wrapped in a blanket. Todd thought she was pretty nonetheless, and he stared at her.
“What is your problem?” she asked. She had an accent Todd couldn’t place but found charming all the same.
“I die a lot,” Todd said.
“You diet a lot?”
“No: I die a lot. They tell me I have super-oxygenated cells. So when I’m dead my body suffers no damage. It’s very rare. I’m the only one, actually. What about you?”
“I am a vegetable,” she stated, rising from her wheelchair to adjust a nearby floor lamp so that it shone on her more directly, then sitting down again. Todd gaped.
“You— you’re— not a vegetable,” he said, finally.
“I am a vegetable,” she maintained. “I was in a bad accident. I was asleep for a long time. I heard someone say, ‘She is a vegetable.’ Someone else said, ‘She will always be a vegetable.’ I woke up. I healed. But now I am a vegetable. For nutrition I require only sunlight and water and vitamins, which I get from pills, because I do not like the idea of eating other vegetables.”
“Maybe while you were in your coma your metabolism——”
“I do not have a metabolism,” the woman insisted. “I have a vegetabolism.”
“What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Todd.”
“It is nice to meet you.”
Todd and Erin both had agreed to remain at the hospital, at the institution’s expense, to permit further observation and evaluation of themselves; because they were voluntary guests, they were free to leave the premises from time to time to further their own private pursuits. Todd thought that he would like to pursue Erin, so he asked her to have dinner with him at a restaurant not far from the hospital campus. Erin accepted the invitation.
The date was not without its awkwardnesses.
Almost as soon as they were seated, Erin asked if they could be moved to a different table, further from the entrance, as she felt a draft, and she hated being cold.
Then, after they had ordered—even though they ordered food for Todd only—it took so long for his meal to arrive that Todd literally died of hunger, leaving Erin to all outward appearances with a companion but in reality alone while Todd was passed away.
While Todd ate—the aroma of his meal having revived him —Erin kicked off her shoes and dug her bare feet into the soil of a potted tree near their table.
Finally, because the dessert they ordered (Erin sharing it to be sociable) was to die for, Todd did, for the second time that evening.
Still, the two had a nice enough time, and Todd at least thought that he’d like to go out with Erin again... but it was not to be.
Todd wanted to do something nice for Erin, something to cheer her, as she seemed to him so sad, or at least so serious. He was up much of the night thinking about what he could buy her or make her or where he could take her, so that when the morning came he was dead tired, so he didn’t get out of bed until well after noon. By that time, Erin was gone.
After showering and dressing and checking in with one of Doctor Freed’s research assistants, a cardiocartographer, Todd went to Erin’s room only to find her bed made—hospital corners and all—and none of her belongings present. An orderly who noticed and recognized Todd handed him a note that he said the patient who had occupied the room they were in had left for him. Indeed, the outside of the folded paper read, “Tod.”
Inside, she’d written: “It was time for me to leave.” Todd smiled, wondering if Erin had intended the double entendre. It was funny, though not funny enough for him to die laughing, and of course he was unhappy that Erin was gone, so he walked out of the room for the cafeteria, where he had a large salad for lunch. Erin was bothered by that until she realized that she’d abandoned him, and, anyway, sometimes you have to let a figment of your imagination live his own life.
“Stunned Heart” appeared in Cosmopsis Quarterly, Fall 2007.