You would think that everyone would have a story to tell about the time when they were children when they realized that they were dead. But I didn't, most of the people around me didn't. As long as I could remember, soldiers would point guns at us and we would fall to the ground. The power in our house would go out and we would lie down in the darkness. How old are children when they learn all of these little things, the little pieces of information that made up life? I just always knew that I was dead, as were my family, everyone in my town, and everyone I saw, except for the living soldiers, meant to patrol the dead.
The moments of confusion came a little older, when I was around seven years old. A girl in my class told me her grandmother had died. It didn't seem to be that important of news, until I realized she meant biologically. And that is when I started to think about why we were dead, even though we moved around and ate and breathed. Teachers were careful to teach us fire safety, but would hem and haw about why it was so important when our houses, sometimes our entire town, would "burn down" regularly. They had a slovenly, cow-eyed look in the face of questions. I don't think they ever thought about any of this stuff. I did glean information, slowly. It was not a secret, but it was never explained directly.
There had been a war. Maybe more than one. One side had reopened an old conflict, and had fought so viciously, and with attempts to use some type of nuclear weapons. When that side had been destroyed, decimated, the victors had figured out the only way to avoid another repeat was to liquidate the remainders. But being human people, they couldn't do that. So they did it virtually: declared them dead, and made them act out the role of death when demanded. Make them dig their own mass graves. Arrive at their homes in the middle of the night, and announce it had just been hit by an incendiary bomb and was burning down. Casually point a gun at them and fire it, ordering them to fall down dead. When I learned this, bit by bit, at school, starting in my elementary school years and lasting into middle school, they never said which side had started the war (it was us), which side had lost the war (still us), and they never connected that to why were were dead.
I don't remember ever being resentful or angry when I "died". It was just part of life, being dead. I was curious. None of it really made sense. Were my parents old enough to even remember the war? Who had agreed on this? Would this last forever? Would I ever become a living girl? None of these questions were ever answered, just shifting expressions. At the same time I was just doing normal kid stuff...or what I thought of as normal kid stuff. I played with my friends, my family would drive me around town (but never really outside of town), we would once in a while see a movie that didn't make sense to me.
Things started to change when I was 11. I remember I was walking home from school one day, alone, on a hot afternoon, when I heard a vehicle pull up behind me. The low roar of the engine let me know it was some type of military vehicle. I looked around, and it was some type of jeep, there was a woman in a turret on top. She had dark skin, like some living people do, and like no dead people do. She was still young, and smiling, and pointing a gun at me. "Hey girl! Bang!" she said, laughing. I fell down to the ground, inert, like I knew how to do. "Okay up!" she said. I got up to my feet. She pointed the gun again "Bang!" I fell back down. When I fell back down, I just remembered I was dead, everything drifting away but the hot sidewalk underneath me. And then "Up again". The other soldiers came out of the vehicle, looking at her as she repeatedly shot me and resurrected me. The other soldiers laughed at my performance. Finally they walked over to my crumpled up form, lying on the sidewalk, which was starting to get uncomfortably hot. "She is a smart one. She knows what being dead is about" the woman said "Almost a shame...anyone who is smart enough to understand so well to be dead, they are probably smart enough to be alive." And then she told me to get up. She drove off. As I walked home from school, face and arms a little scratched up from falling on the pavement, I thought about what she had said. I was smart enough to be alive? Did I have to be dead? I had always figured that dead was just what I had to be.
The second event, the one that really changed things, happened a few months later. I was working in the principal's office, which a few of us girls (and it was always girls, for reasons that will be clear soon) would do at this age, cleaning up and photocopying papers. Suddenly, the whole school went dark, and I heard the roar of engines, ground vehicles, and a helicopter overhead. I laid down. I hadn't been ordered to be dead, exactly, but I figured out this was a good time to act dead. I waited there in the dark, pale emergency lights illuminating the office. The staff were still, but in the principal's office, I heard scrambling noises. A minute later, living soldiers broke down the door to the office, the room suddenly illuminated by bright flashlights. They slammed the door to the principal's office open. I could see him, out of the corner of my eye, holding something in his hand. Even as odd as the angle was, and even though I had only heard about it as a rumor, I knew what it was: the Treason Flag. I had heard adults speaking of it in hushed voices, hinting that being seen with it could get someone killed for real. I heard the voice of the lead soldier, and was somewhat surprised to realize it was the woman who had practiced killing me a few months ago. "What is this? What is this?" she yelled at the cowering old man, desperately hanging on to the cloth. His denials came out, he had seized it from someone else, it had just gotten here, he was going to report it, and each denial was followed by the butt of a rifle into his stomach. Finally, he was just on the ground blubbering. And then the woman started asking him something else, about the girls in his office, and I heard more of his denials, that it was just a program, that someone else had set it up. More blows, until he finally admitted, in a sobbing voice, what it was for. I was shocked. I was not totally naive, at that age, but I didn't think such things could happen to me, that I would be part of it. I didn't feel dirty. I just felt myself starting to leave my dead body. "You like lying, don't you?" the woman asked "Well, here is a question, lets see how you lie to this one: wanna get Birminghammed?" and he begged no, not that, not that. And the woman said "Well, you say no, but you are a liar, that means yes, right?" she laughed. "Maybe a few hours in the Birmingham Hot Zone will make him rethink his love of treason." They carried him away, and, a little slower than normal in these cases, things returned to "normal."
I didn't even mention it to my family. We didn't talk about these things. Just part of being dead. But I decided I didn't want to be dead anymore. I looked at my family and realized I wasn't like them. I wasn't like the kids I pretended to be friends with. But it wasn't until I saw the principal back, a few weeks later, that I finally figured out what to do. He wasn't back in our school. He was walking down mainstreet of our town. A far away look in his face, and strange burns covering his face, drool coming out of his mouth, mumbling to himself. No one addressed him. That was what the dead did, pretend nothing was real, because for them, it wasn't. I looked into his face, the droopy look of swollen, doughy flesh hiding what I was once thought was a kind face. That was what laid in wait for me. What was odd was that as soon as I realized this, the path to become living was illuminated quite easily. The living hadn't left the dead like this to be vengeful. It was our choice. At the town hall, at the post office, even in our school, on the billboards, were little notices about the path to become living. I had just overlooked them, because they were just unobtrusive little lines of text up on a wall. But I found a class. It was that easy: I went to the library, mostly unused, and in the backroom, there was a course on how to be alive. I stopped talking to my parents. Once I was alive, I could make my own decisions. By the time I was 14, I had learned the real history, of the war, of why the dead had gotten themselves into the situation they were in. I went to the land of the living and entered a military academy.
I finished the story for the new lieutenant next to me in the military vehicle. I had to tell this story a lot: many had strange qualms about what we were doing. For someone who had never been dead, it would have been unusual, perhaps, as the floodlight illuminated the family who had been woken up in the middle of the night to dig their own mass grave on their front lawn. "We aren't doing this to be cruel. We are doing this because we have to. I used to be dead, I understand what it is like. They fought a war, a terrorist war, where they slaughtered innocent people, because they thought they had the right to enslave and torture other people. That is all there is to them. If that dad wasn't reminded that he is powerless, that he is dead, of course he would start molesting his daughter. That is all they are: people who have chosen rape, torture, and slavery as their highest values. They aren't dead because we make them be. They are dead because that is what they choose to be." I found myself getting a bit worked up describing the dead. I tried to stay dispassionate. I would totally be within my rights as a living person to go down there and put a bullet in the head of that man. But no reason to do it now. He is dead whether I do it or not. I can wait. They can wait. The living are living, and the dead are dead.