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Forever After

Middle class, average-Joe, Paul Steele dies minutes after a terrible argument with his wife—dies, but doesn’t quite depart for the world beyond. Instead he wakes in the body of billionaire energy magnate, Griffon Knight, and no one—not even Paul's wife, Char—will believe he’s come back from the dead to be with her again. Trying to convince her only succeeds in making her think he’s crazy.

But no one knows Char as well as Paul does and he’s not going to quit until he wins her back and convinces her to marry him again.

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Gilbert M. Stack

Gilbert M. Stack has been creating stories almost since he began speaking and publishing fiction and non-fiction since 2006.

A professional historian, Gilbert delights in bringing the past to life in his fiction, depicting characters who are both true to their time and empathetic with modern sensibilities. His work can be found online and in the pages of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

He lives in New Jersey with his wonderful wife, Michelle, and their son, Michael.

Coming Soon...
Excerpt

Prologue

Live Again

Monday, December 17

 

Paul Steele eased his pickup truck on to Highway 84 outside of Slate and immediately let up on the gas when his vehicle began sliding on the snowy surface. He counted to two, then pressed the pedal again and grinned tightly when his tires caught traction and pulled him back into a straight line. There was only an inch of snow on the ground so far. It didn’t look that bad yet, but looks could be deceiving as he’d just discovered.

His cell phone rang on the seat beside him, playing the opening bars of Aerosmith’s, “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing.” He scooped it up, saw his wife’s name on the caller ID, and lifted it to his ear. “Hey, Char, what’s the snow look like on our street?”

“It looks like we already have a couple of inches on the ground and the weather forecast says we’ve got six more coming,” Charlotte told him. He didn’t have to try hard to detect the stress in her voice. There was a certain element of shrillness that told him she had not had a good day. Long experience—they’d been married for ten years—prepared Paul for what was coming next. “Why don’t you tell Jack Cox that you can’t help him tonight? Then you can come home, shovel the driveway and spend the evening playing with Brian in the snow while I get some things done in the house?”

Paul made a serious effort to keep any hint of frustration out of his voice. It wasn’t like he didn’t want to come home and spend the evening with his wife and six-year-old son. But they had bills to pay—bills made far worse by the fact that they had taken in Char’s mother after her heart attack, and Char had to quit her job as a middle school teacher to take care of her full time. Then there was that fiasco with the COBRA payment that dropped their health insurance just before their then two-year-old son ended up in the emergency room with a terrifying asthma attack. Who would have thought that two nights in the hospital could cost so damn much? They were never going to catch up again, but Christmas was just around the corner and Santa needed a little extra money for presents.

“Jack’s paying twelve dollars an hour,” Paul said.

“You used to pay your employees better than that,” Char said.

Paul resisted the urge to remind his wife that was when he owned his own company. There was no use starting a fight. They fought often enough these days when he didn’t pick an argument. Reminding her about Paul’s Roofing and Gutters would only serve to remind her that he’d given up his company so he could get a job at Home Depot to get health insurance for his family. Char would take that as another complaint that she’d given up her teaching job to help her mother and then they’d be screaming at each other again. “Jack pays cash,” Paul reminded her, “so it’s more like earning fifteen or sixteen before taxes.”

“Why does everything have to be about money for you?” Char snapped. “I just want a quiet night at home where the whole world doesn’t sit on my shoulders.”

Meaning she wanted a night off from her mother, but that wasn’t going to happen whether he worked tonight or not. The only way she was getting a real night off was if her brother decided to take their mother home for an evening and that had happened precisely zero times since they’d taken Gertrude in—what was it, five years ago now? It was hard enough to get George to just come over and visit with her and then he and his new wife expected to be fed and pampered as a reward for helping out.

He didn’t mention any of that because it was another sore spot between them. Char knew she was being abused but for some reason she got mad at Paul when he pointed it out. Instead he said, “Christmas is coming. If I work tonight, we can afford a couple more presents for Brian.”

That wasn’t how Paul wanted to spend the money he might earn tonight. They were a month behind on the mortgage. Any idiot could see that was where tonight’s paycheck should go. However, that wasn’t going to happen. Char loved Christmas and she was going to fill their little house with presents for Brian whether they had the money for them or not. Letting her buy a few of those gifts guilt free with the money he’d earn tonight was the kind of opportunity she’d have trouble turning down.

As he’d predicted, her resistance began to soften. “How late do you think you’ll be out?”

Paul shifted into the left lane to pass a slow moving car. The snow was thick, beautiful and profitable. “Depends on how long the snow keeps falling. With any luck, I’ll be working until morning.”

“Until morning? You’re not a young man anymore, Paul. You can’t shovel snow or push a snow blower all night.”

“I’m only thirty-three,” he reminded her. “And I’m in good shape.”

That was certainly true. When all his friends in high school had started adding inches in height, Paul had tacked them on in girth. He’d solved the problem by discovering the weight room in the back of the gym and teaching himself how to eat right and build muscle. At five-foot-four he could bench-press nearly twice his weight, which really was something to be proud of. He wasn’t going to have a heart attack shoveling snow.

“You just don’t want to come home tonight,” Char accused.

“Damn it, Char, why do you have to say things like that? I’m out here trying to help us keep our house. Do you really think I want to spend the whole night outside in a snowstorm?”

“Who are you kidding?” Char snapped back. “The only time you’re happy is when you’re someplace else.”

“Damn it, stop saying that!” Paul shouted.

“What are you planning to do for dinner?” Char switched her line of attack with infuriating ease.

In the background, Paul heard Char’s mother. “Lottie, Lottie, where are you?”

“Damn,” his wife muttered. “She’s calling me again. Sometimes I really hate that woman. Why can’t I have five minutes to talk on the phone with my husband?”

Paul opened his mouth to add his two cents, but she didn’t give him the opportunity. “Call me later tonight when you have an idea how late you’ll be out and don’t let that bastard Jack short you any money.” She didn’t even pause for breath before shouting, “I’m coming, Mom.” She hung up the phone.

Paul almost let her get away with it, but he hated ending a call like this. He dialed her back and waited three rings for her to pick up the phone.

“What?”

“I love you, Char.”

“Oh for God’s sake, Paul. You know I’m busy.”

Paul tried again, wondering why she never wanted to say the words back to him. “I love you.”

“No, you don’t,” Char told him, compounding his pain.

In the background, he could hear her mother again. “Lottie! Lottie!”

He tried one more time. “I love you, Char. I really am sorry I can’t be home with you tonight.”

“Who do you think you’re kidding? You’re glad to have an excuse to be away from all this. Marrying me was the stupidest thing you ever did.”

Paul vigorously shook his head, even though Char couldn’t see him. “That’s not true. I know things are hard now, but—”

“Hard?” Char interrupted him. “I’ve ruined your life. I cost you your business. I wrecked our home.”

“No,” Paul protested. “No!”

“You know I’m right,” Char insisted. “And we both know if you had it to do over again, you’d have run the other way the first time you laid eyes on me.”

Paul’s temper got the better of him again. “You listen to me, Charlotte Steele. I’m glad I married you and I’d do it again in a moment if God gave me the chance.” He hesitated, the ripple of anger fading as he realized his wife really did think he regretted marrying her. “I just wish there was some way to prove it to you.”

Ahead of him on the highway, the driver of a semi started to switch lanes and then changed his mind, but in the slippery conditions the trailer kept gliding to the left, despite the fact that the cab had returned to the right lane. A car honked, but there was nothing the truck driver could do about the inertia of his vehicle. The torturous scream of steel grating on steel ripped across the highway as the truck flipped over on its side, pinning another vehicle and grinding up the pavement.

“Oh, my God.” Paul dropped his phone so he could grip the steering wheel with both hands as he instinctively stomped on his brakes. His pickup immediately swerved and slid on the snowy surface. Without taking the time to reason out his course of action, Paul switched his foot back to the gas and accelerated, moving onto the shoulder of the road and slipping beside the over-turned truck to shoot ahead of it back onto the highway.

Char screamed at him over the phone. “Paul, what is it? What’s wrong?”

The BMW that had been just ahead of him on the highway wasn’t so lucky, plowing head first into the big rig even as Paul escaped the danger. From the thunderous sounds behind him, other cars were just as unfortunate.

Char continued frantically calling to him over the cell, but he couldn’t spare the attention to answer. As soon as he cleared the truck, he tapped his brakes to bring his own vehicle to a stop in the middle of the highway. Behind him was a tangle of steel and screams. He released his seatbelt and threw open his door, but Char’s voice made him hesitate. He scooped up the phone. “Oh my God, Char, a semi just flipped over on the highway. I’m all right, but it’s an unholy mess. I’ll call you back.” He almost disconnected the call, but delayed one more second to add, “I love you.”

He dropped the phone onto the seat beside him, jumped out into the snow and ran back toward the accident. Car horns continued to pollute the evening, making it hard to think and impossible to listen for screams. He reached the cab of the semi. Its tires still spun in the night air while its window wipers scraped back and forth against the snow. Airbags that had gone off were starting to collapse as the driver feebly pushed at them.

Inspiration struck Paul and he ran back to his own vehicle. There were tool boxes locked in the bed of the pickup from the days he still ran his own company. He pulled his keys out of the ignition and quickly opened one of the boxes. Snow blew in his face, but he didn’t let the nuisance distract him. Lifting the lid on the long white case, he pulled out a small crowbar and ran back to the cab of the truck.

The driver had succeeded in pushing the airbag down, but he didn’t seem capable of doing anything else. He just sat with his seatbelt on, staring ahead of him as if he’d seen a ghost.

“Cover your face,” Paul shouted at him.

Dazed, the man just stared at him until Paul lifted the crowbar above his head as if he were threatening him.

The man covered his face with his arms.

Paul brought the crowbar down hard on the truck’s windshield, shattering the safety glass. He struck three more times to finish clearing it out then half climbed into the car to unfasten the man’s seatbelt. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“My truck turned over,” the man told him. He repeated it as if he couldn’t quite believe it had happened. “My truck turned over.”

Paul helped him clamber out the front of the truck.

A smell reached him through the snow. Gasoline—one of these vehicles was leaking gasoline. One spark in the wrong place and the whole pileup could blow. “What are you hauling?” he yelled at the truck driver.

The man stared at him stupidly and didn’t answer.

Paul dropped the question. The truck wasn’t a tanker and there weren’t any hazardous materials warnings on its sides. He pushed the man in the direction of his own pickup and ran around the overturned semi to see who else needed help.

The fuel smell was stronger here, centered on the Hyundai Elantra half pinned beneath the semi’s trailer. The truck had overturned on the rear corner of the little car, crushing a portion of the trunk, probably blowing out a tire and most importantly, piercing the fuel tank. From the look of things, the driver must have just filled the tank because fuel had already pooled everywhere and was still spreading.

Paul ran forward anyway. There were people in the car—there had to be—and no one else was doing anything to try and help them.

As he reached the Elantra, the driver of the BMW, who Paul had seen collide with the overturned truck, stumbled out of her vehicle. Behind her on the highway were other collisions, but they weren’t directly tangled in the mess that confronted Paul.

He brushed the snow off the Elantra’s windshield with his bare hand and a terrified woman stared back at him. “It’s going to be all right,” he promised and prayed fervently that he wasn’t lying. “Cover your face.”

Like the truck driver, the woman didn’t immediately get the message, but dropped her face into her arms when she saw the crowbar in his hand.

Heart pounding, Paul smashed the windshield into tiny pieces of glass and got a much better view of the interior of the vehicle. There were three occupants—the driver, an older woman and a teen-aged girl in the backseat. All wore seatbelts. All looked terrified. The girl was crying.

“I’m going to get you out of there,” Paul told them.

“I smell gasoline,” the driver said. “My daughter, my mother…”

She had brown eyes just like Char, and they spoke of a terror Paul hadn’t seen since he and his wife had rushed Brian to the hospital all those years ago.

“I know,” he told her. “I’m going to get you out.”

Behind the wreck on the highway beneath the deafening din of the horns, people finally began to emerge from their vehicles, staggering on the snowy highway as if they couldn’t figure out what to do. They weren’t going to be any help.

“Can you get your seat belt off?” Paul asked her.

The woman hesitated a moment and then began to fumble with the lock.

“You too, honey,” Paul told the girl in the backseat. “I want you to climb up here to the front, if you can. I don’t want to try and open any doors with the gas leaking all over the place.”

Despite the fact that she was still crying, the girl proved more nimble than her mother and got the seatbelt released in half the time it took her parent. The older woman, the grandmother Paul presumed, sat immobile, staring at him with a growing fierceness in her expression that Paul didn’t understand.

There was no time to worry about it. The fumes grew stronger and sparks weren’t the only way to ignite a fire.

“Come on,” he told the driver. “Give me your hand and I’ll help you out of the car.”

Tentatively, the woman reached out toward him before lunging forward to grasp his arms in a death grip.

Paul flexed muscles he’d been religiously developing since high school and pulled her up over the steering wheel and out onto the hood of her broken car. “That’s it, that’s it, I’ve got you.”

The woman’s coat caught on something for a few moments, but it tore free. She sprawled into his arms and both of them rolled back off the vehicle into the spreading pool of gasoline.

Paul had intellectually understood that the fuel was leaking and spreading, but physically landing in it amped up his fear. He wanted desperately to run away. Hadn’t he done enough? He’d pulled two people from the wreckage and made it possible for two more to escape. He wasn’t a cop or a fireman. But despite his anxiety he scrambled to his feet and climbed back onto the hood of the car to help the teenager.

The girl was still crying, but she wasn’t waiting to be rescued. While Paul and her mother had sprawled back off the car, she had climbed into the front seat and by the time Paul got back in position to help her, she was halfway out on the hood. “You have to help my Nana,” she sobbed as she scooted past Paul and down onto the road. He watched her for a moment as she picked her mother up out of the pool of gasoline and, still sobbing, helped her parent stumble to safety.

Paul returned his attention to the old woman and found her glaring at him. “You go away!”

She had an Eastern European accent that was absent in her daughter’s and granddaughter’s speech, and she’d clearly been thrown for a loop by the accident if she hadn’t already been crazy.

“I’m here to help you,” Paul told her. “I’m going to get you out of there.”

“I don’t need your help,” the woman said.

Fierce really understated the power of her gaze. She was angry—thunderously angry—and for some reason, Paul was the object of her enmity.

“Get out of the car, Nana!” the teenager screamed.

The old woman sat unmoved by the appeal.

“You have to take your seatbelt off,” Paul told her. “There’s a gas leak. This car could catch fire and explode.”

The woman made no move to help him.

Paul briefly wondered how much anyone could really expect of him in these circumstances, but he didn’t waste a lot of time doing it. He couldn’t run away and leave an old lady to burn. “Cover your face,” he ordered and then broke out the rest of the windshield so he could get to her.

He reached into the car to try and unfasten her seatbelt, but the old woman fought him like she wanted to sit there and die.

Paul dropped the crowbar and used his superior strength to force the seatbelt unlocked.

The old woman pushed his hands away. “I don’t want to leave,” she screamed. “What don’t you understand about that?”

Paul had no idea what was happening in her crazy old mind, but he wasn’t about to turn his back on her. He grabbed the woman’s shoulders and tried to force her up onto the hood of the car, but her resistance made that exceedingly difficult.

Suddenly the teenager was beside him again, still sobbing as she screamed and reached into the car to grab her grandmother. “What’s wrong with you, Nana? The car could blow up.”

The old woman kept struggling. “Ana, you listen to me, girl! Run away and take this annoying man with you.”

The teenager ignored her, climbing back into the vehicle to help force her grandmother to safety.

“What are you doing?” the old woman demanded. “Ana, you listen. Go back to your mother!”

The smell of gasoline kept getting stronger. It was all around them now, and the hot engine seemed just as likely to set it off as a stray spark. “If you don’t stop fighting us,” he told the old woman, “then we’re all going to die. Is that what you want for your granddaughter?”

The old woman stopped struggling. “Ana, you—”

“Please, Nana!” the girl pleaded.

“Oh, all right,” the woman muttered as if being rescued was the most inconvenient thing she could imagine.

She let Paul and Ana help her out onto the hood of the car and slide her down to the pavement right in the middle of the pool of gasoline.

“Go,” Paul ordered the teenager, and the girl sprinted off through the snow away from the danger.

With the girl’s departure, the old woman lost any desire to cooperate with her rescue, sitting like a lump in the puddle of fuel.

Paul had had just about all the craziness he could stand. Ignoring the woman’s protests, he scooped her up in his arms and started running with her up the road.

The woman cuffed him on the head as if he was abducting her. “Put me down! I don’t want—”

The sound of her daughter’s car exploding drowned out the old woman’s complaints. The blast picked Paul up off the ground and threw him six feet forward. He almost landed on his feet but stumbled in the slippery snow and went down hard. Even so, he managed not to bring his weight down directly on the old woman he was carrying.

Somewhere in the distance, people started screaming.

“Now you’ve done it,” the old woman complained. She pushed at Paul’s shoulders, but he couldn’t find the strength in his arms to move the rest of the way off of her. He couldn’t catch his breath. The warm taste of copper filled his mouth and spilled out onto his lips.

“Now you’ve done it,” the old woman repeated. “You selfish, selfish man, I wanted this for myself.” She spat on him. “Now you’ve gotten yourself killed, and I’ll have to waste it. Too much bad karma if I keep it now.”

Killed? Paul had no idea what she was talking about. There was a piercing pain in his back and his limbs weren’t working. He couldn’t get his hands beneath him. What was wrong with him?

A hand touched the crown of his head. “Live again,” the old woman whispered, “and may God hate you for it.”

Incredulous, Paul tried to look up at the old woman, but she kicked herself free of him, and he fell face-first into the bloody snow.

An image of Charlotte the first time he met her at his cousin’s barbecue flashed before his eyes. She had that blue halter-top on and a smile that could brighten the darkest night.

Then she was in the pool, hiking in the mountains, serving the homeless at the food pantry, standing before him in her wedding gown—so beautiful, so happy, so hopeful.

The pictures started coming faster—Char nine months pregnant with her hand on her full belly, holding newborn Brian against her, stretching her arms out as their boy took his first steps, crying on Paul’s shoulder the night they rushed him to the hospital, praying at Brian’s bedside that their son would survive the night.

The images flashed by too rapidly to track, leaving only faint impressions on the retinas of his mind—his beautiful wife’s smiles increasingly giving way to exhausted heart-wrenching frowns.

“Hey, man,” a voice said. It sounded incredibly distant, as if Paul was hearing it from miles away. “You’ve got a huge piece of car sticking out of your back.”

He felt hands upon him but couldn’t speak to reply.

Panic filled Paul, yet it wasn’t enough to animate his failing body.

“Hey, man,” the voice said again. “Are you still alive?”

“Yes,” he wanted to scream. “Help me. I can’t die. I can’t leave my family. I can’t leave Char.”

But all he heard was a wet gurgle swallowed up in the growing darkness.