Death Is a Diner at 3:00 a.m., by A.C. Wise


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You die in the stupidest way possible, slipping off a ladder while scooping leaves out of the gutter, the wet, mulchy scent of them the last thing you ever smell. You land just wrong, and as you do, you imagine your mother—smoke trailing from the cigarette wedged between the first and second fingers of her left hand, no words, just the look of perpetual disappointment she had for you ever since you turned ten years old, like everything about you and every choice you made from that point on would always and forever be wrong.

You’d privately hoped you’d go out doing something cool—a tiny act of rebellion against your mother’s opinion of you—skydiving, rock climbing, maybe saving someone from a fire. At very least you could have gone out like your mother, lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking, payment for a particular vice. But this, this right here, is bullshit.

Crossing over confirms that your mother was wrong about at least one thing: death is not clouds and angels, or even demons and pitchforks. Part of you wishes you could say I told you so, but you’re a little too stunned by what death actually is to be gloating.

Because, as it turns out, death is a diner at 3:00 a.m., a perfect recreation of the place you spent the worst hours of your life. The place and time you can pinpoint as where you gave up, and simply let everything unravel. Where you decided it wasn’t worth it to try, and your mother was right about you after all. Something in you turned rotten, you wanted things you shouldn’t want, but you lacked the ambition or skill to achieve them, and so you would always fail.

The diner at 3:00 a.m., both then and now, smells of burnt toast and fry-grease and coffee sitting on the warmer for too long. The floor is checked red and white, scuffed by a thousand pairs of shoes, and there are tiny rips in the round, padded seats lining the counter where laminated menus sit beside shiny napkin dispensers. The clock on the wall ticks softly, but the hands never move. It is 3:00 a.m. and it will always be 3:00 a.m. and no, nope, nuh uh—you are not putting up with this again. Fuck that noise; you’re out.

Easier said than done.

Outside the diner, death is a sandstorm. You walk straight away from the door where jangling bells announce your exit, and grit blows into your face and abrades your skin. You can’t see a fucking thing, not that there’s anything to see, and every step forward slides you two backwards as well. Faint panic takes hold, because even if your mother was wrong about the clouds and angels or the demons and pitchforks there’s another thing you’d much rather her be wrong about: that you can’t change the fundamental things that God has decreed.

Your lot in life is your lot in life, and your place in death is your place in death as well. You can’t just up and decide that you don’t want to be a girl anymore, or a boy either, but just yourself and who needs fucking labels anyway? God named you at birth and has judged you in death; no amount of crying or wishing things were otherwise will make an ounce of difference either way.

You very much want to cry about it right now, but you can only imagine how the grit would stick to the tears on your face, so you swallow down the pain—something you perfected while alive—and give it one more go.

The sandstorm has other ideas.

Finally thirst—yeah, who knew you could be thirsty in the afterlife, well, Tantalus, you suppose, but you’re not Greek or a king so what the fuck—and exhaustion drive you back inside. And when you turn around, just for now while you catch your breath, the diner is right fucking there like you never went anywhere at all.

The bell jangles over the door, heralding your return. You stand in the entryway looking for little differences, some sign of a cosmic joke, any indication of why you’re here.

The last time you were in this particular diner, back when you were alive, you were holding a letter informing you that unfortunately even your safety school couldn’t find a place for you, nor did they have any scholarships to offer should you want to put yourself on their waiting list, meaning that you couldn’t afford it even if they had accepted you. At that moment, you were also worrying about how you were going to even pay for the cup of coffee and the plate of pancakes keeping your sorrow company, and that’s when your aunt called—the one with insomnia—clearly expecting you to be out or asleep, hoping for your voicemail. She informed you your mother had died. Thought you should know. The funeral was last week. Don’t bother coming home.

As you hung up your cheap-ass pay-as-you-go phone, your simultaneous feelings were despair that you’d never gotten to prove your mother wrong—that you could make something of yourself after all, that you did have the guts to stand up and make the world see you for who you are—and relief because the letter in your hand told you that wasn’t ever going to happen anyway. None of which took the sting out of the absolute shittiness of the situation, because after all, she was your mother, and some small and lonely part of you still wanted her approval and hoped that one day maybe you could find a way back to loving her and being loved.

So, yeah, worst hours of your life. They were, however, fucking good pancakes.

You spent hours staring through the window at the red burn of taillights, and moths bumping their fragile bodies against streetlights the color of a week-old bruise. Given the dead hour of the night and that no one was clamoring for your booth, the waitress took pity and let you stay. Your face must have said that you needed somewhere to be right now, and you spent all night memorizing the cracks in the faux-leather seats and the scratches in the melamine and counting the packets of sweetener in the little white plastic container wedged between the salt and pepper shakers over and over again.

Now, when you’re dead, from inside the diner, you can’t see anything outside at all. No parking lot, no moths, no trash swirling in the breeze or flattened between the faded, painted lines. The sandstorm erases it, like the world, the afterworld, ends at the diner door.

Inside, everything is the same, but different somehow too. The same scratches, the same sugar packets in their pastel colors. But there are no people, not even behind the counter, dashing your hope of more pancakes. There is a pot of coffee on, the one you smelled when you first arrived, and all the salt and pepper shakers look freshly filled. Someone must have been here once, which means someone could be here again, and you get a faint, tingling sense of potential in the air. Death is a diner at 3:00 a.m. now, but could it be something else, maybe?

The jukebox in the corner glows with coruscating bands of pink and orange and yellow light, like a neon sunset, just waiting for someone to drop a quarter into it and fill the place with sound. The thought of reaching into your pocket for a coin instills panic all over again. Your fingers cramp, and your stomach cramps, and there’s a low-level buzz of fear. Your mother’s voice is in the back of your head telling you not to make a fuss, be quiet, accept things as they are.

There’s a part of you, a small part, buried deep inside, that rages like the sandstorm outside. All your life you’ve been taught—until you began to teach yourself—to push it down, to pretend it isn’t there. It’s the part of you that wants to grab hold of the status quo and tear it all down. Why can’t you self-advocate? Why can’t you demand the world change? Why do you always have to be the one to give way?

There’s another part of you, a small voice lost in the howl of the sand-and-grit-filled storm, that says if you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else will. The world will never change unless you force it to. This place, this diner you can’t leave? It’s your fault because you’re too afraid to demand it be anything other than 3:00 a.m. Just like you’ve always been afraid to demand the world see you for who you are, to make space for you, because it’s so much easier to fade away.

A shaky breath later, one that rattles with the tears still held inside, you think okay, what’s the worst that could happen, really? You’re already dead. If you don’t try now, when will you ever try? There’s nothing else to lose, so what if you change just one small, stupid thing?

There’s a tower of those big plastic cups, the cloudy kind that always look a little bit dirty even when they’re freshly washed, and a cardboard container full of straws wrapped in that paper that’s such a pain in the ass to peel off. You help yourself to some water. And then you dismantle the cups from their careful towers and line them along the counter in a series of pyramids and almost-cubes, making patterns of your own. It isn’t exactly Stonehenge, just your own tiny plastic monument to tell the world you were here.

And then you set out from the diner in the opposite direction.

Same deal. It feels like the sand is stripping layers of your skin away, and you’re genuinely surprised when you look down and don’t see polished bone. Your mouth is parched, and your eyes water, and fuck, fuck, fuck, you turn around and head back inside.

But you refuse to panic this time, and you’re not ready to admit defeat. You’re getting angry more than scared, but now that your thirst is slaked, you’re getting hungry as well. The world didn’t end when you rearranged the cups, and since there’s no one around to stop you, you think, why not make a go at cooking those pancakes yourself? Maybe the diner won’t be done with you until you finally stand up and take what you want.

Everything you need is right there, and the grill is even thoughtfully on, but turned down low. The attempt goes about as well as you’d expect for somebody who once fucked up boxed mac and cheese. And your mother’s disappointment is there in the back of your mind again, and maybe she’s right, maybe you are just a screwup after all. You didn’t get into the colleges you wanted and you could have applied elsewhere, looked for other solutions, but you didn’t even try. You lost a series of low-wage, shitty jobs and when you couldn’t hold down anything regular, you bounced around doing odd jobs and temp jobs scraping together just enough to get by. After that night in the diner at 3:00 a.m., you decided to let yourself drift, just biding time until what? Until this. Until you died.

After dumping the disastrous results of your pancake adventure into the trash, you settle for a couple of packets of those crackers they serve with soup and you pour yourself a cup of the coffee that, despite the smell, actually tastes freshly brewed. Maybe there is some kind of grace waiting for you after all.

The coffee gives you hope. There has to be something else out there. Something better. Something more.

You try again, and the wind howls and the sand pummels you, demanding you submit, sending you slinking back inside.

It’s not demons and pitchforks, but maybe this is your own private hell. Your inability to escape proves there is something wrong with you. You don’t want it enough, you’re not strong enough. You have to accept your lot in life; some things are decreed and will never change.

The third time you return to the diner, you startle to discover that you are no longer alone.

All the breath goes rushing out of you because the person sitting in the last booth, tucked all the way into the corner, looks an awful lot like Elvis.

In place of breath, memory comes crashing in—the other worst moment in your life, made more terrible by being wrapped up in one of the best, most bittersweet moments, its roots stretching all the way back to the last time you remember feeling your mother’s love.

You were seven years old and your daddy had just up and left, no note, no word, no kiss goodbye to tell you it wasn’t your fault. Rain pounded the sloped shingle roof and streaked down the windows; the whole world was tinted blue and smudged with shadows. The power wasn’t out, but the lights were off, and your mother snugged you up against her on the sagging old couch, tucked right into her side so you could smell cigarette smoke and fabric softener and the chemical-laced talcum powder scent of the spray she used to set her hair. She pushed an old VHS tape into the player under the TV and told you how when she was little, whenever she felt sad about something, she would listen to Elvis.

And just then, for the length of time it took a record to play, the sadness would melt away. She would soak in the music like a good, warm bath, and by the time she was done, the hurt would be a little less and she’d be ready to face the world again.

That night, the night your daddy left, sitting in front of the TV, you watched a VHS compilation of Elvis’s greatest performances all the way through and once more over again at your mother’s side. Bathed in the TV’s flickering light, hearing the drumming counterpoint of rain outside, felt like magic. The hurt couldn’t touch you, not as long as Elvis’s voice wove its spell; just in that moment, everything would be okay.

That memory was in your head at ten years old, a rift beginning to form between you and your mother that you didn’t yet understand. Between getting home from school and your mother getting home from work to take you back to the school for the annual talent show, you took a pair of scissors to your hair. You were meant to be done up in ringlet curls and sing you don’t even remember what, maybe “America the Beautiful” or something like that. But you had a different plan.

You’d bought a box of black hair dye with your allowance on your way home. Once it was all rinsed out and your hair was dry, you used almost a full can of your mother’s hairspray swooping your newly-shortened hair into an Elvis Presley pompadour. Earlier in the week, you enlisted your friend Jaelyn to help bedazzle an old pair of sweatpants and one of your mother’s blouses that she never wore anymore into an approximation of Elvis’s famous rhinestone jumpsuit. You were going to sing “Blue Suede Shoes” and win your mother’s heart.

You wanted to evoke her childhood and that night on the couch. You knew work had been rough for her lately, and even three years later, she was still missing your father—or at least missing having someone—and life was grinding her down, starting to make her hard. You wanted to see her smile, let her feel like, at least just for a little while, everything would be okay.

You still remember, even now, the way her keys jangled as they struck the floor. The way she shrieked and grabbed your wrist to drag you back to the bathroom, trying to scrub out all that black dye, repeating over and over again, “What have you done, what have you done?”

You never made it to the talent show. Your mother grounded you. The only time you left the house for a week was to go to the salon and have a hairdresser do her best to fix the mess you’d made. Your mother was so embarrassed she wrote a note to the principal claiming you had strep throat and could someone please bring by any schoolwork you needed and just leave it on the front porch?

You didn’t know it back then, but your mother had already started to suspect things about you that you didn’t even know about yourself. Things that shook her view of the way the world ought to be and left her terrified. That’s when you first remember her lecturing you about the world being immutable, about certain things being decreed by God and unable to change.

“Do you think you know better than God? Do you think you can just change way He made you on a stupid whim?”

You remember the words, accompanied by the smell of spaghetti, your stomach twisted so you couldn’t eat anyway, pushing the noodles around on your plate, fighting not to cry while your mother repeated questions she didn’t want an answer to anyway.

Elvis soured, became the symbol of everything broken and wrong in your relationship, which only got worse from that day. A wound that wouldn’t heal, and so you finally gave up and left home at sixteen. Another failure in your mother’s eyes, another example of how you were no good, how instead of facing up to the realities of the world, you simply ran away.

So this Elvis, here, now, in this diner at 3:00 a.m., takes your breath away. Elvis young and far prettier than was strictly decent for a man at the time, back before life broke him into itty bitty pieces, and now that you think about it, maybe you didn’t die in the stupidest way possible after all. The thought makes you want to laugh and cry all at once at the sheer absurdity of everything, and maybe tears do start in your eyes a little because the bathroom doors in the wall behind Elvis’s head no longer say Men and Women, but melt into a kind of squiggly nonsense blur of letters that mean absolutely nothing at all.

What the hell? Why Elvis? The house you grew up in—your house, but not your home, not since you turned sixteen—used to be full of his music. It was your mother’s thing, and then briefly it was your thing together, and then it was nobody’s thing at all. Your mother never played an Elvis song ever again, like what you’d done at ten years old had poisoned him forever.

Instead, your mother found other things, and doubled down on them—hymns and cross-stitched Bible verses. Beauty pageants and rodeo queens. This is what it means to be a boy and this is what it means to be a girl, and you don’t get to choose. She made one of the pillars of her faith the idea that strict rules governing gender were a thing God delivered to Moses via the burning bush along with Thou Shalt Not Kill.

So again—Elvis? Really?

You’re about to call bullshit all over again, nope out and take your chances with the storm, when not-Elvis looks up and gives you the sweetest, saddest, most heartbreaking and heartbroken smile you’ve ever seen. The breath goes out of you all over again, and it occurs to you that you’re not alive and so technically you shouldn’t be breathing at all.

In the light hanging over not-Elvis’s booth, the angle of cheekbones is harder than you would have expected, but the jaw is softer and the lips are fuller. This Elvis is not one thing or another, but a multitude of things, someone more like you who doesn’t fit so easily into those God-given boxes your mother held dear. Looking at them, you feel lifted and boneless all at once, wanting to slump into the booth across from not-Elvis, and maybe even let yourself cry finally, for real and for good.

You don’t want this—your mother’s version of the world where nothing can ever change, your own personal hell where you’re too afraid to stand up and demand this diner to be something different. A disco, a library, a swimming pool. Anything thing at all. You’re tired of bending so the world doesn’t break you. You already made one small change, and maybe that’s enough for a start—changes can compound, a snowball becoming an avalanche, all starting with just one flake. Maybe you can remake this world, remake this memory, into something better, reclaim the diner and reclaim Elvis, not trapped here, but making a place where everything can be okay and nothing hurts, at least for a little while.

You ask the first question that comes to your mind.

“Do you like pie?”

The way not-Elvis’s smile lights up a notch, which somehow lights the whole damn room, makes you think for just a moment that maybe you do believe in God after all.

You help yourself to two slices from under the glass domes on the counter—banana cream for not-Elvis and lemon meringue for you. You can’t remember if the pie was there before, or if you willed it to be, a soft, creamy-whispery yellow for not-Elvis, and tart, bright lemon sunshine for you. And damn if the pie isn’t even better than the pancakes, and you find yourself sobbing and telling not-Elvis everything while they listen patiently, and then you’re out of words, blotting your face with a wad of napkins from the metal dispenser and saying you’re sorry over and over again.

You don’t know if you’re apologizing to not-Elvis or the child you were at ten, or sixteen, who didn’t have the strength to demand your mother’s love, to say, This is who I am and you don’t get to care about me less because of it. Or maybe you’re apologizing to your mother for not being someone she could love, for the hard life she lived, the jobs she worked, the bitterness and simultaneous ache she had for the man who left her behind. You know what it’s like to love someone and hate them in the same breath, to miss them fiercely and be hurt by them, but also hold them in your heart as the only one you want to run to in order to make it all better again.

Not-Elvis covers your hand with their own, and this time the smile says they understand everything you said and more—all the things you don’t have words for or just didn’t think to say.

Like how you know deep down that none of your apologies were for your mother, but how you loved her anyway, even though her definition of the world wouldn’t allow her to love you. Not in the way you wanted to be loved, and you’re not sure where that leaves you, so you look not-Elvis in the eyes and ask.

“So what happens now?”

You’re pretty sure the real Elvis—or the other Elvis, because this one seems more real to you in this moment than anyone else could ever be—never had eyes like galaxies unfurling. Eyes like forever spiraling out into more forever, or approximately how long you tried to walk away from this shitty diner and failed, all glittering with star-stuff and the base elements of the universe. But this one definitely does.

Not-Elvis’s cosmic gaze holds steady, it holds you, all the parts of you, even the ones that feel like contradictions, especially the ones that feel like contradictions—like your love for your mother. It holds all the parts of you that feel broken, like the edges of a shattered diner coffee cup grinding against each other, because even though you love her, your mother still did a number on you.

Under that steady gaze, you understand. Death, like you, like not-Elvis, like love, isn’t one thing or the other. It’s not punishment or reward. It’s a multitude. And it can change. Death, like life, but without the stupid bullshit limitations of external circumstances beyond your control—like skin, or organs, or blood, or where you live, or how much money you do or do not have—is what you make of it. Your mother was wrong. This place, this diner at 3:00 a.m., which once held the worst moment of your life, could be anything at all.

You smile, and not-Elvis smiles back at you with relief that you understand. It’s going to take time, because dead or alive, you’re still you, and your baggage isn’t something that you can let go of right away. But if you work at it, well, maybe death might just be all some people say it’s cracked up to be. Someday.

You feel light, giddy even, weirdly like dancing. You slide a hand into your pocket, and there’s a quarter there waiting for you.

“What do you say,” you ask not-Elvis as you scoot out of the booth. “Feel like shaking those beautiful hips of yours one more time?”

Their smile broadens, and they join you on the diner’s impromptu dance floor as the first notes of “Blue Suede Shoes” fill the room.

You don’t know exactly how you’re going to proceed from here, but for starters, maybe you’ll give making pancakes another try.


A.C. Wise is the author of the novels Wendy, Darling and Hooked, as well as the recent short story collection, The Ghost Sequences. Her work has won the Sunburst Award, and has been a finalist for the Nebula, Stoker, World Fantasy, Locus, British Fantasy, Aurora, Shirley Jackson, Ignyte, and Lambda Literary Awards. In addition to her fiction, she also contributes a review column to Apex Magazine. Find her online at

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