What happens when you die?
Bit of a question for the ages, isn't it? It's one of those questions that's followed humans around ever since the first one dropped dead of a bad banana or something, and it's pretty hard to say that there's ever going to be a definitive answer. I'm not convinced that that Far Side cartoon was right, what with the surgeons faking out some poor guy under anesthesia, but whatever the cliché Hallmark thing that's supposed to happen after death is, it didn't happen to me.
Well, actually, since my family was varying degrees of Protestant Christian or Buddhist or some variation in between (don't ask), I don't think we really came to a consensus other than to say that we'd probably be reunited with grandpa and grandma and everyone else that died before us. Given that I was twenty-going-on-twenty-one last I remember, I figured I'd have a lot of ancestors probably demanding to know why I didn't have a boyfriend yet, or maybe others wanting to know why I only got three-fourths of the way through a non-medical degree before dying. Sure, I wanted to be a teacher and got pretty close for being only two years out of high school, but I'm not sure my distant ancestors really cared and I'm almost glad I didn't meet some of them—every family has its crazy people and some of them scare the crap out of me to this day.
For the record, my death was boring, pointless, and probably had people huddling in groups and nodding to each other about how expected it was. Doesn't matter too much what it was—fact is, I still don't know what happened. I was sitting at home watching TV, and then nothing.
That's all in the past now, anyway. After all, I'm dead. Didn't end up meeting any of those relatives—and I'm regretting some of that—before being dumped into some warm, if boring and occasionally thumping, darkness to await judgment day. Maybe? I'm not particularly religious in any organized sense—never have been—but I figured that'd be it for me and I'd…I dunno, just hang around. Maybe get ground up into the force which moves the planes of reality—yes, I'm a passing fan of Dungeons and Dragons and you can shut up now, because the fate of the Faithless is no goddamn joke when you're possibly qualified for it. It was boring, but probably better than eternal damnation for not being a particularly good or bad person. Purgatory doesn't seem to involve a lake of fire, and I'm okay with that.
Or I was. I guess I never really considered three really important points, in retrospect.
One: Never assume a given religion had it right. I'd made the assumption of figuring that all those stories about Grandma watching over us from heaven were true. Turns out it was the wrong family belief system to go with, at least for me.
Two: Infantile amnesia only works out if you don't actually have the mental capacity to remember things. Hence, infantile amnesia and not general, all-purpose amnesia. I would kill to take this second fact back to whoever made it up and throttle them with it.
Three: Any unexplained physical sensation after death should be investigated. I mean, now I know that the constant, faint itching sensation I felt must have been the development of my internal chakra circulatory system. It was building me up, so one day I'd be able to pull off the insane ninja magic bullshit that made this world work. The itch stopped being so intrusive later, when my coils stabilized from the rapidly developing stage they were in before birth. It was sort of like the development of neurons, I think—you've got the potential storage space for everything you're ever going to have room to learn when you're born, and they don't grow back. If something had happened in utero, like what I now suspect happened with Rock Lee, I'd be permanently crippled as far as chakra goes. I always feel a little like there's warmth under my skin that no one but me can know about, now. I can feel the same thing in other people, but it's probably less because I'm actually talented in my new life and more because, when you get down to it, chakra was foreign. Like having an extra limb or the sudden ability to see the entire light spectrum. Magic ninja bullshit wasn't exactly a staple of my old life, so of course I'd be extremely aware that now it was.
Er. Would be. I'm getting ahead of myself here.
Imagine this as an adult—suddenly the warm darkness is getting a bit too tight, a bit too unstable, and then there's a pulsating wall of muscle forcing you to move around or be squished like a grape. It's a little like how I imagined being eaten by a snake would be like, when I'd been five and too young to understand how snake jaws didn't detach that much. All I knew at the time was that it was too small and I was too big and I needed to get away before I was turned into taffy. Funny thing about that, though, was that none of my limbs seemed to want to work the way I wanted them to and I ended up getting pretty squished regardless. And then I was out.
One of the things that I read about, before, was that a baby's instinct was to inhale immediately upon feeling air on his or her face. It works pretty well for porpoises and whales, who are pushed up to the surface for their first breath by their mothers, but it was one of those things that nearly killed me twenty years early in my old life because the nurses hadn't gotten the fluid off my face completely. My parents told me that story a lot growing up—I think they were amused by the whole situation, after the fact, even if they were terrified at the time. Now I got to experience it myself because my lungs weren't quite listening to me just yet.
It is fucking terrifying.
But between the fact that the nurses here had been careful enough to clean me off and clear my airways, the warm if scratchy towel, the swaddling, and a bunch of hands on my body that were absolutely huge and lifting me up, my lungs got a pretty good workout with my first scream. I was genuinely terrified, even when the hands carrying me didn't end up dropping me. I think I kept screaming even when I was placed on my new mother's chest, until I started suckling. My body, unsurprisingly, still wasn't listening to me.
I was effectively blind—though my vision in my old life was actually worse than what I could see now, with less light sensitivity and more depth perception—my hearing was hypersensitive due to what had been months of effective sensory deprivation, I could feel everything from the swaddling blanket to the heat of my mother's skin, and my sense of taste was pretty much nonexistent.
And I that was how I was born again, more or less.
I'll skip over the whole thing with potty training and stuff. Frankly, I'm almost glad that I didn't have any control over my body then—the developing human brain isn't designed to have the nerve impulses of a twenty-year-old human running through it anyway. I could at least justify the memories of needing an adult's help for everything as being due to true helplessness. It made me feel more grateful and less humiliated. My memories of that time are about as detailed as if I'd been an actual adult, but the sheer boredom means even my not-quite-physical adult brain and memories sort of lets it all bleed together. It's like anything else after enough time goes by—nostalgia essentially means filing off the edges of stuff that was boring or dull or mediocre, leaving only extreme highs or lows in its wake. So, out of it, I mostly got a deep need to be in control, to never be helpless again, and a fierce love for my parents for putting up with my needs for so long.
And a very strong conviction never to have children of my own, but that's not exactly new for me. I'm still quietly terrified by the idea of being solely or jointly responsible for the future survival and happiness of another human being, but now I just added the whole issue of diapers to the pile of reasons to use birth control.
More on that later, though.
Originally, I'd been a fairly quiet child. I mean, I cried since that's what babies do, but you weren't going to be finding me screaming my head off at three in the morning as an infant in my last life unless something was really wrong. I guess I had my parents trained to respond to the little squeaks I made, sort of like how cats get their owners to do things for them. Here, I was still pretty quiet as a rule, but the feel of my chakra settling in my coils never stopped being there. It's sort of like someone poking you every ten minutes or so, just to remind you they're still around. Or maybe like having someone lean on your shoulder. It was annoying and only occasionally comforting, so I think I was a bit noisier out of sheer temper more than anything. I still tried to have a proper screaming match with the world only when I actually needed something, to save my parents' sanity.
Mom was…I think she was ill somehow, honestly. As my vision improved and I could actually see the person carrying me, I'd look up and see Mom holding me most of the time. I'd gurgle at her, to say hello, but her smile back was always a little strained. She was paler than I remember myself being, once upon a time—and since I didn't get out a hell of a lot, I think I might have been an expert on it. She was pretty, though. She seemed a little thin and waiflike, but her eyes were dark and kind when they weren't sunken due to my periodic wakeup calls, and her hair was a straight black curtain around her face. She was delicate. I still loved her, though, in a way only children can, because she and Dad were my world and she loved me back.
Dad seemed older, a little wearier with gray already in his hair and scars on his jaw. He had a wider, more solid build and darker features, but I was wearing him down as surely as Mom just by being a baby. It was only because of him that I realized my predicament at all. He'd been holding me, since Mom was in the hospital again for some kind of post-birth follow-up thing. I had an idea of what that could entail, in all its gory detail, so I don't think I would have asked even if I could have made my vocal chords work voluntarily. Dad was making faces at me, trying to get me to copy him, and I was waving my little fists around just because I could.
And I guess my vision was finally good enough for me to look at what I was holding, once I grabbed it. I had his forefinger in a chubby fist and I wasn't about to let go, whether he tried gently pulling loose or not. It was an accomplishment! Baby steps toward success and independence happened all the time, and as an adult in a baby's body I was going to enjoy as many as I could figure out.
Not like I had anything better to do, anyway.
It took me a while to recognize the vest Dad was wearing as a flak jacket, even when I was looking right at it—hell, if I hadn't been familiar with the Naruto series as a whole, I doubt I would have realized what it was—and I only really got the totally unintended message when I caught the gleam of metal on his forehead. I couldn't tell what symbol was on it, though—infant eyes aren't good for distances of more than about eight inches or so.
I don't think I panicked, but the thing with being a baby is that there's only one reaction for anything negative. I started sniffling. Dad started panicking. Guess there was a reason Mom was the one who held me most of the time.
"Gekkō-san, daijōbu desu ka?" someone asked, and my dad's head turned toward someone else. The rest of the conversation passed by a little too quick for me to keep up.
I was only a week or two old, all right? Cut me some slack for having trouble with a language I never learned before. Most of the other stuff I'd chalked up to just the fact that my new ears were a little sensitive and my brain was probably scrambled from being born. The fact that I know any Japanese at all is a miracle of coincidence and annoyance—watching subbed and raw anime wasn't compensating for the fact that in my old life, English was my first language and my old memories were not helping me adapt at all. They might actually be getting in the way.
"Daijōbu, Keisuke-chan?" Dad said, presumably to me.
…Yep. That's my name: Keisuke Gekkō, born on July 10th. I even have the baby footprint and birth certificate to prove it. I found out later that Mom's name was Miyako and Dad was Wataru. I get the feeling that my parents wanted a boy first. Don't you? I also had the sudden feeling I would grow up a very angry child, like a boy named Susan or something. Maybe it would lead to me trying to destroy the world, like Mandark. I'd have to convince people to call me Kei or Keiko for the rest of my life.
Or maybe I could grow up into ten feet of anger in a five-foot frame for other reasons entirely!
I'd bet on the latter, personally.