John Smith opens one eye; then the other. His body is achy and a bit sore, but at the same time, light, and slightly airy. It appears as if he’s in a plain white room with no windows and no furniture.
“Hello?” He calls, standing up and brushing off his jeans and t-shirt. No one replies, and his eyebrows furrow in confusion. The last he can remember is driving down the road; singing along to the Grateful Dead at the top of his lungs, and then flying through the wintry air. He’s supposed to be dead; that much he knows.
“Is anyone here?” He tries again, taking a few steps forward. A door comes into view, and he pushes it open, arriving in what looks like a fancy dinner party. The guests are dressed up in gowns and suits, men in chef outfits run around, delivering purple wine and little snacks on tooth picks to people, and very un-tasteful smooth jazz plays softly in the background. No one stops to look at him, except one man, who right away comes bustling over.
“Sir! Are you, by any chance, Mr. John Smith?” The small man asks, and John nods curtly.
“My name is Harold Bucklegeimer, and I think it would be best if you’d follow me.”
John does as he is told and follows the strange man out of the room, into a sterile white hallway, and into a small, rather cozy looking study.
“Welcome to Heaven, Mr. Smith,” Harold Bucklegeimer cries, grinning and immediately running over to a cherry wood cabinet and pouring out (rather unconservatively) two glasses of vodka. He hands one to John, who takes it in his hands but does not drink it.
“Heaven,” the John Smith repeats, speaking slowly. Harold Bucklegeimer nods.
“According to my records-“ he pauses, reaching over to his desk and pulling out a stack of papers- “you died what seems to be a rather heroic death, hence why you arrived here, and not in the slums.”
John merely stares.
“Don’t look at me like that! It isn’t complicated! The way you die changes where you end up- you have reached the highest of the high of the death classes!” Harold Bucklegeimer exclaims with a quick chuckle. John, however, drops his shot glass to the ground, not stopping to admire the brilliant shards of transparency it leaves behind.
“Heaven,” he says again, “is a fantasy for fools. I am not a fool.”
“I never said you were, nor will I ever. I am simply telling you the truth. Heaven is not where a Jesus, nor a God, nor an Allah lies, it is a place that the passed souls simply go to. It does not have a place, or a region, it is where those who have died arrive. There is no science, no math, and no religion or faith. It just is.”
“I did not die a heroic death. I died one of normality,” John mutters, and again, Harold Bucklegeimer lets out a throaty laugh.
“According to my records- which are always correct- you were a wonderful man in your lifetime, which is what really matters, right? Now, if that’s not heroic, what is?”
Anne Frank, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., John wants to say.
He keeps his mouth firmly shut.
“Now, why don’t you go out and mingle with the other guests for a while? I’ll send Tabitha to go get you a room and some clothes- oi, those are some strange clothes you wear! What do say about that, Mr. Smith?”
“I don’t like parties.”
“Well, you’ll have to learn to! Here in Heaven we have them every weekend!”
Harold Bucklegeimer stands up, leaving John alone in the study.
“I’ve gone mad,” John whispers, standing up and walking through the same hallway in which he arrived, and then out to the party.
He stands there, awkwardly, not responding to those that offer him food or drink, congratulations of arrival, or the shaking of hands. He simply peers over the crowds, his eyes searching, calculating.
The people here seem normal, average, even. He doesn’t recognize the people he was for sure would be in Heaven- no sign of the heroes he knew about. The people here varied in size, ethnicity, and tongue. He knew that they were all speaking different languages, but for some odd reason, he understood them easily.
“This isn’t right,” he murmurs, searching for Harold Bucklegeimer but having no avail.
“This-this-“ he says to no one in particular, and no one hears him, which is good, because they would’ve been mightily confused. John certainly is.
“I don’t understand!” He finally cries, and this time, people turn to stare at him. He feels their eyes on his body, he feels the smiles leave their faces, and he feels their wonder as if it is his own. He clears his throat, a nervous sweat breaking out on his forehead.
“Erm, hello. John Smith. Pleased to meet you all. It’s my first night here, by the way,” he explains, and he can hear the whispers even from where he is standing.
“I am confused, as I’m sure you were, and I just am wondering about one thing. Humanity,” he blunders, the words escaping his thin line of a mouth before he can stop them. This time, though, it’s not just whispers that break out. It’s questions.
“What do you mean, humanity?” Someone calls, and John Smith wipes his sweaty face with the sleeve of his shirt.
“What makes humans so fantastic is that they fight to live even when they know they’re going to die. They laugh and kiss and smile and read and write and go to school and work hard even though they know that they will pass. Doesn’t this…..Well……Destroy that?” He tries, shrugging.
“Heaven,” the same person starts, “is a dream come true. You should be proud, honored even, to be here.”
John, for some reason, isn’t, and he walks away.
The party goes on for what seems like an eon, and after hours of nothing happening, John is being whisked off to his room, which is small and plain and simple. It feels nothing like the one he had when he is alive.
He finds no bathroom and no toothbrush, and he isn’t tired, but he still lies down on his bed and tries to go to sleep, although it is, of course, to no avail.
John, soon growing tired of the nothingness, leaves the room and goes to find Harold Bucklegeimer, who is sitting in his office.
“Hello, Mr. Smith!”
“Hello, Sir. I was just wondering if I could ask you a few questions.”
Harold Bucklegeimer nods, pulls off his spectacles, and leans forward slightly on his desk.
“Well, ask away! You have questions, I have the answers,” he says, a bit too happily. John Smith sniffs and sits down in the spare chair.
“I… I can’t grasp this. Heaven.”
“A lot of people can’t. It’s quite alright, Mr. Smith!”
“But humans- we’re a species that’s special because we live to die. We live because it’s everything we have, everything we’ll ever have. I believe that everyone has a time- mine might have been a bit early, yes, but that’s life. You can’t have life without death. They’re one as the river and sea are one,” John explains, and Harold Bucklegeimer smiles.
“Is that a Kahlil Grabran quote?” The other man asks quietly, and John nods.
“Well, Mr. Smith, you do bring up good points. But Heaven has no science. It just is.”
“You’ve already brought that up, Sir.”
John Smith is starting to get frustrated.
“I can’t send you back, if that’s what you mean. To Earth. I’m terribly sorry. If I could I would, you know,” Harold Bucklegeimer says softly.
“I don’t want to be here.”
John’s voice is firm.
“It isn’t my decision-“
“It should me mine! People commit suicide all the time back down on earth, what makes it so different here?” John’s yelling now, and Harold Bucklegeimer rests his balding head in his hands. He suddenly looks tired. And old. John wonders precisely how old the man sitting a few feet away from him is.
“There is one choice-“
“What do you mean, a choice?”
“I was about to get to that, Mr. Smith. I made a very foolish decision when I arrived here. I understand everything that you said, I truly did, but I have been bonded here by forces unknown to help with the new arrivals, and damnit, it’s probably the worst job in history. Living here- it’s a curse, but it’s also a gift, and it all depends on how you look at it,” Harold Bucklegeimer whispers, and John Smith gulps.
“What does that have to with anything?”
“Everything, Mr. Smith. Everything!” Harold Bucklegeimer yells, standing up.
“There is always a choice. Always! There are always options, always another route, and there is one here. You can move on, John Smith, if that is what you wish.”
John Smith doesn’t understand.
“Dead. Gone. No more afterlife. No more Heaven. No souls, no spirits. It’s your choice, Mr. Smith,” Harold Bucklegeimer mutters, and John stands up, brushing his pants off.
“When? When would I make this choice?”
“Whenever you feel like the time is ready. When it is no longer a gift.”
John says a quick thank you and goodbye, and he leaves.
Sleepless nights. The dead can’t sleep. Boringness. Friendlessness. He can’t find anyone or locate anything. He can’t play his guitar- something that had always calmed him back when he was alive- he can’t swim, or dance, or sing. He feels alone in a world of everyone else. He has been granted something precious, that much he knows, and he is throwing it away. The depression, though, is eating him from the outside in, and he doesn’t know how much longer he can go.
He once read a quote- ‘depression is like drowning in a sea, surrounded by people who can swim’- and that’s how he feels. Except he’s not drowning. He’s swimming, too, but he’s slowly forgetting how.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been here. His hair is getting matted. He doesn’t change his clothes. He doesn’t talk or socialize or go the events. He sits in his bed, reading the same few books he has been supplied with over and over, desperate for an escape.
His life, if you can even call it that, is far from a blessing.
“I want to sleep,” he whispers to himself, and even he begins to wonder what he means by that.
John Smith paces up and down his minuscule room, which is messy and unkempt. His mind is ablaze.
“This,” he gestures around him, even though he knows no one can hear, “is not life. I would rather die than have this never ending cycle weighted down on my shoulders. I have no purpose, no reason, and that is breaking me apart. On Earth, everyone has a reason to survive. Everyone. No matter how broken, there are always casts, always cures, always someone or something. Always. But here, there is me and there is space. There are walls and confinements and I am alone and I don’t belong here. I never will. This is nothing more than a half-life, because living forever destroys the most important thing about humans,” he whispers, and red-hot tears are sliding down his cheeks.
He’s made his decision.
A few days later, or maybe it is a few hours, he goes to see Harold Bucklegeimer, and immediately, the other man knows what he is there for.
“Are you ready?” Harold Bucklegeimer asks, and John Smith nods, worried but, in a sense, calmed.
“You may follow me.”
The two walk down the hallway. John’s legs are shaking.
Harold Bucklegeimer opens up a door, and John steps inside. It’s warm and cool at the same time, peaceful but loud, silent but screaming.
It feels like life.
“This is it. The spot,” Harold Bucklegeimer mumbles, and John Smith, in light of the misery hole in his heart, smiles broadly.
The other man looks at him sadly.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Smith. So very, very sorry. I’m going to close the door, and you’ll fade away, into the nothingness. Into the abyss. The void. I won’t lock it. You can leave, if you want. It’s not painful. You’ll fall asleep.”
John Smith cries a little bit, because sleep is what he’s looking for.
Harold Bucklegeimer hugs the distraught man, and he leaves before the sentiment arrives, with John alone in the small room.
John Smith lies down on the floor of the room. He’s not tired. Not yet.
“Is this what I want?” He asks to no one and to nothing.
He grins stupidly.
“There is beauty in life, but there is beauty in death, and dear God, I believe I have found them both.”
His eyelids begin to feel heavy. He swallows. He breathes. In, out. In, out. His heartbeat is a drum, pounding in his chest, still going strong. Strong as a racing horse.
“There is a time for everything!” He shouts, and his chest hurts, but he doesn’t care. “And this is mine!”
Black spots begin to cloud his vision. He pushes through. He wants to live, oh yes, but he wants to find life where it is hidden, and he is finding the strength and the wonder in these pockets of time, the time before death, and he is laughing, because he has never felt more alive.
He is a soul, nothing more, but there is blood surging through him, tile beneath his body that is cooling his feverish skin, and pain and hurt and love, and he feels it like it’s punching him in the face.
“What’s the point in life if there is not death?” He cries, struggling for words. “I’m dying, but Jesus, I feel alive…..”
And John Smith’s eyes close and his limbs stop twitching. His blood slows down and his warmth turns to cold.
John Smith is dead, but he died alive.