Afterlife (short story)

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This short, stand-alone work is based on a prompt I discovered in a book of writing advice. This is my favorite one-shot work that I've written, but I'd love to hear what you think. Thanks for reading.

Afterlife

The entrance to Heaven could be described less similar to the hostess table at a fancy restaurant and more like the waiting room at a doctor’s office—everyone is eager to get through the preliminaries so they can go on to their appointment, but then again, if they’re already here, what’s just a few more minutes of waiting?

I don’t know how I know that it’s my turn to be seen; Heaven’s waiting room is lacking in receptionists. I am met by a plainclothes celestial officer who I assume, if the lore is correct, must be St. Peter. He reminds me of an old coworker of mine, who to my most recent knowledge is very much alive.

“Are you Curtis Allen Stevens?” Pete asks.

“I am. Is this Heaven?”

“You’re close to it.” He doesn’t write with a golden feather and ink, but with a ballpoint pen. His holy papyrus is yellow legal paper. “We appreciate a little patience here at Heaven’s front door.”

“Where’s the gate?” If I’ve traveled what I think would be a far distance, I want to see the fabled gate that I was told to expect all my life.

“You’re not there yet. You’ll see it.”Pete writes something in flowing blue letters. “Now, this is the last time you’ll be able to ask any questions about the life you lived on Earth, not that it will matter soon. Is there anything that you wish for me to tell you?”

“How did I die?”

“You were in a car accident; the accident was not your fault. Another driver disregarded a red light and collided with your vehicle. You were killed instantly upon impact with the air bag. The other driver was critically injured and taken to a hospital to receive emergency surgery; she may or may not be arriving here shortly.”

“How old am I?”

“You were thirty-one years old at the time of your death. Age does not matter here.”

“What about my wife?” Of five years, Kate.

“She is fine.”

“And my daughter?” Our two-year-old, Theresa.

“She is also fine. They were not with you when you were killed—you were on your way home from your place of employment.”

I’ll have to thank God for that one. “Do they know yet?”

“A police officer will arrive at your house in twenty-eight minutes to inform them of your passing.”

There are other things I could ask, but I don’t want to take up too much time. I’m sure there is a long line behind me, because people are always dying. “That’s all I want to know, I guess.”

“Very well.” Pete sets down his pen and looks at me; I know his eyes. Everyone probably does; they’re the eyes of a sister, a cousin, a childhood friend. “Before you can be permitted to enter the afterlife, you must choose one memory from your earthly life to take with you. You may only have one; all other memories will cease to exist upon your entry to Heaven, so you should choose wisely. And, if I may ask this of you, choose quickly.”

“Why do I have to do this?”

“I have no control over it, and neither do you. Nor does anyone; it is simply something that happens. Has no one informed you of this?”

“No. How could they?”

“Many people report instances of what they believe to be contact from someone who resides in the afterlife,” Pete says, as if that would be a completely natural occurrence.

“Can’t you just pick one for me?”

“Is this not something that matters to you? Because, to most people, it is a tremendous decision. You get to have one memory as evidence of all the thirty-one years you lived. And it will always be the same memory; you cannot exchange it for a new one in a few hundred years. Some souls have asked if they could, but we worry that would prevent them from fully adjusting to their new afterlife in Heaven. So you get only one memory—presumably your happiest memory, though I have encountered some masochists—by which to remember your bodily life, but otherwise you must focus on creating your new life.” 

“How long have you been doing this?”

“Long before anyone who could conceive the idea of any of your remote ancestors existed. And I will still be here long after anyone who might have any connection to your existence is dead. It is my duty, as I have been appointed by the Lord. But that is beside the point. Have you chosen your memory?”

It is actually quite relevant to the point, but Pete has no reason to suspect that yet. He must not be omnipotent like his superior, the Lord. Pete was once just a human like I was. “Do you remember meeting a boy named Cody Evans, about nineteen years ago?”

I think I was expecting him to have to flip through some pages, go back a couple of decades into his records, but maybe that would be confusing him with St. Nicholas. “Yes, I do. Cody Andrew Evans, a brunet boy of seven. Tall for his age but rail thin. He died of pediatric leukemia, a disease he was diagnosed with at five years old.”

“Yep, that’s him.” Pediatric leukemia. I was only nine years old when I first heard that name for what was making Cody sick, though I only thought of it that way at the doctors’ offices. At any other time, to me, it was kiddie cancer.

“You’re his older brother. He told me he had one.”

“So you spoke to him?”

“If you haven’t noticed, there are so many recently deceased at any given moment, and there is only one of me. I speak to everyone.”

“Do he and I have to have the same memory in order to remember each other?”

“Not the same one, but it is possible that, depending on the memory he chose, you might remember him and he might not remember you, or vice versa.”

“”How long is a memory, by your definition?”

“There is no specific time limit, but it must be one defined event, with a beginning and an end.”

“Can you tell me what event he chose? Is that possible?”

“Will it help you choose yours faster?”

“Yes.”

“Then yes, I can.” If this conversation was happening on Earth, Pete would promptly take out a cell phone and make a quick call to the higher-up that serves as the middleman between him and the ultimate CEO, the Almighty Lord. On this side of the universe, all communication appears to be completed via telepathy.

“The memory your brother chose is of your family opening presents on Christmas morning when he was six years old. He got a baseball mitt as a gift, and you were explaining the game to him. This was shortly before he began receiving treatments for the cancer.” His voice has the cold automation of GPS instructions, even on sensitive words such as treatments and cancer. “The glove had been purchased by your parents at a garage sale, and your brother liked that the previous owner had carved their initials into the leather with a pen knife. Do you remember him saying this?”

“I do.” Cody said that the initials in the glove made him feel like he was a part of something bigger, and it made him happy to think about how he could take the glove to a baseball game and catch a foul ball or a home run, and someone at some other time had done the exact same thing. Cody was pensive and articulate for a child, but the only people who ever really knew that aside from our family were the nurses at the children’s hospital. It’s a shame that he was never old enough to impress girls with well-worded charm or use his witty jokes to make friends. He was usually too tired to talk much in school; most of the friends he did have were neighborhood kids, who would graciously come over and join him for an episode of cartoons, who could pretend not to mind his labored breathing and washed-out face until the animated conflict was resolved, and then they “had to go.” I heard Cody ask more than once if they could stay for just one more episode—they were only twenty minutes each, after all—but the boys always replied the same way: “My mom wants me home for dinner. We’re eating early tonight. See you in school, Cody.” And then once Cody got too sick to go to school, it became simply, “See you later, Cody.” I hope he knew that it was the cancer that made them act that way, it wasn’t him. The cancer ruined everything. We didn’t go to as many baseball games while he was in treatment, but he adored that glove, wore it everywhere anyway.

“Where does Cody’s memory end?” I ask Pete.

“He thanks your parents for the gift and hugs them; then he thanks you. When you ask him why he thanked you, because your parents gave him the glove, he says, ‘Because you’re going to be teaching me how to play. And I want to thank you for teaching me.’ This ends the extent of his earthly life as he remembers it in Heaven.”

The ability to produce tears must not be a characteristic that carries into the afterlife, because thinking of that Christmas always made my eyes water. “I know which memory I want.”

“Excellent. Which one would that be?”

“It follows right after Cody’s. I ask him if he wants to start learning right away; our parents thought we were crazy, but they let us go outside and play while it was snowing. Cody didn’t want to bat because he wanted to use his new glove, but he was having trouble catching anything I tried to hit to him, so eventually we ended up just tossing the ball back and forth. We couldn’t stay out for too long because Mom didn’t want Cody to get a cold; she made us come inside and drink hot chocolate while she cooked dinner and we watched Christmas movies with our dad.”

“That sounds very pleasant,” Pete says. I wonder if, somewhere above or close to us, an angel gets a green light, indicating that the next person is ready to come through to the world beyond. “You do understand that, by choosing this as your sole terrestrial memory that will remain in your possession when you make your transition, you will forget everyone who does not appear in this memory, including your wife and daughter, for the duration of the afterlife?”

“Are you judging me for that?” I’ve known my wife for longer than I got to spend with Cody, and my daughter will get the chance to know me when she’s older, through well-preserved photographs and the stories that her mother will tell her. They’ll be fine.

“It is no one’s responsibility to judge except for the Lord’s. I am simply confirming that you are aware of this fact.”

“I am aware.”

“Then I officially welcome you to Heaven, Curtis Stevens. It has been a pleasure.” I wonder if that welcome lost its meaning after the first several billion people. Pete hands me the memory in the form of an orb of iridescent light that quickly permeates the membrane of my skin and disappears. “This is your memory. It is your property and belongs to you alone. Cherish it as you will, but please do not try to trade it for anyone else’s. This cannot be done, and I have heard that attempts to do so have proven to be painful.”

“I would’ve thought that pain doesn’t exist in Heaven.”

“If all the rules of Heaven are followed, you should experience no pain. This is not a precaution, it is simply a fact.”

“Duly noted. Thank you.” I blink for the last time, and the scenery that had surrounded me collapses in on itself and transforms into an indescribably pristine and bland realm that would have surpassed my human understanding. There are souls roaming everywhere; I wonder if they once belonged to teachers or mentors, relatives or friends, but there’s no way to know. The only soul I can recognize is Cody’s; it looks the same as it did that Christmas when he got his favorite gift and our mother forced us to come inside and watch holiday specials while she cooked the turkey and made stuffing and casseroles. He recognizes mine because it looks like same as it did when he showed me the initials in his baseball glove and I smiled. We know nothing of the innumerable other souls that surround and move fluidly through us, but it doesn’t matter, because for Cody and I, Heaven is an eternity of playing catch in the snow.

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