by Stanley McFarland
Nothing met my expectations, but I don’t imagine the powers-that-be cared about that. The place looked like a simple village – not even medieval or exotic. Hundreds of people milled about, many of them coupled in quiet, though perhaps intense conversation.
All my life I’d been presented with afterlife imagery from Hollywood, from church, and especially from my grandmother, who though she never went to church herself, insisted that my brother and I go every Sunday cause she never wanted us to go to hell.
Wasn’t somebody supposed to greet me? Shouldn’t there be a line I was supposed to stand in? If there’d been a gaudy set of pearly gates around, I would’ve headed that way, but all I saw was modest buildings and people spread about, sitting or standing in knots of two or three.
I reached for my phone. It wasn’t there. I guess there’s no ap for navigating the great beyond.
I knelt down and checked the street. It wasn’t gold, but it wasn’t blacktop either – some sort of blacktopish hard plastic maybe – not very interesting, but it held me up. At least I wouldn’t be falling through the clouds like the people in those heaven cartoons.
That’s if I was in heaven.
“Are you praying?” said a voice behind me.
I turned around and met the eyes of a stranger. He looked Asian – maybe Arab, I was never much good at identifying ethnicity. His English was perfect though, not even an accent. I told him so.
“And you speak perfect Thai,” said the man. “Are you alright?”
“No,” I said, “I mean I’m trying to figure out where I am.”
“Are you a new arrival?”
“I suppose I am.”
“Do you know that you are dead?”
“Yeah, I kinda figured that part out.”
“Well,” said the stranger, “welcome to here. Here doesn’t have a name – at least not one that I’ve heard. If it does, it is not advertised. We have no signage here.”
He was right. There was no street sign at the corner. There were places that looked like shops and restaurants, but no signs above their doors. There were no displays in the windows, or menus, or advertisements. There were benches on the street, and booths in the restaurants, but no music blasting from windows. I didn’t see a TV or a book, or even a car on the street.
“I’m confused,” I admitted.
“Confused is as good a place to start as any other,” said the stranger. “At least you’re not in a rage – trying to kill someone.”
“You get a lot of that here?”
“From the new arrivals, yes.”
“So is there a point to… here?” I asked.
“I think there is,” said the stranger. “I think this is where we sort out our differences.”
“You and me?”
The stranger laughed. “No, we just met. The man I was just talking to is my ex-boss, Li. He told my wife that I didn’t have any life insurance though Li had deducted money from each of my checks to pay for it. My family went through very difficult times after that.”
“After you died?”
“But how do you know what your boss did? You’re dead. You didn’t get a text – I don’t even see newspapers around here.”
“I don’t know how I know – there are a number of such mysteries here.”
“So now you just slug it out?”
“I wished to when I first saw him. My daughter wanted to hit me when she first saw me here. Most people here have many relationships they need to work through.”
I looked around the village. I didn’t recognize a single face. So why was I here? Who did I need to… Chris! I scanned the crowd again. No, there was no sign of Chris. My relief must have been obvious because the stranger chuckled.
“He’s here,” he said, “or she is, or they are.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Whoever it is you don’t wish to see,” said the stranger. “He’s here. They’re all here. Some of the people you encounter here will surprise you – people you thought you were at peace with who’ve harbored resentment for you, or hated you.”
“I don’t see anybody I know.”
The stranger nodded. “It was the same for me for the first hour or so. They give you time to become accustomed to the idea. Soon, you will encounter the last person you ever wished to see again.”
“Who are they – the ones who set this up?” I asked. “God? The devil?”
The stranger shrugged and smiled. “All I can tell you is that some people leave. My wife was only here a few days. The people I like never stay – only the worst remain. I suppose that means that I am among the worst.”
I thought about all the a-hoes I’d ever met and shuddered. The village didn’t look like hell, but what else could it be?
“Well maybe we can be friends,” I suggested. “We have no issues between us; we can give each other a break from the jerks.”
“That would be pleasant,” said the stranger, “but it probably won’t happen. The old woman I met when I first got here – I haven’t seen her since. I did not recognize anyone when I first came, but you’re just about the only person around us now that I didn’t know during my life. That’s why I came up to you. I thought you were probably newly arrived.”
“So all these people were jerks to you in your life?”
“Most of them – or I was unkind to them.”
“So this is how I spend eternity – surrounded by people I can’t stand?”
The stranger shrugged. “Perhaps; perhaps not.”
“What do you mean?”
“Some people leave.”