The light was overwhelming. No one else seemed to be minding it, at least they weren’t grumbling and muttering like he was, but to Ivan Fenn, it was like pushing your face, wide eyed, into the back of a porcupine.
“Doesn’t this bother you,” he complained to the shape standing next to him.
“Oh,” the voice said in what must have been the mildest level of surprise — like the interest New Yorkers paid to homeless people. “You’re brand new huh?”
“Well it will get better after a few minutes. Although I should warn you, your vision ain’t all that great after.”
Great, Ivan thought. Just what you need in a strange land, impaired vision.
“Any idea where we are,” he asked the voice.
“Fucked if I know. If I had to guess,” the voice went on. “I would say we are dead and gone.”
Ivan reeled a little at that. Then images started coming back to him. The car, the garage, a coldness of concrete on his feet, that fucking letter. God, he wished he could get it back. So … the carbon monoxide worked? No one had discovered him, no of course not. Why would this be any different than the rest of his fucking life.
Ivan tried to shrug it off, teenager style. “Dead sure, but gone, where the fuck are we gone to?”
The voice just laughed. “I figure we are going to find out soon enough.”
“Can’t you hear it?”
“Just sounds like wind.” But as Ivan said this his vision started focusing. It was a strange feeling, because his eyes, while becoming used to the light, were adjusting to the damage already done. It was like emerging from a tunnel and finding yourself a foot shorter. Or like that weird story by Kafka, waking up and you’re a cockroach. How the hell did that end — he couldn’t remember?
“Can you see them now?” the voice belonged to a shortish man, wrinkled and white haired; probably in his late 80’s. Could have been a Mexican or an English minister, maybe a tanner from Idahol
“Oh shit,” Ivan’s breath sucked into his chest. Shapes were landing among the people gathered there. Ivan knew they were angels but he was manfully trying to resist this knowledge.
“Bit disappointing ain’t they,” the man laughed.
Suddenly several of the people around him were gone, a slight waving of the air around them, like heat lines, appeared and then, poof, they were gone. The man next to him was still there.
“They must be the lucky ones,” the man sighed. His voice seemed to deflate. It sounded like his dog had died.
Ivan gave him a puzzled look. “They are probably getting sent straight up.” The man explained.
The man just shook his head. “C’mon kid.”
Ivan shrugged again. “So what are they going to do with us?” He was trying for casual but his voice broke. By now all the angels had arrived and touched down. They were short, but not like midgets, just small, like models of humans.
“Short aren’t they?”
“Yes,” the man nodded. “I figured they would be taller.”
Ivan looked around. “So you don’t know what’s happening,” he was a bit impatient.
“I would guess we are going to be judged.”
“Fuck,” Ivan sighed. This was the last thing he needed. He did not bear up well under scrutiny.
“Well it had to happen,” the man said. Ivan was pleased that the calm demeanor was showing some cracks.
The man didn’t look at Ivan. He just made that adult dismissive sound that Ivan hated. “Course I’m nervous. You do realize what happens if we fail?”
“Is it a test?”
“Where are … were you from kid?”
“Dakota,” Ivan said a bit defensively.
“Why are you acting like you are from a different planet? You and I are dead, and now we are about to be judged. And if we are found wanting we could be sent down.”
Ivan started a mental tally of all the things he had done. It was not a comforting thought.
“So did you do something bad when you were alive?”
“We all have.”
“Yeah but are you like a murderer or something?”
The man didn’t answer.
“No shit? Really. You killed people?” Ivan squinted at the man’s face, it didn’t help much, his vision was still blurry, but the old man didn’t look like a killer. But what the hell did he know.
“No.” But there was something in the man’s voice. He then started again, “Well.”
“I was a soldier. Things got out of control in some situations. Sometimes you were just shooting … you know how it is.”
“Nope.” Ivan was looking around, he had lost interest now that the man wasn’t a killer. The short ugly angels were touching people and vanishing.
“You ever kill anyone?” the man asked with a small smile.
“Well,” Ivan answered in a vague way, unintentionally mimicking the old man.
“Shit kid, you’re too young for that.”
“It was just myself,” Ivan confessed.
“You did?” There was a note of disapproval.
“Yeah, so?” Ivan felt his back getting up.
The man held up his hands, one eye on the angels moving around and disappearing people. “Easy, I am not blaming you or anything, just seems strange a young guy like you checking out and all. I mean Dakota, not like it was Rwanda.”
“It wasn’t easy. Nothing … I don’t know. I just hated life so goddamned much, you know?”
The man’s attention was fixated on the angels who were very close. “Nope kid, I loved life. Jesus looks like our time is up.” An angel sidled up to the man and with that he vanished.
Ivan looked at another of the miniature creatures approaching. “Ugly little things aren’t you,” he mumbled.
“Imagine what we think of you,” the angel snapped.
Ivan raised his eyebrows, he was trying to think of something clever to say when everything suddenly went dark.
When the light came back on, Ivan was in a vast whiteness. This one was not blinding but it was hard to tell where things began or ended. He was alone and standing but he was completely at rest — he felt more relaxed than he had ever felt in a bed, or chair or hammock — which he had never been in, but imagined to be extremely comfortable. This was quite possibly the best he had ever felt.
“Not that I ever really felt all that great,” he muttered again. He looked around but he was alone — the munchkin had fucked off somewhere.
Ivan felt a bit guilty at that, probably had hurt it’s feelings, calling it ugly and all that. Ivan was always abrasive in circumstances he didn’t control; which was all of them. He had never had the courage of honesty and just took refuge in sarcasm and infantile crudity. It was something he hated about himself.
It was another thing he hated about himself.
“And I am dead now,” he said aloud, figuring no one could hear him. “And I am still doing it? Why couldn’t I have been changed into someone else. I thought dying would start things all over. I thought I would get a chance this time.”
“You were given many chances last time.”
Ivan looked around but he couldn’t see anyone.
“Am I blind?”
“So you are invisible?”
“Only to those who cannot see me.”
Oh great, one of these assholes, Ivan hated people like this.
“People like what?”
“I didn’t say anything,” Ivan told the voice.
“Not out loud,” the voice corrected.
“You can read my thoughts?”
“You do realize it is impossible to hide anything from me.”
“Hey come on man!” Ivan accused. “That ain’t fair.”
“I decide what’s fair or not,” the voice said a bit smugly.
“Your house, your rules?”
“Sure. Actually I kind of like that,” the voice chuckled.
“So who are you? Are you one of those short angels?”
“I most certainly am not.”
Ivan blew out some air. Man, talk about a douche.
“I can read your thoughts, remember?”
“Yes, well. Anyway, my name is not important.”
“Hi Not Important, I am Ivan.”
“That isn’t funny.”
“You lighten up.”
“What? Really?” Ivan took a step back. “That is the best you can do?” Ivan was disappointed.
“I am … listen you don’t get to judge me ok. I judge. I judge you.”
“I don’t think that is very fair.”
“Man … you must have been a real prick in high school. Guys like you made me sick.”
“Whoa, easy now,” the voice said.
“It’s true man, you are abusing your power.”
“Calm down Ivan.”
But Ivan was worked up now. “You are one of the reasons I killed myself,” Ivan really didn’t like this guy. “You and all those rich Abercrombie and Fitch models in high school.”
“I was never in high school, Ivan.”
“Whatever, you know what I mean. You were probably home schooled, or raised by servants.”
“Ivan,” the voice cut in. “I am not human.”
“Stop the presses. You shouldn’t be judging me then.”
“I am perfectly capable of judging humans,” the voice had become a bit stiffer.
“Were you ever a teenager?”
“I don’t see what this has to do with anything.”
“Had acne, let a fart out at the wrong time, forgotten to zip up your fly?”
“This is getting us nowhere, Ivan.”
“I want a lawyer.”
“There are no lawyers here,” there was a trace of pride in the voice.
“Go away. I am staying here.”
“Here. Right here. It is so comfortable I cannot even tell if I am sitting or standing.”
“You’re floating,” the voice was so annoyingly knowing.
“Oh fuck off.”
There was silence for a long time. Ivan started to wonder if the voice had left.
“I didn’t mean to shout at you. I just want to relax. I want some peace. The last real memory I have was when, you know.”
Car — garage — note
“Of course I know. Take your time. I will check back on you.”
Maybe he wasn’t such an asshole.
Ivan closed his eyes and fell asleep. When he woke up he was more refreshed than he had ever believed possible.
“If I had felt like this back home, I would never have killed myself.”
Ivan turned and saw a young woman, maybe in her twenties standing near him. “I thought maybe you were a car accident.”
“I think statistically that is the number one killer of people under 20. I had to get close but you are not old. So I thought car crash.”
Ivan nodded. “Nope. I offed myself.”
Ivan just shrugged. “I thought so. I mean compared to people in wheelchairs or Africa,”
“Or Africans in wheelchairs,” she snickered.
“I suppose it wasn’t so bad,” Ivan finished.
“Well we all feel pain in different ways,” she said in an offhand way, looking around.
“So how did you die?”
“I was murdered by my dick ex boyfriend.”
“Yeah. The bastard strangled me.”
“Sorry, I guess.” Ivan said a bit wanly.
She shrugged. “It’s done now. I can’t do anything about it now. If I could,” her face took on a fierce look, or so he thought, as she looked around. “I thought he’d be here,” she mused.
“My ex, duh.”
“Ah,” Ivan was taking a dislike to his woman. “Why?”
“Well he killed me so I figured he would, you know,” she shuffled a little. “Commit suicide.”
Ivan didn’t say anything.
“You hear about it all the time, murder suicide,” she said hotly.
“All the fucking time you hear it, murder suicide. Dumb kid.”
She shook her head. “So it is only natural for him to be here. The pussy probably chickened out.”
“Maybe he is here but you they separated you.”
The woman just sniffed. “Did a voice talk to you?”
“And I told it to go away.”
“That worked?” She seemed a bit shocked.
“Seems to have. It said it would come back.”
The woman shivered. “It feels like it is testing me. I hate tests. Always did. I’m like, super smart and all, but I just choke on tests.” She leaned forward slightly. “Honestly, I kind of hate that voice, don’t you?”
Ivan thought about this for a moment. Usually he was incredibly nervous around women, but now he seemed calm. I am dead after all, he told himself. “It is a bit shitty, like those preppy guys at school, but…” his voice trailed off.
“You found it like that? Human?”
“Yeah, you know, the shit eating grin, the ‘I know more than you’ attitude; my dad owns a mercedes.”
“What do you think?”
The girl hugged herself. “It kind of terrified me. It was so low and evil. I actually ran away from it. It was more terrifying than the look in Chet’s eyes.”
“Chet your ex?”
She nodded. “That fucking prick. God he was a piece of work. Nice job Chet, oh that’s right, you don’t have one.”
Ivan tried to look like he understood. He had been in one relationship, for two whole months and had been dumped a week ago.
“Why do guys with big dicks always act like they rule the fucking world? It’s not like they did anything to get one.”
“Sure,” Ivan was now starting to wonder when this woman would start moving on.
The woman just snickered. “Look who I am asking.” She looked around some more. “God, I wonder if there are any men around here?”
The woman was doing something strange with her hands. Ivan realized she was looking for pockets on her white robe.
“Sorry,” she laughed. “I was hoping there might be some cigarettes in these damn things.”
Ivan smiled. “Maybe someone has some.”
“So I guess you will be going off?”
The woman nodded but didn’t go anywhere. “You don’t smoke do you?”
“No. Maybe there is a store somewhere.”
The woman looked at him, her brow creased. “Where?”
“Ummm,” she imitated. “Don’t be an idiot.”
You’re the one looking for cigarettes in a robe without pockets, he thought. Ivan decided that it was time for him to move on.
“Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you,” he told the woman.
“Where are you going?”
“Somewhere else.” he realized that he was being a bit rude. “I just feel like stretching my legs.”
“Oh, ok, whatever.”
Because the ground wasn’t really ground at all, Ivan didn’t realize she was walking with him until about five paces.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Figure I would come with you,” she said. “Keep you company.”
“I am alright, you don’t have to worry about me.”
“You don’t want me to come with you?” it was more of a challenge than a question.
“Right.” He was finding himself much more courageous in this place.
The girl blinked.
Ivan started to walk off again. What an unpleasant woman.
“I’m bored,” she yelled out after him.
He didn’t look back, but just waved a hand.
“Come on Rain man,” she called. “Keep me company.”
Rain man? It took him a moment to find out what that meant. It was that old movie with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman was some kind of retard. She just called me a retard and expects me to stay and keep her company.
He turned to yell at her and found her running a bit clumsily after him. He turned and ran.
“Leave me alone,” he told her over his shoulder.
“I don’t like being alone. It’s so weird here.”
His father, who rarely spoke and spoke to his son even less, had once said that women were perfectly selfish.
“Alright,” it was the voice. “Let’s stop this now.”
Ivan slowed to a halt, but the girl kept running until she was beside Ivan.
“Why did you run off,” she punched his arm, hard. “Asshole.”
“I want to be alone!” Ivan told her. “I just want some peace and quiet.”
“I was lonely! You are the first person I have seen in days. So sue me if I wanted a little company.”
“I … I didn’t know that,” he apologized.
“So, look,” the voice started.
The woman cocked her head to one side. “You are different,” she said to the voice.
“I am here for Ivan,” the voice explained.
“Where can I get some cigarettes?” the woman interrupted.
There was a long sigh. “We have been through this already Elizabeth. There are no cigarettes.”
“What kind of heaven is this?” the woman scoffed.
“No one said this is heaven,” the voice said carefully.
For a long moment the teenager and the young woman stood there. And then, as if he had walked off a cliff, Ivan felt his stomach drop and from her expression, Elizabeth was also feeling suddenly ill.
The voice seemed happy with their silence. “So let’s do this.”
“Is this hell? Am I in hell here? With this dopey kid and … why?” Elizabeth then screamed. “I was murdered! Murdered, isn’t that kind of a like a go to heaven free card?” There was silence. “I mean, I was going to do a lot of good things. I had that brochure for … that place to help those … people,” she finished a bit lamely.
“Brochure?” the voice seemed puzzled. “You were looking at some Brochures for Mexico, for your vacation. You were going to go with Reginald, who I believe is Chet’s brother.”
Elizabeth snorted. “Pretty impressed with yourself.”
“I am just explaining the facts. And illustrating that it is useless to lie to me.”
“I am a good person.” There was silence again. She stamped her foot. “Reggie was there for me and Chet was never around. It’s not my fault.”
“That is for me to decide.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes.
“You should ask for a woman judge,” Ivan whispered.
“It is a woman,” she said flatly.
Ivan was about to say something when Elizabeth vanished.
“Where’d she go?”
“Never you mind,” the voice said. “It is your turn.”
“I just want to stay here.”
“Fine… what happens now?”
“Be quiet I am judging you.”
“What? Aren’t you going to ask me anything?”
“You don’t want my side?”
Ivan just slouched. He felt the unfairness of this situation pushing down on him but he didn’t say anything.
“You really didn’t think about your parents and how they would feel about this at all.”
“All they care about is themselves and their jobs. They don’t care about me at all. At least now I will have some value as they can tell stories about how broken up they are. And my mom has a chance to wear black for a week or so.”
“They are pretty awful,” the voice admitted. “Still it is not good to take your own life. It is really a slap in the face.”
“Whose? My parents, I am telling you they don’t care.”
“Not them. Him or Her or It, you know.”
“What? Why would he care? Doesn’t he have better things to do than worry about some 17 year old kid?”
“I am certain … but your case, as all teenage suicides from such circumstances warrant attention.”
Ivan sighed. Suddenly it was not so comfortable here. The white was starting to bother him, he didn’t like the borderlessness of it all, the unformed aspect.
“What happened to that girl?”
“She went back.”
“She didn’t go … down?”
“There is no down,” the voice laughed. “People just get a reset.”
“So she is going to be…”
“She is going to be a dog.”
“Yep, still determining the breed, any suggestions?”
“I don’t like yappy dogs.”
“You want her to be a big dog?”
“Yeah, I guess. You know a real dog. I figure she talked enough last time.”
“Ok, a St. Bernard it is.”
Ivan laughed. “What about that old guy. He seemed ok.”
“Sure but he killed bunch of people.”
“He was a soldier.”
“Don’t you think that it is a bit different. It wasn’t like he was going out at night and chopping people up with an ax or something like that.”
“Sure. But still, you go into the army you have to figure that sooner or later you will have blood on your hands, maybe you even want to have blood on your hands.”
“But if it is defense of your country?”
“But that was not the case here.”
Ivan felt like kicking something. “He seemed like a good guy.”
“He is not going to be a dog. He will be a person.”
“Oh, well that is something.”
“You will be a person too,” the voice said gently.
“So I failed?”
There was enough of a silence that Ivan started to think that the voice had left.
“I suppose that is one way to look at things.”
Ivan wasn’t that comfortable anymore. “I don’t want to go back.”
“It will be different this time.”
“I hate it there. I hate everything about it.”
“You won’t be you. You will not even remember this.”
“But I will be back. I will be in there again.”
“You might like it this time.”
“That’s even worse. That I could be someone who likes being there, around that … around all that.”
“Hey, you might be someone who makes a difference, you could be rich or beautiful or …”
“Or I could be a kid who gets beaten up and dumped by the girl he loves? The girl who then started dating the guy who always beat him up? I could be that guy again. Or I could be the guy who beats others up, or the girl who dates the strong and spits on the weak?”
“Kid. I am just telling you that you have to go back. You killed yourself. You gave up too easily.”
“So everyone who kills themselves deserves to die?”
“Well… things are not that simple.”
“That is a bullshit answer.”
“It is complicated.”
“He/she/it made me. They created me, made me like that. What chance did I have?”
“You had choice. Free will.”
“Bullshit. No such thing.”
“Yes there is.”
“Ok. Then you choose to let me go. Exercise your free will and give me a pass.”
“See. There is no free will. It is just God trying to bluff his way out of a losing hand.”
“Kid you have to take some things on faith.”
“Who gets in? Huh? All those fucking prom kings? All those CEOs and movie stars? Bet you fawn all over them,” Ivan scoffed. “Just like down there, the lucky get all the breaks and what, people like me just get born again and again and again until I win the genetic lottery and am born a big fat douchebag.”
“We let in those who have led moral lives.”
“People who were programmed to live such lives,” Ivan scoffed.
“Ivan,” the voice began.
“Just do it already. I am sick of listening to your lies.”
When the voice spoke again, it was full of resigned acceptance. “Do you want a few moments?”
“To, you know, remember the person you were.”
“The one I killed off because of how much I hated him? No, I think I am good to go.”
And then he was gone.
And the voice sighed, a new pair of people were arguing about who should stay and who should move on. It wondered not for the first time, if it ever got easier.