Nelson wasn’t dead. He might have been the only person that knew it but it was a fact.
The doctors were still trying to revive the body that lay on the operating table. Powerful bursts of electricity hammered the body in a futile attempt to start the heart. Nelson watched and winced every time the body jerked.
He was almost relieved when they decided he was dead. He feared they might succeed in restoring life to the 238 pounds of flesh that looked like it would scream with pain if it could scream. Nelson didn’t want that experience.
Now he was free.
To do what? This was something totally unexpected, something completely outside the realm of any experience he had ever anticipated.
He looked down at his new body. It looked exactly like the old one. Everything looked natural. He was wearing an ordinary set of Levis, an old T shirt and a worn pair of moccasins. It was what he worn on Saturdays when he wanted to be comfortable. He looked at his body from fingers to toes. Everything was exactly the way he thought it should be. Everything was there, all parts attached and apparently functional. He pulled up his shirt and found his old appendix scar.
“Hello,” he said. He heard his voice and it sounded like his own voice. Everything seemed normal and the fact that it was normal was very disconcerting. But then, he didn’t know what he had expected. Death was something that happened to other people and if you die, then you are dead and there is nothing to worry about unless, as it now turned out, you were alive as he appeared to be.
Then he noticed another person standing in the operating room. This man appeared very old, but there was something very young about him. Maybe it was because most old men appear fragile and this man looked tough. His hair was snow white and complexion was bright, almost to the point of being translucent, as though he radiated light from inside. He wore a loose white robe tied about his waist.
“Are you Saint Peter,” asked Nelson?
The man shook his head. “No. I am Azrael.”
“Hello, Mr. Azrael,” said Nelson. It was the only thing he could think to say.
“It’s not a name. It is a position. Follow me.”
Nelson followed and suddenly found himself in a new world. He had been in an operating room, moving toward the door, when everything changed, like a scene in a movie where one picture dissolves into another.
Now, he was in a place that could be best described as an incredibly beautiful park. There was grass, trees, bushes, and flowers of all sorts of types and colors.
Azrael took him to a building that looked like it had grown out of the ground. Nelson stopped and ran his hand over the wall. It was smooth, white and slightly warm. The building seemed translucent as though it radiated light from inside, much like this Azrael character.
Inside, the building reminded Nelson of an airport terminal, with counters, clerks, and people scurrying around with packages and luggage. Some people hurried around as if trying to meet an appointment and other waited patiently.
The man guided him to a private room, slightly larger than a large closet. Inside, was another translucent man, sitting in one of two chairs. He smiled and motioned for Nelson to take the other.
“Tell me about your life.”
Nelson was about to open his mouth when his mind saw a four dimensional map. It was long, wide, detailed and in spite of the size, he could see every detail on it perfectly. It was his life, from birth to death, but, more than just his life as it was, it showed the entire range of what he could have been and what he could have done. His life had occupied only a small portion of the map. It showed that he had spent much of his life going in circles. It showed where he had made mistakes, recovered from them, and then gone back and repeated the same error. Instead of learning from his mistakes, he seemed to practice making them as if it were a talent that needed perfecting.
If this had been a map of a city, then he had spent his life, by choice, in the slums. He didn’t explore any new areas of his map even though there were countless places he could have gone, enough places to fill a life time.
“What do you think of you life,” said the man?
“I didn’t go very well, did I. But I didn’t do any harm.”
“Oh,” said the man.
Several areas of his map leaped to his mind and Nelson could see that while he hadn’t actively done injury to anyone, there were many time he had allowed it to happen by doing nothing.
“Well, I didn’t kill anyone one.”
“Not if you don’t count yourself,” said the man.
Again, Nelson could see on his map that he had abused his body from over eating, poor exercise, use of cigarettes and various drugs, some legal and a few illegal.
“It wasn’t murder.”
“Is that only thing you can say about your life is that you never murdered anyone?”
He could think of a lot of people that had done worse but he didn’t think that such an argument would help.
“Who are you,” asked Nelson?
“Saint Peter, of course.”
“Really?” It was the last answer that Nelson had expected.
“No. Not thee Saint Peter. Here, Saint Peter is a position rather than a proper name. You are free to go.”
“Anyplace you want to go.”
Nelson walked out into the “airport terminal” and looked around.
He didn’t have any place to go. He didn’t even know where he was. He stood for a few minutes, pondering the previous encounter, wondering what it had meant. Was it a judgment? Was he in heaven? What was this place?
This building felt like an airport terminal but there were no postings of arrivals or departures. People were coming and going but he couldn’t tell exactly where they came from or where they went. On the wall above one of the counter was a huge calendar and digital clock that said Saturday 11:45:32 P.M. It was a puzzling situation.
Then he saw something he understood. She was young, blonde, pretty with a good figure and wearing comfortable clothes similar to his and she was alone. She sat alone on a bench, looking straight forward with no expression. She looked bored.
Nelson casually sat on bench. He was just the right distance away. Not too near and not too far. He waited while trying to think of an opening statement. “Haven’t I seen you before some place,” he thought. It would have been a bad line before he had died and he knew it would be even worse here. Finally, he said, “I think that clock must be broken. It still says 11:45:32.”
The woman’s head slowly turned. Then she spoke, still without expression, “New here, aren’t you?” She turned her head back and resumed looking straight ahead. A machine could not have done that simple act any more mechanically that she did.
Nelson nodded. He waited then asked, “Are you waiting for something?”
It seemed to be a such final statement, that he didn’t dare ask what was going to happen on Monday.
Slowly, he got up, stretched and then walked went outside.
The sky was blue but there was no sun or clouds. He walked and looked around while trying to determine what type of place this planet was, if it was a planet. On the other hand, was this a planet or was it simply “a place?”
“The phantom zone,” he said to himself ominously.
He stopped underneath one of the biggest trees he had ever seen. Three bearded men, wearing Roman tunics, sat beneath the tree. They looked at Nelson, sternly.
“Did I give you permission to be under this tree?” said one of the three.
“No. I don’t think I’ve ever met you.”
“I’m Julius Caesar and this is my tree.”
“I’m sorry.” Nelson stepped back from the tree.
“Are you sorry that I am Julius Caesar, or that this is my tree or that I didn’t give you permission to be under it?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re sorry that you don’t know what your sorry about,” said the second man.
“Who are you?”
“I’m the devil,” said the second man. “But you may call me sire.”
“The devil? You don’t look like the devil,” said Nelson.
“How would you know what the devil looks like.”
Nelson made a nervous laugh. “Where are your horns and pitch fork.”
“I’ve off duty and I left them in my locker. What’s it to you?”
“How do I know that you aren’t lying to me.”
“He is lying to you,” said the third man. “He’s Brutus.”
“And I suppose you are Mark Anthony?”
“I didn’t think Romans had beards,” said Nelson.
“The person who told you that was lying,” said Julius Caesar.
As Nelson moved away, he almost bumped into a woman who was walking with her head down and her hands behind her back. She was talking to herself in a foreign language.
“Excuse me,” said Nelson.
The woman glanced at him and said, “There’s no excuse for you,” then lowered her head and continued walking as if nothing had happened.
“Not very nice, was she,” said a woman’s voice.
He turned to see an old twisted woman. “No, she wasn’t,” said Nelson.
“At least she was honest.”
“Who are those three guys under the big tree?”
“Just trouble makers. You should ignore them.”
“Were they really romans.”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Who are you?”
“Just a friend. Think of me as a guardian angel.”
“You don’t look like an angel.”
“I know. I look like an old hag but what is an angel supposed to look like?”
“Is this place hell?”
“No. Hell is farther south, in a deep hole. You can tell you are getting close when you hear the screaming of the damned. It is better to stay away from there. You might get stuck there and never get away for all eternity.”
“Have you ever been there?”
“To the entrance of hell.”
“You’re getting awful personal.”
“But, how do you know it is there? Have you seen it?”
“I was just trying to be helpful and now you start to question me. Are you trying to ruin my fun? I have to have to have a little fun,” said the woman angrily as she turned and walked away.
Nelson watched the woman until she was far out of sight, then he looked around. Which way is south? There was no sun, no moon, no stars and the trees don’t have moss growing on them. The advice about hell’s location was totally useless.
He began to wonder. Perhaps he wasn’t dead. Perhaps he was having a lucid dream and he was still laying on the operating table. Any minutes now, he would wake up and find himself looking up at a nurse. Even as he considered this, he knew it wasn’t true.
He really was dead.
Suddenly, he found himself in the corridor outside the operating room. A woman, in green surgical clothes and mask, was mopping the floor of the operating room. He knew she couldn’t see him. He watched her for a few minutes while thinking that he had never before considered that someone had to clean an operating room and they had to do it while wearing surgical clothes.
Where was his body? It hadn’t been long since he had been here. He wandered down the hall, looking for something to show where they took dead bodies. There were all sorts of signs but none that said, “This way to claim your body.”
A woman, dressed in white with a clip board under one arm, was walking his direction. He stepped aside so she could pass. Instead, she stopped, looked at him and asked, “Are you looking for something.”
“Yes, I was looking for my . . .”
“It’s in the morgue.” She raised her eyebrows. “That’s in the basement.”
“Oh. Yes. Of course.” He wasn’t sure that knowing it was in the basement was helpful.
“Shall I take you there?”
She took his hand, and together, they sank through floor as if they were standing on an elevator. He watched the steel beams, the plumbing, and the insulation move past. It was like seeing a cross section of the building. They went down three floors and stopped. She pointed. “Right through that door.”
She turned to leave as Nelson reached for the door knob. His hand passed through it.
“New, here, aren’t you,” said the woman.
She placed her hand on his back and shoved him through the wall.
“But how do you do that?”
“Do you have to think about how you move your fingers? If you want to go some place, go!”
The room was cold and dark and sterile. It was dark but he could still see. There was a wall of cabinets, the type he had seen on television where an official would roll out the drawer, and pull back the sheet. A woman would look the body and nod and say, “yes, that’s him.” But here, there was no one. No doctor with scalpel raised, ready to “go in.”
The room smelled of antiseptic and death. He was dead but he could smell, hear, and see with unusual clarity. He could reach out but he could not touch or move anything. He couldn’t open any of the cabinets. They were numbered but there were no names, so he didn’t know which one to examine. Finally, he stuck his head through the cabinet wall and looked inside. There was a body but it wasn’t his.
Now that he knew how to find his body, he decided that he didn’t need to see it. He was in the same room and that was close enough.
There was a chair in the corner of the room. He walked over and sat on it without realizing that if he couldn’t touch anything, then he couldn’t sit on anything.
He began to wonder about his wife, Remy. How was she taking this terrible loss? He knew it would devastate her. How long would she morn? It wasn’t often that a thirty five year-old man died. Remy was such a timid little girl. Slow to act, always coming to him for advice about the smallest task. He had to instruct her, in detail, about what to do around the house when he was away. When he returned, he would find that she had “done it wrong” and he had to do much of the work again.
Nelson was in his home. There was a dirty plate in the sink. Remy’s coat hung over a chair. The kitchen table, usually brightly polished and clean held a twelve inch order-out pizza, half eaten. Nelson has insisted that Remy eat the pizza crust because it was wasting money to throw them away.
He passed through the wall and found himself in their bedroom. Remy sat in bed with a Reader’s Digest laying across her breasts, her eyes closed peacefully. A bed light shown over her shoulder. The clock said 9:35. This was early for her. He concluded she was exhausted from the day’s ordeal.
What day was this?
He looked around. The day’s newspaper lay on the floor, a rubber band still around it. Nelson had always insisted that Remy go through the ads so she could get the best bargains for the items on his shopping list. He looked at the paper. The was the same day of his surgery.
There was something different about the room. He had to look everywhere before he realized his stack of men’s magazines was gone. Though she had never said so, he knew that Remy disliked his reading habits.
The phone rang. Automatically, Nelson reached for it but stopped short when he remembered that he couldn’t touch anything.
Remy reached out and found the phone on the head board without opening her eyes. Maybe she hadn’t been asleep.
“Hello. Nelson residence.”
“Oh, Remy. I just heard the news.” Nelson could hear both voices perfectly without the distortion typical of a telephone. It was Dolores, a friend of Remy who lived a few blocks away.
Remy opened her eyes and said, “Yeah. It’s quite a surprise.”
“Are you doing okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.”
“Do you know what caused it?”
“No. They’ll be doing a routine autopsy. They need to find out the reason for their records.”
“You must feel awful.”
“I said I’m fine. It will take a few days to get use to things around here.”
“A few days,” thought Nelson. It would take Remy more than a few days just to figure out how to pay the phone bill.
“How are you going to survive?”
“I’ll be seeing the insurance company tomorrow. I have a life insurance policy that should keep me comfortable for a few years.”
Insurance! Nelson didn’t have any life insurance. He had thought it had been a waste of money. Where did Remy get an insurance policy on him?
“Maybe I’ll go back to school. I used to be good on an adding machine. I could become an accountant or I could study computers. I was just reading an article about robotics.”
“But Remy. You don’t know beans about robots.”
“True, but I could learn and there are plenty of other options.”
“I hear that if you don’t get your money out of your bank account that they lock it up until after the probate hearing.”
“Yeah. I heard that too. I ran down there today. It wasn’t true but I got a couple thousand in cash just to be sure. Jim had a lot more money stashed away that I had thought.”
She was spending his money on pizza!
“When will you have the funeral?”
“I’ll be talking to the funeral home tomorrow. I’m thinking about skipping the funeral. I could donate the body to science. That would be quick and simple and I know the medical students could learn a lot.”
“No,” screamed Nelson.
“What would he think?”
“Who cares. He’s dead.”
“But what will others think?”
“Yes,” said Remy. “That’s why I’ll still thinking. If I do have a funeral, it will be something small, something simple, something worthy of his life.”
“Worthy of my life. I spent my life in service to you,” screamed Nelson.
Remy couldn’t hear him.
“You don’t sound like a woman who’s husband just died.”
“To me, he died ten years ago.”
Nelson couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He had supported her, fed her, protected her, guided her for years. What did she mean, he had died ten years ago? He swung his fist at her but stopped short of her face, just like he had done often done when alive. He walked around the room, swing his fists. “Well, you were no prime catch yourself. I could have had any woman in the world but I took you because I thought you needed me. I thought you cared about me. Now I see I was wrong. You only cared about yourself. I could have had anyone. Well, I don’t need you. I never needed you.”
He couldn’t take any more of this humiliation. He would show her. He was dead and he could move through walls. He could go anywhere and see any thing. He could watch people, learn their secrets and catch them in their most intimate moments.
He went to a motel, a cheap one at the far edge of the city and began checking through the rooms. On his seventeenth try, he found what he was looking for, man and a woman.
Only a small amount of light from the street filtered through the thick curtains but Nelson could see them perfectly. He could see them in minute detail. He could see every wrinkle, hair, pore, blemish, pimple, every flake of oily skin. He could see the bacteria. He had come, hot with desire and anticipation but now he turned away, nauseated. There was nothing interesting here. A high school biology class was more exciting.
“Didn’t like it, did you,” said a man who was outside the motel.
“Didn’t like what?”
The man laughed. “I was watching you watch them. You thought it was going to be fun, exciting, but it wasn’t. It was boring. You can’t have fun that way anymore. Now it is boring, boring, boring.”
“How do you know what I was looking at?”
“I can see them from here as easily as you could see them from inside. And I could see you.”
Nelson turned and looked back at the room and realized that the man was right. The wall didn’t prevent him from seeing into that room or any other room.
“Who are you?”
The man laughed again. “Me? I’m the devil. I’m here to make your life miserable.”
“I’ve already met the devil and it wasn’t you.”
“He wasn’t the devil. He was lying to you?”
“Go away. You are bothering me.”
“That’s right. I’m bothering you.” The man disappeared.
There was nothing for Nelson around here. If things had been different, he might have wanted to visit old friends, to see if they were all right. He considered doing the Ebinezer Scrooge trick and visit people to see what they thought about his death but his one encounter had been such a disappointment he couldn’t bear the thought of other people having similar feelings about him.
He started thinking about “that other place.”
He looked around when he realized he was back in “that other place.”
Nelson found a bench consisting of a stone slab lain on two stones. Before he sat down, he looked around to see if there was anyone that might claim it as property. He sat and pondered what he had learned about this new world. So far, he had met two men who claimed to be the devil and a woman who claimed to be an angel. He didn’t know if the Romans were Romans and he couldn’t think of anyway to find out. Did people carry identification cards? Was there such a thing as a birth certificate? No. That was ridiculous. It was obvious that some or all these people were liars.
While sitting there, two pirates came from behind a tree. They had the traditional clothing, complete with tricorner hat, brightly colored scarf and cross belt. They walked toward Nelson, scowling.
“Is this your bench,” said Nelson?
“Aye. Ye be sitting on the bench of Blackbeard, the most terrible pirate of the seven seas.”
“And I am Captain Kid, privateer,” said the other man.
“Thee penalty for sitting on me bench, without me permission, be death,” said Blackbeard.
“You can’t kill me,” said Nelson. “I’m already dead.”
“Yahhh, but thar be nothing to prevent me from trying. And it shall be all the more painful for thee.” Blackbeard yanked his cutlass from the scabbard and cut the air several times. Captain Kid folded his arms like “Mr. Clean” and said, “Let me know if you need help.”
A crowd gathered.
Blackbeard swung his blade at Nelson’s head. He ducked as the blade sizzled past his ear. Nelson rolled over the back of the bench as the pirate brought down his cutlass, striking the bench with a loud crash. The bench cracked in to two pieces.
“You made me break me bench,” shouted Blackbeard. “Now ye are really going to suffer.” He swung the blade again and missed Nelson’s arm by a fraction of an inch.
Nelson dodged behind the tree. The pirate thrust with his cutlass. The blade passed through the tree. Nelson leaped back as a few inches came through the other side.
“Ho there, it be stuck.” The pirate pulled a dagger from his belt and came around the tree, swinging it from side to side.
Nelson backed away. As he did so, he came around the tree and found the cutlass handle protruding from the bark. He grabbed it and easily pulled it from the tree.
“Ahh hahhh,” shouted Nelson.
“Sink me,” said the pirate. “He has me weapon.”
“Kill him,” shouted the crowd.
Nelson, swung the cutlass. The pirate didn’t retreat, but just dodged the blade. The crown shouted, “Ole.”
He swung again, faster, Again the pirate dodged it. Again, the crown shouted, “Ole.”
He swung it several times, as fast as his arm could move. The pirate was faster. “Ole, ole, ole.”
Nelson stopped and looked at the pirate, who was waiting for the attack to continue.
“Well,” said Blackbeard.
“Do you need help,” said Captain Kid as he pulled out his saber?
“Yes, I believe I do,” said Blackbeard as he pulled his cutlass from his scabbard.
Nelson looked down at his own hand. The cutlass was gone.
The two pirates moved in carefully, one was on each side in a coordinated attach. They leaped, swing their blades. One high, one low. One from the right, one from the left. Nelson didn’t have a chance.
He leaped and found himself on the ground several feet behind the two pirates.
“Ole,” shouted the crowd.
The two men again took their positions carefully, coming from opposite directions but this time, Nelson wasn’t worried. He did the same thing he did before, he leaped, or twitched, or flickered or. . . he didn’t know what he did but he did something and “zip,” he was several feet away, on the other side of the men.
The two men turned to each other. “Ahh. Gee. He figured it out,” said Captain Kid.
“But did you see the look on his face,” laughed Blackbeard. His pirate accent was gone. The two pirates sat on the bench which was now back in one piece.
“Yeah. I like the part where you let him get the cutlass. This was almost as much fun as that champion fencer that came here last year.” The two sat on the bench laughing.
The crowd began to disperse.
Nelson, still in partial shock, backed away. Only when he was certain that the two pirates had lost interest in him, did he dare turn his back on them. In the distance, he could see the “airport terminal.” He started walking toward it. At least people there were some what civilized.
As he got close to the building, he noticed that there were gangs of people clustered around the main entrance. As he approached, the gangs started to taunt him.
“Don’t go in there.”
“They just want to make you a slave.”
“Stay out here and be free.”
“Stay away from those people.”
“They are all liars.”
He knew they couldn’t physically hurt him so he went past them without fear.
He walked up to a “clerk” and said, “I’d like a ticket.”
“I don’t know.”
“You can’t go some place if you don’t know where you are going. Do you have a pass?”
“I’m not sure.”
“If you don’t know what a pass is, then you don’t have it.”
“How do I get one?”
“You get one from a minister.”
“What’s a minister?”
“It is one who administrates. When you died, there was a man called Azrael.”
“He was a minister. They aren’t hard to recognize, once you know what to look for.”
Nelson looked around. On the other side, one of those luminescent men, a minister, stood, looking out a window. Mentally, Nelson debated whether he was willing to approach him. His last encounter with one of them had given him such an uncomfortable feeling that he wasn’t sure he wanted to do talk to this one.
He walked up behind the man and stopped a few paces away. The minister continued looking out the window. He didn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular. Outside, beyond the minister, there was the pristine garden vista with scattered groups of people who seemed to have nothing to do.
Nelson waited and debated. He wasn’t sure how to ask for a pass. He didn’t even know what a pass was or where would it take him.
Finally, he decided against asking. It could wait. The minister quickly turned and walked away.
Nelson started to leave when he noticed that same woman waiting with the same blank expression, staring at the clock. He glanced up. It said 11:45:33. One second had passed since he was last here.
“How long have you been waiting?”
Nelson went outside. The gangs where there, thicker and more hostile than before. He recognized one of the men who had claimed to be the devil.
“Who are you,” asked Nelson?
“I am the devil. I already told you that.”
“You’re not the devil,” said a voice from the crowd. “I’m the devil. You’re a liar.”
Something in Nelson’s mind seemed to snap. “What is the matter with you people. Don’t you have anything to do except cause trouble for each other? You’re all a bunch of lazy bums. You’re all a bunch of liars. Well, you can all go to hell.”
Suddenly, a silence fell on the crowd. Then everyone in the crowd started to laugh.