afterlife

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This post was originally published through Patreon on March 29, 2017.

Darkness surrounds me. I see only a silver flight of stairs that ascends into endless black. Only one thing is clear: there’s nowhere to go but up.

I begin to climb.

Each step is illuminated, and I look around and try to find the source of the light. But it’s a mystery. Just like this place. Just like myself.

It seems that hours pass before I finally stop to catch my breath, and when I do, I glance back to discover an infinite expanse of metallic steps, sinking down into the blackness below. Meanwhile, the air up here is warm and humid. I reach to wipe sweat from my brow, and that’s when I hear them for the first time. Voices, whispering beyond the void.

Cautious, I continue to climb.

One voice in particular distinguishes itself from the rest. A woman. The sound is warm, inviting.

“Life,” I hear her say, and then broken shards of memory invade me, flashing before my eyes. They are remnants of a time outside the darkness, and for a moment, I almost remember who I am.

I’m afraid, but the comforting voice urges me to continue.

The humidity has become a pressure cooking heat. Sweat pours from my face and neck like a river.

“Life,” she repeats. The word terrifies me even as it gives me strength, and I find myself scrambling up the steps two, even three at a time.

“Life. Life. Life.” The other voices have joined with the first, merging into a single-minded chant, an otherworldly chorus that makes the hairs on my neck stand on end.

A beam shines above me now, not far from where I stand. The heat has become unbearable, yet I know I must press forward. All the while, the voices cheer me on.

My skin feels like it’s catching fire, and I can no longer breathe. I wobble, teeter, and for a moment I fear I’ll fall, that I’ll tumble down and down, all the way to the distant and forgotten bottom.

That’s when I see her, a woman clothed in white, iridescent robes, descending from the light like an angel.

“Don’t be afraid,” she says, taking my hand. “I’ll help you.”

Power surges through me at her touch. I’m in agony, yet I find I now have the strength to go on. Face covered in sweat, I climb the last step, reach out, and push through.

A solar flare: coruscating, blinding. The impurities of my old life burn away, until I am a part of the fire.

It no longer hurts. Instead, love and life surround me, welcoming me home. A column of white robed figures chant my name. My encouragers. They smile, and I greet each as an old friend.

“Well done,” says the woman who helped me through. Transfigured, she has become more beautiful than I could have possibly imagined.

My old life is over, and my new life has just begun.

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The Other Side

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This post was originally published through Patreon on May 23, 2017.

I wasn’t ready to die. I suppose no one is.

As mortals, we have a strange fixation with immortality. We understand that each of us has a clock embedded deep within, set to an unknown length of time; that when this time is finally up, when our clock’s internal mechanism winds down to zero, we’ll be thrust headlong into the uncharted lands of death—and into light or oblivion, who can say? Yet each of us holds to the secret belief that there must be some way to get ahead of our fate, that there must be some trick, some unexplained force of nature that, once harnessed, would allow us to reset that clock, or even stop it.

This was my belief until the end. And even when that end had come and gone, I was still convinced I could do things differently, that I could scrape together whatever temporal crumbs were left and use them to accomplish all the things I’d said I would do in life.

Well, you can guess how that worked out.

One moment, I was lying in a hospital bed, tubes and sensors protruding from my arms like cybernetic tentacles as the cancer devoured my body from the inside out. The next, I was standing on a hot desert road, surrounded by nothing but asphalt, sun, and endless sky.

First, I just stood there thinking, “This isn’t right. I’m in the hospital.” Then I shook my head. “Shit,” I said, and after the absurdity of my situation had truly sunk in, you could say I threw a bit of a tantrum. I shook my fist at the indifferent sky, shouted useless invectives while stomping and fuming like a toddler who’s just had his favorite toy taken away.

A good long time passed before I realized there was no way left to go but on.

And on I went. On, on and on, with a bloated sun razing my neck and shoulders, and a dry, arid wind cracking my parched and blistered lips. A strangely corporeal experience, I thought, for someone who’d left his body behind in the hospital. At times, I’d pray for death, only to realize soon after that I was already dead. Then a terrible despair would surge through my soul like an ocean, and I would break down all over again.

This is Hell, I would think. I hadn’t been good enough in life, and eternal suffering was my reward. But then the sun would set for the night, the air would cool for a little bit, and the sky, transparent to the cosmos, would fill me with the hope that this too might yet pass.

A quest, I realized after one particularly scorching day. I was on a quest, like King Arthur in search of the Holy Grail, or Odysseus in search of his lost home in Ithaca. A quest for who or for what I couldn’t yet say, but in my heart I knew it was the truth.

That night, I heard the stars sing.

A haunting alloy of otherworldly harmonies, they addressed me by name—not my given name but my true name, the one etched indelibly into the substance of my being. Their voices reached into my weary soul and offered me their everlasting light.

A transformation had begun, and no longer would I allow myself to be discouraged. I dragged my desiccated post-life body across the endless asphalt by day, and drank from the light of those angelic voices by night.

On and on they carried me, across the sand and the centuries, until now, at last, I stand before the Celestial Gate, those radiant stars lighting the way home.

Now, there’s only one thing left to do. Weak kneed and teary-eyed, I knock.

“You are well traveled,” come their collective reply. “Come inside, and make yourself at home.”

The gate opens, and of what I see beyond that cosmic threshold I could write entire books. But I hear them singing again, calling on me to take my place in the sky, and I will not keep them waiting any longer.

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Everyone Dies

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When Jill turned the corner and saw what was waiting for her in the street, she knew her life was over. Dread settled in the pit of her stomach, and she found herself backing away. Only she knew it wouldn’t do any good.

If she could see it, it could see her.

Indeed, the creature turned, and though it had no eyes—only a dark emptiness hidden inside a thick black cowl—she felt its gaze like a javelin through the heart.

Wide-eyed, she watched it approach, the dark fabric of its robes rippling languidly over asphalt as it crossed the street to meet her.

No, she thought. It isn’t supposed to end like this.

But in moments it was in front of her, and Jill knew she was going to die.

“You gave us quite a chase,” the Reaper mused. Its voice came out a haunting, otherworldly whisper, like wind funneling through a narrow tunnel.

Jill wanted to say something but couldn’t. She was too lost in the vistas of abject terror to open her mouth.

“Do you wish to end this now,” the Reaper asked, “or do you want some more exercise first?”

Jill prickled with a sudden flare of anger, and for a moment, her fear abated. The Reaper had a job to do, but it didn’t have to be so fucking condescending.

“So, this is it then? All this education and life experience, just so I can lose it all now?”

“My dear, sooner or later, everyone dies.”

“Then why not later? I have a lot going for me right now. There’s so much I can contribute to the world. Give me ten more years. Then you can take me.”

When the Reaper spoke again, there was no hint of its prior mocking. Its tone was serious, and if Jill didn’t know any better, she’d also say caring.

“You know that’s not how it works. Not even I’m allowed to decide who lives and dies. We Reapers receive our orders, and we carry them out.”

Yes, she had to concede that this was true. And why some people lived to a ripe old age while others expired young, she would never know. All anyone could say for certain was that one day, sooner or later, your number would be called.

“It’s really not so bad,” the Reaper continued. “Many die more slowly from terrible, debilitating diseases. Death by our hand is much quicker, much more humane.”

Jill snorted. “There’s nothing humane about you.”

“True enough. Would it help if I told you that the one who decides your fate isn’t as capricious as you make him out to be? That there’s a plan in the midst of all this madness?”

“Not really.”

The headless cowl nodded, as if the Reaper hadn’t expected any other answer.

“Come,” it said. “Take my hand, and see what awaits you in the life to come.”

Jill hesitated a moment longer, but there was no point resisting the inevitable. She nodded. Fine. Her time was up, and that was that. Goodbye, Earth. Hello, Great Unknown.

Its hand on her shoulder was like a dousing in arctic waters. She felt all the warmth—all the life—drain out of her body like a bucket with a hole in the bottom. But the Reaper was right. It really wasn’t so bad. And when everything went dark like the void beyond the Reaper’s cowl, Jill found herself contemplating her life, wondering if it had really been all that important to begin with.

After all, nothing in this world was permanent. As the Reaper itself had said, sooner or later, everyone dies.

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