At five seconds, things were a little foggy. I'm not sure how much time passed by or exactly how I got there... I wouldn't figure out the details until much later... but I can say that the first fifteen seconds of my life after death were exactly as I imagined they would be.
The corridor where I stood was foggy from my feet to my knees. I couldn't actually see or feel solid ground beneath me, or my feet, for that matter... but somehow, I knew it was there. The sky directly above me held an odd, ethereal light, and the air was dry and soft. There was no sun, no wind, and the space around me was eerily silent. There were two gates: one black and foreboding, one bronze and inviting, just like the storybooks and religious school teachers had foretold. There was a strong comfort surrounding me.
At thirty seconds, logic and comfort took a nosedive.
From out of nowhere, about twenty feet in front of me appeared a fifty-four-inch flat-screen plasma HDTV. As it drifted in place, the light around me dimmed, the soft aroma of jasmine lilted somewhere just on the edge of perception, and the screen flickered to life.
The Choice Has Always Been Yours
The opening title appeared in the center of the screen in scarlet biblical calligraphy with an elegant satin silver background.
"An orientation video?" All my presumptions about death had been turned inside out.
"Welcome to Purgatory." said the host.
He looked like a pudgy, balding, bowtie-clad, nearsighted professor. In fact, he looked just like the man who taught my freshman trigonometry course in college, Professor Tribell. But it couldn't be. "Isn't he still teaching at Wayne State this term?" My thoughts were running amok, and they were doing it out loud. The strange little man droned on.
"We trust your travel from the Earthly realm was uneventful." Before I could catch myself, I nearly screamed an exasperated retort.
"Uneventful? I'd say the demise of my physical body was quite the event. Who is this guy?" I looked around for someone to commiserate with, but there was no one. It was beginning to look like reincarnation was not an option.
"Now that you've shoved off that mortal toil," the host snickered, "You have quite the little adventure before you. But as with everything, you must choose." He seemed to be having much more fun than should be allowed.
The screen then presented two purple check boxes; above the first, in cobalt script, Heaven. Under the second, in gothic silver block lettering, Hell. As the Dr. Tribell doppelganger continued to speak, the images of the two gates superimposed under each checkbox and settled gently on his left and right shoulders. A brief flashback of an old cartoon jogged in my memory.
"Before you stand two gates; one offers entrance to Heaven, the other to Hell. You must choose which side deserves you more." I'm sure my face screwed up in a contortion that could only be described as gargoyle-like.
"Which side deserves me? Just how am I supposed to figure that out?" I said with whining frustration. I was a bit wobbly and would have liked a chair or stool, or something to settle my body, or my essence, or whatever they call this thing you get after death. This was not an easy thing for me to process. After all, I'd only been dead for... what was it, maybe a day?
As if in answer to my dizzying brain, the host started talking again. He was sitting behind a desk now, looking even more like my plump trig professor than before. The simultaneous familiarity and oddity of the scene made my stomach do little flip-flops. "You will spend a little time in both Heaven and Hell on a visitor's pass. You will be given ample time, a full seven days, in each place, to decide where you think you belong. When you finally make a decision, just let us know; and you'll be permanently assigned."
"But what if I know where I belong now?" I said aloud, fully expecting to get an answer.
"No one really knows where they belong, not so close after death anyway, and that is why you must spend this mandatory time as a visitor in each realm before making a final choice. After all, you wouldn't buy a car without a test drive, now would you? Once your choice is made, there is no turning back, no retractions, no do-overs".
For a moment, it felt like the video host had been speaking directly to me… and then I realized that it must have been one of death's FAQs; I couldn't possibly have been the only one to ask that particular out loud. They must have just built it into the program, like that silly little scene at the beginning of Jurassic Park. Of course, it was ridiculous, me talking to the TV. I felt like that first day of boot camp in the Navy all over again… foolish and ignorant. The host went on.
"Although we can't tell you what to expect during your visits, what we can say is that there will be no apocalyptic fight for your Soul, regardless of what you may have read. However, we can't promise you that the residents of either Heaven or Hell won't try to sway your decision by their own means; after all, we can't control everything. We can promise, however, that you won't be harmed in the process."
"Good thing! It'd be pretty difficult to hurt a dead person, don't you think?" I hollered at the screen, and then I screamed one of those primal screams my therapist once told me were... what did he call it? Oh yes, healing. This whole death thing was getting tremendously weirder with each passing nanosecond.
"So, we suggest that you just go with the flow and enjoy your time touring each realm, consider it a vacation... and don't worry about your decision until judgment day, almost a full month away. Just take it slow. Really consider your options. We'll make sure you'll get some regroup time in between each visit and at the end to process your thoughts. Good Luck!"
The screen grew dark, and the credits rolled in true Hollywood fashion. I remember thinking that it was amazing how many people it took to put this production together... lots of dead videographers and grips. As the final copyright line rolled past, the host chortled somewhere off-camera. He was probably laughing at the same thing I was... Copyright in the afterlife? Who could possibly steal it?" The light around me returned to normal. That is, if ethereal can be considered normal.
As I looked about, I noticed that a woman had appeared at my side. She stood only about four feet tall but was perfectly proportioned in every way. There was no pitchfork, no pointy ears, and no spiked tail; none that I could see, anyway. I took this as a good sign. "I'm Liza. I'll take you back to your room now," she said. "You'll need proper rest if you're to go on a visit to Heaven in the morning."
I was overcome by a drunken giggle as the little woman took my hand. Absolutely nothing about my dying process was happening according to Hoyle... Not one of the rules I'd been taught had been followed. It was just all so... not normal. I had to ask... "Why do I get to visit Heaven first? Does everyone visit Heaven first?" I was tired and rambling.
Liza smiled and looked up at me with a strange glint in her eye. "Oh no, my dear. You are visiting Heaven first because it is your right. A priest gave you that last right before you arrived."
Last Rites meant a first stop in Heaven? Do all priests know that? Did they teach that in seminary school? Is that why my Rabbi didn't talk about the possibility of going to hell... maybe he was never taught the bypass code and didn't want to tell his congregation that he was out of the loop. My brain was awash with too many images, too many sounds, too many thoughts. What time was it, anyway? I needed sleep.
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