Now I was so screwed.I always believed life wasn’t real. You know, as if everything was one big hologram and nobody else really existed. Just me. Alone in the world. And I’d acted accordingly.
Never had I imagined I was the center of my universe. Still, no matter how many people surrounded me, no matter how many activities I cluttered into my life, I couldn’t shake an overwhelming sense of isolation. Imagine my surprise when I woke up dead—well, technically when I died and woke up no longer in my familiar world. My earthly theories were all wet—sopping wet. So where was I?And how much trouble awaited me? Would I be punished for my me-centric life?
The scenery loomed dark and forbidding. Despite the intense fog, I didn’t think I’d arrived in hell. At least not in society’s accepted version of the underworld. Where were the fire pits and demons?The place couldn’t be described as heaven either. Shadows abounded, even without any considerable light source to cast them. Worse, I didn’t feel anything close to eternal bliss.
Weird that I no longer felt alone. On a less positive note, alone suddenly seemed rather enticing. Beings scurried about—cartoonish characters on a mission. Men, women, children. Not in droves, but I kept encountering individual persons as I drifted. A woman hurried by. A young girl passed with her nose in the air. Every few minutes a man would stride past. Never the same person.None of the beings noticed me. “Where am I?” I repeated.
No one acknowledged my words. Not even a “get lost.”So I walked—actually I sort of moved without walking. And refused to give up. Whenever I encountered anyone, I repeated the same phrase, “Excuse me.”
Not a single reply.Maybe I was a ghost. Cool.
I needed to validate my theory. After looking left, and then right, I spotted a test subject: a rather thin man with equally thin lips.“Excuse me.”
As predicted, no answer, but you can’t blame a girl for trying. I couldn’t exactly blitz the man without warning. There was the odd chance I wasn’t a ghost and the hip check I planned to throw might cause Mr. Silent Slim some discomfort.I headed straight toward him in an out-and-out run. Only my feet didn’t jog because there was no ground. My effort resulted in faster movement and I barreled toward Mr. Slim. “Hey, Mister.” Even with the freight train better known as me closing in, he still didn’t acknowledge me.
For his sake, I really hoped I was a ghost. My body steamrolled toward the man with a speed that frightened me.At the last second, the man darted to my left. I almost toppled into the mist.
He saw me. Or at least he sensed me. Otherwise he wouldn’t have shifted. Right?How rude.
Slim kept walking, completely ignoring me. Nu-uh. Mr. Rude wouldn’t get away that easily.I executed a one-eighty and moved faster than a floaty person with no solid footing should be able to scuttle. I bumped into Slim’s skinny butt with intense momentum.
And landed on my derriere. The misty ground was surprisingly hard.Okay. So I maybe I wasn’t a ghost—not the kind I’d imagined anyway.
The man paused. Turning, he frowned in my direction, still managing to avoid eye contact. After shaking his head exactly three times, he pointed to my left.I gazed in the direction of his extended index finger. The haze parted, revealing a large door with a sign on it: INFORMATION.
They might have placed that room a tad closer to the debarkation point.The door looked no more than one-hundred feet away, but the trek took me about fifteen minutes. I knocked once and walked inside. An official looking man in a purple suit sat behind an all white desk staring at a clipboard with a bored expression. I couldn’t see his face—couldn’t tell if he were old or young. Again, it was that presence thing.
“Sir. Can you tell me where I am? Where I’m supposed to go?”He didn’t reply, not with words anyway, but his message came through loud and clear. “Go away.”
“Uh, em, sure, Buster. Exactly where should I go?”The man actually raised his head. I couldn’t see his features even though no fog or other obstruction floated in the room. Something cloaked him.
He laughed. Out loud. A real laugh, not some projected emotion like his “go away.” “No one’s ever asked that before. Actually—what’s your name, sugar?”“Sammie.”
“Well, Sammie. People here are doing things. We don’t interact with others without an expressed reason.”I bit at my lip, trying to be patient. “That’s all well and good, but….” I paused, figuring it wouldn’t help my cause to call him “Bozo.” My emotion must have been projected, however, because the face I couldn’t see raised an eyebrow. “Eh, excuse me…sir. The problem is I don’t know where here is and I have no idea what this person is supposed to do.”
His brown eyes seemed a bit more prominent in his haze of a face. A strange expression flickered for a second. “My, my. Aren’t you a breath of fresh ozone? You’re going to be a problem, aren’t you?”He raised his head and studied me, his features more clear. Flecks of green and amber danced in his brown eyes—perhaps the most mesmerizing irises I’d ever encountered. Something about the man made me calmer and tense at the same time.
“She certainly is.” Not Brown Eyes voice.Who’d spoken? After hours of not being acknowledged, having two beings speaking practically overwhelmed my senses.
“I don’t mean to be…” I whirled to address the new voice.Coming face-to-face with Slim made me forget what I’d intended to say. Hadn’t he been headed in the opposite direction? And in a big hurry?
“Where are your papers?” Slim asked.I turned to brown eyes, hoping for some clarification, and maybe a little sympathy, but that being had vanished. Crap. I rather liked him.
“Papers, Ms. Samantha Camille Charles. Where are your papers?”“What papers?” And how did the man who wouldn’t acknowledge me suddenly know my name?
“Of course you don’t have papers. That’d be too easy.” An insult, no doubt.“No, I don’t have any papers. I just died—at least I think I did. You can’t get hit by an eighteen-wheeler straight on and survive.”
“Sure you can.” What was he talking about?I shook my head. “Not when a big ol’ truck pushes you over a cliff and your car bounces off several boulders as it careens toward the earth a hundred yards away. And then explodes in a fiery crash.”
The man smiled. And scared the be-geezus out of me.“I’m thrilled you find my demise amusing.”
He kept grinning, showing not one iota of remorse for his abysmal behavior. “You remember that?”I nodded. “Not something a girl forgets.”
The smirk left Slim’s face. “They usually do.”Exactly what did that mean? And exactly when—if ever—would I get some answers. “Can you help me or not?”
Slim sighed. You’d think I’d asked for his first born—or maybe first-dead, given my situation.“Someone will be here shortly,” he said, reminding me of a DMV employee.
“To do what, exactly?”“To give us a ride over to Lost Souls.”
Eh, say what? “Lost Souls?”The man stared up at the ceiling, as if some divine answer was written there. “Since you have no papers and no instructions, I’m guessing you’re not supposed to be here. Unless…”
My questions about being a lost soul evaporated and a kernel of hope sprouted in my mist-weary psyche. “Not supposed to be here? Does that mean I can go back to earth?”“Earth?” His gaze returned to my face—the intensity in his boredom almost a physical thing. “Never heard of it. What dimension is it in?”
Dimension? How the devil would I know? “Eh, the Fifth Dimension? In the age of Aquarius.”His expression didn’t change. Guess he hadn’t gotten my joke about the 1960s band. “Never heard of that either.”
Crap. The urge to stomp my foot proved overwhelming. Without a solid surface, the gesture did little to lessen my ever-increasing annoyance. “You’ve really never heard of earth?”Slim ignored me. Big surprise. Maybe that was my hell—to have everyone act as if I didn’t exist. I might have been able to accept that, but his head spun completely around on his neck. Scared the crap out of me and my hereafter.
“Mister?”Almost immediately, his head ended the rotation. “Had to contact Lost Souls.”
Not good. “Am I really a lost soul?”“Do you know where you are?”
I opened my mouth, but I didn’t know.“Then you’re a lost soul.”
Smart ass. “Wait…” I racked my brain—not finding much to help my cause since the whole dying thing had pretty much wasted my neurons. Hold on. “Before…”“I am required to tell you that you must board the bus the moment it stops.”
A bus? I couldn’t concentrate. Something nagged at my brain. Oh, yeah. “Wait. Before, you said ‘unless.’ I’m not supposed to be here unless… Unless what?”Slim’s eyebrow rose, just a little, giving him an expression that looked rather demonic. “Observant aren’t you?”
The man tilted his head to one side. “It’s here.”“What’s here?”
“The Lost Souls transport. You must hurry.”No way. The Lost Souls transport seemed like the fire of the proverbial frying pan.
Then a sense of urgency took hold. Without meaning to, I actually ran toward the Transport. I say actually because I could feel my feet actually on a firm surface. Was that Brown Eyes in the front seat?The vehicle sat in the mist, no sound emanating from the strange shaped exterior, no driver in sight. If Brown Eyes had been onboard, he’d disappeared.
Why was I so disappointed? I stopped to catch my breath, only to remember I didn’t have one.Then I heard the laughter. Silent Slim, a.k.a. the Thin Man, stood at the bottom of the entrance ramp, effectively blocking the only entrance onto the Transport.
Why did you stop? Hurry.Was that Brown Eyes?
Maybe it was divine intervention, but I knew I couldn’t miss the Transport. I ran at full speed.I’d almost reached the vehicle when Slim pulled out a sheet of paper. He waved them across the door and stepped inside. Slim and the Transport disappeared.
I don’t know what happened next, but I found myself inside the information booth. “The Last Train To Clarksville,” another 60’s hit, played on and on in a continuously loop. When I’d visited the room before, the sign clearly read “INFORMATION.” From my new vantage point, on the other side of the desk, the sign flashed “PURGATORY.”Great. I really was being punished, for I could not leave the booth.
I did find some reading material, assuming one considers an operator’s manual reading material. I devoured the volume.And wished I hadn’t. The only way a soul could escape purgatory was to steal another’s soul. Translation, some innocent—or worse, some saintly—being would have to take my place in purgatory.
That wasn’t likely to happen. So I sat.And sat. And sat. Once again, the only soul in the Universe.
I adjusted. What else could I do? Alone was a familiar, if almost unbearable state. I don’t know how many days I waited. Eternity seemed like a coffee break by comparison .Then it happened. A soul arrived, seeking direction.
“Do you have your papers?” I asked.Why had Slim demanded my papers? The manual clearly stated that the booth dweller should reassure the lost traveler.
The boy shook his head.Odd. The fluorescent sheets glowed like a neon sign.
“In your hands, son. Your papers are in your hand.”The boy frowned but looked at the pages in his fingers. After a moment, he smiled. “Mom’s there.”
I certainly hoped so.He grinned again. “Thanks, Miss.”
Before I could reply, he vanished in a glow of light. Cool.I sat back into my chair, which seemed to have molded to my derriere. When had the hard surface been replaced with memory-foam?
No doubt another decade would pass before another soul came along to divert my tedium, but I could do this. Not like I had a choice. Somehow, things didn’t seem so bad.“You’re smiling.”
I almost fell out of my newly-padded seat. “Brown Eyes.”“So how are you, Sammie? Still causing trouble?”
“If only.” I tried to laugh, but I couldn’t focus under the intensity of his stare.“You could have taken his papers, you know?”
“Do what?”Brown Eyes smiled, making me feel like purgatory didn’t exist. Even though my thoughts would send me straight to hell.
“The papers. Doesn’t happen often, but new arrivals, especially arrivals who’d had a traumatic passing, don’t always see the papers. You could have snatched the kid’s credentials and been out of here.”“New arrivals?” Was he kidding? “Don’t you mean Lost Souls?”
Brown Eyes shook his head. “No such thing.”“So why do they call it the Lost Souls Transport?”
“They don’t.”“But Slim said—”
“Slim lied. He stole your papers, thinking he’d avoid doing his time.”“Stole my… When I bumped into him.” I couldn’t see it at the time, but suddenly I remembered everything. Slim had taken my papers.
Brown Eyes nodded. “You could have done the same thing.”I shook my head. “No way.”
He studied my face. I studied him right back, wondering why he seemed so clear. I could make out every molecule of his handsome face. “Maybe next time.”“Next time?”
“The next time a confused soul finds your booth.”I shook my head again. “If that’s what I have to do to get out of here, then I guess I really am stuck in purgatory.”
He narrowed his eyes. “You’re giving up on heaven? Even if the papers belong to some corporate raider or drug dealer? Someone who deserves purgatory?”I shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. It just wouldn’t be…”
“Right?”I shrugged again, not comfortable discussing right and wrong in a place so full of gray. “What’s your story, Brown…eh, Mister.” Yikes, I’d almost called him Brown Eyes again. “You’re clearly not lost. Or rather confused.”
“I supervise the information booth workers. Make sure they follow the rules.”Say what? I mean, I liked the big dude—as in really liked him—but letting me lose my spot on the Transport seat just seemed mean. “Yet you let Slim take my seat?”
“Not exactly. Don’t you worry, Slim will get what’s coming to him.”I didn’t really care about Slim. “What about me?”
He grinned. “Been a long time since someone caused trouble. Of all the information joints, in all the realms, in all the worlds, and you wander into mine.”I thought that line came from some old black-and-white movie, but the source of his quote didn’t rank high on my important stuff list at the moment. “Eh, could you translate that into something more understandable?”
“I wanted to keep you on my staff a while longer—see if you’re as good as you seem.”“Duh—what?”
“What can I say?” Darn man actually winked at me. “I like you.”I swear, I had to have lungs, because they stopped working. “You left me in purgatory because you like me?
He grinned again, like his killer smile would get him out of trouble. “I really like you.”I sputtered. There simply weren’t words. Even in the afterlife, the male intellect remained an oxymoron.
“Besides…” He pointed at the Purgatory sign—which no longer read PURGATORY. Instead, COFFEE? flashed into the swirling atmosphere. “Want to get out of here?”No doubt about it, I wasn’t alone in the universe. And the afterlife had definitely gotten interesting.