It came out of nowhere and hit him like a truck. That may have been because it was an actual truck. John had made the tiniest mistake of not looking both ways twice before stepping off the curb. The delivery driver had made the not-so-small mistake of texting while he should have been paying attention to the road. These two mistakes, one not-so-small and one very small indeed, landed John at The Gateway to Heaventm.
Well, that isn't entirely true. John landed some 50 feet away from where the truck hit him, but his spirit landed at The Gateway to Heaventm. Everything was ridiculously white at The Gateway. Even without having literal eyeballs, you would have had to take a second or two to adjust to the blinding starkness that surrounded you. What should have been comforting was actually kind of unnerving. John stood still as could be, just waiting for someone to tell him what to do. That was John for you. Even in the afterlife, he had no ambition.
"John Robert Thompson," a woman wearing an all-white pantsuit called from across the room. "It is very nice to meet you. You need to follow me to orientation. But first I must ask, do you have any questions?"
John took a second to ponder her question, then shrugged. He figured whatever he needed to know they would end up telling him anyway, so what was the point wasting anyone's time with unnecessary questions. She seemed confused for a second at his lack of curiosity but didn't miss a beat. She turned with purpose and headed briskly down the overly white hallway.
"Try to keep up then, we don't want you missing anything that the welcoming committee has to say. My name is Melody and I am a greeting angel here at The Gateway to Heaventm. This is your one stop staging area where we prep you for the trip over to Heaven Incorporated. Everything is perfect over there, and we don't want to send anyone over unprepared for the eternity we have planned for them. You will be happy to know that you have been selected along with many other human beings to head off to the happiest, most fulfilling place in existence."
"Turn in here, John," she politely said as she gestured into a room. "They are just waiting for the last few members of your group to arrive. You can mingle with the other souls waiting with you." With that she headed off down the hallway, sighing as she went. It really did bother her that he didn't seem very interested in her spiel. That had never happened to her before.
The room held around 100 chairs, all of them facing toward a stage. Everything was all still very white and stark. There was not a speck of dust nor a thing out of place. John noticed that souls looked a lot like people, but with a slight glow about them. Most of the chairs were filled with men and women of all ages. Each one gave off a soft shimmer. No two colors were the same, and you could almost feel the glows if you got too close to them. John made that mistake only once, and did his best to observe a bubble of personal space after that encounter.
The others seemed to love the sensation, as they were going out of their way to brush up against one another. The colors would dance and flicker, sometimes bouncing off each other and other times melding together into a new, different glow. John gazed around the room, scanning for a chair that was farthest away from the other people. Once he found it, he made a beeline to get there. All of this interacting was exhausting.
The smell of cookies smacked him in the face so hard he almost fell over. Turning his head in the direction of the aroma he saw an older woman with mocha colored skin and a glow of pure gold. "Sweetheart, are you ok? You look rather queasy," she asked John.
"I'm fine," he mumbled, determined to get to that chair before anyone else could stake a claim on it.
Roses, followed by seawater, oranges, and honey. Smells were coming off all of the other souls in the room. Just like the colors, no two were alike. John wondered as he sat down what he must smell like. His grandfather had smelled of old leather chair and cigars. He hoped that would be his scent. It dawned on him that he never checked to see what color his glow was as he scurried across the room.
Reaching out his hands, he looked down and saw nothing different. They looked as they always did, maybe it was something only the others saw on you. He thought about asking one of the women that were gathered nearby chatting noisily, but thought the better of it. He was sure they would answer all of those questions later.
Each moment that passed there was another soul entering the room guided by angels dressed in business attire of all white. When the last chair had an occupant, the door shut and the lights dimmed. A large screen rose out of the stage area and a 30 second video played showing pictures of people in the room smiling and laughing. John recognized some of the faces as those of people he had seen as he crossed the room. There were many faces shown in the video, but not John's.
Two of the most beautiful people he had ever seen entered the stage, one from each side. The man was tall and muscular with dark hair and the brightest blue eyes. The woman was small and toned, with light hair that fell all the way to her waist. They entered with an energy that brought the room to their feet. Motivational speakers on earth pray for the kind of charisma that these two beings had. The souls leapt and danced in jubilation, and although John could feel the buzz of energy, it didn't affect him with the same fervor. He stood with the crowd, but only because he was a follower at heart.
"Welcome to The Gateway to Heaventm, you beautiful, magnificent, wondrous beings! We are overjoyed to finally meet you and put you on your way to becoming a member of Heaven Inc.! That angelic being over there is Inspiration, and I am Tenacity. We are here to transition you from your earth-bound lives to your future eternity in the happiest place in existence."
With that the entire room erupted in cries of joy. All except one man. That man stood there like a stone, hoping Heaven would be a less noisy. Inspiration and Tenacity took turns pumping up the crowd with buzz words and slogans. The longer they talked, the more the room glowed. It was as if their words were feeding the souls radiance. When it finally hit a crescendo, you couldn't see anymore. The souls’ glows had combined to be as white as everything in the room around them. In a moment, it was burning white, then there was a flash and a pop.
With that, everyone was gone. Well, everyone but John. The room that had been filled with joyous laughing and singing was suddenly silent. John looked around and felt content for the first time since this hectic day had started. He slumped back into his chair and closed his eyes. A small rest wasn't going to hurt anything.
Melody peeked her head in the door and sighed. This had never happened before at The Gateway to Heaventm in all the years she had been there. Souls go to Heaven Inc. That was the way around here. It was a good thing her supervisor was still there for the day. There was never anything mentioned in her training about souls not glowing, having no smell, and refusing to leave the orientation.
Eating alone has its hazards, like not chewing enough and suddenly gasping for air. Maybe if John had clicked that link online that taught you how to give yourself the Heimlich he could have kept on being mediocre. But we all know John wasn't about to plan ahead, opting to take a nap instead. So there he was, stiff as a board on the floor with a half chewed piece of cheese steak lodged in his throat. God knows how long it would take for someone to find him. Probably a week or so, after not showing up for a couple of shifts and his supervisor finally getting mad enough to try calling.
The thing is, John won't really be there anymore. Just a smelly shell of who the man used to be. The John that once filled that shell of a man will be far away in the office of a life evaluator. She will be busy looking over his file. Her frustration at how thin it is will show on her face. John will be calm as usual, unaware that this may really be a problem. His knack for not giving a damn has kept him out of sticky situations during his life, but this time it is the cause of one.
"Mr. Thompson. Do you realize you were alive for 45 full years and were unable to accomplish anything of importance?"
John thought for a moment about what the irritated woman was asking, but he became distracted by the plainness of the room he was in. It turns out your fate is determined in a 1980's work sitcom office. Very brown and very drab. A motivational poster of a monkey was pinned behind the woman's back. "Work Harder, We Can Always Get Monkeys To Do Your Jobs." That should have been John's first clue as to how this meeting would go, but he was more interested in the monkey's tie than the words.
She inhaled deeply and rubbed her brow. "John, let me be straight with you. You are what we call a hard case. Unusually hard, if I'm being honest with you. I am looking at this file about your life, and it's painfully boring. Do you understand why you were put on Earth, John?"
Her thumbs rose to her eyes and she rubbed them in the tiniest circles, hoping this would help her find the words needed to express the seriousness of the situation.
"Mr. Thompson, you are given life to live it. To reach out and grab it by the throat. You are meant to be amazing, to make waves. Life is imperfect, beautiful chaos that should be a thrill ride from start to finish. You were there to love and be loved, to create and inspire, to dream and then chase those dreams down like they’re air and you’re suffocating without them... Sorry. Sorry. I forgot how you passed. Anyway, John, life is an adventure. Did you ever have an adventure?"
With that she growled, "John, I can't help you if you can't even answer my questions. What you don't seem to understand is that you have been sent back to live 180 times. 180 times, John. That’s way more than any other human being that has ever lived. You, as a human, are sent to Earth to live and 180 times in a row you have failed to do so. This is the longest you were down there as one person and you still couldn't manage to do anything of any importance at all. We don't know what to do John. We are at a loss here as to how to help you. We need you to help yourself, John. Don't you want to move on? None of us want to send you back just to have you end up here again still unable to take a risk and live a little. What are you afraid of, John?"
John wished he could answer the woman so she would stop looking at him that way, but he had no answer. He knew he probably shouldn't, but he shrugged again.
"Fine, John. You will go back. You will start again and if there is a God in Heaven, we will meet again in a few decades with a much thicker file sitting on my desk. I will finally get that promotion my boss promised me after your 50th go at it, we’ll all have a good laugh, and I will send you to the next stage. Won't that be great, John? But know this, I am not taking any chances this time. It isn't going to be an easy ride for you. Maybe if I send you somewhere where you will have to struggle and suffer that may get you off your well rested butt. So get ready John because you are in for a wild ride."
Before he was able to shrug again, she poofed him out of her sight and into a tiny clump of cells which were busy at work splitting apart and forming ears, legs, and so on.
Dave, the jerk from down the hall, popped his head into her office. "Tell me that wasn't him again," he questioned, already knowing the answer. "How many times is it now?"
"181," she replied flatly. "50 bucks says he goes for 182."
One in 1,600,000. Those are the odds of being killed by a meteor. So, if you think about it that way, dying was the most remarkable thing that John Robert Thompson managed to do in his 45 years on this planet. He would be on the news, in papers, and on the timelines of everyone's preferred social media. John Robert Thompson would be famous for 15 minutes until something else happened that took the attention of an easily distracted society.
As explosive as his death was, his afterlife was worse. It began with a bang as he was thrown head first through a wall of lava. Excruciating pain ripped through his body as his entire existence melted away along with anything that would have been recognizable as John Robert Thompson. Coming out of the other side, all beings were now a burnt, melting mess with charred crusty bits. They were no longer man or woman, just wrinkled masses of scars and open wounds.
"Next!" an angry pint sized demon yelled at John. As John painfully shuffled over to the podium, a much larger, much angrier demon kicked him squarely in the ass. "Move faster meatbag! No one has time for your nonsense. Name?"
"John Robert Thompson." he managed to croak out.
Click, clack. The demon typed away at a tiny keyboard. "Hmmmmmm," he muttered. "What a waste. You, sir, should be ashamed of yourself. I bet you’re wondering why you ended up here. You never really did anything bad," the demon hissed.
John tried to nod, but his skin felt like it would rip on half if he attempted to do anything other than shuffle.
"Well, Mr. John Thompson, you have been tried and convicted of being a pathetic waste of space. That is one of the worst sins you can commit. You have basically spit in the eye of the creator. But don't worry, John, we have plans for you. BIG plans."
With that the large angry demon knocked John Robert Thompson squarely on the top of his noggin causing him to black out. When he awoke, he was seated in a dimly lit red room. He was slumped over in a hard wooden chair. It was the kind of chair that was uncomfortable the minute you sat in it. But John had just been booted in the rear repeatedly by a monster sized demon and that made the chair even more painful. Across the room, in a large glass case, was a well-worn leather lazy boy.
John recognized the chair immediately. It had belonged to his grandfather. John had spent much of his childhood planted firmly on his grandfather's lap listening to the stories that grandfathers tell their grandsons. Tales of childhood hijinks, teenage love, and adult exploration. All of the ambition and adventurous spirit that John lacked was overflowing in his cigar smoking mountain of man grandfather. He shifted uncomfortably from one sore ass cheek to the other but relief was not going to come.
The chair was there to toy with him. To make him long for the days past, for the comfort of a loving father figure, and for the opportunity to go back and change it all, this time leaping head first into life. All of this was lost on John. He hummed a tune his grandfather would whistle while working on the classic cars in his garage and promptly fell asleep.
On the other side of a two-way mirror stood Baalberith and Belphegor, the two demons from John's arrival. Their job was to find the perfect torture for each soul they greet, and then to leave them there for an eternity. So far, things weren't working out as they had hoped. Normally they can come together to dream up an appropriate and slightly poetic punishment that reflects the dearly departed's sins. Baalberith could not believe the nerve of this guy. Who falls asleep in Hell?
He was sure the grandfather's chair would have done it. It should have eaten away at John's soul like water slowly etches rock. The cut becoming deeper and more painful as time went on. Baalberith had searched John's memories to find something, anything, that John cared about. The best memories the man had centered around the few years he spent with his grandfather before he died. Everything after that was just John coasting from one thing to another. The years ticked by without anything of real significance happening. There was nothing to pull from to help find this mortal’s weak spot.
"Elevators?" Belphegor asked.
"Yeah, no one likes elevators. Let's put him in one while I think. Maybe we can wear him down a bit."
A door blinked into existence in front of John. Seconds ago, he was unable to move out of the chair. Not that he a had bothered to try, but he would have found his rear glued to the chair if he had. Now he was free to shuffle into the slowly separating doors. John, a man who always disappoints, just kept sitting.
"You've got to be kidding me," Baalberith grumbled.
John was thrown out of the chair by an invisible force. A smile crept across Baalberith's face, a wicked little grin, as he contemplated their next move. Torturing the deserving gave him a sense of joy. The more ideas he had to work through with a person, the more devious he became. Murderers and thieves had weaknesses that they wore on their sleeves. All you had to do was turn the tables on them. Kill them again and again the way their victims perished. With a thief, you taunt him with the most coveted items and make them unable to steal them. As they are turning themselves inside out to get close to the precious item, you secretly take all that they hold important, one tiny piece at a time, whittling away at who they are until they feel like they are a shell of nothingness.
John was one of those special cases where his sins weren't so cut and dry. These were the cases that Baalberith enjoyed the most. They were a puzzle to be solved. He would find the thing that would cause this mortal to crumble. Those in Hell are there for all of the time that exists forever, so no rush. John could get nice and cozy in his nightmare elevator ride.
Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. John made his way across the last bit of floor that was left in the chair room. The door snapped shut behind him nearly cutting him in two, and for the briefest moment John was allowed to feel perfectly safe and comforted. It started with his toes. They began to burn. Like acid and lava wrapped around each tiny digit. Escape alluded him, and the more he squirmed, the more intense the feeling became. “Pussycat, pussycat, I've got flowers and lots of hours to spend time with you, so go and powder your cute little pussycat nose," Tom Jones melodious voice softly called to him.
At first it was soothing. The familiar notes and tones caused him to smirk ever so slightly. Tom repeated his song again, then again, and then again once more. By the time he was on his 15th go around John was beginning to hate Tom Jones. There had to be some way to drown out the noise and discomfort. He had spent a lifetime pushing out external forces. Retreating into himself, the burning that was now reaching all the way to his thighs and the mind-numbing repetition of the classic song faded off into the nothingness and John's eyes glazed over.
It was days, maybe even years, before Baalberith checked back in on his least favorite ward. He was sure his next plan was going to bring the man to his knees, especially since he had allowed him to rot alone in such a small and horrid space. Baalberith was knocked back when he slid the privacy screen away to peek in on John. There was no change. He wasn't even sure if John was still in there. The body stood on the floor braced by the wall.
There was no expression on his face. The spots were eyes should be bottomless black circles stared out. It was in that instant that he knew he was beat. No amount of tax filing and auditing would make this man cave. Endless lines that close just out of reach or waiting rooms where everyone gets called except for you would do nothing to this man's spirit. Baalberith made an executive decision that he may not have really been authorized to make and slid the screen shut again.
He was going to leave that horrid man in the elevator forever to exist in his nothingness, and Baalberith would forget they had ever met.
“One tripping” it. This is an ability that many people take pride in. For John, it was less a goal of showing strength or being in an internal competition and more about the laziness of not having to head out to his car a second time. This time he brought new meaning to the phrase “one tripping”. As he climbed the stairs with all his grocery bags carefully grasped in each hand, balanced between his right and left side so not to throw off his ability to climb the stairs, he failed to notice that the rug had shifted ever so slightly about three quarters of the way up.
Thunk! He banged his head four times before he landed at the bottom. The first smack was the death blow, though, so John wasn't aware of the other three. He was split in half as he stood and dusted himself off, yet still lay very awkwardly on the ground at the foot of the stairs. The absurdity of this was lost on John Robert Thompson. Just like most things in his life had been.
The smell of popcorn filled the air and John was drawn towards a set of swinging doors that had formed where his front door used to be. As they swung open, the sounds of a crowd loudly conversing knocked him back. He spun around and scanned the room. The doors through which he had entered were now gone and had replaced by a generic movie theatre hallway wall. He headed slowly down the hallway towards the commotion.
People were pouring out of a screening room into the concessions area. A woman was standing proudly at the door way, shaking hands and chatting happily with each person as they left. Smiles stretched widely across each of their faces. John stood silently and observed them until every person had their chance to congratulate the woman, at which time she joined them in the concession area. Movie posters lined the walls of the room.
As he scanned them, he was surprised to see a very familiar face on the last one. "The Life and Times of John Robert Thompson" it read with his school picture from Mr. O’Sullivan's third grade class.
"You're up next kid," a portly man said as he patted John on the back. "I wouldn't want to follow Sandra. That woman was fantastic. I know it’s just a highlights reel, but oh boy! The places she went, and her sense of humor. And what a love story!" His blue eyes twinkled under his thick glasses as he gave his review.
"I know, man!" a young man dressed in hockey gear said enthusiastically. "What a woman! I wish I had known her when I was still alive."
"Easy there, boy," purred the woman who had been at the theatre entrance. Her voice was like silk that flowed over you as she spoke. Blonde hair fell well below her shoulders onto her very formal, yet, somehow not out of place attire. Her stare drifted to the poster behind John and her perfectly shaped face lit up with recognition. "Oh, John, welcome! We just viewed my life and it looks like you are next! How wonderful! We are just taking a short break to stretch our legs. You are in for such a treat. The experience is so fantastic. I am so excited for you. Save me a seat next to you so I can watch the movie and your reactions." She seemed genuine about her request as she wandered off mumbling, "how wonderful," to herself over and over.
"Name’s Frank," the portly man said firmly as he reached his hand out and embraced John's. "You missed my movie, and Mark's too. They were pretty great but nothing compared to that woman. Skydiving, mountain climbing, trekking through the jungle. She single handedly saved a village from starvation. It also helps that she looks and carries herself like a movie star. She is going places. Who knows where, but when we do move on, she is headed up, up, up."
"You ever wonder what's next Frank?" Mark whispered.
"For a minute my boy, then I figure who cares. We’ve got to enjoy where we are at while we are there. At least, that was how I was in life. Wish I had that gal's guts though. Watching her do all of that makes me wish I could have been there a bit longer. Weird thing about these movies. When you watch them, you feel like you lived it. You'll see, John. You'll get to relive the highs of your time there, and we will get to with you. That's why we were all so hyped up leaving. We got to experience how it felt to do all those amazing things. What do you have in store for us, John? God, I am excited. I can't wait. Tell me one big thing we are going to do. Nah. Wait. Don't. I want it to be a surprise."
"A surprise is better," Mark agreed.
"There's nothing like it, John. Nothing in the whole world," Frank said, motioning towards the growing lines. "Let's get our treats and head into the theatre. Since it’s your movie, there is a reserved seat in the middle for you but the rest of us have to get in there as quick as we can."
John ordered a small popcorn and a root beer from the creature behind the counter. The best description of it would be to call it a living statue, but softer. There was a blurriness around its face that made it impossible to focus on any of its features. John thanked it and headed into the screening room. The chairs faced out into the abyss of space. John's chair was glowing brightly in the middle of the rows of other seats. There was no mistaking where the star of the show would sit.
Sandra kept her word and was seated directly next to his chair. Beside her was another woman around the same age. They were speaking faster than any man could ever hope to keep up with, as if they had been friends their entire lives. Frank and Mark were sitting together a few rows down from John. They turned and waved as he sat down. John wondered if this was what it felt like to have some real friends. People who were actually excited to see you when you arrived somewhere.
As the last people found their seats, a mist filled the abyss. It became so thick that it eventually turned opaque and could be used as a screen. The music began to play softly, building gently as the title sequence played. "The Life and Times of John Robert Thompson" flashed in bold formal writing. Starring: John Robert Thompson, his mother Rita, father Bo, grandfather... one by one, the names of those he held dear flashed across the screen. Their pictures and video clips were shown along with their introductions.