No emotion showed in the face of the elegantly dressed woman as she regarded the pitiful crumpled heap lying on the floor in front of the podium. The room was airless and seemed to crackle as if a storm was due.
“A failure, I take it?”
The man in the long black cape shrugged.
“As you see. The spell was - is - too strong. It broke her. It was not enough to take possession of her body – her magic was not only cellular, but in her mind as well. Once they were separated, the body was too weak for us to use.”
The woman's mouth tightened.
“Very well. We know that doesn't work, then. We need to find someone whom we can - persuade - to cooperate. Preferably someone who is strong enough to remain in their body whilst they are opening the book. Someone who won't be scorched by the spell.”
She pushed the body on the floor with the toe of one stiletto-heeled shoe. There was no response.
“She’s gone, for sure. Where’s the one who took over her body?”
“Still around,” the man said, holding an ankh-pendant in his hand and looking at something the others could not see.
“We need to find another body for him then. Can you do it?” she said.
“Of course,” the man said and looked at the two young men standing guard in the doorway. “Take this body away and throw it into a trash grinder. We'll carry on searching.”
He dropped the pendant so it hung from his neck, its turquoise and black beads flashing in the light as he moved.
The young men seized the body of the elderly woman by its arms and legs and carried it off.
The woman turned to the book on the podium and extended her hand. Her fingers hovered above its cracked leather-covered wooden surface without touching it. Within the covers, odd-sized pages of papyrus, parchment and even metal were tied loosely together, giving the effect of a sorcerer's scrap book. The cover was embossed with strange gilded markings and the stones that decorated it were all black. Ornate protective metal pieces gleamed at each corner.
One piece of ancient papyrus jutted out between the covers just far enough to show some writing, but she couldn't see enough of the words to read them. She took hold of the edge, but before she could yank it out there was an electric snap and sparks burned her fingers. Shaking her hand, she turned away.
“Let me take that,” the man said.
Bringing up a sturdy box, he placed it expertly under the edge of the podium, wrapped his cloak around his hand and pushed the book into the container without letting it make contact with his skin. A loud series of electric snaps made it clear that the book did not approve of his touch. He closed the lid of the box and pressed his hand over it. A soft click sounded and immediately the air was easier to breathe. He then carried the box to its secret compartment in the panelled wall, removing the single small piece of parchment with odd writing on it that was already in there, and then pushed the box inside. The wall closed soundlessly, revealing nothing of what lay behind it.
They walked together out of the round room into the sunlight of the terrace high above the other houses of the city.
Waking Up Dead
Dying was nothing like I had expected it to be.
A tunnel of light? Nope.
Angels around you? Ha!
Heavenly music? Ya right…
A feeling of bliss and a consciousness that expanded to understand all the secrets of the universe? Dream on, honey, dream on…
I just woke up in my room - at least, somewhere that I thought at first was exactly like my room - but when I turned my head to see what the weather was doing outside, the scenery beyond the window had utterly changed.
That was the first hint everything was not as it should be.
I got out of bed bed so fast my feet tangled in the covers and I fell on my face on the floor. For a while I stared at the carpet which I did not have – the second hint that something very odd had happened. At that point I just thought I had slept late and my mother had done some redecorating without waking me up. She is like that. She loves to change the curtains and carpets and reads blogs about decorating and all that stuff. And I usually slept like a log so a little of Mom's decorating would not have woken me up.
Swearing under my breath, I got up and opened the window to be sure my eyes were not deceiving me.
Mountains. Mountains? Mountains! But I lived in a town by an artificial lake. I did not even know there were mountains anywhere on the plates. How the heck had those mountains grown up during the night? Had I been transferred in my sleep to another plate? Who - and why? And especially - how? They would have to have slipped me a sleeping pill or something so I'd carry on snoring while the prank was carried out.
I stared at the scenery for quite a while but it didn't change. And that was the third clue about the strangeness of things - it was summer outside. It had been winter on our plate when I went to bed. Winter had been turned on a month ago and there would be two more months of it, to keep nature functioning as it should.
Going to bed in winter and waking in summer...
Then I got it. I was dreaming. I looked around my room and wondered how I could make myself wake up again. Everything seemed so real that this had to be a really, really deep dream. Maybe this was what they called lucid dreaming?
Oh, yeah, I forgot one more cliché about dying. A guide to escort you to the afterlife.
Well, that was the first of my experiences of death. Sort of. And no, it was not some gentle spirit taking my hand and assuring me all was well before we floated up into eternal light. Instead there was an ordinary knock on the door.
“Come in!” I said over my shoulder, expecting it to be my mother. “You’ll never believe the view from the window!”
“And why wouldn’t I?” an unfamiliar girl’s voice asked. “I’ve seen it plenty of times before.”
I swirled around so fast I almost tripped over.
“Who the heck are you?” I blurted out. "And what are you doing here?"
“I’m supposed to guide you around.” She sounded almost bored, and I was immediately reminded of my first day at school, a small child looking up at the older student who had been told to show her the toilets and classroom, except this one wasn't as tall as I was. She carried on standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips, observing me, and then asked a question I didn’t understand: “OK, so how did you die then?”
“How did I do what?” I stared at her. Some crazy woman had made it into my bedroom somehow.
“Die. Bite the dust. Go belly up. Kick the bucket. You know – give up the ghost.”
“Are you insane?” I spat out. “I’m very much alive thank you. And stuck in a nonsensical dream, it seems. Because you sure aren’t anyone I have ever met before.”
“Ah, right. You are one of them,” the girl sighed.
I wasn't sure I wanted to know what "them" meant. I looked at her. She was quite small, and had short black spiky hair and green eyes, a boyish figure and no makeup.
“You better follow me then.” She opened the door.
“I’m not dressed!” I looked down at my pyjamas.
“Hmm… I reckon you died in your sleep,” the girl cocked her head on one side, “as those are clearly pyjamas you’re wearing. People appear here in the clothes they were wearing at the time of their death. So that would explain why you are one of those who don’t realize they have died.”
I opened the wardrobe door and snatched out a familiar pair of jeans and a T-shirt, wondering how she could possibly come up with a good explanation for the fact that even though I was dead, I still had my own clothes in my wardrobe.
The girl did not show any sign of leaving the room so I just turned my back on her and got dressed as fast as I could. I put on my socks and the slippers I always wore indoors and was ready.
“Right.” I decided to play along. “Take me to your leader!”
“Follow me,” the girl shrugged, still sounding bored and opened the door wider so that I could pass through.
I stormed past her, eager to see who was playing this stupid prank on me. I had rushed out onto what I thought was the upstairs landing and instead found myself in an unfamiliar dining room. All sorts of young people were sitting around the table, eating breakfast, which was being served by a man with horns on his head and an ancient looking angel with worn slippers on his feet.
“Now do you believe you are dead?” the short-haired girl pointed at the demon and the angel.
I wanted to answer that hell no, I didn't, but I could not explain away the fact that the door from my room had opened onto a dining room my family did not have. Teleportation wasn't possible as far as I knew. Also the horned fellow and the angel looked scarily… real. The angel even twitched his wing to shoo off a fly that was trying to reach the plate of freshly baked rolls he was carrying.
“Keep your flies to yourself,” he said to the demon who was tailing him in a manner not unlike a dog.
Which the demon did. He snapped his fingers and the fly flew to him and burrowed itself into his hair. A closer look showed that his bushy hair was crawling with all sorts of little insects. His eyes looked exceptionally bright in the midst of all that dirty skin and hair. As for his age… maybe he was a bit older than the rest of the people I saw. But nowhere near as old as the angel.
“Ewww…” I said out loud and stepped backwards, staring at the wriggling and crawling in his hair.
The horned man smiled at me in a most un-demon-like manner. At least he had decent teeth.
“Oh, we have a newbie here!” he said. “Welcome, dear!”
This announcement didn't provoke much interest. A few people raised their eyes, gave me a quick once-over and returned to their conversations or reading or just staring out of the window at the summer scenery. The overall atmosphere of the place was not exactly lively. The first word that came to mind was boredom.
“OK, who is the leader here? The newcomer wishes to meet the leader,” the girl escorting me announced to no one in particular. It sounded as though she found something amusing.
“Do we have one?” a Chinese looking girl asked, dipping her roll into a mug of coffee.
“Well we did have an election last year, didn’t we?” my escort asked.
“Yes, so we did… does anyone remember who was chosen for this year?” the Chinese girl asked.
No-one seemed very interested either in the question or in providing an answer. The angel approached, shuffling his feet in his comfy slippers. The closer he got, the older he looked. I had always imagined that angels would be young and beautiful, but this one looked… just ancient. Wrinkly face, white wiry hair, bags under his eyes. Very kind eyes at that, though.
“You lot… “ he sighed and shook his head, “come and sit down, dear, and I'll explain things to you.”
He turned his back on me and waved his hand behind it to indicate I should follow him as he shuffled off towards the end of the table where there was an empty place.
“We knew there was someone on the way when the chair and mug appeared last night, and the table stretched itself to make room for another person,” he said over his shoulder.
I was too busy staring at his wings, trying to see if they were fake, to answer. It was hard to tell, though, as he was wearing a long cape of sorts with slits that let the wings through. They could have been fake, but when they moved… they looked disturbingly real. I had never believed in any of that religious stuff, despite my mother’s attempts to make me go to church on Sundays. Now I began to wonder if I should have gone after all.
“Yeah, the house always knows when someone is about to arrive,” said a young man with his feet on the table.
“Feet, Matthew, feet…” the angel said without turning his head.
Mathew sighed and removed his feet.
The angel pulled out a chair for me, took a mug from a shelf and placed it in front of me together with a plate.
“Tea or coffee?” he asked.
“Erm… coffee…” I stared at the mug – it had my name on it together with three dates. The day of my birth. The day when I had gone to bed, the evening before waking up here. And then a third date decades in the future.
When I took the mug into my hands it gave me tiny electric shocks. That wasn't unusual, since everything gave me electric shocks. Mother said it was down to our plush carpets and the old slippers I always wore. Was wearing now, too, actually. Maybe I should stop using them. I'd never had a shock from something ceramic before, though. I put the mug down on the table, and sat on my hands so the electric snaps would stop. That usually helped.
While I was musing over my slippers and static electricity, the angel had walked away and was now returning with a coffee pot and some more freshly baked rolls. Matthew, who was sitting nearest me, pushed a jar of orange marmalade and a plate with butter on it in my direction. The butter had half melted and the knife fell to the table with a clank, leaving a big blob of grease on the table. The demon… or whatever he was… appeared with a rag and vigorously cleaned the table top. He turned to look at the old angel as if seeking approval. One of the flies dropped dead on the table and the demon grinned from ear to ear, picked it up and promptly put it in his mouth and swallowed.
“Way to go, George…” Matthew said.
“So where am I? Why does everyone keep saying I am dead?”
“Because you are,” Matthew said, “there's no denying it. We are all dead, you see.”
I looked around – everyone sitting along the table was in their late teens or early twenties. And they all looked alive and very healthy.
“This is a Halfway House, if you will,” the angel said, “but where are my manners? I haven’t introduced myself. I am Anthony.”
“Pleased to meet you… I think…” I answered. “What do you mean by the Halfway House?”
“When people die before their time, they stay here until they reach the date when they would have died without human interference,” Anthony said. “Those are the dates on your mug. The third date is the date when you should have died had you been allowed to live a full life.”
I did a quick count. I would have died at the age of 82 years, three months and two days. Somehow I'd expected something more - dramatic. I mean, OK, perhaps I wasn't expecting people singing "Happy Deathday to you" and presenting me with a cake - but something more than this, surely, should have greeted my demise?
The dark-haired girl pulled a chair up next to me, sat down and reached for a roll. She took the orange marmalade and dug out a considerable blob of the said delicacy onto the bread. When it began to fall off the bun, she scooped the excess marmalade onto her finger and popped the digit into her mouth.
“Mia, really… where are your table manners?” Anthony said with a touch of reproach in his voice.
“I left them behind when I was murdered,” she said, managing to bite into her roll so that none of the marmalade fell off. “Mmm. Good.”
“Murdered? You were murdered?” I asked. “How?”
“I was the sister of a gang member on one of the lower level plates. Another gang took revenge on something my brother’s gang had done. You must know, it's not an unusual story. When they couldn't find my brother, they drove past our house and shot me, as I happened to be standing next to the window. Revenge mission accomplished. Drive-by shooting. So here I am, sitting here now, waiting for the day when the guy who shot me appears. For he will, I have no doubts about that. There’s not even half a chance he’ll make old bones and die when he should. Once I hear he has died, I'll seek him out. And when I do…”
Mia's eyes flashed. She made the gesture of slitting her throat with her hand. Matthew snorted.
"And how exactly do you intend to do that? If he is already dead?" he asked in a superior tone.
Mia muttered something that might have been "What do you know, posh boy?"
“You should find it in your heart to forgive the one who killed you,” Anthony said, looking at Mia patiently. “There's no point in spreading anger and hatred anymore. After all it's not as if you are in any danger. You're safe here now in this peaceful house, with plenty of good company and you're not lacking anything, are you?”
“Ha!” Mia did not say anything else, but her tone revealed her mood wasn't yet heavenly or forgiving. I tried to sneak a look at her mug as inconspicuously as I could. I saw that she had died at the age of sixteen, and would have made it into old age – almost ninety, when I worked out the dates. It seemed she had been here for… two years now.
“And as I'm sure you must be curious – I was the son of the governor of one of the posher plates,” Matthew said. “Born with a silver spoon in my mouth and all that. I had a comfy life cut out for me, with daddy arranging an easy job to start my climb up the corporate ladder. Only I was attacked the day before graduation at the school I was in. Top class boarding school, natch. That swine Edgar Smythe – all I did was have the briefest flirtation with his girlfriend when they had fallen out. He punched me right on the jaw, but unfortunately the place he chose to do it was on top of the stairway. I fell straight onto my back and broke my neck instantly. It’s still a bit loose.” When Matthew turned his head around it made rather nasty cracking sounds and moved way too far back at an odd angle.
“Eww…” I felt a bit sick.
Mia pushed her short hair behind her ear and showed me her left temple. There was a round mark there. I couldn't work out what I was looking at until she turned the right side of her head towards me. There was a very messy looking mark on that side. It was all smooth, and there was skin over it, but it was an angry red color and looked like someone had dripped paint on it from a height.
“Bullet in,” Mia pointed her left temple, “and bullet out,” she tapped her right temple.
“Eww, again!” I said.
Horns, Gnats and Gates of Hell
“You don’t seem to have any markings that would tell us how you died,” Matthew commented, “but if you woke up in your pyjamas, then you probably don’t have any marks. Many people dream of that, you know. Of dying in their sleep, without noticing it at all. So congratulations.”
“Erm… should I say thank you now?”
Mia pushed the marmalade back into my direction. “Heavenly Fruit Company” said the label.
“Eat something… “ she bent forward to see my mug, “…Nina. Because as we are at the Halfway House, we are not quite complete as dead people. We are still half physical, so to speak. And so we are hungry and thirsty and need some sleep. Not much but some.”
“If you are not interested in it, I can eat that roll,” a voice behind me said and a swarm of flies began to circle my head.
“Get lost, George!” Mia poked the demon with a fork. “You are supposed to fast to get rid of at least some of those critters in your hair before your time is up…”
“What’s his story?” I asked, and decided to follow her advice and eat something, even though I had begun to feel rather restless, thinking about my family and what they were probably going through now. Still, I couldn’t deny that I found all of this really interesting. Mad, but interesting.
I took a sip of the coffee. It was delicious, much better than the coffee we normally drank. It was very expensive on the plates. Mother usually bought it on the black market, as one of her coworker’s relatives worked for one of the plantation plates. Wages there were so low that it was taken for granted they would supplement their income by selling part of the produce on their own initiative. As long as they met the assigned quota, it was usual to turn a blind eye to this entrepreneurship. Sometimes the officials arrested a few workers for stealing, the rest went on strike, and the guilty ones were given fines at court. Then they returned, business continued as normal, and the rest of the workers went back to work. Being on strike was viewed as a kind of a summer holiday, as the plantations had summer most of the year and there wasn't a standard vacation season.
“Oh, George… what a bad boy he was when he was alive,” Matthew raised his head from a book he was reading. “Don't know where to begin telling you the awful stuff he was involved in… he was knocking right at the gates of hell, when he was given a last chance to make good.”
“There really is a hell?” I swallowed, and not coffee this time. Dang. Why had I not attended church as my mother wanted me to…
“Well, sort of. After all we are not in heaven yet. Or in the heart of hell either. We're all in the same boat together, here in the Waiting Level. And so George was there in the lowest part of the Waiting Level with others of his kind. Now, the amusing thing is, that each bad deed they have ever done that has caused fear, sorrow or depression in others seems to take the form of a gnat of some sort that will not leave them alone for a second. That explains the fauna crawling on his body, d'you see? There might be some flora as well, as dear George here seems to have accumulated quite a bit of dust, mold and not a little dirt in his previous existence. And the horns… well, the bad guys don't get them when they're alive, of course, but if you have killed someone on purpose, they grow on you here. The more people that have been killed, the bigger the horns - some have real antlers. There's no point trying to cut them off. They just grow back. Still, even the bad guys and dolls have a chance, if an angel should decide to work with them to clean the dirt off their soul and body. And Anthony here has a good heart and frequents those dirtier levels in search of souls who might still have a chance… I have no idea what he sees in George, but maybe he can help him get rid of a few spiders and ticks so that he can enter a lighter level of hell.”
“Thank you, Matthew,” the old angel said. “I am glad you realise that George has potential. And surely he has it in him to reach even higher levels than hell. One day I am sure we will see his horns vanish.”
If George had had a tail, he would have wagged it.
“A shower every now and then wouldn’t exactly hinder the process,” Mia commented.
George grinned. There was a definite… odor about him for sure.
“But how exactly did I die then, if I have died?” I returned to the most burning issue in my mind.
“You have. No ifs about it,” Mia leaned back, rocking her chair onto two legs, “and I don’t have the answer to that. Probably in your sleep, as you had the pyjamas on, as Matthew already said. Of course we could go back and check, if you are that interested.”
“We can?” I was on my feet immediately. “Of course I want to know!”
“OK, OK. Let’s go,” Mia got up. “Matthew, want to come along? You’ve been sitting here for so long you could do with some exercise. You’ll be developing a paunch unless you take a few steps every now and then.”
“I wonder why you haven’t turned into a beach ball yet, looking at the amount of marmalade you eat…” Matthew threw back.
“Oh but it tastes so heavenly!” Mia chirped at Anthony who smiled back at her. “And I'm always on the move, aren't I? I’ve been trying to make myself visible to the guy who shot me. I want to scare the living daylights out of him for the pain he caused my mother. And for all the opportunities he stole from me. That takes a lot of energy,” she said to me.
“You can do that? Show yourself?”
“Oh yeah! That's a lot of fun, if you can manage it. But I’m not saying it is easy. Most people just don’t see us. Or they explain us away, so to speak, when they are too scared to admit they are seeing ghosts. There is a group of people who can see us quite easily, though...”
“Come on you two,” Matthew was already striding through the kitchen, “let’s go!”
Through the Revolving Door
Matthew sure had long legs and we had to take a few running steps to keep up with him. While we were leaving the dining room I noticed that the door through which I had come from my room had vanished. There was a stretch of clean wall there.
“Where’s my room?” I asked.
“It’s in the revolving door,” Mia said, “you’ll see soon enough.”
We entered a big hall. It seemed the Halfway House was quite expansive. It had double stairs that curved upwards, one on each side of the round hall. A corridor stretched out for a considerable distance beneath them. Matthew did not head that way, though. He turned towards the exit on the opposite side, which was… a revolving door.
“There,” he pointed at the door, “go through it and think of home.”
“It’s that easy?” I turned to ask Mia.
“It is. You just think about your room, or home, or wherever you wish to go, and when you walk through the door, that’s where you'll find yourself. You would have need to have visited it in your life, though, to be on the safe side. If you think of something you saw in a book or on TV, and don't know the layout of the place, you might end up who knows where?”
“Wow, talk about technology!” I said. “The scientists on the plates would kill for this!”
“Being dead has its privileges,” Matthew admitted, “even if it can be a bit dull here…”
I was eager to see my family, and so I walked towards the door. The garden behind it looked wild and overgrown. Big trees, plenty of flowers and sunlight seeping through the foliage. It was so beautiful and nothing like the well-tended, tamed parks and back yard gardens that grew on the plate we lived in.
“If you choose not to think of any particular place, and look at that scenery, you'll end up in the garden,” Mia explained, “but let’s go and see what killed you. Put your hand on the revolving door – there’s that metal plate, see? Right, and now think of where you want to go.”
I placed my hand on one of the metal plates on the side of the door, intended for pushing it round. The door looked just like any old revolving door in a hotel or department store. The metal felt cool under my touch. Then I thought about my own room and felt the metal growing warm under my palm. Yet again I got electric shocks and two blue sparks actually snapped from under my hand.
“Walk through now, but do it slowly, so we have time to follow you,” Mia said. “Matthew's never been to your room before, so he can’t follow you but has to come with you for the first time. After that it’s a piece of cake.”
I pushed the door and immediately the scenery changed. I was looking into my own room! I pushed the door slowly, and lost my balance when both Mia and Matthew squeezed into the little space behind me between two of the revolving door panels. As a result my entrance back to the world of the living was less than elegant. Once again I found myself face down on the floor, this time on a carpet that was familiar.
“Sorry. When will that janitor come and install a bigger door?” Mia asked. “Anthony has been asking him to do that for years!”
“Well, he's in no hurry,” Matthew commented. “The last I heard he was hiking in the mountains, something he had always wanted to do, but never had the opportunity to do in his physical life, as there are no mountains on the plates. And as far as I know he still has some… thirty years before his time is up. Or twenty nine; something like that, anyway. I suppose he’ll get round to it before he leaves. But there's no need for you to concern yourself – you’ll still be around to see it happen! 'Round to it' - ha, that's a good one, don't you think, Mia?"
Mia sighed but said nothing more. I stood up again – and noticed the revolving door was still there. Had it been there all the years we had been living in our house? How weird...
“No, it wasn't. It only becomes visible when dead people use it. And after that it will only be visible to the dead.” Matthew had guessed what I was thinking.
Things looked just about the same as… well, last night. My bed was unmade, my bag was on the floor where I had left it yesterday. My jeans and T-shirt were on the backrest of my chair. A book about the history of the Earth was still open on the screen on the wall and the remote control was on the bedside table. The curtains were open - mother always opened them when she came to wake me up, so she must have been in the room. And it was winter outside – the brown leaves of the young oak in our yard were still under a thin blanket of snow. No mountains...
“Now this is more... normal,” I said.
“Is there anything here that might hint at why you died?” Mia asked.
Matthew was standing by my desk and flipping through the pages of… wait! My diary!
“Hey, stop that right now!” I grabbed at the book but my fingers just pushed right through it.
“Interesting…” - it seemed he, on the other hand, had no trouble at all handling physical objects - “you had a crush on… hey!”
Mia slapped him hard across the back of his hand, making him drop the diary. It fell onto the table, toppling over a little cat ornament which in turn fell onto an uncarpeted bit of the floor, shattering into pieces. The diary kept on gliding over the pile of old magazines balanced precariously on the corner of my desk, and then everything tumbled together onto the chair and floor. Flap flap flap, thud. I had spent a considerable amount of my allowance collecting those antique magazines and now they were lying there all over the floor with their pages all bent and torn. I shot a menacing look at Matthew.
“You don't read a girl’s diary without permission, you idiot!” Mia was fuming as well. “Next time I see you doing that I’ll kick you in the… shhh!”
Footsteps. Someone was behind the door.
It opened with a creak – I had never oiled the hinges. I wanted them to creak, so that no one could sneak in without me noticing. That was the idea, anyway.
It was Tina, my little sister. She opened the door just wide enough to look into the room, with a scared expression on her face.
“Tina!” I said, stepping out in front of her.
She did not see me at all. She stared right through me at the diary on the chair, the pile of magazines, and the broken remnants of the cat ornament on the floor. And then she glanced over her shoulder, moved into the middle of the room – and lifted the diary from the floor.
“What was that?” I heard my mother’s voice asking.
“Nothing!” Tina said, flipping through the pages in a hurry. “Just a pile of Nina’s magazines falling off the table…”
I stared at her. Of course I had suspected she read my diary if she found it lying around, but now I was seeing it with my own eyes! The little madam...why hadn’t I placed it in its hiding place under the floor of my wardrobe? Well, I would have done that in the morning as usual, but as I had… died… at night, there it was now, out in the open for anyone to read!
Mother’s footsteps approached. Tina slid smoothly over to my bed, lifted the mattress and pushed the diary under it.