Their son came home for the funeral, and sadness and crying filled their lives. Two relatives, a sister of Misses Flattery and an aunt, stayed with them, trying to console them, or at least keep them company, cook food, do whatever they could to help through this period of grief. It was an awful, tragic time for the Flatterys.
Dave was sitting in a plush, crushed-leather chair in what looked like a waiting room. He was bewildered and frightened. The last thing he remembered was playing with his daughter in the snow, an unbearable pain in his chest, falling into a drift, and then blackness. Now, here he was, but where and what was here?
Moments passed as he watched others, called by a receptionist, go through a doorway at the back of the room. He squeezed the soft leather arms and thought to confront the receptionist, an elderly woman wearing a flowered dress, to ask her just what the hell was going on, when he heard his name over an intercom. He froze, terrified, adrenaline raced through his body. He continued sitting, his name rang out again, more demanding. The receptionist gave him a sharp look; he stood to approach her, sitting behind a large oak desk, a small lamp off to its side. As he neared, she pointed at the door. He gulped, sweat beading on his forehead, and pushed the door open.
As he did so he couldn't help but notice that his clothing, the clothes he'd been wearing last, changed into a soft yellow caftan, and his galoshes into a pair of sandals. Amazed, he stood examining his newfound duds when a voice said, "Mister Flattery? Would you come this way, please?"
He jerked his head up. Standing not ten feet away was an imposing man, well over six-feet tall, sporting a thick black beard, eyes of green, long hair flowing down his back, and a tiny scar over his left eyebrow. He too was wearing a caftan, only his was ornate with embroidery and what might've been epaulets on his shoulders. In one hand he held a thick red book which he now opened. Dave approached to within a few feet, almost coming to attention, his military training kicking in.
"Dave, may I call you Dave?"
"Yes, of course," he replied. His voice sounded strange, hollow and a little too high-pitched. He felt a twinge of embarrassment, but the eerieness of his surroundings trumped it. White light emanated from all directions; looking around, he couldn't see walls or ceiling. The floor was solid, or at least whatever he was standing on resisted. The absence of psychological boundaries played with his vertigo. Was that intentional? he wondered. Whatever was going on, he decided to just go with the flow, for now.
"We've examined your life history, and can find nothing overly disconcerting or excessively harsh and mean-spirited in it. There was that time, however, when you were a teenager. You'd been drinking and got into a fight with another boy who you hurt, breaking his nose, in fact. Would you care to explain?"
Dave had trouble recollecting the event; in the neighborhood he grew up in, fights were fairly common. He vaguely recalled that the other boy had made a sarcastic remark about his mother. Being a teenager, in front of others, he couldn't let that pass. So he lashed out.
The man nodded as he turned pages, several pages. "When you were in your twenties, shortly after marriage, you were tempted by another woman, someone you worked with then, a co-worker. But you managed to restrain yourself. Commendable." The man looked up from the book and smiled briefly. "You've always been a good father and provider for your family. You were content with your job and held no grudges against anyone. No pet hatreds towards any groups, no vindictive tendencies, even when undermined by those more ambitious, and you've always held a general love of nature, never acting in cruelty or indifference towards other living beings." With a resounding hmmph, he closed the book.
The man smiled again, this time more deeply though just as briefly, and said, "Come this way, please."
He turned to walk further back into the vast chamber, its lights muted but bright enough to see clearly. Dave followed. Shortly, they arrived at a pair of escalators, one went down, the other up. The man stopped and turned to face Dave. But before he could say anything, Dave's patience had evaporated, "Where am I and what is going on? And why am I here, in this place, whatever this is?"
A look of confusion fluttered across the man's features. "Has no one spoken to you?" He could tell by Dave's reaction that no one had. "My goodness," muttered the man. "We're so backed up these days, what with all the wars, diseases, accidents, random killings, and natural disasters going on, customer service is in a shambles. Let me try to fill you in.
"Dave, you're dead. This is the afterlife. It's time for you to move on. You're to be reassigned to another body, not necessarily on Earth, mind you. Many planets in your universe harbor intelligent life. Because of your exemplary record, you are given a choice. Not everyone, as a rule, is afforded this reward." The reincarnation coordinator, pleased with his summation, stood smiling and expecting a thank you, at the very least.
The news of Dave's demise cruised over his head like a flock of terns at twenty thousand feet; however, somehow he managed to accept being born into another body, possibly on another planet, without much ado. "I'm given a choice?" inquired Dave. "But, how can you or anyone know what kind of life I'll have? How can you know in advance if my life will be rewarding? Isn't that determinism?"
The man blinked. "Oooh," he crooned. "Determinism. So, you're a philosopher, are you? You believe in free will, choice, chance, random events, unpredictability, happenstance dictating the course of a life. All that stuff?"
"Well, no, not really. I mean I don't know. I just remember my uncle Arthur, he was a teacher, talking at a family get-together. He mentioned the word determinism, so I looked it up. So how can you predict in advance what someone will experience? Doesn't free will undermine that foresight?"
The coordinator winced. The luminescent white fog billowing about their feet surged and percolated. The lighting flickered, passing through a nauseating chartreuse to finally settling on a soft rose. Taking a step back, he took a deep breath, exhaustion creased his face. After a few moments, all returned to normal, such as it was. The conductor of ceremonies shot Dave a piercing glance, then dove in.
"Most, in fact, are assigned without consideration for their approval. They haven't learned certain important lessons about life, and so need to follow paths which will instruct them. Sometimes the lessons are hard to swallow. And also sometimes those souls still don't learn. They were simply reacting to mistreatment or fate or they didn't know any better, or they were forced, blackmailed, peer pressured, the list goes on. Feeling sorry for themselves, they act out of revenge. Or just the opposite, they believe that God himself wants them to be wholly self-centered--my will is the will of God--what hubris, it's madness. Trying to make sense of it, of each individual, separating each one out from the general population,..., it's a major problem. Each one is a unique conglomeration of characteristics and tendencies, nature and nurture working in tandem to give expression to a soul; when they show up here eventually--and people come from all over--it's,..., well, it takes a lot of time to learn the ropes, to be able to read people."
Dave recognized a meltdown in progress. Every so often, a relative or friend has gone off on a rant, usually accompanied by plenty of booze. He always appeared to listen intently, it was a gift. This was just another one of those times.
"They avoid responsibility at all cost," the reincarnation coordinator continued, "they have all the excuses: religion, philosophy, mythology, personal honor, a misunderstanding of nature's way, something, always some abstract notions, principles--they call them--based on which they commit the most unspeakable acts of cruelty and selfish hatred. It's deplorable, and they invariably must again be assigned to paths even harsher, until they learn. With some, it takes many lives. But, we have an infinite amount of time, as do they." The cloud spent, he regained a semblance of composure.
The flock of terns finally landed, hard. Dave was dumbfounded. Dead, he thought. I don't feel dead. But what does dead feel like?
The coordinator, not unfamiliar with sudden mood swings, scrutinized Dave. It was a common reaction among the newly realized dead--paralysis. Knowing that action was the best medicine--and wishing to hurry things along--he put a hand on the small of Dave's back and gently but firmly pushed him towards the escalators. "Take the up-escalator, at the top you'll be greeted by Miss Conolly, our reincarnation facilitator. At least, I hope she's there. Go, Dave, there's no time to waste. Go." With that, he turned on his heel and went back to his greeting station in the reception area.
Dave stood facing the moving stairs. Unable, at this time, to process the news of his demise, he put it on the back burner. Taking a deep breath, believing it would all make sense soon, he stepped on. Immediately he was surrounded by white puffy clouds and the ambient sounds of flutes. In spite of everything, he couldn't help but think how it all seemed so hokey. White puffy clouds? Nonetheless, the ensemble soothed his nerves and evoked a sense of euphoria. Maybe being dead isn't all that bad, he mused.
At the top, he was indeed greeted by Miss Conolly, a tall blonde in a red dress, mid-thirties, holding a clipboard, smiling sweetly if a bit stiffly. She introduced herself without elaboration. Apparently, she too assumed that customer service was on the job. It was a mess. Dave thought how he could better organize this whole operation, crack the whip, ship-shape the entire greeting protocol.
She led him into a room with deep plush carpeting but otherwise sparsely furnished. Against a wall was another cushy leather chair--their interior designer apparently had a thing for these--in front of which was arrayed three tiers of video screens, ten in a row. She informed him that each depicted life on different planets, the third from the left on the second row was Earth. She quickly pointed out the buttons embedded in the table surface before him. These could be used to change the videos to thirty other planets. They offered scenes from ordinary living situations and the general feel of the surroundings. Pressing a selection brought forth a display to his left which offered textual descriptions of the world he chose. Everything from the nature of the many societies and forms of political structure, to cultures and belief systems. Sub-headings would elaborate details. With that, she left him, promising to return as soon as she could. No questions were asked for or expected.
Dave sat, staring blankly at the bewildering assortment. At random, he pushed a button other than Earth. Its description was confusing and not terribly enlightening. At any event, the people were quite bizarre looking: four arms and legs, and heads much too large for their bodies. And they had an awkward, ungainly way of moving. He chose another with similar results. Again he saw where improvement could be made. How could an earthling get a clear picture? The non-earth descriptions were translated from the original world into human terms, automatically, because of him. He'd be making a decision based on a humanized universe. But when he arrived on that other world, that information would be moot.
Time passed, he grew weary of watching and assessing the body plans of the populace and physical environments of the various planets. This was no small decision to make; in fact, it was a genuinely serious committment. At length, recognizing that he probably was jammed for time, he decided to return to Earth. He felt he already knew he would do that, in spite of his initial exhilaration at the prospect of experiencing an entirely new world, a different reality. But he surmised that if he were to choose a new planet and reincarnate there, he wouldn't be aware that he had ever been an earthling, or would he? Have the bizarre dreams he had during his life been submerged memories of times past as different beings on other worlds?
As he was mulling that possibility over, Miss Conolly entered, hurriedly, and sat down beside him. A crushed-leather armchair appeared under her as she moved to sit. She tossed her clipboard on the table and said, "Well, Mister Flattery, what'll it be? Earth?" An undertone of strain resonated through her voice, like a carrier wave gone stale.
"I have an idea. If, instead of these monitors, these videos, you had a simulator, you know, where a person could sit inside, like at NASA, and run through possible choices, one after the other, actually feel and sense what it must be like living on that planet, interacting socially and physically. What if, it'd have to be better than this."
With her elbow on the edge of the table, her right hand under her chin, she peered at Dave for what seemed like a very long time. Abruptly, she spat out, "Do you think we're idiots?" Before he could answer, she continued, "Do you? Of course we thought of that. But it's simply not in the budget. You think this is bad, you should've seen what we had before -- microfiche. You read cliff notes. Wasn't much to base a life decision on. This," she waved a hand at the array of displays, "is a vast improvement."
He dropped the subject. Probably not a good idea to antagonize your reincarnation facilitator. "Why would you think I'd choose Earth," he wanted to know. "Maybe I'm interested in something novel, risky, exceptional."
"All earthlings choose Earth. No matter how much time we give 'em, they always do." She stared at the floor, "Earthlings have a sentimental attachment to that planet."
"Have you ever been there?"
"Only on vacation a couple times. I liked it, I had fun, it was relaxing. I'm not from there, so, it's a novelty."
"But you look human. All of you do, even the people in the waiting room."
"For your benefit. It all depends."
While Dave sat mystified--freaked out--pondering this disguise, wondering what her native body must look like, and if he himself really was from Earth originally, Miss Conolly continued with her job description, "We offer the reward for good behavior of selecting where to reincarnate, and does anybody bother going through the list? Huh? No. Are they interested in alternative parallel universes? No. Same old universe, same old planet. That's true for everybody, actually, with rare exception, not just earthers. Nobody has the daring nowadays like they used to during the Inquisition, for instance. Europeans wanted off-world, wouldn't even consider returning to a different part. And the Black Plague, that's another one. But these days, what with globalization and all,---"
"Parallel universes?" interrupted Dave, looking at her in wonder like a child.
"Oh no," she said, fatigue in her tone. "You've never heard of parallel universes? Where have you been all your life?"
"I write product jingles for a living, or at least I used to, and collect old coins. On the weekends I build model cars or go to the zoo or the museum or the park down the street. I'm not familiar with those universes."
"But," she said, "didn't customer service inform you of the multitude of choices you could make? Not only in this universe but in the infinite number of alternatives?"
Dave was beginning to think there was no customer service. That they made it up just to cover their butts and excuse the inadequacies of the system.
Chewing her words through clenched teeth, she said, "You're supposed to be instructed about all that stuff and then given time to consider. That's why when people come here, I expect them to choose rather quickly, already having the necesary info and therefore prepared, homework done. This should be nothing more than a formality." Sighing, she sat back. "However, it's true, not everyone comes with their mind completely made up. We give them an opportunity to cover last minute details, to see life on other planets; it has happened that people have changed their minds at the last second, so to speak. It's an important decision, after all, shouldn't be rushed."
She pulled a sheet of paper from her clipboard and put it on the table in front of him. "Did you fill out one of these, your 'Acceptance of Death' form?" Dave just stared at it. Sitting up straight, she went on, "After your astral body is examined as to verification and validation of soul separation, this form must be completed and notarized by a licensed physician on our staff. Did Doctor Bellinger or Kalingerski perform the procedure, do you recall?"
She waited, he sat, getting more uncomfortable by the second, nervous and a little scared that maybe he'd screwed up and would have to go back down, and then down again, down the down-escalator, wherever that led, he could only imagine. She leaned forward, burning a hole in his face with her eyes. "Incredulous," she screamed, scaring the shit out of him. "What has become of this place? This is bullshit. What am I doing here?" She jumped to her feet, her chair disappeared. "I like my job, dammnit, and I like doing it, but nobody else seems to like doing theirs."
She grabbed him by the caftan and instantly he was transported to what appeared to be none other than a hospital. He was sitting in a plastic, fold-up chair against a wall; on the other side of the corridor stood a nurses' station, a nurse standing behind it looking down at something. Miss Conolly, the reincarnation facilitator, was nowhere to be seen, but apparently her rage and reputation preceded her, because as soon as he became aware of his surroundings, they became aware of him.
"Dave. Dave Flattery?" A man with a short-cropped beard, standing down the hall at an open doorway, called him over with a wave and a nod. Dave stood, a bit unsteady but serviceable, and approached what appeared to be a doctor. Everybody looks human, Dave mused, I wonder what they really look like? For that matter, I wonder what I really look like? I've always seen myself as human. Does it matter? The doctor pointed to a table in the room and told Dave to lie on it. The table and Dave were then slid into a cylindrical container, the end door closed, followed by a hush sound. It all seemed vaguely familiar, an MRI chamber from the movies, but there, he believed, the resemblance most likely ceased.
After a moment or two of bleak silence, the internal lighting blinked and then went off. Bathed in total darkness, he heard sounds of slushing and then a woosh that ended with a loud clink. He was weightless, unable to feel his body. He pressed his hands against himself but sensed nothing. He fought off panic and let his mind expand in this empty space. It's all he was. A relaxation he'd never known came over him. That tight fist in his mind unclenched. Though bodiless, he felt a visceral immersion in his surroundings, a freedom to know and be without boundaries, infinite in scope as it was. Time lost all meaning, he had no idea how long he drifted in this syrupy void. Then the woosh sound again, followed closely by another clink, and the lights returned, almost blinding him.
The chamber door opened and he was slid out. The doctor stood nearby, both hands on his face, consternation and betrayal mixed with anger contorting it. Dropping his hands, he turned to Dave and, barely controlling his voice, said, "There's been some mistake, Mister Flattery, a grave error." He moved towards Dave to stand over him. "Your soul yet maintains residual modal attachments to the body, the physical material body, across all measurable wavelengths and minimumly required dimensions."
"Which means what," Dave asked, a little annoyed at the technical mumbo-jumbo.
"You'll need to go upstairs now. They'll explain." Professional dismay blurring his eyes, he touched Dave; instantly he reappeared in a capacious, high-ceilinged boardroom. You know the look: thick wall-to-wall rugs, long polished wood table, wall hangings, an oversized potted plant in a corner, a pitcher of water and a tray of glasses on a sidetable. He sat at one end; at the other was a corpulent man with a long white beard, hair flowing past his shoulders. He wore a grey suit, yellow shirt, and a blue tie. On his left sat three women, on his right three clean-shaven men, all very well-dressed. They sat in rigid silence, immobile, peering down at him as though he'd been there for some time and they awaited a response.
As he was about to ask what the hell was going on, the bearded man proclaimed, "Mister Flattery, there's been a mistake with your account." The man tried to smile but it died prematurely. Shifting the spotlight, he said, "I'll let Bob explain it to you. Bob?" He glared at the man closest to him, who stared hard at the table, embarrassment and frustration showing on his broad features.
Bob faced Dave and began, speaking so softly at first that Dave barely heard him. But as he went on, he gained steam. "You see, Mister Flattery, I'm a collector, a gatherer, I gather souls when people, all kinds of people, pass away. I've only been on earth assignment for a millenium, I'm still getting the hang of it."
"Get on with it, Bob," insisted the bearded man. "Without the excuses."
Bob glanced his way in irritation, but acquiesced nonetheless. "You had a massive coronary and fell into a snow drift. It took ten minutes for the ambulance to reach you. There was no way you should've lived. I thought you were a goner; so,..., I grabbed your soul when you were in the drift, right after you blacked out." Bob adjusted his tie, then continued, "I'm extremely busy, you have no idea. This is only the second time this's happened to me. Earthlings are incredibly resilient. I have lots of other planets in my portfolio, Mister Flattery, let me tell you about ---"
"That's enough, Bob," interjected the beard. "The bottomline is this, Mister Flattery: you weren't supposed to die then. You survived. The ambulance got to your home in time, the medics resuscitated you on the way, you were brought into the emergency room and stabilized for surgery. You lived through it, Mister Flattery."
He smiled down the length of the table; they all did, even Bob, he smiled the most. Dave didn't know how to take this, after all he'd been through. Was he supposed to feel grateful? Grateful that they'd taken his life before his time, that his family, no doubt, suffered his loss? Was he expected to smile back? Instead he said, "What the hell are you talkin' about? I'm not dead? Now what? Am I in limbo or some place, what the hell am I supposed to do now?" His voice crescendoed as he spoke, ending in a high falsetto.
"Now, now, Mister Flattery," said the beard, a tinge of crimson outlining his smug features. "This can all be straightened out. Now, here's what we can do: reinsert you at the moment you fell into the drift and blacked out. You'll be set on another timeline at that juncture, a new branching, as it were, a parallel universe. It was your destiny, and so your presence is required. In other words, you'll be returning to your universe, your reality, but after a,..., glitch in the timespace continuum. You won't even notice it.
"However, it's a glitch we have to pay for. Creating the unnecessary timeline of your demise, one that shouldn't be, doesn't come without consequences." He gave Bob a dirty glance. "Timelines ain't cheap." The bearded one cast his eyes to the polished wood table, the others did the same, in unison.
Dave was in advertising, he knew when someone was trying to put a positive spin on a screw-up and at the same time persuade you to feel sorry for their problems. But what could he do? Refuse to return to his former life? And choose what?
"Will I remember all this?" he asked, hopefully.
They whispered among themselves, then the beard said, "Perhaps in dreams, in dreamland, a dimension viable in itself and accessible by the psyche. All self-aware beings possess this ability. Something of a fluid overlap exists. Virtual realities are created and mesh, temporarily. Whether or not a meeting occurs depends on their relative viscosities and a whole host of attributes not even describable in human terms. Humans have yet to evolve sufficiently. You wouldn't understand. It has to do with fluctuations in the spacetime stream, field discontinuities, being in multiple places at the same time, stuff like that. But as far as consciously remembering what you've seen here, I'm afraid that won't be an option."
Again Dave had the sixth sense to know bullshit when he heard it. Maybe it's true, maybe not. But they don't know for sure.
The bearded man stood and walked the length of the long table to where Dave was sitting. Leaning over, he whispered, "Sorry for the inconvenience, Mister Flattery."
Before he could respond, the beard touched him on the temple; immediately Dave found himself lying in a hospital bed, his wife and two children sitting nearby. He mumbled something; they all looked up from their thoughts and stormed the bed. Smiling and crying, they patted and kissed him. He was going to be all right.
A doctor entered and smiled at Dave. "How's the patient, today?" he asked, serious but exuding cheer. "It was touch and go there for awhile, Mister Flattery. You were muttering something about 'organizing customer service' and 'white puffy clouds,' even under anaesthesia." The doctor studied his chart at the foot of the bed, came alongside to take Dave's pulse, then smiled again and, before leaving the room, said, "We brought you back from the land of the dead, Mister Flattery. Enjoy."
After the doctor departed, Dave croaked, "How long have I been here?"
"A week, a whole week," his wife said, looking strained, her eyes red from crying. Ellie shoved in front and carefully laid a doll on his pillow. "Here, daddy. Martha will make you all better, so you can come home. We missed you." She then kissed him on the cheek, a tear falling on his face.
They stayed a while longer, relating events of the previous week. Then left to let him get some rest. As he was dozing off, he thought how lucky he was.
Somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, he envisioned a blonde-haired lady in a red dress, holding a clipboard. She had the sweetest smile. He smiled back, then fell deeply asleep.