All Danny could remember were the headlights. And the scream. No intense pain, no life flashing before his eyes. He didn't even remember a blaring horn, though he assumed it had been there, like it always is in the movies. And now he was dead.
He was dead.
Now that he'd finally reached that conclusion, he could make another. The afterlife was not all it was cracked up to be. There were no angels singing, no Gates to welcome him. And if this was Hell, then he didn't know what everyone was so afraid of. There was nothing. Literally, nothing.
Danny tried moving around, but he soon gave that up. Flailing limbs took him nowhere; there wasn't even a floor to orient himself with. Not that there was anywhere he needed to go. He was dead; he didn't have an appointment to keep, no meeting to be late for, no more busses to jump in front of.
This is what I waited all my life for? Danny thought. What a disappointment.
Then a small speck appeared in the distance. Danny squinted, trying to make out the source. The speck grew in size, until it took on the shape of a very small man. Danny waited patiently, trying to calm his nerves. The man approached him, looking quizzically over the rims of his golden glasses.
Danny opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He didn't know this man, or at least, didn't know him well. Then again, he was never very good with names, and probably worked with this man on a project at work or something. "Hi?" he said tentatively.
The man brightened and threw his arm around Danny's shoulders. The man had to stand on tiptoes to do so, and even then, had to stretch quite a bit. "It's good to see you." Danny stooped down a bit so the man wouldn't dislocate his shoulder. He began walking, forcing Danny to follow somewhat awkwardly.
"We didn't know what to do with you at first, so we left you in the dark. Quite literally." He laughed heartily. Danny smiled belatedly, not amused. "But then we realized that there's no reason to treat you any differently than the others, so we'll let you go wherever. I understand you'll be less than satisfied, but that's just how your type is, so there's nothing we can do about that until, well, no need to get technical." He released Danny, who straightened gratefully. He was never one for physical contact.
"I'm sorry," Danny interrupted, "but could you tell me what's going on? I'm a little confused."
"A little! That's the understatement of the year. But everything will be cleared up when we get you signed in." The man trundled off.
Danny looked around, noticing for the first time that matter had replaced the emptiness. Spectacular matter. Danny gaped as he scanned his surroundings. A wide, paved street wound around the city, smooth and sparkling new. Danny looked closer. No, the street wasn't new. There were scuff marks and signs of wear. The shimmer came from the material. Danny blinked. The streets were paved with gold. He wrenched his eyes from the street and looked around. Little houses lined the street, made of polished green stone. Emerald, Danny ventured to guess. He smirked to himself. I'm in the Emerald City. I wonder where Dorothy is?
A soft breeze ruffled Danny's hair. It brought the savory smells of a bakery, though he couldn't see one nearby. Windchimes tinkled in the background.
The almost sappy scene was disrupted by the heavy breathing of the man. He'd tottered back to where Danny stood.
"What are you doing?" he huffed. He followed Danny's gaze and smiled. "Like it?"
"I guess," Danny said, shrugging.
"Those houses are made of pure solid jasper. And this road," he said, tapping the ground with his foot, "that's solid gold for you. More gold than you could ever lay eyes on down on Earth." He smiled, crossing his arms contentedly over his stomach.
"Where are the people?"
"Where are all the people? This is Heaven, right? I mean, everything fits. The streets of gold, the jasper walls, and I'm sure there a fountain of milk and honey somewhere around here. But I'm not the first one to die. Where are all the others?"
The man sighed. "They're inside the buildings. Everything is provided for them during the wait. They don't need to come outside."
"But isn't it boring? I mean, don't they want to come outside just to look at everything?"
The man shook his head. "No, Danny, they don't want."
"They don't want what?"
"They don't want anything."
"They aren't like you. They're - normal." He said the last word at barely a whisper. But Danny heard.
"And what am I?"
"I'm not good at explaining things. Let's go to the Gate and then someone else can tell you everything."
Danny watched as the man turned and shuffled back up the path. "Who are you?" Danny called after him.
The man turned around. "Don't you know?" Danny shook his head. "I'm Peter."
Danny walked speechlessly after him. The walk wasn't long, and soon the Gate came into sight. Danny stared at them in disappointment. There was no barrier around Heaven, not even a tall, shining Gate. Just a simple archway, shimmering softly in the light. Peter eased himself on a stool beside the arch and pulled out a large pocketbook. He flipped to about three-fourths of the way through and nodded. Danny watched, waiting for something to happen. But nothing did. Peter closed the book gently and put it away. He slid off the stool and looked at Danny. Danny looked at Peter.
Peter cleared his throat. "Well?"
"Well?!" Danny shouted. "Where's the angel fanfare or the Pearly Gates? Where's the indescribable beauty that everyone speaks about? Where are my wings?" He added the last one with a hint of desperation.
Peter readjusted his glasses. "The gateway is made of solid pearl. No one has ever wanted anything more than this. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholders here can only see beauty, so why create something to human standards when no one here is human?"
"But if I'm not human, why am I not satisfied?" Danny demanded.
"Because you are not yet whole. Like I said, I cannot explain these things. Step through the gate and someone will tell you everything."
Danny looked at the arch. "What if I go around it?"
"What?" Peter's eyes widened.
"What if I don't go through the gate? There's nothing to stop me. In fact, the arch is kind of out of place."
"You - you can't go around the gate. You just can't. It's just not done."
Danny stepped up to the arch and looked straight up. He saw the delicate curve of the structure. It seemed right that he go through the gate. Danny shut his eyes and shook his head. Then he walked to one base and stepped around it. Peter gasped audibly and shut his eyes tightly, his nose wrinkling and pushing his glasses back to his eyebrows. But again, nothing happened. Danny was starting to get frustrated with the lack of action apparent in Heaven. He angrily kicked the base of the arch. His foot ached from the impact, but again, nothing happened.
Peter opened his eyes. "You have to go through the gate."
"I realize that," Danny said scathingly. He'd always thought Heaven would be a place of joy and eternal happiness, yet all he'd encountered was disappointment and frustration. He was starting to wonder if Hell was any better.
He stepped back and glared at Peter before entering through the gate. Peter flinched and averted his gaze. Satisfied, Danny stepped through.
And his world changed.
For the first time since he'd died, Danny saw another living creature. Or rather, not-living. Because he was dead. Danny shook his head and stared at the being. It noticed him too and walked over. The creature looked like a human. He wore a loose cream-white shirt that hung down past his waist. A belt of gold fabric cinched it around his hips. Silky pants covered his legs, and his feet were bare.
"Have faith, Daniel. You are not alone in your struggle."
"How do you all know my name? Is it written across my forehead or something?"
The man smiled softly. "Peace, Daniel. We were all created in the image of God, and since the Great Sin, we have lost the innocence of man. It only logically follows that in Heaven, we receive the knowledge that was unclear to us in life."
"There are not many in Heaven. Far less than one would hope. It is not difficult to find the name for each unique individual who emerges through those gates."
"So, you're saying that you know everyone's name?"
The man nodded. "As will you, once you are whole."
Danny shook his head. "I'm whole already, and I still don't know your name."
The man smiled again. "Names are of no significance here. Mine is unimportant."
"But how else will I know you if I cannot refer to you by name?"
"You, least of all, Daniel, should concern yourself with simplifying a creature's essence to a single, meaningless utterance."
"Why me, least of all?"
The man drew his eyebrows together slightly. "Don't you know what your name means?"
"It's just a word."
"No," he said, shaking his head. "It means 'God is my Judge'."
Danny looked at the man's face. "If my name has a meaning, then how can you say a name is a meaningless utterance?"
"Because, Daniel, though a name is meant to relate a human to a characteristic, there is no way to equate a person's true essence to something as trivial as a word. I use your name only because the language of Heaven is still unfamiliar to you."
"I was never good with languages. I could barely speak Spanish, though I spent two years in college learning it."
"This is not a language of the mouth. This language comes from the heart, and only a calm and mended heart can hear the words."
Danny grimaced. "I think I'll stick with English."
"As you will until your heart is whole again. Would you care to walk with me?" The man turned and walked off, his right hand extended to his side in invitation. Danny noticed two vertical incisions on the man's back, and the very steep dip in his shirt.
"Are you okay?" Danny asked.
"I am fine. Those are not wounds. Think of them as you would a cat's paw. The gap where her claws retract are natural, as are mine."
"You have claws shoot out of your back?" Danny asked as he caught up to the man.
He smiled. "Wings."
Danny lapsed into silence as he walked with the man. They passed through a forest of clouds, the condensation cooling their skin but not soaking them. Danny heard a distant rumble.
"Is it going to rain?"
The man offered nothing else, and Danny did not press him.
They walked in silence, listening to the sounds of the clouds moving (Danny had never thought he could hear a cloud) and the swish swish of the man's pants. They walked for a long time like this, uninterrupted. Another man passed them briefly, and the man Danny was walking with embraced him and brushed back the man's long hair. They touched foreheads momentarily, and the other man laughed, his voice melodic and pure. He nodded at Danny, who nodded back. Then the two parted, without a word spoken.
"Who was that?" Danny asked.
Danny glanced suspiciously backwards at the retreating man. He had identical slits on his back. "You - you like men?"
The man looked questioningly at Danny. "I love men. Don't you?"
"I'm not like that," Danny said apologetically and he felt sincerely bad. "I tend to like women more."
Understanding lit the man's eyes and he laughed musically. "I apologize. I misunderstood. My soulmate is not male, anymore than I am. In Heaven, we do not distinguish between genders. We are angels, and nothing more. We have one soulmate for eternity here."
"Divorce lawyers must be hard-pressed to find jobs here."
"Nevermind. Do you love him, er, I mean, your soulmate?"
"Of course I do." He seemed shocked that Danny would suggest otherwise.
They commenced walking again, though Danny didn't remember stopping. He studied the man's face as they walked. It was clean-cut, strong lines defined his features clearly. There were no lines of age, though Danny supposed that people in Heaven would age very slowly, if at all, because they were there for eternity, after all. Deep amber eyes stared straight ahead on the path before them, and a shoulder-length wave of auburn hair tumbled over his ears.
"Am I pleasing to you?" he asked, without averting his eyes from in front of him. Danny blushed and looked away.
"No, um, well, I mean, you, uh-" Danny stammered.
"You are, but-"
"Either I please you or repulse you. How can you place a condition in which I am?"
Danny had nothing to say to that. He decided instead not to answer. "Is there something I can call you? If you don't have a name, then may I refer to you by some title?"
"My name is Gabriel, given to me by God. However, you may call me whatever you choose."
"I'll stick with Gabriel."
He nodded and gestured in front of him. "We have arrived."
Danny turned his gaze from Gabriel to the direction he had gestured in. Before him stood a magnificent city, something closer to what Danny had pictured when Heaven was mentioned. "This is more like it," he said.
"This is where we live," Gabriel said. "Each mansion is for the people in Heaven. The angels live above them, in the cloud castles." Danny trailed his eyes from the city on the ground to the one above.
"So the people don't have wings?" Gabriel shook his head, and Danny couldn't help feel slightly disappointed. He looked at the cloud castles. "So we can never go up there?"
"No, but why would you need to travel above when everything you need is below?"
"Oh right. No one wants anything in Heaven."
"That is your mansion." Gabriel pointed vaguely in front of him, but Danny knew which one was his. Though nothing distinguished it physically from the other mansions, he knew.
"What do we do here?"
"Whatever you please. I think that as long as you are incomplete, you may find the most entertainment to be outside the gates, but you are free to explore Heaven as you please."
"Will I be able to find you?" Danny asked.
Gabriel unfurled his wings, the radiance stunning Danny. "When you learn to speak, simply call my name and I will come." He launched himself into the air, not looking back as Danny. Danny watched as Gabriel shrunk in size above him. Finally, when Gabriel was out of sight, he turned and left the city.
Danny walked among the cloud forest, retracing his steps to the gateway. Along the way, he passed many angels and humans, though none spoke to him. As he went further, the glances directed at him became increasingly more puzzled. Danny assumed they were trying to speak to him through the 'language of the heart' but couldn't do anything about that. So he smiled brightly at every passerby, not knowing what else to do.
As the cloud forest thinned out, so did the crowd of people. He hoped he was nearing the gate, because even Peter seemed like good company now that Gabriel had left. Danny heard another rumble, but this one much louder than before. A big drop of water splashed before him, and he looked up in time to receive another drop in his face. Wrinkling his nose, he wiped it off with the back of his hand and bowed his head. The rain started to fall steadily, and soon Danny was completely wet. He trudged through the forest, hoping the rain didn't extend outside Heaven. As he walked, he heard another set of footsteps behind him. Unwilling to watch another person ogle at him, he didn't bother turning around. The footsteps quickened, and suddenly a large shadow appeared over Danny's head and the rain stopped splashing against his head. Danny ducked reflexively, but the shadow didn't attack him. He glanced up to see a large wing protecting him. He searched for the owner, hoping to see Gabriel. Instead, he saw the soulmate.
"Hi," Danny said nervously.
The soulmate said nothing. He looked at Danny inquisitively, silently. Danny wondered if anyone in Heaven besides Gabriel spoke English. Danny noticed that although the soulmate didn't cover himself, the rain didn't hit him.
"So I guess God hates me, since it looks like I'm the only one getting wet around here," Danny said conversationally.
The soulmate looked sharply at Danny. He opened his mouth, and for a moment Danny thought he might say something. But he simply clamped his mouth shut again, dashing Danny's hopes. He focused on the ground.
"Gabriel warned me that you would be crude. But I thought he was just being overly descriptive." His voice was surprisingly deep for such a fair man. His long blonde hair framed a solid, yet slender face, and his body was wiry and supple.
"I was just making conversation," Danny mumbled.
"I see," the soulmate said disapprovingly.
"And do you have a name?"
The man eyed Danny suspiciously. "Uriel." He sighed. "Must we speak this way? It's such an uncouth language."
Danny wondered how such a surly creature could've ended up with Gabriel. And to think that Gabriel loved him!
"You're lucky Gabriel isn't like me. If he was, he definitely wouldn't be with you."
"It's plain enough you dislike me. But I'm confused. Is it jealously?"
"Jealous! Of you?" Danny laughed.
"Why wouldn't you be? I am a complete being, one of God's chosen ones. You are barely even human, broken and missing pieces of yourself."
"What does that mean? Everyone says it, but no one will tell me why."
"It simply means what I've said. You aren't complete. And won't be until your other joins you. Didn't it strike you as odd that you were unhappy in Heaven? Or are you too dull to realize that everyone else is different than you, better?"
Danny wanted to throttle Uriel. "I realized it. But it seems that everything isn't perfect here, because if it was, I would've understood from the beginning what is wrong with my existence here, since it seems to bother so many people!"
Uriel withdrew his wing, and the rain pattered on Danny's skin once again. "Here's where I leave you."
"Did I make you unhappy? Ruin your perfect world with Gabe?"
"No, nothing so insignificant as yourself could bother me. We've just arrived at the gates. I do not wish to pass through them, though you obviously have the desire to do so."
"I hope I never see you again."
"I hope only to meet you after you've been mended."
Danny stalked through the arch.
And wondered if he'd gone the wrong way.
In front of him stood not Peter, but the Devil himself. A beautiful angel, Lucifer stood basking in the sunlight, just outside the gate. Danny nearly tripped over him. "What the-"
Lucifer looked up, shaking his white-blonde hair from his face. He spread his wings as if in welcome. "Danny, my boy, it's good to see someone who's not completely enamored with this place. And I see you recognize me as well. These stupid idiots who come here don't even see me, let alone know who I am. It's quite lonely. Peter's no real company."
"Peter can see you?"
"Of course! Why else would he be cowering in one of those fine jasper houses, waiting for me to leave? If he couldn't see me, he'd be sitting here, singing his stupid songs that he makes up."
"Why didn't he just go through the gateway? Wouldn't that be safer?"
Lucifer smirked. "I see you have a brain in that head. But going through the gate would be like a girl running into the girls' restroom. A guy can follow, but he chooses not to. Peter prefers to watch me in case I do something drastic, like go into the girls' restroom." Danny smiled. "He wants to be the first to notify God if I do, as if God doesn't already know."
"Peter is pretty thick sometimes," Danny added, glad to talk to someone who could appreciate malice.
"Sometimes? Have you seen his stomach?" Danny laughed with Lucifer. He wondered why, if Lucifer was such an evil person, was he able to walk through the gate?
"It's because I'm powerless to do anything there. The Big Guy makes sure of that," Lucifer said, seemingly reading Danny's thoughts. He rolled his eyes. "I don't know that I'd want any of these stiffs in my domain, anyway."
Danny approached Lucifer and leaned in, whispering conspiratorially. "If you're like the others in Hell, I would gladly go there instead of waiting around with these dullards."
"I like your thinking, but you're not my property. Should've thought about that before you went and got yourself killed. I can't take half a person to Hell, it's just unheard of."
"What is the deal with this half a person business? I look whole to me." Danny held out both his arms and shrugged. Lucifer gasped.
"They didn't tell you? What has this place come to?" He shook his head and snapped his fingers. Peter's stool materialized in front of him. Pushing Danny onto the seat, he clucked his tongue. "You're only half here because you went and pulled that silly self-sacrificing move down there on Earth. Remember that?"
Danny remembered. Or at least remembered the headlights. And the scream. He nodded.
"Well, that kid you saved is your key to happiness here. Or so they say. I've never actually seen the results of such a reunion, but then again, I'm not exactly invited to that sort of thing, now am I?"
"So is he, like, my soulmate?"
Lucifer laughed. "Where'd you get such a term? They put it in your head? Nah, he just completes you. Like soup and a spoon. You can drink the soup without the spoon, but it's just not how it's done, you know?" Danny nodded.
"But here's the best part: if your little tyke doesn't go to Heaven, then that's it. You're done. The spoonless soup, forever destined to wandering the plains of Heaven for eternity. And there's nothing you can do to guarantee his salvation. Especially because I do all I can to make sure it doesn't happen."
"Why would you do that?" Danny asked, a little wary now of Lucifer.
"Because it's my source of entertainment. Doing all I can to disrupt God's little world. Don't look so surprised. Would people call me the Devil if I went around spreading world peace? It's my job, the reason I was thrown out of Heaven."
Danny suddenly had a thought. "Wait, if you were thrown out of Heaven, what happened to your soulmate?"
Lucifer's eyes darkened for an instant. But he covered it with a smile. "I wasn't the only one kicked out. Didn't you read your Bible? One-third of all the angels came with me."
"So you're soulmate left Heaven to go with you?"
"Hey, use your brain. It's not that hard to put together."
Lucifer was clearly skirting around the question, but Danny decided to inquire about it later, inside Heaven's doors.
"Do you play chess?"
"Excuse me?" Danny asked.
"Chess, that game with the knights and pawns and stuff?"
"I know what it is."
"Let's play." Lucifer snapped his fingers again, and another stool and a chessboard materialized. "I'm white."
"Don't you want to be black?"
"Doesn't your name mean 'God is my Judge'?"
"Then why does the first thing that pops into your mind have to be that I'm bad, and therefore have to be black?"
"You know what, I'll be black. Just to make you happy."
Lucifer spun the board viciously around. Pieces flew off the board. He stared at Danny. "Well? White goes first."
"But the pieces-"
"What, you're not going to play?"
Danny bent over and started to pick up the pieces. Lucifer sighed and rolled his eyes. He snapped his fingers, and the pieces disappeared from the floor. Danny straightened up and stared at the reassembled board. He moved a pawn forward.
"Your turn," Danny said.
|22 Jun 2006|| Laurence Adrian MacCaskill|
I feel honored to be the first to comment (does a First Comment require a dance? I always feel a bit awkward on the dance floor.)
I like both your pieces. I think you handle words well.
In both cases I want to read more... ya leave me hungry. I want to see them fleshed-out more fully, learn more about each of the worlds you've created.
Truth be known, I always wanted to write and never felt I could, so I draw instead. It's seemingly more economical... you know, the 'thousand words' thing, 'tho I find I use up a thousand words a lot faster than I can finish a drawing. OK, I'm just babbling (maybe it should be your turn with the rope). Anyway, congratulations. Laura A. Wellington
replies: "Though I never planned on continuing "Intelligence", I did have further plans for this one. Hopefully, the next installment will appear sometime in the near future.Your predicament with writing is the same as mine with drawing, although it's easier to get away with poor writing than poor drawings. Perhaps we should switch talents for a day (or a lifetime...), although you would lose out, since your skill as an artist surpasses mine as an author. Ah, mindless babble. I should do something more productive with my time..."
|6 Jul 2006|| Anna M. Mortensen|
Well then, this is quite the tale. The You have a lovely way with words, although they seem to get in the way at times. I tend to be a terrible editor, so I’ll keep my suggestions general:
Try to format your stories a bit better. Paragraph breaks and indents would help the flow. I know HTML can be a pain, but it makes everything look better. There are tutorials all over the web. I’m even send you the basic “must haves” if you like.
You use passive voice a lot in the beginning. Go through and track down all your “was, were, hads” and try to eliminate them where you can. It makes everything run smoother.
While you’re hunting down the passive verbs, throw in the adverbs as well. Anything ending in –ly in suspect. It is very easy to overstate things or rely on weak verbs when you stick a “really”, “loudly” or “wildly” on something. Example: “Peter gasped audibly and shut his eyes tightly” If he gasped, it was audible so “audibly” isn’t necessary. And instead of “shut his eyes tightly.” How about “squeezed his eyes shut”. The stronger verb conveys a better image.
Along the same line, treat your reader intelligently. Make us use our imaginations to some degree.
The paragraph where Gabriel meets his soulmate is a little confusing. Use reference both of them with the term “the man”. Try smooth it out some.
Over all this is excellent. Your dialogue is well written and I’m intrigued to see where you are going with this. Let me know when you update! BTW, I saw on Jim’s page you inquired about Herscher and the Young Artisans. I hope to see some of your work there soon! Laura A. Wellington
replies: "Thanks for the great critiques. I will take them into consideration... anything to make my writing better."
|11 Jul 2006|| Ryan Stringer|
Now, if I were to be really picky I might comment about some of the..shall we say, questionable, theology in here, but that isn't really the point, after all, is it?
So I am curious, though, where you come from in a spiritual/faith sense as you seem to have fairly firm grounding in the Bible and some generalized Christian imagery. I'm always curious, when reading stories like this, what perspective the author brings to the table.
Anyway, I thought I was quite well written and I found it certainly entertaining if a little bit confusing on some points. The previous comment pretty well encapsulated most of the nitpicky things I might have said, so I won't dwell on that.
One thing that I do find interesting about this is the way that Danny really just seems like something about Heaven just isn't suited to him. From a Christian/Biblical standpoint this struck a chord with me about the importance of free will and the fact that a person who doesn't know God not only cannot be in his presence (i.e. in Heaven), but also wouldn't know what to do in Heaven even if he could get there. Anyway, well done - I'll be looking around at more of your stuff in a bit here.
Feel free to stop by my neck of woods to check out my novel, peace! Laura A. Wellington
replies: "Thanks for the comment. I am a Christian myself, and I'm not trying to break with all logic of the Bible here, though at the moment, it seems that way. I'm writing the next installment to this story, and, though I don't want to reveal too much of the plot, I'll say that there is more to this 'heaven' than meets the eye.I'll swing by and take a peek at your own work when I get the chance."