A/N: This is a slightly different style for me, and it's something of an experiment. It isn't perfected yet, but I thought, "Well, this is FP, I'm supposed to post things I'm trying out." So here it is.
She looked around hastily, although there was no doubt the words were directed at her. Still, she had to make sure. "Me, sir?"
"Yes, you," the old man grouched, leaning further over his glossy podium. "Get up here."
This was the last place she wanted to be singled out, but she reluctantly agreed, walking over the puffed clouds. "Hello," she said nervously, wondering whether she'd be better with a handshake or a bow. When she settled on sticking her hand out, it was irritably battled away.
The old man peered at her, his rheumy blue eyes squinting at her from under bushy white eyebrows, whose hair spiked wildly in every direction. She swallowed audibly as the distinguished old man studied her. His skin was wrinkled and creased deeply, his nose beak-like, and though his scraggly beard was trimmed short, long white hair reached down to his shoulders. Like she had expected, he was robed in intimidating white, the style almost Greek. She quickly looked away from his clothes, their whiteness blinding to the mortal eye, just like the gates behind them. Instead she focused back on the man's face.
Apparently satisfied, he snorted, and consulted the giant ledger spread before him on the podium. "You are Elizabeth Teagan?"
She nodded apprehensively.
She shifted with anxiety, wondering if she dared ask the question on the mind of anyone who approached the man, but afraid her badgering would influence his answer in the wrong direction. Instead she gazed everywhere else.
She had expected to have to stand in a line, because if tradition won over all the other interpretations, she would have expected it to go all the way. As it was, she had opened her eyes to a flat vista where everything was white. The ground was the soft, plump cushions of cloud, while the air was a flat, close white, everywhere. But she wasn't confused. It was easy to tell where to go, for the only difference in the landscape was the one luminous point in the distance, the one striking, glaring block of horizon.
It was everything.
She couldn't bear to look at it, not for more then a split second, and yet she kept trying to. It was unlike anything on earth, bigger than anything she had ever heard of, and infinitely more beautiful. It was like the center of the sun. Instinctively, one had to turn to it, but looking at it blinded. Yet she had to. Its dazzling glory was spell-binding.
In front of that was the single speck of color, the polished mahogany of the old man's podium. She had seen six people in front of her, making their way to the man. None of them seemed to see each other, and none of them arrived at the podium at the same time, all making their way in orderly fashion. It was only when the last of them was gone that the man called to her.
Now she turned her head to look behind her, and was startled by the lack of the blinding space, surprised she could look at all and not be struck down by unbearable shock. Instead there was only the endless whiteness, making her feel empty somewhere. And far away, much farther then the previous six had been from her, she saw others. They were all slowly meandering towards the podium. None of the distant figures seemed to have realized there were others. She wondered what else they hadn't realized yet.
She spun back, guilty feeling. "Yes sir?" she asked, looking back at him.
He rolled his shoulders back, cracking them loudly, sounding like he hadn't moved for a millennium. Slowly, he lay down the giant ink-dipped quill on the ledger, and moved his hands from the podium. He stretched his neck from side to side, then ponderously stepped down from the podium. It was shocking. She was not sure why, but watching him move from his eternal post was unnerving. It had never happened before, this man stepping away from his podium.
He scratched his head, then reached into his robes and brought out a single ring of metal, thin round iron, with one key on it. It wasn't a traditional key. All it was was a column of metal, about the width and length of a pencil. But it was the first key, and like the gate it opened, it burned to look upon it. "Here, girl."
She gaped up at him, not understanding.
He sighed, and held the key to her. "I'm done," he explained. "Take it. I'm done."
"But you can't be," she protested weakly, staring at the otherworldly metal.
He snorted. "You think that? Let me tell you something, child. I am tired of this job, and I am lonely, and it is time I pass it on."
"But why me?"
He shrugged. "Because you're the one I've been waiting for. I wished you'd come long before, but I waited. And here you are."
"But what am I supposed to do?" she wailed, as he tucked the key into her limp hands, panic building in her. "I don't know how to do any of it!"
"Neither did I," Saint Peter told her, and she watched helplessly as he walked away, walked into the blindly gate of heaven. He vanished.
Elizabeth Teagan looked down at the key in her hand, at the tiny piece of the gate molded into the ceremonial symbol in her hand. It wasn't the key that would allow people to pass through that gate; it was her voice. Trembling, she looked at the podium, then slowly stepped up behind it, turning to face into the whiteness. She lay a hand on the ledger in front of her.
She sucked in a breath, doubling over, the hand with the key going to her stomach, the other grasping at the book as she fought to regain herself, stunned by the wave of power that had swept through her. When she looked up, she knew something had changed.
Her sight shot through the whiteness, piercing it like light ends shadow. She could see all the wanderers, all of them in the whiteness, thousands, waiting to be called. It was a line, she could see now, only the mortals were to simple to see it, their vision to clouded to see the others in front and behind them. And she could see everyone else, below and above and beyond the whiteness, the people who had not yet made it this far. But they were not in her domain yet. They were in the world of color, not hers of indecision.
She turned to the first of the line and beckoned, and they found themselves approaching her. She was sweating profusely, and wondering if she herself was alluded to simply go through the gate, or if she could hand this over to the next good soul she came across.
"Hello," the person said apprehensively.
He was far older than her, a withered old man who looked completely terrified. This was his judgment, she realized, swallowing. To him, she was divine. To him, she had complete control over his final destination of Heaven or Hell.
"Hello," she responded, hoping she did not sound as nervous as the man in front of her.
He squinted up at her, clasping his hands behind his back - to hide them from shaking, she knew.
And then she was sucked up by a tight feeling like an instant of airlessness. Then she knew more, as she stood there staring at him. This was Nelson Beckett, eighty-four years old. He was a good man, a veteran and a great-grandfather. He hadn't lived an exemplary life, but it certainly was not a bad one, certainly not to be given the greatest punishment. So when she scrawled his name into the ledger, her script more perfect than it ever had been before, she followed the small dash after his name with "Heaven."
She looked up to see him still staring up at her, feeling horrified, wondering what the outcome would be. Nelson Beckett was a deeply religious man, and had been expecting the traditional Saint Peter at the gate, if the gate wasn't just a myth. Most people thought it was.
"Go through," Elizabeth said, waving her hand towards the gate.
The man swallowed, glancing quickly at Heaven's Entrance, then away. "How, ma'am?" he asked awkwardly.
She was surprised, but simply gestured benignly. "Walk through it," she told him, and watched as he nervously did so. She felt a jolt as the light enveloped him, and his name flashed before the ink sunk deeply into the paper. Nelson Beckett was in.
To her surprise, she was trembling. She had to put the quill down for a moment, and rest her head in her head. She did not need to breathe, and yet she was panting heavily, trying to regain herself. Old habits, like taking oxygen, were hard to break.
The next individual was even more traditional then the last, a small little woman who wanted to know why Saint Peter wasn't at the gate.
"I don't understand," Mamie Thompsan kept saying, her high-pitched voice grating on The Gatekeeper's ears. "Where's Saint Peter? He supposed to let me in!"
The next was a none believer.
"What the hell in going on?" Jordan Brockway was hale and hearty, dead at sixty-two because of a stress related heart-attack. His posture screamed that he'd rather be back in the business meeting he had died during.
"I beg your pardon?" she asked. She was actually enjoying this a bit, though admittedly she hadn't thought she'd be anything more than worm food, either.
"This," Jordan Brockway said, waving a hand around, and scowling as though the whiteness was a personal affront. "This doesn't exist."
"That is something of a problem, isn't it?" she said, raising her eyebrows. "Especially as this is what I seem to be stuck with."
"That's another thing!" he shouted, latching onto another complainable issue. "What about you? Don't you ever get to go in there? It doesn't seem a fair system."
She turned briefly, glancing at the blinding gate. "Um, I don't think so," she said. She forwent mentioning this was her first day on the job, wondering how long Saint Peter had guarded for before he entered.
But Jordan Brockway hadn't really been talking to her, he was just blustering on. "Ridiculous, I say! Why, I don't even think I'm dead. This is probably just some elaborate joke Jennings set up. Stupid man, I say. Jennings! Jennings, come on now, I've found you out!"
Were they down there, on Earth, she realized, he would be sweating like a pig. Jordan Brockway was afraid his embezzlement, not caught by the company, would be caught by God.
"You're not going to hell," she said softly.
He broke off in his yelling and stared at her.
"It's all right," she said. "Go on."
He swallowed, and when he spoke he was quite. "This isn't real."
Jordan Brockingway, she scrawled, admiring how even the sloppiest of motions produced beautiful writing. The following dash was curved and elegant. "You are a good man," she told him.
"Not always," he said, and she had the terrible feeling he was about to confess his sins.
"That doesn't matter," she said quickly. "You have been absolved." She gestured with her quill. "Just go in there."
"That's not a gate."
She blinked. "Well, no, not quite. But that is it's function, and it's what humans comprehend it as."
He swallowed. "I guess I'm not human anymore, am I?"
She smiled, the flow of the word Heaven looking very nice. "Not quite," she said, and watched as Jordan Brockingway took a huge breath and stepped into the Blinding.
Matilda Buckley was a bad woman.
Elizabeth felt it as soon as the woman approached, sensed it in the very aura the woman carried. Tilda Buckley didn't look bad; she didn't look like anything at all, just a very tired, ordinary housewife, a bit overweight. She wasn't a murderer, or abusive, or harmful. But she was bad.
Staring down at her was a different sensation then looking at any of the petitioners. When Elizabeth looked at Tilda Buckley, she knew the old woman would never walk into the Blinding.
"Well, now," Tilda Buckley drawled, "I think I must be dead."
"You have a cold heart."
The woman raised her eyebrows. "Now, is that a very nice thing for an angel to say?"
The Gatekeeper straightened. "I am not an angel. I guard the entrance of Heaven. It is an entrance that is not for you."
"You gonna try t'keep me out of heaven?" Tilda Buckley asked, looking appalled. "But I ain't ever done nothin' wrong. Ever!"
That was, essentially, the problem. Mrs. Buckley may not have done nothing wrong, but she had done nothing good, either. And she had hated people. She had held true hate and spite in her heart, and never felt a speck of goodness. But she had never acted upon her cruel imaginations, which made it hard to condemn her to hell. And while Elizabeth did not know if Hell was eternal damnation or an eternity of basket weaving, she didn't want to send anyone there, whether it was her decision or not.
Yet it wasn't her choice. And so, after unsuccessful reasoning with Tilda Buckley, the Gatekeeper opened the endless white beneath the woman's feet, and sent her into Hell.
And then she cried.
The groups were phenomena she was used to. They came when people died together, in a car crash, or a bombing. These people wandered in the whiteness together, only separating as they took their turns being drawn to her, standing in front of her podium for their final judgment.
But this group was different, for she knew these people. She did not need to be whirled in the knowledge of their lives to recognize them, but she was anyways. She experienced every part of Gene Gunrete's life as the former star of her high school football team stood before her.
"Hello, Gene," she managed to get out, staring at him. He was tall and blond and looking just as astounded as she felt.
"Elizabeth Teagan?" he squeaked, which amused her. "What the - You're dead."
"So are you," she couldn't help pointing out.
"What are you doing there?"
Was it bad of her to feel just a little - oh, all right, loads - of triumph as she stood over the most arrogant boy in school, who had made her life miserable in middle school and thought because his parents bought him a car he was cool?
She couldn't help lording it over him. "Just deciding whether you end up in Heaven or Hell."
His jaw dropped. "No way."
She did not dignify that with an answer.
"So this is the afterlife," he said, walking in a small circle and throwing his arms out, annoying overconfident now that he knew it wasn't some all powerful being, just dorky little Elizabeth Teagan who was up here. "Who would have guessed?" He looked around for his friends, who had died in the car crash he'd caused. Not being able to see them, he just shouted to the general whiteness. "Hey guys! You gotta come over here!"
"They can't hear you," she said coolly, even as a bewildered Gene noticed only silent white mists.
"I only see one person at a time."
He rolled his eyes. "Whatever, Liz. Come on, bring them over."
"Gene," she said slowly, infusing her voice, her eyes, with just a bit of divine power. "I don't think you understand. I am not your classmate. I am the Gatekeeper."
"So you will not be seeing your friends again unless you all meet in Heaven."
For the first time he looked a little scared. "Unless?"
"Gene," she said gently, "I am the last part. I am the in-between of There and the Afterlife, whether that be Heaven or Hell. You've reached the crossroads, and I give you your direction."
He looked small now, not at all like the bully he had been, and she was sorry she had purposefully scared him. "You never really liked me," he said.
"Do you think I would send you to Hell because of that?" she asked wryly. "It is not my decision, Gene Gunrete: I pass along the news. And I would not do that even if I could."
He gave her an odd look. "I think I would."
She sighed, and smiled. "Maybe that is why I am the Gatekeeper, then. Because I would not."
The only people she ever gave a joint audience to were her parents.
She saw them as they wandered separately through the mists, looking lost and confused as everyone did, and it made her cry out. She had not thought of them in years and years, and that relieved her, for it meant they had lived to a ripe old age. They had been together in the end, departing the There in their sleep. And here they were, now, with wrinkles on their faces, white hair and grandparent-like clothing, and it almost made her cry out again, so different were they from the hearty parents she remembered.
She was so alone.
"Mom?" she whispered. "Dad?" She gripped the edge of her podium, feeling young again, like a little girl, like one of Them, a human - and she pulled them both to her, having them appear together before her.
They saw each other first, and she watched, throat tight, as they laughed and embraced. Arm links, they turned, and she saw and felt the shock that flashed through them.
"Then this is Heaven," her mother said first, smiling, and her smile cracked, and Elizabeth saw the tears. "My little baby girl," her mother whispered, and held out her arms.
"Mom. Oh, Mommy," she cried like a little girl, dashing forward and into her mother's arms, her father hugging her as well. "Oh, God, Mom, Daddy. Oh, god, I've been so alone and afraid and I missed you so much -" her voice cracked and she burrowed her face in her mother's shoulder.
And the rest of that was part of Elizabeth Teagan's life, not the Gatekeeper's, and so some privacy must be given.
It was impossible to be the Gatekeeper and not have discussions on religion.
"I believe," she said slowly - she said most things slowly, and with great care, these days: it seemed centuries since she had last rushed her words. "I believe that those with religion are much happier than those without it."
Her current supplicant - or victim, she thought with a touch of humor, - jutted out her chin, eyes flashing. "I am perfectly happy."
The Gatekeeper sighed, and waited for the inevitable confusion over verbs.
"Or was," the woman said, frowning. "Now I should be saying 'was,' shouldn't I, because now I'm dead." She frowned harder, though it was difficult to tell if that was over the verb confusion or the mind throwing concept of death.
She continued once the woman was done puzzling. "I do not mean in regular life. Certainly, you were happy. You had four children and ten grandchildren, and a full and successful life with a husband who loved you very much. I simply mean that over the matter of religion itself, those clutching at it seem happier. It rather pains atheists to discuss religion, as their opinion on that topic is quite clear. They are irritated by the god loving, seeing them as pathetic fools who cannot see what is obvious. It is a sore spot to them. But those who embrace religion are happy, some ecstatically so. It is because, I think, that is gives them a larger meaning, a setting that the world, that life fits into. Putting trust in something bigger then them makes people happier. It gives a sense of security. Those who have no religion do not have that feeling of completeness."
"I bet you love rubbing that is our faces," the woman bit off. "I bet you just love when atheists walk up in your weird white world and you get to rub that in their faces."
"No," she said thoughtfully, "No. It is no insult, you understand, merely an observation I have made. It makes people very happy to have a religion, very, very happy. I do not attempt to say whether they are right or wrong to feel that joy." She met the cranky old lady's eyes. "I do not even say whether they are correct in believing in some distant god."
The woman snorted. "You're joking, right? You probably chat with God on a daily basis."
She smiled sadly. "I am the Gatekeeper," she said. "I never leave my Gate."
The woman creased her forehead in thought. "You mean - I don't understand."
The Gatekeeper wanted to laugh, an urge she had not had in a long while. "Neither do I, most of the time. I only mean that I pass no judgment on people's beliefs. Maybe there is no God waiting in Heaven; maybe there are many."
The woman gasped. "But haven't you been there? Don't you know?"
"I know it is the After," she said simply. "And that is not a Christian belief, or a Hindu one. It simply is. And I do not know the details. I do not know that anyone does."
The women did not understand her, but that did not brother her. She did not understand herself most of the time, either.
On occasion she had to explain why atheists did not burn in hell. Once or twice, she said that the place set aside for Virtuous Pagans had overflowed, so now everyone just had to fit into Heaven, as there was much more room there then in Hell.
When everyone stared at her blankly, she switched to a more modern reference.
"You're a Windows user, aren't you?"
The woman shrugged. "I guess I am."
The Gatekeeper smiled. "You see? A Macintosh user would never say, "I guess," with such audible indifference. They would say, 'Of course I use a Mac,' and scorn all those who did not. Why do you use a Windows machine?"
The women shifted irritably. "I don't know. Does it matter?"
"Because my parents did, I suppose. That's what I was raised using."
"But you don't care about it."
"Not really. It's just a computer."
"Ah. A Macintosh user would never say it was 'just a computer.' They are devoted. Why do you think that is?"
"Because that's what their parents used."
"And what? So they prefer Macintoshes."
"Do you love Windows?"
"No! I don't care about the stupid computers. So what if Mac users do?"
The Gatekeeper smiled, laying her pen down carefully. "You are an atheist."
The woman looked insulted and bewildered. "I am not!"
"You would be if Apple was God." Rather pleased at the analogy, she smiled again. "Understand? They are extraordinarily happy, these Macintosh users. They will defend their choice to the end of time, the art of it, the sheer superiority, the brilliance. It that so very different from religion? And the users of other computers, who are complacent over the machines - they do not see what the fuss is made over. It is only a computer."
The women blinked.
"Now, if Apple was God, would it really be fair of him to have you burn in Hell simply because you did not understand what the Macintosh users became so excited over?"
"That is a very strange concept," the woman said, with a carefully neutral face. The Gatekeeper smiled as the women struggled between finding the comparison ridiculous, and grasping it.
"Don't worry," she said gently, nodding towards the Blinding. "You'll have eternity to figure it out."
Sometimes people thought they belonged to the Devil.
"Heaven," she would read off, making the familiar dash next to their name and writing in the expected destination. Then she would look of expectantly, ready to battle the deceased's views on existence.
Some, like Obasi Amadi said: "But I'm going to hell."
At first, her reaction to this statement had been startlement, and a bit of cynicism. If a person thought they were going to Hell, and found out they would be in Heaven, shouldn't that be enough for them? Sometimes, sick of their arguments, she would pull the white a bit, push it a twinge, readjusting it so that the Heaven-bound soul toppled into the Blinding, whether they wanted to or not. And that was not.
It was only later on that she realized she was supposed to help them.
She wasn't sure at what point she grasped that, but it was there: she was not just ushering these people off in one direction or another. She was setting them at rest, guiding and preparing them just a bit for what would be the most shocking transition of their existence, far larger than simply dying. So when Obasi Amadi thought he was going to Hell, she spent a long time with him, holding his hands across her podium, smiling and walking him through his life. Far less people went to Hell than was assumed, for it took true cruelty to go there. Perhaps some people might need to be reformed a bit, but that could be done in Heaven. Hell was for darkness, and there were very few people who were dark. She explained this to Obasi, and discussed it with him, his own views of evil sometimes laughable, sometimes thoughtful. She missed him when he went on, and wondered how much time she had spent with him. But it was not for her to miss the people she saw to the After, and so she swallowed tightly, and drew the next person closer.
"Ah," Abdul-Majid said, leaning back and inhaling, thought there was no air and the dead did not breathe. "So this is Heaven."
"Close, but not quite," she said, eyeing Abdul-Majid unhappily. Suicide bombers were some of the worst of the lot, because they were always so convinced they had just earned themselves a free entry to Heaven after murdering a dozen people. She was especially unfavorable towards them when she had just finished talking to every last one of their victims, who were confused and robbed too young of their lives. And then they stood in front of her, beaming, waiting.
"No?" he asked. "Then where is it?"
She jerked her head towards the Blinding. "There."
His eyes shone with religious fever. "Can I go through?"
"No, you can't," she said sharply, causing him to look at her with confusion. "Would you like to know why?"
"Er, yes . . ." he said, clearly fumbling for a title by which to address her. She did not help him out.
"You just murdered twelve people. Four of them were under the age of eighteen. You cut their lives short, and destroyed the lives of their families and friends." She leaned forward. "Do you know what the worst part is?"
He shook his head mutely, eyes wide.
She sighed. "It is that you were not a bad person. You were just an idiot." She waved a hand before he could open his mouth indignantly. "Oh, don't be offended. Most of you are idiots."
"I was doing it for God!"
"That's nice. Unfortunately for you, He's not here right now. I am. And I'm not happy with you." She shook her head, ignoring his pale face. "No, that's not right. I'm unhappy with the whole human race. You all think you know everything. You think you have it all figured out. But guess what? There is no free ticket to Heaven."
"Then - then, am I not going there?" he warbled, his voice breaking. He was still young."
She shook her head slowly. "You almost could have, you know. Even though you'd killed all those people." Her voice was disapproving, but she didn't make up the rules, she just followed them. "If you had done it for your country, for your politics, even, maybe, for your beliefs, but you did it to get into Heaven. And because you thought they deserved to die." She sighed. "No one deserves to die. After all they years, you would have thought the human race could figure that out."
"Then I'm going to Hell? Forever?"
"I don't know," she said, and then took pity on him, for though he was a murderer, he would have reached Heaven if not for that. "I can't believe that. I cannot believe that the After is so cruel that anyone remains in Hell forever. I think you all end up in this "Heaven," place eventually. Because you're different now, and even those who are truly evil - they can change. In this place, I think they do. If they didn't, it would be no better then Earth. So do not despair."
Biting his lip, he nodded, trying to look brave. "Then - then I won't be tortured forever?"
"No," she said definitely, nodding to him and watching as he was pulled from her plane. And she believed her words, though she had no just cause to. Simply, she could not believe that any Hell was absolute. Only humans were capable of creating something so unyielding, so painful as that, so cruel and brutal and merciless.
Namiyo Takahoshi looked up at the Gatekeeper, smiled perilously, and broke into tears. "Am I dead?" she asked, looking around. "Oh, thank god, thank god I'm dead."
The Gatekeeper wasn't quite sure what to make of Namiyo Takahoshi, who was now weeping on the ground in happiness. "This pleases you?"
The girl, who was only in her twenties, wiped away the most recent tears and tried another wobbly smile. "You have no idea," she said, closing her eyes. "I am so relieved."
But when the Gatekeeper allowed herself to be sucked into Namiyo's life, washing through it and emerging with all the knowledge, she saw Namiyo Takahoshi had lived a good life, a safe life. The strangest thing was that Namiyo was so unhappy. There did not seem to be any reason.
Except for the chemical imbalance that caused depression. Except for her view that the world was cruel, that life was not worth living.
It pained her, to see that, to see a perfectly good life gone to waste, thrown away because the person's views were all tinged with unhappiness. She listened to the girl, and wondered why people could still feel like this; why, in all the ages, there were those who saw the world as being ruined.
"It's just - what's the point? People can be so cruel, so unkind, and they don't even realize it. And I'm lonely. There's everyone walking around and not a single one I can connect to, not one who will understand my fears and my thoughts and my sorrows and who will feel how I feel. I watch them all, and it tears at me to see how superficial the world has become, how all people cared about is clothes and tomorrow's fashions and if their tan is cute."
"If its any consolation, Plato felt that the youth of his time were ridiculous, irresponsible, and ruining the world."
"You aren't alone, is all. But you know that. You've read the appropriate poetry. And you've shared your views with counselors and friends. But you killed yourself anyway. No sympathy, if that's what you're looking for. You couldn't connect with people? Keep trying. Find a different group - preferably more intellectual people then the drunken louts you spent time with or those walking fashion plates. Spend time with people who enjoy thinking. And if you don't like your government? Change it. You are lucky to live in a time when people have a say in the running of the world. Get on a committee. Start writing letters, demonstrating, visiting politicians. Be involved. Don't like the corporations that are killing the environment by sucking away all our natural resources? Don't buy from companies that exploit third world nations. Pay a little bit more to buy recycled goods. Donate your time, not just your money, to environmental organizations, or charities. Don't just mope about how grim life is."
Namiyo Takahoshi gaped. "Am I a bad person?" she finally asked. "Is that why I won't get into heaven? I thought that would be because I'm a suicide."
"No, though the suicide bit was idiotic. It's murder, you know. I don't care if it's of yourself; it's still robbing life, a life that was not supposed to end, and causing pain to all the people who loved you. You murdered yourself, my dear girl, but that won't bar you from Heaven. You shouldn't have done it, but there have been those who have done far more idiotic deeds and still passed." She smiled a bit. "I'd like to talk to the person who created the guidelines for making it in. I'm sure he has a very interesting mind."
"You don't have any say in it?"
"Oh, I have a say," she said, still smiling. "But it's a very small one. I'm not some all powerful deity, you know: I'm just the girl who directs the lost." And that was really all there was to it.
Thomas Blackwell had a quiet, unassuming name, to go with a quite, unassuming physique. He possessed an air of defensive defiance that did not fit with his medium height and medium coloring.
Thomas Blackwell - or "Tom" as the world called him, for he was not really Thomas Blackwell - was the world's first clone.
His reaction was similar to the others. "So this is Heaven," he said, but he was not awed. He was upset, his jaw clenched with muscles he no longer possessed in this plane. When she sunk into his memory, his life, it was easy to see why: they who are different are prosecuted, fairly or unfairly. Created in a laboratory, supposedly just "spare parts" in case the original Thomas Blackwell was in need, he had long been the object of international dispute. Was he human? Did he have rights? Should he be allowed to be his own person, or was he merely the property of the billionaire who had cloned himself? Who was "Tom", really?
At the moment, Tom was mad.
"Well, well," he said with a biting sarcasm. "Who would have thought I would have actually made it this far? Everyone was so certain the Pearly Gates were closed to me." Then he frowned, realizing that he was at the gate, not through it yet, but instead of fear he just lifted his head. He would take what was served to him. He always had, and it had warped him into a miserable, unloved creature.
"Ah, the Saint of the Gates. Perhaps I could ask a question?"
"Do I have a soul? The consensus is that I don't, but I don't see why I'd be in the Afterlife if I don't."
"Little Mermaid school of thought?" she asked lightly. "You have a soul."
"But I'm not human."
"Neither am I. Neither is God. Neither are what you know as angels, and devils, and all those creations of man. So you're not human. Be glad. Man is imperfect."
"I'm just a scientific construct."
"Do you have anything else to say?" she asked impatiently, scrawling Heaven next to his name. "This thing, this 'soul' that you speak of - that is no more real then you make it. It exists because you believe in it. There is no real 'soul' people are born with, like they are born with teeth. It is more of an intangible concept that will take you centuries to fully grasp.
"You are here because you belong to this Earth, are a thinking, conscious part of it. Because you do comprehend things, and because you are an intricate part of life. And you are judged not on what you are, whether you are clone or born-man, whether you are of one race or religion, or another, but whether you are bad or good. Honestly, you humans. Sometimes I think I should just print up a sign and stick it in front of my podium: 'Good people Heaven, Bad people Hell. Everything else you spend so much energy worrying about is immaterial, lines that humans have drawn, that no one else cares about. They borders of countries? They are not real. They are all in your mind, and that's a pity."
"But aren't concepts of good and bad also man-made?"
"Sometimes. But is murder, committed by one filled with hate, ever good? Is betrayal? Is rape? They are absolute cruelties."
"Isn't not believing in God one of those?"
She shrugged. "No. Who cares about God? I don't even know if he's real. Maybe you step through the Blinding and you're instantly back on Earth in the body of a cricket. Whatever the case, having belief does not matter. Often it is those who believe the strongest who end up in Hell, for they commit the most heinous of acts." She sighed, weary suddenly, weary of watching these people come and go with little notion of anything, starting conversations and having them become deeper and deeper until the speaker vanished through the Blinding and she had to start all over again with the next one. "Go on, then. You are a bitter and angry man, but you are not hateful. You are lucky you died now -"
"Lucky? I was murdered!"
"Yes, well, if you had lived many more years you would have been too corrupted by anger and misery to enter Heaven. So move along."
He looked at her, rather confounded, then nodded sharply. His strides towards the Blinding were firm and decisive, but even so, and though his back was to her, she felt the tears of relief that gathered in his eyes. Lucky man, she thought as he put his hands up against gates he had truly believed he would never be able to see, and she did not watch him enter. Instead, she beckoned the next forward, and her unending task began again.
"Am I dead?" the girl gasped.
"Yes," the Gatekeeper answered, not bothering to write the girl's name down. "But not for long."
"You'll be revived in what, in your time, is only three seconds. But for now, you are dead."
"Wow . . . So this is a near death experience?"
She rolled her head. "Yes, it would be, except I just told you you're dead, not near it."
The child looked around her, trying to soak it all in. "Will I be some sort of prophet? Going back after seeing -" her voice lowered dramatically, "the other side?"
"No," she was answered, irritably. "You won't remember a thing."
"Of course not," the Gatekeeper said, already looking for her next visitor. "You can't comprehend things of this magnitude on your plane. It simply does not compute. It's like a blind person trying to imagine color. You cannot do it."
"But what about the people who are always talking about white hallways and things?"
"This place is more then There - your world - and it leaves an imprint on you, on your consciousness. But you will not recall it. Oh, and the majority of them are fakes."
"Run along now," she said absently. "I have work to be done."
And, mouth gaping, the girl slowly dissolved, falling back into her world.
She closed her eyes, concentrating. The tight feeling consumed her, overwhelming all her senses, and washing away. She opened her eyes calmly, knowing somehow that they were blank, white. They always were now, she knew without knowing how she obtained that bit of information. Like much of her existence, it simply was.
She looked down at Gabriel Elliott, in possession of every part of his life. She swirled his name into her book before looking at him seriously. Gabriel Elliott was a deviant of the worse degree: a betrayer. There was a special circle of hell reserved for people like him, who traded in the confidences of their closest companions in return for gain. She frowned as the entirety of Gabriel Elliott's actions hit her.
"You were Paul's friend."
He scowled. "The Guardian of Heaven is on first name terms with my best friend?"
She was startled, if only because someone was talking to her, about a relationship she had. How long had it been since anyone had done that? How many years? Not since after all her friends from her earth days passed through. She could not remember how many years ago, what millennia they had now entered.
"You know what?" Gabriel Elliott said, and she smiled patronizingly, back on familiar footing. She certainly knew what. She always did. Humans were incredibly predictable. "You don't even exist." Her smile widened. There were very few satisfactions left other then being right. Luckily, she was right. Always. "I'm no Christian."
"Yes." She had been removed from There for so many years, and yet she still was influenced by a trace of her old sarcasm. These non-Christians, always needing to assert themselves. And the Christians, just as ridiculous, smiling at how right they were.
Didn't they know they were all right? And all wrong? Was it really not that simple to their eyes? She found it hard to believe they wanted to complicate it.
"So I shouldn't be here," Gabriel finished sullenly. She turned her attention back to him, not bothering to recall the wash of noise he had just spouted. It was all standard fare.
"You misunderstand where you are," she said patiently. Gabriel stood in an angry determine stance, and he was very young. The war had killed him before his time, and left him furious in the After. He would need the long explanation, and he would need to argue a while before he would be ready. She sighed, looking longingly towards the figure wandering behind him, an old women more than ready to walk through the Blinding. Then she refocused on the youth before her, who directed a mulish glare at her.
"This is not the afterlife."
"This is not any of the things humans have given name to, for you have no comprehension of what is beyond death." She leaned forward, this one part always very serious to her. "Could you? Could you, back There, have understood the here and now? Did you ever try to comprehend the After? Did it ever work? You called it death, and I know exactly what you came up with, Gabriel Elliott, because you have no secrets here. You saw what most people saw.
"A vast nothingness.
"You tried so hard to understand what would happen after you died, but you never believed in heaven. And so all you knew, really knew, was that once you were dead you would never exist again. Your conscience would be gone. There would be nothing left of it. You simply would not be there, no part of you, ever again. No mind or soul or anything. You would be absolutely nothing, never to exist again, never to think or see. You simply would not be.
"And it was terrifying."
He bowed his head. She doubted he knew he had, but her words were meant to strike at the core of people, and there were some reaction those new to the After all shared. They all looked down when her words struck them, when her intensity was caught, when they admitted they had thought that after their short life span, they would be nothing. The sentiment was frightening. She knew that. She could not remember the feeling, but she remembered that once, she too had been scared.
"This is nothing like what you expected," she said gently. "And it is strange, to feel almost like you are alive again, except you know you are not and you are suspended in a place and time that cannot possibly exist. It has become harder and harder for your kind to accept this over the years, as you exchange religion and mysticism for the hard, cold facts of science. It makes this passage harder. But it will become better - not easy, never easy not in There or in the After - but it will be better. You will be happy, and you will not be gone forever. There will be a place for you." She smiled softly, sending her words to him, letting them sink in. He was a strangely resistant youth, not taking the feelings, and it distressed her that he would only communicate with words instead of letting the emotions pass from person to person, resonating within each of them.
This boy just scowled. He may have accepted, being unable to fully hold out against the words of the Gatekeeper, but he was not satisfied. Not ever close.
"Yeah, well, your angelic saints might be happy with the oneness of life and beauty that you're offering, but I'm going to hell."
"In a handbasket?" she quipped
He stared at her.
"I suppose I am not allowed a sense of humor," she sighed, and gestured for him to continue. Blinking, a little less certain of himself - or perhaps, of her? - he did so.
"I don't care about how perfect heaven is if I never get there."
She studied Gabriel Elliott, trying to decide if she liked the stubborn, argumentative humans for the variety they offered, or if she strongly disliked them for the disruption in her time.
She suspected it was the latter.
"You will get to heaven," she continued.
"I don't believe in it."
After all this time, her white eyes could still roll. "I suppose you think you are unique in that?"
He did not even have enough grace to look ashamed, simply scowling.
"Everyone gets there eventually," she explained.
"But not before I spend painful centuries in Hell?" he said with narrowed eyes. "Who makes these decisions?" he challenged. "God?" he asked with a sardonic lift of one brow. "Because I don't think there's any one being - supreme, divine, all knowing - who should be allowed to decide Hell or Heaven for everyone on earth."
"But he can," the Gatekeeper said, a surge of emotion rising in her. It took a moment to identify it, a forgotten feeling - annoyance. This child was irritating her - her, the Gatekeeper! "It is because," she explained, "he, this 'God' you speak of, is not like us, is not like anything any human civilization has ever comprehended. I call him a 'he' for your sake, but there is no pronoun to capture this - no 'he' or 'she' or 'it.' Language does not encompass everything.
"But he's all powerful," Gabriel Elliott said stubbornly.
"In the way that nature is all powerful. No, no words apply. No words ever can." She was becoming frustrated as well, more emotions all at once then she had felt since she became Gatekeeper so very long ago. "Just pass, on, boy, and you will understand. All will be clear."
"And how do you know? You've been sitting at that podium for millenniums, but have you ever been in Heaven or Hell? How do you know anything? What right do you have to sentence me?"
"I know because I feel it," she hissed. Taking a breath, she pulled calm into herself. "I gather knowledge through my existence. It is my purpose."
"Your purpose," he sneered. "How ridiculous. If God's already decided what box to check off for every human in existence, then why don't we go directly to our destination? Why do we stop here? Because I know I don't want my afterlife to begin being pestered by some angel who looks younger than me."
"I am not an angel," she corrected automatically. And then, insulted, she pulled a bit of cloud from under he feet so he tripped. "And most people like me. I ease their way into the After."
He ignored her, fixating on his observation of before. "Why is it, that you look so young? Most people coming through here must be around one hundred and fifty when they die, and you look sixteen. This some weird part of God's humor?"
She blinked, and looked down at her hands, smooth hands, with unwrinkled skin. Had she actually been that young when she came here? She could not remember.
"And what do you mean, you're not an angel? What are you, then?"
"I am - I was a human, once," she said slowly. "A very long time ago."
"You're kidding, right?"
She shook her head.
She frowned. "Early twenty-first century."
He whistled. "Pretty well preserved for an ancient lady."
"I am not ancient!"
"What's your name?"
She furrowed her brow as she peered closer at him. "What?"
He looked amused. "You know, the thing they called you by."
"I don't . . . . remember." She shook her head to clear it. "But this has no bearing on anything. We should not be discussing my past, but your future. Other topics are wasted breath."
But what had her name been?
"You've forgotten your name?" he said, sounding appalled. He shook his head, and continued. "And you're stuck here, at these gates, for eternity. Bad deal. Sort of like Hell."
"It most certainly is not like Hell!"
"You aren't allowed into Heaven, are you?"
"This," she said through gritted teeth, "is about you, Gabriel Elliott. You have been judged, and you are awaited in the After."
"That is the point, isn't it? I'm awaited in the After. You aren't. You're stuck in limbo."
"Enough," the Gatekeeper said. She underlined the word Hell that followed Gabriel's name in her book. "You will leave now."
"I thought you were supposed to make me accept this, not anger me?" he said, looking far too smug.
"I - Elizabeth."
Gabriel Elliott looked confused.
"My name was Elizabeth. I was seventeen when I died." She frowned. "I can't believe I forgot that."
He looked at her consideringly. "Where were you going to end up?"
"I'm sorry?" She did not like asking questions to clarify what others meant. She was used to being the person with all the answers.
"Heaven or Hell. What box was your check made in?"
She blinked. "Heaven, of course."
But then she thought back - had it really been so long? Thousands of years, enough time for the world to look nothing like it once had, enough to have spoken to millions and millions, none of whom had ever spoken to her, had ever made her think. She had almost forgotten how to. She had almost stopped having any remnants of a human.
She had taken St. Peter's book, and the last name entered was not her's. She had never been written in this scroll she tended. "I'm not in here," she admitted. "I'm not down for anything."
"That's ridiculous. You've been cheated. Maybe the Powers that Be don't know that you're dead, since you're not in that stupid book, and so you're stuck in limbo."
She snorted. "That's ridiculous."
"I don't think so," he said stubbornly, and moved towards her, surprising her completely as he stepped up behind her podium, something no one had ever dared to do. No one had been here but the Gatekeeper, and her surprise kept her stunned.
"What are you doing?" she asked, appalled, as he picked up her quill.
"What you should have done long ago. I'm writing you in."
"You can't do that. You're not the Gatekeeper."
"Neither were you, once. Once you were human, just like me." He looked at her, seemingly puzzled, even sad. "Seventeen years old? Seventeen years of life, and then endless tedium?"
"It's not tedious," she protested. She hadn't thought it was.
Maybe once or twice, but she had been lonely. To be honest, she had been jealous of those who stepped through the Blinding. She was tired of standing in the white.
"There you go," Gabriel Elliott said. In dark, pointy script, so unlike her own, he had written her name, and a dash, and then: HEAVEN.
"Are you going to stay here as Gatekeeper?" she asked uncertainly, still not quite sure what was happening. "Because I'm not sure that's allowed. That any of this is allowed, actually."
He smiled at her, looking happy for the first time. "Break the rules for once, Elizabeth. It'll do you good."
"So you'll stay and be the gatekeeper?" she asserted. "Someone has to be."
He shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe I will. Maybe I'll walk through that funny looking gate, too. Or maybe I'll explore. Have you ever wondered what's in the rest of this place?"
He laughed. "I guess you wouldn't. But I do. I want to explore it."
Hesitantly, still not sure this was the right thing, she pulled out the slim key she had only touched once before. "I suppose this is yours, then."
He looked at the key, then looked back at her. "Throw it."
"Throw it as far as you can."
It made no sense. It wasn't how she was supposed to act. But somehow, she found herself pulling back her arm, and launching that little key as far into the whiteness as it would go. And she laughed.
Gabriel Elliott was watching her when she looked back at him, shaking his head. "Seventeen years old," he said again, in apparent shock, though he had only been a few years older. "Go on, then, Elizabeth. Step through your well-guarded gate. And who knows? Maybe I'll see you in Heaven one day."
She gave him a jerky nod, and moved away from her podium, moved across a broad expanse of soft cloud through white mist until she stood directly in front of the giant, blazing radiance. She clenched her fists and breathed in, and then a wave went through her and relaxed her entire body.
The Gatekeeper looked back at her podium, at her book and her quill, and at the boy smiling gently at her, the only gentle thing about him.
Then she looked in front of her, to the gates of heaven, and Elizabeth Teagan stepped through the Blinding.
All right, everyone. What did you think? Questions? Comments? Scenarios I should have included, but didn't, or did, but shouldn't have? Did you get anything from it? It was supposed to be a thinking piece, so please give me feedback on it. Anything and everything is welcome.