Opening the Portal
Luke and Sam have enjoyed sharing their favorite ghost stories, from Ocean Born Mary to the Cathouse and local legends in Luke and Sam's home state of New Hampshire. Luke is starting to think his sister isn't as much of a weirdo as their parents think she is, but that she's just like him: misunderstood.
Sam has a scrapbook open, pointing at various pictures. "This one I took in Mexico. This one I took in Vermont."
"This is wicked cool. I never knew my sister is a paranormal investigator."
"Yeah, but I haven't been able to get a writing gig for about three months now."
"Why? I thought you were with Para-X?"
"Too much competition. Everyone and their sister writes about the paranormal or is in a group now. The line of work in this field is getting very thin. I miss it when it was an actual interest and not just a fad like it is now."
"But you're a great writer and your photography is awesome. I mean, I look at websites that say 'This is a picture of a ghost' and it's just this little dot. I mean, you're getting faces, things that look like bodies. You're great at what you do."
They sit in silence for a little bit.
"Luke, I think I'm going to try to take a nap again. It's been a rough few days. Make yourself at home. I promise when I wake up we'll go and do something."
"I'm not much of a people person, but …"
"It's okay. We can just share more ghost stories." She smirks and stands up. "I'm glad you came over."
"Thankfully, I have a few tenants, so that's keeping my groceries here stocked. Help yourself to some food. There's a TV in the next room as well as a computer. But none of those websites you mentioned earlier."
"No promises," Luke laughs.
Sam smiles tiredly and walks out of the room. She goes to take a nap back downstairs and leaves Luke upstairs. She did say make himself at home, so Luke plans to do just that. He goes into her room, which has the TV and computer, but sees more pictures on a mantel. One picture, which is older, mid 90's perhaps, shows Sam and their parents in front of a fireplace back at home. She looks so sad, hopeless, and alone. He couldn't help but feel like it must be a curse ... put on by their parents!
He sees a book right next to him on a table. It says, The Afterlife Codex. He picks it up and takes his reading glasses out of his pants pocket. He takes an interest in the book right away. The first page is inscribed. Luke reads it out loud,
"'Dedicated to my love who I miss dreadfully. May you use the knowledge in this book and join me. Immediately on your arrival, destroy this book. For your protection, you must not be caught with it. The ritual herein violates the governing laws of the Afterlife and were we caught, would result in the ultimate destruction of our souls and we would cease to exist.'"
Luke shakes his head in confusion. 'What laws? What "Afterlife"?'
He flips through the book until he sees a weird symbol and stops.
"'The Symbol of the Dead,'" he reads out loud.
Instantly, Luke is startled by the sound of thunder and lightning illuminating the window behind him.
"Start reading a creepy book and that happens. Isn't that a bit cliché?" he wryly says to the window.
He continues to read aloud.
"'The Symbol of the Dead: Once a person dies, a portal opens to the Afterlife. If the deceased in spirit does not want to move on, the power of his or her emotions allows that spirit to avoid the portal and remain as a ghost in the Earth's dimension. But once through the portal into the Afterlife, it was generally accepted knowledge that one could not travel back to Earth. Furthermore, it was understood that a living person could not enter the Afterlife.
"'This is incorrect. The ritual explained here will show how to get into the Afterlife as a mortal being. Be warned, this is a violation of the governing laws of the Afterlife and mortals who attain a presence in the Afterlife are hunted down. The consequences can be the loss of one's eternal spirit.'"
Luke thinks to himself, 'It's just a book, right?' He continues to read out loud. "'Drawing the Symbol of the Dead grants the living access to the Afterlife. However, the ritual demands a sacrifice of the blood of the person performing this rite.'"
Luke looks over at the doorway.
"Sam?" he yells, but she doesn't answer. 'Must be still asleep', he thinks, before adding with a smile, 'good.'
After studying the techniques, Luke etches the symbol into the wood floor using a pocket knife he has in his possession.
"Sorry about the floor, Sam, but this is just too good to resist. Now for a little blood donation."
He raises his arm and puts the knife to his flesh. The idea of cutting himself was easier than doing it. He jabs lightly but does not break the skin. He tries a slicing motion, but still cannot bring himself to cut.
Slightly disgusted with himself, he gives up. 'What the hell,' he thinks. 'It's just a book.'
"Oh, screw this!"
He picks up the book to toss it away, but the book slides out of his hands and pages slice his skin.
He yelps, "Son of a bitch!"
A thin line of blood etched the cut. Looking down, Luke watches the carved symbol shimmer in the floor. The blood thickens and drips off his hand onto the middle of the symbol. One drop, two.
Luke instinctively turns his head toward the window. When he turns back, a white fog is arising from the symbol on the floor. Shock and delight make him laugh.
"Hey, Sam!" he calls downstairs.
"Yeah?" she answers, still half asleep, but curious about his excited call.
"Get up here. Quick!"
She gets up quickly and runs up the stairs.
"Something wrong?" she asks as she gets to the doorway. Then her expression darkens."Oh, my God. Luke, what did you do?"
"I did it! I opened a portal to the Afterlife. It's cool, isn't it? Let's go!"
"No! You don't know what you're dealing with yet. How'd you even do this?"
Luke ignores her question. "Come with me. We will check things out and …"
And he's sucked through the portal, down a black hole. Sam runs up to the mist and with a cracking sound the portal disappears. She lands on top of the symbol as the etching on the wooden floor begins to mend itself back to normal.
"Damn it, Luke!"
Luke didn't even realize he fell through the hole. His surroundings warped before his very eyes, making him sick to his stomach. The transition between being in one realm and traveling to the next was instant. After checking himself, it takes him a moment to realize that he is suddenly surrounded by countless numbers of other people. The place he's in is vast and seems endless, as well as the sea of people. There are all sorts of different types: Whites, Blacks, Latinos, people with holes in their chest, tire marks all over them, deep gashes, missing body parts and deformed faces. He looks up at a floating sign that says, "Welcome to the Afterlife."
Below the sign is what appears to be informational posters.
The first poster says, "You're Dead. Stay Calm. Everything Will Be Okay."
Another, a much lengthier one, answers some basic questions and says: "Greetings and welcome to the Afterlife Gateway. What is this place? Ah. That is the stumping question, isn't it? This is a processing center. Where we validate you and make sure you're on the list. The list? We have a list that updates in real time when someone dies. Don't worry, if you're here, you're on the list. The list never lies!"
"Oh, crap," Luke says. He's not supposed to be there. He's not on this list. What is going to happen to him?
"Can I help you?"
Luke turns and an elderly lady with a uniform on is standing behind him. She has a pin on her jacket that says, Clerk. She has a smile on her face and looks friendly.
"Sir, you look confused. Do you need assistance?"
"Uh … Yeah, what's going on here?"
"It's just a normal day in the Afterlife waiting room." She laughs. "It may be mistaken for Purgatory, but it's like a waiting room and the first stop for the recently deceased. The harsh truth is you're now dead. The good news is and it isn't the end of your journey. Your new and eternal life begins here in the Afterlife!" She says with excitement.
"What's going to happen to me?"
"All you have to do is read the information posters we have around here for your convenience and when you feel ready, go to the Gateway. Our friendly Processors will … well, process you, and you will begin your new life here in the Afterlife. If you have any family here, we can gather their information for you, and send you their way. Okay?"
"Sounds great," Luke smiles in a fake manner. Hoping the Clerk doesn't realize it.
"If you're having trouble adjusting to the Afterlife, we have Death Counselors. If you feel like you need help getting over the massive emotional struggle of your demise, you be sure to let me know, and I will retrieve one to help you."
"I will. Thanks."
"Did anyone die with you?"
"No. Why do you ask? Is someone looking for me?" Luke thinks of Sam. Did she make it?
"Not that we know of, sir. But if someone did die with you, then we would send our highly esteemed, Protectors, to retrieve your loved one. Is there any more questions, dear?"
"No. Thank you."
"Welcome to the Afterlife!" She vanishes in a flash and Luke sees her appear what seems like hundreds of feet away, assisting someone else.
Luke decides to look at some of these other posters the Clerk was referring to and finds one that Luke thinks is terms and what they are to Earth's equivalent. One says, "Guardians. The Afterlife's Police. Trust Them. They're Here to Protect You." Another says, "Protectors. The Afterlife's Special Forces. Our Only Hope Against Evil."
Luke thinks, 'Evil exists here too? I thought only the living knew how to be evil.'
The line to the Gateway finally moves and Luke follows the masses. When the line stops and Luke almost bumps into the person in front of him, he spots a large statue. It's giant in size. The statue is modeled after what Luke can only describe as … "That's one scary looking dude." His face is ancient, centuries old, but intimidating. A mean scowl on his face and fury in his eyes. The large plaque below says, "The Judge. Head of the Afterlife." Luke can't make out the scripture below because it's obscured by red lettering that reads, "FEAR HIM." A Clerk walks past, double taking at the red markings. He grimaces, snaps his fingers, and it changes back to normal. It now reads, "Our Leader."
Luke looks at some of the people who are around him. Some seem content and know they're dead. Others, however, are disoriented and afraid. He looks ahead of him and spots iron gates. On top of the iron gates are people all wearing the same uniform. Luke looks above the gates and spots another information poster.
"Please try to remember who you are when you reach the Gateway. We know death is disorienting, but if you can't remember your name, kindly step aside to let others through."
"Damn it!" Luke says, now knowing that if he says his name, he won't be on the list. 'Maybe there's more than one Luke Hawkins?' Luke thinks. 'But what are the chances of one who is actually dead being here?'
Luke hears a pleasant chime that breaks his train of thought. He sees green lights flashing and gates opening. A bright light shines on the other side of the gates once someone goes through. The line moves and he moves with it. He hears a scuffle not too far from him. Some lady is frantically screaming that she is not dead and this is a mistake. Two people, a man and a woman, wearing these gray uniforms with a patch on their arms, grab the woman and drag her away.
Luke, not realizing the line has stopped moving, bumps into one lady. He looks and is about to say sorry, but he sees that she has a nice bottom, but she turns around to reveal a face bombarded with pimples and boils. Her throat is slit from ear to ear in an open gash. She looks nuts, but thankfully is shackled. Two husky guards, wearing black, accompany her.
"What are you looking at, kid?" she sneers at him.
Luke had been appreciating her ass, but once she turned around, he was horrified.
"Nothing," he mumbles, looking away.
The line moves quickly and they are the next ones at the gate. The Gatekeeper peers down at the woman.
"Name?" he asks.
"Elizibella Troust," she growls.
'She's had to have done time', Luke thinks to himself.
The Gatekeeper looks at a file, and after a little search, he reaches a name. He doesn't look happy.
"Oh, tsk, tsk. You robbed a bank, ran from the police, held a few people hostage, and escaped with the money. You then went back to your house and …" He almost chuckles, but then coughs instead. "Killed yourself shaving … with a machete?"
A few laughs from the crowd of people. Troust scowls. "Did your mommy tell you it's not nice to pick on a lady? Or is she too busy selling herself in Hell?"
The Gatekeeper next to him gasps. "You going to take that?"
The first Gatekeeper simply smiles and explains, "Why, yes, and I'll exchange it for ... one hundred years of total damnation!"
He pulls a lever and a red light flashes with a terrible screech. A trap door drops open and Troust drops into a burning inferno. The trap door snaps shut. Suddenly, Luke doesn't think this was such a good idea.
"Name?" The Gatekeeper routinely asks Luke, without any further comment or reaction. Business as usual.
"Um ..." Still looking at the trap door, thinking he can still hear Troust's horrible screams, Luke can only stammer.
"That's simply a diversion, son," the Gatekeeper says. "There's no Hell, fire, or brimstone down there. Just a whole lot of nothing really. Basically, just a holding cell until they can take her to Grim Island."
"Ah." 'What is Grim Island?'
"Now son, all I need is your name. I realize that death is a shock to you, but just like everyone else, you need to tell me your name! Now go! Name?"
Luke answers automatically. "Luke Hawkins."
The Gatekeeper looks, and looks, and looks a little more. After what seems like forever to Luke, the man shakes his head.
"No Luke Hawkins … " The Gatekeeper then mumbles, "Maybe somebody screwed up again." Shrugging he starts to pull at the lever, the bad one.
Luke steps forward. "There has to be a Hawkins that died and that's me! Maybe I'm just knocked senseless by the sudden realization of my demise! Please. Check again."
Rechecking, the Gatekeeper says, "I have a Louis Hawkins."
Luke quickly responds. "Luke, Lucas, Louis, I'm all ... confused. Death isn't an easy trip." He wants the adventure to continue. But also doesn't want to experience what happens if they are to find out he is alive.
"Hmm, you don't look half bad for getting your skull caved in."
The Gatekeeper laughs. "Just kidding. You died of a heart attack."
Luke nods, laughs nervously, and silently thanks the real Louis Hawkins for letting him steal his name. The Gatekeeper pulls on the good lever. A green light turns on, the gates open, and a pleasant ding is heard. He walks through the gates and as soon as he does the scene around him changes from a cluttered, infinite scale waiting room to a street. Luke almost gets run over by a passing rickety old bus before someone pulls him to safety. Luke looks back and sees a man hunched over with a bent back, only one eyeball and rotten teeth.
"No problem!" the man says pleasantly. "Just because we're dead, still doesn't mean it doesn't hurt like hell!"
"I'll definitely keep that in mind."
The man nods and limps away.
As Luke walks the streets, there are all sorts of dead people around him. He can't believe it. He's actually in the land of the dead. They are all pretty nice though, saying "Hello, good day," and some speak other languages that really don't make sense to him, but he says "hi" regardless.
The buildings look odd to Luke: old stone buildings, some looking like cathedrals. Other buildings, definitely newer than the stone but still old, are wooden, rickety and tilt at funny angles with age. There are weird creatures in the sky, ghosts flying, and other oddities running around that look like they belong in a mythology book. Out of all the places he's seen, he hadn't yet seen a restaurant.
"Boy, I hope the dead still get hungry," he says to a rumbling stomach.
As if by some magic, a restaurant is right across the street. He crosses the street and goes into the restaurant, where he is met with a cloud of smoke ... cigarette smoke. He coughs and wheezes a little.
"Buck up, boy, or get out of here."
He peers through the smoke and barely sees a bartender running a dry cloth in a mug.
"I just wanted a drink or something to eat."
The bartender slides him a mug as Luke gets up onto a bar stool. He looks at the drink and grimaces.
"Seems a bit dirty, don't you think?" He asks disgustedly.
"Well, I forget its real name, but we call it Moldy Oldie."
"I'll just have a soda."
"Oh, attention everyone, we got a real heavyweight here. The boy wants a soda." He throws Luke a can of soda. "So, how'd you kick it, young one?"
"Excuse me?" Luke says, snatching the can and opening it.
"Died! Kicked the bucket! Put in your last request in the jukebox. You get my drift now?"
"Oh, I died of a heart attack."
"You? Blimey, you aren't even old."
"Don't even look sick."
"You sure are ugly, though."
Luke stops mid-sip. "What?"
The bartender shrugs. "I see what I see. Now bury that snout in your drink."
Luke drinks as he looks at the clock. It's dead. He looks at his watch. Also dead.
The bartender grumbles a sigh. "What now?"
"I just wanted to know what time it is."
"Time? Time doesn't mean much in here. I'm sure you just realized your watch is dead." Luke nods. "It's something to do with this dimension or some stupid thing. Get used to being dead, because you're in it for the long haul." Luke bites his lip and nods again. The bartender is reminded how young the kid is and finds a bit of kindness. "Hey look," he says, "if there's anything you need, let me know."
"Where's the bathroom?"
"Now, you're just taking advantage!" the bartender snaps back in a sharp shift.
Luke freezes and decides to look for the bathroom on his own. He finds it in the back and it's a dingy bathroom, as dark as a cave. There is a urinal though, which amazes Luke considering everyone is dead. As he does his business, he sees something written on the wall.
"'Need help adjusting to the Afterlife?'" he reads aloud. "'Come see the man who knows his way around a graveyard or two. Hell, my name even has to do with death!'"
Luke returns to the main bar room, apprehensive about asking the bartender a question, but he wants to know about what he just read.
"I was just reading your wall and was wondering who wrote that message about adjusting to the afterlife?"
The bartender's ever-present cranky expression melts away. He then looks around and motions Luke to come in closer so only they can hear each other.
"Now do yourself a favor there, lad. Stay away from him. That guy is nothing but a con artist. You wanna learn? There's a school called Grim Academy. They'll teach you everything you need to know about being dead. They'll even give you a purpose to live out for the rest of your existence."
'I don't need anyone to tell me what my purpose is,' Luke thinks to himself. 'And I've had all the school I ever want, life or afterlife.'
"What's his name, though? It didn't say," Luke persists.
"It's best you leave here not knowing. Now scat!" Luke grimaces at him but leaves as the bartender shouts, "Best of luck to you. You're going to need it."
Luke steps out of the establishment. He mumbles to himself, "Well, that wasn't pleasant. What now?" He looks down the street and decides to just keep walking. He's sure to find something else.
Meanwhile, back in Sam's apartment, she is etching another Symbol of the Dead into the wooden floor. It is more artistic than Luke's. Will it work the same? She hopes so. She takes Luke's knife and holds out her arm above the middle of the symbol. She runs the knife across her skin, cutting a small gash. As her blood drips, the symbol turns deep red, pales to white, then turns into ash as the floor caves in and she falls down another portal hole.
Unlike Luke's experience, which was instant, Sam's is a little more prolonged, but not by much. She sees her apartment warp to a fog so thick that she can't see her hands in front of her. Walking, with her hands as her guides, she feels the wooden floor of her apartment change under her feet to something soft and in some other areas, crunchy. The fog soon dissipates and she realizes she is not in the Big Apple anymore.
"Where am I?" She asks out loud as she looks into the deep, dark woods in front of her.
Fog still lingers on the ground, it reminds her of a morning frost back home, not New York home, but New Hampshire home. Cool air blows at her face gently, pleasantly. She feels relaxed, like nothing in this world could harm her. Walking to the forest's edge, she finds a trail. A rustling sound comes from the trees. She stops, holds her breath, but nothing appears. After a few moments, she begins to walk the trail again, hoping she'll reach whatever awaits her soon.