“Get the paddles!”
I remembered falling. It was nice at first. The air rushing past me as the butterflies in my stomach multiplied with each passing second.
Then, there was the screaming. Not from my mouth, but from the pedestrians below, scrambling to run away from the landing zone. Some to get help, others to avoid blood splatter at all costs.
It wasn’t until the last second, just before hitting the pavement, that the shock wore off and I realized what had happened. I was on the twelfth floor balcony of a hotel in town, enjoying the view when the railing gave way, crumbling beneath my grip. There was no chance of avoiding the descent.
They say your life flashes before your eyes when you’re about to die. I wouldn’t go that far, but I understand the sentiment. In my final moments, there on the operating table, I thought of them. The most important facets of my life. My wife and daughter.
“His pulse keeps dropping!”
I would never get to see Leslie grow up. Never get to teach her how to drive or walk her down the aisle at her wedding. And Charlotte; we had our issues – that’s why I was staying at the hotel in the first place – but we knew it was a forever deal from the start. Now, that forever was over. Cut short by a building code violation, of all things.
“One more! CLEAR!”
As my vision wavered, I saw something in the corner of the room. Not a something, but a someone. A man in turn of the century attire, leaning against the wall with a cane at his side. No one paid him any mind. He simply stood there and smiled.
“We’re losing him!”
As I took my last breath, the man in the corner said something. In its battered state, my brain couldn’t comprehend the message. Looking back, I now know what it was.
See you on the other side, Jack.
Some say after kicking the bucket there isn’t anything. Your brain dies and your soul along with it. With no further capacity for consciousness, your mind cannot carry on past your body’s expiration. I can tell you from experience, this is not the case. Between the operating room and the hereafter, there wasn’t so much as a second of nothingness. No lapse in thought whatsoever. One minute I was in the hospital, the next I was in the afterlife; as seamless as a pawn progressing to its next square.
At first, I couldn’t see anything. There was an overwhelming brightness flooding my field of view.
“It’s alright. Your eyes will adjust. Give it a moment.”
After a few seconds, the scene came into focus. I was seated at a table in the center of a plain, white room with no windows or doors to speak of. Sitting across from me was the strange man from the hospital.
“Where am I?” I asked.
“Why this is heaven, of course!” He said, proudly.
“Heaven? So I’m… dead?”
He let out an apologetic sigh.
“Yes. You’ve ridden your train as far as it could go. End of the line, Jack.”
He offered condolences in the form of a concerned look, complete with an awkward frown.
“Who are you supposed to be, then? An angel?”
“Not just any angel, Jack. I’m your angel. Assigned to you since your birth.”
“Assigned to me? What does that mean, exactly? Were you watching over me? Protecting me?”
His boisterous laughter filled the room and echoed off the walls.
“Watching over you, sure. Protecting you? Quite the contrary. I’m the one who loosened that railing and sent you spiraling to the ground.”
My heart sank.
“What?! You killed me?! Why?”
“Honestly, Jack? To get it over with.”
My wife and daughter were now alone out there in the world. With that terrible thought in mind, I stood up and slammed my fists onto the table.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!”
His face turned sour. It wasn’t likely that very many people talked to him that way.
“Sit down. Now!”
He raised and lowered his hand in one fluid motion and I was seated again, against my will. He then stood up and leaned in as far as the table between us would allow.
“Here’s how things work, Jack. When you die, your angel takes over. They possess your meat suit and get an equal share of time on earth. If you lived for thirty years, the angel rides you for thirty more and experiences life outside of these white walls. The longer we wait, the more time we get, but some of us are impatient. Yours truly, for instance.”
I tried to respond, but no words came out. It seemed the power pinning me in place was also keeping me quiet.
“Life here – it’s insufferable. Rules and order. The same miserable goings-on day in and day out. I can’t take another minute of it. That’s why I pulled the plug early. I can visit earth whenever I want and even manipulate events to my liking, but it’s not the same. With a vessel, I can finally be seen and touched. I can experience human interaction and all of the pleasures therein – sex, love, hunger, ambition. Things I’ve never felt before. I need this, Jack. More than you know.”
He backed away and sat down. Whatever hold he had over me was then released, allowing me to speak again.
“So this is it? My life’s over and you take the wheel? I don’t get a say in this at all?”
He let out a sigh of disappointment.
“Actually, you do. Every soul is given two options.”
He snapped his finger and a pair of documents appeared on the table, along with a silver pen.
“First option. Authorize my claim of ownership over your body and join me on earth. You will have no control over our actions, but will at least get to experience life again, in some small way. My turn to play, your turn to watch.”
That didn’t sound like an attractive option.
“What’s my other choice?”
“Second option. Get thrown in the fragmenter with all of the other lost souls. You will be torn apart, reassembled, and torn apart again. It will take thousands of years before you are completely obliterated and allowed to rest.”
That wasn’t exactly ideal either.
“If I choose the first option, what happens after your time is up?”
“I come back to heaven and get assigned a new case, and you’re thrown in the fragmenter anyway. It’s a buffer, really. A period of time in which you can brace yourself for the inevitable.”
I couldn’t believe it. Heaven. It was supposed to be your final resting place. Somewhere you could exist in peace after death. At least, that’s how it was always depicted in books and movies. In truth, it was a nightmare.
“I’m dreaming, right? In a coma at the hospital, dreaming about what comes after. None of this is real. It can’t be.”
The man chuckled.
“Oh, it’s real, Jack. Here, let me show you.”
He reached across the table and placed a hand on my forehead. All at once, we were transported to the hospital, standing over my corpse as the doctors left the room.
“What is this? What’s happening?”
“Calm down, Jack. It’s called projected travel. We’re still up there – this is just a glimpse of what’s happening down on earth.”
Charlotte walked in, tears streaming down her face.
“She can’t hear you, Jack.”
One of the doctors put a hand on her shoulder.
“I’m so sorry. I can give you a minute, but we really need to clear the room.”
She ran to my side, now sobbing uncontrollably, and placed her head on me.
“Why did you leave, Jack. Why?”
I reached out to touch her, but my hand went right through.
“It’s all my fault. We never should have fought. You should have been home, with us.”
I wanted so badly to tell Charlotte she wasn’t to blame for any of this. To hold her and say it would all be okay, but I couldn’t, and that killed me inside.
“We still need you, Jack. Come back to us.”
I turned to the man, now crying myself.
“I’ve seen enough. Take us back. Now.”
He snapped his fingers and we were back in heaven, seated across from one another at the table.
“So, what’ll it be, Jack? Endless torment, or some more time on earth and then endless torment? Personally, I’m partial to the latter.”
I didn’t like either option, but it was now abundantly clear which one to choose.
“I’ll take the fragmenter. It’s the only thing that will destroy the sorrow I’m feeling, even it does take thousands of years. If I’m going there either way, I might as well get it over with.”
I grabbed the pen and began signing the appropriate contract. The man pulled my hand away.
“Don’t be so impulsive, Jack. We have time. Think it over a bit. Tell you what, I’ll even let you see your family from time to time. We can check in on them, if you want.”
“That’s even more of a reason to choose the fragmenter. I don’t want them ever seeing you in my body.”
He looked absolutely devastated. I took my hand back and continued signing.
“No. I can’t let you do this, Jack.”
Before I could get to the last signature block, the man ripped the paper out from underneath the pen.
“What are you doing? I made my choice. I accept my fate.”
“No. I’m not staying here, Jack. I can’t sit through another person’s life. You’re going to let me in whether you like it or not.”
His eyes turned black and his mouth opened up, revealing a set of razor-sharp teeth. Before I could react to the transformation, I was pushed up against the wall by an unseen force. He leapt over the table, grabbed me by the neck, and ran his hand down my arm. His now dagger-like nails caressed my skin, just enough to reveal slivers of red beneath the surface.
“Sign the deal or I’ll fragment you myself, piece by piece. I think you’ll find that I can be very creative when it comes to methods of torture. There are far worse fates than death, and I can assure you, I’m the worst one of all.”
His breath was toxic. Putrid fumes spilling out of his mouth and climbing into mine, creating a cancerous taste on my tongue that made me want to vomit. If this was a preview of things to come, there was no doubt in my mind he was telling the truth. Regardless, I stood my ground.
“No. I choose this over letting you in. You can rot here with me!”
He growled and tossed me across the room. I fell to the floor like a ragdoll.
“Plan B then!”
A snap of his fingers and he was gone, replaced with an old film projector that now rested on the table. As I stood up, it powered on, projecting a scene onto the wall ahead.
It was Charlotte and Leslie on the drive home from the hospital.
Charlotte looked to Leslie through the rear-view mirror, crying, but trying her best to hold it in.
“Daddy’s… not with us anymore, Sweetie.”
Leslie tilted her head, confused.
“Where is he?”
Charlotte wiped some of her tears away, though they were quickly replaced with more.
“He’s in a better place now.”
If only she knew.
“When will he be home?”
Charlotte couldn’t hold back anymore. She was now sobbing.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?”
She couldn’t answer right away, barely able to catch her breath while crying.
“Leslie, Sweetie. Daddy’s not with us anymore, okay? I’m so sorry, but he’s gone. He’s never coming back to us.”
She continued to sob while Leslie put the pieces together.
“No. He can’t be gone. No. Not Daddy.”
My little girl began crying and my heart shattered into a million pieces. Charlotte reached back and held her hand as tightly as she could. They were in so much pain, and I couldn’t lift a finger to help them.
I turned away. It was too much.
“Is this your big plan? Emotional torture? I’m still not saying yes to you! You hear me?”
There was a brief period of silence followed by a voice from behind.
“Look again, Jack.”
I turned back and saw him. Not in the room with me, no. He was in the projection, sitting in the passenger’s seat next to my wife, waving back at me. She didn’t seem to notice him at all.
“What the hell are you doing?!”
His lips contorted into a wicked grin.
“Watch this, Jack.”
He grabbed the steering wheel and jostled it back and forth. Charlotte did her best to gain control, but the car was swerving all over the place.
“No! Stop it!”
He released the wheel and looked back at me.
“Agree to my terms, or they die. Which will it be?”
My heart was pounding, fear nestled in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t want to give in, but I no longer had a choice in the matter. Letting him take my flesh for a joyride was a small price to pay for my family’s safety.
“Fine. I’ll do it.”
“Good choice, Jack.”
Another snap of his fingers and he returned, the projector now gone. He held out the paper and pen to me, undoubtedly anxious to claim his prize.
As I looked over the contract, I noticed the structure of the final signature block. In addition to my and the angel’s signatures, an “Overseer” was required to sign.
“Who’s the Overseer? Is that your boss?” I asked.
“Nothing you need to worry about. Now sign!”
It was probably nothing, but I was curious.
“Well it says here the Overseer needs to witness the signing.”
He flinched every time I uttered that word.
“He will! The moment the pen touches the page, he see’s what you see. Now sign it already!”
An idea came to mind. It was a long shot, but definitely worth trying before handing over my body once and for all.
“The moment the pen touches the page, eh?”
He nodded but snarled in the process, full to the brim with impatience and disdain. This would be my one and only chance. It was now or never.
“SIGN NOW, JACK!”
I put the pen to the dotted line, but didn’t jot down my signature. Instead, I scribbled out a message of three words:
OVERSEER COME HELP
The man grabbed the page and examined it.
“You son of a bitch!”
He reached out to grab me, but his arm was pulled away. There was now another man standing at his side.
“Overseer! I’m sorry, I-“
With a wave of his hand, the Overseer brought the man to his knees and erased his mouth all together. He then fell flat on the floor and writhed in pain. Without any audible indication of discomfort, the sight was somehow even more disturbing.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and took a step back, hoping I hadn’t just submitted myself to a similar fate.
“Okay, Jack. What is it you need?”
I took a single preparatory breath and made my plea.
“Are there any other options for me?”
“No. Fragmenter or vessel.”
All of his responses were sparse and final; clearly not the kind to mince words or beat around the bush.
“Okay. That brings me to my next question. Having no knowledge of your customs or laws, I was just wondering if this angel’s behavior was, for all intents and purposes… sanctioned?”
“Behavior?” He asked.
“Yes. You see, he killed me and then coerced me into signing over my body by threatening my family’s lives. Is that the sort of thing that’s allowed here?”
His brows curled as he turned to the man on the floor.
With another wave of his hand, he released him.
“Is what this human says true?”
The man remained on the floor, not yet recovered from the pain. With no mouth, he simply shook his head to deny my claims.
“Fine, I’ll see for myself.”
The Overseer’s eyes glowed blue as he reached down and held a hand to the man’s head. After a minute or so, the light in his eyes faded, and he turned to me.
“It seems you were telling the truth.”
His eyes then glowed red as he placed his hand back on the man, who now looked terrified, squirming in an attempt to flee. It was no use. In a fraction of a second, his body was eviscerated; turned to a pile of ash before my eyes.
He walked over to me and I backed into the wall.
“No! No, please!”
He placed his hand over my heart.
“Time to set things right, Jack. This might burn a little.”
He was right. It was a fiery sensation that soon permeated my whole body. Then, just as I couldn’t take anymore, a beam of light shot through the floor and enveloped me. Soon after, I lost consciousness.
As far as I could tell, I was done for.
I sprung to life on the operating table, my lungs taking in as much air as they could in one breath. An orderly was nearby, cleaning up. Thoroughly startled, he nearly fell over onto the floor.
“Oh my god! You’re alive!”
He ran to the door and called out for help. Soon enough, a slew of doctors entered the room, astonished to see me breathing again. One of them, completely awestruck, pointed down at my chest.
“That mark. It wasn’t there before.”
Everyone in the room was looking at it. A hand-shaped burn on my chest, right where the Overseer touched me.
One of the nurses chimed in.
“Well I’ll be damned.”
They all scrambled to change my fluids and check my vitals. Other than the burn, there was nothing wrong with me. My injuries had healed with no medical explanation. As such, I was released shortly after with a remarkably clean bill of health; in better shape than I was before impact. As far as the doctors were concerned, it was a miracle.
I tried calling Charlotte from the hospital’s landline a dozen times, but there was no answer. It was my guess that she was too grief-stricken to be bothered by her phone. With no car or anyone else to call for a ride, one of the doctors agreed to bring me home after his shift.
I couldn’t wait to see my family again.
After all was said and done, I arrived home around midnight.
“Thanks, Doc. I really appreciate this.”
“Don’t thank me. I’m not the one who saved your life. You must have an angel up there looking out for you.”
I got out of the car and looked back at him before closing the door.
“God, I sure hope not.”
The doctor drove off and I ran inside, excited to share the good news and take away all the tears shed in my name.
“Charlotte! Leslie! I’m home!”
After turning the corner into the living room, I saw Charlotte, sitting by herself on the sofa.
“Honey, I’m here! I’m still here!”
She remained motionless and silent.
“Honey? Are you okay? Where’s Leslie?”
She turned to me and, with the most stoic expression, offered me three words that cut my heart in two.
“Leslie’s dead, Jack.”
The room started spinning. Anguish overcame me as I fell onto the couch next to her.
“No… it can’t be… how…”
As the tears wet my face, I noticed that Charlotte didn’t appear to be sad.
“Charlotte, why aren’t you crying? What happened?”
Her face lacked any and all emotion.
“There was a car accident on the way home from the hospital.”
Just then, Leslie came down the stairs and sat next to her mother.
“Leslie! My little girl! You’re okay!”
I reached for her, but Charlotte pushed my hand away.
“They didn’t make it. We just wanted to see the man the Overseer saved. Now that we have, we can leave.”
They stood up and headed for the door. That’s when it sank in. The dread. The heartache. The realization.
Charlotte turned around before leaving the room.
“Your wife signed a deal for the both of them. Their bodies belong to us now.”
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