by Jonathan Arena
A man floats into pure white clouds and comes out the other side to a brilliant blue sky. He lands on his feet, standing on the same clouds he passed through. He looks at his hands, legs, chest, his entire body, and seems confused, like he expected something different.
Theo sits on a hovering chair behind a hovering desk looking upon the man. He adjusts his eyeglasses and surveys the large screen in front of him. He’s had a long day and his shift ends after this evaluation. Then he can go home. Home, sweet home.
“Is this—” the man begins to ask.
“Yes,” Theo interrupts. He hates that question. Not because it is a bad one, it’s the most logical, but because he’s just been asked it too many times. Everyone asks it. Sometimes more than once.
Columns and columns of information spread across the screen. It begins with the man’s birth and sorts through his entire life history. All the data, absolutely everything. Certain events are highlighted. Theo speeds through them.
The screen calculates the verdict. It does not take long. Gatekeepers can override it but only in special cases. And nowadays, overriding is highly frowned upon. New policies prohibit most of it. Tons of paperwork if you do. Tons of scrutiny from management too. Some have even been fired over it.
“Dwayne Richardson,” Theo reads from the screen. “Age forty-three. Cause of death: stabbed—by an eleven-year-old girl.” He looks to the man standing before him. An unusual death to say the least. “Twenty-nine times in the neck and chest?”
“That bitch—” the man mumbles under his breath.
“I didn’t deserve that. I was a decent man. I provided.”
“Well, let’s see,” Theo reads more. “Your childhood looks normal. Father was an alcoholic, but who’s wasn’t back then? So naturally, you became an alcoholic by age seventeen. Able to keep your nose relatively clean with the law, that’s good. Married, divorced, married again. The second one was for the last three years. She was previously married too and had a young daughter. Eleven years old.”
Theo looks from the screen and finds the man’s eyes. They lock and never let go. The discontent he had for the man quickly turns to anger and disgust. Theo can see the guilt from where he sits. The man reeks of it.
“That’s where it gets bad, Dwayne. Very bad.”
The man hangs his head in shame. He knows he’s guilty. He knows he doesn’t deserve to go to Heaven. Theo slams a gavel onto the desk and the man drops through the clouds and falls below. He is sentenced to Hell.
Theo looks to his watch. The end of his shift. He goes to sign off from the screen but another death is loaded and appears before he can cancel. A young girl floats through the clouds and stands in front of his desk. Dwayne Richardson was supposed to be the last in his queue. His shift is supposed to be over. He was not supposed to get any more deaths.
What the Hell?
The girl bounces up and down on the soft cloud and giggles. It’s nearly contagious, but Theo frowns harder to fight it off. He hates when children end up in his queue. He always seems to get all the young ones. He had wanted a daughter so much when he was alive. Most men wanted boys, but he wanted a daughter. He and his wife failed to bring either into the world.
“Hello, mister,” she says.
“Hello.” He watches her life information take over the screen. It’s short, only eleven years. Killed by shotgun.
Mary Rose is her name. To say her life was turbulent is an understatement. Drug-addicted mother, new school every year, a revolving door of men in her mother’s life.
Theo looks at the young girl and fixes his glasses. She murdered a man right at the end of her short life. She stabbed her stepfather with a knife twenty-nine times. He cannot believe it.
The screen tells him murder is always a Hell sentence unless in warfare or self-defense. You shall not murder. It’s one of the commandments. Dishonoring a commandment will always send you to Hell except for those two special occasions. But is her case included in self-defense? Dwayne was asleep on the couch when she killed him. That’s the kicker. He was doing nothing to her in the moment, and the policies are clear about that.
The screen delivers the verdict that this deserves a Hell sentence. Age is no factor.
Theo shakes his head. Murder is never the answer, but he cannot blame her for what she did. He would want his hypothetical daughter to do the same in her shoes. Ridding the world of a man like that should not be a hard decision.
And her own death came one minute and forty-two seconds after her stepfather took his last breath. Twelve-gauge buckshot spread across her face and killed her instantly.
Her mother pulled the trigger.
“Hi.” She scares the shit out of him. He hadn’t heard her approach his desk. She stands right next to him, eyes wide and staring, as children do.
“Hi.” Theo forces a smile. He’s a little scared in her presence. She did just stab a man twenty-nine times. And now look at her. She seems like any other happy eleven-year-old girl.
“Is this Heaven?” she asks.
Theo nods. That question again.
“I knew it! I knew God would understand. He deserved it.”
“He will never be my stepfather,” she says with furrowed brows, then relaxes her face and smiles out of nowhere. “I bet he’s in Hell now. He is going to burn for eternity. Right? Isn’t that what happens?”
“Hell is a cold, dark place, so no burning. Eternity though, yes.”
“And you’re the Gatekeeper of Heaven?” she asks, smile growing by the word.
“Well, sort of. There are a lot of gatekeepers, and we all work different gates, like an airport. Over a hundred of us across all shifts now. Lots of folk dying these days. But it’s just a job, you know. Pays the bills.”
“Just a job? You get to welcome people to Heaven for a job! That’s amazing!”
“Well, the hours are long. Break room is small. And there’s not exactly a retirement age.”
“May I welcome the next person with you?”
“No, my shift is over.” He looks back over to the screen. “No more welcoming today. And to be honest, there isn’t much welcoming these days.”
“What do you mean?”
“The new policies are very strict. Heaven has never been so hard to get into, and to be honest, humanity isn’t looking great right now either.”
Theo decides the case of Mary Rose was self-defense. Therefore, it follows the new policies, and there are no exceptions to the policies. They must be followed. He slams the gavel and Mary Rose does not fall through the clouds. She is sentenced to Heaven. She wraps her arms around Theo with all her strength. Her warmth spreads through his body and he smiles and hugs her back.
A woman floats from the clouds and stands before the desk.
“Oh, come on!” Theo says. Another death snuck in before he could sign off. His shift is supposed to be over. To top it off, he doesn’t even get overtime pay this week since he called out sick on Tuesday.
The woman is crying and falls to her knees. She buries her face in her hands as tears flow between her fingers.
Mary Rose peers around the desk at the woman.
Their eyes meet.
“Oh baby!” The woman rushes over to her and lays kiss after kiss on her forehead, cheek, nose. “I’m so sorry, baby! Forgive me! Please forgive me!”
The woman’s information falls down the screen like a curtain. Rachel McNeil. Thirty-seven years old. Married, divorced, married again. Mother of an eleven-year-old daughter.
Theo reads further. He needs to know.
Rachel heard the commotion from the other room and thought the worst. She grabbed Dwayne’s shotgun that rested on the wall. It was loaded. She rushed into the living room to see her bloodied daughter standing over a stabbed-up corpse—her husband.
Her finger reacted. One shot fired. She screamed.
Theo breathes again. The gunshot was accidental.
Rachel stared at the two bodies in the living room for quite some time before moving again. Her Mary Rose did this. Why would she do this? She was always so sweet.
Then it hit her, and it hit her hard. The little details suddenly pieced themselves together to make a whole. Her spine shivered as the idea flooded her mind, her every sense. It was difficult to breathe. She couldn’t live on.
Theo glances at the mother and daughter beside him. They embrace and cry on each other’s shoulders.
“I’m so sorry,” her mother weeps. “I had no idea.”
Mary Rose cries harder. The way the two bodies form around each other seems surreal to Theo. Love binds them and appears to relieve some of the pain.
But there’s a lot more to Rachel’s story. Five misdemeanors, one felony. She spent a total of thirteen months in prison on three different occasions. But all of that was before she gave birth to Mary Rose. She cleaned up her act after having a baby, only two relapses. She became a better person, but still struggled to attract a decent man. She started to settle.
The screen highlights particular life events from Rachel. She has many offenses to her name. She helped a friend overdose. She did everything for him. Figured the dosage, set it all up, then did it with him. He overdosed. She did not.
Theo looks away from the screen. Rachel and Mary Rose remain tightly bound together. Tears spill from eyes and snot runs from noses.
“I love you so much, baby,” Rachel says.
“I love you too, Mommy.”
Theo keeps reading.
Rachel was directly involved in another death. Drunk driving in high school. Her best friend in the passenger seat died instantly. That was the primer to the rest of her life, but the end was the worst of all.
Kills daughter with shotgun. Kills self with shotgun.
The screen suggests a Hell sentence for Rachel McNeil. Demands it. The new policies are crystal clear about who is allowed and who is not allowed into Heaven. The policies allow no room for exceptions and must be followed. Suicide is especially clear.
Theo remembered his wife and her many problems on Earth. He loved her despite all of it. They were married for forty-seven years, but he died first. He applied to this job in hopes of welcoming her. He dreamed about it. Fantasized about it.
But it’s been sixty-four years.
He must accept it.
She will not be joining him in the clouds.
Theo reviews Rachel’s good qualities once again. Loving mother, no drugs for six years, faithful wife. She grew and developed as the years went on. She always strove to be a better person. She was a better person.
Mary Rose breaks from her mother’s embrace and looks at Theo. She wipes her eyes and nose and her cute smile returns.
“This is my new friend,” she says, pointing at him. “But I never got your name, mister.”
“It’s Theo,” he says and shakes Rachel’s trembling hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“You as well,” Rachel says. “Thank you so much. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“Bringing us together. Welcoming us to Heaven.”
He smiles faintly and glances at the screen. It flashes with the verdict. Rachel needs to be sentenced to Hell. No exceptions.
“Are you an angel?” Rachel asks. The glimmer of a smile emerges on her face.
Theo chuckles. “No, no, I’m just a regular guy. Who died. And this is just a job.”
“Just a job?” she asks with blanketing confusion. “You get to welcome people to Heaven! How amazing is that?”
Theo laughs for real this time. Like mother like daughter. He gazes upon the two of them with a genuine smile. Love radiates from their souls and he can feel it. How can he possibly separate them? How can he sentence her to Hell?
Mary Rose glances at the screen and the smile vanishes from her face. She gestures to her mother. Rachel gasps in horror.
All eyes on Theo. Silence lingers in the air like a dark cloud.
He slams the gavel down with authority. His authority.
Rachel remains above the clouds just like Mary Rose. She is sentenced to Heaven. Another smile and kiss between the mother and daughter.
Another beautiful moment.
Theo finally signs off from the screen. Thank God! His shift is over. He takes a deep breath and gathers his belongings for the last time. All of this will surely get him fired but he is okay with that. Relieved, actually.
“Well.” Mary Rose slips her hand into Theo’s and flashes a smile impossible to say no to, “Aren’t you going to show us around?”
From Rise: An Anthology of Change