“Wake up now! We’re on a schedule, you know.”
Shed-yewl? What? Was his mother watching Downton Abbey again?
Brian opened his eyes. He was definitely not in his living room at his parent’s house and that wasn’t the TV. The first thing he noticed was the light. He was in a room that was entirely white and it was filled with the most indescribable light. It was cool in color like frost, but it sank into him with an oozing warmth like the perfect sunlight on a perfect beach. He smiled, drinking it in. With a content sigh, he gently closed his eyes.
“Now! Wake up!”
A bit annoyed, Brian opened his eyes and looked around. He was standing in a large, round space with a white floor. There were risers on all sides, like at a stadium, but they rose into a brightness so dense he could only sense vague silhouettes. There was a crowd of thousands watching him, or it felt that way. There was a high desk in front of him and a towering apparatus that was all gleaming metal and numbers.
Brian found his voice. “What? Where am I?”
A man peered down at him from the desk. He had thick white hair worn a bit long, but his face didn’t look old. His blue eyes were sharp, impatient, and ferociously intimidating.
“Pay attention,” the man said. “In short: you are dead. Your lifetime as Brian Scott Matheson has come to an end.”
Wow, this was some crazy dream. Brian shook his head. It felt strangely loose, like the tension he normally carried in his neck from an old softball injury was gone. He held out his arms—they were… glowing.
“Whoa,” Brian said. That must have been one hell of a party.
“You’re not high and this is not a dream,” the man said perfunctorily. “It was a car accident. In the vain hope of saving time: watch.”
The man snapped his fingers impatiently and a semitransparent screen appeared in front of Brian from out of nowhere. On the screen he saw his car, a 1984 gray Mustang with a blue racing stripe, driving down a surface street near campus. He was going a bit fast, as usual. The day was cold and it was sleeting. A vague memory tickled. On my way to the liquor store for beer. Early Halloween party at the house tonight.
Brian watched as he tried to brake at a stop sign and hit ice. His car slid into a busy road in slow motion. He saw himself fighting the wheel, panic on his face. A semitruck roared toward him, horn blaring. It was like a scene out of an action movie—an action movie that really, really sucked.
“No,” Brian whispered. Fear tingled up his spine.
The truck hit the Mustang, plowing into the driver’s side head on. There were low moans and sounds of sympathy from the invisible peanut gallery in the stands.
Fuck. Gotta be dreaming. That did not happen. This is a nightmare. Wake up, Brian! Any second now I’ll wake up and be sooo relieved. And I’ll never, ever drive fast again. Swear to God. Subconscious fears duly acknowledged; behavior amended.
The cold stone of dread in his stomach, however, whispered, too late.
The man at the desk snapped his fingers and the screen vanished. “Not pleasant to review, I know, but unfortunately we don’t have time to ease you into it.” He spoke coldly, and so quickly Brian could barely keep up. “You died on January twenty-fourth at the age of nineteen. This is your judgment. Now please, step onto the scale.”
Judgment? Scale? What?
Please, please let me wake up.
A short, older man with bushy dark hair, eyebrows like caterpillars, and a craggy face appeared suddenly on Brian’s right. “I’m Brutus. Allow me.” He gently took Brian’s elbow and guided him forward.
The apparatus had a flat metal stand, something like a large doctor’s scale, and a gleaming steel post that ran up to a white readout. The readout flickered and a circle appeared. It looked like a pie chart with a gold area that took up more than three-quarters of the circle, then a section of bright red.
“Go ahead. Step up,” Brutus urged with a smile of sympathy. Brian was not reassured.
He stepped onto the scale. An arrow began to climb its way around the circle clockwise, from six o’clock up to nine, then twelve. There were murmurs of expectation from the peanut gallery that grew more and more anxious the higher the arrow climbed.
Brian had no clue what he was looking at, but he felt his anxiety climbing along with the crowd’s. What if this wasn’t a dream? If he really were dead, this was important, right? And red couldn’t be good, could it?
Round and round the arrow inched, one o’clock, two, three. Now it was getting close to the red area. Slower. Slower. Ding! The arrow stopped. It appeared to be right on the line between gold and red. Above the circle a word flashed: “LIMBO.” The invisible crowd murmured and gasped in surprise.
“What does that mean?” Brian asked Brutus anxiously. “Is that bad?”
Brutus nodded toward the man at the desk.
The white-haired judge spoke in a droll voice. “Oh, goodie. Another one.”
“What is it? What’s happening?”
“You’re in the gray zone. You’re fortunate that truck came along when it did. At the rate you were going, a few more days and you would have been as crimson as a Sahara sunrise.”
Brian squinted hard at the circle. There was, indeed, a tiny sliver of gray between the gold and the red and that’s where the arrow sat. “What happens when you’re in the red?”
The man at the desk didn’t blink, but suddenly the floor opened up near Brian, sliding back an invisible trap door. From below, flames and firelight flickered up. There was a horrible smell like rotten eggs and there were the most hideous sounds—screaming and wailing and what sounded like bones crunching and….
“Oh, my God,” Brian whispered, terrified.
“The name is Peter,” the man replied with a cold smile. “But I’ll pass your invocation along.”
The trapdoor slid shut and instantly the smell, and the sounds, vanished as if they’d never been.
“Are you saying I could have gone to hell?”
“You are in the gray zone,” Peter said distinctly, not answering the question. “That means you get one last chance to redeem yourself. You need a certain volume of good deeds to push yourself back into the gold. Should you fail to achieve that in the time allotted, you will be in the red. Do you accept this challenge, or do you wish to forfeit? If you forfeit you take the red now.”
Brian felt his mouth hanging open. He tried to summon a coherent thought beyond sheer panic. “But what if I can’t do it? How does it—”
“Yes or no! Decide!” Peter barked.
“Y-yes. The challenge. The not-red option. Just tell me what to do. I’ll do anything!”
“Excellent choice,” Peter said crisply. He raised his fingers.
Instantly, Brian was somewhere else. It was a much smaller room, all white, with a white couch made of something shiny like vinyl. Brutus had come along and he didn’t seem at all alarmed at the quick change. He smiled amiably and stared off into space. Brian felt a little woozy and decided to sit down. No refreshments were offered. Maybe Brian’s body—if it could be called that—didn’t need any.
He took stock. Unfortunately, he was starting to feel certain this wasn’t a dream. He would have expected to be a lot more horrified by that than he was—because, like, dead. Being dead was pretty much the worst thing that could happen to anyone, anywhere, any time. Yet the idea, I am dead, did not seem as awful as it should have. Maybe it wasn’t that terrible because it had already happened, or because he was still… him, or maybe because somehow he’d skipped over the pain and blood part. Go, shock-induced amnesia! Then again, maybe he wasn’t feeling panicked because that light was so amazing! It made him feel blissed out, like emotional Novocain or a rockin’ smooth buzz.
He turned up his face and drank it in. Ah. How could anything be wrong in light like that? It wasn’t so bad here, really, except for the might-go-to-hell part.
He looked down at himself, suddenly curious. It looked like his body. It felt like his body, except there were no sensations of pain or soreness or pressure anywhere. That slightly dodgy knee? He wobbled it. Perfect now. Hangnails? He usually had one or two of those stingy little suckers. Gone. He didn’t even need to breathe, he realized, though he found he could mimic the motion of it if he tried—in, out. Huh. He felt… light as air.
“Peter will join us when he can,” Brutus explained. “I recommend resting. You’ve had a big day.”
As if reminded of the possibility by Brutus mentioning it, Brian suddenly felt tired. He shut his eyes and sank into the couch.
The next thing he knew that posh voice was asking loudly, “Are you awake?”
Brian opened his eyes and glowered. Eternal rest. Did those words mean nothing? Peter stood next to one of those floating screens, one eyebrow raised imperiously. . He wore a long white kaftan that glowed with that same wonderful light. Brian smiled happily at the gown. Pretty.
“Yes, yes, I realize you’ve had little time to adjust, but I’m afraid we simply don’t have time for fluffy clouds and heavenly bliss.” Peter spoke brusquely and the screen flickered to life. “In short: you’re on a deadline. I’ve identified an appropriate challenge for your redemption. Do thank me; you’re welcome. Recognize this young man?”
Brian stared at the screen. It showed the Madison campus at night. A guy in a dark blue hoodie, puffy parka, and jeans was walking in the rain. The guy looked up as the camera zoomed in. It froze on his face, illuminated from above by a halogen streetlight. His white-blond bangs were wet on his forehead and his large blue eyes were sad. His delicate-looking features were marred by acne.
“Yes. That’s, um, Kevin.”
“Who is?” Peter prompted.
“My friend Chuck’s roommate.”
“And he also is…?”
Brian didn’t want to answer. He bit his lip and shrugged. What? It used to work on his mother.
“Exactly,” Peter said with a voice like a Frigidaire. “Now then, your task is to save a life. You have two Earth weeks to do it. Should you fail, you will be in the red. Is that clear?”
“You mean….” Brian looked at the picture of Kevin with alarm. “Kevin is going to off himself?”
“Is that clear?” Peter demanded.
“Well… no, actually,” Brian said, feeling a twinge of annoyance. “How am I supposed to…?”
“Your primarily realm of influence as a spirit is anything electrical. You can also move small objects fairly easily and larger objects if you expend all your energy, but I don’t recommend it. It’s a great way to lose time. Oh, and it’s expressly forbidden to let any of the living know you’re there. Got it?”
“Kevin,” Peter said firmly, pointing toward the screen. “Good luck.”
Peter snapped his fingers. The white room disappeared.