Nick gasped, panting for breath, gripping his chest as he looked up at that sky. The only sounds he could hear for miles around were his breathing and the soft wind whispering through the grass around him, easily thigh high. It was bright, early in the day if he had to guess, given that the sun was hidden somewhere behind the wall of soft green that harbored him for the moment, and relatively warm. Dew still held to the roots of the grass, so he deduced that it must be either spring or early fall. Considering it was spring back home, then it would hold true that it would be spring in Heaven, as well.
His breath finally settled, though he felt a bit strange. He knew he had died, but there was something about the lack of a heartbeat that put him on end... Guess that’s something he’ll just have to get used to. He cleared his throat, and sat up, his eyes just coming up over the tops of that grass, seeing nothing but more of those shoots for as far as he could see. Which wasn’t saying much; seemed he was in a bowl, surrounded by hillsides. It didn’t change much as he stood, the grass tickling at his palms and legs as he turned and took in his surrounding.
“So,” he uttered, “this is Heaven, huh? I was expecting more pearly gates and clouds than... Windows 98.”
He finished his turn, and shook his head. Twirling like a ballerina wasn’t going to get him anywhere. The only course would be to pick a direction and head up whichever hillside stood in his way, and what better way than west. If it was early, that would mean he would have more daylight to burn by keeping ahead of... its...
Nick finally chanced a glance to the sky, expecting the usual, yellow orb to be up there. Instead, he was greeted by two, one a deep, angry red, and the other a brilliant white. The red was larger, at least four times the size of the white one, but the white shone brighter through and seemed to pierce the sky with a glorious halo. Wherever the red’s light would touch it, small black streaks snaked through, pulsing as they passed through the sky.
“I guess, in Heaven, everyone knows about the watchful eye of God,” he assumed. “That must be His throne... won’t lie. That’s intimidating.”
But he shouldn’t be talking to himself. He needed to get his bearings, and find his way to the check-in point at the pearly gates to get there. His legs were a bit stiff, feet leaden, but he managed to keep his balance as he took those first few steps. They felt like lead, leaving him to shamble through that sea of grass... Nick felt something hit him through his jacket pocket. He reached in, and found that he still had his phone. It didn’t have any service, as expected. What wasn’t, though, was the date. And the year.
Three years passed? He thought, stowing his phone, but not before checking the battery life. 37%... Even if it was simply idling, that doesn’t seem right.
He shook his head, and looked at that hill, heaving a heavy, weary sigh. That would, also, explain why he felt incredibly out of shape, though he started to consider it a blessing he could move at all. If he was that motionless any other place, he’d be jelly melted to whatever he was lain on. He was, also, regaining his strength quick enough; the walk to the hill was the worst, but he managed up it in four brisk steps.
Sadly, standing at its peak, he had even less answers. And hope. For miles around, the green sea continued, seeming to sprawl on to the horizon in every direction. To the south there was a mountain line at least, the rock an ashy gray, their tips clear and free of any smoke, cloud, or frost. To the north and east, though, the great grassland continued without an impedance whatsoever. Meanwhile, to the west, he could see an even greater hillside, rising almost to half the height of the mountains.
So. He was left with quite the conundrum. Two paths. One seemed impossible and insurmountable from where he stood while the other offered some solace and maybe another direction to approach, if not more knowledge from a higher vantage... If this were Heaven, the former would more than likely be the right path, since it was pounded into his head that there were no shortcuts to the path of righteousness.
On the other, though, as the wind shifted and swayed the grass another direction, he could see through the green sea, if only a moment, a lain, stone path to the mound... His decision was made for him, apparently. He hopped down the hill, descending into that light green ocean again, the tops of those blades tickling his sides something fierce as he found the drive to push to it. His lungs burned, sweat rolled down his brow, every part ached and begged for rest, but he would rest when he was dea- when he reached his goal. It was only a bit fu-
He skittered to a halt as his shoes clonked on the stone, reaching it sooner than he anticipated... and, also, to catch himself. The path was lower than the grass, the ground tilled away for it to be set, and the stone, itself, appeared to be refined cobblestone with colored accents. In other words, they were nicer roads than that wretched state he took refuge in would ever have, and seemed to be better kept, to boot. It was wide enough to easily allow three cars to travel, which made him wonder if there were cars in Heaven. Would they really have need for them, or would they be like the ones back on Earth? It was meant to be a paradise, to be a bastion of life; something irked him about the idea of a vehicle running on the remains of prehistoric life and emitted pollutants in a place that was meant to be whole and good.
Maybe he’s just thinking too much into it. After all, this could simply be purgatory, as the Old Testament once had. He possibly waited his three years of penance out (far too long still, but everybody had their price to pay), and now must find his way to the Gate. Though, if that were true, that would mean the New Testament isn’t true, which would be a right shame. Not only for the whole penance fiasco but because of Jesus, himself. Even historically he was a cool guy, so for it not to be so-
“Yeah, I’m giving this too much thought,” he grumbled, shaking his head again. “Focus...”
Focus on what, though? His life was done, over, ended in anger, grief, and broken dreams. He had nothing in the end, not even retribution. His only guilt was that he couldn’t really do more, but focusing on any of that was a moot point. That was all behind him, and the only thing before him at this very moment was a good bit away. Even if he ran the entirety, he doubt he would get to it in less than three days, and that’s if he didn’t need to stop and rest or have any other needs to be met- which was another good point. Did he have basic needs in Heaven or purgatory? His heart didn’t beat, but he still got winded when he ran, his body still ached from exertion- and his stomach still growled... But did he need to eat? Did he need to drink? Did he need to perform the task after they’ve ran their course?
But there he went, mind wandering off again as he walked along that path... It was so easy for it to do, with how his shoes clonked on the stone. He always loved the stone roads; during road trips to historic districts, he would spend most of the time zoned out, simply listening to the impact on the old roads. It was always a shame he could never find a ten-hour loop of the sound on media hubs; he would sleep like a babe if he did.
Eh. Why fight it? He thought, and closed his eyes, simply walking on, listening to the stone. As far as he could tell, the path never veered nor twisted. It was one long, straight path, and it was so quiet otherwise that, if anything went above the wind, he would be able to hear it for miles. He was alone now, wholly and truly. No one to disturb his task, nobody to interfere with his peace; he could completely lose himself... Why, the last time he felt like this was back home, in Accident. Back with-
“Of fucking course that’s where it fucking goes first,” he spat out, eyes snapping open. “I can’t just enjoy something, even for a moment, can I? You always have to bring me down.”
He growled, and creased his brow... and felt a few tufts of hair along it. He picked at them, feeling them tug at his scalp, and traced them up to where he once had it beautifully shaved, now sparsely covered, looking like a failed Chia pet. However, he didn’t pay it much mind, and, instead, brought both hands up to the hair around it, pulling at long, thick, greasy matted hair. He ran his hands down his cheeks, down his neck, feeling heavy forestation.
“Well, that’s going to be my first task,” he grumbled, scratching at it- and audibly recoiled as he pulled a large, red bug out of his beard. It looked like an ant, if an ant could grow the size of a bullfrog, and had lime green eyes. He could have sworn they were opaque, but he could see the lenses as the sun pulsed overhead. It chattered and clacked its mandibles at him, legs, all six, spindly little things, kicking and flailing as its abdomen throbbed. He could see a stinger pushing out at its end, along with a thick, nasty purple goo dribbling from it... He rummaged through his beard again- and found another. They both gave a droning screech as he tossed them at the grass and managed to fish out three others before it was completely clear. “What in the hell were those things? Am I in Australia’s purgatory?”
Though he joked about it, that didn’t ease him. At all. In fact, it only added to the fire. If this was Australia’s, then that also meant even nastier versions of the spiders they kept. He had no want to meet this plane’s version of a Sydney Funnel-Web... or a Huntsman. Facehugger level of fright there- and that was not helping. Quite the opposite in fact.
Why, such thoughts reminded him of one of the problem employees he reported. They seemed to know no end to riling the other person up... What were their names again... He remembered the one that was getting antsy was called Kevin, but he also remembered that wasn’t his real name and something he adopted because that’s one of the complaints he lodged: Falsifying one’s credentials. Another joined in, a fatter woman, and was far too old to be humoring such trifles. She was the accountaint until then –and that was not misspelled.
Yet here he was being reminded of his failings. Reporting them wasn’t enough; HR simply stated that, “it is not hindering nor harming the work environment in any way.” If it was affecting his capacity to complete his duties, then it most certainly was, but, after the fourth time he gave them his log for his hours and being questioned on how HE was getting those kinds of quotas done, he stopped going to them. It was obvious they were useless. As were most that worked there. Especially Chad.
He remembered when Chad started there: Twentieth of May. It was raining that day, and was about average in terms of temperature. He had breakfast bagels that morning because he had picked up a wrong box when out shopping the last paycheck. He was already in a foul mood thus and then had this meathead-nerd come up to him and ask him to look at his “poke-ee-mans”. From that moment on, he knew he would absolutely loathe this person. Which, surprisingly, first impressions proved him wrong. He was a hard worker, kept his nose down to the computer and did everything until break times. After his third week, though, the cracks started to form; he actually requested the cubical beside Nick and would talk through the wall... He didn’t remember exactly when, but he knew, at some point, Chad moved to the other side of the room, and that desk would remain empty since.
Though, considering how the week was going, he had no doubt Courtney would have taken that slot. Since, for some, strange reason, only knowing him a week in-person was enough to form this almost familial bond... He absolutely despised Chad for that. Chad knew he wasn’t supposed to talk about work outside of the building, yet had the gall to “brag” about him? Yet he had the nerve to get mad at him for bringing up the truth to his old boss –who told him he needed help. The adulterer, of all people, saying he needed help. Maybe if he spent more time doing his own job instead of working the ladies, he wouldn’t have had so many issues... He had to respect the man, though; for being an old, club-footed Guido, he got a lot of ac-
He stopped, but the clonking didn’t.
Ahead, about a mile, there was a dark object coming up the road. He could make out that it was a steed of some kind in front, but everything else was skewed by the distance. More than likely, though, they already made him out, too. There was no point in trying to hide, so he started to run, waving his hand. He saw a hand raise from the cart, as well... and was starting to grow unsure as he counted the digits that spanned from that hand. There were five fingers... then the thumb, and just from the light that gleamed off their tips, he could see that they were pointed.
He grew even less sure as he grew closer. It was a steed, a horse, pulling the cart, looking to be a paint, but the thing on the wagon it was wheeling was not human. The first thing he noticed wasn’t its red skin, almost copper in the bright light and seeming to shimmer, nor the tufts of hair on its upper arms, looking like little plots of wool, but its horns. It had a pair that breached from its temples, and curled down around its ears before hooking out to its thin mouth, layered like a ram’s horns.
It seemed to feel the same as he grew closer, withdrawing its hand down to the wagon, but slowed the wagon as Nick approached. Though he was sitting, Nick surmised that the being must have been at least a foot taller than him, but was lankier, with more of a lithe frame. It wore a simple, brown... dress? No... What was the old-world- tunic! It wore a brown tunic, with a pair of wooden sandals, showing that it had six toes on each foot, as well.
It cocked its head, the bit of silver hair on top of its almost oval-shaped head barely stirring, and said... something... In truth, Nick was surprised in how... dainty the words sound coming from it. For its appearance, he expected more... demonic of a timbre. It simply looked at him with its bright, blue eyes, the irises in them seeming to throb, growing ever closer to a slit. It repeated the sound, but Nick was drawing a complete blank. He studied Spanish, French, Simplified Chinese, German, and dabbled in several dozen other languages... and yet, what that thing was saying, he couldn’t even begin to assume.
So... Let’s see if it goes both ways, he thought, and cleared his throat, gesturing to himself.
“Nick,” he said, then gestured to the thing... When he didn’t get a response, he tried again, this time tapping his chest, and then rolled his wrists to the creature.
“Nosu Hal.” That was as much as he could make out, and even then he felt he didn’t grasp even that. It uttered something else, gesturing to the road as it did, all the while those baby blues were locked on him. “Morshuul de le nok? Nesol fe dow?”
Nick shook his head, and pointed to the mound behind him. The thing, Hal, looked back for a second but not too long... However, as it did, Nick noticed the polished haft that was waiting on the back of the seat he was sitting on, and the polished, stony tip resting at the far end. As well as how its hand kept hovering over it; it looked back at him, craning its head to the side, pointing at him then at the town.
“Nok de Leyshun?” It said. “Fuar le bais?” Nick felt its gaze sweep down him, at his attire, which made its hand drift even closer to the spear. “Nai yers fe alin. Nesol fe? Olshao? Ralai?”
“Earth,” Nick said, which made it crease its lips and furrow its brow.
“Tao na ust Earth. Fe costco Olshao niest Ralai? Niest Klomei?”
As it spoke, Nick was starting to get the feel for its accent. It seemed Mediterranean, but with inflections from Mandarin. The language wasn’t completely foreign, but something was still not clicking... Was it speaking colloquial? Essentially, was it speaking more a common tongue rather than the actual, proper language?
His stomach grumbled, reminding him he didn’t have the luxury of considering it... and the creature laughed. It spoke, this time he was unable to discern any of it, and reached behind his seat, behind that spear. Things clattered, rustled as he sifted through whatever laid under the leathery tarp that was tied down onto the wagon, but voiced relief as it pulled out a small, green bag. It tossed it at Nick, who barely had time to react, and he could smell something... savory coming from it. He pulled the corded knot at the top, and, inside, he could see round, doughy balls. Upon plucking one out, he could smell spices akin to rosemary and thyme, but the rest was a complete mystery. He popped on into his mouth, and was surprised to taste carrot, alongside a very strong, very flaky fish.
“Vu sharo,” it said, and snapped the reigns to his horse, starting to clack away on the road again. It said something else, which he could only assume was, “Enjoy your visit,” and left him there with his bag of fish balls, the rest of his path, and his curiosity piqued.
He looked upon the mound again, partaking in another fish ball, and shook his head.
“Well, one thing’s for certain: this isn’t Heaven, Hell, nor anything in between,” he mumbled through the meal, continuing his journey. “Two, I suppose: I don’t think I’m dead.”