Irene Dunphy squeezed her eyes shut and then slowly opened them, just to make sure what she saw was real.
She blinked several times, but the mansion didn’t disappear.
It was real.
She had found it.
The way home.
She stood alone on a fragmentary spit of land, high above a bottomless void, dwarfed to insignificance by the vast and surreal tableau before her. Straight ahead, a long, sweeping gravel drive bordered by symmetrical rows of towering hemlock trees. To her right and left, only darkness. Overhead, an endless night sky studded with the diamond glints of a million unfamiliar stars.
Old-fashioned lamp posts spilled a soft, diffuse yellow glow from their glass globes and lit the way up the wide, smooth driveway, which ended at a set of large wrought-iron gates. Beyond the gates towered a magnificent fairytale princess castle-mansion of white marble reminiscent of the great palaces of old like Versailles or Mysore or Dolmabahçe.
She’d reached her goal at last.
Normally, she’d have a flip comment, a bit of sarcasm or a snappy put down, to puncture the solemnity, but not now, not in this place. Out here, on the desolate edge of the great palace’s grounds, amidst a vast, endless black of nothing, she was all alone, adrift in the cosmos, and seemingly the only living thing in all of creation, a tiny speck of nothing, of no importance to anyone. She hovered between realms, pregnant with endless possibility—in theory, she could go anywhere from here, including home, to the land of the living—and the weight of the moment pressed down on her, heavy and unrelenting.
She wasn’t sure she could make her feet move. Here, on the far edge of the lawn, she could at least keep hoping that she’d be allowed entry, that deep down, beyond the surface-level mistakes, she was actually a good person, one with cares and values and concerns that made her worthy of forgiveness; once she reached the gates, that possibility might evaporate.
She hesitated, unable to help but glance over her shoulder, searching for the man—the friend—who had sacrificed himself so that she could stand here.
“Andras?” she called softly, hoping against hope that the twelfth-century Spanish knight who had become her traveling companion was still around. She reached out with her ghost senses, looking beyond the physical representation her brain gave to her surroundings, and tried to detect any indication that Andras might have followed her when she’d crossed over from the previous afterlife plane. She searched for some reassuring twinge or vibration felt deep inside, some fluttering movement in that unseen sixth sense that connected them, some lingering trace of his deep, sonorous voice in her mind. But there was nothing.
He was gone—truly gone. She’d felt it the moment she’d stepped onto the bridge that connected the previous realm with this one. He’d been attacked by shadows in the Elysian Fields and lost his ghost body—rendering him completely incorporeal and unable to exist on the lower, more physical afterlife planes. As soon as she’d left Elysium, crossing back down to this lower plane, the warm, comforting presence that was Andras—felt both in the air around her and deep inside her like a second heartbeat—had disappeared, leaving only emptiness behind.
“Goodbye,” she said softly, the word far too small and inadequate for what she felt. A painful bubble of gratitude welled up within her chest, sharp-edged and over-large, that felt like it might cut her insides like a knife. Wherever you are, I hope you got what you wanted. I hope you’ve ascended and been accepted into the Saboath. After spending eight hundred years in purgatory, he deserved to find happiness and peace at last.
She pulled her thoughts back to the here and now, and once more focused on the path before her. It was time to face whatever awaited her at journey’s end. This was it—the moment of truth, her chance for a do-over. She could return to the land of the living and do things right this time. She could make sure her mother would be protected and taken care of, make sure her friends were absolved of any guilt over her death, and remove the fears of crossing over that kept her ghost friends trapped in the land of the living. She could repeat her journey through the afterlife and correct all of her mistakes; this time, she wouldn’t be afraid, and she wouldn’t run from responsibility.
She put a hand to the pocket of the overly-large, olive-green suit coat, designed for a man, that she wore over her skimpy red party dress and caressed the small, flat rock inside it; the rock was Andras’s final gift to her: a reminder of the fact that she had made a difference in someone’s life, that she had done some good in this world. The feel of the stone against her fingers reassured her and sent the doubts scattering like pool balls after the break: if she’d made a difference once, she could do it again.
Squaring her shoulders, she stepped onto the path and headed up the driveway. Her footsteps crunched on the gravel, overloud and foreboding. Her heart thudded in her ears. As she drew closer, the sound of raucous laughter drifted lazily out the windows of the mansion.
The world narrowed to a single point of focus—the six short granite steps between the gate and the mansion that separated her from reclaiming her life back on Earth.
With each step, the slinky material of her candy-apple red, thigh-length clubbing dress brushed against her legs—a reminder of her appearance, a reminder of her stupid, needless death driving drunk after a night bar hopping. She paused and looked down. Would they really let her into Heaven wearing this? Would they really let her into Heaven at all? If there was any kind of higher being sitting in judgement of human life, determining each person’s worth, they would be here. Was she really ready to face them?
Regrets and longings stirred inside her, pushing back against the fear. Ernest was chain-smoking at a dive bar for the dead, waiting for someone to tell him suicide wasn’t punished in the afterlife. Amy was shadowing the living, a pale imitation of life, waiting for someone to tell her that there were a million new things for her to try that made the missed experiences of physical existence pale in comparison. There were children weeping for dead parents and parents weeping for dead children that didn’t know they could send their loved ones letters in the afterlife.
She was going to change all that.
She lifted her chin and squared her shoulders. ‘Let’ didn’t enter into it. Good person or not, able to pass some muckety-muck’s moral judgments or not, she was going back to Earth. Period. She’d come too far and endured too much not to.
Just let them try and stop her.
Back straight, head high, she resumed walking.
Her mind swirled with speculation as to what awaited inside the gates. Perhaps there would be a celestial being who could grant favors or maybe a mythological Hall of Judgment where she’d have to prove her worth before being allowed to proceed or maybe the mansion held nothing more than a nexus of doorways leading to various planes of existence. That uncertainty made her heart jig a little. I really hope it isn’t one of the versions of the afterlife where some kind of three-headed hell hound guards the entrance.
But no, there was no hell hound. Instead, a familiar figure stood before the open gates, dressed in his usual garish, multi-colored toga of yellow, orange, and purple stripes; the warm, yellow light spilling from the palace’s many windows reflected off his bald head. His hands were clasped in front of his ample stomach, and he smiled broadly, beaming like a proud parent whose child had just won the state spelling bee.
“Well, Acorn, glad to see you made it,” The Guide said, the sonorous timbre of his voice warm and comforting—and holding a familiar hint of merriment as if he were laughing at a private joke.
Irene relaxed and smiled in return as she came to a halt in front of him. She hadn’t been really sure until this moment that she’d really made it, that it wasn’t all some kind of illusion or trick. But the Guide’s reassuring presence confirmed that this was, indeed, where she was supposed to be.
“Was there any doubt?” she asked, but the words were just for show. Of course there had been doubts. She’d died, crossed into the afterlife, traversed purgatory, and navigated her way through Elysium, all while avoiding Uglies, Harpies, Hungry Ghosts, deadly shadows, Nephilim, and various other assorted monsters. She’d nearly died—truly died—on several occasions. And they both knew she wouldn’t have made it without the hints, prodding and occasional kick-in-the-pants the Guide had provided.
His grin broadened, and he rocked forward on the balls of his feet. “No, not really. I had my money on you the entire time.”
Ha! Not only had she managed to overcome all of the trials, all of the monsters, all of the challenges, but she’d also done it all without a stupid sword.
Why on earth had that popped into her head? Who’d said anything about a sword, and why did she have the urge to point out that she hadn’t needed one?
She wrestled with the murky thoughts, but they were strangely elusive. Her brain felt fuzzy, like it was stuffed full of cotton, and it was taking some effort to get her thoughts and memories in order. It was like this every time she crossed between planes of the afterlife. Every time she arrived on a new plane, she felt a little disoriented and a bit foggy, like she was waking from an extended sleep. Each time, she had the paranoid feeling that there were fewer memories in her head, as if she had lost a bit of herself in the transition.
She shook her head, trying to clear it. The weird sword-thought must be the lingering sluggishness of transitioning between planes, nothing more.
But half-formed remembrances swirled inside her brain, bubbling to the surface, refusing to let go. She’d thought that thing about the sword because… because someone had tried to give her a sword once. And she’d scoffed at the idea. After all, it was the twenty-first century—and she was dressed for clubbing. The other person had been insistent… and she’d refused…
“Well, are you coming in or are you going to stand out here all day?” the Guide asked.
Irene rubbed her temple, as if she could physically dislodge the thoughts. Something about the memory—dream?—nagged at her, insistent, almost urgent. The conversation had been important, though for the life of her, she couldn’t remember why.
She dropped her hand and ruthlessly smothered the thoughts. Of course she was going in. She pasted a smile back on her face, straightened her shoulders, and threw back her long, dark red hair. She closed the remaining distance between her and the Guide—and the big, black gates—in three strides.
She was struck once again by the sheer size and scale of things here. She had to tilt back her head to see the tips of the spires adorning the anchor posts of the gate. She was five foot eight, and yet the gates made her feel like a child. And these were, in turn, dwarfed by the towering walls of the mansion looming behind them. She was reminded once more how insignificant she was in the grand scheme of things, how infinite the cosmos in comparison. And yet, that thought didn’t scare her; in a strange way, it was almost comforting. As small as she was in the grand scheme of things, how could any of her failures really matter? They would be as microscopic to cosmic beings as a grain of sand.
She started to step through the gates, paused, and contemplated their dull black patina. “I thought the gates to Heaven were supposed to be pearly,” she said, a note of uncertainty creeping into her voice. This was Heaven, right? She’d assumed… and been so certain. But now… now she wasn’t quite as sure. Something felt a bit… off.
That fuzzy, inexplicable “did I leave the oven on?” feeling tugged at her again.
The Guide grinned. “If these are the pearly gates, then that would make me Saint Peter. Do I look like Saint Peter?”
She hesitated, unsure how to answer. “I dunno—I never went to church.” If he wasn’t Saint Peter and these weren’t the Pearly Gates, then where was she?
The unsettled feeling grew stronger.
The Guide chuckled. “Well, truth be told, neither did I.”
Something in his tone gave her pause. Her eyes traveled up the mansion’s imposing stone façade of white marble that lay half-hidden in shadow. It was a sprawling, multi-storied structure covered in wrought-iron balconies, gold leaf, arched windows, and ornately swirled carvings, the kind of place inhabited by kings, where balls took place, and liveried footmen bearing silver platters of shrimp puffs passed amongst the guests. An acute and burning awareness of her skimpy dress washed over her. Her hands twitched, then strayed to the hem of her skirt as if to tug it down. She jerked her hands back and crossed her arms across her chest.
Would they really let someone like her in there?
Even the building seemed to be judging her, the windows like eyes, the yellow glow of the interior lights a burning suspicion and haughty disdain. You? it seemed to say. What makes you think you can enter here?
Her concern must have shown on her face. The Guide gave her a crooked smile—part reassuring, part teasing. He nodded toward the open windows on the first floor; laughter and voices raised in song above the strains of lilting, waltz-like music drifted toward her. “Don’t worry, there’s a room at the inn for you.”
The laughter and music heightened her unease, and a feeling that something wasn’t quite right prickled along the back of her neck. Those sounds coming out of there didn’t really seem like any kind of hall of judgement. The people inside sounded like they were having a good time. “What’s in there?” she asked, the sense that she’d taken a wrong turn somewhere growing stronger.
“Like you said—Heaven. Or some people’s version of it, anyway. It’s a hell of a party—or, more accurately, dozens of different parties. You’re sure to find one you like.”
“Really?” she said. “It’s just that easy? I can just waltz in there if I want?”
“Sure. Why, what were you expecting?”
“I dunno… seems like there should be a test or…”
“Judgement? I told you before, Acorn, there’s no judgement. The afterlife… it’s more about the journey than the destination.”
“But still… the journey here was pretty straightforward. You insinuated that there was going to be more to it—a kind of… I don’t know. An unmaking. Or a remaking.”
Something flashed in his eyes, a kind of knowing “Ah ha!” or “Gotcha!” His face, however, remained placid and unreadable. “And you think you’ve completed that remaking, that you’re all fixed up now?”
He shook his head with a shrug. “I didn’t say you hadn’t. It’s not for me to decide. I told you, there’s no judgement. At least, no external judgement. You have to judge for yourself. Do you think you’ve completed the journey? Are you ready for your eternal reward?”
There was a time when a giant party would have been welcome news. In fact, wasn’t that what she had originally set out to find a thousand lifetimes ago when she’d left her home in Salem, Massachusetts after dying: a place where the party never ended, a place filled with the happy, carousing dead, drinking away the afterlife without a care in the world? And, certainly, she had a certain nostalgia for when things had been simpler—have a bad day and drink or fuck it off. For when an endless party like the one that lay before her would have been her heart’s desire. For when this would have been the end of the road for her. For when this would have been enough.
Now, though, that scene held no interest. Instead, she just wanted to go home. Go home and see familiar faces and provide comfort and support. No parties, no nihilism, no “fuck it all” attitude. Just a nice, quiet life of helping both the living and the dead.
If her old friends could see her now…
Maybe Heaven really was in the eye of the beholder. That was the thing about the afterlife… you were only required to change as much as you wanted to. There were a lot of off ramps to the journey. You could stop anytime you wanted.
And she didn’t want to stop.
Not yet, anyway.
The Guide was right; for her, the journey wasn’t quite done.
“Actually,” she said, turning away from the warm, inviting sounds of people having a good time, “I was more wondering if you had any openings in the guardian angel department?” Despite her outward show of bravado and cavalier disinterest, she sucked in a breath and held it as she waited for his answer.
What if he said no?
The Guide smiled. “Good choice.” He stepped closer and put a companionable arm around her shoulders, ushering her forward through the gates. “You know, I think we might have a halo in just your size.”
The breath she’d been holding rushed out of her, replaced by relief. Deep down, she’d been afraid the Guide would laugh, tell her she was the last person qualified to watch over others. And, seriously, she wouldn’t have been surprised. She didn’t know how she was going to go about things—could she even help the living? She recalled her attempts to reach her neighbor Jamaica, to tell her that she—Irene—was still alive. She’d held up a handwritten note and hoped Jamaica wouldn’t freak out at the sight of it floating in the air. That hadn’t gone well—at all.
That strange, unidentifiable unease tugged at her again as she remembered the scene with Jamaica. Irene faltered, her steps slowing. When she’d tried contacting Jamaica, there had been someone else there. Someone who had laughed at her, thought she was being stupid.
Who? Who had been there?
They had been able to see her, even though she was a ghost.
Had they been a ghost, too?
Not a ghost.
It suddenly seemed incredibly important that she remember.
The Guide gently, yet insistently, pushed her forward toward the mansion’s steps.
Andras, before he’d left her, had said… he’d said she’d forgotten something… something, or someone, important. She’d sold some memories in a ghost market, and Andras had been insistent that she’d inadvertently sold more than she’d bargained for. Something about a boy…
The nagging doubt grew stronger. “Hang on a sec…” She tried to stop walking, resisting the Guide’s pressure on her back. Something was tugging her back towards the mansion, towards the warm, welcoming glow coming from inside, and she fought against it.
“Time’s growing short,” he said. “Better hurry and make a decision.”
It was a strange thing for him to say; time was infinite for the dead. There was no day or night in the afterlife, and time didn’t pass. Time was relevant only to the living.
She pulled away from him with a frown. “What do you mean?”
“Too late,” he said.
Something big and hard slammed into her from the left, knocking her off her feet. Everything became a blur as she cartwheeled through the air, tumbling and falling long past the point where she should have hit the ground. A howling, shrieking roar filled her ears and mind—as if she were caught in a hurricane. Rising above the gale and growing louder by the second, a rushing, flapping sound. Something like rough feathers pelted her in the face as she tumbled over and over and over, all while sliding down, down, down through darkness.
And then a thump.
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