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He knows he’s not in Hell because everything around him is the colour of Heaven. It’s all white, dazzling white, the rippled walls reminding him of the cotton balls his mother used to clean his ears with on lazy Sunday afternoons. But it’s not Heaven, either, because he’s thought about Heaven sometimes, cowering in his bunker listening to the lullabies of machine-gun-fire in the distance, and this isn’t what Father Michaels had talked about either. It’s too silent. He can hear nothing but his own breathing.
In a Heaven he designed, there’d be ice-cream and beer and sunshine and sand, and the angels would be in glittering gold-sequined skirts. Maybe he’d hear a lot of Bing Crosby, maybe White Christmas would play all the time. That’d be a lot more fun than a city of pure gold, even lit up by the glory of God. It’s probably a blasphemous thought, considering that he’s maybe in purgatory at the moment, but it’s what he’s thought about cowering in his bunker listening to the lullabies of machine-gun-fire in the distance.
Why isn’t he in Heaven yet? He can’t remember ever having done anything wrong. He’s gone to Confession every week and taken care of his mother and prayed almost every night. Once he stole sugar cookies from the boy who slept in the bed beside his in school, and maybe he’s always stared at the daughter of the widower next door a little too long, and maybe he’s imagined a different kind of Heaven from what Father Michaels described, but he was among the first to enlist. And now he’s dead. He’s died for his country. They’ve been promised a special place in Heaven for that.
Special places in Heaven aren’t this white and empty and eerie. Nobody would want them then.
His head aches with the questions, so he closes his eyes and sleeps a little.
It disturbs him sometimes that he can see the scar on his right leg from when he sliced his skin on barbed wire. His ribs throb with pain sometimes, and the flesh on the right side of his stomach is so scarred and red that he can’t bear to look at it too much. He drops his head to mutter his prayers and his neck cricks painfully. Is he supposed to look and feel quite this human when he’s dead?
He’s learned something about physics and souls and death – sometime – but it makes him feel hazy with panic to try to remember. It’s easier just to pray.
Sometimes there’s a little gap in the whiteness, when he’s been still for a very long time, and through it he can see what he reckons is the path to Heaven because there are a lot of white-clad figures milling around it. The angels aren’t as lissome as he expects, and some of them wear round-rimmed spectacles. It makes him wonder if those are special spectacles that allow them to see into souls.
He can’t remember much. He can remember his training, and bits and pieces of the first week. He can remember the feeling of something slimy sliding across his toes, the uneven symmetry of wet mud, the numbing loudness of shells, the slightly sweaty smell of the food in the mess halls. He can remember his mother’s expressionless face the first time she sees his starched uniform. He can remember the stubble on Billy’s face that Billy was so proud of, the almost servile enthusiasm of Billy’s smile. He can remember the left-right-left rhythm of the parades, its need for preciseness important to distract.
He can’t remember who Billy is or why he remembers him and his smile. He can’t remember who he’s killed. He can’t remember when he died, or how.
He begins to think he is in Hell after all when the figures start to appear. He knows they’re German soldiers and they’re always missing something – an arm, a leg, once, horrifically, an eye. The first time it happens, he charges at the figure invading the pure whiteness – the enemy – and his arm goes through empty air. The figure hovers before him and then the nose he tries to punch dissolves a few minutes before the rest of the body does.
They are faces he recognizes, faces he’s been trained to drain of life. Demons with pitchforks and the hottest fires pale in comparison.
It’s when the faces change to his just before the figures dissolve that he begins to scream out his prayers. He writhes and twists and slithers and howls in agony, crying out the words his mother taught him at her knee.
Outside the white walls of the padded cell, Nurse Veronique looked worriedly at Dr Papier. “Sir, Wraithe is having one of his fits.”
“One of Dr Jackson’s patients?” Dr Papier adjusted his white lab coat and pushed his round-rimmed spectacles further up his nose.
“Yes, sir.” Nurse Veronique lowered her voice. “The one who got a medal for planning that ambush deep in enemy territory and then tried to kill himself, apparently after his comrade Billy was taken prisoner. Shot himself in the ribs and stomach, sir. Dr Jackson’s in Montreal at the moment and…”
“Of course, of course.” Dr Papier nodded distractedly. “Quite a hero, isn’t he? Pity about his condition. But then the war will do that to you. The things we have to see in these blasted times…”
“Yes, sir,” agreed the nurse, scurrying after him.