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Jen died on the way to the hospital on a day that, a few hours before, she had looked out the window and thought, "This will be a good day."
She was conscious almost to the very end, and as she slipped between fuzziness and clarity and realized she was dying, she thought that she wasn't even sure what she was dying of. She asked the paramedic, but he only shushed her and told the driver to step on it; this was bad.
"If a woman asks what she's dying of, you know it's serious," she had mumbled on the stretcher. The paramedic, suddenly wide-eyed and concered, asked her what she said. She replied, "Nothing."
"Nothing," repeated the angel at the podium in the lobby-type room in which she had found herself a few minutes later. "You confirm that that was your last word?"
"Sure," Jen said amiably, rubbing the part of her side where the pain had begun. "But what happened to me?"
"Never you mind," the angel replied. "It isn't important."
"Yes, not important. Now, now that you're accounted for, why don't you have a seat? You've got a while to wait."
"Wait for what?"
The angel shook its head. "Agnostics," it muttered under its breath, and exited through a door that seemed to materialize behind it. Jen stared for a moment, shrugged, and then sat down in an airport-like chair between a man with an ax in his head and a woman who seemed to have some sort of wasting disease. Jen wondered if she herself had any visible signs of injury.
The man gave her no notice, and the woman only a precursory glance. Jen thought it rather rude to stare at the woman's sunken eyes or the man's ax wound, so she clasped her hands in her lap and stared at them.
You're probably dead, she told herself. The angel - why do I call it an angel? - told me that "Nothing" was my last word. And that I was waiting for something. So I'm either dead or in some sort of delirium, and I'll wake up in a hospital bed, recovering from apendicitis or something. The thought that she was having some sort of religious experience occurred to her, and she smiled. People make money off those.
She took a moment to take in her surroundings. She was in a lobby, definitely, some sort of cross between a hotel lobby and an airport terminal. There was more window than wall, but whatever was outside the window was obscured by some kind of light, filtering through the dirty glass and into Jen's eyes. Doors existed but were mobile, moving and appearing and disappearing. Some people in the lobby - it was packed tighter than an airport on Christmas Eve - were trying to get through the doors, which would move or disappear just when they were about to touch the knob. In the couple of seconds Jen was looking at them, one man made it through a door. He reappeared a second later, pale and out-of-breath and terrified-looking, and Jen made a note to herself not to try and escape through a door.
There were elevators, too, at which people stared longingly, but nobody tried to use one. In fact, there were several rows of empty seats in front of the elevators, as if nobody could bear to go near them.
Otherwise, the room was large, the ceiling was high, and the only noise in the room was the drone of the angel and the involuntary sounds of moving people, which echoed back and forth from all sides of the room. Nobody talked.
A very strange sort of waiting room on the whole, Jen thought.
She turned to the wasting woman and asked, "Where are we?" Her words bounced around the room, causing silence. The other people looked at her, but there was no judgement on their faces, only mild interest. The woman did not answer; her eyes had glazed over and she was staring at the angel's podium, her chin supported by her fists. So Jen turned to the axed man and asked, "Where are we?"
"I can't say for sure," he replied. His voice was even, without a touch of wonder or anger or even glee.
"Are we all dead here?"
"I can't say for sure," he repeated, "but if I were to take an educated guess -" he pointed to his ax "- I would say that yes, we are dead."
"So . . . are we in heaven?" Jen didn't feel particularly in paradise.
"I would not think so."
"So . . . hell?" She didn't feel particularly tormented, either. Maybe that came with time, and sitting next to a man with an ax in his head.
"I would not think so."
"Then where? Purgatory?"
As their conversation had gone on, the rest of the people seemed to have lost interest in it. The sounds of bored but quiet humans rose again, and Jen felt a bit better. But the man seemed to have closed off as well, but instead of at the podium he was looking at the high glass ceiling.
Jen had always had a Dantean image of purgatory, a place of torment but such that led one to heaven in the end. She wondered if she was in a circle of purgatory, one made for impatient people. If she was, then they'd put her in the wrong place. Jen was one who could sit for hours and let her mind wander, pretend to be a horseback rider or a TV host or a porn star.
But then again, maybe this was the whole of purgatory. The lobby seemed to contain all those who were eligible for it, anyway. Jen didn't really know much about purgatory other than what she had read in a quick skim over Dante's Purgatorio. She wasn't religious. It wasn't like she had chosen not to believe in God; she was just indifferent. It didn't really matter much to her whether or not God existed. No one had ever asked her.
So what was she supposed to do in purgatory? Reflect? Was this a glorified detention or time-out? Was she supposed to fall on her knees in front of the genderless angel and beg for its forgiveness? What -
A bell rang.
Whispers began. They rose up and disappated through the entire lobby. Something was happening, Jen realized. Something rather big.
That bell, anyway, had sounded like the noise an elevator makes when it reaches your floor. Jen wheeled around in her seat. The elevator doors were open and people, their faces glowing with pride and relief, were walking towards it. Elevators to heaven? she wondered. What if I were to get on? Would anyone even notice?
Somehow she knew she shouldn't; that it would be just wrong, like picking your nose in public.
I'm not ready, she realized as the elevator doors closed.
The angel was at the podium again, talking with a teenager looked completely wasted, even from the back. Jen got out of her seat and approached the podium.
"Excuse me?" she said as the kid took a seat - her seat. "How is one supposed to get to heaven?"
The angel looked at her condescendingly. "Repent," it said simply.
"I don't know what I did."
The same condescending look.
"Okay, I mean, I know I wasn't exacty a godly person, but I don't know anything specific to repent. I mean, if I say I'm sorry for all my sins and I mean it, is that all right?"
"Yes," said the angel.
"You meant there's not a set time I have to stay here?"
"Okay," Jen said. "I'm sorry. For all my sins." She meant it, too. But the angel shook its head.
"Feel what you've done. Know it's wrong and know why."
Jen sighed. "What did I do?"
The angel shrugged. "Not sure. You can look in my files, if you'd like to." A filing cabinet appeared. Jen prepared to study the labels on the drawer and find her file, then realized there was a sign sitting on top that had her name on it.
Jen felt herself going red. "Does everyone have a file this big?"
The angel nodded. "It's typical. But often the ones who have small files compensate by committing bigger sins."
Jen nodded back, then grinned and replied, "I'll look at them later." The angel shrugged again, and the filing cabinet disappeared. Jen turned to take her seat again, only to be reminded that the kid had taken it.
It occurred to her that maybe her next reaction was part of the reason she was here in the first place, but she immediately stalked over and said, "That's my seat."
The kid shrugged. He was obviously still pretty burned out from last last wild party.
"I'm not going to be able to find another one."
Jen sighed. "Is that why you're here?" she asked the kid. "Drug use?"
"No," the wasting woman said, speaking for the first time. "Self-pity. Like me." The kid nodded.
Jen felt bad for him and the woman. Then she felt bad for herself, for being dead and sinful and in this crowded lobby. She realized that people thought there were set times for purgatory because people took so long to repent that they were there for centuries anyway. She mentally prepared herself for a long haul.
"Why are you here?" she asked the axed man.
"Not sure," he responded. "I haven't looked at my file yet." He stared blankly into a corner, and Jen saw the shimmering ghosts of four big filing cabinets, waiting for him. "Don't think I can face it just yet."
Addressing all three of them, the two self-pitiers and the fearful one, she said, "Why don't we rotate? One of us sits on the floor for awhile and then they can take a seat for awhile. I'll go first, since I was already out of my seat."
The kid nodded, but the woman and the man looked surprised. They clearly hadn't thought about human interaction before. But then they nodded as well.
A few hours later - Jen's watch still worked - Jen and the wasting woman switched places. The woman immediately curled up on the floor and went to sleep, a small smile on her face. And - Jen looked at her - did she seem just a little less wasted?
Thank God, she thought, and suddenly it wasn't just an expression.
And to her chagrin - apparently He did exist after all - a bit of the heaviness left her side.
Jen had died of a sudden intestinal infection, by the way, completely unforseen. It was just something that the powers that be think up, and that no one can do anything about.
All in all, Jen thought as the elevators once again opened to let a few people in, it hadn't been such a bad day. Just a little surprising.