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Cold. It spread through her body, chilling her blood, freezing over her bones. It hurt. It hurt more than anything had ever hurt her. A metallic taste was lingering on her tongue. She swooned, her legs shattered beneath her, and the ground rushed up to her.
Then, there was darkness. It enveloped her every sense and cradled her like a fragile infant. In the soft tendrils of Morpheus it was warm. The sweet syrup of oblivion had sedated her, and in that state she experienced freedom; freedom from pain, from despair, from fear, from doubt, from guilt.
There was a call. It pricked dully at her ears at first, and she did not know what it was. Steadily the sound became stronger, and as the volume increased she recognized it for what it was; music, faraway music that beckoned to a place beyond her senses. Reluctant though she was to leave the comfort of the dark, she knew she had to answer this call. With only the slightest amount of hesitation, she abandoned her resting place, and followed the musical summons into the darkness. Gradually, as if she were swimming up to the surface of the ocean from the very deepest trench, her senses became alive, and the world fell into place around her. She became heavy, the greatest weight was dropped onto her, and she collapsed to the grass blanketed ground.
It was dusk. There was the lingering silver light of the sun long set, and the moon that was slowly awakening. These celestial torches, vying feebly for supremacy of the sky, illuminated the forest floor through the heavy curtain of pine trees. The cool, raw smell of pine needles hung heavy in the air around her. But what grabbed her interest were the figures floating among the trees. They were black, but outlined with a distinct blue glow. They had very round heads, and elongated necks. They’re chests were thin, as were their arms, and below their wastes there were only black wispy tails. They’re eyes were marked by two glowing dots of blue, much more distinct than their outer glow.
It was at his time that she noticed the very tall figure standing next to her. Like everything else in the forest, the figure seemed distant, yet more real the anything she had witnessed in life. It was so real it scared her. But when the figure extended a long hand clad in black fur and beckoned for her to follow, she did not hesitate. She stood up next to the heavily veiled figure, and as it moved forward, so did she. It was then that she noticed the music.
It radiated from the trees, ringing in her ears. It was composed of high, lilting voices and accompanied by the equally high and bell-like melody of a harpsichord. The song was slow, as slow as the receding light of the sky. The melody was gentle and mournful, like a sad lullaby that crashed waves of both sorrow and fatigue over her. She looked at the trees to find the source of the singing, she found it. It was the shadow creatures, although they had no mouths, the glow around them changed in brightness in correspondence with the notes. They became brighter at high notes, and dimmer at low notes. Confused, she turned to the figure, and asked, “Sir?”
It turned, slightly.
“Who are they?”
It turned back to face the path. And then it spoke. Its voice was deep and masculine, yet surprisingly smooth, and gentle. “They are the souls of the dead. Every night, they sing to welcome the new arrivals.”
She was silent for a moment, “Who are you?”
“I am your escort. I will lead you to the gates of the afterlife.”
Silence again, “So am I dead then?”
“Yes. You are dead.”
“Oh,” she said. It didn’t seem like a big deal. She felt peaceful, despite the fact that she was leaving her life behind. It was at that moment she realized, she couldn’t remember her old life. It didn’t matter though. Nothing really did. “Sir? What are they singing?”
After a moment of silence, he began singing in harmony with the other voices. It was beautiful. “Inridentibus qui maxima, descendit in silentio. Sol in nihil cecidimus, nox caelum tegumenta.Corpus redit in terram, nostrum lumen exspirat, vero nos non obliviscar.” She was silent with awe. “It is an ode to the guardians, and for the souls who chose to cling to their memories.”
“Can I choose to cling to my memories?”
“It depends on which path you chose to take.”
“Can I please see your face?”
He seemed to hesitate for a moment. She looked up at him. He raised his hands to the folds of his cowl, and pulled it back slowly, and then turned to her, and opened his eyes.
Those were the first things she took note of. They were a silvery white like the moon, and shaped like saucers that reflected sincerity and intelligence. They were a pair of phosphorescent gems in the darkness that was his face. He had the head of a black dog, with sharp ears pricked attentively to all sound, and a coat of long, lustrous, unkempt fur. Small fangs were peeking out from his muzzle. Despite this savage appearance, he had an air of wisdom and compassion that was unmistakably human.
“You’re beautiful,” she said, and she meant it.
The creature’s expression changed in the slightest degree to the emotion of surprise, “Thank you.”
For several moments, they walked on silently, still surrounded by singing of the ghostly choir. Composed leaves crushed under the feet, and the sky grew steadily darker. After what seemed a long while, they came to a small area, marked by three tall gates. The first was in carved in granite, had a pair of square doorknobs, and was covered in elaborate carvings of robed angels, tall and regal towers, and a large four cornered star aligned with the center of the gate. The second gate was carved in mahogany wood, and had a pair of circular door knobs. In the dark red material were carved shapes like vines, flowers, birds of paradise, and in the center the sun, with a crescent moon coiled around it. The last and central gate was carved in marble, with rod like door knobs, and absolutely no designs covering it.
“These are the three paths you can take,” the escort said, “The granite gate leads to the Plains of Asphodel, where you will reside with the other souls of the dead. If you wish to be peaceful, but still be part of a community, choose this door. The wooden gate leads to your reincarnation. You will have a second chance at life, and if there is anything you haven’t done yet that you need to do, this is your best route. The final gate, leads to peace. This is the ultimate end point. In this state you will be relieved of all earthly ties, all pain, all guilt. This state is the ultimate freedom. You will be one with the spirit of the earth, and you will be part of everything. You will be in a state of complete and total peace.”
She thought about this. Not for very long, as people her age never really thought about things for too long. Also customary of people her age, she came up with a solution, one that would provide her with the right choice.
“I want to see what’s behind each door, before I choose one.” The escort turned to her with curiosity. She looked up at him, “Can I do that?”
“There are no rules against it. However, when you choose, you will not remember what you saw behind the other two doors.”
She nodded in understanding, and without a moment’s hesitation, walked slowly up to the central door. As she laid her hands on the two door handles, she felt a wave of calm fall over her. She stepped back and pulled open the door with confidence.
It came like an electric shock. Images, sounds, knowledge, all flashed through her head upon opening the gate. Looking into the seemingly endless space behind the door, she saw many things; things about life, nature, humanity, technology, history. All the secrets of the world, in that moment, were known to her. She grabbed her head as sharp pain pulsed through it. She collapsed to her knees, and her escort moved towards her. She was blind and deaf to the world. All she could feel was the pain, and the only activity in her mind was the endlessly flowing stream of information.
It stopped. It was replaced by another feeling. She felt something pulling at her, from beyond her senses, from beyond this world. She got to her feet, and took a step backwards, then another, although she didn’t want to. She looked at her escort in fear, “What’s happening?”
He stared at her, his saucer eyes wide and surprised, “It is not your time. You’re still alive.”
Hearing this, and realizing it was true, was the most frightening moment of her life. With that information engraved in her brain, she knew what the world was, she knew of the pain, suffering, the seemingly endless cycle of misery. Knowing what she did, she couldn’t bear to go back.
“Please,” she said, “Don’t let me go back there.”
“It’s out of my hands,” he said,
“I cannot control your fate.”
“N-no,” she stuttered. She had to do something, she didn’t believe he couldn’t help her. He was dead, so he would be able to keep her here. She stepped forward and reached to him.
“No! You can’t touch me!” he exclaimed. She clamped her hands onto his shoulders for a quick moment. On his face was an expression of pure, unfiltered terror. It was like looking into a mirror. That was her last thought before the feeling of being pulled back, and the world was engulfed in darkness.
She awoke almost instantly. And along with the knowledge she gained at the gate, her life came rushing back to her. She was on a bed, her mother was standing next to her, and at this same moment, hugged her as tightly as possible. Her mother cried into her shoulder, blubbering about how she might’ve died, and how they were so fortunate. She stared around at the hospital room, it was white, but not nearly as white as his eyes. “Mom,” she said, but her mother continued to sob. “Mom,” she said again, more forcefully, but her mother still took no notice. Why wouldn’t her mother listen? She needed to tell her, she needed her mom to understand what was happening. But I don’t even know what’s happening, she thought to herself. And she began to cry.
That night she was to sleep in the hospitable bed, but found the feat impossible. One of the doctors had told her that several of her other classmates had died in the drive-by shooting. There would be a funeral for all of them on Friday. She knew she should’ve been sad, and she was, but it was dwarfed in comparison to what she had seen in the gate. She tried to think of something, anything that brought her comfort. She found two; her escort’s eyes, and that song, that beautiful song. It was then that she realized she knew what the words meant. She understood them well. She sang them quietly to herself, and although the lines didn’t rhyme in the least, its rhythm was perfect. “Those who laughed the greatest, will descend into silence. The sun will fade into nothing, as night blankets the sky. As the body returns to the earth, our light expires, but we shall never forget.” And she wouldn’t. Not a day would go by in the next seven years that she wouldn’t remember.