Kip tapped his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. The traffic on State Route 33 had slowed to 25 miles per hour. Four inches of snow had accumulated and more was still coming down. The plows were busy clearing the interstates and would not get to the other highways for hours. The secondary streets would be impassable until tomorrow. He glanced at the packages on the passenger seat.
He had not intended to steal anything from the Walgreens store. Like the other ten customers standing in the checkout line, he had collected some supplies in anticipation of the snowstorm bearing down on central Ohio. Anita, whose car battery had died that morning, had asked him to bring her some food and Tylenol. The baby was feverish and restless from a bad cold. Some dispute at the checkout counter promised to make this wait longer than he was prepared to tolerate. Taking advantage of the confusion, he walked to the greeting card section, which was near the exit, and pretended to examine a few cards. Then he walked out the door with his supplies, got into his car and drove off toward Route 33.
As he peered through the snowflakes, a large shadow slid over his hood, followed by the shape of a bird of epic proportions moving into his path. The bird morphed into a set of tires between which a tail pipe was visible.
“Shit!” He slammed on the brakes. His car was still moving when an airborne car dropped on the highway directly in front of him. Kip’s car slammed into the back door of the other vehicle, sending it into a tailspin, returning to strike Kip’s car and turn it over on its left side. He felt a severe pain in his chest and head, and then … nothing.
When he opened his eyes, all he could see at first was snow and small moving shadows. He was vaguely aware that he had been in an accident and might have serious injuries. Carefully moving his arms, he was relieved to feel no pain. Actually, he could not even sense that his arms were moving, although he could see the movements. The shadows came into focus. He saw moving cars and a few people walking around two crumpled cars. A woman was extracted from one car, while some other people were hauling a body out of an SUV. Kip now sensed that he was looking at himself.
“Weird,” Kip said. “Where the hell am I?” Gradually, he became aware that he was hovering above the highway, observing events on the ground below, including what looked like attempts to resuscitate him. He felt no alarm, just curiosity. What would happen if he was revived? What would happen if he could not be revived? While he was pondering these existential questions, he felt himself being sucked into a dark space and drawn upward. As he rose, light rays streamed down towards him. Soon he was surrounded by lights of various hues, which slowly coalesced into forms of animals and plants. Some were familiar, while others appeared strange and bizarre. When he focused on one, thinking that it looked a little like a chimp, it obligingly turned into one. Delighted by this thought experiment, he began imagining other kinds of creatures. Sure enough, what he imagined appeared before him, although sometimes in colors and sizes never seen in nature.
Am I dead? Is there really a heaven? he thought. Immediately a large gate inlaid with mother of pearl panels and supported by mahogany pillars appeared before him. As he moved toward it, the gates opened, revealing a vast meadow of flowers lining paths filled with people walking towards him humming and singing. Most were unfamiliar to him, but he recognized a few: his grandfather, deceased many years ago, an aunt who had died of cancer just a year earlier. No one spoke to him, but he sensed a welcoming aura around them.
A part of him wanted to turn back to see what was happening at the accident scene, but he was reluctant to leave this fascinating and peaceful landscape just yet. He sensed another presence beside him. It appeared to be a young woman clad in a flimsy T-shirt and jeans, unlike the other people on the pathway who were all garbed in filmy robes. He tried another thought experiment. Hello, I’m Kip. Who are you?
Sure enough, a response came, not in the form of audible words, but rather a transmission of thoughts. They call me Renny … short for Irene. Do you know where we are? Last thing I remember, I was driving toward Columbus on Route 33. I slid off the road and hit a car. This sure doesn’t look like Lancaster or Columbus.
That was my car you hit. And you didn’t slide off the road. You must have been going 100 miles an hour to get launched off that berm and then drop down about six feet onto the other side of the highway. What the hell was wrong with you? Drinking? High on coke?
Kip no longer felt peaceful as he recalled the event. He noticed that the colorful atmosphere was turning gray and the flowery landscape along with the welcoming people had disappeared.
Oh wow. I’m sorry. I didn’t think I was going that fast. Renny paused for a few moments. I was mad at my boyfriend. I found out he had stolen my stash and was selling it on the streets. We had a big fight. When he came at me with a knife, I grabbed the car keys and drove away.
So, my girlfriend is not going to get any food or medicine for our baby until the storm is over just because of you two junkies. Thanks so much. Lacking sound to emphasize his feelings, he hoped his face conveyed the full measure of his fury.
A wraith wrapped in a lavender filmy robe emerged from the fog. Although it had arms and legs like humans, its face was an oval featureless disc that glowed with a brilliant light. The fog slowly dissipated.
Renny assaulted the creature immediately with a barrage of questions. Where are we? Are we stuck here forever? This is a really creepy place. How do we get out? Kip could almost see her voice, an arpeggio of high-pitched musical notes, skittering out from the clef, seeking safe purchase on the lines of the staff.
You are among the becoming, came the reply. Returning occurs in the pause. The atmosphere was now clear. They stood on a grassy path that moved forward like a conveyor belt, passing through meadows of unfamiliar flowers. The sky was a brilliant turquoise canopy across which shooting stars flashed.
What’s with the riddles? She sounds like my mother, said Renny, frowning. Even looks like her. I don’t like her. Whenever I asked Ma for help she would just say something like “God helps those who help themselves.” What "paws" is she talking about anyway?
Looks like your mother? It doesn’t have a face. And what makes you think it’s a woman?
Of course she has a face. Maybe you lost your glasses in the accident. She’s got long blonde hair and plucked eyebrows, a mole by the corner of her mouth, and a pug nose. No sign of a beard. Do you know what’s going on here?
Kip, who had never believed in heaven, now considered the possibility that there actually was a hell, and that he had been sentenced to spend eternity here—because of a minor theft at Walgreens—with a peevish and querulous addict who had just killed him. They were clearly not seeing the same things. He tried another tactic.
I’m sorry about your mother. I hope there were others who could help you.
Renny’s face brightened. There was this teacher I had in fifth grade. I think she knew about my home situation. Dad, drunk all the time. Ma working two jobs and always yelling at everyone and fighting with Dad. So she asked me to stay after school to help her clean up the classroom. Helped me with homework. Said I should go to college someday. Hah. Fat chance!
Kip’s reply was interrupted by a scene on their left. A valley came into view. There they saw a group of people standing on a grassy path like theirs, but it was not moving, nor was anyone speaking.
Who are they? he asked their guide.
The incurious, came the reply. They are unable to see what is available to all. The wraith raised its arms as if to embrace the sky.
Mouths agape, Kip and Renny watched as the universe appeared before them, starting with a fiery explosion that obscured the sky, the path, the meadows and the valley of the incurious. They watched as stars and galaxies formed out of the flaming chaos. They watched as stars collided, cooled, collapsed, and died. They watched as new stars were born, as planets formed, as Mother Earth cooled and life forms emerged from the primordial slime. They watched as dinosaurs roamed the entire planet, as a massive meteor slammed into what later became Mexico, as volcanoes erupted, and as half of the species, fashioned over millions of years, disappeared. They watched as continents moved around the fragile globe, as a small band of creatures, moving about on two legs, walked out of Africa and populated the planet. They watched as cities appeared, as wars, plagues, floods, and pollution threatened the survival of those curious enough to create languages, music, books, graphic and performing arts. They watched as a system of symbols evolved that led to unimaginable feats of construction and invention, including the ability to plumb the secrets of the very universe they could see in its fullness.
Now a caravan of people appeared and moved towards them. In the vanguard were recognizable faces. Kip identified Martin Luther King, Lou Gehrig, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Aretha Franklin. Renny squealed in delight at the sight of John Lennon, Dolly Parton, Fred Rogers, and Queen Elizabeth.
At one point she shouted Jesus!
Where? asked Kip
There. In the white robe. See the cross on his chest?
Kip was pretty sure no one wore crucifixes back in Jesus’s day. He, however, saw a man with a beard, garbed in a brown robe and white turban, holding a large scroll on which Hebraic script could be seen.
No I don’t see anyone that looks like that. But I see a man I think is an ancient rabbi. Maybe Maimonides. We don’t know what either one of them looked like anyway, so how can you be so sure?
I’ve seen pictures of Jesus since I was a kid. I know what he looks like.
Maybe we see only what we expect to see? He directed that thought toward the wraith.
The familiar is an impediment to a fertile imagination.
Bullshit, Renny said, shaking her head emphatically. You have to start with what you know before you can create new stuff.
Kip was getting a little weary of Renny’s imperious attitude. Well, Miss Know-It-All, I guess we should defer to your superior judgment. After all, the life you created for yourself is a shining example for the rest of us.
She appealed to the wraith with no sign of remorse. Is there a Valley of Assholes where we can dump this impediment?
There was no reply from the wraith, which faded into a thickening fog. The path pitched downward. Rocks of various sizes replaced the grass. At times the moving path turned sharply in one direction, and then reversed. Kip and Renny repeatedly slammed into each other and had trouble finding a stable place to stand on the rocks. Suddenly a wave of brown foul-smelling sludge surged toward them. Renny was knocked backwards landing on some rocks.
She yelped and let loose a string of obscenities. I think we just got flushed down a toilet, she said as she struggled to her feet.
Kip helped her up. They clung to each other as the path whipped from side to side, at times speeding up and then slowing down as it moved first down and then up a series of hills. The sludge was ankle deep and rising. Kip had trouble staying upright, sometimes falling to his knees.
Your legs are too straight, said Renny. You should bend your knees and keep your shoulders horizontal. Let the path move your feet up and down. Don’t fight it.
Kip was amazed to find her advice worked after a little practice. How did you know that?
I used to spend summers on my grandfather’s farm. I would ride on the wagons when they harvested crops. Those fields are pretty bumpy. Sailors do that too. Ever heard of sea legs?
Yes, but I didn’t know what that meant. How did you know?
She looked at him haughtily. I read. A lot. Oh Look! We’re not in the toilet anymore!
The path now tracked a less turbulent terrain under progressively sunny skies. Grass replaced the rocks. A new landscape stretched out before them. In the distance they saw large stone formations circling what looked like tall buildings. As they approached, Kip struggled to find words he knew he must say but choked on when he tried to speak. It was as if an apology would rend the mantle of righteous indignation he wore, leaving him naked. But for her, he would be with his girlfriend and infant son. Yet she had helped when the path got rough. The words of the wraith kept coming back. What impediments obscured his vision? What was he supposed to become?
I’m so sorry. Can you forgive me?
At first he thought he had uttered those words. Renny’s plaintive eyes told him otherwise. He bowed from his waist, palms pressed together with fingertips at his lips. You took the words right out of my mouth.
The path stopped at the boulders, which were arranged in a circle around two tall monuments on which an endless loop of their entire lives was displayed, as if on movie marquees, one dedicated to Kip and one to Renny.
The wraith stood between the two monuments. This is the pause where you must make a choice. It gestured toward a familiar scene. Far below them were two ambulances and several police vehicles at the scene of the accident. Kip’s body was on a stretcher on its way to one ambulance, an IV bottle connected to his arm. Renny had already been placed in the other ambulance. It was as if no time had elapsed while they had been on their journey through the universe.
I guess we are still alive? Kip asked the wraith.
You may choose to return to your bodies and be resuscitated, or you may choose to remain here. In that case, your bodies will die.
That’s a no-brainer, said Renny. I have never felt so peaceful. I still want a fix, but it’s not like it was down there. It’s just another thing I want. No big deal. I was ready to kill my boyfriend for stealing my stash. In fact I was chasing him with a knife at first, but he is stronger than I am and he got the knife away from me. I’m staying.
They looked at Kip. He turned to the marquee, watching his life play out again. When his son appeared, he felt an unbearable pain in his chest, longing to hold him in his arms.
I want to watch Seth grow up, and teach him how to be a better man than I am. I want to marry Anita, but then they would lose their Welfare and Medicaid. I want to go back to college to get a degree so I can get a better job.
A white cloud at his feet formed a vortex extending from his feet to the ambulance. He felt its eagerness to suck him back into his body. Kip looked at Renny expectantly, but her face no longer had distinct features. Even her body seemed to be dissolving into wisps of … what? The best word he could find was “breath.” He turned to the wraith.
Help me! I need to go home to help. But if I return, I’m afraid I will forget all of this. I want more time here to continue the journey.
The vortex moved away from his feet.
Time is an illusion, not a ticking clock. You have not been on a journey. You have been freed to be aware. Consciousness is as much an integral part of the universe as gravity.
Kip took a deep breath. Will I still be aware if I go back, or will I forget all this?
That depends on how much the familiar impedes your imagination. William Blake had the awareness to “see the world in a grain of sand.”
He watched the ambulances driving away from the accident scene. The earlier sense of detachment now returned making his final choice inescapable. He turned to the wraith. I can be born only once. But it seems I can die more than once. As they said in an old movie, heaven can wait.
To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour
William Blake, 1757–1827