Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Starry Skies and the All Seeing Eye.
It was a quiet night on Main Street. At three in the morning, all the houses were dark and the only sound that could be heard was the leaves scuttling across the side walk in the rustling of the wind, making their way into the gutter. It was peaceful as Dan Ashworth made his way down the steps of his neighbors’ house, unaware of the fact that he was not alone. Dan took in a deep breath as he walked around the bushes that separated his yard from his neighbors. Just as he took his first step onto his own property, the trigger was pulled. In an instant, Dan heard the blast from the gun and a searing pain entered the back of his head. The lawn loomed before Dan, as if rising up beneath him before all had gone black.
Dan felt no pain when he opened his eyes. Instead, he was immediately consumed by fear. His hands grasped stone above his head and all around him was darkness. It didn’t take him too long to figure out that he was hanging at the edge of a great precipice. Confused and afraid of the unknown below, Dan began to pull himself up onto the ledge. It took all the strength he could muster, but Dan was able to pull himself up, rolling onto the ledge gasping for breath. It was strange in that there was no strain on his muscles, no pain in any part of his body at all. Only Dan, the grey stone beneath him, and the darkness in front and below him.
Dan rubbed his eyes to make sure he was still awake and then continued to rub his head out of confusion. The thought of being dead hadn’t occurred to him until his hand touch a sticky, wet spot in the back of his head. Moving his hand upward, his fingers grazed the bullet hole which made Dan shudder. Again, there was no pain, only more fear and confusion. “What has happened,” Dan thought, “Am I dead? Where am I?”
Before Dan could try to recall his last memories of life, a low but audible groan could be heard behind him. As Dan turned around, he saw that he was lying on grey stone steps leading up to an ominous stone building. The double doors of the building were made out of a dark cherry wood, arching up to a point, similar to an ancient cathedral but instead of a cross, there was only an engraving. Dan squinted his eyes to try to read the sign; Department of Soul Placement. “Either I am dreaming,” Dan questioned, “or I really am dead.” The groan Dan heard was the sound of the double doors opening to a soft orange glow. There was nothing else on this precipice, not even enough room to walk around the building. There was only the stone steps’ leading up to the doors, and the surrounding darkness.
As Dan made his way slowly up the steps, he didn’t know what to expect. As he reached the door, his eyes focused on the orange light that dimly lit a long narrow hallway. Chills ran up Dan’s spine as his hand grazed the cold wooden door. As soon as he stepped foot inside, the doors slammed closed behind him by some invisible force. Frightened, Dan spun around in a panic and seeing that the doors wouldn’t budge, began to punch them furiously.
“Welcome, Dan Ashworth. I’ve been expecting you.”
Dan’s pounding ceased at once as he spun around. Across the stone floor, standing near the light was an old woman dressed in a nun’s habit. She was a short woman with a plump stature. Her black eyebrows were thin and seemed to have been drawn on by a pencil. Her face and hands were wrinkled with age, but her eyes glowed with deep blue orbs encircling what appeared to be tiny moons instead of pupils. “Don’t be afraid. Come.” She held out her hand and beckoned Dan towards her.
“Who are you?” Dan asked, “Where am I?” The nun smiled.
“My name is Sophia. In life, I was a sister of Mercy, but I took too many sleeping pills one night by mistake. We are in the Department of Soul Placement. Please, take a number.”
Dan walked forward cautiously, afraid of any more surprises this damned place might have in store for him. As his footsteps echoed against the stone walls, Sophia gestured her hands towards a stone podium. “Please, push the button and take a number.”
Dan looked down at the podium to face the black plastic face plate surrounding a small skull about the size of a tennis ball. The skull smiled up at him with a sickening grin.
“What is this? How do you know my name?”
“In time, dear, in time. All your questions will be answered, but you must first push the button and take a number.”
Dan hesitated for a moment before pushing the skull into the plastic face plate. Instantly, a brass gate swung open from where the light was coming from and Dan’s attention was brought back to the top of the podium by the sound a sharp click. A thin piece of paper with black numbers printed on it began to flow from a little slit in faceplate. The paper continued to flow past the face plate, down the podium, and almost reached the floor before it detached itself and fell to Dan’s feet. Dan bent forward to pick it up and took a look. 190,289,378,467,567,843, 921,650 … The numbers continued on and Dan gave Sophia a puzzled look.
“I don’t understand. What is this for?”
“Why, that’s your number dear. You need it in order to enter the department and to be seen by one of the judges.”
“Judges? What judges?”
“The judges are the ones who make up the High Court. They are the ones who determine the placement for souls. Hurry, dear, hurry, before the gate closes on you.”
Before he could ask any more questions, Dan’s attention was pulled back to the gate which was slowly beginning to shut on the light.
“But… but I-“
“Hurry, dear, hurry! Before it’s too late! May the judges have mercy on your soul!” Sophia pushed Dan towards the gate and into the next room before the gate clamped shut behind him. Dan whirled around and grasped the gate, but it wouldn’t budge. He called out to Sophia but she was gone. The hallway was pitch black. Suddenly, strong hands roughly grabbed Dan from both sides and spun him around. He found himself face to face with two angry guards wearing black security uniforms and rope nooses tied tightly around their bulbous red necks.
“Enough of that! You’ve taken your number; now get away from the entrance before we knock you upside the head!”
“It seems you’ve already suffered one head injury. You looking for another one punk?”
Dan’s startled body began to shake. “N-n-no... I-I jjust-“
“You just nothing punk!” The guards shoved him further into the room. “Now stay away from the gate before you regret it.”
Dan continued to face the guards as he clumsily walked backward further into the room before hitting his heal on something metallic and fell to the floor. He looked behind him to see what he had bumped into. The floor was made of a dingy pink marble which wrapped around a large circular metal extrusion out of the floor. As Dan crawled up to a crouching position, he saw that metal curved into the shape of a half bubble, on which the top was painted a single purple eye.
“Here, sir. Please, let me help you to your feet and away from this horrible thing!”
Dan turned to face a thin, balding man, dressed in a brown suit with a blue paisley tie. The man was older, but there was a strange kindness in his eyes as he held out his hand to Dan. His brown eyes were worn, but had not yet dimmed with old age but instead sparkled with mischief. In his other hand, he held a black briefcase while he pulled Dan away from the metal disk.
“Wh-what is that?”
“We call it ‘the all seeing eye.’ When someone is found to be damned, it opens up and the guards throw the rotten soul into the fires of Hell, to burn for all eternity for their sins.”
Just then, the walls reverberated with the deafening sound of a bell being rung. Dan looked around and saw nothing but people, lots and lost of people. Many standing in lines before dark glass windows. Many sitting in pews. Many standing, leaning, sitting, everywhere and all around there were people. Some stared at the All Seeing Eye with horror. Some looked away in fear. Most, however, continued on with their business with blank faces, seemingly unaffected by the deafening sound. The metal lids on the All Seeing Eye began to open to reveal a fiery pit. The only sounds that could be heard above the tolling bell were a woman’s screams.
“No! No! Please! Please don’t! Don’t put me in there! I’m innocent! I’m innocent, I swear! I only took enough to feed my babies! I was going to put the money back! Please! NO!”
But her cries proved futile as two more rough looking security guards dragged the women across the floor away from one of the windows, lifted her up and threw her into the pit. Her screams of agony only lasted a moment longer before the lids on the All Seeing Eye shut and the tolling bell had stopped. Children began to cry as women tried to comfort them. Men looked away, dropping their heads as others acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, numbed at having witnessed many others who had been thrown into the eye.
“Ah, see what I mean?” The man in the brown suit shook his head and looked back at Dan who stood in shock at what he just saw. “Another one who’s broken the ‘thou shall not steal’ commandment. Really, you don’t want to stand too close to the eye. You could fall in by accident before you’ve had the chance to plea your case.”
Dan looked back at the man.
“Plea my case? What are you talking about? What is this place? Who are you?”
“Ah, I’m sorry,” the man said with a smile before reaching out his hand to shake Dan’s. “My name is Henry Wadsworth, attorney of law. And your name sir?”
Dan stammered, still in shock, “D-D-Dan Ashworth.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Ashworth. As the signpost above the outside doors reads, this is the Department of Soul Placement. This is where people who have broken one of the Ten Commandments come to be judged by one of the cursed after they die.”
“So… I am dead then. This isn’t a dream?”
“I’m afraid so, sir. Dead as a door nail and in much need of legal counsel. I’d be more then happy to take on your case if you just exchange your ticket number with mine.”
Though still in shock, Dan couldn’t help but take note of the man’s mischievous looking eyes. “Why do you want my ticket number? What’s wrong with yours?”
“Oh, nothing, my dear boy. Absolutely nothing. It’s just … from having been a lawyer in life; I was accustomed to break any one of the commandments on a daily basis. I suppose I could argue that it is part of the training, but that excuse has never worked for any of the other lawyers and they all shared the same fate of the pitiful woman you just observed. So, rather than burning in the fiery pit of Hell, I’ve decided to continue on with my practice, even in death. By exchanging numbers with new comers, it becomes a fair bargain. Frankly, I prepare others to plea their case before the cursed judges of the High Court, in exchange for time. Time is really a precious gift, Mr. Ashworth, especially in this place.”
Dan looked back at the All Seeing Eye again and another chill crept down his spine. By exchanging numbers with Wadsworth, he may be speeding up the inevitable.
“What happens if I am found innocent? What do they do then?”
“No one is found innocent, Mr. Ashworth. You are here because you have broken one of the Ten Commandments, a fact made clear by your very presence here. However, one of the judges might excuse you from your crime depending upon the circumstances. In which case, the ceiling will open up to a great bright light and you will be lifted above the rafters, entering into the kingdom of Heaven.”
Dan looked up towards the ceiling. It was a dark blue starry sky, with shooting stars that flew around in spirals. “Beautiful, isn’t it? We call it ‘the Starry Skies.’”
Dan was in awe.
“It is beautiful. But, what if I take you up on your bargain and they still send me to the All Seeing Eye?”
“Well, chap, I’m afraid that is a possibility. However, I was the best damned lawyer in life and have yet to loose a case! I’m afraid the only guarantee I can give you, Mr. Ashworth, is that if you take me up on my offer than at least you will be prepared to defend yourself. I believe in the old saying ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ but the judges, they follow the credence ‘damned until forgiven.’ You must plea for forgiveness when your number is called, Mr. Ashworth, whether or not you exchange your ticket number. Sure, that time will come much quicker if you do, but at least you will be prepared and will have a better chance of being placed in Heaven. Honestly, Mr. Ashworth, you’ve got nothing lose.”
But that wasn’t entirely true. As Wadsworth said, time is a precious gift, especially in this place. However, sooner or later, Dan would have to approach one of the judges. Wadsworth seemed to know a lot about this place and was the only one who had answered his questions since he came. After a final moment of hesitation, Dan handed his ticket number over to Wadsworth. With a smile, Wadsworth took Dan’s number, placing it in his right pocket, before pulling his ticket number out of his left pocket and handed it to Dan. Dan looked at the strip of paper; it was half the length of original number.
“Thank you, Mr. Ashworth,” Wadsworth said with a sigh of relief, “now we haven’t got much time. As you can see, there aren’t that many people ahead of you.” Wadsworth pointed towards the far end of the room where a large black screen displayed a red digital ticket number and counter number. Just then, there was a short buzzing sound before the number changed and a female voice was projected over the intercom.
“Now serving number 378,467,567,843,190, 289, 921,650 at window number 7.”
Dan braced himself for the now expected tolling of the bell, but instead found that he heard a harp playing. He looked above to see the ceiling opening up to a bright, white light as the melody of the harp grew louder. A young boy seemed to float away from window number 7, glowing with the same mysterious light from above. He slowly floated up above the floor, above the people, into the starry skies, disappearing into the light and the fading music of the harp as the ceiling closed back up behind him.
Dan was dumbstruck, but Wadsworth continued on with a slight annoyance. “We better hurry if we want to increase your chances of sharing the same fate as the boy. Come now; take a seat with me so we can discuss the details of your case.” Dan looked down at Wadsworth, who was already sitting in a wooden pew and opening up his brief case on his lap. Dan took a seat besides Wadsworth and faced him as Wadsworth took out a piece of paper and a gold pen and placed them on top of his suitcase. “In the interest of time, I would like you first to complete this survey. It’s a list of the Ten Commandments. Just write Y next to the ones you have broken, and N next to the ones you have followed. Please, be honest.”
Dan looked at the survey, pausing to reflect on some of the commandments, but overall finished it rather quickly before handing it back to Wadsworth. “Ok, let’s see what we got.” Wadsworth scanned the paper within ten seconds before giving Dan an annoyed look.
“What? I haven’t done any of those things.”
“Mr. Ashworth. Maybe I wasn’t clear on how this works. Those who commit one of the seven deadly sins in life are automatically sent to Hell in death. Those who have neither committed one of those sins nor broken one of the commandments end up in Heaven. Those who commit suicide are cursed to remain here for all eternity as a public servant and those who have broken one of the commandments are sent here to wait to plea for forgiveness. Now, I understand that the details may embarrass you, Mr. Ashworth, but since you are here, you must have undoubtedly broken one of the commandments and so I ask that you be honest with me in order for me to help you convince the judge who tries your case to grant you forgiveness.”
“But really, I haven’t done any of those things.” Dan growled as he slammed his hand down on the suit case in anger. He was not one who liked to be called a liar. Taken aback, Wadsworth stared down at Dan’s hand and took notice of the inverted triangle ring with the rainbow inside. A smile crossed Wadsworth face and his mischievous eyes twinkled when he looked back at Dan.
“Well then, tell me Mr. Ashworth. How old are you?”
“And are you married?”
“Have you ever been married?”
“And what was the name of your last boyfriend?”
Dan hesitated. The memory of the night he died came flooding back to him. He was at his neighbor Brian’s house. Brian’s wife worked third shift as a pharmacist at a 24 hour pharmacy outside of town. He had his eye on Brian ever since he and his wife had moved in next door. He was an adonis, built of pure muscle from his hard labor as a construction worker during the day. Luckily for Dan, Brian was more than just a ladies man, he was a mans man as well. He noticed when Dan would check him out from his window as Brian mowed the lawn. It was only a matter of time before Dan found himself wrapped in Brian’s arms, lost in his kisses. But they had only been together like that the night he died, hardly enough for Dan to call him his boyfriend.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Ashworth. Contrary to what many believe in life, homosexuality is not a sin. The book says ‘love thy neighbor,’ and there are many different forms of love. If what you say is true, than the issue here must lie within the wording.”
“You mean, ‘thou shall not covet thy neighbors’ wife?’”
Wadsworth’s grin beamed in delight. He had always loved a good play on words.
“Yes, except you didn’t covet your neighbor’s wife! You coveted your neighbors’ husband! Is that right, Mr. Ashworth?”
“Yes. That’s right.”
“Tell me, did you sleep with him?”
“No. All we did was cuddle and make out. I was too afraid that his wife would come home early to feel comfortable doing anything more so I left.”
“When was that, Mr. Ashworth?”
“The night I died.”
“So, that explains the bullet hole in your head. The wife must have caught you in the act and murdered you. You’ll have to ask the judge exactly how you died to find out for sure, but if that is the case then we have something to work with!”
“What do you mean? I was beginning an affair with a married man.”
“Ah, but Mr. Ashworth. The commandment says ‘thou shall not covet thy neighbors’ wife! It says nothing about thy neighbors’ husband! Since there was no sex, you didn’t commit the sin of lust and since you left before you did, you didn’t commit the sin of greed. Also, you were murdered! That means that not only did his wife break the commandment ‘thou shall not kill’ but she also committed the sin of wrath! Hence, she will go straight to hell. Therefore, you will ask for forgiveness on the basis that though you did begin an affair with a married man, you felt guilty and left before it could continue!”
“But, that’s not why I left. I wanted it to continue!”
“But they don’t need to know that, Mr. Ashworth!”
“Now serving number 378,467,567,843,190, 289, 921,651 at window number 9.”
Wadsworth held up his hand before Dan could continue. “Our time is up, Mr. Ashworth. That’s your number they’re calling. Good luck!”
“Wait, aren’t you coming with me?”
“I can’t. You must go alone. Don’t worry about me, I must find another client. You better hurry, before the guards come for you.” Wadsworth hurried away and Dan looked up at window number 9.
“Now serving number 378,467,567,843,190, 289, 921,651 at window number 9.”
Having already had a bad run in with the guards once, Dan did not want risk another one and so quickly ran over to the window. A teenage girl with black hair and what looked like vampire teeth greeted him briskly.
She sighed with annoyance, “Look, pops, I’ve got a gazillion people to see and I’m running low on patience. Do you have any form of identification or not?” Dan reached into his wallet, pulled out his drivers’ license, and handed it to the girl. Her name tag read “Honey,” though she was anything but sweet. She reached out her black fishnet covered arm towards the little opening in the window for the license. Dan noticed the gash in her wrist and remembered Wadsworth’s words. Those who commit suicide are cursed to remain here for all eternity as a public servant. He found himself feeling somewhat sorry for the girl, despite her rude demeanor. She took a look at his license and then typed something into a computer before handing it back. “It says here that you were shot in the back of the head?”
“Yes. I believe I was murdered. Is that in there?”
The girl frowned. “Yes it is. By the wife of a man you were having an affair with.”
“Well, I wouldn’t exactly-“
“You did lock lips with this woman’s husband. Did you not?”
“Yes I did, but-“
“And the commandment says ‘thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s-“
“Wife! It says nothing about ‘thy neighbor’s husband.”
“So? Why should there be a restriction? Coveting the life partner of another is just wrong, dude.”
“I know and I am truly sorry. Please, forgive me.”
“Why should I forgive you, man?”
It was then that Dan realized that he was fighting a losing battle. Though young, this girl was old enough to recognize the wife as the victim in this situation, making Dan the bad guy. If only he had a male judge! “Well?”
Dan thought for a minute, thinking of anything Wadsworth said that might help him but it seemed his only leg to stand on was the wording of the commandment.
“Well, why shouldn’t there be a restriction on the commandment? After all, it protects women, doesn’t it? Women don’t covet their neighbors’ husbands, do they?”
“No. When women marry, it’s for love or money. Sometimes they get lucky and it’s both.”
“Exactly. So you see, the commandment is really aimed at men! If you were married, you wouldn’t want another man coveting you, now would you? Trying to ruin your marriage, or worse, forcing himself on you while your husbands away?”
“So women are always getting the short end of the stick as far as the book is concerned. At least they have the upper hand in that the word is wife and not spouse! They are allowed to covet their neighbors’ husbands, though they wouldn’t, but still, at least it’s something that they have over men.”
Honey dropped her head and began to finger the scare on her wrist in contemplation. After a few minutes of silence, Dan persisted. “Please, forgive me.”
Honey scowled at Dan, and yet, her lips held a slight smug look. “Ok, Mr. Ashworth. I admit that you are right in that the wording of the commandment says nothing about thy neighbors’ husband. However, I don’t think it is fair that the woman should be sent to Hell because of her sins of wrath and the murder of your sorry ass. So, I’m going to meet you half way.” She pushed a button on her keypad and there was the sound of the buzzing Dan had heard earlier when the intercom came on. “Guards to window number 9 for deportation, please.” Before Dan could ask what that meant, he once again felt strong hands grab him firmly and started pulling him away. He began to scream in fear as he tried to get away.
“No. Please. This isn’t right! You said you’d meet me half way! You lied! There’s a commandment against that?”
“Shut your hole!” one of the guards barked. “You’re not going to Hell, at least not today, so relax buddy. We’ll take good care of you.” The other guard laughed as they continued to drag Dan away from the window, across the marble floor, past the All Seeing Eye, towards the entrance where another guard was unlocking the gate. Not liking the sound of the guards’ voice, Dan continued to try to wrestle free.
“No! Please! Where are you taking me? Let me go!”
The guards continued to laugh as they opened the gate and dragged Dan back into the hallway where Sophia stood smiling. “It’s ok Dan,” she said with a reassuring smile, “Everything is going to be alright now. You’ll see. The lord is with you.” Dan wasn’t buying that as he tripped over his feet down the stone steps. All he could see was the darkness looming before him and everything else disappeared from sight as he was thrown into the abyss.
The phone ringing from Dan’s nightstand woke him with a start. He sat up in bed in a flash and gasped for air. His throat was sore from all the screaming he had been doing. Though it was pitch black, he recognized the sound of his ring tone. After wiping the sweat from his brow, he reached over to see who was calling him. The screen on his cell flashed private number. He flipped open his phone and brought it to his ear.
“Hey Dan, how are ya?”
That was a good question.
“Well, I guess I’m alright. Who is this?”
“Brian. From next door?”
“Oh… hi Brian. What’s up?”
“Not much here. Just sitting at home with a case of brewskies. You wanta come over and watch the game?”
Dan hesitated for a moment. It must have all been a dream. Still, he didn’t want to take any risks.
“No, not tonight Bri. I’m not feeling that well and should get some sleep. Another time maybe.”
“Damn, your voice is hoarse! You must be pretty sick then huh?”
“Yeah, pretty sick.”
“Well, I hope ya feel better. I gotta get back to the game. The commercial break is over. Take care.”
“You too.” Dan hung up his phone, dropped it on the bed, and just sat in silence for a minute. He rubbed his hand over the back his head. No blood this time. He began to laugh, thinking how silly he was to get so worked up over a dream. Just as he reached down for his phone to give Brian a call back, his hand brushed something hard and thin. He looked down and picked up the little plastic card feeling dumbfounded. He rarely took his license out of his wallet and when he did, he always put it back in its place. Trying to remember the last time he needed it, his eyes bulged with recollection and horror. Name please. Identification? Guards to window number 9 for deportation, please. Now serving number 378,467,567,843,190, 289, 921,651 at window number 9.
His license would expire in just a few days.