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Janice had considered the possibility of life after death from an early age. Raised a Catholic, she had examined the concept of heaven and hell and, with a child’s logic, found it implausible. Heaven, as it was described to her in church and in the religious classes following mass, seemed no heaven at all. The thought of an eternity of lyres and singing the Lord’s praises filled her with a lethargic ennui. As for hell, its basis as a world of pain and suffering didn’t ring true for her: how did one inflict mortal harm upon an immortal and, indeed, immaterial soul? Surely the loss of the corporeal body meant a corresponding forfeiting of bodily woes?
So Janice sat in the pews of her small suburban church watching the rapturous belief of Father Reilley as he spoke of the afterlife that all good Catholics would enjoy while the fans spun lazily on the high ceiling and the third light from the altar flickered almost when Janice willed it to. In this way, religion died for Janice.
Accordingly, Janice spent many an evening lying in her bed, staring into the darkness above her, trying to stretch it into oblivion, into eternity. Sometimes she would try to morph the darkness into the belief in the afterlife that had been handed to her, but even the wobbling shadows of her imagination could not subdue her skepticism. Always, she would close her eyes and, listening to the buzz of silence, imagine instead what not existing might be like, seeking out the memory of the time before she was born.
As she aged, she considered new possibilities. Learning the beliefs of Hindus and Buddhists, she considered nirvana, enlightenment, the notion of being a part of a spiritual whole which was to be joined into only through repeated lives of goodness. It was a reward of perfection in completion for the consistently virtuous. Janice thought this was a beautiful idea, but it failed to make her a convert.
In books, she found both traditional and bizarre views of life after death which she enjoyed, but could not put any stock in, and when ghosts appeared in television shows, she speculated on the role of energy in life and death, though she drew no conclusions. Biology classes gave her cause to question the notion of the soul, to question the arbitrary value placed on breathing and all the chemical reactions associated with life. Evolution destroyed her wonder at human sentience while increasing her awe of sheer, dumb luck.
Her friends and girlfriends would provide their opinions: heaven but as a true paradise without the ennui; reincarnation with no end; a single life relived again and again as an infinite loop; hell as the actual heaven and heaven as the hell; a simple continuation of life after a mandatory change in state of being; a ghostly world-wandering of unrecognized solitude; an evaporative return to nature; on and on. Sometimes, she would tell them that she believed one of their speculations. At other, rarer times, she would admit that she didn’t believe in any afterlife at all. They said, “That’s depressing. How can you think that?” and she said no more on the subject.
When she married, her wife foresaw a death leading into an afterlife in which they could and would be blissfully together, forever in love, the soulmates she believed them to be, brimming with destiny. When cancer stole her life away, Janice and all the adults who had known her wife told her children that she had gone to a better place just like the family dog who ran into a pickup truck and the family cat that lost a fight with a coyote and the goldfish poisoned by well-intentioned soap and the parakeet who simply dropped dead for no reason at all. When her children got older and they lost friends to lethal combinations of drunken revelry and poor luck, she joined in their mourning and listened to them say how, one day, they would all see their friends again. And when she herself grew old so that her children gathered around her as the life seeped out of her pores, she listened to their talk of joining her and their mother and their friends and the dog and the cat and the goldfish and the parakeet who had gone before.
But when the octogenarian’s eyes closed upon their faces and her fingers could no longer sense the warmth of their hands, she not only believed but knew that she was not going to a better place but was, in fact, entering into the nonexistence she had envisioned as a girl lying awake when her mind could not be still.
And so when she opened her eyes and looked upon a cloudy landscape, pearly gates, and Saint Peter, the only adequate response she could utter was “Fiddlesticks.”
Saint Peter didn’t look up from his computer—a computer. Apparently, heaven had changed with the times. The saint, sitting behind a desk beside the pearly gates, wore a gray business suit with a red tie and glasses which he occasionally pushed further up his nose. His hair was greasily slicked back and a fat silver ring flashed in the heavenly rays as he typed. Stretching away from his desk, off into the infinite distances beyond Janice’s vision, was a line of humans, patently from across the globe. Janice stood at the fore of this line, and as she squinted back at it, it appeared to her that a new person joined it about every half second or so. The faces staring back at her were slack-jawed and zombie-like, as if there were no consciousness operating within them. Their bodies swayed slightly.
“Janice Hodges. Please proceed to the main sorting area, just through there,” Saint Peter said, gesturing toward the pearly gates.
“What?” Janice replied.
“Hurry, please. You’re holding up the line, please.”
Janice shuffled toward the pearly gates, watching over her shoulder as the line lurched forward mechanically. The woman now at its fore snapped into consciousness, looking as dazed as Janice felt. Saint Peter spoke to her in what sounded like Spanish.
A cherub in a tiny blue suit fluttered over to Janice, ushering her through the gate and then past a chaotic mass of people and cherubs hurrying to various vague locations. “Ma’am, ma’am, please come this way, ma’am. We require your cooperation through this process, ma’am. You’ll understand the rush, I’m sure; we’re quite busy here. It is, after all, a recycling center.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the cherub said flatly. “Yes, ma’am. Souls are not a renewable resource, ma’am.”
“But isn’t this heaven?”
“Yes and no, ma’am. You will understand, ma’am, that details become confused when souls transfer between planes of existence, ma’am.”
“But this is the afterlife?”
“Yes and no, ma’am. It isn’t quite as homo sapiens has constructed, ma’am. It might be best to consider this… reincarnation, ma’am.”
“Reincarnation in heaven?”
“If you please, ma’am.” The cherub, having herded Janice into a group of other befuddled souls, flitted away, leaving her to survey her fellows. One purple-faced man had a bone visibly lodged in his throat while a blood-stained young woman wandered through the crowd with part of a windshield lodged in her skull. Several skeletal children with distended bellies wove through the crowd, and a few solemn men and women of various ages bore the evidences of suicide. Most of the crowd appeared ill or simply elderly, like Janice.
A red-head whose prettiness was marred by the needle marks on her arms and the look of addiction in her face turned to Janice. “What’s going on?” she asked.
Janice smacked her lips together. “Don’t know. That tiny man said something about reincarnation.”
The girl stared at her wide-eyed. “Oh my god,” she said. “They’re recycling us.” She began to pull at her hair with one hand while chewing the nails of the other. “Oh my god.”
Janice pushed the clouds covering the ground with her feet. She wanted to tell the girl something pleasant—“Of course not” perhaps—but the tiny bureaucrats drifting through the air triggered her skepticism and tamped down simple human hopefulness.
“Well,” she said. “It could be worse.”
The red-head frowned at her. “We’re supposed to be in paradise.”
“Well. It could have been fire and brimstone.”
“I don’t want to be recycled.” The girl folded her arms. “I lived life. I suffered. You’re, what, ninety? What about your life? You’ve suffered, I’ll bet.”
“I lost my wife to cancer.”
“See? You’ve suffered. We’ve all suffered. We deserve a reward.”
Janice looked off into the infinities that stretched around them and rubbed the back of her neck. “World doesn’t work that way.”
The girl’s lip trembled, and Janice tensed, ready to comfort her. She didn’t cry, though, and at last Janice turned away.
A short time later, a different cherub in a woman’s power suit floated toward the crowd, calling for their attention. Her hair was in a bun, and her smile had the rigid permanence of concrete.
“Hello, hello,” she said. “Lovely to meet you all. If all the English-speakers will follow me.”
Several other cherubs descended, each speaking a different language. One clicked briskly to a group of what Janice assumed were Australian aboriginals. Another twanged away in Japanese, and the hubbub of differing syllables swirled together, bringing faint childhood memories of the Tower of Babel to Janice’s mind.
The English-speaking cherub resumed, having led Janice and his fellow English-speakers to another cloudy expanse, “Now, if you’ll all just file through this chamber here for the memory erasure, you’ll be in your new lives in no time!” She beamed.
“Memory erasure?” the redheaded girl said, part of a chorus of startled exclamations.
“Yes. You can’t carry your old life into your new one.” The cherub continued beaming.
“Maybe I don’t want a new one,” said a sullen boy who, by his color and the vomit at the corners of his mouth, had died of alcohol poisoning. “Maybe I liked this one.”
The cherub’s smile didn’t falter. “You have had several lives before this one, I assure you. You probably didn’t want the one you just lived either!”
Some of the group, led by one of the suicides, had begun moving to the chamber. It was a peculiarly dull metallic box, something like an oversized filing cabinet, that sat awkwardly amidst the cloud and sky. Several of the crowd passed through, and glowing white ellipses drifted out the other end of the chamber, floating down a path made of the same material as the pearly gates. Janice couldn’t see the end of the path.
The redheaded girl said, “We’re supposed to go to paradise when we die!”
The cherub smiled coolly and said, “Souls are not a renewable resource.”
The cherub ran her tiny hands down her pencil skirt. “If souls are not recycled, we will run out, and life will cease. A generation across species which, once born, will merely sit and stare. Vague animal drives may push individuals to eat or sleep, but all other functions will not be possible. Intelligence, sentience, feeling, sensibility, these will not be possible. We must recycle souls to maintain the possibility of life as you know it.”
Another fragment of the crowd passed through the chamber, seemingly moved by this coldly provided speech.
The redhead said, “So what? What do I care? They promised me heaven! God damn it, they promised me heaven!” She began to cry, and Janice moved to her, putting an arm around her. The cherub averted her eyes politely.
“I just want to be happy,” the girl said.
Janice nodded. “I know. That’s all anyone wants.” She could hear the cherub speaking to another set of upset souls within the crowd.
“Souls are not a renewable resource,” the cherub said. “You have been recycled before, and you will be recycled again. Earth’s biomass increases all the time, and more creatures must be permitted to exist soulless. Your contribution is appreciated and necessary. Please enter the chamber.”
After a time, the redheaded girl sniffled and wiped her face. “Maybe next time will be better,” she said. She broke away from Janice, approached the chamber, and passed through. Janice watched the glowing orb that had been the red-headed girl glide down the path and disappear into the horizon. She wondered who or what her wife had become.
Most of the crowd had passed through the chamber by now. Only she and a few particularly stubborn souls remained. The cherub tapped her on the shoulder.
“If you’d step through the chamber, please,” she said.
She stared at the cherub who smiled like a politician.
“Does it ever stop?” she asked.
“No nirvana or enlightenment? No great paradise after many toils? Souls don’t wear out and get set aside? No choices? We just recycle forever?”
The cherub bobbed her head. “Yes, yes, for as long as there is life, yes. We must be cosmically friendly! It wouldn’t do to waste the increasingly finite resources of our infinite universe.”
Janice’s mouth twisted wryly. “And do we change?”
The cherub shrugged, and her smile softened somewhat. “How would any being, mortal or otherwise, know if you did? A soul without memories and experience is precisely the same as any other soul. Your body’s predisposition will give it initial color, and your memories will define you. Souls are merely the energy that allow you to be more than an organic machine. People are not souls—that is a common human misconception, we find—no, people are the sum of their experiences.”
Janice studied her expression for a moment and asked, “Janice Hodges. What happens to Janice Hodges? What becomes of the eighty years that created this woman?”
The cherub bore her teeth with her previous rockiness. “She stops existing,” she said and turned away, moving to push the other remaining souls into the chamber.
Janice watched her move through the crowd. “So we were all right.”
She watched several of her fellows pass through the chamber to transform into glowing ovals. Fear registered on some faces; others were resigned. One or two seemed pleased. A set of tiny hands landed on her shoulders and pushed her toward the chamber, each hand attached to a cherub reminding her that souls are not a renewable resource. They pushed her to the chamber’s door, and she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and tried to picture the time before she was born.
As she entered the chamber’s matte walls, she heard the buzz of silence, her imaginings of what it would be like to not exist becoming vivid, the memories supplementing the reality: how the darkness and silence would feel or, rather, would not feel; how it would be to not be a sentient object perceiving and to, in fact, be nothing but scattered atoms. She opened her eyes.
A sound like whipped lightning that wasn’t a sound at all cracked through her, breaking her apart into uncountable scattered moments, fleeting emotions, uncertain decisions, and releasing the white ellipse encased within the shell of her memory. She saw it drift away, out of the chamber, and felt the seconds of her life happening simultaneously, exploding outward in a sea foam spray of human consciousness:
She was a pair of cells in the womb, doubling in size and doubling in size until she was a zygote and then a fetus and a baby and a child lying in a bed trying to imagine what it was like before she was a pair of cells and what it would be like when her cells no longer used energy, and then she was a young woman courting loves carelessly until that one remarkable girl stole her heart, and then she was a woman grown and a mother and suddenly a widow in a suffocating hospital where her shoes squeaked on the linoleum floors, and then a grandmother and, finally, finally, she was an octogenarian holding the hands of her progeny until her eyelids closed on the faces of her children and her life exploded outward, a supernova in space—!