All her life, Becky had known that one day she would die. And all her life, she had prayed the Lord her soul to keep. The news of her cancer left her strangely calm, assured of her place in the happiness she called heaven. A kind of serenity settled over Becky as her sickness progressed and she was eventually confined to her bed. And every night, no matter how weak or in pain, she knelt on the carpet-covered floor and said her prayers. So young, murmured the doctors who took her temperature and stuck a needle in her arm. All that wasted potential, sobbed her mother, who had stopped coming to visit because of the pain the sight of her only child dying caused her. Her father said nothing anymore. He just looked so, so sad. Becky often thought that it might be a relief, for everyone, when she died. She knew she would be in God’s hands, safe with her maker.
She died one night, quietly. There was a small funeral two days later.
There was a flash of bright light. Becky expected that. How could the glory that was God not come with a bright light? The very notion was inconceivable. When the light began to fade, Becky eagerly peered ahead, anticipating the majesty of the meeting to come. Instead, the light revealed a room, where people sat in slightly uncomfortable chairs. On the far side of the room, there were four official-looking folk sitting behind desks. Becky noticed that the waiting folk looked slightly tense and some had eyes that moved between the four officials wildly.
“Excuse me, miss?”
Becky was abruptly hauled out of her reverie by the soft, polite voice. She determined its source as the small, dapper man that waited behind a counter just inside the door. Becky walked to the counter and peered at the man. He was very neat and his glasses perched just so on his nose. A placid pair of brown eyes stared up at her. Becky glanced at the name tag pinned to the breast pocket of his shirt and her mind shuddered away from the name she read there.
“Peter?” she asked, her voice suddenly hoarse. “Saint Peter?”
“Of course. Are you new?” he asked, his voice tinged with brisk efficiency.
“Oh. Yes. Am I in heaven?”
Saint Peter’s only reply to her question was a chuckle. His fingers flew over a keyboard and then he handed her the slip of paper that had printed out of a machine. It had a number on it. “Go have a seat. Your number will be called soon. Go to the first available archangel and you can get registered and then introduced into society.”
Becky was confused. She silently took the piece of paper and went to sit down. The chair was hard and Becky shifted around for a minute or two, trying to get comfortable. When she was, she leaned back and looked around.
The room was drab and grey and there was a faint sense of chaos and disorganisation. As if nobody knew what was going on. The voice that called out the numbers was bored and began to drone in Becky’s ears. She shivered and wondered where she was. When she had thought about heaven, she had never imagined this.
Suddenly, Becky’s ears perked up. Her number had been called. She stood up and walked over to the empty seat in front of the desk, glancing at the man who she would be talking to. He was tall and almost too handsome. He burned brightly with an inner light that was almost too much for her eyes.
“Your name?” he asked suddenly, his voice low and melodic.
“B-B-Becky,” she stammered, overwhelmed. “Who are you?”
“Uriel. For the time being, I’m going ensure that you’re correctly registered and settled into your assigned division.”
“Division?” she asked, more confused than ever. Uriel. One of the archangels. But this suited man had not been what she was expecting. Becky had been expecting wings, trumpeting, halos of light and righteous proclamations.
Instead, she felt like she was sitting in Home Affairs.
“Am I in heaven?” she asked again, this time a little afraid of the answer.
Like Saint Peter, Uriel just laughed. But he did give her answer. “Oh naïve child. Heaven. Hell. Those places don’t exist here in the real world.”
The real world? Becky reeled and felt faint. She could almost hear her foundations shuddering as she struggled to comprehend what she had just been told.
“But… the bible…” she tried to get out, her words failing her.
“The bible was written by men.”
Becky shrank back, a cold kind of horror tearing up and down her spine. “You sound like an atheist,” she hissed, suddenly angry.
Uriel shrugged nonchalantly and didn’t respond. Instead, he collected a sheaf of forms and handed them to her. “You should be able to fill these in without any difficulty. It shouldn’t take too long either. Once you’re done with that, drop them in that box over there and head back to Peter. He’ll tell you what to do next.”
Becky stared at the forms. “But, heaven…?” she mumbled. Uriel sighed.
“This isn’t heaven, girl and you’re wasting my time. Welcome to the Afterworld.”
“God would never abandon me!” she suddenly exclaimed, her eyes lighting up. She glanced wildly around, assuming the other men behind the desks were also archangels. They glowed like Uriel did.
“God?” snapped Uriel, clearly beginning to lose his patience. “You still think there’s a God? Get a grip, Rebecca. This is a democracy.”
Her mind shuddered once, twice and then snapped. Shrieking, she leapt from her seat, scrambling onto the desk. Uriel’s expression was impassive.
“Atheists! Liars! May God’s fiery wrath burn your souls!”
Becky felt feverish, hot. She knew this was just a test. A test of her faith and her belief. She knew that if she passed, she would be gladly brought into the comforting embrace of her Lord.
Her mind teetered, slipped and then fell headlong into insanity.
“This is for you, Jesus!” It was a triumphant, lunatic call to arms. She jumped off the desk and flung herself into the group of people on chairs.
Uriel sighed and watched as various guards waded into the chaos now consuming the room. He stood up and walked to stand at the shoulder of his neighbour.
“There’s one in every batch,” he said calmly, as if the screaming, struggling woman at the centre of all the bedlam was something he saw everyday.
“I had hoped we’d seen the last of them.” The man who spoke was composed and, like Uriel, had an unmistakeable air of efficiency about him.
“Oh, I doubt that. As long as people keep dying, Michael, there will be a couple of nuts and bolts here and there.”
“What was she?” asked Michael, archangel and about as religiously famous as you get.
“Cause of death?”
“Cancer.” Uriel’s voice was monotone.
“Poor thing,” said Michael, a tinge of sympathy in his tones. “I hope it doesn’t take her too long to come around.”