Dying is painful.
Don’t believe what you’ve seen in movies, or on the television, about how it’s like going to sleep. It isn’t. Take it from someone with first hand experience. Dying hurts like hell. It’s unlike any pain you’ve ever experienced before, and just when you think it’s ending and you’re pulling away from the train station, you can still feel it.
It’s loud and violent. It’s a cacophony of noise in your head.
It really sucks.
Maybe if you live to be a hundred, and you’ve been worn down by life, dying could be painless. Surround yourself with your kids, fat grandchildren, good friends and enough food to feed a football team. Throw a party. Then have the dignity to go in your sleep. Just nod off in bed and never wake up again. Maybe that might not hurt.
Might even be peaceful.
Somehow, I doubt I’ll ever find out.
Because I already died once. It didn’t take.
It was three in the morning, and it was damn cold outside. January is like that in Philadelphia. The wind blows cold enough that it hits you in your bones through four layers of clothes. Sometimes it’s enough to make you consider a move to warmer climates. Like the arctic circle.
But this was home and I was used to it.
Even so, I had been out since around noon, and I was just happy to be getting home to a nice warm bed. There are few things in life a good drink and a couple of blissful sleep can’t make you feel better about.
I had been out late nearly every night that past week running down leads on a job for one of my clients. I am what some people might call a detective. I find things for people. I can find anything, and I can get it back for you.
Other people might also call me a criminal, as I’m not above stealing from bad guys as part of my payment.
My name is Sam Church.
I’m not in the book. My rates are reasonable. I work only by reccomendation, and I never disclose my client information.
If you need something located and retrieved, I’m the guy you want.
That night, I had broken into a lawyer’s office in Center City and taken the last will and testament of a very rich man. His kids had hired me to find it, because they believed their gold-digging twenty-something stepmother was trying to hide it from the court. They had been convincing, and while not exactly my stereotypical case, I agreed to take it. I don’t like it when people take advantage of others.
And I hate liars.
After a week of digging, observation and planning, I managed to get all the evidence the kids would need to implicate their former stepmother, and maybe get some closure for the loss of their father. It was a job well done and I thought I deserved a few hours of quality time with my pillow before calling the kids in the morning.
Best laid plans, and all that.
I parked my car in a spot not far from the house, and grabbed the manilla folder on my passenger seat. It had everything they would need to get the ball rolling. I felt kinda proud of this one. They seemed like good kids. Also, the money they would get out of this would be substantial and my fee was a reasonable percentage of that.
Waste not, want not.
As I walked up the front stoop to my door, I saw faint motion out of the corner of my eye. Just a slight movement in the shadow between houses. It didn’t register what I was seeing at first, so when I turned to see what had caught my attention, I was already too late. I had moved just in time to see the face of a man I didn’t know, and the barrel of a gun aimed at the side of my head.
There was no hesitation as he pulled the trigger twice. My instinct was to move, but… where was there to go? I’m pretty quick on my feet, and I’m agile as hell for a guy my size, but I’m not The Flash.
It’s weird. I can clearly remember hearing the hammer click down twice. I can still see the muzzle flash. I can taste the gun powder cloud. And I can remember that less than a second later, I was laying on the cold pavement, looking up at a starless night sky.
He stood over me, expressionless.
The most remarkable thing about this man was how absolutely ordinary he looked. There wasn’t a distinguishing feature that would stand out. He was maybe 40 years old, with dark eyes and hair that had probably been blond in his youth, but was fading and thin. He held a brimmed hat in his gloved hands, like a forties mobster and he wore a ratty trench coat that had seen better days in the 70s.
Slowly, as I took all this in, the edges started to go black. I got colder. The sensation wasn’t pain, not yet anyway, but I felt heavier. That feeling of pins and needles, but along my entire body. It didn’t last long. Soon, it had moved past sensation, and I knew what was happening.
And then there was pain.
I was aware of how the pain manifested as I died on the street. The side of my head felt like my skull had been caved in with a baseball bat. A heavy, intense pressure and burning, like it had been set on fire.
My vision started to fade completely, and I was blind. I couldn’t even hear the city anymore. Everything was a muted echo of blaring noise. Was that sirens? Car horns? It grew and grew and became louder and more painful than anything I had heard before, and it was unrelenting as the anvil chorus beat against whatever was left of my skull.
Until finally, what felt like several lifetimes worth of pain later, it all stopped.
I was dead.
You hear a lot of people say that life flashes before your eyes when you die. Others say they see themselves in a long tunnel going towards the light. Some poor bastards even remember going to hell briefly before their “Near Death” experiences turn into “Oh thank god, I’m alive!” experiences.
I didn’t see any of that. I didn’t wake up in Faustian hell, and it definitely wasn’t Utopian Heaven.
When I could see again, I was still in Philadelphia. On my doorstep. Right where I had been shot.
But this wasn’t my city .
Some of the best artists of all time have painted cityscapes that give you the impression of what you’re looking at without any of the detail that really makes the city feel alive. That’s exactly what I was seeing. This place wasn’t Philadelphia. It was a pale watercolor copy. The colors moved and faded and stretched along the lines, instead of being immutably real. It was a reflection of the living, breathing city I called home.
It was a parody of light and life and sound, and only ghosts lived here.
It was an un-place.
Just as sure as I was that this wasn’t my Philadelphia, I was sure that I was dead. Some primal part of me knew exactly what had happened to me. And I knew where I was, too. This wasn’t the afterlife. This was purgatory.
And I wasn’t alone.
They looked like shadows at first. Black centers of mass and barely formed shapes. Only as they came closer could you make out the blurred edges of barely formed, humanistic features inside the darkness. They were shades of the people they had once been. Even now, I can’t help but wonder if that’s how I looked to them, if they were aware of me at all.
I looked down at my own hands, trying to find an anchor to ground myself in this place. The dull, muted sound of wind seemed to come from everywhere, and I grew panicked.
Amid the dull wind there stirred whispers. Thousands and thousands of whispers that I couldn’t make out. They were indistinct and low, adding another layer to the background white noise of the wind.
“Hello!?” I yelled. Or at least, I think I yelled.
There was no answer.
“Can… can anyone hear me?” I tried again.
“Yes,” came a voice from very near me. “I can year you. Can you hear me?”
I turned on the spot, looking all around me for something real. I reached out, searching for the sound of the voice. It was low and melodic against the background babel, and oddly modulated as if several overlapping octaves of voice all spoke simultaneously. But I saw no one.
“Are you aware of where you are? Of what has happened?” the voice asked again.
My voice came back as only a whisper. “Purgatory…”
“That is one name for it, yes. Another way to put it would be ‘between’.”
“I don’t understand. I’m dead, right? I can feel it. Or… I can’t, really. Which I think means the same thing.” I didn’t even know if I was making sense. I felt like I was on the verge of a panic attack.
“Yes. Death is the only way to get here, I’m afraid. This place is supposed to prepare you for what comes next… or condemn you to it. It depends on where you are going after. Most souls aren’t even aware of where they are, or that they’re dead. They are only shadows.”
“And what then? Where am I going?”
“That isn’t my purview.”
“And who are you?” I asked, trying to calm myself.
“Only a caretaker, of sorts. And a prisoner. I’ve been trapped here for a very long time. You’re the first soul I’ve encountered who has retained his own sense of self longer than a few moments. That makes you very special.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. None of this made any sense. I was dead. I was in purgatory. I was having a conversation with someone I couldn’t even see. Did I lose my mind somehow?
“Nor should you, but… it may offer us each an opportunity.”
“How? If I’m dead, what is there I can do about it?”
“Very little… unless you’d prefer to return to Earth instead?”
“I could go back?” I said.
Show me the person who could blithely shrug that off. Life is the most valuable, most important thing any of us ever possess. Life is love and pain, and all the good and bad that make you who you are. Life is not simply disposable.
This voice was telling me I could go home.
But that possibility was hardly unheard of. Didn’t God or Jesus or someone in the Bible bring the dead back to life? And didn’t Jesus rise from the dead? I remember something about all of that. Granted, I wasn’t the most religious guy you’re likely to meet.
But I also wasn’t the son of God.
“We both could. I’ve been stuck in this place for much, much longer than you can imagine. And I will remain here forever, without the help of a human soul. The soul inside you, the free will of a human, could carry me back to the living world. But it has to be their choice. I could guide the way for both of us.”
It wanted my help. I didn’t know who or what I was dealing with. What would I be letting back into the world if I took it up on it’s offer? For all the mythology you read and movies you see, and the awful tv shows on cable nowadays, there are plenty of monsters that have been around longer than that.
The world is full of monsters. More on that later.
I had dealt with plenty of monsters and con men before. Better to be safe than sorry. The only question that mattered had to be asked.
“What are you?”
The voice was oddly silent for several seconds, and when it came back, there was a much more reserved tone to it.
“I was an angel, once,” it said. “But I fell to Earth with others of my kind. I was banished to this place as punishment, as I atoned for the crimes of my brethren. As angels no longer have free will, I cannot leave here on my own.”
An angel. I… had never met an angel before.
“If I agree to bring you with me, you can get us back? I can get back to my life?”
All I could focus on was the idea that I could get back. I could find the guy that shot me. I could go back to my life. I had been dead only a few minutes from my perspective, but I wanted my life back more than anything I had ever wanted before.
I wanted to see my city, the real Philadelphia, and not this watercolor parody that I stood in now. I wanted to see everyone I loved. And this angel claimed that it could make that happen.
“All you have to do,” she continued, “…is make the conscious choice to allow me. I will mix my being with yours. Human will combined with divine energy. I can use that to navigate us back to the world, and to freedom.”
“And once we are there?”
“A simple ritual will separate us, and we go on our own paths.”
There was every chance this could be a mistake. But what was the alternative? To accept… this? Purgatory? And then to whatever apparently came next. I could end up in Heaven for all the people I had helped. I could just as easily head south for all the harm I had caused.
As I said, I am not religious, by nature. I had never made my peace with God. Never asked for forgiveness for anything. I lived my life, helped those who asked me to, and tried to make sure that when I hurt someone or took something, that person or thing had it coming.
So could I accept this? Death? Moving on to whatever came next?
I looked at the shades around me. They wandered, aimlessly, trapped inside themselves. There was no “life” there. They had lost who they were. I couldn’t become that.
No fucking way.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Well, Sariel, I’m Sam. Saddle up. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
There’s a hole in my memory about what came next. I feel like there was a conversation, but I couldn’t tell you what it was about. I feel like I should remember, but I don’t. There’s just… nothing there.
What I do remember is the sensation.
There was a sense of pressure over every square inch of my body, and then I felt light headed as everything spun. The water color city receded into the dark, and took the shadows with it. The dull roar of restless wind diminished to nothing.
But instead of cold, silent blackness dragging me beneath the heavy tide of sleep, as it had when I was dying, this was white and hot.
Sariel moved us with such speed and intensity, that it was like becoming a streak of lightning. I was splintered into a million tiny pieces, each going in a different direction as my consciousness clung to my only hope for life.
And the angel sang to me.
I lost myself in the melodies of Sariel’s voice. It flooded through me in that burning white heat. The pieces of me rebounded together like a snapped rubber band, and I watched, and marveled, as my body reforged itself.
It pulled tiny, stray pieces in the fabric of reality together, the building blocks of the universe, and it revolved and fused together until I had bones, and muscle, and skin. Somewhere during the process, the sensation overwhelmed me. I blacked out from the pain.
Dying is painful.
But it’s not nearly as painful as being reborn.