He appeared through the fog, fingers clutching at the straps of his backpack as he circled around to try and make sense of his surroundings.
A large white building stood before him, imposing in an otherwise barren landscape. He was compelled up the steps, entering through an open door under an archway marked out in marble: “BEVERLY TRANSITIONARY OFFICE.”
Inside the building pillars connected intricate mosaics from floor to ceiling, light shining from every direction. He was enveloped in it, and he squinted and shielded his eyes as he tried to adjust to the brightness. When he brought his hand back down, his eyes moved to a line of benches in the middle of the atrium.
Several people were seated silently. He joined them, setting his backpack on the floor at his feet and attempting to get comfortable. Out of habit, he took his phone from his pocket. A notification on his lock screen told him that he was out of network. He opened the home screen with a swipe and, sure enough, a symbol indicated that he had no signal. His screen displayed his messaging app, lips twitching slightly as he saw the last message received:
Where are you?
When he tried to check the time, to see how long he was keeping her waiting, his vision seemed to swim before him and he found himself unable to focus. Shaking the sensation away, he tapped his screen closed and pocketed his phone again.
Instead, he turned to watch the woman next to him work diligently on a crocheting project. Her gnarled hands somehow managed to maneuver the needles though they were clubbed with arthritis. She was old, very old, and he noticed with some interest that most of the others on the benches were elderly, as well.
“Excuse me,” he tried to say, but his mouth was dry and his words ended with a cough.
The woman looked over at him for only a moment before returning to her work. Swallowing, he folded his hands together in his lap and settled on staring up at the tiled ceiling. A pattern of gold was inlaid among striking blue, forming constellations in a make-believe sky. He didn’t recognize any of them.
He heard the footsteps before he saw the figure approaching, and when he lowered his gaze from the starry picture, another man stood smiling across from him.
“Shane?” asked the man, who was dressed smartly in a light-colored suit.
“Yes?” answered Shane cautiously.
“Ryan,” the man introduced himself. His dark, short-cropped hair was styled meticulously, his dark eyes round and warm. One hand was sticking out for a handshake while the other arm was encumbered by a thick manila file. “I’m your case manager.”
Case manager? Shane opened his mouth to speak, but could find no words. What was this place? The last thing he remembered was-- Well, what exactly was it? He blinked, trying to place the pieces back together.
Ryan gestured for him to stand, and so Shane did, collecting his backpack.
“Will you follow me this way?” Ryan was friendly, unthreatening, and so Shane found no reason not to go with him. As Ryan guided him through the atrium, they passed the other people waiting and down a long hallway. Along they way, they passed by several closed doors. Ryan’s office was all the way at the end.
When they entered the room, Ryan flipped a sign on the door so that it read “in session.” He closed the door behind them. The office was small, filled with shelves of antique-looking books along one side, and a desk that was stacked with several more manilla files.
They seated themselves across from each other at a pair of plush chairs under a window. Shane looked out, but the fog outside was too heavy to see much other than what may have been a tree down below.
“So,” Ryan said after a moment, shuffling a few papers in his lap and producing a pen from his pocket, filling a few things onto what seemed to be some sort of intake form. “Do you know where you are?”
Shane shook his head, still looking out the window. “Absolutely no idea,” he said lightly, as if this was normal. Ryan raised an eyebrow.
“Try and think for a moment,” Ryan’s voice was even. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
This caused Shane’s expression to harden. “I…” he stopped, making a small humming sound because he honestly did not know. “I woke up this morning,” he said finally.
“I guess got up and got dressed. I was excited because I didn’t have to go to work. I had the day off. And I was going to ride my bike to meet Sara for breakfast.”
“Sara?” Ryan pushed for more information, and when Shane turned his head, he saw that Ryan’s eyes were lowered, following with something written on the topmost paper.
“That’s my girlfriend,” Shane clarified. “We have this place that we like to go because it’s halfway between our apartments. So I got on my bike and…and…” He sputtered to a stop.
Ryan looked up sympathetically, tapping his pen. “The driver of the truck that hit you wasn’t paying attention to the bike lane.”
“Yeah,” Shane agreed, “I guess I didn’t have a chance.”
“No. You were gone before the ambulance arrived.”
They let that sink in for a moment. Shane closed his eyes and let out a deep breath. “So. I am dead.” It was a statement rather than a question.
“Yes,” Ryan answered.
“And this is heaven?” Shane asked, skepticism clear in his voice.
“Well, no. This is the Beverly Street Transitionary Office.”
“And those papers on your lap are all the bad things I ever did in my life and you’re here to let me know if I actually get to go to Heaven?”
“No.” Ryan was calm. Shane could be calm, too. He didn’t see the point of lashing out, anyway, not even if he didn’t actually believe in Heaven or God or anything except nothingness at the end of his life, so he waited for Ryan to continue, “Heaven as you’re trying to conceptualize it does not exist. And while these papers do summarize your life, they’re not going to be used to judge you. You’re not going to Heaven, not this time. And no, before you ask, you’re not going to Hell, either.”
“Okay,” said Shane, because that Ryan didn’t look like he was joking. “Alright.”
“What you’re here to do is to prepare for reincarnation.” Ryan explained. “When you leave here, you’re going to be reborn. Because you are going to be reborn.”
This whole thing sounded absurd. Shane made a face. “Like… as my mom’s dog? I always thought it might be interesting to be reborn and live the good life getting lots of tummy rubs and sleeping for most of the day.”
Whether the sound that Ryan made was a laugh or just merely him clearing his throat in disapproval, Shane couldn’t quite tell. “No. It doesn’t work like that, either. Your soul has already made it past that stage. You’ll be reborn as a human.”
Shane looked out the window again. Though the fog was still somewhat thick, this time he could more easily see the tree outside. From the looks of the mottled bark, it was a sycamore tree. A slight breeze swished through its branches. “And so what are you, then? Some kind of angel?”
“No,” Ryan scribbled something on his report. “I’m human, just like you.”
“And you’re dead, too?”
“Yes,” Ryan kept writing.
“You don’t look dead.”
“Neither do you,” Ryan retorted, as though he had heard this before. “Look. I know it must be… different than what you were expecting.”
Focusing away from the tree and onto his own reflection in the window, Shane grabbed at the side of his head. That was where he’d been struck, but from what he could see his head was fully intact. He really didn’t look dead, but he recalled clearly the moment of impact. There was no way he could ever have survived. His phone felt heavy in his pocket, and his fingers began to prickle as they did when he was starting to panic. “Is Sara… does she know I’m dead?”
“Yes, Shane. She knows.”
“So, I’m never going to see her again?” Shane quieted, feeling the realization sink heavy in his stomach for the first time.
This time, Ryan stopped writing. He capped his pen. “No. No, you’re not. She will go on living.”
As happened so frequently when Shane felt a flood of emotions coming on, he turned himself off, squaring his jaw. There was no way he was letting some stranger, some weird ghost (which he hadn’t even believed existed) who’d identified himself as a goddamn case manager, watch him get upset.
He folded his arms over his chest and shifted in his chair. “You mentioned that I’d be ‘preparing’ for reincarnation. What exactly does that entail?”
“Think back on all of your memories, Shane, all the memories that you’ve ever had in your whole life.”
“What about them?” The words were cold. He didn’t want to do this. Not now.
“It’s okay to be upset,” Ryan affirmed, “You weren’t prepared for death, and that--”
Unwilling to let the conversation delve into what he was or wasn’t prepared for, Shane interrupted. “What about them?”
Ryan watched him with a flicker of something else in his eyes. There was still kindness and understanding on a surface level, but was it annoyance? Like he was trying to explain something to a child? Or was it fatigue? Shane wondered how long Ryan had been on the job, so to speak.
“Is there any memory you can think of that doesn’t quite, well, doesn’t quite fit? You’re not exactly sure how it got there?”
The question momentarily quelled Shane’s building resentment. “Honestly… yes?”
“And whose memories are those? Are they your memories?”
“How should I know? Whose memories would they be?”
Ryan tapped his foot, eyebrows raised. “Reflect on that. This week, we are going to work on something together. You’re going to need to choose a memory, one memory, to take with you on the next stage of your journey.”
“One memory,” Shane finally allowed himself to look confused. He slunk back into his chair. “Why?”
“Well, simply put, we’re going to reconstruct it for you, so that you can take it with you.”
The upbeat tone in which Ryan spoke caused his temper to flare, but Shane managed to keep his voice courteous. “Reconstruct my memory? How?”
“Usually we recreate it on camera so that you can watch it, like a short film.”
Shane raised his eyebrows. “So I get my own mini-Cannes and after I watch it I’m outta here and onto the next life?”
“Uh… right,” Ryan nodded, though he didn’t seem to have gotten the film festival reference. “We do it because the experience has been found to be more vividly received that way.”
“And how exactly is this proven?” Shane asked, pinching at the skin of his inner elbow. He wasn’t going to punch this guy, he wasn’t going to punch this guy. He wasn’t.
When Ryan did not respond, Shane rolled his eyes.
Perhaps sensing defeat, Ryan stood up and closed Shane’s file. He placed it ontop of the pile on his desk. “Why don’t I show you where you’re going to stay this week, while we have you with us? Then maybe you’d like some time to yourself to start to think?”
“Yeah,” Shane shrugged his shoulders, tone sounding as unauthentic as it felt. “Wonderful. Sounds great.” He grabbed his backpack and once again made to follow Ryan.
They stopped just before the door again, Ryan turning to him. He was shorter than Shane by quite a bit and up close, Shane could see that while he looked young at first glance, something about Ryan felt so, well, old.
“It’s going to be okay, Shane. I promise.”
Shane didn’t believe him.