They lied about Heaven.
The pearly gates and golden roads are only at the entrance, like wrapping paper on a wedding present, but the inside is as cold and quiet as death. There are no white pillars, no clouds—only dark alleys and thin wisps of smoke from kaleidoscope hookah pipes. The angels have long traded their halos and robes for hemmed pantsuits, walking around in pumps and oxfords like refined secretaries. The atmosphere is solemn, the architecture smooth and mottled green like the ocean floor. Residents float around like ghosts in water. It’s a pretty place, the stuff dreams are made of, but nothing you could have ever imagined.
Welcome to your Eternal Home reads in glowing white letters etched onto a black header. This is what greets you beyond the entrance, a little farther down the lunar landscape. It is both comforting and ominous, challenging and ironic.
Heaven is the aquarium of paradise—Atlantis with a metropolitan aura. A city under the sea in a dimension where time is an illusion and tranquility is all-consuming. Where bright lights—these fluorescent beams from above slicing through blankets of peaceful black—illuminate stepping stones and stained glass.
All light you’ll ever find is from Him, because He can only ever be light itself. It is one of the only truths of Heaven correctly recorded.
Though He is an inescapable presence, His general form mostly stays in the throne room, his office, on the outskirts of this metropolis. If it’s actually like any of the Good Books describe, I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been inside. Most don’t, and only go when called—even the Messengers. I’ve heard the whispers of the intermediaries—those frail-faced beings who most readily do His bidding—and they say He spends Eternity on his alabaster desk chair, and He watches and He weeps.
Maybe that’s why Heaven is drenched in perpetual rain. It is wet from an eternity of tears from the Most High. I’d say it’s melodramatic as hell, but Hell can actually be prosaic in that regard.
Anyhow, excluding Himself, no one cries here. It is another truth accurately passed down to humanity. Sadness, melancholy, misery—they’re storm clouds in the distance, already passed, leaving a faint humidity only a few find suffocating.
Those few are the restless ones, the souls who look over their shoulder as they drift beneath blushing street lamps over puddle-ridden pavement. They exist in perpetual unease, craving a release they thought the afterlife would grant them but has yet to do so. They look to others, some of which using that lingering ache to make their peace even sweeter. After all, relief is only satisfactory when it is well-deserved. Most are simply oblivious to all they once were, their conscious warmly blurred, their minds numbs as they enjoy all the pleasures Paradise has to offer.
If life is what you make it, death is what you’ve wanted, however undeserving. There are no rules here, no schedules, and no expectations. You can do anything you choose, anything that could have been done on Earth. If you wish it, it’s there. There are museums besides spas beside nightclubs and swimming pools. Temples and tea shops and libraries and bars. All manner of culture and history melded into cosmic swirls of muted color, azure and cobalt blending with indigo and ebony like oils on a living canvas. Houses dwell anywhere anyone wants them to be, like anchors of existence found among all the abstract absurdity of the Creator’s subconscious.
There is Earth on Heaven, just as there is Heaven on Earth. Apparently, parallelism and congruity is important to Our Maker. I would have never thought that when alive.
Heaven is ancient, Heaven is the future. It is what Earth could never be, a place to wander and reflect on the life you led and the infinite lives you could have lived. But you must be wary, for memories of your past life will ebb and flow like moon-triggered tides. You pass by a pastel bakery and suddenly recall your honeymoon in Paris. You touch a crumpled napkin in a dimly-lit deli and find you cannot remember the name of your child, or even if you had one. I have met souls searching for loved ones that never existed, content in their journey because all they have is time and ease and non-existent memories of a person they once loved.
But where do you turn, to find another on this infinite plane?
You inquire an angel.
The hierarchy of angels (if they can be considered as such) is one only they understand. They have many sects—seraphim and cherubim, dominions and virtues, powers, principalities—but we only ever call them the Messengers. It is the unifying title across all cultures and ages.
They tend to ignore us, because we are their unspoken rivals. Their true form is hidden, like much of this existence, but it is an undeniable truth that they do not have wings and maybe never had. What they do have are features that constantly change and are ever-shifting: hair, eyes, skin tone, bone structure. The only similarity between them all is indifference.
I do not blame them for it. They are servants of the Most High, yet He only ever gives His love to His children. Detachment is their method of survival, keeping themselves from becoming equal to the creatures they resent.
This resentment, coupled with ethereal condescension, is what I see on the face of the Messenger who passes by me in the street. This one is dressed in black ruffles and sleek footwear, feathery wings of gossamer brushing past me like obsidian silk. The wings serve no purpose, clip-on appendages meant to exert their status or dazzle a newcomer. I know this to be true because I know this one, and they know me. Seraphiel. A name stitched in neat white lettering across the breast pocket of their coat. They simper, pencil-thin eyebrows raised, and I frown and hunch my shoulders even more.
“Hello to you too.” Seraphiel’s voice is as airy and melodic as any other’s, though this time it is laced with mockery. I move on, not wanting to grant them the satisfaction of acknowledgement. This does not stop them.
“You have not changed,” Seraphiel calls after me, obviously not referring to my apparel. “You still carry the scent of destruction.”
“Yeah?” I keep walking, hoping they’ll stop following. They don’t.
“Shall I mark you again? Was last time not enough?”
They laugh, and I duck into the nearest building to escape that judgmental chuckle. My hideaway became a blessing because in the aisle of this snow-white department store where everything glitters and glows, I find a new arrival. You can always tell by the scent they carry (like wet pennies) and the aura that surrounds them (like the sheen of silver bells). The store is empty save us, as these places usually are. She gazes around at the trinkets and blossoms floating beneath their thin glass cases. A freckled hand reaches out, pulling off a spherical case to grasp a lavender peony and bring it to her nose, eyelids falling shut.
I shuffle up to her and stand beside her in a slouch. I do not like this place, because it is similar to where I made my first attempt to escape. I remember the taste of dust bunnies in my throat as I lay with my belly to the linoleum floor, Madison and the black-suited Seraphiel atop me, desperately trying to smother my struggling. I had been erratic. Unhinged. I’d tried to slit my wrists with a glass shard from one of the cases, but they stopped me, and I was subsequently marked for notice. A golden crest branded onto the back of my hand that keeps me from being able to attempt such a feat again, earning the watchful stares of any Messenger nearby. Such is the procedure for a suicidal soul in the Place of Eternal Peace.
It may have hindered my plan, but it did not stop me. Nothing will, God willing. And He is. Because if He wasn’t, I wouldn’t exist right now. It’s as simple as that.
The girl shifts slightly, and interrupts my recollection. I have not spoken to a new arrival in so long. And I need updated intel about the ever-changing world above us.
“You’re new,” I say, voice flat and my hands shoved into the pockets of my grey jean shorts.
Her eyes open slowly and lose some of their glaze. “Really? I feel like I’ve been here for—”
“An eternity? Yeah, everyone feels like that.” I neglect to add that I do not consider myself part of that selection.
“How do you know I’m new?”
I shrug. “I know things. I’m different.”
She turns to me, taking in my inky hair and chalky skin with a few quick glances, and knows I am not exaggerating.
“When was your call time?” She asks hesitantly, the words faint on her tongue. Perhaps she still thinks that this isn’t the afterlife, that “call time” might mean anything but time of death.
“20 years old. Homicide.” I am curt. I practically poison the air around me with my bitterness. She’s fresh, so she has yet to realize my hostility is alien, my lasting resentment unnatural.
Like a sweet summer breeze, Madison appears behind me and joins the conversation. Her blue eyes are perpetually widened (from elation, from surprise, or from worry. I can never tell), and her auburn hair remains in the very ballet bun she had when she was called. Madison is the blessing that belongs, an entity too good and kind and caring to ever associate with me.
We were once friends, in the other world, in the other life. She still believes we are, just like she still wears a black leotard and pale pink tights, remnants of what she left behind. Clothing is optional here, as is most everything, yet most just dress themselves in their past (I wear grey, because black is too taboo and would only attract attention).
I cannot hate Madison, but I do not have friends here. I have nothing here. It is what I tell myself between packs of cigarettes and evenings at bars to keep myself from abandoning my mission.
Madison pats the girl’s shoulder, flattening the puffiness of her baby blue sleeves. “You can do whatever you want here.”
The girl cocks her head to the side. “Anything at all?” There was no denying the skepticism in her voice.
“Anything at all. But here’s the funny thing—“ And Madison smiled, lips parting to reveal teeth as white as the store’s decor— “when you spend enough time here, you only start to want what’s good. Like every other selfish desire you’ve ever had just melts away. Theft, deceit, murder—they’re all possible here, but completely improbable.”
What Madison said was true (for the most part), yet the girl still glances at me, unconvinced. I could see a question form on the tip of her kitten tongue, yet she thinks better of it and asks something else instead. “What happens if someone were to do any of those things, like murder? How can one die if they’re already dead?”
Here Madison takes a deep breath and glances at me. “God is good. But He is just.”
This is vague, and I know the newcomer is no less confused, so I take out a cigarette, light it with my pocket lighter, and begin my rant. “Heaven is a dream, and like in a dream, you cannot die. You only wake up. Where you wake up depends on how you tried to take your life. If you commit suicide, you are sent to the gates, evaluated, analyzed, and determined, then most likely sent to the other place since here apparently didn’t suit you. If you are murdered, wash, rinse, repeat. Although obviously shown more understanding.” I exhale, blowing out a small trail of bubbles that taste like sour gum and Sunday mornings. The bubbles surprise her, but she makes no comment, only hides a giggle. She must be catching on that the Most High has a hellish sense of humor.
Trying to maintain my tense aura, I continue, “If you murder, you are sent to the other place. Call it what you will: the wasteland, the burning city. Hell.”
She blinked at me owlishly. “Surely you must be joking. Who’d want to murder anyone here?”
I took the stub of my cigarette between my fingers, examined it like it is my salvation. “God gives, which is why we must give in return. But the world does not give. It only takes. So you learn to take back. And you live in the world long enough, you come to find it is all you know how to do.”
I drop the cigarette to the ground, crush it into the snowy floor with my sneaker, and walk out without another word. Madison will help the girl find what she’s looking for, if she’s looking at all. I have my own search to finish.
I have to find Clark.
Before I passed, my boyfriend was Clark. I can’t call him that now, because it is a level of familiarity uncommon for residents. He loved me in the other life. Maybe he still does. And maybe I loved him, because he is the only other person from that life I remember. I inquire a Messenger—androgynous and aloof—to discover he is currently staying in a modern, rainforest-style house on Rainy Lane, with white walls and low, black lacquer ceilings. Within minutes (or maybe millennia), I am there. As I step inside, I see emerald flora that grows over ivory tile with the aesthetic of a 20th-century conservatory.
Music plays in the other room—golden classics from the 1940s Western world. Music is a consistent backdrop in Heaven, no matter the time or place. At any moment, one can hear Mandarin lullabies or Argentinian guitar ballads playing from some manner of radio. It sets the mood and contributes to the daze.
The door is not locked, because there is no such thing as a locked door here. I enter. I do not knock. I do not not want him prepared. After a few short turns down hallways and across rooms, I see him. He stands in what I consider a bathroom, hands slowly pulling at a tie that matches his blue suede shoes. There’s a bottle of bourbon and a half-full glass on the nearest counter. The large white tub takes center stage, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling mirrors like dutiful sentries on guard. It is full, with water that steams and bubbles, smelling like summer rain. I see my opportunity. I take it.
His head snaps up, green eyes alarmed. “What the hell—?”
“My thoughts exactly.” Before he can say anything else, I’m across the room in front of him.
“Jesus, Riley,” he exclaims as I shove him backward, pushing him into the tub. His body submits, even if his mind is unable to comprehend. His white shirt is now soaked, revealing sharp outlines of body and bone. The buttons would be so easy to rip off. A task to save for after I undress.
“Careful. We don’t want Him around right now,” I reply, almost smug. I pull off my shirt. My shorts drop to the floor, and I step out of them. I wear nothing underneath. I am methodical, I am precise.
His eyes flick down and then return to meet mine. It’s a different world, but flesh is flesh. This body is the same one that he held in the back of his 1967 Mercury Cougar. I can practically feel the heat emanating from him, twisting up his insides and making him hot under the collar. “God dammit,” he curses under his breath, and I smirk because I know I can still torture him. I climb into the tub and sit on his hips. He doesn’t stop me, but he does manage to mutter, “You aren’t real,” in shameful self-denial.
“Baby boy, I’m the realest thing you’ll find in this fucked-up Paradise.”
It silences him, and we get on with our business. Our relationship is a bloodsport. We try to love by proxy but fail because of sentiment. It is a menagerie of tragedy, a satire of dysfunction. But it works. We make it work.
When it’s all said and done, we end up on the bed (a room over, with teal and turquoise sheets) entangled in each other’s arms.
“You’re a saint,” He says with a smile. His freckled shoulders, broad and appealing, gleam in the low light.
“No, those are found on Park Avenue.” But I return the smile in spite of myself. I know now my original intent is impossible to fulfill, that sentiment has once again ruined my inability to form attachment. As he drifts asleep, I watch the slow rise and fall of his chest, imagining myself stabbing scissors through his heart or wrapping my fingers around his throat as I straddle his rib cage.
After the briefest eternity, I leave him, swaddled in sheets and unaware of my murderous intentions. I dress in my old clothes, which have seemingly gotten darker and heavier than before, and stride with new purpose. So my target has changed; my plan and determination remain unwavering. Before I go, I take with me the tie he had been removing when I first found him. It’ll serve a noble purpose soon.
I find the new arrival from before, not far from the store where we first met. She stands alone atop a white skyscraper, damp from the soft rain falling from above and looking out over the city with awed confusion. When she sees me, standing there nonchalantly, her confusion deepens. “It’s you. From before.”
I shrug, no better response in mind.
“Were you looking for me?”
I step closer, my intent beginning to radiate off me in dark waves. “Yeah, something like that.”
She sees the tie in my hand, dangling from my white-knuckled fist. “What’s that for?” I hear the tremor in her voice, the anxiety bubbling beneath the haziness of her mind as she tries to understand why I come closer, looking to kill.
I stop before her, sighing deeply as I prepare myself for the inevitable about to take place. “Look, I’m really sorry it had to be you, but there’s just no other way.”
“What do you mean—?”
And then I’m atop her, tie wrapped around her throat, choking the life from her as she weakly struggles. I don’t like doing this, but for the greater good it had to be done. It’s like strangling a white rabbit or newborn deer. As her soul begins to fade, I look out across the city and murmur,”Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll send you back here after they evaluate you. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. You’ll forget all about this.”
Just before we both disappear completely, I look up to the light and smirk mockingly, unable to stop myself. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”
It begins to rain harder as we vanish.
I won’t speak about Hell. I won’t even try. My stay there was brief, but it was long enough to strengthen my resolve. All that’s important is I managed to escape it. My relief to return to Earth is strong enough to raise the dead, which is, in fact, what happens. I leave my grave undone, like a bed unmade, and venture back out into the world to complete my mission. On my tombstone, I leave a note. To anyone who finds it, I swear it’s the truth.
My name is Riley, and I am a prophet. I was taken from the Earth too soon, and I have work to finish. Upon my arrival to the Pearly Gates, I learned the only way to return to Earth is to first go to Hell. And to go to Hell from Heaven, you must either commit suicide or murder another. My suicide attempt a failure, I tried to murder my former lover Clark, only to falter at the last moment. In the end, I murdered a new arrival, and I went to Hell. When there, there is only one way to leave, and that is by pardon of the Most High. It’s a vicious but deliciously ironic cycle of death and more death, heaven and hell and hellish reality. God would be lying if He said He didn’t plan it to be that way.
I escaped Heaven, but I know I’ll return there one day, after I’ve finished His work on this mess of a planet. His children always do, when they’ve done their deeds. Maybe then I’ll enjoy myself. Maybe then I’ll find the right side of Paradise.
A/N: Inspired by a dream on 6/13/17
© 2018 Obliquity of the Ecliptic