Ray walked down the narrow, dim hall, carrying a crumpled piece of paper.
“What is this, the Channel Tunnel?” he mumbled to himself. “I’ve never seen such a long hallway with no doors or turns. The last time I encountered something so rambling and tedious, I was reading the collected works of Henry James.”
He’d been walking for three straight minutes, and yet there was no visible end. The hallway walls stretched on, tapering to a point in the far distance.
“They at least need a sign with a dot that says ‘You are here,’” Ray said aloud. “An informational graphic would be useful when you’re trudging through purgatory. That and a food court. I’m thirsty.”
The hallway walls were painted a bleak, bureaucratic gray. Weak florescent lights buzzed and flickered overhead. The linoleum floor was cold and sterile.
Ray suddenly heard footsteps echoing from the far end of the hall. He squinted and made out the figure of a man approaching.
“Excuse me, sir,” Ray said, as the man grew closer. He held up the paper he was carrying. “I seem to be lost. I’m looking for Room 32B?”
“32B?” The man pointed in the direction from which he had come. “Just keep going straight down the hall. You can’t miss it.”
“Straight down the hall?” Ray repeated, as the man walked away. “That’s great. The guy’s a walking GPS. This is why men don’t ask for directions.”
Ray sighed and continued walking. In his early thirties with short dark hair, he was tall and slender with a thin goatee. He wore a pin-striped shirt with black slacks and gray suspenders. His shoes were polished to a high shine, and they clacked as he walked along the hard floor. His collar was open because his red bow tie was missing and unaccounted for.
“I liked that bow tie, too,” Ray muttered, as he rubbed his neck. “So what if it was a clip-on? It matched my pinstripes. I can’t believe I lost the damn thing.”
The hallway kept going and going. Out of boredom, Ray started to skip and hum “We’re Off to See the Wizard.” His polished shoes left scuff marks on the dingy linoleum.
“It just goes on and on,” Ray said, marveling at the walls that continued to stretch into the distance. “It’s like a yellow-brick road to serfdom.”
Finally, a light appeared at the end of the dim hall. Ray approached an open doorway.
“32B,” he said, reading the numbers affixed to the door. “Found it. Guess it’s a god thing I asked that guy for directions.”
He slipped into a classroom full of people. Everyone glanced at him as he walked inside. At the front of the class, an older man with spectacles stood in front of a projector screen. Ray assumed he was the lecturer.
“I hope I’m not late,” Ray said. “I had trouble finding the place.”
“No need to worry, young man,” the lecturer said. “Time is but an abstraction here.”
Ray tapped a woman on the shoulder. “Try telling that to my boss when I’m sneaking into the office at 8:10. Right? I wish she’d show the same leniency when I’ve been stuck in traffic on the interstate.”
The woman sniffed and faced forward.
Instead of desks, three long tables had been pushed together to form a U. All of the seats were occupied except for one near the front on the far end. Ray wormed his way around the tables, passing a small break nook with a refrigerator, as well as a counter topped with an assortment of snacks. The heavenly scent of coffee hung in the air.
Ray took the only available seat, which was next to a heavyset man who appeared to be in his mid-forties.
“Can you believe the arduous trek it took to get here?” Ray asked, scooting his chair closer to the table. “My goodness. I burned more calories coming to class this morning than I did all week on my elliptical. I didn’t know aerobics were included in the seminar.”
The man grinned and held out his hand. “Tom Wilkins. I’m the owner and director of sales for Wilkins Digital Signage. We specialize in electronic marketing and communication.”
Ray shook his hand. “Ray Cobbler, file clerk for Loose Shingle Property Management and all-around underachiever.”
“Is that on your business card?” Tom asked.
“Just the file-clerk part. I dabble in underachievement during my off-hours.”
“Well, everyone needs a hobby.”
“Do you have a card?” Ray asked.
“I do not. We don’t work with printed products in the digital signage business. We don’t want to spread ourselves too thin.” Tom coughed. “So, I take it you’re a new arrival as well?”
“A new arrival?” Ray asked. “You mean … here?”
“Yeah. I mean, they explained to you what this place is and why you’re here?”
“Oh.” Ray nodded. “Uh-huh. I just came in this morning, apparently. I mean, I guess it was this morning. I don’t know. Time’s an abstraction lately.”
“So they say.” Tom leaned forward, to speak closer to Ray’s ear. “I’m still coming to terms with it, myself. It’s not the most pleasant news to wake up to, especially before I’ve had my coffee. I would have taken it better if they’d offered a continental breakfast or a muffin or something.”
“I’m choosing not to believe it,” Ray said, folding the piece of paper he was still holding and slipping it in his pocket.
Tom’s eyes widened. “You don’t think this is real?”
Ray shook his head. “I think it’s all bad a dream. I think what happened was that I somehow hit my head, and right now I’m lying unconscious in a hospital gurney, constructing this entire nightmare from the myriad scraps of my imagination.”
“You think this is all a nightmare?”
“Of course. It’s a nightmare of my own imagining. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.”
“So if you’re having a nightmare, then what does that make me?” Tom asked. “Because I’m pretty sure I’m real. You don’t become No. 4 in the digital signage market in all of Wichita if you’re a figment of someone else’s imagination.”
“The entire situation is preposterous,” Ray said. “One moment I’m walking down Fifth Street, minding my own business, when all of a sudden I find myself here, enrolled in a seminar. There was no warning or anything. I was just plucked from my daily existence and deposited here. Even jury duty is less invasive.”
“So that’s when it happened?” Tom asked. “When you were walking?”
“I-“ Ray shrugged. “All I know is what they told me. They gave me a piece of paper and said I needed to come here to Room 21B for an introductory seminar.”
“32B, right. I must have got it confused with all those other rooms.”
“But you’re not convinced this is really happening,” Tom said. “You think you’re dreaming?”
“I’m positive I’m dreaming,” Ray said. “In fact, being trapped here in a classroom is one of my worst nightmares.”
“I’ve always had a deep-seated phobia of higher education. I get this panicky fear that I’m not prepared.”
“You mean for an an exam?”
“No, for the yearly tuition. I have this recurring dream where my financial assistance falls through the very day the bill arrives in the mail.”
“And that’s not the worst of it,” Ray said. “The dream always winds up with me naked in a classroom in front of a bunch of people.”
“Well, take it from me: you’re not dreaming,” Tom said. “I think the faster you come to terms with what happened, the better off you’ll be.”
Ray shrugged. “I think I’d rather be naked in front of all these people.”
The lecturer stepped forward. “I do believe everyone’s arrived, so it’s probably time we get started. Please note that we have coffee and snacks in the adjoining break area, so feel free to get up anytime to grab something. No doubt you’re wondering why you would still require replenishments at this juncture, but rest assured, it’s a topic I intend to explain later. So in the meantime, take all you want. There is no scarcity here; only abundance.”
Tom elbowed Ray. “That’s my problem,” he said, holding his large stomach. “Too much abundance. Still, those blueberry muffins are calling to me.”
“My name is Gerald,” the lecturer continued. “But please, call me Gerry. I’m going to be your primary liaison as we work to transition you through. And this is an informal setting, not school. So if you ever want to engage, simply speak up. No need to raise your hand or wait to be called on. We’re all friends here.”
A woman raised her hand. “Gerry, are we going to be quizzed on any of the information presented? I don’t have pen or paper for taking notes.”
Gerry laughed. “Heavens no. This is more of a collaborative discussion among us all. There won’t be any tests or anything of the sort.
“Besides,” he continued, “one might argue that each of you has just completed the most rigorous test of your lives, which is why you’re here.”
“I heard ‘no tests,’” Tom said, pumping a fist in the air. “Suddenly this seminar seems a lot less bleak.”
Gerry looked around the room, clasping his hands. “We all do know why we’re here, correct?”
The students murmured.
“It’s difficult to grasp, I know,” Gerry said. “I trust the liaisons you first encountered relayed the news.”
“I still feel shocked,” said an older woman sitting next to Ray, startling him.
“I understand,” Gerry said. “Most likely, you’re probably consumed with all sorts of emotions right now. Grief. Disbelief. Anger, possibly.
“However,” he continued, “the truth remains that each of you is here because of one simple reason: you died.”
The woman beside Ray let out a hushed sob. Ray swallowed, staring at the table. Even though his collar was open, his throat suddenly felt tight.
Gerry kneaded his hands. “By whatever circumstance, each of you reached the end of your mortal coil and completed your existence on earth. That’s why you’ve been brought here, to me. My job is to help you transition to the afterlife, so that you can spend your eternity in harmony, and peace.”
Other people in the room began to sob, as well. Most bowed their heads, to mute their melancholy. Ray rubbed his throat.
“You can consider me your spiritual liaison,” Gerry said, walking away from the tables and retreating to the front wall. The projector bathed him in a white light. “There is nothing to be afraid of. Heaven knows only love and goodness. That’s what I’m here to teach you. I’d also like to help you understand that your life on earth had a purpose, a meaning. By the very act of living, you wove a tapestry of love that brightened the lives of other people and helped to make the world a better place.
“Know that I am here as your mentor and guide,” Gerry said. “Know also that you’re loved and cherished. This seminar is not meant to be a painful reminder of the life you’ve lost. Nor is it to dwell on any perceived mistakes you might have made. Its purpose only is to convey how special, how beloved and how very unique all of you are.”
“It’s incorrect to say ‘very unique,’” said a woman on Ray’s right.
Gerry looked up. “What’s that?”
“I said it’s incorrect to say ‘very unique.’ The word ‘unique’ doesn’t have degrees. Either something is unique or it isn’t.”
The woman looked up and noticed that everyone was staring at her. “Sorry,” she said, looking down at the table. “In life, I was an English teacher.”
“How your students must miss you.” Gerry cleared his throat. “Please know also that in their time of grief, your loved ones will be watched over and protected. Though your death most certainly brings them great sadness, their hearts will be shielded from despondency and filled with the joyful memories your life brought to them. That I can promise you.”
Tom abruptly stood up, breathing heavily. Ray jumped, startled by the sudden movement.
Gerry clasped his hands. “I know, Tom, I know. It’s painful. Do you need a moment?”
“Actually … no,” Tom said. “What I really need is a blueberry muffin.” He pointed to the break nook. “You said we could get up whenever we wanted. I … is now a good time?”
Gerry closed his eyes. “You have all of eternity. Do you really need a muffin right now?”
Tom shrugged. “I missed breakfast.”
“You missed breakfast because you had a massive heart attack in your sleep and died on the spot,” Gerry said. “Your health was poor because you ate bacon and eggs every day.”
“Which is why I’m changing my diet and opting for a muffin.”
“It’s a little late for that, don’t you think?”
Tom shrugged. “I admit, my timing’s never been the best.”
Ray raised his hand. “Excuse me?”
Gerry pointed at him. “Go ahead — you with the missing bow tie.”
Ray touched his open collar. “How did you know I was missing my bow tie?”
Gerry smiled. “I know everything about you, young man. I’m a spiritual guide.”
“That’s creepy,” Ray said. “I hope you don’t know what I did last Tuesday night when I was home alone watching Cinemax.”
“My clairvoyance comes and goes. Your guardian angel will never turn his back on you, but sometimes he has to turn his head.”
Ray nodded. “Good to hear. Look, I don’t believe any of this is real. I can’t be dead. I’m barely 30.”
“Age has nothing to do with mortality,” Gerry said. “Many people die young. Jim Morrison, for example. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain —“
“Yeah, but there’s a big difference between me and all those people,” Ray said. “They all accomplished something in life.”
“You don’t feel you accomplished anything?” Gerry asked.
Ray raised his shoulders. “I made $14 an hour accepting rent payments on behalf of a slumlord. I don’t think anyone on Earth is down there making a movie about me.”
“Ah, but you did have an impact on people’s lives,” Gerry said. “Tell me, do you remember how you died?”
Ray swallowed. “It wasn’t my proudest moment.”
“So you do remember.” Gerry sat back. “I’d like you share your experience with the class. It will help start our discussion on entering the afterlife.”
Ray looked around the room. “You know, we have all of eternity to discuss how I died. We don’t need to bring it up here.”
“Don’t be shy,” Gerry said. “There’s no reason to be embarrassed.”
“Well,” Ray said, taking a deep breath, “it’s a little murky. All I remember is that my girlfriend broke up with me in a cafe. She just laid it out there. A yearlong relationship — gone. When I left, I was pretty stunned. I think … I think I must have wandered into the street and got hit by a car, or something.”
Gerry raised his eyebrows. “Is that really what happened, Raymond?”
Ray winced. “Do the specifics matter?”
“If I recall correctly,” Gerry said, “you were so distraught by the dissolution of your relationship that you wandered into the street and fell down an open manhole. That’s how you lost your bow tie.”
“And my life, apparently,” Ray said, frowning. “Thank you for sharing that on my behalf; I feel so much better.”
The class tittered.
“Now, now,” Gerry said, holding up his hands. “There’s no reason to be embarrassed, Ray. It wasn’t your fault. You were upset.”
“Yeah, well, I was upset when I couldn’t find a parking space last Wednesday, but you didn’t see me hurling myself into the sewer. I feel like I could have handled things differently this morning.”
“What’s done is done,” Gerry said. “You can’t do it over.”
“Right — I know,” Ray said. “You only get one shot. You can fail the SAT and get a second chance — or even the bar exam, for that matter — but if a guy falls down an open manhole, that’s it. Game over. There’s no forgiveness. I ought to sue the city for all my pain and suffering.”
“You were fortunate,” Gerry said. “You died a quick death.”
“I was talking about this seminar. So far, it’s been like pulling teeth.”
“Let’s move on,” Gerry said, gliding across the room. “We have a lot of ground to cover and not a whole lot of time.”
“I thought we had an eternity?” a woman called out.
“You’ll have an eternity in the afterlife,” Gerry said. “But meanwhile, people down on Earth are dropping dead left and right. It’s my job to keep things moving. I’ve already got another class scheduled right after this one.”
Ray raised his hand. “Before we get started, do you mind if I run to the restroom?”
Gerry narrowed his eyes. “You need to use the restroom?”
“I didn’t go before I died,” Ray said. “I was in a cafe, and it was a one-seater. There’s no way I was going to go in there — especially when I saw the guy who was in there before me. I decided to wait until I reached home … only I never did, obviously.”
“Raymond, we really need to get started —“
“You don’t want me going through eternity with a full bladder, do you?” Ray asked. “That’s why I failed the SAT the first time. I couldn’t concentrate. Unlike here, though, they gave me a second chance.”
Gerry sighed. “No, of course not. Go ahead. Do you know where it is?”
“I’m going to venture a guess and say it’s down the hall in the direction I came from?”
“Perfect.” Ray stood up. “With the walk, I should be back in about, oh, 45 minutes.”
“Great,” Tom said, standing up and patting his stomach. “I can use the time to grab a muffin.”