The waiting room for the afterlife was made that much more pleasant, Beckett decided, by the baby blue backdrop. She tested her balance, lifting a foot and placing it back down on the ground. The floor rippled where her foot touched, but it seemed stable enough. Somehow.
There were no walls, no ceiling, no floor. There was, however, a long line of mahogany desks with men, women, and children behind them. People in chairs faced the desks, the sets of two engaging in discussion in a quiet background hum. The line went on and on, long past the point of Beckett’s vision, but the amber lamps atop the wooden surfaces illuminated their faces with a warm glow.
Beckett wandered a little closer, slipping a hair tie off her wrist and pulling back her choppy brown hair into a loose ponytail. The feathery tips brushed against the back of her neck.
She was struck with the image of someone being called into their manager’s office “just to talk” about their performance. At the desk closest to her, a little blonde boy sat. He adjusted his comfortably oversized glasses before locking eyes with her.
“Beckett Browning?” the little boy called, looking up at her. “Ah, there you are. Come, sit.” He jerked his head, one sharp motion.
She blinked and found herself snapped across from the boy, sitting in a chair that wasn’t there a moment ago. Her hands gripped the edge of the wood as she jolted, the tugging feeling in her gut subsiding and reality folding in on her again.
“Don’t mind that,” the little boy said, lips tightening with courtesy. He stopped to really look at her, then glanced down at a paper off to the side of his desk. “Twenty two, huh? So young.” He spoke in careful monotone.
Beckett looked up from her whitened hands. She tried to focus on the boy, but his face blurred for a moment, eyes flashing brown to hazel to blue. Her brain filled with static.
“Where am I?”
The boy in front of her made a noncommittal, squiggly motion with his hands. “Not quite here or there. You’re not alive, that’s for sure, but you’re not quite gone yet. Think of this as the milliseconds between life and death.”
“That is the part people usually focus on, yes.”
Beckett sat back in her chair, feeling the cool wood press against the small of her back. Suddenly, she felt rather ill.
“You died in your sleep, if it helps to hear that.”
“No. You died in a horrific accident. You were playing Crossy Road while speeding on the highway and you hit the shoulder, causing a twelve-car pileup. The wreckage of your car caught fire and your body was scorched nearly beyond recognition. Your family held an open casket funeral to raise awareness about the dangers of texting and driving.”
“Oh.” Beckett shuffled in her chair, crossing her legs one way and then the other. She made eye contact with the little bobblehead on the corner of the boy’s desk. It was a well-loved figurine of Megatron. Half of her was pretty sure she was going to throw up. The other half still wasn’t entirely sure she had a corporeal body. “So. Death. I guess that means I’m going to hell, huh?” She cracked a wobbly smile.
The boy flipped through the large manilla folder in front of him, shaking some dust onto the desk. A big red brand took up the center of the cover. Beckett’s name was printed underneath in bold Courier. “If you believe in that.”
“If I believe in that?”
“Humanity is in such disarray over what happens over death, yet so unable to justify their opinions about the unknown. It’s fascinating how far you’ll go on faith alone. Your devotion is almost admirable. So many lives, lost over nothing.” The boy chuckled.
“You find that funny?”
“I find that ironic,” he corrected, leaning forward. His oversized suit jacket stuck for a moment to the black leather backing of the seat. Beckett stared into his eyes, now hazel brown with flecks of gold. “Because none of you are wrong. Curation is half the beauty of life, why should that not follow you through death? Yet you slaughter one another in droves in a cheap attempt to affirm something you know unfathomably little about.”
Beckett frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Well, I’m nothing more than a construct, but here I find myself.” The kid shook his head. “Nothing makes any sense. Time to start getting over it.”
Beckett took a second.
She’d been raised an atheist, a staunch believer in nothing whatsoever postmortem. Despite her middling efforts, she’d never found herself called to by the ideals of any particular religion. And as nice as more spiritual outlooks on the afterlife seemed, she had never been able to wrap her head around the idea.
“I didn’t think I believed in anything. Does that mean I’ll just stop existing?”
“Most likely. That’s probably in your best interests,” he replied. “I would usually be here to help you make a case for heaven, assess whether or not you were fit for regeneration, or the like, but in this case, you save me a lot of work and yourself a lot of hardship.”
“So you’re like my caseworker,” Beckett said. “Or like some kind of guardian angel, watching over me.”
“No, not a guardian angel. I never interfere during life, I just watch from the side and take notes.” He patted the folder next to him twice. “Think of me more as a friend that listens really well, but just gives you an awkward pat on the back when you finish crying on their shoulder.”
Beckett pursed her lips. She smoothed the wrinkles out of her shirt and looked around. On both sides, various suited individuals were flipping through files, speaking in measured tones and gazing with quiet sympathy at the various people in front of their desks.
“Do you want to know how many times you had sex?”
“What?” Beckett turned back to him. “You’re like twelve, what the fuck?”
“To be fair, I am literally not a real person and also entirely conceptual.” The boy shrugged. “I don’t know. Most people want to know how many times they had sex.”
“Do you have access to that?” Beckett could feel her cheeks coloring, despite her incorporeal body’s suspicious lack of blood.
He nodded. “We get access to all kinds of fun statistics here. For instance, you’ve consumed an average of forty hours of television a week during the last three years. That’s significantly more than the average American.”
“It’s not my fault that I have no friends.”
“You had sixteen people you considered best friends throughout the course of your life, each of whom you dropped the second you found a more interesting individual.”
She paused. “Some of those people were assholes. I can’t be held responsible for them not showing their true colors earlier.”
“You had four best friends that you accurately considered assholes. You dropped the other twelve because you wanted to ladder-climb.”
Beckett thought back to all her late nights talking shit, then all of her late nights talking shit on the people she used to talk shit with. Their faces molded together in her mind, too unpopular, too skinny, too much makeup, too pretty.
She crossed her arms. “I don’t like this game very much.”
The boy gave her another of those tight-lipped smiles. “Not many people do.”
“Fine.” Beckett leaned forward in her chair. “Tell me something fun. How many people had crushes on me throughout the course of my life? And I don’t mean that childhood crush shit, I mean like the real deal. Distressed pining from afar and all that.”
“There were eight total individuals, excluding crushes before the age of fifteen.”
“Only eight? Damn.” Beckett sat back in her chair. That almost hurt more than finding out she was dead. “Was Johnny Darren one of them?”
“He was indeed.”
She pumped a fist. “I fucking knew it! Suck on that, Matilda, your boyfriend liked me better than you!”
“Yes, it seemed to be quite the strange situation. Your untimely death was actually the catalyst that brought the two of them closer together. Young love is so beautiful.”
Beckett made a face. “I never liked him anyway. What’s the most remarkable thing about my life?”
“Well, you avoided potential fatalities more than nine times. You’ve been extremely lucky, all things considered.”
She let out a low hum, thinking. To their right, someone burst into tears, cupping her face in her hands. Her mascara was smeared all over her face in ugly, blackened stripes. Beckett winced on her behalf. The construct, the person in the suit, whatever they were, gave the recently deceased an awkward pat on the shoulder.
The boy laced his fingers together. “Do you want to know anything else? If we don’t have anything we need to talk about, I can just process your death and send you off.”
“Wait, wait, wait!” Beckett gave him a wide eyed stare. “Where exactly are you sending me?”
The boy shrugged. “I can’t speak to what happens in your eternity. If you believe in nothing, as you said, then you go nowhere. The eternal void, and all that.”
She thought it over for a second. “Let’s say, hypothetically, I believed in heaven. What would you do then? Would you be able to get me in?”
“You’re a selfish, reckless individual who can’t focus on more than one person at a time. You drop those you call your friends the moment you find someone better, and you refuse to acknowledge the flaws in yourself that you so hypocritically point out in others. You text and drive, you throw trash in the recycling and recycling in the trash. Not to mention, you’ve been trying and failing to kickstart your own Multi Level Marketing scheme for months now. That’s as distressing as it is pathetic.”
Beckett didn’t want to think about InFuzeUrself™. The instagram based lip injection business had never quite taken off the way she had hoped it would. It boasted a mere three followers, one of which was her mother, the other two of which were follow-for-follow bots.
“And?” She crossed her arms across her chest, hoping her stance would come off as skeptical rather than defensive.
He let out a small huff, pinching the bridge of his nose. “It’s not impossible. Every system has its flaws.”
“Great,” Beckett said with a nod. This could work. “Fantastic. So I thought there wasn’t anything after death, and now I believe there is. Problem solved, no void for me, please. Help me get into heaven.”
Beckett thought about all of the TV she could watch if she were in the heavenly realm. She was pretty sure she still had Ex Best Friend #6’s Netflix login memorized.
“It doesn’t work like that.”
“And why the hell not?”
“You have to form your opinions about what happens after death while you’re still alive. Now you’re not forming opinions, you’re gathering facts.”
“But you’re standing right here! This isn’t what I thought would happen at all!”
“Think of us as a waypoint. We’re not really here, and neither are you.” He leaned forward in his chair again. “What are you running from? You’re already dead.”
“But I’m still here, sitting on your stupid imaginary chair and breathing your stupid imaginary air. I can still think, I’m still myself.”
“Are you really breathing? Stop.”
Beckett put a hand to her throat. That was alarming.
“You don’t need to breathe, you don’t need to eat. What you need is to pass on. So let yourself.”
“Why do I have to?”
“Everyone has to.”
“It’s not fair!” Beckett glared at him.
“It’s plenty fair. Everyone dies. Well,” he paused. “Once humanity figures out how to safely put the iChip in people’s heads, a certain wealthy subsection of the population doesn’t really die anymore. But the heat death of the universe will eventually claim those who remain.”
“Why do we even bother with living, if we all just get shuttled into what happens next?”
“What’s the point of dying, if you haven’t lived?”
Her lips turned down. “That’s not how this was supposed to work, you know.”
“Oh, did you expect me to have all the answers? Sorry to break it to you, but none of us will ever understand the full picture. All you need to understand is that life is a series of events with meaning, and death completes life.”
“I just want to remember myself.”
“Humans all want things. Aren’t you privileged to have been able to want in the first place?”
“I just don’t understand. Why would I be given something just to have it taken away?”
He looked her up and down, then looked back to her file. “Fine. Why do you think you were born?”
He straightened up in his chair. “Why were you placed on Earth? What’s your purpose, divine or otherwise?”
Beckett kicked her feet up against the lower bar on her chair, and the floor dripped from the soles of her shoes. Contemplation was deadly, a poison she didn’t care to sip. There would be nothing worse than spiraling here, now, when there was nothing she needed to worry about anymore.
She answered as vaguely as she could. “Nothing much at all. Have a good time, maybe?”
“Right.” The boy pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “And are you satisfied with the way it all turned out? When you look back on your life, can you truly say you were happy?”
“I mean, no one’s happy all of the time.” Beckett felt her gut twist a little bit.
“No, but would you consider yourself a happy person?”
“I wouldn’t consider anyone a truly happy person.”
“Right.” The boy sighed. “Let’s shift topics. Do you feel like you experienced life?”
“I experienced a life, that’s for sure.”
“And do you feel like that needed a purpose, or did you live just to live it?”
Beckett thought about it. She thought back to late nights arguing with her “friends,” early mornings spent scrolling listlessly through her phone. She thought about all the time in her life she’d lost to anger and selfishness and stubbornness. She thought about the constant stream of people entering and exiting her life, leaving her again and again. She thought about it, and she didn’t blame them as much as she wanted to.
“I don’t think I could stand finding out that there’s a purpose to life,” she replied carefully. “Because if there is one, I was never able to find it.”
He nodded. “Why are you clinging to a life unlived?”
Beckett looked him in the eyes. “It’s probably better than the alternative. I don’t know what will happen next, and I don’t want to find out.”
“It’s in your nature,” he replied, not unkindly. “I can’t promise you much, but I can promise it won’t be as bad as you think.”
She gave him a weak smile. “It’s fitting, no? In a fucked up way, I get to screw myself over one more time.”
“I’m going to be alone again, and it’s all my fault.”
“You’re not going to be anything at all, if you think about it.”
Beckett’s shoulders sagged. “I haven’t been anything my whole life, why should I expect to start now?”
“I would say it’s never too late, but I would hate to deceive you in your final moments.”
She pursed her lips. “Fuck.”
They sat in silence.
Ever so gently, the boy slid a single paper across the desk. “If you would please just sign here so we can process you. And then if you would consider scanning the QR code at the bottom and giving me a five-star review before being swallowed by the great nothingness of the world, I would really appreciate it.”
“I don’t have a phone, I’m dead.”
He gave her a taut smile. “Of course you don’t. Probably for the best, seeing how you got here and all.”
Beckett hesitated, looking down at the paper in front of her. “Wasn’t I supposed to be prepared for this?”
“If you weren’t ready, I wouldn’t ask.”
Beckett bit her lip, worrying the skin between her teeth. “I trust you, but I also don’t believe a single word you’re saying.”
“Would an awkward pat on the shoulder help?”
She considered it. “I mean at this point, why the fuck not?”
The boy reached across the table, smacking her arm twice.
“You’re right, that was awkward,” Beckett said. “I just realized I never got your name.”
He smiled. “Yes, well, you are an asshole. I’m not offended.”
She wrinkled her nose in acknowledgement, picked up the pen, and before she could think about it, scribbled a big loopy signature next to the X at the bottom of the page. “Here’s to nothing in particular.”
“It’s been a pleasure,” he told her.
“No. But you can relax now. It’s all over.” He plucked the paper from her, placing it delicately on top of the file and stapling it to the front. “I wish you the best of luck, wherever your sense of self ends up. You can take the mysterious door behind me to whatever awaits you.”
Beckett looked up, and indeed, behind the boy and the desk was an old, wooden door. The white paint on the edges was flaking and peeling, and the handle was a shiny brass, worn with use.
“Goodbye,” she said to the boy, standing on shaking legs and moving toward the door to nothing in particular. The knob was slightly warm, a phantom heat that lingered as she turned it. The hinges creaked as she stepped through, and it clicked shut behind her. It was more comforting than she thought it should be.