Turns out the pearly gates ain’t so pearly after all.
John knew he was dead. One moment he’d been surrounded by the crying faces of his kids and Judith, and the next moment he’d woke up here– the pain in his chest gone.
He took a moment to gather himself. The grass was cool and short, and the air smelled of pine with a hint of rot. Trees encircled him nearly completely, only broken by a moss-covered iron gate.
John stood up and walked, attracted by the gate. He gave it a push: nothing. Two: still nothing. Annoyed, John wrapped his strong hands around the bars and dug in. The gate screeched, moving in jerks and bumps. To his left, two birds took flight. Sweat beaded on John’s brow. He didn’t know why he was working this hard– just that he needed to. The gate yielded with a crack, flaking rust from the joints as John slipped through.
John’s path looked hardly traveled. Some branches hung low overhead, dancing in the breeze.
“Ahem,” John heard another voice call out. John squinted into the shadow of an oak to see a small man, wrinkled and bald walking towards him. He had nothing on but overalls cuffed at the ankle.
The bald man emerged from the dense thicket, raising a hand and smiling. “John?”
“Home? Where is this?”
The bald man turned to walk the path and waved John onward. “Come, in good time, it’ll all make sense. For now, just know that this is the afterlife.” The bald man paused. “I can see by the general lack of confusion and denial that you probably already knew that.”
The two treaded lightly through the grass, ducking branches coming to a fork in the road. A signpost towered over the two men. Neither of the two arms bore any visable markings. A single bluejay sat atop the post. It looked down to them and chirped. The old man bowed slightly and turned back to John.
“Before we go on there’s someone who needs to meet you.” The bald man said. “He’s been waiting for you a long time. I’ll get him.”
John froze. His heart started to hammer in his chest. Who is it? Mom? No, they said a long time. Dad? The thought of meeting his dad after also perishing from lung cancer made John’s ears burn. His old man always said between his coughing fits to “not smoke them damn cigarettes.”
The bald man turned and walked behind the signpost, emerging again on the other side a new man. His wrinkles melted away and a thick mat of black hair covered his head. He still wore the overalls, only now they were wet.
“You?” John said, stunned.
The man nodded sadly. “Yeah. Me. Do you even remember my name?”
John shook his head, embarrassed. He remembered the face– he’d seen it thousands of times in his dreams.
“Name’s Winston,” he said sticking out a wet hand. “Nice to meetcha.”
John took the hand and squeezed. “Nice to meet you Winston, I’m John. Thank you– for saving me.”
Winston titled his head and smacked it with a palm. A look of relief washed over his face. “Ah, better. Water still gets up there.”
John looked at his feet and shivered. It all came back. The cold lake, the seat belt that wouldn’t budge. “If it hadn’t been for you I–”
“Would’ve died. And I, would’ve lived.” Winston said, expressionless. “I know. I still think about it.”
“Do you,” John paused to think of the word. “Regret it?”
“Yes and no. Mostly yes. Y’know I didn’t dive in after you thinking that I would die. But then again, I’d always been a romantic.” Winston said and shrugged. “Sacrificing myself for another– well isn’t that just about the most romantic notion out there. Shit, you could’ve saved the world, solved world hunger, or done anything you wanted with your second chance. And yet, here you are with nothing to show for either of us.” Winston turned and spat.
John felt hot. “I was a kid. What did you expect? To reform my seven year old ways and start working with world leaders.” John laughed, suddenly tired. Winston stuck out a bottom lip and tilted his head. A spark of anger seized John. “Besides, what’s it to you? I lived a happy life, mostly. A good life. So you… can fuck right off.”
Winston spat again. “Not good enough,” he muttered as he walked back to the post.
The bald man returned– his eyes heavy with grief. “I’m sorry about that. Remember though, that he’s only human.” He clapped an old hand on John’s shoulder. “Now then, which way?”
John walked up to the fork, looking first to his right overgrown with knee-high grass, then to his left manicured and bright. He looked up to the sign, thinking he may have missed the markings. “I–” he said, turning to the old man. He stopped when he saw that he was alone. A breeze passed by and the air went quite.
John coughed and went to his left.