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A small, precise pain. That’s all that I felt; the rest of my body feeling as though it was floating, like I was a ghost. It was like my entire being revolved around one tiny throbbing in the crook of my elbow, near the vein. I opened my eyes and was assaulted by a bright light. It was unbearable. The sun itself couldn’t compare to the impenetrable, all-consuming whiteness I was in. I grimaced and shut my eyes again.
“Intense, isn’t it?” A voice to my right said. Without meaning to, I sat up and saw a dapper old man in an impeccable white suit. He smiled, and I immediately liked him.
“Am I dead?” I asked. I wasn’t really concerned, just curious.
The old man shrugged. “You feel dead?”
I shook my head. “I’m not sure. My arm hurts. Can you hurt when you’re dead?”
The old man shrugged again. It seemed as though he could answer any question with that shrug. I sat up farther and the whiteness faded slightly. I looked down and saw that I was wearing hospital scrubs.
“Where am I?” I asked.
Sure enough, he shrugged again. But this time he added “Why don’t you follow me.” I stood up and followed the old man through the harsh white. We walked for awhile and I began to make out silhouettes moving just beyond the reach of my sight.
“Who are they?” I asked.
The old man stopped. “They are like you. Test subjects.” He stopped a young man as he got close, placing a hand on his shoulder. This man didn’t have scrubs like mine but instead was wearing jeans and t-shirt, though he was soaking wet.
The old man lifted the young man’s hand and stared at it for a moment before mumbling, “Subject 1354. His car went over a bridge overpass and into a river. He was on his way home from school.” He patted the young man on the cheek, and he walked away, dripping onto the bright white floor.
“And he’s not dead?” I asked, skeptical.
The old man sighed and said “No, not yet anyway.”
We continued to walk until we came to what looked to be a park bench, painted white of course, and sat down. We sat for awhile, not saying anything, and I was content to sit there forever. It seemed as though I had become endowed with patience as voluminous as the white. The old man sniffed and then pulled a handkerchief out of his suit and blew his nose.
“I know for a fact that you’re not worried. We built it that way. But I feel compelled to tell you; I tell everybody. That’s my job you see, I’m the tour guide.” He nodded to himself. “You see Michael; I work for an enigmatic force, a mysterious company if you will. Our job is a depressing one, to say the least. A lot of lost souls end up in here, and it’s out job to figure out whether or not to send them back. Do we make a believer out of you? Or do we let you take the ride.” He pointed to a shiny white elevator a few yards away from them.
“So I’m not dead.” I said.
The old man nodded. “No you’re not. But you could be. You see, if we send you back, there is a return that is expected. It’s different for everyone, and that’s why we take the time to decide whether or not you’re worth bringing back.”
I finally felt something new to this world. Anger. It sparked for a moment deep in my chest.
The old man slowly turned towards me and smiled. “Yeah, I get that a lot. But this is a very powerful thing we’re dealing here. Life.” He smiled again.
“It’s not up to you who lives or who dies,” I said. “That is God’s work.”
He nodded again. “No doubt. I believe in heaven son, and God. But this isn’t heaven and I’m not Him.”
“How long has this been going on?” I asked.
The old man stroked his white beard. “A long time. You know how people say they saw the light at the end of the tunnel? Right before they are brought back to the real world? That’s us.” He chuckled and said “And with the way you people live, business is booming.”
“What happens to people who don’t return the favor?” I ask.
The smile disappeared. “No one has ever tried it. It’s too easy to reel you back in here.” He patted me on the knee. “Don’t fret though. I just received the signal. You’re headed back in.”
“What is expected of me?” I asked, frightened to know.
“You’ll know it when you wake up.”
“CLEAR!” A shock shot through my chest. I heard someone in the background yelling excitedly. “He’s back! We’ve got a pulse!”
I floated away.
I woke up a few hours later in a hospital bed, still in my scrubs. I sat up slowly in my bed, trying not to loosen any of the tubes they had poked into me. I glimpsed a man in a brown trench coat leaving the room, a brief case in one hand, and a syringe in the other. He glanced over his shoulder at me, and winked.
I shivered, and then lifted up my arm; right in the crook of my elbow, a tiny pinprick.