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The last thing James saw before the blackness was the barrel of the .22 pointed in his face. And he last thing he heard before the blackness was the voice of the maniac screaming, "You gonna die, b****, you gonna diiiiiiiee!"
James opened his mouth to tell the maniac that he was not, in fact, a b**** - more of a sonofab**** - but the blackness came before he could.
"Come on. Wake up. Alert, alert, alert. You need to be competent for this to happen."
James opened his eyes, only to find that he was standing up and staring into the face of a man, who, for a second, looked faintly like the maniac. Then the likeness disappeared and there was only an old man, a man so ancient that he seemed like he should have been in his grave decades ago.
"Where am I?" James asked woozily. He found himself swaying.
The man leaned forward and snapped his fingers.
"Come on. Wake up. You need to be alert for this to happen."
"Wait," James said, holding up a hand. He had noticed the shadowy figures forming an arc around the old man and himself. This place was very misty. So misty that he couldn't see anything with distinction, only lumps and vague silhouettes. In fact, he shouldn't have been able to see the old man with such clarity. But he could.
And he began to hear the murmurs behind the old man.
"Am I on trial?"
The old man sighed, in a God-won't-he-ever-get-it kind of way. "In a sense," he said wearily. "Shall we begin?" he called to those behind him.
There were mutterings of assent.
"Good." The old man pulled out a piece of paper, seemingly from nowhere. It looked familiar, or at least as familiar as a piece of paper can look. "Name: James Pendleton?" He looked at James, inquiring.
James didn't know what to do.
"Is that correct information?"
James started. "Uh . . . yes, it is."
". . . Yes."
"Occupation - orderly for a mental hospital?"
"Cause of death - gun wound to the head?"
"Y - wait, what?"
James suddenly felt very small and extremely terrified. The old man and the figures behind him towered over him, each glaring at him with cold, unforgiving eyes. Each of their heads resembled the barrel of the gun that had . . . killed him? The gun that was part of his last memory before coming here. A chill ran through him, and suddenly he couldn't breathe. He shook uncontrollably, and it was only with greatest effort that he managed to choke out -
"I . . . I'm dead?"
The old man rolled his eyes, and a voice called out from among the observers, "Now he gets it!"
"I repeat," the old man said, "cause of death - gun wound to the head?"
"I . . . I guess so." It took every ounce of self-control to keep himself from falling to the ground.
"Last word - please?"
James didn't know. He thought he remembered something about a sonofab****, but if he didn't know he was dead, how was he supposed to be sure about his final words? He murmurred his agreement.
"Good," the old man said. "Now let's look at your life - "
"Excuse me," James interrupted, and he immediately knew he shouldn't have. There was an almost-gasp of shock - James, interrupt the old man? It was unheard of! But James, who felt as if he was indeed on trial for something, wanted to know his rights. "But where am I? What's going on? If I'm dead, is this heaven? Hell? Just . . . what's going on?"
"You are in a tribunal to determine your immortal fate," the old man replied curtly. "Technically, your location is heaven. Now -"
"But why am I in heaven, if I don't necessarily get to go there?"
"Because if you go to hell, catching a glimpse of heaven is an integral part of your torment."
"Moving on," said the old man. He turned the paper upside down, and suddenly James realized what it was. It was his kindergarten graduation certificate, crumpled and torn and stained after what must have been decades in a landfill somewhere. "Sins are innumerable, of course." James' breath caught in his mouth. "But that is typical." He sighed. "But let us go through them.
"Belief - indifferent." The wave of disapproval hit James like a bullet, and he got the feeling that being an all-out atheist would be better than an indifferent belief in . . . this. God? The afterlife?
"Use of idols - minimal." James signed again with relief, but he didn't think this would help him much.
"Taking the name of the Lord in vain - abundant." James found himself growing angry.
"For God's sake, does that really matter?"
"Abundant even in death," the old man remarked, frowning. James stopped his tongue. "Keeping holy the Sabbath - no.
"Honoring your father and your mother - minimal."
"Hey!" James shouted, suddenly furious. "What do you mean, I don't honor my father and mother? They don't deserve to be honored! My father was a drinking b****** and my mother stood aside and let him do it! They don't deserve my honor, they -"
"Murder," the old man said. "Absent." Once again, James shut up.
"Adultery - abundant."
"But I don't even have a wife!"
"Stealing - minimal."
"Well of course, why would you presume I -"
"Lying - abundant."
"You call little white lies abundant?"
"From this," the old man said, examining the paper again, "it can be seen that James Pendleton does not deserve heaven." The figures behind him seemed to concur. James folded his arms. He didn't want heaven if it meant he had to respect his lying, cheating, drunken dead father to get there.
"Therefore, it has been decided that you shall go to hell."
Another chill rose inside James, and suddenly he was on his knees, begging for his soul. "Don't send me to hell!" he cried, trying to grab the old man's hand. The old man simply stepped back, stony-faced. "Why do I have to go to hell? I wasn't that bad! I wasn't great, but I wasn't horrible, either! Isn't there a purgatory? Why can't I go to purgatory? I -"
And for the first time, the old man smiled. "To hell you go," he said cheerfully, and he clapped his hands.
Everything went black again.
"Who are you?"
James opened his eyes again. And found that he was standing. Again. He was in some sort of cavernous room, and it was very hot. So hot that he took off his white coat. It actually wasn't too bad. It couldn't be more than ninety degrees or so. Totally doable.
He supposed the real heat would come in a moment.
He would have supposed the person in front of him now was Satan, but the person in front of him was a fussy little woman. "I said," she said, tapping her foot rapidly on the steamy ground, "who are you?"
"Uh, I'm James Pendleton," James said. "I was . . . uh . . . sentenced to hell." He spread open his arms and smiled, as if to say, "Here I am!"
The woman stared at him for a moment. "Uh-huh," said said, and then she pulled out another piece of paper, which James recognized as an eighth-grade essay about how one gets to heaven. "I don't see your name on my list. That means you can't get into hell."
"What?" Incredibly, James felt excluded. "What do you mean, I can't get into hell? That guy - the old man - he told me I had to go to hell. Why can't I go to hell?" I'm whining, he realized.
"Because," the woman replied exasperatedly, "you're not on my list. You have to be on my list to get into hell." She paused for a moment, studying James. "You have to go somewhere else."
"Else? But where?"
"I don't know! Just somewhere other than hell!"
"Okay, but I don't know where to - wait, why can't I get into hell again?"
"I don't know. I guess you just aren't horrible enough. Now go."
James had nowhere to go.
The woman huffed. "Get out! Go! Chop chop!"
And suddenly everything went black again.
James opened his eyes and immediately screamed.
He was on the side of a mountain, standing on a tiny bit of rock jutting out from the sheer face. He was only inches from the edge, only inches from a thousand-foot fall. Snow swirled around him as he felt the rock face desparately for a hold, but he could find none. He could only spread his arms out against the stone, like, he realized bitterly, a backwards Jesus on the cross.
He was just getting his bearings and calming down when a voice - "Hel-lo" - made him almost fall off the ledge again.
It was a little boy, a snot-nosed little boy, wearing shorts and a striped T-shirt despite the bitter cold. Without missing a beat he grabbed James' belt and hauled him back to balance. "I'm James. Welcome to purgatory."
James had a million questions and comments and curses to scream to the heavens, but the first thing that came out of his mouth was a very conversational, "Really? My name is James too."
The little boy rolled his eyes. "Well, duh. I know. We're the same person. See?" And he handed James the kindergarten diploma that he had seen before in the old man's hands.
"How did you get this?"
"From Big James," the little boy replied.
"From . . . me?"
"No!" The little James laughed. "From Big James! Old James! The really old guy, remember?"
"The guy who sent me to hell? That was me?"
"Mm-hmm." The little James took back the certificate. "And I'm you too."
"But . . . how?"
"Well, haven't you figured it out? The afterlife is just a bunch of manifestations of yourself, in different forms."
That, coming out of a little boy's mouth, was astounding, especially since the little boy was himself. James highly doubted he knew the word "manifestation" or "afterlife" or even "form" at the age of five, which was what this boy seemed to be. Which meant -
"You're lying. You're not really me."
"Yes I am. Did I say we were accurate projections?"
"But the woman in hell! She was . . . well, a woman. How can she be a projection of me?"
"Easy. She was you if you were a woman."
James shook his head to rid his hair of the snow and of confused thoughts. "So this is purgatory? How long do I have to stay here?"
The little boy shrugged. "I dunno. However long."
"That doesn't help me at all, you know. You know," James said, upon sudden inspiration, "am I really dead, or is this just some weird dream that's supposed to help me find myself or something?"
The little James rolled his eyes again. "Nope. You're dead."
"Great. So," James said conversationally, "What am I supposed to do while I'm here?" he asked.
"Whatever you want, basically."
"Really?" James looked around. "Doesn't seem like much to do."
"Nope," the little boy said.
"Is purgatory like this to everyone?"
"Because you're not really supposed to be here," the little James said matter-of-factly.
"What? I've already been kicked out of heaven and hell! Why the hell not?"
"Because there's not a balance of good and evil to overcome!"
"Not a balance?" James was so angry he almost fell off the ledge. "But I was too bad to get into heaven and to good to get into hell!"
"Yeah, but the good and bad weren't equal."
"Not eq -" James sighed and sat down on what little ledge he had. "God. This is complicated." He turned to the little James. "So what am I supposed to do if I'm not supposed to be in purgatory?"
"I dunno," the little James said. "Die, I guess." And without further warning or any sort of goodbye, the little boy kicked James off the ledge.
There was a slight sensation of falling, then, once agan, everyhing went black.
"Reincarnation booth! Reincarnation booth! Step right up for reincarnation!"
James opened his eyes and was surprised to find that he was lying down. Strapped down, in fact, to a gurney. Being looked over by what he supposed was himself in doctor form.
"Hmm," the doctor said, prodding James' belly button. "Your sin level says some sort of chimpanzee, but I'm thinking elephant, don't you agree?"
"Oh, whatever you want." James was done with this.
The doctor sighed. "Oh, they never help. Well, let's see . . . your inner essence doesn't really fit any primate besides human, but we can't make you human because there's so little class distinction that you can move yourself up to success anyway. But your essence doesn't really fit insects either, or fish, and I don't think you'd do so well as a bird, do you?"
"I have no idea."
The doctor frowned. "Well, I guess you can't be reincarnated."
The words sounded worn coming from James' mouth. "But I can't get into heaven. Or hell. Or purgatory. If I can't be reincarnated, what happens to me?"
The doctor shrugged. He then clicked his fingers, and everything went -
"You don't really fit in anywhere, do you?"
James opened his eyes. He was sitting on a bench in the hallway of his mental hospital, but the light seemed to be coming from the floor instead of the flourescent light bulbs. A couple of windows were broken, and an eerie whisteling bounced back and forth against the walls.
But James barely noticed that because he was to preoccupied with the fact that he was sitting across from himself.
"God, you're a really tough case, man," the other James continued. "No one wants you. Just like your parents didn't want you."
"I noticed that," James replied, gritting his teeth. "Thanks a lot for bringing that up, you b******."
The other James smiled. "Gladly. You're a unique case, James."
"It wasn't a compliment."
"Anyway," the other James said, "Here's the deal. You can't get into heaven because you weren't good enough. You can't get into hell because you weren't bad enough. You can't get into purgatory because your good and evil isn't balanced, and you can't be reincarnated because you just can't."
"So what do I do?"
"You go back and fix it," said the other James. "You be either really good or really bad or really both, so you can get into heaven or hell or purgatory when you die again. Don't worry about reincarnation; it just isn't compatible with some souls."
"Okay," James said. He suddenly felt very tired. "So . . . where do I go back to?"
The other James frowned, then laughed. "You really are stupid, aren't you, James Pendleton?" he said. "Now go to sleep. When you wake up you'll be back."
Obedient, James curled up on the bench to go to sleep. It didn't take very long.
Sounds. Hospital sounds. Actual hospital sounds, not a mental hospital.
Warmth. Covers warmth, not hell warmth.
Voices. Not alternate-James voices, regular non-James voices.
And then one, clear out of the muck: "I really have no idea how he survived it, doctor. That bullet should have gone straight through his brain and splattered them on the wall. But now the officers can't even find the bullet."