Gabriel was looking for the portal. Its location had not changed in all the centuries he had been coming here, but tonight he sensed a disturbance. He glanced at the sky; dusk would fall soon.
A solar eclipse was imminent, briefly interrupting the sun’s dominance over the earth. Although he didn’t need the eclipse, he appreciated its timing and, if he were honest, the drama. Ah, here it was. The path of the solar eclipse would pass directly over the portal.
Gabriel knew the eclipse was not the source of his unease. He had frequented this place many times during eclipses, both lunar and solar. He and his order knew what this energy was but had not discussed it. He frowned; they would need to discuss it. An unnamed problem sits in the dark and gains strength.
A purple streak of light sliced through the vermillion evening sky. He gave it barely a glance; his presence here was bound to create a light show.
As he stood in the middle of a freshly mown hayfield, Gabriel spread his arms. Spindly spruce trees were silhouetted against the darkening eastern sky. A flock of geese rose up beside him, and he launched himself into flight with them. They honked louder and their wings beat faster. He was still laughing when he landed a minute later and watched the geese circle and settle.
When he was told that the person he was to contact lived in this area, he was not surprised. People who lived here did not do anything extraordinary with their lives, yet each one played an essential role in this world and beyond. Although they did not know it, they protected this timeless portal through which angels and other magical beings came to earth.
A lineage of protectors, Gabriel mused, and not one of them is aware. Humans. Some inflate worthless qualities, but most live their lives unaware of their core majesty.
Neither Gabriel nor any others had approached anyone living here in centuries. For a moment, he felt a shift in the air around him. Perhaps others have taken advantage of this solar eclipse and—. Gabriel shook his head to clear the thought. Should he have changed his clothes? He could pass for any culture or a hybrid of cultures. Tall, dark haired with high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes, Gabriel enjoyed his good looks. It made his job easier. People accepted him more readily because he appeared to belong to their tribe. But the long white tunic shirt and wide-legged pants were not standard apparel in these parts. He sighed. The trees swayed in the altered vibration.
Again, Gabriel felt the shift. He had to speak with Mrs. Potts before an Interloper broke through and found her first.
Across the front of the vivid chartreuse farmhouse with raspberry trim, a wide veranda sagged comfortably. As he walked up the long dirt driveway, Gabriel heard a quavering voice belting out a tune from the 1940s, accompanied by scratchy music from inside the house. The shaky vibrato was coming from a small figure in a nubby gray cardigan, rocking on the veranda and singing along with an ancient record player. Gabriel was grateful Mrs. Potts would be the narrator for this project and not part of the chorus.
He stepped into view. “Good evening, Mrs. Potts.” He smiled his most charming smile and bowed slightly.
Mrs. Potts stopped singing. She brought the wicker rocker to a standstill and stared calmly at him.
“Are you here to take me away?”
“Mrs. Potts, allow me to introduce myself.” Gabriel decided to keep on being charming.
“No need.” She brushed away the first of many evening black flies.
“So, you know who I am?” He kept his gaze level with hers and sat on a wicker chair at the other end of the veranda.
“I have been expecting you. Didn’t want to see you, but you’re here now. Can I call someone to take my dog? I don’t want her to see this, and I sure as hell don’t want her wandering around unfed for days until some poor bastard finds my body.” Mrs. Potts took a sip out of a bluebird-painted ceramic cup and put it down hard on the side table, liquid sloshing out. She looked at him defiantly.
“Mrs. Potts, who do you think I am?”
“The Angel of Death, I assume.” She placed her shaking hands on her lap. “To be honest, I expected you or one of your kind years ago.” She kept her gaze steady on Gabriel. “You’re good looking, I’ll give you that.”
Without standing up, Gabriel was simply up and looking down on her. A breathless fear clotted her chest.
“Mrs. Potts, I expected more from you.” His voice was soft. “Yes, I do guide people to appropriate realms. But that is not why I am here.”
Mrs. Potts considered this and took a cautious sip. She shook out her shoulders and leaned forward in her chair. “What do you mean, appropriate realms?” Her dog ran up the steps, caught sight of Gabriel hovering, and ran back down with tail tucked, disappearing into the tall grass.
Gabriel raised his perfect eyebrows at this question. “The short answer? If you were Christian, you would be escorted to a realm that caters to Christians.” He lowered himself into the chair and crossed his long legs.
“Interesting. Caters to Christians. I suppose that applies to Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims? What about those poor atheists? And all those people who believe the universe was created for their pleasure?”
“I am assuming you mean New Agers. Your description is a bit unfair, Mrs. Potts. But, yes, the followers of any path are taken to a realm that best reflects their religion or beliefs.”
“You didn’t tell me what happens to those poor atheists.” Now that she knew she was not about to die, Mrs. Potts was beginning to enjoy herself.
Gabriel slapped his knee. The porch swayed. Mrs. Potts reached for her cup to keep it from spilling.
“See, that is why we want you for this project. You care about the atheists and their experience of the afterlife.” At this he swept his arm upward to include the vast expanse of the heavens. Venus was nearing the planet Jupiter, their combined brilliance dimming the other stars.
“I’m not sure I care that much. I was just curious. Those poor buggers don’t seem to get enough sex. And don’t you think they’re angry? It seems to me anyone that angry doesn’t get much sex.”
“Well, there you have it! We do have a bit of fun with atheists when they die. One minute they are flying through the big void they had imagined, the next minute they are sitting around some great religious figure.” Gabriel winked at her. “But where are my manners? Allow me to introduce myself. I am Gabriel. Not the Gabriel, mind you.”
Mrs. Potts gave him a polite, cautious smile. “And you already know my name. I imagine you know a great deal about me, which makes me wonder why you want me.”
Spring peepers were beginning their evening concert, and a lone crow flew low and fast, hurrying home for the night.
“You say you have a project for me. For the life of me, I can’t imagine what. Can I refuse? Never mind. If I don’t like the sound of it, I’ll refuse. You can’t kill me for that, can you?”
“Mrs. Potts! You shock me. No, I will not kill you—I am not capable of killing you or anyone. I will explain, but first may I have a cup of what you are drinking? It is gin, isn’t it?”
Mrs. Potts stood up on wobbly legs, smoothed her dress and tottered into the house. Gabriel sat back. It was a pleasant night and he appreciated this rare pause. Hanging plants in need of watering hung along one end of the veranda. The house’s lurid green siding somehow felt soothing. The screen door creaked open, and Mrs. Potts placed Gabriel’s cup of gin on a nearby table before settling into the rocker.
“This is delicious, Mrs. Potts. Clear, direct and simple. Homemade, is it?” He took another sip and grimaced slightly. “Time for me to tell you what this project is all about.”
“Before you begin, I have a question. It came to me while I was in the kitchen. How are you made? How did you come into existence? Is an angel born?”
“Brilliant question! Curious minds have benefited humankind more than you know.” He beamed at her. “How does an angel come to be? Well, the color purple is important. Colliding nebulae, the birth of a new star, the death of an old star. So many factors, Mrs. Potts. Some of you believe that if your granny dies, she becomes your angel, but this is not true. She could become a guide, perhaps, if her credentials checked out. Is this enough of an explanation, Mrs. Potts? My time of departure is approaching and we have things to discuss.”
Gabriel stretched out his legs and took another wary sip. “Why have you been chosen? It is simple. You are openly—and delightfully—curious. Curiosity is underrated by humans. If one is curious, assumptions and prejudices disappear. And, just as important, you live in this place. I am not sure if you are aware, but you live in an angel-protected entry zone. Only a few are scattered around the world, but this is the one I use.” His brown eyes were warm. “And you write, Mrs. Potts. We need a writer.”
Gabriel waited. The stars grew brighter in the night sky. The solar eclipse had passed, and the new moon was not yet visible. From the marsh beyond the house, the peepers sang more loudly.
When Mrs. Potts spoke, her tone had changed. The harsh edges were gone, replaced by a soft and sad whisper. “Yes, I had a feeling this place was special. An angel-protected zone, you say. Imagine!” Her eyes looked thoughtful. “I believe you, you know. Some part of me knew this place had a special connection.” She paused and looked out into the endless darkness, where a world that could not exist in the light of day was coming to life.
“Gabriel, I gave up those sorry attempts at writing years ago, but I assume you know this. I wasn’t very good. It is still painful for me to remember all the time I invested in it, one of my many great failures. I respectfully decline.”
“I thought you might say something like that. And yet it is essential for this story to be told by you.”
Gabriel stood and moved to the railing. He looked up at the dark heavens, then turned to face the small, straight figure in the rocker.
“You asked what happens to people of different faiths and traditions when they die. If you say yes, you will find out. Seven such beings have been brought to the same realm—a Christian, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a New Ager and an atheist. The New Ager and the atheist come from the United States, but the others are from Germany, England, Canada, Australia and Italy. Their professional backgrounds are different. They are together now because of a situation that, if not corrected, could have dire consequences.” He rubbed a hand over his face and took a breath. “Some in my realm accuse me of being dramatic. But even they agree the very existence of heaven and earth hangs in the balance. And I cannot begin to tell you what a challenge these seven are turning out to be. But these dear ones, these seven … well.”
Gabriel leaned toward Mrs. Potts. She leaned farther back in her chair and drained the rest of her gin.
“Mrs. Potts, their story needs to be told. With our heaven-high hopes, it will open people’s hearts a little wider. There is more, but ...” He trailed off and listened to a sound only he could hear. Shaking his head and taking a sip of gin, he continued.
“Only someone like you can do this. Of course we know of your previous writing projects, but you have the heart to tell this story, and it has elements of a fantastic yarn as well as a global message. But even more important—,” he stopped and listened. “You have loved well.”
“You have got to be fucking kidding me.” She dug into her pocket and fished out a cigarette.
“Please put that thing away. You are not scheduled to die for a while, and lighting up messes with our schedule.”
Mrs. Potts tucked the cigarette back into her pocket. “You know I have not been pure of heart.”
“Pure of heart? My dear, you have loved fearlessly. Those who love with open and courageous hearts often do not measure up to social conventions. We need you. Aren’t you just a little curious? Think of what you will learn, what mysteries will be revealed to you.”
Gabriel drained his cup and stood. Mrs. Potts had her eyes closed, hands folded on her lap. A wind picked up and dry leaves scraped and scattered on the walk. Mrs. Potts opened her eyes and grinned.
PART I: GABRIEL’S GREAT CHALLENGE
The interviews and invitations are not conducted for everyone, and Gabriel was quite exact in his descriptions of them. Now, most people who know me know I don’t like following orders, and suggestions are just orders in fancy clothes. So when Gabriel gave me his notes and began to make suggestions, we had a little chat. Everything is okay now. We both gave a little. Gabriel has allowed me to add some descriptions as long as the message remains intact.
Before I forget, I should explain why Gabriel carries index cards. To be blunt, mistakes have been made. Gabriel is not the only one who has taken someone before their time, but the person is always returned. Changed, but returned. Yes, they come back to earth with strange ideas, but some of those ideas have been of great benefit. Of course, others have been just plain nutty. Anyways, before he leaves this realm, he is given the name of the person he is to touch. No one dies until they receive a touch from Gabriel. Most people miss feeling it, but the touch happens. So, just so you understand, to make sure that mistakes from the past are not repeated and he has the right person, Gabriel makes notes and writes them on index cards.
He also makes a practice of carrying a few blank cards. “You never know” is what he says. Now, that’s creepy. ~ Mrs. Potts
Chapter 1: Joshua
Joshua didn’t remember opening his eyes. He was lying in bed, the sage-green duvet cover with the binary code image down the center neatly folded over. He let out a breath, but there was no breath. His heartbeat should be keeping time with his rising anxiety, but there was no heartbeat. And yet the room looked the same as always. The Dali print he’d picked up in Chicago was on the wall opposite his bed. Fitness magazines were fanned out on the bedside table under the latest tech magazine with a cover shot of himself and Edison, his business partner. No Gillian, but this wasn’t unusual—she was probably at her place.
Everything was so still. Then he heard it, a woman’s voice chanting softly with faint sobs punctuating the cadence. Must be some wacky new neighbor. He decided to get up but was already up. Strange. A bluish light appeared by a chair near the window. Wait! Where was the window?
“Hi there, Joshua,” said a voice that now belonged to the body sitting in his chair.
“What the hell is going on? Who the fuck are you? Wait a second, you’re that grungy backpacker that sent me crashing to the sidewalk. Man, you could have hurt me! I mean, my clothes were messed up a bit. But …” He looked down at his spotless clothes, confused.
The backpacker sat there with a small smile. No backpack was in sight.
“Let me introduce myself, Joshua. I am your navigator, Gabriel.”
My navigator? Hot panic thickened as Joshua realized his thoughts were being broadcast.
“My navigator?” Joshua repeated as the man sat smiling that smile.
“Yes,” Gabriel said with more authority. I hope he is not one of those, he thought. Unlike Joshua, Gabriel could keep his thoughts private. “What else do you remember besides me crashing into you?” His clear voice seemed to fill the room.
Joshua began to recall the last few days but was rattled that his thoughts were being broadcast.
Gabriel sat forward, waving a hand to stop him. “Joshua, you have made transition. You have left your earthly body behind.” His voice deepened and he talked more slowly, enunciating each word carefully.
“I’ve done what? Is this part of my marathon training?” Joshua asked hopefully.
“Joshua, you are now in spirit,” Gabriel said.
“In the spirit of what?”
Gabriel was losing patience but remembered he was on probation for just this reason. “Joshua, you are dead,” he said in as gentle a tone as he could muster.
Joshua began to laugh.
Well, I wasn’t expecting this, thought Gabriel. He stood up and walked around the elegant but sterile bedroom.
“Okay, okay, who put you up to this? Was it that fat bastard Christian nutcase?” Joshua doubled over, hooting and wiping his eyes. “Or was it my mother? My crazy fucking father? Who?”
Gabriel sat down in an ergonomic chair.
“I mean, you see, I don’t believe in life after ...” Joshua stopped laughing.
Without having stood up, Gabriel was standing. He liked to call it the Big Reveal, although it wasn’t always necessary. Some people arrived and knew where they were. Sure, they sometimes needed to be assured they were not in hell. Politicians seemed to need that assurance more than anyone else. And some televangelists. And baseball players. Writers, yes; writers were the worst.
Gabriel fingered the index card in his pocket. He knew what was written on it by heart: it contained Joshua’s identifying details to make sure Gabriel was helping the right person to transition. After some unfortunate blunders in past centuries, he had become diligent about writing and memorizing the small cards.
He ran over Joshua’s description in his mind. Age: thirty-five. Appearance: 5'11", slim build, dark sandy hair, green eyes. Well-groomed and always well dressed. Has a scar on his left hand that extends from little finger diagonally to wrist. Occupation: Co-owner of a media relations company called Up & On. Religion: Atheist. Place of residence: Battery Park, New York City. Markings or quirks: Picks at imaginary dirt on his clothes. Talks on cell phone while walking; as a result, people constantly have to walk around him, or Joshua crashes into them.
“Joshua, you died.” Gabriel sat back down and waited.
“But I’m here,” Joshua said, waving his arms around his bedroom. “My art work, my magazines, my bed. All here.”
“We like for people to feel comfortable when they first arrive, especially when,” Gabriel imitated a cough, “it was, you know, sudden.”
He looked hopefully at Joshua, waiting for him to remember on his own. And waited.
Then, “I don’t fucking believe it! What happens now? I don’t believe in any of this shit. God, heaven, angels—none of it,” ranted Joshua. “This is fucking nuts.” He took a step and floated. “If I’m fucking dead, then it’s just my brain telling me wild stories as it shuts the fuck down. Forever. Nada. Nothing. The big black!” Joshua roared, throwing his arms above his head.
“You know, I am a big fan of the angel app you created. You did make a little mistake with Ariel, but it is actually pretty good,” Gabriel said conversationally.
As though for the first time, Joshua looked at him. “So who are you supposed to be? Oh, wait, you are the ‘navigator.’” He made air quotes. “What the fuck is a navigator? Wouldn’t Angel of Death be more accurate? Forgot for a moment. That’s one of those Christian constructs. ‘The Angel of Death is just around the corner, kiddies.’”
Gabriel winced. “My mission is to help people cross over.” His voice was suddenly sad, weary.
“Cross over? Cross over what? A river? The street?” Joshua started pacing. “So, if I’m dead, why am I not just floating around in darkness, ’cause that’s what I believe. But, okay wait a minute, if the Christians got this right, where are the fat-assed angels? Where is this god of yours? Pearly fucking gates?” He kicked a rolled up yoga mat and floated sideways.
Gabriel was tired. He watched Joshua stomp/float around his room, hands balled into fists. Not long ago, he had talked with other angels, and they were feeling the same way. None had experienced this before, not in all the earth centuries. They were worried. Humans’ seeming unwillingness to be kind and loving was wearing them down. But they had been through harsh, unkind times before. Howard—a friend of Gabriel’s—had suggested that their fatigue might be due to humans being more disconnected from the cosmos.
“Even in ancient times, when humans could be especially cruel to one another, they were intimate with the earth and knew the skies. They would marvel at the heavens. This kept them more bound to us.” Howard had a good point.
It was time to leave Joshua.
“We will be meeting with the others,” Gabriel said.
“The others? Oh fuck, what others?” Joshua shouted as he reached to rub his forehead. He could not feel anything. Startled, he composed himself and asked more quietly, “And a meeting?”
“Lots to explain!” Gabriel said cheerfully. “You, Joshua are now part of a team. For now, let’s just say that you and the others have some top-tier missions to accomplish.” He pointed his index finger at Joshua, who had slumped onto the bed, head in hands. “As a matter of fact, I can even make you the project manager of this team. Would you like that?” He smiled. “See you later, then!”
And Gabriel was gone.
Joshua was alone. Again, he heard chanting, but this time there were no sobbing.
How well have you loved? He thought of Gillian, his mother, his father and his good buddy Edison. A deep, powerful love swept over Joshua for those he loved, even though they already felt very long ago. How could he feel such love and at the same time feel they were so distant? He couldn’t even begin to think of how everything he believed did not appear to hold up. His belief of a non-existent afterlife was so firm while he was alive. He tried to recall scientific data he had read regarding brain activity after death.
That has to be it. Just all fucked-up dying brain matter.
Right now, though, his theories were not important. Maybe when he met the others, he could compare stories. He did not quite trust this Gabriel guy.
Okay, so my theories look a bit shaky, but there must be a nice, neat logical reason for this. But where am I? All he wanted was to explore these powerful feelings of love and tune out that damned chanting.