His first thought was: He smells burnt.
His second was: I wonder if I smell like that?
The day had started out like any other.
He woke, showered, dressed and had something quick to eat for breakfast. Then he went out into the world and made his way to work. He had trouble as soon as he got to the elevator. The button wouldn’t light up when he pressed the it. He wondered if it was broken and the building superintendent hadn’t fixed it yet.
He heard the clicking of heels on the marble floor of the hallway and saw a woman wearing a bright red dress and red high heeled shoes. She went right up to the button and pressed it. The button lit up.
“Thanks for that.” He said. “I was beginning to wonder if I would have to take the stairs.”
She ignored him and continued staring at her phone.
He didn’t pay that any mind. Lots of people weren’t very social in the mornings. He got on the elevator and rode down sixteen floors with her. They didn’t encounter anyone else and when the elevator got to the first floor, the doors opened, and she walked out the front door without a look back at him.
Sighing, Gregory pushed the door open and stepped outside.
The day was warm. He had opted to bring his leather coat, but he didn’t really need it. He would put it in his bag later. The sky was a bright and brilliant blue and the sun was warm on his face. Winter had seemed to last forever and this was the first beautiful spring day that they’d been blessed with after what felt like six months of winter. It was the same every year.
He would take his time getting to work, he decided. Once he was in his office building, he wouldn’t see the light of day until much later and by that point, it would be beginning to grow dark again. Gregory didn’t usually take the long way to work, but today he decided to treat himself.
Stopping at his local coffee shop, he tried to get a barista’s attention, but they kept serving other customers, some that had come in after him. Finally, he went right up to the counter and waved at the barista. She turned to look at him and almost looked surprised that he was there.
“Oh, I’m sorry sir. Have you been waiting long?”
Gregory mumbled something noncommittal and took the coffee he had ordered. Taking a sip, he smelled the coffee, but it had no taste. He would let it cool on his walk, it was probably too hot. As he was leaving the coffee shop, a woman reached out a hand to stop him.
She had lovely brown eyes and a pleasant smile, but that wasn’t what made Gregory stare. There was a purple light that shone from her; it was like he could see her aura and he knew that couldn’t be right. He didn’t have a psychic bone in her body. The purple light sat along the top of her head like a crown.
“Your first day?” She said. “Don’t worry, it becomes easier. We fade fast, but if you really make a loud noise, they will hear you. Waving like you did is usually a great idea, though we tend to frighten people.”
Taken aback, Gregory just said “Um, okay?”
She patted his arm. “It’ll become clear. Just give it time, okay? I’m here most days if you want to talk to me.”
It didn’t seem right not to introduce himself. “I’m Gregory.” He said.
“Pleased to meet you, I’m Brenda.”
He went on his way, thinking that he should have asked her about the purple aura, but she would have thought he was crazy.
Sipping his coffee, he made his way to his normal intersection, but turned right instead of left. It added an extra ten minutes to his walk, but it was worth it today. Just the feel of the sun on his skin felt wonderful. He took a deep breath and while it was satisfying, the smile on his face started to droop when he saw someone else with a purple halo.
He walked on, even though the person waved, and began seeing more people with halows. Gregory had no idea what this could mean, but he was almost sure that he didn’t want to find out. He sped up, wanting all of a sudden to be in his office, sitting at his desk, a cup of bad coffee near by. The other people that were on the sidewalk behaved as if he wasn’t there, as if they couldn’t see them. Gregory tried walking into people directly, waiting to see what they would do. Instead of engaging him in conversation, they just adjusted their footsteps to walk around him.
Gregory would have kept walking, but he was distracted by another light. He had seen it out of the corner of his eye and had to double back until he found its source. Walking slowly down the sidewalk now, he stopped when he saw the light again. This time, the light was a small white dot that appeared at the end of a stairwell.
The stairwell was covered by green awning. There was no name and no building that it was attached to. Looking down the short flight of stairs, he was still wondering if he was going to go down them when his foot was on the first step.
The noise of the street was muffled here. It was a thin awning so it shouldn’t have cut out the sound so much, but it did. Gregory didn’t think too much about that, he just kept walking down. The flight of stairs was only ten steps, but with each step he took, Gregory felt that he was going further and further underground.
Gregory could hear water in the distance and the air was cool on his face. He thought about turning back, but there was something that pulled him forward, that kept his feet taking step after step. The further he went in the stairwell, the farther away the world above seemed to become.
He just knew that it was the light that pulled him forward, and that was what he moved towards. Gregory didn’t know how long this tunnel went on for, but it hadn’t seemed this long when he was back on the street level. Gregory kept walking, sure that there would be an ending eventually.
Eventually, the drip of water was accompanied by song. Someone with a gruff voice was singing softly, a melody that was strangely haunting and comforting at the same time. Gregory stopped when he first heard the voice, his hand on the wall that had turned from cloth to stone. The stone was wet underneath his hand and cool to the touch.
The voice echoed throughout the tunnel and still that seed of light was in front of him. He kept walking. “How much further does this thing go?” He said out loud.
He hadn’t expected a response, but a gruff voice responded: “Not too much further. You’re almost there now. Just follow the sound of my voice and don’t take any other tunnels. My voice will lead you to safety.” The voice resumed singing and rose in volume.
Walking with increased speed, Gregory put one foot in front of the other and it took a few steps to realize he was walking in turn with the tune the man was singing. It made him want to cry and laugh at the same time and he had never heard anything like it. Though there were no words, there was emotion in that voice. Gregory walked towards it.
After walking for what seemed like an hour, his feet touched grass. Gregory could hear the whisper of it beneath his feet. Looking down, he was shocked to see grass there, looking thick and coloured the bright green of jade and emeralds.
Looking up again, he let out a breath of shock because he was no longer in the stone tunnel. He was standing in front of an aged and ancient tree. Here the trickling of the water was louder. A small stream ran in front of the tree and the tree itself looked as if it were tall enough to reach the sky. It looked as if it had been made from discarded pieces of wood, the trunk was multicoloured and uneven.
Standing beside the tree was the man who had talked to him and who had been singing. The first thing that struck Gregory was how blue his eyes were, even from where he was standing. They shone like sapphires.
When the man spoke, it was that same gruff voice as before. “Took you long enough.”
Gregory blinked. “You can see me?”
The man let out a bark of laughter. “Of course, I can fucking see you. I can see everyone.” He regarded Gregory with sharp eyes. “Is this your first day?” He asked.
“My first day with what?”
The old man let out a long sigh and looked at Gregory with a look of dawning comprehension. “Oh boy.” The man said.
“Look, first the elevator wouldn’t work, the woman wouldn’t in my foyer wouldn’t talk to me, the barista couldn’t see me until I waved like a freak of nature. People on the street didn’t see me and almost walked through me.” Gregory took a breath before he really lost it. “Can you please tell me what’s going on?”
The old man looked him up and down. Perhaps he saw something because he nodded and said “You’re going dim, son.”
“Dim like stupid? Are you calling me stupid?”
The old man let out a soft laugh. “It’s a poor use of the word, that’s for sure. It has nothing to do with your intelligence. It’s just the word that has been used for centuries, so we continue to use it still.”
“So what does it mean?” Gregory could feel fear beginning to take hold in his gut. “And why the fuck is there a tree here? What is this tunnel for anyways?”
The old man stepped over the water that ran in front of his tree. As he approached Gregory, he held out a hand. When Gregory shook it, he experienced a thrum of warmth that ran through him and filled his body with heat. His first thought was: He smells burnt. His second was: I wonder if I smell like that?
“Come with me, I want to show you something.” The old man said.
“Go with you?” Gregory said. “I don’t even know your name.”
“I’m sorry, where are my manners. Here I am shaking your hand and I haven’t introduced myself. The name’s Odin. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Gregory looked at Odin and blinked. “I don’t remember my history, but wasn’t Odin like the son of Zeus or Loki, or something?”
A pained look passed over Odin face. “Yeah, something like that.”
“Why the fuck did your parents name you that?” Gregory asked.
“Yes, why indeed.” He let go of Gregory’s hand. “Now, if you’ll follow me.” He didn’t wait for an answer and walked towards the exit of the tunnel.
Gregory expected the walk to be just as long as it had coming in, but in a matter of a few steps, they were walking up the steps and stepping out of the stairwell. Gregory looked back at the stairwell and scratched his head.
“Something wrong, son?” Odin asked.
“It just seemed to take so much longer on the way in then the way out.”
“You’ll find a lot of things are like that. Life is never what we think it is, you know?”
Gregory nodded, unsure of where this conversation was going. Odin walked onwards for a little bit, striding forward with purpose and confidence. Gregory wondered where he had hear the name Odin before.
They had been walking for a few minutes and Gregory paid attention to the people around them as they were walking. He noticed that there were quite a few people with purple halos around their heads. Those people waved and said hello to them as they passed. Those without purple hallows simply moved aside for them as if they weren’t there.
While Gregory was comforted by the fact that there were people who could see him, he thought that he probably didn’t want to find out why.
Odin stopped walking and Gregory noticed they were in front of another tree; this one was a lot larger than the one that Odin had been standing in front of inside the stairwell. It stretched its branches to the sky as if they wanted to paint the very clouds themselves. Looking at the trunk, he knew it would have taken several people to surround it completely.
Looking around him, Gregory saw that they were in one of his favourite parks. He had been here hundreds of times, but he had never seen this tree before. “Who planted this tree?” Gregory asked.
Instead of answering him right away, Odin sat down on the grass and patted the ground beside him. “Take a seat, son.”
Gregory did so and couldn’t remember the last time he had sat on the grass. The feel of the grass underneath and the trunk of the impossibly large tree was very comforting. It rooted and grounded him even though he found himself in an unknown situation.
“The world isn’t like we think it is.” Odin said. “There are so many layers to it that we’ll never understand. This is one of them.” He looked at Gregory. “Where do you think you are?”
“Ummm, in a park?”
“Yes and no. We are in a layer of time that takes place at the same time and occupies the same space as the park. Does that makes sense to you?”
“None of this makes sense to me.” Gregory tried to keep the hopelessness from his voice, but he wasn’t entirely successful.
“Maybe I’m just explaining things wrong. I spend too much time alone. I’m not used to talking to people anymore and I’ve never had a person find me on their first day before. What brought you to me?”
“I just took a different route to work and was drawn in by the light. I just headed towards it.”
Odin sighed. “I was afraid of that.” He sighed again. “Tell me Gregory, what do you know about the afterlife?”
Gregory looked at Odin and wondered where he was going with this line of questioning. “You live you die. If you’re a good person, you go to heaven or the afterlife or whatever. If you’re a bad person, you go to hell or whatever passes for it with whatever you follow.” He said this as if he were reciting something. Odin picked up on that.
“Is that really what you believe?” His blue eyes were searching and Gregory wondered if they could see inside of him.
“Not really, no.”
“Then tell me what you do believe, no matter how far fetched the idea.”
“I don’t know.” Gregory thought about it for a moment and figured that he could trust Odin. For some reason, the old man made Gregory feel comfortable. “I’ve never believed in reincarnation. I don’t even know if I believe in life after death, not really.”
“What do you believe in then?”
Thinking about it some more, Gregory focused on the sound of wind in the leaves of the tree above them, the noise of people talking and the music like beats of their shoes on the pavement not too far away from them. Finally, he spoke.
“I guess I believe that you have only one life, so you have to be as good as you can in the life you live now.” Gregory shook his head. “I know, stupid right?”
“Not so stupid. Everyone’s own idea of the afterlife works for them and they all exist at once.”
Letting out a laugh, Gregory said “What? Heaven, hell, the afterlife, reincarnation, all it?”
“Yep. This just happens to be your idea of the afterlife.”
Gregory’s heart stopped a beat. “I’m sorry?”
“Well, not just you. You see all those people with purple halos? The ones that can see you? They believe the same thing you do. So, you’re not alone, at least.”
“I don’t understand.” Gregory said.
“Well, there are some people that believe that when they pass on, they are forever on a spirit quest across the oceans of sand and time.” Odin shrugged his shoulders. “I think three people wished for that. Good luck finding others in a sea of sand. And a spirit quest when you’re already a spirit? Boring.”
“What I meant is, I’m dead?”
“Well, no one says it that way anymore. We say passed on or elevated or illuminated or other such nonsense. Everything is so politically correct these days.”
Thinking about it for a moment, Gregory said “Oh.”
“That’s all you have to say?”
“Well, I’m not sure. How about what the fuck? Or for fuck sakes? Or well shit? Will those do?”
“That’s better. You’re taking this rather calmly. The last guy that found me cried for hours and kept asking me what he had done wrong.” Odin sighed. “He hadn’t done anything wrong. It was just his time.”
“So is this my time?” Gregory asked. “I had so much living left that I’d like to do. I really did.”
“Well, think of it this way.” Odin said. “The world is your sandbox now. You can go anywhere and not get tired. You don’t have to pay for bus fare or transportation. Though getting on a subway can be a bit of a bitch.”
“What about a place to live?” Gregory asked. “Where will I go?”
“Why, to your apartment. It has ceased to exist as far as the building people are concerned. Same rules apply for getting in and out, but one day you’ll learn to pass through the hard surfaces. It’s all good though, you get to live there rent free.”
“Am I a ghost or a spirit?”
“Nah, you’re still you. You just moved to another dimension when you passed, like I said before, one that is like a film over top of this one. Now, others like you can see you, so you won’t be alone. Go and see Brenda in the coffee shop. She’s there most days. Others will see you too, if the have the sight. You’ll be okay.”
“I don’t even remember how I died.”
“Does it matter? You get to live on here. In this afterlife, you retain all memories of who you are and you never age.” Odin gave him a wink. “Some improvements have been made, just in case.” He let out a light chuckle.
“Don’t mention it.” Odin stood and held out a hand for Gregory to take and he pulled Gregory up.
“So what happens now?” Gregory asked.
“Now? Now, you go about living your life.”
“Pretty hard to do when I’m dead.”
“Hey, try saying elevated or illuminated, it sounds nicer. People around here are sensitive, remember.”
“Okay, but what do I do?”
“Well, you could go and see Brenda at the coffee shop. I know she’s in need of a friend.”
Gregory didn’t have to think about it. “That sounds nice.”
“Good. You don’t have to be alone if you don’t want to. Oh and no hauntings. I know there are all kinds of others that go in for that thing, but it’s not very classy.”
Odin began to walk way, heading back towards the stairwell with the long tunnel, when Gregory called out to him. “Hey.”
Odin turned back to him. “Yes?”
“Could I ask how I died?” Gregory asked.
Odin looked at him with unblinking blue eyes. “Would it matter?” He said and began to walk away again.
Standing there, the sun upon his face, Gabriel realized that today was the first day of his afterlife. He wondered if they had days in the afterlife, or if it was just one long day. He gave his head a shake and walked back to the coffee shop.
Waiting for others to enter, he slipped in after them and found Brenda still at the table. She was reading a book with a blue cover. “Hey. What are you reading?”
She looked up and showed him. “She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. Have you ever read it?”
Gregory shook his head. “No, I’ve read others by him, but not that one.”
“It’s so wonderful!” Brenda said. “Sit down and I can tell you all about it.” She looked at him as he sat. “Rough first day?” She asked.
“It started out pretty odd, but it’s not so bad now.” Gregory said.
As Gregory started to listen to Brenda’s voice, he reflected that maybe the afterlife wouldn’t be so bad after all because he finally felt alive.