My guide raises her eyebrows, shrugging.
“Can’t help you from here on, mate. Good luck.” She pats me on the shoulder and is off, leaving me standing alone in the hall.
I sigh, staring up at the two doors in front of me.
Both of them large, oak, and closed. Both of them seemingly the same, but with drastically different things behind them. I shift my weight from foot to foot, the bag on my shoulders growing heavier and heavier. I walk up to the one on the right, hesitantly raising my knuckle to knock. Before I get the chance, it opens for me, and I drop my hand back to my side.
Adjusting the straps of my backpack, I walk into the light. The door closes behind me, and I jump at the thud.
I scan my surroundings, eyebrows raised. The ground is soft underneath my bare feet, like clouds. Everything is just white, as far as the eye can see.
A figure materializes in front of me and I blink.
A woman, all ethereal-like and calm.
Oh, and she has a 5-foot wingspan behind her back too, white feathers and little golden ones strung in there.
I do my best to keep my gaze up at her face- eyes closed and mouth set in a closed lip smile.
“We’ve been expecting you,” she says, her voice all smooth and eerie. I swallow the spit that’s gathered in my mouth, looking behind her. Who’s we, is what I want to ask, but I just nod instead, tucking my hands inside the pockets of my hoodie, a sudden chill rising in the air.
She turns and flies forward, and I trip on my feet trying to follow. I try to match her pace, but two awkward teenage legs are hard to match up to wings. She slows down a little, and I gratefully pick up my pace, gradually getting used to the texture of the floor.
As we walk, the white turns into...color. The sky shifts from purple to stars to space to ink-black darkness. And scattered around are people- all different sizes and colors- sitting down cross-legged, with concentrated looks on each of their faces. They look like they’re meditating, all with similar white robes on and their hair down. The only thing that doesn’t change as we move along is the ground- always clouds, always soft.
We continue forward, and I try to concentrate on the back of the woman as we continue along, the changing of the sky nauseating me.
“This way,” the angel, as she resembles, calls out, and I turn as we continue walking. We see less and less people, and the sky starts to slow its change. She suddenly stops and so I do too, trying to form a grip in the clouds with my toes.
She makes a gesture with her hands, and I watch, mesmerized, as a dome appears, about as big as an average-sized house. It’s reflective like glass, and I walk towards it.
“So is this...heaven?” I choke out, reaching my fingers to touch the dome.
I feel her hand on my shoulder, and look down on it. It radiates with a hazy golden light, warming me to the touch. Heat creeps up my cheeks. What type of question is that?
She smiles, taking her hand down and fluttering her wings slightly.
“And next door that’s-”
“Shhhhh...Are you ready?” She stops my words with a thin glowing finger to her lips, and I frown but oblige. I nod, once again adjusting the straps of my backpack, the weight long forgotten.
“Go on, then. They’re waiting,” she says, gesturing wildly to the dome.
I nod again, turning my head from her and taking slow steps forward. I’m about to ask how to get inside, but when I turn, she’s gone.
I place my palm on the surface, blinking. I gasp as a blinding flash appears. I stumble backwards, squeezing my eyes shut. When I open them again, my surroundings have changed. No longer is the sky in a constant whirl of color, and no longer is the dome in front of me. I believe I’m inside it now. Except, the walls around me aren’t round. Odd.
Around me- white walls, white floor, white corners. I frown.
There’s a small red rug in the center of the room, and a short oak wood table in the corner. I walk towards in and set my backpack down on it, taking a deep breath.
I walk towards one of the walls, tapping against it.
Where’s the user manual of the spooky dome when you need it?
The room shakes and I stumble, catching myself on the wall. A door materializes and I watch as someone walks in, all white at first, but slowly coming to color.
A tall woman, with a high ponytail and glasses, comes out, smiling. She’s the only one I’ve seen so far over here wearing her hair up, and something other than the white robes. Instead-she wears a plain grey pantsuit, and in her hands is a sleek black clipboard.
For a moment, she just stands there, but then she’s hugging me. I stiffen at the unexpected contact, awkwardly giving her shoulder a pat.
“Thank you,” she whispers in my ear, “thank you so much for what you’re doing. We really appreciate it.”
There’s that we word again.
She pulls away from the hug and sets her hands on my shoulders instead.
“If there’s anything you need at all, anything, you tap twice on the walls and I’ll come, alright?”
I nod. She pulls away, glancing down at her clipboard.
“Oh, uh, Rosalind,” I say, clasping my hands together behind my back. She glances down again at her clipboard, seeming satisfied.
“Anything before I go?”
I start to shake my head, and she begins to turn around but then I remember.
She stops, making eye contact.
“That other door. If this is the afterlife, where does the other door lead to?”
Her smile almost falls, but she catches herself, pushing her glasses up her nose.
“It’s another part of the afterlife. You’ll find out.”
“But why don’t they just let all the children stay together?”
She shakes her head softly, clutching her clipboard a little tighter.
“There isn’t enough space. I have to go. Take care. And remember, knock twice, alright?”
She’s gone before I process anything.
Not enough space?
I remember the expanses of empty space that I saw while walking and frown, going forward.
Before I can set my foot down, the space around me shifts, the light growing dimmer and everything changing. Suddenly, the walls are a sickly bright, almost neon, yellow. Underneath me is a fluffy white rug, almost mimicking the cloudy walking area of what it was out of the dome.
And, the most prominent change of all, a group of children sit, knees to their chests, all of them wearing ill-fitted white robes, and sitting against the yellow wall. They range from ages five to twelve, from what I can see, all of them head down and half of them sniffling. I compose myself, biting my lip.
I walk forward, kneeling down to get level with them. Slowly, they notice me, looking up.
I manage what I hope is an encouraging smile and wave.
“Um, hi. I’m Rosalind.”
I sigh, running a hand through my hair.
“That’s it. Everyone stand up. That’s it, stand up, up up up. I want you to all tell me your names and how old you are,” I declare, hoping authority laces my voice. It seems to work, for they all slowly pick their heads up and get to their feet.
They’ve been ignoring me for what seems like days, and my efforts to entertain them have been fruitless until now.
“You first,” I point at the short blonde girl in front of me, and her sunken eyes widen.
“M-Millie. Six,” she practically whispers, but I smile anyway, reaching out to hug her. She almost pulls away, before crumbling at my touch, folding into the hug and placing her small head at the crook of my shoulder. I give her a squeeze before letting go, standing back up.
“Okay. Nice to meet you, Millie.”
They all stare at me, each of them scared to go next. I’m about to pick someone else at random, but someone peaks up.
“I’m Jonas. Nine,” a boy says, a mess of strawberry blonde hair on his head and striking grey eyes boring into mine as he sits back down.
“Nice to meet you, Jonas,” I say, deciding it’s best to skip the hug on him.
“Sally. I’m seven,” a girl says and I glance around for the source of the voice before feeling someone hug me. I smile, bending down and hugging the figure back.
“Nice to meet you, Sally.”
I squeeze her and she plops down next to me.
They go faster now, almost talking over each other.
“Olivia and I’m eleven.”
A redhead, freckled and mad. She sits back down, crossing her arms. She’s probably the eldest.
“Riley, I’m seven.”
“I’m Luke. I’m five years old!”
They’ve all sat down again now and my heart squeezes. Ten of them. There are probably hundreds, thousands more. Poor kids.
I put my hands on my hips and take a shaky deep breath, biting the inside of my cheek.
“And I’m Rosalind, but you already know that. I’m sixteen.”
Silence. They stare at me and I’m suddenly giving a presentation in class again, bored classmates staring holes into my soul. I blink the image away.
“What do you want to do first?” I say, hoping to excite them.
Marcus, tall for his age, frowns, shifting his sitting position.
I mean, I figure the people here can make anything happen, so…
“Can we change the color of the wall?”
I glance at the fluorescent yellow.
“That’s...a great idea.”
I knock twice at the wall, and the woman from before materializes in front of me.
“Can we get some...paint?”
“Rosalind?!” a small voice calls out, and I walk over to Millie, whose hands are crossed. She stands next to Luke, who has his own hands behind his back. He looks guilty.
I knit my brows, concerned, and place a hand on Millie’s shoulder.
“What is it?”
“Luke’s hiding something!” she declares.
I glance at Luke, now on the verge of tears.
“Luke? What’s wrong?”
“N-Nothing!” He sniffles.
I take my hand from Millie's shoulder and kneel down to be at eye level with Luke.
“You can tell me, I can keep a secret.”
Slowly he opens his hands, and I look down into them. Something small and white lies inside his palms, red at the tips. I frown, picking it up. Once I do, he runs from me into another corner of the room, likely playing with one of the toys I’ve managed to ask to get for them.
I study the white thing, rubbing a finger across its edge.
I stand up, leaning a palm against the wall.
“Olivia?” I call out, slightly loud to be heard over the chatter in the room.
I’ve gotten them to finally start conversing, forget about everything and try to enjoy life.
Or, um, the afterlife.
The redhead comes over to me, sleeves rolled up to her elbows and her hair up in a ponytail with one of the hair ties I gave her.
She’s started to warm up to me, and I smile at her.
“Watch the kids okay? I’ll be right back.”
Before she can answer I press my palm against the wall and am out of the dome.
I knock twice on the wall of it, the woman not materializing fast enough.
I clutch the tooth tightly in my hand, the jagged etches scratching my skin.
I thrust my hand out at her before she can greet me.
“The children grow?!”
The woman takes the tooth from my hands, examining it.
“Yes.” She hands it back to me, adjusting her glasses.
“Well, as children, they lack the maturity and concentration to meditate and become at peace with the adults. So they grow. Until they reach about twenty.”
I blink again, bringing the tooth to my sweatshirt pocket.
“Where are the rest of them?” I ask.
“Of who, dear?”
“The kids. These are not the only people who’ve died before their family, before puberty.”
She frowns, hugging her clipboard.
“That is not of your concern.”
“These kids are my responsibility.”
“These kids, and no one else.”
“I suggest you go back to the children Rosalind, before I do it for you. Or I can just replace you, if you’d like,” she says with finality.
I shake my head in disbelief, and the woman disappears. I press my palm against the dome again, appearing in front of the children.
I walk up to Luke, whose in front of the blocks, and hand him the tooth.
“Put it under your pillow, okay? You’ll get a gift in replacement tomorrow.”
“Really? I’m not in trouble?”
“No, of course not.” I smile sadly, giving him a hug.
These poor kids.
I’d learned that they’d been sleeping against the wall for months now, and made sure to get them each sleeping bags with pillows and blankets. I’ll have to ask for a little trinket to put under Luke’s pillow later, and prepare some sort of story to let them know about the tooth fairy too. The younger ones, at least.
I watch them all play, all of them smiling, different from the straight-faced, blank-eyed kids I saw the first day I was here.
Someone pulls on my clothes, and I look down to see Millie.
“Yes?” I ask, kneeling down.
“Sally stole my dollll!”
I take her hand.
“Let’s fix that.”
“You guys should go to sleep now,” I say, hugging my knees closer to my chest. Olivia and Jonas, the only two not sleeping, don’t budge, sitting down on their sleeping bags.
“Rosalind?” Jonas says, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Yeah?” I yawn, leaning my head back on the wall. You’d think you wouldn't get tired in the afterlife.
“When will I see my parents again? My sister? M-My dog?”
Olivia places a hand on his shoulder, their sleeping bags being right next to each other.
“Olivia, it’s alright.”
I’d already talked to her about this being the afterlife, her being the eldest.
“Jonas. You know why you’re here, right?”
He frowns, looking down.
“I just remember being in the hospital. And then I was here. That’s it. And then you were here.”
I haven’t asked any of them how they got here yet. I figure it’s a touchy subject, even for kids. Especially for kids.
“Jonas, this is...this is the afterlife. When your parents pass over, when your siblings pass over, your dog, that’s when you’ll see them, okay?”
“P-pass over?” His lips quiver and it breaks my heart as he crumbles down into his knees. Olivia pulls her hand back.
“Oh, Jonas…” I near him, pulling him into a hug. He doesn’t hug me back, but he doesn’t struggle either, and I stroke his strawberry blonde curls that grow longer every day. “You’re in different worlds now.”
“Shhh, it’s okay.”
He doesn’t finish, and I let him sleep in my arms for the night, Olivia soon retreating into her own sleeping bag sometime in between.
I zip up my bag with shaking fingers, another tear rolling down my cheeks. I grit my teeth and wipe it away. It’s hard enough already, I don’t need to cry.
I pull the bag onto my shoulders, smoothing down my clothes.
I look down, and sure enough, she stands wide-eyed, something clutched in her hands.
“Millie? What is it?”
“I made you something. We all did.” She hands me a bracelet, bright yellow string braided together with bright white and I smile, pulling it on my hand.
“Thank you Millie, all of you.” The children, all seated against the wall, avoid eye contact.
I sniffle, taking a deep breath.
“Guys. Come on, bring it in.”
They all come closer, and we group hug tightly.
“Will you come back?” Luke asks, the words coming out a little weird with the hole of his still growing tooth.
“I’m going to try, Luke, okay? But for now, there are other kids, like you, who are lonely. I’m going to help them.”
He nods, and we part. I stand up, tapping twice on the wall. They all wave to me as I fog away.
I walk through the color-changing sky, past the meditating people and finally out of the large door.
No one’s there this time when I stand before the two doors again.
I walk over to the one on the left, the bracelet the kids made comforting me as I place my palm on the wood.
The door opens and I gulp.
A devil-like figure materializes in front of me, nearly identical to the angel I’d seen before, but with glowing red skin and no wings.
She motions for me to follow her.
“Right this way. We’ve been waiting.”