Simon Cleavedon was well and truly alone in the world.
“When did this happen?” he asked himself, picking up his phone. The last text he’d had was from his ex, asking for him to please pay in the child support he still owed her for his youngest child… that'd been last week. Since then, he’d had nothing but notifications from the Liverpool Football Club App, telling him the scores.
“Alright, 972, here’s your next one.” A heavy folder slammed down on the desk in front of the young man. “Good luck with that.”
“Good luck, boss? Why?”
“It’ll test you. That’s all I’m allowed to say.”
“Great. It’s Friday, Madge. Isn’t there anything a little nicer to end the week on?”
“Not for you.”
Aponeus ran a hand over his face wearily and eyed the folder as Madge left. What human could possibly have this much to go through?! Even murderers, rapists, all those things had a relatively small case file. With murderers, unless they’d really done a number, they usually thought the murder they’d committed was worth it. Most of the souls on Earth had thin files. Only a select few had files as thick as this...
Aponeus dragged the folder over and opened it. The first page was stamped with ‘END’ in bright red letters. End was literally the incineration of a soul, because the soul had nothing left to learn. End was… well, the end.
Most souls who were ready to move on were either presented with two options: go beyond, or rebirth. Going beyond meant moving onto a higher plane. Rebirth meant going back to Earth to learn another round of lessons. Most of the time, souls knew what they needed to do, but sometimes they didn’t and needed help. That’s where the Soul Bureau came in. They offered assistance when it was clear they had no idea what to do. Additionally, they went to assess whether assistance was needed in the cases of sudden deaths. Some souls didn’t register their body's death, and they needed help crossing over. Those were Aponeus’ favourite cases.
‘END’ cases were always tedious, because the souls had no desire to accept that they were being ended. They wanted to move on.
They were, however, allowed to appeal, successful only when the soul understood what had gone wrong, and made steps to change it.
Aponeus flipped through the folder. This guy was a total asshole. Almost every page was filled with a poor choice, selfishness, anger… asshole was perhaps being kind.
“Well, Simon Cleavedon… it’s showtime.”
The lights wouldn’t turn on. He’d paid the electric bill, hadn’t he? Simon pulled his phone from his pocket, almost dropping his Chinese. He shone the torch around, looking for a sign of intrusion. Everything was as he’d left it.
He made his way to the kitchen and put the food down. The fuses in the fusebox were all flipped the right way… perhaps it was a power cut? But the internet was still working… he frowned and made his way into the living room to see if the TV worked.
“Good evening, Mr Cleavedon.”
“ARGH! WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU?!”
“Woah! Jesus! Chill out!” The lights came on, and Simon was met with a tall, slender man dressed in a fine suit.
“Get out! I’ll call the police!”
“Call them. They won’t come.” Simon’s throat closed in fear. He dropped his phone, and made no attempt to reach down to pick it up. “Sorry! Was the evil villain entrance too evil villain? I was going for James Bond.”
“Who are you?!”
“In good time, Mr Cleavedon. I mean you no harm, that’s the first thing. Second… I’ve been reading about you. You’ve not been so nice to the world, have you?”
“What?!” Simon’s veins in his forehead stood out in anger and fear. “Who are you?! What do you want?! How did you get in?!”
“So many questions…” He cleared his throat. “Right. Yes. Well, I can’t really tell you who I am without you having more questions, so… I want you to take everything I say to you tonight with a completely open mind, okay? As in, believe in the impossible. Harry Potter’s real and all that.”
“I mean, you don’t really have a choice. I’m not leaving. I have a job to do.”
“Alright. Alright, fine. Who are you?”
“My name’s Aponeus.”
“…Sure. Almost. I guess your accent doesn’t do it justice…I’ve never liked the Scouse accent though.” Aponeus cleared his throat again.
“Great. What do you want?”
“Simon… you realised at –“ Aponeus took out a small notebook and flipped it to the first page. “- 5.32am this morning that you were totally alone in the world. No family, no friends. You hadn’t had a message from anyone since last Tuesday, and that was from your ex asking for money you owe her. Right?”
“How… the fuck…”
“I know. Believe me. That’s why I’m here.”
“I’m an angel. Kind of.”
“…Right.” Simon ran a hand through his hair and shook his head. He put his hands on his hips. “Who set this up? Was it Kev?!” Simon knew fully well he’d had that realisation entirely in his head, because he lived alone and didn’t walk around talking to himself.
“No. I don’t know who Kev is.” Aponeus took a seat. “And don’t worry about your food. It’ll still be hot when we're back.”
“I wasn’t –“ Simon began, but his blood ran cold. He had been thinking about his food. “What the fuck are you?”
“I’m an angel. Kind of. I just said.”
“I’m dead, aren’t I? I’ve died. This is why it’s so awful being alive. I’ve died.”
“Normally I’d say fortunately not, but I get the feeling you’re a bit sad that you’re not dead?” Aponeus leaned back on the sofa.
“No… I don’t want to die. Not until I’ve retired, anyway.”
“Retirement? And what would you fill your hours doing?” Aponeus gestured to the TV, which turned on. A football game was playing. Simon fished a cigarette out of his pocket and lit up. “You know, normally I’d call those death sticks, but I think in your case this is more deadly.” Aponeus gestured to the TV.
“Yeah, well. I could have been so much more.”
“I agree.” Aponeus clapped his hands together, and in a flash Simon was standing behind a game show podium, his name written in golden glitter on the front. Aponeus was wearing a golden glitter suit, trimmed with clean white panels. Behind them, the living room had vanished, in its place a blue game show set. To Simon’s left, a large screen bore a logo, with the letters ‘HWYCHW’ in sparkly gold and orange emblazoned across a blue disc. “That’s why it’s time to play Here’s What You Could Have Won!” As Aponeus cried out, an audience shouted along with him. “That’s right, ladies and gentlemen! Welcome back! Tonight, I’m joined by the lovely fifty-one-year-old Simon Cleavedon, all the way from Liverpool! So, Simon. Has your life been what you wanted?” Aponeus asked, his smile exaggerated for the audience. He was really hamming up the performance. Simon hated it. “Well? Are you happy with where fifty-one years of life has got you?!” Simon said nothing. Aponeus leaned over and hid his mouth with his hand. “Play the game, friend, or the hellhounds will come.”
“Hellhounds?!” Aponeus winked. “Well – er… no. No, I’m not happy with my life.”
“D’ya hear that, folks?! He’s not happy with his life! Why is that?”
“I… I could have had a bit more.”
“A bit more,” said Aponeus, with a pout. “How sad… well, Simon, are you ready to play?!” Simon barely got a reply out before Aponeus gestured to the screen in front of the audience. “Let’s take a look at your life, Simon. A dreary life, oh my!”
On the screen, a black and white movie started to play. Every single character was played by Aponeus, but it was obvious who he was supposed to be. Simon watched as the early years of his life played out, as his girlfriends left him, as his kids flipped him off and left him, as he entered his apartment alone. His colleagues laughed at him, his boss rolled his eyes at him… it was pathetic. Part of him wanted to cry, but the other part of him knew that none of this was remotely real, and so the shame that should have risen up didn’t.
“It’s miserable,” Simon muttered.
“You hear that, folks? Miserable.” Aponeus’ remark was met with some audience participation. “Fifty-one years is a long time. Are you ready to see what you could have had?”
“Yes. Yes, I am.”
“Good!” Aponeus turned to the audience (which, to Simon, was a black void, the more he looked at it) and held his arms out. “Audience, are you ready?” Screams and shouts came from that blackness. Simon felt a little unnerved by it. “Alright… let’s reveal what’s behind the first door!”
Simon turned his gaze to the screen, and he saw himself at the age of eighteen, sporting his mullet hairstyle. He had a baby in his arms, and his first girlfriend Bella was there. He was surrounded by stacks of papers, a computer whirring away in the background. He knew it was his first child. The picture changed to him graduating. Bella held the hand of a toddler. Sarah had grown up adorably. His friends all loved her. She was witty, charming… and then, she was a teenager, holding out a sheet of paper to the screen. All A*s, all perfect scores. And then, college. More A*s, and a Duke of Edinburgh gold award. University was Cambridge, reading Maths… and then, her graduation with a first-class honours. Simon was married. Happy.
“How did that make you feel, Simon, old buddy?”
“I… she was a cow. She was awful. She kicked me out. I can’t see how any of that could have happened, and I wouldn’t want it with her anyway.” Simon shrugged.
“Well, lucky for you, there are more doors,” Aponeus slapped him on the shoulder. “Let’s see what’s behind door number two, shall we?” Simon gave a nod. His life wasn’t with Bella. She wasn’t right for him.
This time, the movie playing started when he was twenty-two. His mullet had already been cropped, in place of a mop of curls on top of his head. He was there dancing with Jasmine, in a nightclub. The night he’d actually met her, bizarrely. She’d told him she had a daughter already, and he’d been amazed, because she’d be a perfect mother. The screen played a different outcome, though – that confused him. His life on-screen was happy. Jas’s daughter Emily was loving, hugging him, happy with him. She grew up mature and confident, successful, with the same accolades as Sarah had, only she attended Oxford in place of Cambridge. Two other children came up when Emily was eleven and thirteen respectively – Lucy and Rose. Both were as successful as Emily – Rose followed the same path, attending UCL to study medicine, and Lucy ended up with her own highly-successful fashion house, collaborating with Gucci and Yves Saint-Laurent, and the other big powerhouses. He grew old with them, happy, they had plenty of money, a big house, two nice cars in the drive… Dinner parties held for all his friends, food cooked and presented by Jas… She was perfect, cooking and cleaning and doing the washing, holding down an excellent full-time job as the CEO of a national bank. A six-figure salary, plus bonuses, each year…
“I want that one. That’s the one I want.” Simon found the words tumbling from his lips.
“You sure you don’t want to see what’s behind the other doors?!” Aponeus asked, spinning on his heel. “You’ll like door number three.” The audience behind them applauded. “With door three, you get all of door two, with this added on. An addendum, if you will.” Simon looked back at the screen.
He was running around a football pitch, his family to the left, cheering him on. He scored the winning goals, and their team got to the regional finals, then the national finals, and then the England team picked him to play for them. He was also selected by Liverpool FC to play, too. His dreams, seeing his kids screaming their support with the LFC colours on their cheeks… it made his heart sing. That’s what he’d wanted.
“That’s my life… That one. I want that one!”
“Aha, well… Simon…” the audience fell quiet. "The show isn’t called ‘Here’s What You CAN Have’,” Aponeus said softly. “It’s called ‘Here’s What You Could Have Won’.”
“Jesus Christ, this is going to be tough.”
“Why are you showing me this if I can’t have it?”
“Because this is what you could have had if you’d made better choices and been a better human. I’m here to show you this is why you’re alone right now. Not to give you a choice to live the life you frankly don’t deserve.”
“What?!” Simon looked horrified.
“I said what I said. You don’t deserve those.”
“I… then I don’t know why you’re here.”
“Ugh. Show’s over.” Aponeus clicked his fingers, and they were right back in Simon’s living room again. “Simon, long story short, you’ve been a shitty individual this entire time on Earth. You asked me if you were about to die a little while ago. I said no, because that’s the truth. Your human body still has a solid…” he consulted his notebook again. “Twenty years in it, give or take. Either your heart will go, or lung cancer gets you – that’s still hanging in the balance with the guys down in Body Tech, but I don’t speak with them.”
“Don’t think about it. Anyway, I’m here because you’re going to be ended. As in, you don’t get a second chance. You’re done. History… except for there’s no-one alive who cares about you enough to remember you. So that thing the Latin Americans do, the diá de los Muertos? With the ofrenda? They put pictures so their relatives aren’t forgotten?”
“What are you talking about?!” Simon felt the tension rise in him.
“Did you ever see the movie Coco?! About the little Mexican kid who goes to the land of the dead and finds his great-great-something-granddad?! And people who don’t have a picture on the ofrenda are literally lost forever?!”
“What about it?!”
“Literally no-one would put you on their ofrenda! Your grave will literally be forgotten as soon as your kids die! Even before that!” Aponeus’ chest heaved. “And you really should watch more Pixar movies. They’re wholesome as hell. Well, I mean Hell’s not remotely wholesome...”
“So… you’re saying I’ll be forgotten? Why? I never did anything wrong! It’s not my fault my family kicked me out! I never did anything!”
“That’s the point, Simon. You never did anything. And I’m not the first person who’s said that to you, either.” Aponeus shrugged. “Look. I’ll make it simple. As soon as your human body dies, your soul’s done for. You don’t get to move on, or be reborn. But, because that’s pretty final, and sometimes souls get a bit stuck in figuring out what their life paths are – some of them literally walk the wrong path for so long, we miss them and End them accidentally – we offer you the chance to appeal an Ending.”
“Then I want to appeal.”
“I thought you might.” Aponeus took a seat on the sofa again, and gestured to the rather pointless armchair Simon kept. Pointless because it never seated anyone, except for the washing, when Simon couldn’t be bothered to fold it. “Right. If you appeal, you need to understand why you went wrong, and understand what you could have done better. Then, you get the chance to be reborn and redo your lessons. If not –“
“Then I want to appeal it. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is a mistake.”
“If not… Simon, I know you don’t fully understand what this is, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to get through to you on some level. But nothing you currently have is a result of other people being unreasonable. Everything you have is because of you.” Aponeus frowned; had that made any sense?
“Alright. Fine. How do we do it? I tell you about my life?”
“No, no… the easiest way is for me to show you.” Aponeus yawned. “Have you ever read that Charles Dickens book, the one –“
“Oh. Good. Come on, then.”
“You’ve read the book, so you know what to expect from these bits.”
“Alright! Fucking hell – I never read the book!”
“And then you wonder why no-one wants to be your friend when all you do is interrupt and dismiss them.” Aponeus shook his head. “A Christmas Carol. Did you read that?”
“No, but I’ve seen it often enough on telly.”
“Good enough. This is a cheap rip-off of it, because the guy’s idea is phenomenal. Although we won’t be doing that ‘flying over London’ thing – well, in your case, Liverpool – because it’s a massive cliché, and the level of smog right now is ludicrous.” Simon stared at him. “Take my arm.”
“It’s alright, it’s not gay. I doubt you can apparate yourself back through time. Get it? Harry Potter?”
“You so don’t.” Aponeus grabbed Simon’s arm before he could protest, and the world around Simon went black. He felt like he was being crushed and expanded at the same time, and while it wasn’t painful, it felt like it should have been, agonisingly so. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t see or hear or think… and then, pop, it stopped.