“I feel alive.”
“And again Mr Maxwell I can very much assure you that you are in fact very dead” said the gentleman behind the podium whilst fixing some errant paperwork in front of him. “How can I be dead if I feel this great?” asked the aforementioned Mr Maxwell becoming steadily more incredulous “well according to the paperwork the how is a traffic accident and as to the why you feel so good, I mean it would be a hard sell to convince people to cross over if you felt like you were dead the whole time you were here”.
“Surely you’ve made some sort of mistake, I don’t look dead, I don’t feel dead I feel pretty alive, I don’t even remember dying” a tremor in his words threatened to silence his voice any second “and still the fact remains. The creator was kind enough to give me this position because of my natural talents, my attention to detail, and my complete and utter grasp of the obvious. I’m very good at my job, you are John Maxwell aged 35 and vaguely catholic, you died march 28th 2023 in a traffic accident and now you stand before the gate asking if I’m incompetent. Did I miss anything out?” the man smiled in such a way that it walked a very precarious line between smug and oddly welcoming.
“THE CREATOR?! That means you’re Saint Peter, oh my god the local priest was right, Catholicism is the true religion. I always thought he was just a zealot… Oh my god I just took the lords name in vain in front of Saint Peter, am I going to hell?” said John frantically realizing how he had been speaking to the saint up to that point, if he could still sweat he was sure he would have been dripping with panic. “Don’t worry, I’ve heard worse from more pious people. We kind of give people a pass once they are here, it’s a lot to take in and it wouldn’t be fair if we kicked out everyone who had an existential crisis at the gate, the place would be a ghost town…” Peter waited for a reaction but got nothing, in his defense John is a little preoccupied to get the joke thought Peter “Anyway I would like to clarify that Father Peterson wasn’t completely correct, no religion is right or wrong it all works a little differently here. The Ethereal are mostly formless and to make passing over easier the realm we are in and its Inhabitants manifest to match our visitors' preferences, like I said you are vaguely catholic so that is why I look like this, while your gate looks like this, whatever this is?” Peter gestured to his surroundings inquisitively.
For the first time since beginning their conversation, John began to take in his surroundings. He was stood in a poorly carpeted room facing a waist-height podium which Peter was stood behind, there was a low hum of fluorescent lighting and a board loosely hanging from the ceiling with various people's names and departure times, Behind Peter was the most elegant departure gate and boarding tunnel John had ever seen, there was platinum and pearl inlay on the golden frame but despite that it was a departure gate nevertheless. Peter also disappointed John a little, he was around 5’10, potentially mid-60s potentially endless, and he had shoulder-length hair and a well-kept beard both of which reminded John of salt and pepper. He wore a cream-colored suit with a beige waistcoat and a silver tie that seemed to be producing its own light held neatly in place with a golden tie clip.
“So you are telling me everything here looks like this because I want it to? Why would I choose a departure lounge? And why do you look like an aging Hollywood star and not like one of the disciples, surely that is how I would have imagined you being that I am vaguely catholic?” said John, by this point, disbelief was slowly making the subtle but inevitable shift to indignation. “Is that what this place is? How interesting! I’ve never had that before, it makes sense though I guess, your untethered soul is making its final journey this must be what you associate with journeys. As for me, you didn’t choose how I look just what form I manifest as. You chose Saint Peter but I chose the style, I like to keep up to date with the most relevant trends I feel it makes the transition easier for people, You could call me somewhat of a zeitgeist…” Again Peter paused waiting for a chuckle or some sort of acknowledgment of what he had said but against was met with a bewildered look from John “it means spirit of the times, trust me if you were German you would have loved that” Peter giggled to himself, somebody had to because the tension in the lounge was building at an alarming rate.
“If I manifested you and this place what is stopping me from changing it to what I want? Maybe that gate doesn’t take me to the afterlife, maybe it takes me home, maybe this whole interaction just stops now and becomes some bizarre and terrible memory while I leave you here in this crappy departure lounge with your cheap suit and happily go about my day!” a scowl of grim determination spread across John’s face as he headed toward the gate. Peter happily stepped aside allowing John to pass “Nothing is stopping you from doing any of that save for yourself. You have the ability to do all you want but I doubt you have the sheer force of will that it would take to see it through. Tell you what, try changing where we are right now and if you impress me maybe I can even help a little. It can be like that old cliché of playing a game against death for your soul, what do you say?”
Despite all of his protesting John never actually thought he had a chance to cheat death he was just scared but now there was a real chance “what do I lose if I can’t? am I making a deal with the devil here?” he asked apprehensively “Not unless you turn me into the devil” Peter laughed “You lose nothing at all John, you just pass on as you are meant to no fuss and enjoy your afterlife. There is nothing sinister here I am just bored, and it is rare people as entertaining as yourself pass through here” Peter Beamed, what started as apprehension quickly became resolve as John realized, he could only benefit from playing Peter’s game “Deal!”
“Fantastic” Peter laughed “let’s start simple. Let’s see if you can change something in this room, bonus points if it is from a different religious belief” John looked around the room for anything to change. It should be the podium he thought, it was right under Peter’s nose that would make an impact, maybe something more subtle to begin with. John eventually settled on some potted plants off to the side of the departure gate, now all he need to think of was a religion to really prove he was committed to winning his life back. Like everything in the room so far the plant bent to John’s will and morphed gracefully into reeds, Peter noticed the shift almost immediately “a nice little change you have made there but it’s not as easy as you think is it? Which religion does that relate to or did you just settle on changing something insignificant as best you could?” Peter has his usual air of superiority which drained very quickly when he felt the floor beneath his feet soften, the bleak and battered carpet gave way to mounds of sand, reeds forced their way out of the ground, his podium exploded into an ornate stone table, he turned away from the debris to notice the departure gate expand tenfold into a large temple door covered in hieroglyphs. “Most impressive” he said his voice no longer a smug and aged man’s but a graveled animalistic growl. John looked at the gatekeeper and with a knowing smile asked “what do I call you now? I don’t think Peter is exactly appropriate anymore you see” The gatekeeper looked down at itself, the suit that was once a pallid cream was now a deep, drowning purple with blue trim along the lapel and a black waistcoat, its tie now a vibrant gold and where there was a salt and pepper beard was now an obsidian muzzle so dark it looked as it was drawing in any light unfortunate enough to be caught in its pull.
“Anubis would be more fitting then I believe. That is remarkable, I don’t think I’ve ever met a mortal with such a grasp of themselves and their willpower before, it could just be beginners' luck though. I want you to try again and then I promise I will help you leave this place for the time being” said the now jackal-headed gatekeeper. “You said you would help me if I impressed you!” john shouted with a level of disrespect he would never have shown in the departure lounge but now in front of this temple with the sand at his feet he felt empowered.
Anubis growled a little “Egypt is easy, everyone knows about the ancient religions. What’s next? Zeus? Jupiter? I think not, I will suggest something and if you come even half as close as this then I swear on the creator that I will make your task easier” He brushed sand from his new suit whilst waiting for an answer. “That should be no problem” said John “very well then” the gatekeeper snarled, or maybe smiled it was difficult for John to tell the difference now that he was looking at an animal’s head. “Shinto is my choice, no other clues. If you get the realm right my form should match even if you don’t know the Shinto gatekeeper. Good luck!” smug looked a lot less threatening on Peter than it did Anubis, but john found it equally infuriating.
John knew what he needed to do but was unsure where to start, last time he started with the plants and his mind took the reins so it seemed the best place to start but flowers wouldn’t be good enough he envisioned a giant tree that cast an imposing shadow on the realm, he thought of the most ornate torii gate imaginable and let his surroundings do the rest. The sand made way for a battered cobbled path, the reeds collapsed into withered long grass and the temple door hollowed and receded into a small broken wooden gate with elaborate horns at the top, A huge blossom tree erupted from the stone table and spread its gnarled empty branches into whatever the realm chose to call a sky. John looked toward the gatekeeper and what once both Peter and Anubis was now a charred rotten husk of a geisha woman. “What have I done?” John stammered looking at the horrifying landscape his mind had created. “Nothing that wasn’t to be expected” said the soft but broken voice of Izanami who had been watching the realm change around them. “I couldn’t do it, I tried but everything is broken, this isn’t what I wanted, I tried to create a picturesque gate and instead made this nightmare” Izanami chuckled as they had in all forms “On the contrary John you have recreated this place perfectly, Yomi is a land of the dead and therefore all including its keeper are dead. There is a delicate balance between life and death and even if you didn’t want to create this it needs to be acknowledged. Take solace in my current form though because Izanami is both the goddess of creation and death and without life and death your world doesn’t work” As the gatekeeper spoke the grass began to stand tall, the cobbles straightened themselves and splinters gathered from all around John to rebuild the magnificent torii gate, finally the blossom tree began to bloom hundreds of tiny sprouting leaves that erupted into majestic pinks and whites. Izanami walked over to John and grasped his hand, what was mere seconds ago a wrinkled mitt was now an elegant hand, the rotten extremities were now elegant limbs on a refulgent body. The now rejuvenated geisha spoke “I have to say John, you have more than impressed me, not only did you deliver exactly what I asked for, you unconsciously grasped the nuance of these worlds, I would be happy to help you. I can’t give you the path but I can give you a choice and with what you know you can get home” with those words everything fell away and a gate appeared in front of John, then two, then four, each split in two until he was met with a thousand gates each identical to the last.
John concentrated, not on the gate, not on the gatekeeper’s message, but home or at least what he envisioned would be home. The choices he could make on the other side of this experience, the life he could live knowing the afterlife was there but most importantly a life of any sort. The gate closest to John splintered and then suddenly disappeared along with a hundred other identical gates. “I think I understand what you want from me” hundreds of gates disintegrated from view, John thought of his time at the gate and everything he learned, the gates disappeared one by one until only a small unassuming gate was left. “I’ve never seen anyone come close to what you have done here John, I am happy to say this gate will take you back to your life just before you passed over. If you carry on being the man I think you are I will see you very soon”
“I feel alive! The sun is so warm” John opened his eyes to see a supermarket parking lot. John didn’t remember how he died originally but he knew it was a traffic accident and that definitely wasn’t going to happen again. He fumbled around in his pocket for his keys and walked toward his car before realizing he was probably playing his last moments over again. He chose to walk home instead; he didn’t live far and after creating so much in the afterlife he began to really appreciate the world around him so he might as well spend his newfound time with it. “This was going to be different, I know that it’s there so I’ll spend my time…” suddenly John heard a scream, without thinking he ran toward it and found a woman dashing toward a crossing. A child, her child was chasing a balloon right into traffic, before the thought had finished John was on the road, the sun was shining, his hand made contact and he heard tires screeching.
“Hello John” said the gatekeeper “I didn’t want you to come back so soon but I knew you were special. You knew you had a chance and you still chose somebody else.” John blinked and realized where he was “what do I call you now?” he said. “You can call me whatever you would like at this point because I think we’re friends” John smiled “I guess we’ve been through enough” The gatekeeper smiled their first genuine smile in a long time “Now John you have options, You can cross over and enjoy your afterlife, I can try to convince the creator to acknowledge your impressive talents and give you a position on our team or you can find the gate again and have another try at life” John breathed deeply and was finally content “I’m going to need to know you’re name if we’re going to work together”.