Original Work of Nathanielle Crawford
The Waiting Room
Once when I was about seven or eight, my parents took us to Desota Caverns in Alabama. The tour guide took us deep into the caverns, which were famous because of the native tribes who worshiped there. It was also a site where Confederate soldiers made gun powder and ammunition. I only remember the historical stuff in retrospect because, to be quite frank, I was bored as all hell and sore at my parents for not taking us to Six Flags instead of some big hole in the ground.
At the end of the tour the guide led us to a group of benches and told us to sit down. The lights went out and darkness wrapped around us like a blanket. A choir of ooohs and ahhs rose up from the crowd and who could blame them, right? As stubbornly as I behaved I couldn't ignore the overwhelming sensation of being surrounded by complete and total darkness.
I never experienced darkness like that again. Not until then at least.
It was a room. But it was a room without walls, or ceilings, or floors or structure of any kind. Darkness surrounded us so that I couldn't tell if we were in a small space or a vast plain.
Now that I think about it, total darkness isn't the right way to describe it. In total darkness I couldn't see anything. But here, when I looked down, I could clearly see my shoes, my blue jeans, and the faded logo of my Bon Jovi 2003 concert t-shirt.
When I looked up I could see that I wasn't alone. There were people of every age, race, nationality and disposition sitting down, standing or pacing. Some spoke quietly amongst themselves while others cried, screamed, begged and prayed. Others just sat there staring blankly into space. Most of them were as surprised as I was to find themselves here. Some of them sat next to me or across from me and I could just see people for as far as the eye could see. It was as if the only light that ever existed in this strange place was only meant to illuminate the people who occupied it.
For that matter, I'm not even sure what it is we were sitting on. It felt solid, whatever it was. My legs touched some kind of ground but there was no grass, or carpet or linoleum. Judging from the feel of it I may have been sitting on a ledge but it was purely speculation, because there was in fact nothing beneath me.
“Where are we?” I asked, finally.
Startled, I turned to my right and saw a man sitting next to me. He was leaning back, propped up on his shoulders and his legs were crossed awkwardly. He appeared to be comfortable, even though there was nothing beneath him. Dressed in long black pants with belt buckles that served no purpose other than decoration, he wore a tight black t-shirt with a red pentagram graphic on the front. His hair was long and tangled and he wore enough piercings on his nose, ears, and lower lip that I was seriously worried for anyone who got stuck behind him in an airport.
“Er...hello,” I said. “I didn't notice you there.”
He wasn't the kind of person I'd hang out with ordinarily and actually I was sure I wouldn't talk to him under those circumstances either. But this seemed far from ordinary, so I figured there was no harm in just asking. “Mind if I ask how you got here?”
“Good question.” He answered, with a shrug. “I figure it was a gunshot wound, a Buick on the highway, or the heroin. There was a spot out by the highway where I went to shoot up. The cops didn't go out there but I wasn't the only one who used the place either.”
“Oh.” Somehow it didn't surprise me that he did drugs but what he said before that surprised me. “Wait a minute...gunshot wound?”
“Or a knife,” the guy said casually, like he had just been asked what kind of music he liked. “Knife, gun, whatever they were carrying at the time. And then there's always that Buick. I once saw a guy on such a bad trip that he just walked right out into the middle of a highway without thinking about it. I guess I could have done that, but it seems kind of stupid.”
Right...that seemed kind of stupid.
“Okay, no offense but what are you talking about?”
The guy finally looked me straight in the eye. I was expecting some kind of mean or sarcastic reply but instead he seemed thoughtful, like he understood my confusion.
“Let me ask you the same question.” He said.
"What...you mean, how did I get here?”
“That's the one.”
I thought about it. Honestly I had no idea.
“I don't know, I was just...here.”
Pentagram shook his head.
“Think back. Think back to before you were here.”
I did as he asked. A wall of fog clouded my mind and I tried to imagine just what I was doing and where I was precisely before I noticed that I was here. It was impossible. I shook my head in confusion.
“Further back then that,” Pentagram said.
What, was he reading my thoughts?
“You know you weren't always here, right?”
“So think back to about a week ago. What were you doing?”
This time the fog had completely disappeared. It was Friday afternoon and school was almost out for the weekend. The teacher was finishing up her lecture on responsibility and organization while most of us were busy doodling in our notebooks, giving each other a hard time, or just generally tuning her out. I'm ashamed to say I was one of the ones tuning her out. The bell rang.
“Remember, your final book report is due the twentieth,” she said.
I could make out the blackboard and clearly see the words “Dante's Inferno Report” written in the lower left hand corner along with the date Ms. Cavanagh had mentioned. I knew I had to crack down and really start reading that book.
The following Saturday my friends invited me out to a movie. I could remember standing outside the cinema, a redbrick building at the corner of Main Street, waiting in the long queue to buy my ticket. The smell of fresh popcorn wafted through open doors. David, Sam, Mike and Ryan were all there, talking about homework, girls and other stuff while I read the movie posters to see if anything interesting was playing in the near future.
I couldn't remember any specific conversations. The closer I got to the end of that week the fuzzier it all got, like an old television set that was slowly losing the picture and the sound. Parts of it were clearer than others, like seeing my sister at lunch, eating dinner with the family and talking on the phone. But the closer I got to the time before I came here the thicker the fog became.
The further back I went the clearer it became. If I went all the way back to the beginning of the semester, I could see Ms. Cavanagh writing the book assignment on the board. I could even remember thinking that I had plenty of time to read it. But it didn't explain what I was doing in this place or how I came to be here.
“I don't know.” I said finally.
Pentagram shrugged, an awkward movement given his position and yawned.
“You'll figure it out.”
He turned onto his side and laid down with one arm beneath his head and the other dangling loosely over his side. Given how close he was I felt a little uncomfortable and I moved over a few inches, although it was hard since there was a slightly overweight woman sitting next to me.
She seemed oblivious as she just stared off into space. Right beside her were a pair of men talking quietly. Something they said caught my attention.
“...went to church every single week. This isn't what I expected.” The first man said. He seemed to be the older of the two, probably in his 60's or 70's if I had to guess. And he wore a tweed jacket with brown leather patches sewn in the elbows.
“Me either,” the shorter man replied. “I sure don't think I did anything wrong but this don't look like Hell either.”
The first man shook his head.“It was the middle of the week. I never got to church on time. Oh dear.”
I didn't hear the rest of their conversation. One because I was taught that it was rude to eavesdrop and secondly because it made no sense. Across from me more people sat. It was like being at the cafeteria, or in a mall where you can hear the people closest to you talking whether you're trying to listen to it or not.
“-ran over by a bus-”
“Headline's gonna read, 'store clerk shot, I fuckin' swear it. They won't even know who I-”
“I'm goin' to hell, I know it I know it, I know it, oh god I'm goin' to hell.”
“Calm down. Shhh, shhh, no one's going to hell.”
“You don't understand, I died having sex with my boss's brother! He's married, I'm married. It's a sin!”
Some of the conversations went well into the realm of Too Much Info and I didn't follow them. But the main topic seemed to be death. The fog seemed to clear up in parts and something occurred to me that I hadn't, or just didn't want to consider.
“Am I...,” No.
“Getting warmer,” Pentagram muttered in a sing song voice.
“Spit it out man.”
But I couldn't. The reality sank in and the word I couldn't say hung around my neck like a large steel ball at the end of a short chain. I felt something like nausea as I made a greater effort than usual to form words.
“Well, since I don't know you personally I can only assume you weren't there with me.”
“Unless you have something helpful to add just shut up!”
“Hey, sorry man.” Pentagram held up a his free hand in surrender. “I'm just trying to lighten the mood.”
I took a few deep breaths as I tried to get a handle on the situation. There had to be thousands of people in that little space alone and not a single person seemed interested in comforting me. No one even looked in my direction. For that matter, the ones who seemed to be speaking to each other weren't even looking at one another.
After a few moments I calmed down.
“I'm sorry,” I said, sincerely. “I didn't mean to snap at you.”
“No worries.” Pentagram's favorite response I noticed. But at least he was making an effort to comfort me. It made me feel bad that I was prejudiced towards him earlier. I mean, yeah, he admitted to doing drugs, but that its not like there was a dress code for being an addict.
“My name is Mitchell,” I said, offering my hand.
His grip was firm for someone who died of an overdose. Maybe it was a gunshot wound?
“Lou.” He said, simply.
“Nice to meet you.”
Lou stretched and sat up. His legs fell to the “floor” and he leaned forward.
“So, any idea how you got here?” He asked me.
“I really don't know.”
I tried to think back over every day, every month, every year of my life. It was just me and my little sister, our parents both had well paying jobs and we had a decent up bringing. Again, not that I knew Lou's background, but as far as I was concerned I hadn't done anything illegal or self destructive. I didn't work out much, except for gym and the occasional family bike ride down by the park and although I ate as much fast food as anyone I barely had an ounce of flab on me. There was nothing unusual about my lifestyle and for the most part I was a decent kid.
“Oh well. You'll find out soon enough I guess.”
Lou didn't say anything for a few minutes. He just stared out at the crowd of people, never once moving his head. His hair blocked his eyes so I couldn't tell if he was looking at anyone in particular or just staring off into space like the woman next to me.
“This isn't Heaven,” he said. “But it isn't Hell either. This is some in-between world.”
“You mean like Purgatory?”
Lou shook his head.
“No. Assuming Purgatory is real, you had a reason to be there. You didn't just take a turn and wind up there. You were bad, but not bad enough to get sent straight to Hell. You worked off your sins in Purgatory. No, this isn't Purgatory.
“Listen. Listen to them talk. Not a single person knows why they're here.”
“Well it's got to be pretty shocking,” I suggested. “I mean...I'm taking it okay, but then I'm talking to you.”
Lou was silent again. Thoughtful. He craned his head slightly in my direction and I got a look at his brown eyes. There was a piercing in his eye lid that I hadn't noticed and I wondered if his death wasn't from an infection in one of the million or so holes in his body.
“You know what I think it is?”he asked, finally.
I wasn't so sure I wanted to know. But then Lou was probably as nervous as I was and happy for the chance to talk to someone. He did make an attempt to comfort me after all, so on some level I felt like I owed him that much.
“I don't know, what?”
“I think all of us...most of us died a 'miscellaneous' death. You know, like, not even they know what category we fall under.”
“All right. Who is 'they'?”
“Who ever is in charge. One thing's for sure, it ain't us.”
I was about to ask who he thought was in charge, just to fill the silence. But then it occurred to me what he was getting at and I suddenly had to fight back the urge to laugh.
“So...this is like a waiting room?” I said. “We're in the waiting room of the afterlife and we're waiting for a name to be called? Well, great show me the window and I'll let them know I'm here.”
I started giggling like an idiot. I couldn't stop it as it went from a light chuckle to a full blown guffaw. It was like something was possessing me. That something being the sheer insanity of it all. I drew more than a few stares, mostly because I was the only person within miles actually laughing at all. Even the fat lady next to me took notice, though I couldn't tell if she was annoyed or entertained.
Finally a man got up and stood before me. I recognized him as the man who had gone to Church every week. At full height he was a good six feet tall, with a crown of graying hair and a nose shaped like a beak as he stared me down with a glare that would make Tom Green shut up and take notice.
“We are here to be judged young man,” he said, sternly. “If I were you I'd spend some time asking forgiveness for your sins.”
I blushed as the man received a number of whispered compliments that fell short of a standing ovation.
“Er, sorry sir.”
The man looked from me to Lou and snorted.
“No need to guess where you two will end up.” He muttered before walking off.
I turned to Lou, embarrassed and a little shocked by my behavior.
“Sorry,” I said. “I don't know what came over me.”
“Typical response to anxiety.”