The Waiting Room
Even when it’s full,
So sterile and small,
I try to resist its downward,
Here I deeply fear
A new peril’s call.
I never figured the waiting room would be tiny, but this one is just that. So much smaller than anticipated. Tiny doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s a cubbyhole.
I am surprised, too, at the lack of decorations heralding the coming holidays on Earth. I guess I’d thought the absence of time in this dimension would be temporarily ignored, no expense spared. A lighted tree ornately festooned, a menorah prominently displayed. A wreath, poinsettias, mistletoe. And maybe these touches would foster the illusion that the place was bigger than its square-footage. The blank white walls prove me wrong.
My cell phone rings.
“You made it.”
“Yeah, Charlie dropped me off. I was just reaching for my phone to call you. “
“I knew I could count on Charlie,” she says. “So you haven’t been sent into your appointment yet?”
“No. But it's better to be early than late. Isn't that right? You taught me that, Mom.” I take a sip from my can of Coke. Charlie had it waiting in the car.
“It’s certainly not a lesson your father would have taught you.” She seems pleased that I give her the credit for my punctual nature. “Too bad it doesn’t apply anymore.”
I can’t argue with her there, and the smile in her voice brightens my mood. “Mom, I'm curious. Why aren't there any decorations in this place?”
“Because no belief system is valued above any other,” she explains. “Not here. All holidays are celebrated here, in concert with their earthbound counterparts. The lack of décor in that waiting room is simply a way to respect all faiths by honoring none.”
The red-haired receptionist—-attractive in an earlier epoch—suddenly begins giving me the evil eye from behind the counter about three feet in front of my chair. Get off the cell phone.
Is it too loud for her liking?
“Mom, I gotta go. Tell Dad hi for me.”
“Love you.” I flip my phone shut.
As soon as we hang up, the receptionist calls my name. I approach the counter.
“Is this your first time here?” she asks. Her voice is flecked with the smoke she inhaled twenty years ago, and I know without being told that she could have traded in her spent lungs for new ones, but she kept the wrecked set to remind her of a lesson learned.
“As far as I know.”
Her eyes narrow. Apparently, there are two things off-limits in front of this woman. Cell phones and sarcasm. “Okay, then, Mr. McDonald. Go through that door.” She points just to the right of my current position. “And then enter the second door on your right.”
“Second door on my right,” I repeat, trying to commit the phrase to a memory that has been failing me of late.
“What do I do once I get there?”
“Sit and wait.”
The same thing I’ve been doing. I’m getting pretty darn good at it. “Okay.”
I find the second door on my right without any trouble and turn the knob, but before I can enter, telepathy interrupts.
We’re waiting for you, Terrence, it says.
Who’s waiting for me?
We're your panel. It’ll be our job to determine your place in the afterlife. We’re at the end of the hall.
The receptionist’s instructions must have been in error. She has numerous appointments to keep track of, I’m sure. Countless souls to direct. It’s understandable.
To the end of the hall I go.
The three beings seated across from me at the conference-room table wear shimmering white robes. Their identities are unclear, each of their faces shrouded by a pallor that matches the robes. Their lips and eyes lack color, too. Their voices are pleasant but offer no clues. Among this group, nevertheless, there is a clear leader.
“What would you say is your overall impression of your life, Mr. McDonald?” the leader asks.
“Would you say you were able to do everything in your life that you wanted to do?”
The answer is not worth verbalizing. Anyone who came into contact with me for more than five minutes near the end knows this. Not to suggest many people did. My existence had degenerated into lonesome days during which I found myself comforted only by the clack-clack-clacking of my wife’s old typewriter, handed down from her mother. The nights and their silence were worse. Finishing the manuscript she never completed but always dreamed of publishing kept me as focused as I could be when the sun was up, and that wasn’t very focused at all. As for my own accomplishments—or lack thereof—here I am, a supposed writer, who never published a word. I spent the better part of my life in a profession I loathed.
“Of course not,” I say.
All three of them frown. They share glances, a telepathic conversation I’m not part of. Shimmering Robe Two, the one seated in the middle, speaks next. “Mr. McDonald, our job as we sit here is to determine a proper occupation for you moving into the next phase of being. To do this, we take into account the life you led, your disappointments, happinesses, hurts, guilt, pain.”
I’m silent for a moment before wondering aloud, “So what will I be doing, your honors?” Was that polite enough? I think so.
Shimmering robe three: “It was polite enough, but it wasn’t what you really wanted to say, was it?”
Oh, crap, I forgot. These guys can hear what I’m thinking. Shit. Probably shouldn’t swear in this setting.
“It’s okay,” says Two. “Panels hear every kind of thought imaginable, and that includes the occasional barrage of profanity. We’re trained to expect it. Believe it or not, it helps us to do our job. The Boss believes meeting like this is the most effective way to pick vocations for the many souls who come before us.”
“I think you know who that is,” says the leader.
“So what was it you really wanted to say to us?” asks Three, seated on the far right. “Your intent was certainly not to ask what you would be doing. Besides, we’ll tell you that. We wouldn’t withhold such important information.”
“Well, based on my life, as you say your judgments are, I feel like I’m in the wrong place. Like I’ve failed in my existence. I’ve felt that way for a while now. Like I may not deserve to be here.”
I can tell they understand this impulse.
“A lot of people feel that they don’t deserve to be here when they first arrive,” offers Three.
“But it usually wears off,” Two chimes in.
Usually. Good to know.
What if it doesn’t?
The leader eyes me with… is it suspicion or concern?
“Terrence, are you all right?”
Am I all right?
“M-hmm. Just a little… overwhelmed.”
“That is to be expected.” Clearing the throat. “It’s a requirement at this stage in our work with you that we disclose a few important facts.”
“Firstly, we are not the only judgment panel. Truth be told, there are millions. The judgment panel you are assigned upon death is made up of a group of souls whom the soul awaiting censure knew in life.”
“Are you telling me I know you? All three of you?”
“You did,” says Two. “In different capacities, and to varying degrees, throughout your life.”
The leader speaks again, "We will reveal our identities later in the process. For now, our faces will remain hidden from you so that we may judge your words and actions without being influenced by your feelings for or against us."
Three jumps in. “The Boss feels this new format gives the judgment process the fairness it used to lack. Before the institution of what The Boss calls “The Prior Encounter Rule”, all judgments were made by folks the soul had wronged.”
“Hell was getting pretty full,” says the leader.
I shudder. Is that a joke? Sarcasm? Whatever’s behind it, the comment reverberates in my mind like gunfire in an echo chamber. It terrifies me. Hell may have been pretty full once, but perhaps it isn’t full enough now.
And when the panel speaks of Hell, are they speaking of my ultimate destination? Where I truly belong? I half-expect so. Part of me believes I am destined for this fate. The part of me that hates me. Meanwhile, another faction of my persona, quiet but persistent, lobbies hard for a different panel altogether.
We can do better than this. It whispers, to avoid detection. We can find a panel whose members aren’t quite as sarcastic, a panel that will take its task more seriously. I’m not sure this is true. I haven’t gotten the slightest hint that the panel isn’t serious about their task, and everyone I knew in life was sarcastic at times. But we can try.
I want to talk to The Boss.
Not that I think anything will come of my unspoken appeal.
Until something does.
The leader interrupts our appointment, having received a telepathic message not unlike the one that brought me to this room, and the other two panelists are asked out into the hallway.
Who might the message be from? I wonder.
Soon, the leader returns. The others are in tow, silent partners.
“Mr. McDonald, it seems there has been a minor mistake.”
“While we are your judgment panel, you were supposed to first have a meeting with The Boss. Visits with Him are exceedingly rare. But it is foretold in your life’s chart, and so we must honor it. Please forgive me. The mistake was mine.”
The apology accepted, I return to the door I was originally instructed to open prior to being sidetracked. Inside is a facsimile of my childhood bedroom. Everything is as it was back then, from the smell of Dad’s burning incense wafting through the house and permeating all nooks and crannies, to the flowered bedspread I detested that my birth- mother, Lisa, insisted upon. Once my true mom, Chloe, entered our lives, I thought she might suggest a different design, but she never did.
It is all as I recall it. Which is easy enough. The majority of my adolescence was spent here.