This is a short story about death, and what comes after. As is most of my writing, this is somewhat dark. However, it does contain sensitive topics and may be disturbing to some.
Humanity has always had a complex relationship with death and the dead, and the most burning question for many people is what happens after we die. As an atheist and as a person with a particular interest in philosophy, this is something that I’ve thought about quite a bit. Not in terms of where we go, but what do we leave behind — what’s our impact, our legacy. This was written as an exploration of these thoughts.
“Wake up! Wake up everyone! It’s time to rise and shine! Up, up, up! You’ve slept long enough, up!” Clapping as he talked, almost skipping down the center of the room, lined on both sides by old cots. He was short, wiry, with a broad smile and high voice. The room was lit by a row of fluorescent lights along the center, casting a harsh & cold light; the walls were a dingy off-white, though the shadows and poor lighting made the color impossible to determine.
There was a chill in the air; the windows, or what was left of them, did little to shelter those inside. It could have been a military barracks in the past, though clearly disused for far too long. The cots were rusty, threadbare, stained, and torn; not the sort of thing one would sleep on if they had a choice.
Each cot had someone in it, some young, some old, men, women, children — even a few infants. Some were dressed well and covered by thick warm blankets with fine embroidery; others were less lucky. Most had at least something to cover them, though one only had cardboard to keep them warm.
“It’s time for your orientation! You don’t want to be late! It’s a very big day! The sun is up; it’ll be warm soon, get up!” He walked fast, and talked even faster; a cheery, even perky tone to his voice. As the sun came up over the horizon and light streamed into the broken windows, he rushed to get everyone out of bed.
To an observer, the group of people now climbing out of the old cuts would seem most unusual. One looked like she was ready for a party at the Ritz, next to a person in their pajamas; one poor soul had only the small blanket from her bed. There’s only one thing they had in common, a look of utter confusion on their faces. They stared at each other, at their cots, out the windows, desperately looking for something, some clue as to what was going on.
“Listen up everyone! I’m so excited to meet you all! My name is Benji, and I’ll be your guide for the next few days while we get you settled. I’m sure you’re all wondering what’s going on, and that’s okay — everyone does when they wake up. It’s normal and nothing to worry about.”
A gruff voice boomed from the back of the room before Benji finished his sentence; deep and scarred from decades of smoking, with a distinct southern twang. “Where the hell am I, what am I doing here — and who the hell are you?!”
A tall man stepped out into the middle of the room, looking equal parts angry and confused. Likely muscular in his youth, age had clearly worn his body down; his hair was more gray than the deep black it had once been, his belly sagged over his pants, and he stood with a slight hunch.
“Well, my name is Benji. And you’re here, at The End. People have called it many things, but this is where you go when your body is done. This is where you go after you die.”
“Listen, you asshole, I was driving my truck to work, I turned onto the highway, and suddenly I’m here. What the hell happened? I didn’t just suddenly die! Did you take me somehow? How did I get here?”
“Your name is Charlie Rivers, you’re 64 years old, you were born in Paintsville, Kentucky, in the United States, and you’ve worked in coal mines your entire life. When you turned onto the highway, you pulled in front of a semi. You never saw it coming. You died instantly.”
The low murmur that had existed as people tried to understand where they were disappeared in an instant. Instead, there was complete silence; not one muscle moved in the room. It was like every person had been instantly encased in ice.
The silence lasted for what seemed like an eternity.
There were 50, maybe 60, people in the room, all in a state of profound shock. They just heard words that were simply incomprehensible, impossible to process or accept. No warning, no careful talk to prepare them, no family members there to comfort them.
As quickly as the silence set in, it was broken as a wail went up that would break the heart of any that heard it. Confusion was giving way to sorrow. Some were beginning to remember; sickness, pain, injuries, fear. The moments before their deaths were becoming clear. Charlie, on the other hand, remembered nothing at all.
A weak voice, breaking, finally spoke. “My name is Lisa. I have stage 4 bladder cancer. I’ve not been able to walk for months. I’ve been on morphine for pain. I’ve been suffering with this for years. I remember, I remember my family standing around me. I remember the morphine pump kicking on faster and faster. I remember falling asleep. Is that when it happened, is that when I died?”
“Hi Lisa, first, you’re looking great now! Walking around with no problem at all! I’m so glad you aren’t in pain anymore.” Benji jumped back in, chipper as ever. “But yes, when your time was up, the nurse unlocked the morphine pump, and every time you moved or made a sound, your family thought you were in pain, so they pushed the button. The drugs made you fall asleep, then stopped your heart.”
“My name is Blair. I wasn’t sick, I just fell asleep. What happened to me?” The woman was young, tall, blonde. She was the poor soul that had woken without clothes.
“Hi Blair, this is Blair March for everyone else. You’re 24 and from Boca Raton, Florida - with lots of friends. You went to sleep in your apartment, though one of your friends wasn’t actually a friend. You left the window above your bed slightly open for the breeze; he used that window to come in while you were sleeping. He shot you in the head so he could… be alone with you.”
Blair broke down, fell to the floor, with tears streaming down her face.
But Benji wasn’t done.
“When he saw what he had done, he turned the gun on himself. He died lying on top of you. The police ruled your death an accident, believing that from the odd angle he shot you, you were together, and the gun accidentally went off. Because your friends and family assumed that he killed himself in grief, and that you two had a secret relationship, they buried you together. As a couple.”
A hush had fallen on the room. While some still cried, most looked around in disbelief. They wondered about their own stories, about the story of those around them. How they came to be here. And what was coming next.
Clapping again to get everyone’s attention, Benji cleared his throat and stepped up on a chair at the front of the room, giving everyone a good view.
“So, I know a lot of you have questions, and we’ll get to those, but there are some things you need to know. First, each of you has a watch on, but these don’t tell time — time doesn’t really matter here. Think of them as counters. If you notice, there are two parts; one shows how many people on Earth remember you positively, the other shows how many remember you negatively. That watch is the most important thing you have.”
Each person in the room had woken wearing a watch; each was different, as if made just for their taste. Some were digital, some were analog, some plain, some ornate. All displayed two numbers.
“You see, you are here because people remember you, care about you — it doesn’t matter if they loved you or hated you, but the fact that they cared enough to remember. That’s what keeps you here. When that number drops to zero, when no person on Earth remembers you anymore, you’ll fade away into nothingness.”
“Now, there’s another important thing you need to know, your experience here depends on how people on Earth feel about you. The more people that have positive feelings, the better your life is here. The more people that dislike you, well, you get the idea.”
“You’ll each get an apartment, based on the counter. You’ll be given a job, you’ll have a chance to build a life here. But nothing lasts forever. When there’s nobody left thinking about you, it’s over. And there’s nothing you can do to influence what happens on Earth; that chance has already passed.”
The End, as most residents called it, was a great city in a deep valley, tall skyscrapers at its heart and tarpaper shacks on the outskirts. Grand old buildings of beautifully carved stone, and modern works of architectural art. Like any city on Earth, it was a mix of good and evil, the great and the awful.
Like elsewhere, life had its ups and downs; things would sometimes get better, other times get worse. While there was no illness when a person awoke in The End, disease and injury did exist. An invisible hand poked and prodded, guiding good and bad, based on the feelings of those they left behind.
Every experience was random; jobs and apartments were assigned by a drawing, but that invisible hand was at play, making some lucky, and others miserable. Everything that happened was, in some way, influenced by the counter.
John Walker had woken up in The End decades earlier; he was a successful corporate raider that died from a drug overdose. At 35 years old, he had amassed a fortune of over $100 million dollars, lived in the penthouse of a new high-rise in lower Manhattan, and showed up to work each day in a Lamborghini. In 1980’s America, he was the very definition of success. His only problem? Not one person on Earth liked him.
When John was assigned an apartment, it was still a penthouse, though the building had been ravaged by fire; the windows were broken out, there were holes in the roof, his mattress infested with bedbugs, his wardrobe infested with fleas. His job was no better; he worked clearing clogs in the sewers, 12 hours a day knee-deep in the worst filth of the city. As the years went by, he caught a few lucky breaks as his name slipped from memory, like new clothes without fleas. Then a new book was published on Earth about corporate raiders and the lives they destroyed; he developed a rash from head to toe.
Then there’s Reverend Sam Martin’s story, a televangelist who died when his private plane crashed. His congregation loved him, and his experience when he woke in The End was entirely positive, living in the lap of luxury. All of the finest things, all waiting for him — the luxury he had on Earth paled in comparison. Then there was the investigation into his finances. First, it was the report on wearing $10,000 suits; his elevator broke for a week. The report on his $100,000 vacation to the Bahamas; he fell down the stairs from the 19th floor. When the story broke about his mistress, he was diagnosed with cancer. When the mistress said that he forced her into an abortion to keep their relationship secret, the cancer spread.
The not so holy Reverend railed against homosexuals during his life, declaring their doom, and even operating a for-profit conversion facility. Years after his death, it was revealed that not only was he in a relationship with his mistress, but also with her husband. When his flock learned of how complete his hypocrisy was, he lost all the people that still had any positive feelings for him. As his existence became ever more miserable, he decided to end it, and jumped from the window of his penthouse. He learned something important about The End that day; it’s impossible to die while you’re remembered, but it is possible to break every bone in one’s body.
The counter changes over time; some people forget, some people learn new things. Nearly forgotten names are pulled out of the past and cast into the spotlight, for good or ill. Life in The End is ever-changing, and everyone watches their counter to see what will happen next. Every person in The End hopes, more than anything else, that the last person that remembers them loved them. This way, their final days will be pleasant.
Some come to The End and fade away in a generation; others will stay for thousands of years — though only the most famous are destined to be around for so long. For example, the once-mighty Roman Emperor Caligula still spends his days in a pool, though now it’s using a small brush to scrub algae off the walls.
Perhaps, in some ways, fate has a sense of humor.
Benji explained the rules, the society, how things worked, and what would be expected of them. He told them stories of those that came before, of what his life was like, stories of the great and the evil. All the time, he tried to remain positive and comforting.
A woman that had been listening intently as Benji spoke suddenly fell, crumpled onto the floor. Benji quickly ran to her side; though he didn’t check for a pulse, see if she was breathing or bleeding, he instead looked at her watch.
“Her name was Marcy Barnes. She ran away from an abusive home when she was 13 and lived on the street since. Her mother died when she was two, and her father drank himself to death a few years later. She was 39; she died from crack laced with a powerful poison. She had no one, no family, no friends. No one to remember her.” Benji lowered his head and spoke barely above a whisper, “Marcy Barnes has passed out of memory and existence.”
She grew paler and paler, even her clothes seemed to be changing. Those around her stared at her face, dumbstruck, as her features began to disappear. She was getting smaller, her details fading away; with each second that passed by, she became less recognizable — not just as herself, but even as a human. Her legs merged into one; her arm, which had been resting on her side, was no longer distinct. Instead, it had become part of her torso. She steadily drew up into an ever-shrinking ball.
While those that looked on felt as if time had stopped, in reality, it took less than a minute for poor Marcy to disappear entirely.
“It’s always sad to see someone go, especially when they lived such a tragic life. All she needed was love.”
Charlie finally spoke up again; everyone else was too stunned to utter a word. “Hey, are you tellin' me that we’re all going to shrivel up like that too?”
“Eventually we all must go, I’m afraid. When there’s not one person alive that remembers you, when you’ve been forgotten by the living, then you truly die. It’s the living that keeps you alive; it’s through their memory that you continue to exist. It’s their memory of you that endures after your body fails. Long after you are buried, it’s the feelings they have for you - good or bad - that remain.”