The Dead: Book 17 (frag. 2)

The Book of the Story

ARNOLD STOOD before a gate. A pearly gate.

There was a man, a robed man with a beard, standing at a lectern which was topped by an enormous book.

He leaned over the book, and peered at Arnold.

"Arnold, is it?"

"Yes."

The man dipped a quill in an inkpot, and made a mark on the page.

He smiled.

"Welcome, my friend. Come with me and we'll find your lodging."

"Are you Saint Peter?"

"Well, yes and no. First of all, you shouldn't even have come to this gate. Some screw-up because you were with that priest at the end. He probably couldn't resist final rites. You should have come to the Baptist gate, 'round the other side. You'd have been greeted by a Jesus there."

"A Jesus?"

"It's to cut down on the shock. Make you feel more comfortable for the first few minutes. Catholics expect Peter. Baptists expect Jesus. We take turns, those of us who volunteer. If you'd arrived last week, I'd have been your Jesus."

"But..."

"You don't really think Jesus and Peter do all the greeting themselves? They'd do nothing but."

"So I'm in..."

"Heaven, the resurrection, the afterlife, whatever your particular sect calls it."

"I seem to still have a—a body. I mean it feels like flesh and..."

"Yeah. It would have to, wouldn't it? I mean, what's the point of heaven if you couldn't feel anything, or taste anything, or smell the flowers."

"There are flowers? I mean, I didn't expect there weren't. I just never really thought... Real Flowers?"

"Sure. We're apes, basically. Homo Sapiens. Well, primates anyway. The thing is, we just wouldn't appreciate an environment without smells and tastes and feels and all that. You even get tired here, and ache. Work all day till your muscles ache, then hop into a nice hot shower—now that's Heaven!"

"So there's, well, bread?"

"Sourdough, or french, if you like, or..."

"And the music, it's not all..."

"Not by a long shot. Though there's plenty of that if you've got a taste for it. And, contrawise, we've got some jazz harpists who..."

And then the thought struck Arnold.

"The first thing I need to do—I mean, if it's all right—is find someone. Someone I knew down there."

"Yeah. Well, it's not actually "down" you know, but that doesn't really matter. Best thing you can do is come with me. If this person is really that important to you... Well, you'll see."

Arnold waved a hand at their surroundings.

"This is wierd. Not at all what I expected. More like a small city on Earth. The streets are wider, fewer cars..."

"You'd be surprised how few people really love their car. They say they do. 'I just love my new Volvo' But they don't, really. Very few feel even a twinge when it's time to trade them in. And of course those who do care tend to keep them in a garage."

"You mean, people get to keep what they..."

"On the other hand, you'll see a lot of taxis. For some reason taxi drivers are the exception—or maybe it's the folks who ride in them."

Arnold stopped, puzzled. He pointed at a shop on the corner.

"That shop, or one just like it, used to stand two doors down from my apartment building."

"Didn't have a great feeling for it though?"

"Never went in. It was just part of the neighborhood. How did you know?"

"We've got a way to go yet. If you'd been more attached, it would have been closer to your digs."

"What do you mean?"

"The layout here is a function of desire. Everything's arranged so that most of the things you really care about are physically close to where you live. You're likely to end up living next door to your best friend, and...

But Arnold had stopped walking. He stood in front of the shop, peering at his reflection in the glass.