AT FIRST, Melanie could not take it in.
She remembered standing in her kitchen, worried about the odor of gas. She had reached for the control, on the stove, to turn it off. Then there had been an explosion—fire and sound and a force, hurling her backwards—and a blow at the back of her neck.
Then she was here, sitting on a bench in a kind of park.
The sweet scent of star jasmine flooded her nostrils; a breeze stirred the leaves overhead, rustling their shadows on the golden path at her feet.
Was she dreaming?
"No." The voice, deep and pleasant, came from beside her.
She looked up to see a small dark woman, wrinkled with age, sitting quietly.
The woman smiled.
"It's not a dream."
"How did you know what I was..."
"What you were thinking? It was the first thing I thought, when I arrived, a little while ago."
"Then this is..."
"It's not heaven. Nothing so grand. This is just a sort of transitional place."
Melanie squinted at the old lady, puzzled.
"How do you know all this?"
The old lady stuck out a hand.
Melanie shook her hand.
"Melanie. How do you..."
Maryam nodded across the park, where a strange and somewhat frighting figure stood in front of a gate.
"That's an angel. He was here when I arrived. He gave me a—I don't know—a sort of orientation."
Melanie nodded, letting that sink in, then suddenly gasped and leaped to her feet.
Maryam took her firmly by the elbow, and steered her across the park.
"The angel will know. Come on."
As they approached, the angel smiled a terrifying smile.
"Fear not, Melanie. Be of good cheer. Your children are fine. They were at your mother's, remember? And Tom is safe, too."
Melanie thought of Tom, and the children, missing her, struggling along without her, and a sob caught in her throat.
The angel stood silently by for a moment, giving her time. Finally, he opened the gate.
"The time has come. Follow me."
Melanie turned to Maryam.
"I was in the kitchen, and there was this explosion.I guess the gas on the stove..."
"I was in Baghdad, shopping. My explosion was probably a terrorist bomb. Come, dear. It's all behind us. We go to meet Allah, now."
Melanie stopped in mid-step.
"Of course, dear. Come along."
"But I thought..."
The angel put a gentle hand on her back.
"Just this way," he said. "Through the gate. We mustn't be late."