ALICE IN RAPTURELAND
It was warm.
She was stark naked and kneeling on the ground.
But it was warm.
Moments earlier, she'd been holding a coffee, checking her iPhone for email, standing in a queue for sushi.
'Excellent question,' a voice congratulated her.
'I agree,' joined another. 'That's always a good place to start, "where?".'
'Well, it's all about place isn't it, "where?".'
'True, true. Well spotted.'
The ground she was kneeling on was a dark, cracked sandstone. She was in the open; a vast, almost limitless open that stretched away into the distance. She had the feeling that if she could see forever, she'd not see an end to the space she was kneeling in the middle of. The sky above was not limitless, though, but brewing a storm of some considerable size, wheeling and turning like it would screw the whole world into a wad and throw it away.
And two seagulls were talking to her.
'Ooh! Lost interest in "where?" already? We haven't even answered "where?" yet...' said the seagull at her knee.
'Could you get "where?", when she gets back to it, old chap?'
'So long as you handle "what?", old bean...'
How could the seagulls be talking? And why did they have British accents?
She tried to stand, but her legs weren't cooperating. She pitched forward and caught herself on her palms.
'See, that's why you're kneeling, love.'
'Can't go jumping about just at the mo. I mean, you have just died, dearie...'
She was looking carefully at the seagull, and she couldn't see it moving its beak, so how was it talking to her? And what had it just said?
'Yes, dearie. You've died. Sorry to be the bearer of sad tidings, but...'
'I've not... died... Where am I? What's going on?'
'Ah! That's two questions at once! Hold your horses! I believe you were going to get "where?", old bean.'
The seagull at her knee ruffled its wings and tilted its head so that its beady black eye pointed right into hers. 'I take it you don't believe in God, then?'
She sat back as best she could. 'God?'
'You know, love. God. Jehovah. Big old chap in the sky and whatnot.'
'I was... just getting some sushi...'
'Yes, sweetums. And then you died. And you don't believe in God. Know how I know?'
She looked away toward the horizon. There was a river a long way away, snaking itself across the floor of the forever-wide place she was kneeling in. And a seagull was asking her metaphysical questions.
'I'll tell you,' the seagull said, clearly having gotten impatient. 'You're seeing us as birds, aren't you?'
'Why am I naked...'
'Goodness me, love! So many questions! I take it you're one of these people who "have spirituality", am I correct?'
She wondered if she should be covering her breasts. The seagulls seemed to be male...
'You're not being very cooperative, love. I'll spell it out for you, all right? You've just died, so - assuming for a moment a space in your "spirituality" for God - where are you?'
She looked back up at the boiling sky. There was a tornado of birds forming under the darkest part of the wheeling storm, riding its thermals and updraughts. They didn't look like seagulls, but they were so far away...
'Heaven? This is... Heaven?'
Both seagulls flapped their wings and raised off the ground a few inches before settling back down.
'There!' the seagull who had been handling "where?" cried, exultant. 'You worked it out for yourself. Clever girl!'
The seagulls fussily tucked their wings up after their celebratory flight-hop, and looked at her expectantly.
Her head hurt. 'What's going on here?'
The other seagull tilted its head, and she looked at it, staring into its glossy, lizard eye.
'You've died, heart, and we're here to help you... adjust.'
'So... you're... angels?'
Both seagulls shook their heads, like they each had something in their beak that they wanted to fling away.
'If you believed in God, snookie, we'd be angels. As it is, with your "spirituality" and whatnot, we're seagulls.'
This didn't seem fair somehow. Not the being dead part, but the seagull part.
'But... you're just birds...'
'Well, heart, you're just some sort of gorilla thing, but let's keep it nice, all right? No need to be rude.'
She felt as if her legs might hold her, and she slowly stood up and looked around.
'So this is Heaven?' she asked. But it wasn't a question. It looked like she'd just have to deal with the fact that her Heaven was some sort of vast, empty valley, populated exclusively by talking sky-rats. 'This is where I spend eternity?'
The seagulls looked at each other. It was a gesture she usually only saw when two of their kind were fighting over a hot chip.
'Well, heart, eternity's not as long as it used to be...'
There was a warm breeze now, probably something to do with the storm that was building overhead. She liked the feel of it on her bare skin.
'I wish you wouldn't speak in riddles all the time. Do I have to put up with you forever, being like this? Or do I get different angels when I move on to the next... level... thing...'
One seagull took off and started flying around her. She felt bad that she didn't know which one it was: they both looked and sounded the same.
The other one started beaking under its wing for something. While it still had its head buried, it spoke to her.
'There's no other levels, sweetums. This is it, I'm afraid.'
'Do I get robes and stuff? Where are the other people?'
The seagull's voice was sounding sadder and sadder. She didn't want a sad guardian seagull. It seemed like a bad sign.
'Normally you get to meet five people. You get to choose them, and everyone has a terrifically great time. It really is nice...'
She noticed that the other seagull was circling further and further from her. She didn't like that, although she couldn't put her finger on why.
'Normally Heaven lasts for a good long while. With you, though, I'm afraid that won't be the case.'
Something cold settled on her heart. It started to squeeze.
'I don't get it. What's wrong with my Heaven? Is this the Rapture or something? Is it the end of everything?'
The seagull leapt up into the warm breeze and started to fly. She wanted more than anything for it to settle again, to be with her, but it flew and flew. The other gull, she could see, was starting to be drawn to the spiralling birds beneath the centre of the storm.
'It's the way you died, sweetums. You only get a little piece of Heaven. Sort of a Greatest Hits version...'
That didn't seem fair. None of this seemed fair. She'd been checking her email, sipping her coffee, and waiting in line for her regular Tuesday treat of an avocado handroll, and now this.
Dead and naked in an empty Heaven beneath a hugely impending storm, with her guardian seagulls drifting away.
'Normally,' the seagull was explaining from its slowly enlarging orbit, 'when a person dies, she gets ten, fifteen minutes of Heaven. But if there's too much damage to the brain, well...'
None of this made any sense. The sky was getting darker and darker, and none of this made any sense.
'I don't understand!' she screamed at the seagull. She started to run after it. It saw this and swooped back, hanging above her on the breeze in that clever way that seagulls have.
'What,' it asked her, in what seemed to be a carefully sympathetic voice, 'was the last thing you remember before you found yourself kneeling here?'
And with that, it broke off hanging in midair, and the seagulls both flew away.
She thought hard.
The breeze had picked up more and more, and even though it was still warm, it was starting to take her breath away with its power.
What was it? That last thing... She could feel the memory but not quite make it out, like an annoying fold in her stocking underfoot.
Something about God...
The seagulls were so far gone now that she could only see them as dots, and the sky was so dark that the dots were becoming invisible.
Someone was talking, no: shouting about God...
She started walking towards the centre of the storm. It was pleasant enough, walking naked like this. She wished she'd done it more often, when she'd been alive. Her hair was flickering like an electrical discharge about her head; she could feel the static building in the air.
Then she remembered.
Someone had cried out, "God is great!", but not in a language she could understand. How had she understood it, then?
"God is great," and then...
A blue-white flash from the storm cloud lit up everything. Everything. It even lit up her internal organs. It was a flash so bright she dreaded the thunder. It would split her ear drums, smash her into the earth. She covered her ears, hoping to protect them at least.
But she never heard the thunder. The rain fell in fat, sticky blobs, like meat dropping from the sky, and then Heaven faded away, leaving her
ALICE IN RAPTURELAND