E98: Postcards to the Above

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English 98 was sooo last semester, but many of us have regrouped and are meeting weekly this semester in a sort of unofficial decal. I wrote something and turned it in today; it will be workshopped next week. I have no guarantees regarding its quality.

“She turned to me, said, ‘I didn’t know who you were, but I knew I liked you.’ And I think that says a lot, you know?” -my mother, speaking of a relative with memory lapse

Postcards to the Above

One of them tried explaining it to a neckbearded low-life in his mother’s basement. He didn’t look up from his console game once, drool trickling down from his slack lower lip as thick thumbs mashed the controller.

“Imagine you’re completely fresh, average physical scores, high Intelligence, no Wisdom or Charisma. You have no memory—no experience, no force of personality. But you’re a thinking thing, thinking and you’ve got Tongues. You understand language but you don’t really know what it means, you have no context for anything.”

It sighed as the gamer played on.

“I’m just saying—fill out the postcard before it’s too late. You’ve got a week left. One week!” It waited a moment for the man to reply. The game’s heavy metal soundtrack played on, punctuated intermittently by the high-pitched squeals of the man’s favorite female warrior. “In one week you’ll wake up, a newborn but fully grown, and you won’t know anything. Do yourself a favor. Fill out the damn postcard.”

It waited for the alloted half an hour, and then it left with a soft hiss. It needed to move on to its next assignment. A lot of people were dying every minute, and there were only so many agents to deal with them all.

The man noticed the postcard lying on the floor and wiped his mouth with it before returning to his game.

*    *    *

They decided to convene to discuss a change in policy. Every human was receiving a visit a week before expiration, but less than a quarter of the dying were filling out the postcards. The agents were all well-trained and well-disciplined. The Committee knew it wasn’t their fault. They had already done away with the standardized informational packet a decade ago, allowing the agents to fine-tune their explanations to better suit the individual.

Sometimes, this fine-tuning was easy. “Mr. Paul, you’re heaven-bound in approximately six and a half days. It’s a lovely place, but I’m afraid your memory will be wiped in transit. Fill out this postcard with anything you want yourself to know on the other side. You’ll receive it a week after arriving.” Other times, as was the case with the morbidly obese gamer, it was a bit harder. The dying often didn’t believe they only had a week left.

“What the fuck kinda joke is this shit?!” one drug-running gang member yelled seven days before he and his girlfriend were plastered against a storefront in a vicious drive-by shooting. Of course, they all remembered the incident. It was in the records. And now that gang member was wandering the streets Above in silent confusion, maybe occasionally passing by his girl, but never remembering.

Lobbyists on behalf of the Disenfranchised Dead—that was the PC term for those who hadn’t sent themselves postcards—argued that it was the Committee’s duty to ensure equal opportunity for all dying. Pointing to various clauses in the Constitution of the Above—clauses both real and imaginary—the lobbyists made their case at the convention.

“We are to afford equal opportunity to the souls of the dead,” one said, “because where there is inequality there is strife, and strife is not conducive to welfare.”

“Where does welfare come in?” questioned one of the Committee leaders.

“The preamble—”

“No one cares about your United States quasi-law,” said another, an economist who had been called in to evaluate the feasibility of new proposals. “Above isn’t America.” It turned to one of its colleagues and whispered, “seriously, these imperialistic newcomers…”

As red in the face as a wispy spirit could be, the lobbyist continued.

“Excuse me—if I may finish; I would like to present this study to the assembly. It shows that 81% of the dead who receive postcards from themselves are enjoying themselves, in contrast to a mere 6% of the dead who do not receive postcards. We are depriving the dead of the privilege of happiness by not enforcing the postcard laws more vigilantly! They are disenfranchised, and it is our duty to fix that.”

“Fix that?” hissed another lobbyist. The first faded away, too embarrassed to remain in the convention. The second lobbyist turned to address the others. “Our ambitions are not so great. Nor is our folly. We do not seek to help those dead who have already failed to send themselves postcards. We seek only to enfranchise future generations…”

It went on like this for a while. Policy changes were proposed and immediately dismissed. Counter-studies were presented, depicting entirely different results to surveys similar to those run by the DD lobbyists. Philosophical questions were posed (“What is happiness, anyway, and why does it matter Above?”), following which much ethereal head-scratching ensued. After hours of back-and-forth, the convention was adjourned until the next day.

*    *    *

Such was the method of madness Above. The lobbyists had faith in their cause, though, and they persevered. Years of convention went by, years of debate, and finally, a compromise was made by the Committee.

*    *    *

“Welcome to the waypoint,” said one of the spirits. Fifty humans were cramped into the tiny room, each sitting at a desk reminiscent of a low-budget public high classroom. Some of them looked around frantically, befuddled by their new surroundings. White walls rose up into a misty infinity. There were five spirits in the room. They each had the rough shape of a humanoid body, levitated a foot from the ground, and shimmered every color of light. There was only one door, at the front of the room, behind where the spirits were.

“What is this place?” asked one of the humans, a younger woman, hair a black bob, dressed all in red and gray. Apprehension reigned as people exchanged glances, some knowing, some bewildered. Three old men in the back row had their eyes closed and peaceful smiles on their faces.

“This is why the old way was better,” hissed one of the spirits. “Wake up fresh Above, they don’t ask questions.”

“That’s the fifteen thousand, three hundred and seventy-third time you’ve said that, already. Complain to the Committee at the next convention, damn it.”

“Well, while those two bicker,” a third chimed in, “I’ll be answering questions and getting you started. First, this is the waypoint to the Above. After passing through here, you will continue on to the afterlife.”

“You mean I died?” asked a graying man wearing a leather coat and a motorcycle helmet. He seemed amused by the prospect.

“You all did. There is one process that you must go through before being admitted Above, which—”

“No fucking way, man.” The speaker was a boy with red hair and a bandana tied around his neck. He looked to be about fourteen, and he fit his desk perfectly. “I’m too young to die.” He started shivering as he spoke. “I’m too young…”

“Sorry, Billy,” one of the spirits said. “You shouldn’t have cut class today. Jaywalking is dangerous, even in a school zone.”

One of the old men in the back row rose and walked over to the Billy’s desk. He put a hand on the kid’s shoulder, and the shivering relented slightly.

“We look healthy,” said the woman who had spoken before. “Why should we trust you?”

“Oh, you don’t have to,” answered one of the spirits. “We have no way to prove to you that this isn’t, say, a dream, or that you haven’t been kidnapped by some guys with really fancy holographic technology. In death, as in life, everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. If you’d like to proceed from this room, however, you’ll need to put your beliefs on hold and play along with us.”

“Very well,” she said, but there were others with questions.

People wanted to know if the spirits were angels. Are we going to meet God? Have we already been judged, or is this the stage of judgment? There aren’t any nasty dead folks beyond here, are there—you know, like Napoleon? Hitler? What’s the afterlife like, anyway? What am I signing up for?

*    *    *

All these questions, as though their answers mattered. Some of the delegates at the convention had wanted a policy of muting the dead at this stage. “Shut them up, describe the postcard process, send them on their way… it’s not like any info they glean at the waypoint will stay with them Above.”

Freedom of speech had ultimately won the day.

The inefficiencies of liberty had always been a thorn in the side of the Committee of Above.

*    *    *

The five spirits flitted about the room, distributing ballpoint pens and small postcards to the assembled dead. One depicted the Eiffel Tower, another the Grand Canyon, another the Forbidden City, another a landscape of the Cape of Good Hope, yet another the ruins of Knossos. It was an international mix, distributed at random. After a period of time spent examining the picture on the postcard, the dead flipped the cards over.

“We assume you know what a postcard is,” said one of the spirits. “You write something on it and then send it to someone.”

“These are different, though.” Another spirit was speaking now. “You send them to yourselves.”

“To ourselves?” asked one of the dead.

“Yes—to yourselves. When you pass through this door, you’ll lose all your memories. Completely wiped. A week after you arrive Above, you’ll receive the postcard you’re currently holding, and you’ll read it and recover whatever memories you choose to fill out right now.”

“What do we write on them?” asked one of the dead.

“Whatever you want to know in the afterlife.”

“We have a suggestion,” chimed another one of the spirits. “Reports show that when upon waking up Above without any memories, many dead feel extremely alone. If you write something like ‘I love you,’ or ‘I’m thinking about you,’ or something along those lines on your postcard, and you then receive the postcard as though it were from a dear friend or loved one, it can help abate the loneliness.”

The dead began filling out their postcards. Some tried to cram as much information into the postcard as possible; some sat ponderous, unsure what to write down. Most of the assembled dead, however, understood the wisdom in the suggestion and they followed it.

“I love you.”

A week later, some dead Above received their postcards. A few of them had trouble making out the cramped writing. Some wondered at the cryptic messages rapidly penned on the back of the card. Most of them, however, received a message from a loved one.

“I love you.”

Joy—foreign to the dead since attaining entrance to the Above—warmed their ethereal hearts and brought smiles to their wispy faces. Somewhere, someone was thinking of them. Though they remembered so little, that fact alone meant a lot to them.

*    *    *

“Chuck’s renowned for his fits of rage. Piss him off, he’ll snap—not just figuratively. This is your neck I’m talking about.”

“Just the other day, he was in here, ordered burger and fries. All the other customers were on edge. And then his older brother—yeah, that one—he just walks by outside on the sidewalk, unassuming, and Chuck bursts right, here, I’ll show you… that’s right, right through this window. Standing jump right through it, fist forward, clocks his brother in the ear before his feet reach the ground.”

“Chuck? That madman scares the pants off the whole neighborhood. Even the cops are scared of him. They’ve tried apprehending him for assault on a number of occasions. He lays them flat. Appealed to the government, said they need an okay to snipe him! That’s how the rumor goes, at least.”

“In middle school, someone hit him in the back of the head with a ball—I’m sure it was an accident—and Chuck just reached down, tore up a chunk of playground asphalt, and hurled it at the poor kid.”

“He’s well known for calling society’s rules into question. We are often taught that physical violence solves nothing, but that is not how Chuck operates. With him, violence is everything. TV showing static? Punch a hole through it. Car not working? Punch a hole through it. Shower faucet leaking? Punch a hole through it. Cat meowing too loud? Punch a hole through it. That demon’s gone through a billion different pets by now.”

“He’s never turned down a challenge. I’m not sure if it’s pride that drives his rage, or maybe some kind of killer instinct, but either way—he’s just insane. Absolutely insane.”

“Some guys think it’s real tough, real legit to take on Chuck and try to prove themselves. Think they’ll get hella chicks if they whop Chuck. He never denies them their death wish. They come at him with guns, sometimes. He just punches the bullets away. He’s a monster.”

*    *    *

Monster he might have been, but Chuck too was mortal. Sniper shot through the back of his head. Not the feds, just some chump. The rumor was that it was some once-illustrious porno movie director, driven to this murderous extreme by the permanent facial deformities that Chuck’s fist had granted all the director’s male actors.

*    *    *

Chuck opened his eyes and he was sitting at a desk much too small for his muscular bulk. He was in the middle of a misty classroom, surrounded by forty-nine other humans and facing five shimmering… things. He rubbed his eyes.

“I already hate this dream,” he declared, and punched the air in front of him, as though he were trying to break through the fabric of the world around him and claw his way into wakefulness.

“Too bad it’s not a dream,” said one of the shimmer things.

Chuck growled.

“What the hell are you things, anyway?”

“Think of us as spirits. We’re here to guide you Above, into the afterlife.”

“I don’t die.”

“Well, Chuck, as a matter of fact you did. You died. And now you’re here. And it’s time for you to be quiet and listen to our instructions.”

Chuck simmered as the spirits passed out pens and postcards. He was handed one that showed a breathtaking aerial view of the Niagara Falls. As the spirits explained something arcane about memory loss and love, he realized he’d never once seen a waterfall in person. He had always liked the idea of them—millions of gallons of water rushing along and plunging downward—and he resolved to see one.

He gripped his pen awkwardly—writing with something other than his fist was alien to him—and scrawled a note on the back of his postcard.

“Hey Chuck you mofo, I’m waitin at the top of Niagara Falls, you have two days to get your ass down here if you’re not chicken and get ready to LOSE.”

Chuck handed the postcard in to one of the attending spirits and proceeded through the door at the front of the classroom.

*    *    *

The doorbell rang and a spirit wider and taller than most answered the door. There was no trace of any visitor, just a postcard stuck in the mail slot. The spirit retrieved the postcard and retreated into its abode, settling on a couch of clouds to read the message on the back.

“My name is Chuck,” it muttered. “Shit, two days? When was this crap mailed?”

Chuck looked around frantically, his shimmering form becoming less wispy as he became more and more aware.

“I am NOT chicken.” The shimmer of colors became less chaotic, and gradually it settled into the colors of a man wearing a large white t-shirt and jeans. “I’ll beat this guy’s ass, whoever it is.”

Chuck remembered that he was Above, separated from Niagara Falls by the border between life and death. And that really pissed him off. He had to get to the Falls as soon as possible. His self-respect was on the line. He couldn’t lose by forfeit. Especially not against a challenger as ludicrously cocky as the sender of this postcard. I mean really—who dares to assume he’ll beat me?

The more Chuck thought about it, the angrier he became. He clenched shaking fists, his muscles bulging.

There’s only one way to solve this…

*    *    *

“Chuck? They say he died and passed on to Hell, but he liked it too much and liking things made him uncomfortable so he broke out. … Seen him? Yeah, I have. He was in here the other day, arranging a trip over to Buffalo.”

The spirit looked around the travel agent’s cluttered office.

“Can you remember anything about why he wanted to go to Buffalo?” it asked.

“He showed me a postcard from Niagara Falls. Said something about how he liked the image of millions of gallons of water traveling together.”

“Thanks for your cooperation,” said the spirit. “Stay healthy.”

With that, it flew out the office door. As it barreled across the sky toward Buffalo, it was mentally compiling its report for the next convention. There were, as always, flaws with the postcard process.

"E98: Postcards to the Above" was posted by on Monday, March 1st 2010. This post is categorized Shorts and tagged , , .

4 thoughts on “E98: Postcards to the Above

  1. ‘s a good story. Always surprises me how much your writing’s improved over time, and the intro especially was very well-done.

    One thing that didn’t work for me was how late Chuck’s character was introduced. I wasn’t expecting to suddenly be following one character after how impersonal the first half (2/3rds?) was. Maybe integrate the first paragraph about Chuck in life into the story earlier, and shorten the description of the development of the postcard system? Maybe just make it into two stories about the same idea? I dunno.

  2. Thanks for the feedback Becca. Your note about Chuck’s late introduction was also mentioned in the class workshop section, and I agree with it. I’ll be working on that in my revision, if and when I ever get time to revise :P

    Doing two stories seems like a possibility. I hadn’t considered it. Thanks :)

    Anyway, what brings you around this neck of the woods?

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