I sat up in my hospital bed as the new visitor entered. I could tell right away that he was different from the usual bevy of nurses, relatives, doctors, and interns who made their way through my room. For one thing, I suspected that most people weren’t allowed to bring a seven-foot scythe through an emergency ward.
“That’s not especially subtle,” I remarked, gesturing at the bladed instrument as the figure closed the door behind him. I noted that I was no longer faint of breath, and reached up to remove the oxygen mask. Of course, I had left it behind when I parted ways with my body.
Death looked up at his scythe. “It doesn’t get much use,” he said in a thoughtful tone. “Sign of the office, though. Have to have it.”
“You can’t complain? Maybe get a pocket model?” I suggested.
The dark figure cocked his head at me. “One downside to being a celestial force is that there isn’t much of a command structure,” he said. “I’ve basically got the rules to stick to, and nobody’s around to argue with.”
I nodded, but my thoughts returned to more pressing matters. “So, I’m dead,” I commented.
“What’s next?” I asked. “Heaven? Hell? Reabsorbed into the bright light at the end of the tunnel? Do I wander the earth for the rest of time as a ghost? Is Jesus waiting outside for you to finish up in here?” I honestly wasn’t sure if I was joking or not.
Death simply shrugged at me. “Up to you, really,” he said. “What do you think should happen?”
It was up to me? I felt slightly cheated, as though I was finding out that the whole afterlife was a scam. “Well, maybe I should get a palace in the skies with my 72 virgins,” I retorted. “I don’t know! I thought I wasn’t supposed to worry about this stuff, focus on living!”
Before answering, Death carefully leaned the scythe against the wall, settling into the visitor’s chair in the suite with a sigh. “Look, the main goal is to be happy,” he began, his fingers coming together in a steeple. “Think of it like this. Before you died, most of your energy was spent keeping your body in check. It had to do what you asked of it, not talk back, obey commands – that’s a lot of work. That takes constant focus to manage so many different tasks and keep them in sync.”
“I wasn’t doing so well at it towards the end, though,” I remarked sardonically. I knew it probably wasn’t a good idea to use sarcasm on Death, but I just couldn’t hold back the words.
Death didn’t seem perturbed by my outburst. “It’s always hard,” he said simply. “But now, you’re free from all of that, and you now have no outlet for your complete and total focus. When you were alive, you used your focus to control your body around you, to keep it how you wanted. But now, you can apply that focus to your surroundings. You can make your existence however you want.”
I paused to contemplate this. “So, if I wanted to be surrounded by all my loved ones . . .” I began.
“Then you can make it so,” he said simply.
I thought some more. “So once I make a decision, am I stuck with it forever?”
“If you eat cereal for breakfast each morning, and one day you want pancakes, are you forbidden from consuming them?” he retorted.
“I suppose not,” I replied. “So I’m really this free? I can do whatever I want? Am I going to be bumping into all sorts of other ghosts?”
Death sighed slightly, raising his eyes to transfix me in his gaze. “Once again, only if you want to,” he said. “Some people seek out companionship. Some need adversity, challenges to overcome. Some want nothing but to relax. Whatever it is, you can have it now.”
“Okay, but,” I protested. “Let’s say that I want to have a talk with Albert Einstein. I’m sure that some other dead person wants to do so, too! Who gets Einstein? Or are we both there with him? And what if he doesn’t want to talk with either of us?”
The man waved his hand in response. “If you want to talk to Einstein, you will speak to him,” he said. “If somebody else wants to, they will speak with him, too. And Einstein will do whatever he wants, which right now is to explore the Andromeda galaxy. All of this can happen at the same time. Your Einstein is Einstein, same as the other person’s, same as the one currently in deep space.”
The implications were staggering, almost beyond my grasp. I sat back slightly onto the bed. A nurse had stepped into the room, and was currently shouting for a crash cart in the hallway, but she was beneath my notice now. “How long do I have to decide?” I asked.
Death rose to his feet, picking up his staff of office. He slid the window open, gazing outside. “As long as you want,” he replied, over his shoulder.
“And can I ask you if I have more questions?”
At this, Death paused. “I’m sure you will figure it out,” he said finally, and leapt from the window.
I ran to look outside, but of course he had vanished. I tried willing him back, but nothing happened. So instead, I leaned back, thinking light thoughts, watching as I rose up through the ceiling to settle on the roof. The sun felt warm against my skin; the hospital gown was replaced by a comfortable shirt and jeans. I gazed out across the rooftops, watching the possibilities unfold.