Harris Caldwell—retired public defender; amateur woodworker; frequent apple juice drinker; thrice-a-day tooth brusher—died just now in his sleep at seventy-two years, three months, and nine days old in HumanTime. He missed the fervent bird chirping by sixteen minutes and ten seconds, and he missed the sunrise and creamsicle sky by twelve minutes and thirty-six seconds. That was Caldwell’s favorite part of the day, that sunrise. He would have loved this one.
The death was sudden, and Caldwell did not feel a thing. That is what the coroner will say to comfort the family.
The coroner will also say that it was a massive heart attack. He will also joke that neither man nor water buffalo could have survived it. It’s true. It would have killed a water buffalo had a water buffalo suffered the same massive heart attack as Harris Caldwell.
Caldwell was tucked in bed with his wife Joyce when he died. She awoke forty-six minutes and eight seconds after Caldwell’s death, and she mistakenly assumed her husband was under the weather. She brought him an additional quilt. She kissed his forehead. It will be another one hour and three minutes before Joyce discovers that her husband has died. Was dead. Would no longer be alive. Had experienced the end of his story.
Harris Caldwell—former alive human; current dead entity; eight hours, forty-four minutes, and two seconds old in AfterlifeTime—wondered just now when Joyce would join him. He sat in a blank waiting room, alone, except for the man with wings who sat behind the sturdy front desk. The man with wings wore a golden halo-like crown, and he shined like melting ice.
“Are you an angel?” Caldwell finally asked.
“Good one,” the man with wings answered.
At the end of the room was a heavy-set door with a pull handle the length of a broadsword. Beyond that heavy-set door were one-hundred and six billion individuals—all dead, deceased, departed—all wandering an infinite grassy plain. Among the fields of tall grass were the following: a perfect breeze, a perfect softness, and nothing hurt. Most searched for family. Some chose to make new friends. They certainly had the time to do so.
Harris Caldwell had a maximum of thirty days to decide whether or not he would be passing through the door, if he would be joining the rest in wandering the infinite grassy plain. If not, he would be reused. Sent back. Reincarnated. Given a new story.
“You must be an angel,” Caldwell said.
“Try again,” the man with wings said.
Caldwell crossed his arms and sat in the blank waiting room for three weeks, two days, seven hours, and eighteen minutes. In all that time, he had no urge to use the restroom. Up here, there is no urge to use the restroom.
“When will Joyce be joining me?” Caldwell asked.
“Pardon?” the man with wings asked.
“My wife. Joyce. She should have died by now.”
The man with wings lifted the page on his clipboard, then another, and then another. “Is that so?”
“She should have died by now. That’s how it works. One spouse dies, then the other. Of a broken heart, is how they call it.”
The man with wings lifted the page on his clipboard, then another, and then another. “She’s still alive, according to this.”
“That’s not like her,” Caldwell said. He shifted in his seat. “Let me see. Let me see what she’s been up to.”
The man with wings clicked his pen, and within that click, Caldwell perceived the events of the last three weeks, two days, seven hours, and eighteen minutes.
Joyce had not cried when she found him still, stiff. Not immediately, no. The suddenness of it all had confused her. When did it happen? When did he go? Why was there no shout? How much of the night had he still been with her? An hour? Three? Did he hear the early birds chirp? Or had he been long gone?
Why? Why did he go? It wasn’t time yet. There was still so much to do. There was still plenty of time. Why, Harris Caldwell, why did you leave Joyce behind? Why
The children took over the arrangements. They made the decisions. Box color. Box ornaments. Box type, steel or friendly to the environment. Joyce only nodded, only wanted to choose the wardrobe, only hoped to find Harris Caldwell’s wedding day cufflinks so he could wear them in his box.
The viewing was brief. The people had said their words, had shed their tears. A priest spoke. It wasn’t memorable.
Joyce cried too, had cried the most that day.
Had cried when Harris was revealed in his box. Had cried when she couldn’t recognize his face. Had cried at his neutral expression. Had cried because he wasn’t wearing his cufflinks. Had cried because she had two days, five hours, and twenty minutes to find his wedding day cufflinks. Had cried because they were at home, somewhere. Had cried because she ran out of time.
On the day after the burial, Joyce carried an additional eight pounds, three ounces on her heart. She strained to shift. She was mindful of the weight and feared tipping over.
That night, she slept next to zero pounds, zero ounces.
The people called daily, had said more words. Joyce carried an additional seven pounds, ten ounces on her heart. She attended a brunch with closer people, the kind that say pretty, gentler words. Words with meaning. Joyce went home carrying an additional seven pounds, one ounce on her heart.
Joyce continued to search the basement for the cufflinks. Her children joined. They’d realized the preciousness of close proximity, the value of word to ear over word to receiver to ear. They spoke of Caldwell, had focused on the good because all that mattered now was the good. Joyce carried an additional five pounds, five ounces on her heart.
At night, she spoke to Caldwell. She knew he was there, was ever presently listening to her speak, would have answered had he been able to. But Joyce was mistaken. Harris Caldwell was in the blank waiting room, waiting for her, waiting for her to join.
Joyce carried an additional three pounds, twelve ounces on her heart.
The children had left, had returned to the day-to-day, while Joyce searched for the cufflinks. As she rummaged through shoeboxes and dressers, she spoke to Harris, felt comfort knowing he was still with her, that they had endured a lengthy story together, that she would live her days with Harris still there.
Joyce carried an additional one pound, eight ounces on her heart. This is where it steadied. This is where it would stay. Joyce would not have to strain to shift, would not fear tipping over, not with Harris Caldwell by her side.
There was a gingerly knock-knock at the only window to the waiting room, and the man with wings fluttered to the window and welcomed a breeze from the infinite grassy plain.
“I was told to come here,” said a voice.
“Yes, shortly. Mr. Caldwell has yet to decide, so I ask you to please be patient,” said the man with wings.
“I understand. I’ll wait. And by any chance, is there a restroom nearby?”
“Remember, there is no urge to use one up here.”
“Oh, goodness. You’re right.”
The man with wings closed the window and fluttered back to his desk. He checked the time and flipped through his clipboard. “Mr. Caldwell, I’ll remind you that you still have a choice to make.”
“I’m not going until Joyce joins me.”
“You’ve made that clear.”
“Because she’ll never find me,” Caldwell said, pointing to the heavy-set door. “It’s too crowded out there. She’ll get lost. I’ll never see her again, and I can’t let that happen.”
“I understand your concerns, but—”
“How many have found each other?”
The man with wings sighed. “It’s rare, but not impossible. Most are just happy to be here.”
“I don’t believe you.” Caldwell crossed his arms and pouted. “She’ll never find me. We’ll have to go together, and I see no other option.”
The man with wings lifted the page on his clipboard. “She’s not scheduled anytime soon.”
“And why not?” Caldwell asked. Without realizing, he rubbed his wedding ring. “Hmm? Joyce loves me, and I love her too. Her heart should have broken by now, and it doesn't make a crock of sense why it hasn’t. You should know all about this. One spouse dies, and the other follows. I’ve been with Joyce forty-nine years and some change.”
“Best forty-nine years and some change a man could ask for, but I don’t want it ending at forty-nine years and some change because I want her by my side till the end, whatever the end is.” Caldwell shifted in his seat, found no comfort, and stood to pace the room. “Before this, the longest we’d been separated was eight days on account of a fishing trip on the other end of the country. I caught three trout. It’s torture up here.”
“Incorrect. This is the most peaceful place in existence.”
“Not for me it isn’t!” Caldwell gripped the back of a chair and huffed. “I thought I knew her, but I never expected this. To be so happy so soon? It’s unlike her.”
The man with wings flipped the page on his clipboard. “According to this, you’re mistaken and you know it.”
“And so what if I am? Will you send me down there for it?”
“There is no down there, just an up here.”
Caldwell squeezed the back of the chair and shook his head. “I couldn’t have held on that long. If Joyce had gone first, I’d be trailing right behind her. Within the half-hour, is my guess.” Caldwell glanced over his shoulder, hoping she’d be there. “She’s strong, that woman. Stronger than I ever was. Ever could be. When I was a boy, my father told me it wasn’t about a pretty smile or promised wealth or Yes, honey’s. He told me to find a woman who’d worry. Who’d worry about your health, your happiness, your dreams, and as long as you worried right back, the two of you would live a prosperous life. Joyce worried, all right. I worried in return, but I could never catch up to her. I should have tried harder. All that time, and I never tried worrying more than her…
“Look at me,” Caldwell told the man with wings. “I departed first. I couldn’t even be there for her till her end. How selfish of me.”
A phone rang, and the man with wings picked up a receiver from under the desk and listened to the sounds. “Yes, I understand.” He returned the receiver and fluttered around the desk. “Mr. Caldwell, your allotted time is running out. We ask that you make a decision. Pass through the door, or opt to be reused.”
“If I’m reused, will I remember her?”
“No. You will be a blank slate.”
“Then it’s not even worth it.” Caldwell sighed, strained to straighten up, and approached the heavy-set door. “Angel?”
“Not an angel.”
“Can I see her again? Right now, as she is. Can I see her again?”
“Will you exit if I show her? I have others waiting to use this room.”
“Yes. I’ll see her, and then I’ll go.”
The man with wings clicked his pen, and Harris Caldwell saw Joyce, as she was, currently, digging through a box of mementos on the front porch.
Caldwell stood near Joyce, though he was not there. He yearned to hold her hand, but he reached and could not reach far enough. It was not allowed. “Oh, Joyce,” Caldwell said. “I hope somehow you heard what me and Angel were saying. I’ll miss you, Joy. I wish I’d saved the big one for a later time,” Caldwell said, tapping his heart. “Goodness, you’re beautiful.”
Joyce admired a photograph of the Caldwells taken forty-nine years, two months, thirteen days, and four hours ago. Her eyes welled up at this reminder of their youthful looks.
“Don’t cry,” Caldwell told Joyce. “You know when you cry, I cry.” He felt the oncoming tears. “Ah, there they go. Never had a good grip on them.” Caldwell rubbed his jaw and sighed. “Goodbye, Joyce. I’ll cherish us, hun, and maybe that’s what’ll keep me going up there.”
Joyce put the photograph down and curiously reached for the bump in the corner of the shoebox. She lifted the cardboard flap, and there they were, that bronze pair. Caldwell leaned in and looked close. She had found them. Joyce Caldwell had found her husband’s wedding day cufflinks.
Joyce looked up and smiled at the clouds above. “Here they are, Harry.”
“That’s all I needed to see,” Caldwell said. He blew her a kiss, and returned to the waiting room. “Thank you, Angel.”
“You’re very welcome, Mr. Caldwell,” said the man with wings. “Now off you go.”
Harris Caldwell pulled the heavy-set door, appreciated the breeze, and joined the others in the infinite grassy plain. He would find a clear spot in the tall grass and sit. He would ask individuals not to crowd around him. He would wait.