© 2018-2019 by Jeff Metzler

 

The After Realms

(Sample of first two chapters)

 

 

Chapter One

 

Death was in Claire Redding’s head. And not as a passing thought, but as a powerful consumption, having overtaken her to the point where her brain itself felt transformed into a vast graveyard of the subject, the grooves of her cerebral cortex morphed into tombstone-lined hillocks and her synapses firing with the exact cadence of cadaver-covering shovelfuls of dirt being dug. Some mortuary musings loomed fresh in Claire’s mind, still on the embalming table, while other charnel facts lay scattered like lost bones beneath ancient, unmarked gravestones, but all of them were in there, somewhere, rattling around and waiting to come out.

Claire knew death. She knew that evidence suggested Neanderthals were the first human species to intentionally bury their dead; and that even six hours after death a person’s muscles can still spasm; and that approximately 150,000 people around the world die every day; and that an overwhelming majority of people across the earth believe in the existence of some form of afterlife waiting across the life-death divide.

 

Claire wasn’t a morbid person, though, and death had only taken up residence in her skull recently—over the past two weeks, to be exact. Her World History teacher, Mr. Kentin, had assigned a research project entitled Death through the Ages in his class. Mr. Kentin was notorious for giving demanding, spare-time-slaughtering projects, and Claire always put powerful pressure on herself to do well in school, a combination that had resulted in the past fourteen days of her living and breathing all things end-of-life. But that would soon change. Her obsession with death had an expiration date of 1:45 pm this very October day: the project was due later in the afternoon.

So, as she got dressed (thinking about how there had been a law in England in 1667 that forced people to bury their dead in woolen shrouds instead of linen ones), and washed and applied lotion to her face (the word ‘desairology’—the art of caring for the skin of the deceased—rose unbidden into her mind), Claire knew that tonight her thoughts would finally be death-free, her project complete, and her life exhumed after a multi-week burial.

Once she was ready for school, Claire grabbed a strawberry Pop-Tart (the Egyptians had stocked tombs with foods like mummified meat and poultry, she remembered) and muttered a halfhearted word of parting to her mom and brother Justin before rushing out the front door. Outside, cool autumnal air and the interchangeable sameness of suburbia greeted her as she ran down her driveway, under the basketball hoop Justin never used anymore, and continued along her tree-lined street, passing white houses with white fences which all looked exactly like her family’s house and her family’s fence. Every house oversaw a lawn. Each plot of private grass was bright green and carefully raked and mowed, many accented with gardens decorated with chubby gnomes wearing red hats, ridiculous smiling rabbits, or rotating pinwheels. Slowly, Claire was drawn out of her death-dominated head and out into the world­—it was, after all, difficult to seriously contemplate matters of mortality while staring at a statue of a smiling rabbit.

She finished her Pop-Tart upon reaching Evergreen Street and stood at the curb as a blue SUV rolled by, a child in the backseat with his face pressed to the window, staring out at Claire, but not seeming to really see her. After the car had passed, Claire ran across the road and up onto the sidewalk. There, she glanced at her watch, confirming she could make it to her first period class on time, but only if she hurried. She adjusted the straps on her backpack, sucked in a deep breath… and slowed her pace. Now that she had put on the necessary spectacle of being in a rush, she could travel the remainder of the way at the speed she truly wanted to go: incredibly sluggishly.

Claire had started her sophomore year of high school last month and, so far, had been late for class almost every day. Although she dreaded the inevitable call the school was going to make to her mom, she kept showing up late anyway, for each stolen minute away from that place was worth it to her. Learning, the ostensible reason for school’s existence, wasn’t the problem. Claire loved learning. Unfortunately, learning was only a tiny part of the seven agonizing hours comprising each school day. This fact was little-known, forgotten by most adults and even ungraspable by many current students. To a majority, school seemed nothing more than a place of education, filled with its desks and blackboards, textbooks and teachers. But those, Claire knew, were camouflage. In truth, school was a torture chamber, where things like social cliques, vicious rumors, and lunch periods spent awkwardly alone had replaced iron maidens, guillotines, and thumbscrews.

Today—with her Death through the Ages presentation scheduled during fifth period—the torture was going to be even more painful than usual. Claire couldn’t wait to be done with the presentation part of her project, but she also would have put it off forever if she was able; getting up in front of people and talking was the stuff nightmares were made of as far as Claire was concerned.

So, her dilatory strategy in full effect, she passed the Bridgeton Town Library at a snail’s pace and tried to push the impending school day from her mind. She turned next down Smith Avenue and found casualties of autumn peppering the pavement in the form of leaves that had fallen from a row of half-naked maple trees. A pile of the brown, dead things crinkled and crackled beneath Claire’s sneakers as she stepped through them.

Then, she stopped. Standing in the lifeless heap, she stared: a group of girls stood clustered on the sidewalk near the end of the street. Claire immediately recognized most of them as classmates and knew just as quickly that something was wrong. Four of the girls had a fifth girl surrounded. The tallest of the encircling girls was Mandy Johnson. Proud owner of a head of flowing blonde hair and a Barbie-slim figure, Mandy was among the social elite at Claire’s school, and had the hearts of most of the boys and the mingled admiration, envy, and fear of most of the girls.

Mandy’s hand rose and swung in a meticulously-manicured blur. Perfect hand met unfortunate face as Mandy’s palm slammed into the girl she and the others had surrounded, the loud clap of skin being struck by skin filling the otherwise quiet street. Claire vaguely recognized the girl who had been slapped, but wasn’t sure of her name. She was a freshman.

Sobs choked out of the freshman and her pain provoked laughter from the other girls in a kind of Pavlovian response. This was the kind of creature Mandy preferred to surround herself with—those who had been conditioned to find her every action worthy of celebration, with the most heinous of those actions being worthy of the biggest celebrations. She put her face up to the freshman’s face and spit, the gob of saliva dripping down the freshman’s nose and over her lips. This being especially heinous, Mandy’s entourage erupted into hoots and high-fives. Claire’s blood grew molten and as she stared across the street. Her fingers curled into fists, pressing into suddenly-sweaty palms, and her thoughts sprinted in her head, running both towards and away from the wickedness she was witnessing. How, she wondered, could anybody treat another person like that?

One of the girls in Mandy’s coterie of cruelty turned and saw Claire watching them. She gifted Claire with a narrow-eyed glare and a half-smile that was completely negated by the tight line of the non-smiling portion of her mouth. Claire’s own eyes widened and her stomach sank like a brick thrown into the depths of a lake. Quickly, she turned away and hurried down the sidewalk, lowering her head as she passed the girls. They were laughing, their ill-gotten mirth now directed at Claire, and lower she hung her head, and faster and faster she walked, her feet slicing through the maple leaf remains. After several tense moments, she threw a fearful look over her shoulder: Mandy and the others weren’t pursuing her, but instead still surrounded the freshman. Instantly, relief rushed over Claire.

With the relief, however, came shame. There was darkness in the world, darkness like what those bullies were doing, and there was light in the form of acts of heroism, compassion, and courage. And then there were shadows: by-products of the light that were neither good nor bad, but were passive and unimportant.

Claire knew what she was. Through and through, she was a shadow.

She rushed under trees, through their leaves and their pools of shade, to the end of Smith Avenue, reaching Main Street’s car-congested stretch. The cookie-cutter houses and well-kept lawns she had been passing were replaced by shops and restaurants that ushered in a smattering of constantly changing smells and sounds that accompanied Claire as she grew ever-closer to school. The ding of an arriving car at the Pump-N-Pay gas station, the aroma of freshly-baked bread wafting from The Muffin King’s open door, conversations from people standing outside of shops and on the sidewalks… they were all small-town stimuli that Claire, having lived in Bridgeton her entire life, was intimately familiar with.

Then, Claire heard something that wasn’t at all part of her daily routine: screaming. Laced with panic, the screams alternately stuttered and soared, ripping through the air like the trilling tones of some mutant songbird. The screaming was joined by more noises alien to Bridgeton: crashing, squealing rubber, and a furious cacophony of car horns. Before she could process what was happening, her eyes—having taken in over sixteen years and thirty-five days’ worth of visual stimuli—drew in one more image in the form of a red pickup truck as it barreled through a traffic light.

It should have all been a confusing blur. Somehow, however, life in those moments slowed to a crawl, moving with a stilted shuffle. Claire saw the truck clearly as it clipped a smaller sedan. She noticed the ‘Rolling Stones’ bumper sticker crookedly applied to the vehicle’s front as plainly as if the charging truck had been parked. And she saw the pudgy, middle-aged man behind the driver’s seat, taking note of a black tattoo on his neck and face, and of the small smile playing on his lips.

Exploding pain burst over Claire as the truck struck her full-on.

Agony assaulted all nerves in her body simultaneously and her mind rang with calls of deadly alarm from each inch of her flesh and from every organ beneath. Gravity’s grasp gave way as Claire flung through the air, then took hold once more, too soon and too severely, as she hurtled down onto pavement. She saw the shocked face of a woman pushing a baby carriage not twenty feet from her, but could not hear the woman’s hysterical screams, for the world had gone silent save for a dull ringing sound deep in her head.

In her research for her Death through the Ages project, Claire had read near-death accounts of people who claimed to have seen their lives pass before their eyes as they were dying. Now, this very thing happened to her. The slideshow in her mind started with her earliest memories: being held by her mother, yelled at by her father, tasting ice cream for the first time at the ocean, and tasting her own blood for the first time after falling from a tree in her backyard. Highlights from the story of her sixteen years continued like this, with Claire remembering the fear that had gnawed her belly during her first day of kindergarten; the nerve-racking time she and her best friend Abby had snuck out of their houses together one summer night; the puzzling sensations of her first kiss.

Weightlessness seized her as images continued to flood her mind. The images became confusing as they now depicted things which had never happened. Claire saw herself older than she really was, starting college, getting married, having children… These visions came more rapidly than the earlier depictions of her childhood, filling her mind in broad, blurred strokes. She couldn’t quite make out the details of her husband’s face, or feel the heartbeat of her newborn baby as she held him close, but Claire somehow knew these things were as real as that memory of her first taste of vanilla soft serve—or at least would have been. She was seeing the future that should have come; the days ahead that had just been stolen from her.

As quickly as they had begun, the parade of images stopped. All went black. Soon the blackness itself faded into an even deeper desolation, and Claire’s thoughts slowed, her awareness faded, and her everything seeped into emptiness. Blackness bled blackness and the void spread like a virus within. Her sense of self, her identity, and her existence, were all being replaced by nothing—an absolute vacuum beyond even the anchor of time and the silhouette of space.

Claire saw nothing, and felt nothing. She realized she wasn’t anywhere and was barely even anyone… not any longer. Then that iota of herself, that deepest part of her which was doing this realizing, and noticing this nothingness, it too began to slip away like a single water droplet down a drain. Swirling into blankness, swirling into the void, swirling—

 

 

Chapter Two

The ripples of blood-curdling screaming reached Claire’s awareness slowly, and only after untold minutes did she arrive at the realization that the horrid cries were her own. This comprehension that she was the source of the screams, however, didn’t give her the ability to stop them, and Claire’s wails continued belting from her, trembling with a hysteria which clawed at her throat and rang in her ears.

Hot liquid dripped down her naked skin—this she could feel—but her eyes wouldn’t open so she could see it happening. The searing would not be translated into sight, and this made everything all the more terrifying. Claire had never felt anything worse than the burning pain consuming her. Her screams drew this pain in, sucking it up like a masochistic sponge, their volume bloated and bolstered by it. Still, as pernicious as Claire’s physical agony was, the horrors assailing her mind were even worse. A trillion images vied for her brain’s attention at once: visuals of places, people, and events; births and deaths; past, present, and future… they all merged into one timeless tangle, screaming their colors into her mind’s eye. She felt the bottomless depths of human sorrow and the soaring heights of human happiness mingle and mash into one. Everything was everything else and the size of this totality was too much too take in; too much to comprehend; too much to bear.

Claire’s blue eyes sprang open. The guttural screaming that had been pouring from her as if on its own stopped, only to be replaced by a different scream of increased understanding.

Her newly opened eyes took in the enormity of the surrounding room. She was sitting upright in one pod amongst thousands upon thousands of other such pods which wrapped in rows around the entirety of a sprawling space so that the ones in the distance were mere specks. Each semi-translucent unit making up this sea swished with a blue liquid. Claire’s bath of fluid, fetid and sticky, glazed her pale skin then bore its way, burning, into her. Blue bled into blue as the liquid drizzled down her forehead into her eyes and soaked through her brown hair into her scalp.

The pain, however, lessened as a greater and greater volume of the fluid seeped from the surface of her skin into the dark organ-and-bone-brimming world of inner-Claire beneath, and she soon ceased her new bout of screaming. As she quieted, she could hear the cries of an infant coming from her right, for in the pod next to her was a newborn baby—black, with fatty folds of flesh on its wrist-less arms and ankle-less legs—virtually submerged in sloshing blue. Ringing cries of distress that belied the size of its lungs sprung from the tiny creature and filled the cavernous room. Claire leaned over the side of her pod to look more closely at the baby, its slight, scrunched-up face contorted with panic.

Her observation of the baby was cut short as liquid splashed into the side of her face, smoldering its way into her cheeks. A man had jerked upright in the pod to her left, splattering azure droplets every which way, and now his lips flapped manically as he uttered a string of dismayed, indecipherable syllables. He clawed at his face and tried to speak again. This time, Claire could make out the word ‘Catherine’ choking from the man. He bore countless signs of old age on his naked body, collected like unwanted souvenirs from each of the many years of his life. Thin and nearly transparent, the man’s skin was bunched into wrinkles and bulging with veins, and his face had shrunk around the two features of his ears and nose, which now dominated his visage with comical proportion. The old man turned towards Claire, gazing with glassy eyes and sputtering ‘Catherines’ out through his near-toothless mouth.  

 

“Catherine?” he asked, his desperate question seemingly directed at both Claire and the universe at large.

“Catherine,” the man said again. “Catherine. Catherine? Catherine!” He looked down at his hand which was semi-clasped, as if having been holding something which had abruptly disappeared.

“I’m Claire,” Claire said, surprised by the fact that her voice still worked for more than screaming. “Claire Reddings. What’s… what’s your name?”

The old man looked around as if searching for his name in neighboring pods.

After a moment, he appeared to have found it: “Death,” he said, his gaze still roving.

“W-what…?” Claire said, feeling something very cold touch her deep in her core—a kind of arctic emptiness that spread rapidly, swallowing heat and hope in equal measure.

“Death,” he repeated, ‘Catherine’s’ status as his word of choice now at an end. “Death. Death? Death! This… is death. Death. Death. All of it death. Truly and utterly death. I am dead.” His body was racked by an intense shivering and his eyes stopped wandering, his intense stare drilling directly into Claire. “You are dead.”

Muffled thumps sounded from above as a murder of crows crashed into a skylight Claire hadn’t previously noticed, wings and beaks bending and breaking against glass. Dark smears of blood stained the outside of the windows as the crows’ mangled bodies slid down the sloped surface. Sickly illumination limped through the six wedges of window held together by the metal crisscrosses of bars, but the light looked so empty, so fake, as it cut through crows’ blood and touched upon the liquid in Claire’s pod.

“We are dead,” she said softly. And she knew it to be true.

For the last two weeks she had examined every possible facet of death, but even in immersing herself in the topic, there had been something so distant about it. Claire had known she was going to die one day. But she’d also known that in five billion years the sun was going to turn into a red giant and swallow the Earth whole. The two had seemed very similar to her: horribly distressing, completely unavoidable truths which were to her ridiculous to spend even an ounce of energy worrying about. And yet it had happened. Claire’s end hadn’t been tucked away in some far-off future as imagined, but had instead lurked around the corner of her present day. It had turned that corner, and it had taken her.

A door banged open. Below Claire a man entered the room, a walkie-talkie pressed to his ear.

“Mother of God!” he yelled into the device. “Yeah, some of those birds that escaped the Bestiary just collided with the roof. Made a right awful mess of the skylight.” The man gave a pained laugh. “Yup, I’m sure I will be the one tasked with that cleaning job. Holier-than-thou bastards, think they can order me to do anything.”

The man regarded the pods nearest to him. He wore an outfit which seemed intended to be festive and ceremonial, but that time—or good taste—had not been kind to. Various flourishes fought for attention on the costume: the puffy white sleeves vied with the high-arched, crumpled blue collar; the silver shoes drew attention from the shirt’s faded gold buttons; and the pointy yet torn crimson hat yelled ‘look at me’ louder than all other outfit accoutrements combined.

“Well, I’ve got some Freshsouls here, so I’ve got to go,” said the man. “Yeah, I’ll have a blast scrubbing crows’ blood later, thanks.” He sighed, clipped the walkie-talkie to his orange belt, and stared up at the pods again with a blank expression on his face. He pressed a circular pin on his rainbow lapel and static buzzed from unseen speakers spread across the room.

“Welcome, New Souls,” he croaked out, his voice being projected to every pod. “Welcome to the First Sphere of the After Realms. You have left the mortal coil and are now in the heavens, closer to the one we call Father. In this First Sphere—” Here, the man’s speech gave way to a loud sneeze. Wiping his nose with the swollen, pillowy fabric of his sleeve, he looked around expectantly. “God bless me,” he finally muttered to himself. “In this First Sphere of the After Realms,” he resumed with even less enthusiasm than before, “you will have your mortal lives judged by the deity, patron saint, what-have-you, of your chosen religion. You will then work towards admittance to the Holy Sphere, where you can be yet closer still to Father.”

The man sighed again. “Are there any questions? Good,” he continued immediately, “then we will now proceed to the Judging Stations. Babies and the elderly stay where you are and assistance will be forthcoming. Not that you babies have a bloody clue what I’m saying, or could even move if you wanted to,” he added with a chuckle, then a third sigh. “Anyway, if you’re old and can still hear, stay where you are. Everyone else, use the ladders attached to your Admittance Pods and climb down towards me.”

Claire looked down at her body. She now sat in a much smaller pool of liquid, for most of it had been absorbed by her skin. She became acutely aware of her nakedness, and wasn’t thrilled about the idea of standing up and climbing down a ladder in this state. And even though the inhabitants of the other pods were all nude too—Claire could now see dozens in farther away pods start their descents—the fact that the strange man below wore such pronounced clothing made her feel extra naked by comparison.

She sat there, elevated in her see-through case, the remaining puddle of liquid starting to cool against her legs. The magnitude of her situation pounded against the inside of her skull like her every thought was a careening wrecking ball. Her home; her family; her life: each pained thought morphed into another crushing ball of forged steel, and each crushing ball of forged steel, in turn, sparked more pained thoughts. Claire trembled in her pod, her heart hammering furiously as if trying to drive a nail through the wall of her chest.

Everything she loved and cared about was no more. It was all rubble at the bottom of her brain. Lost, stolen, smashed—gone forever.

Claire shot to her feet, nearly falling over. She could see where her train of thought was headed, and knew she had to disembark. Getting trapped in her head right now wasn’t an option she could afford. She had to move. So, she began her descent, taking extra care on the metal rungs of the ladder as her hands and feet were still slippery with liquid. The rungs were hard and cold as she pressed the soles of her bare feet against them. Death—these ‘After Realms’ as the man had called it—was so physical. How could she still feel pain in the afterlife? Why did everything still seem so much about the body and not the spirit?

“Your questions can wait,” the strange man below said as if reading Claire’s mind. “All of your sundry little doubts will be cast away in Orientation. Rest assured,” he added in a far from reassuring voice. “Right now, I need you all to line up, single-file, here in front of me.”

The denizens of the pods did as instructed, some while whimpering, some with tears streaming down their faces, all with bewildered looks in their eyes. The desperate cries of the baby who had been next to Claire’s pod continued to ring out through the room, joined by the launched lamentations of several other infants in more distant pods. Claire, now at the bottom of the ladder, padded across the room’s grey tile floor and got in line behind a muscular, dark-skinned young man. Near this mountainous mass of a human, she felt incredibly small and fragile.

In actuality, and when not in comparison with an individual who looked like a professional bodybuilder, Claire was both tall and rather fit. Her best (and only) friend Abby had always given her a hard time for being in such good shape without ever exercising or eating well. Abby had begged Claire to be on the track team with her this year—to use what Abby had termed Claire’s ‘lifestyle-defying good genes’—but Claire had refused. The idea of competing in front of crowds of people had made her feel sick.

Crossing her arms across her naked breasts, Claire longed for any kind of clothing, even if it was something from the strange, garishly-dressed man’s wardrobe. She stared straight ahead at the man in line in front of her, but his bare buttocks were awfully close, so she averted her eyes and looked up at the skylight again, still smeared with fresh crows’ blood. Had those birds died? Could one die in death?

“This can’t be happening… this can’t be happening,” babbled a girl a few people behind Claire in line.

The teenager swayed back and forth on her feet. She cradled her arms around herself like that was the sole thing keeping her from shattering from a single, intact girl into one of a billion broken pieces. Claire pictured this girl losing her wholeness and smashing to the floor—each of her jagged fragments a thread of hair or chip of tooth or patch of elbow skin, so useful when assembled yet so pointless when apart. There was something odd about this barely-together girl’s leg: blurriness blotted a patch of her skin below her hip, seizing that part of her with hazy incompleteness.

 Claire found herself staring and, having already eliminated most other places to look, simply redirected her gaze down at her own feet.

Soon, everyone of able body had vacated their pods and joined the line in front of the strange man.

“OK,” said the man, “here we go. Luckily for us all, this hasn’t been an overly death-heavy day on Earth thus far. No major battles or natural disasters to speak of, so we are a small group. That will make everything go quicker. Now, everyone follow me into the Judgment Chamber then await further instructions.” He reached down to his belt and the metal door he had first emerged from reopened with a clang.

Iron candelabras in this new room held wax candles as large as torches. The candelabras hung bolted to pillars which stood at regular intervals. Stained with hardened drizzles of wax, the massive stone trunks of the pillars hung draped with thin banners of red cloth from their origins on the floor to the point where darkness engulfed them near the ceiling. Beyond the pillars, stained glass windows lined the curved walls, depicting angels, demons, gods, and monsters, all highlighted in red-tinted glass that let only anemic pools of sanguine-hued light through.

A woman close to Claire gasped and pointed towards one wall of the room. Claire looked in the direction indicated by the woman’s now-wavering finger and saw a shadowy figure standing behind a stone table beside a stained glass window. The figure was a tall man, but wasn’t human—at least not entirely. Pointy animal ears grew from his head and a black snout extended from his face. ‘Anubis,’ came the name into Claire’s head: she was looking at the Egyptian god of the dead. She had learned about him during her preparation for her Death through the Ages history project. The light from the candles glinted against the whiteness in Anubis’ mouth, overfull with sharp teeth. He winked and opened his mouth to reveal still more teeth when Claire met his eyes.

Claire tore her gaze away and it fell on more ghostly figures in the room. In fact, a figure stood next to each stained glass window, usually positioned behind some kind of table with a ledger and pen upon it.

“Alright, New Souls,” the bizarrely dressed man said, “this is where your mortal lives will be judged by beings born into existence solely to dispense such rulings. They will weigh the good deeds of your life against the bad, some figuratively, others—the old fashioned ones—with actual scales, and will determine which is heavier. You will then be assigned a designation based on whether you lived predominately good or evil lives.”

The man adjusted his cusped crimson hat, which looked a little less ridiculous in this new room alongside all the red from the tinted glass and pillar banners. “Now, understand, there is neither Heaven nor Hell in the After Realms. All people, no matter how misguided their lives on Earth may have been, can still strive towards the path of Father here in the afterlife. The journey will simply be more difficult for some than for others.

“The judging process is the same at its core no matter the Judge you are placed before. However, the language of the rulings and the Judge him or herself will be tailored to conform to the religious beliefs you held as a mortal. The ruling is a little more… personal, this way. I, by the way, am no Judge, but merely your guide for this part of the process. You can call me Chip,” the man said, tapping a name badge festooned to his shirt.

“Now,” Chip said, turning to the muscular man in front of Claire, “what is your faith, my friend?”

“I am a Hindu,” the muscular man said in measured tones.

“Excellent. Yama, the Hindu God of Death, will be your Judge. Please proceed to him, near the stained glass window with the image of Vishnu.” Chip jabbed his thumb towards a bulky man with bluish skin and many arms over in the far left corner of the room.

Claire watched the muscular man make his way towards his judgment.

“Young lady,” Chip said, so close to Claire that the breath his words traveled on tickled her ear. She turned with a start to find the still-smiling man now inches from her face. “What is your faith?”

“I… I don’t have one,” Claire said. Her parents had been Catholic at one time, and had baptized her into that faith as a baby, but had abandoned religion soon after. Over the course of her life, Claire had only stepped foot into a church a handful of times, with each of these few visits inspiring within her only a sense of being profoundly out-of-place.

“You’ve never belonged to a religious faith?”

“Well, I was baptized by the Catholic Church,” Claire said, unsure if this fact mattered. “But I’ve never really belonged to any religion.”

Chip pressed his lips tightly together. “Hmmm…Well, we do have secular Judges on hand. They are quite popular these days, trust me. However, Saint Peter hasn’t had many people to pass verdicts upon as of late—certainly nowhere near the volume he had back in the day—so you can go over to him. In a few thousand years, the poor slob will have as few people to judge as Rhadamanthus now does.” Chip pointed to the right. “See the stained glass depicting the baby Jesus? Next to that, you’ll find your man.”