Victoria Valencia considered herself a good woman, a moral woman, a woman with integrity in a world that, to her mind, was slipping ever closer to spiritual bankruptcy. An emeritus professor of religious studies, she retained faith in many creeds and doctrines, many forces beyond the ken of human perception, and many notions of love, kindness, and eternity. It was because of this faith that she hadn’t burst into bitter tears when her doctor said “cancer;” it was because of this faith that she hadn’t thrown slurs and epithets at the sky when her surgeon said “inoperable;” and it was because of this faith that she hadn’t quivered beneath her bed when her family said “hospice.” She felt that whatever lay ahead could only be reward for a life of obedience to a panoply of laws both divine and human.
And so, when Victoria’s strength inevitably ebbed and her vision permanently clouded, when her children and grandchildren held her hands and whispered to her that it was “okay to let go,” she knew it was okay, indeed. She knew she would find warm, open arms at the end of her journey. She knew she would be ushered into something like Heaven, if not Heaven exactly. And, thus, on a starry night a few months following her diagnosis, Victoria Valencia died.
Her heart sagged and her lungs deflated and the marauding cellular hordes staked final, pyrrhic victory to her flesh. But they could have it, she thought; they were welcome to its leathery rind. They could ride it straight into the incinerator and burn, burn, burn like the microscopic devils they were. She had better places to exist, better fates to meet. And perhaps she did, because as she let the corporeal wither around her, a tunnel swirled open before her and it was as so many near-death experiences had reported—kaleidoscopic and opalescent and imbued with a psychological analgesic that quelled even the most peaked anxiety. Victoria let herself slide inside, let herself reflect the smiles of her husband, her parents, her brothers and sisters all gone into the tunnel before her—smiles she would have sworn danced in the very substance of diaphanous pipeline. She let herself believe that her loved ones were waiting at the opposite end of the tunnel, that it was their hands gently tugging her through to the other side, and she was eager to be with them again.
But as Victoria popped free from the umbilicus between life and death, as the comforting countenances dissipated and the light grew monochromatic, she found herself standing naked on a chilled, white platform in what seemed to be either a doctor’s office the size and shape of a baroque cathedral or a massive church unadorned and sterile as a medical facility. Everything she looked upon was white. The walls: white. The high, arched ceiling: white. The light that filtered from nowhere: white. And it was not just any white, but the retina-bursting white of freshly fallen snow under a midday sun, the white of superheated stars and blank reams of paper. Had she the physical organs to register this density of whiteness, Victoria would have been struck blind by the overwhelming, uniform purity of it all.
She lingered on the platform a moment longer and was, quite suddenly and without warning, impelled to move further into the grand hall.
Across the interior of the space, as though organically sprouted from the floor, stretched long—interminably long—rows of rounded, hollow, egg-shaped chairs. Though she had no physical form, no breasts to cover or pubis to hide in modesty, and though she saw not a single being reclining in the chairs, Victoria felt a thousand eyes turn upon her and survey her with—what? Lust and lascivious intent? No, that wasn’t right. With desire? That was closer, but still not right. Hunger? Yes. That was it, but not any kind of hunger she had ever known. She felt penetrated, bored through to the core, so that whatever gazed upon her could touch her every thought, her every memory, her every emotion. She felt—if it were possible—that someone or something was licking her soul, tasting her essence. An ephemeral tongue slid over the memory of her first kiss, lapped at her love for wildflowers, and rolled her confusion in tight, diminishing circles.
Maybe it’s God, Victoria thought. Maybe it’s the way God examines our virtues and our sins. Maybe this is heaven’s lobby and I’m just being poked and measured by God’s nurses while I wait for the actual appointment with my Creator.
Another part of Victoria, however, a part she could only imagine tasted sour or tart, construed the experience in a much different way. Four-letter words glided from that part of herself and the searching, tasting force dove at them greedily. She tried to stifle the words, tried to completely open herself to the ingress of the divine, but the harder she fought, the more forcefully the all-seeing papillae delved.
Had she been able to sweat, she would have been drenched. Had she been able to make noise, she would have screamed.
And then, as suddenly as it had been thrust upon her, the force retracted and vanished. A new pressure pushed at her back and drove her onward. Victoria had no time to reflect on the experience, no time to regain her composure, let alone consider whether it had been a violation or an honor. Instead, she continued forward, through the alabaster space. As she passed the innumerable empty eggshell seats, she caught what she believed were flashes of movement within. Yet, when she focused on any one particular chair, any one concavity, she saw no one reclining in its depths. The entire grand cathedral-facility appeared utterly vacant, devoid of anything except its alien ornamentation. But Victoria could sense the presence of other things—sentient things, intelligent things, things she was sure could see her perfectly well—within its structure.
Angels? she wondered. Other souls of the departed?
She didn’t contemplate the issue for very long. Instead, she ran through the litany of prayers she’d collected over the years and recited each one to the best of her ability, hoping that whatever was watching would recognize her righteous supplication and be pleased. The foundations of Heaven were, after all, built upon souls in full bow.
Victoria prayed for what may have been milliseconds or millennia—time in this bleached afterlife held no meaning or importance. She capped her geyser of praise only when the forces at her back finally abated, leaving her adrift in an ovoid clearing far beyond where she had arrived. Nestled within the monotonous forest of chairs, the space had no remarkable features save a series of elliptical designs carved into the floor. All dots and curlicued lines, they reminded Victoria of an exotic, antediluvian script or a musical score, gleaming with intent. She reached out to touch them, but, without hands or arms, she couldn’t experience the tactile sensations of their smooth grooves, their sinuous wrap. Instead, the closer she examined them, the more she felt some vague apprehension of their meaning, and she recoiled from it.
This isn’t right, she thought. I shouldn’t be afraid of Heaven. What’s wrong with me?
She focused on the designs again and a shadow translation formed in the nether reaches of her mind, as though some primeval substratum of herself had been molded by the language long before she had been born. COME AND BE EMPTIED, it said. GO AND BE FILLED. There was far more nuance in the etched symbols than the loose translation could provide, but the general sentiment remained the same: COME AND BE EMPTIED; GO AND BE FILLED.
Victoria tried to tie the phrase to one of the myriad spiritual teachings she’d studied for so many years, but none seemed to match with any exactitude. To varying degrees, they were all preoccupied with vacuity and fulfillment, creation and nothingness. It was a subject she now supposed she should have researched more thoroughly in lieu of her byzantine inquiries into the nature of “goodness” and “evil.”
No longer able to contemplate the alien inscription without an inexplicable, protean dread frosting the edges of her thoughts, Victoria turned away. She began to glide back toward the chair rows in hope that venturing in a straight line in any direction would lead to something or someplace more comprehensible. However, as she reached the boundary of the open space, she felt a new—or, perhaps, only more corporeal—presence bearing down upon her. She spun in circles but saw no one approaching from any direction.
Where’s my husband, my Daniel? she asked the blank dimensions that unfolded before her. Where are Mom and Dad and my big sister, Ruthie, and my little brother, Clint? Why aren’t they here to welcome me? Is Heaven really that busy?
As though in response, a hand wrapped itself about Victoria’s wavering spirit and squeezed. She looked to where she felt its gentle, oddly chilled cinch—an area that, in the body of before, may have been her waist but was now an arbitrary division between more or less frequently used thoughts and emotions—and froze.
Every faculty Victoria still possessed retreated inward upon itself, in an attempt to escape the hand that held her firm, for it was no hand, but a six-fingered, many-jointed monstrosity the same pale hue as the rest of the undead world. Each of the serpentine phalanges that gripped her tapered to a needle-thin point, as though she were in the caress of a swarm of animate syringes. Her composure rebounding, she dared to follow the “hand” upward, to an elongated, downy white tube, which led onto a disturbingly concave mass of doughy material that may have been some form of flesh or protoplasm. Atop the deflated bulk perched a smooth, featureless, oviform mound that oscillated left-right, left-right, keeping time to infinity.
It was this last—the mechanical motion, the being’s vacuous precision—that sent Victoria spinning. She struggled against her handler, lashing out at its chained fingers. She used the only brute force she was left with in this realm—her untapped will—to kick and bite and rake at the thing’s hand. But it didn’t budge or relax. It held Victoria in the same gentle, inescapable, embrace.
Without warning, the being began to ascend toward the ceiling, dragging Victoria with it. Though she apprehended no flapping of wings, and though no halo of fire or gold crowned the thing that cradled her, a blast of reflexive shame suddenly hit Victoria square in the face.
What if it’s an angel? she thought. I’ve just battered an angel. I’ve attacked the heavenly host. I’m not worthy to be here.
She turned her attention back upon the being’s perfectly polished, utterly inhuman, egg-like head and instantly reconsidered her position, shivering as she did so. It’s all wrong, she whispered in her soul. If this thing is an angel, God must be the essence of nightmares.
And so they continued to climb, Victoria unable to extricate herself from the being’s grasp and equally unable to reconcile her vast knowledge of spiritual teachings with her current situation.
Above, the ceiling began to take on more detail. Undifferentiated white planes resolved into a chaotic sprawl of sigils like those on the floor below. The entire ceiling spun in whorls and spirals of divine language. As with the writing on the floor, the foreign words that adorned the arched heights whipped vague meanings toward Victoria’s mind.
ALL CREATION SERVES.
DELIGHT IN THE HUNGER.
IN EVERY VESSEL, A CARGO.
IN EVERY LIFE, A SAVIOR.
ALL GLORY TO THE HOLLOW.
Victoria squeezed shut her windows of perception for fear that the seemingly infinite inundation of phrases would overtake her, flood her from within, and cause her mind—if not her soul—to rupture. She cocooned within herself, holding fast to those things she remembered—her husband’s warm, rough touch; her daughter’s lilting laughter; her pug’s jolly, rolling gait—while the words swept around her.
Although an effective strategy to protect against the information avalanche from above, Victoria’s willful blindness did nothing to halt her ascension. The ovoid-headed being continued its rise, paying no heed to Victoria’s distress and providing no explanation as to its purpose or goals. It levitated further toward the apex of Heaven, further toward a cylindrical aperture from which effused sallow, flaxen light. Victoria, having blocked her ethereal sensorium, did not see the multitudes of spidery, alien angels converging upon the glowing cleft. She did not see the ghostly forms—all shimmering shades of grey—that the angels carried with them. And she certainly did not see her own courier, flanked by the throngs of its counterparts, enter the crevasse and speed through an amber tunnel—a celestial urethra, Victoria would have called it had she dared to look—which led unto a deep, golden nothingness outside all things.
It was in this space beyond space, this lustrous absence, that Victoria finally allowed herself to further witness the afterlife, such as it was. Having felt the ascent end, she emerged from her psychic shell and perused her surroundings.
Her egg-headed handler still remained by her side, its inhuman phalanges lassoed about her already-forgotten ribs. But in this grip she was not alone. Both before and behind her stretched an interminable queue of angels and apparitions, all awash in a viscous, golden light that seemed a conscious entity in its own inexplicable way. The light undulated over, under, and around Victoria and her kindred dead. She thought of jellyfish. She thought of slugs. She thought of cells and cytoplasm and could not shake the feeling that she was, somehow, caught within a membrane of an unfathomably immense organ.
Crazy, isn’t it? an unfamiliar voice charged through her.
Victoria, shocked by the thoughts of another within the web of her own, sought out the source of the question. The apparition in front of her extended a smoky tendril and waved.
It’s not what I expected, the voice laughed, but how much time did any of us really spend thinking about the particulars of Heaven?
Victoria focused on the grayscale figure, but couldn’t discern any features beyond its obvious humanoid outline. She wondered if her appearance had been reduced to shadow, too.
I spent a great deal of time thinking about the afterlife, actually, her thoughts dashed loose. And in none of that time did I ever conceive of anything resembling this.
Are either of you scared? another voice—this one from behind—sneaked into her. Because I know I did a lot of things I shouldn’t have. I don’t even know how I got here. I don’t believe in God. Or Jesus. Or Buddha. Or Allah. Or any of that stuff. So I’m really worried about who might be waiting at the end of this line.
As long as you’re filled with love, everything will be fine, the first voice boomed.
The second voice, perhaps cowed, perhaps even more fearful, remained silent.
I don’t feel even the slightest tingle of love in this place, Victoria whispered, trying to shield the sentiment within herself. I don’t feel anything here, other than anxiety and emptiness.
Whether or not the first voice had heard her, it didn’t send any more errant communications her way. Conversation was clearly not at the top of anyone’s list of priorities so soon after dying.
In silence, then, Victoria floated along for an indefinite span of infinity, cradling her own worries, nursing her own hopes. As she and her guardian drifted ever forward, she indexed the files in her memory, seeking out some allusion to this heaven—if heaven it was. She delved through ancient Assyrian myths and Egyptian underworlds, reconsidered Chinese lore and Kabbalistic mysticism. She even dredged up a few murky strands of theosophist philosophy. But nowhere could she recall reference to a gleaming white hall or an expansive golden space—and that fact clawed, quite uncomfortably, within her.
To assuage her trepidation, she imagined that the queue ended at a set of pearlescent gates and a city carved from rainbows and diamond. She imagined intertwining her essence with her dear Daniel’s, letting herself merge with him as they had so naturally in life. She imagined rivers that ran with gleeful songs and libraries stacked with all the knowledge in the cosmos. Like most of the other souls in line, she imagined a Paradise built just for her.
But as her unearthly escort led her onward, that Paradise shrank away and was replaced by a glittering, funnel-shaped object on the horizon, hanging in midair. Even from a great distance, she could tell its dimensions were so massive that they strained every faculty of comprehension. A sense of hunger—the same unnamable hunger she’d felt bear down upon her when she’d arrived in the afterlife—pulsed from the behemoth cone. She paused, not wanting to approach any closer, and the angel-thing by her side tugged against her, driving her along.
What is that? she thought at the angel, fear and wonder rising in equal parts. What does it do?
The angel, its “head” still keeping steady, unflinching time, turned and seemed to regard Victoria as more than a mere burden to bear. It leaned close, but whether in conspiracy or menace Victoria couldn’t tell. Without warning, something akin to the sound of radio static burst through her mind; the volume of the static, the pressure, held the force of exploding stars and meteoric collisions. Though she had no mouth, Victoria cried out a word of empathy, a word of compassion, but it was entirely subsumed by the inscrutable noise.
Sure that she had reached the outer limits of sanity, Victoria went slack within herself and the static, in response, ebbed. The angel turned its attention back upon the queue. Weakly, Victoria again tugged against her guard, but the tensile strength of its coils was unyielding. Too dazed to struggle any further and too exhausted to maintain wonder or fear, she stared at the conical immensity in the distance and let herself be dragged into the order of its abstruse world.
As she was carried toward whatever destiny had been prepared for her, Victoria understood two things clearly: one, that her every scrap of remaining agency lay in her mental catalogue of experiences and emotions, and two, that all the spiritual knowledge in the world—and all the scientific knowledge, too, for that matter—could never have prepared her for this prescripted existence beyond the grave. Like all prisoners of circumstance and slaves to higher powers, she would have to seek freedom inside the borders of self—or go mad in the process. Thus, she plunged into her memories and attempted to evade eternity.
Her hands, so small. So pink. Heated by a flared summer sun. Those hands gripped a bouquet of wildflowers—dandelions, mostly—all tied up with grass.
Her father in his garden, always tending the literal fruits of his labors, his back arched, shirt dark with sweat as he stabbed at the earth. She skipped up behind him and tugged at his sleeve. He turned, welcomed her home with his smile. A word may have passed in the breeze.
She held out the dandelion bundle and, carefully, so as to not disturb the arrangement, he took it from her and stuck it in his left front pocket. He patted his floral pocket square and invited her to pick one of the new strawberries. She bent low, plucked a succulent gem from its vine and stuffed it into her mouth. As she chewed, sticky juice ran down her chin and her father laughed. She didn’t know whether the berry or the serenade of his laughter was sweeter.
Her knees, bloody. A flash of bone in the domain of flesh. Tears blotted her shirt, ran into her nose, her mouth. So salty, as though oceans churned inside her.
A ladder, toppled, beside her. She’d tried to climb to the roof of the house. She’d wanted to reach out her arms and touch a star.
Her mother pounced from the back door, hair whipping in the night wind, a lioness protecting her cub. She flew to her daughter and cradled her head. A kiss on the cheek. A finger, pointing into the darkness. Her mother’s voice, warmer than any blanket, naming constellations, telling stories of heroes and monsters and how they’d all ended up in the stars. She brought the sky closer than the ladder ever could have. She made the pain seem small in comparison to twinkling bowl above. And when the ambulance came, she kept telling stories and naming names, and even the bone, poking up through skin, seemed to bow down before the healing majesty of her mother’s tales.
Her neck, dancing in electricity. Every hair standing to applaud. Daniel’s fingers, so light against her jaw, so furtive in their touch. Her heart beat faster. She leaned in, wetted her lips.
Daniel drew close. She breathed him in. His scent, his essence, like crackling fireplaces on winter eves. He stammered a phrase, a hesitance borne of chivalry and inexperience, and she smiled wide, wide enough to tear the universe. She grabbed for him and whispered a tenderness that only he could hear. He took her, pressed her against himself, and kissed her. Her lips melted against his. She felt the weight of the world evaporate in the space between them. He rested a hand against the small of her back and she let herself be guided by it. When they broke apart, the daylight shined brighter, the breeze blew with new fragrance, and her body grew wings no one else could see. She laughed and he asked why, but the answer was too big, so she stuffed it all into a tiny capsule and rolled it off her tongue: “I love you.”
Their first kiss, then. The first of many kisses. The first of many “I love you”s. And every one remade her world for the better.
Her eyes, tired but insatiable. Pillars of books rose to her every side. She scanned a volume of Augustine and scribbled marginalia in a fresh copy of Eliade. She flipped pages and inhaled the musk of knowledge. She hugged a tome to her chest. Small. Forgotten. Disused. But her friend.
They were all her friends. She counted them by name, by number, each one a glory in its own way, each one a mentor. Beneath them all, her first book manuscript. Quiet. Thoughtful. A meditation on how good and evil could only be recognized through cause and effect. She considered her thesis and blushed. In Heaven and Hell, in places without time, good and evil could not exist. The divide was rendered meaningless. Her idea. Her big idea. She cradled it in plush sentences and sang to it in comforting prose. She bowed her head, her vision tracing the crenellations of the swaddling pages before her.
She marveled at the enormity of it all. So many universes between so many covers. So many lives between so many words. She rattled off a quick prayer for them all and, ink smudged and wrist cracking, began to write again. She hoped that, someday, if she wrote long enough and gracefully enough, she too might birth a book that would withstand age, a book in which she could live with her friends and loved ones forever.
The psychic pierce of screams pulled Victoria from her meditative zephyr. She returned to the afterlife in a panic, her gaze zipping and darting over the jaundiced emptiness.
She and her guardian were now close to the floating cone, so close that it utterly encompassed the entire background of her perception. Leading into the cone, she discerned angels forming two lines—one, a line of ingress, escorted misty souls to the top edge of the cone. Another line led away from the cone’s underside nadir. The angels in this second queue seemed to carry objects in their arachnid hands, but Victoria couldn’t make out what those small, diaphanous objects might be.
Inchoate howls and groans bubbled up from the cone’s lip and the cone, itself, anticipated the clamor. It pulsed and fluttered and undulated just before each new burst of noise. And it was this pulsing and fluttering and undulating, Victoria could now tell, that caused the cone to appear to shimmer from a distance. For, this near to the alien colossus, it resembled nothing so much as a necrotic, slime-slicked canine tooth.
Worse than the screams and the intensified vision of the cone, though, was the hunger. It boiled space, suffocated every sensation. It rolled over Victoria, spreading a need within her unlike anything she’d ever experienced. If all the loneliness and addiction and frustration in the cosmos were compacted into one tiny, siphoning sphere and then set at the center of Victoria’s every thought, her every feeling, so that no memory, no flicker of emotion, no musing of intellect could escape its pull, then that terrible ball might have begun to approximate the hollow density that roiled outward from the cone and took up residence within her.
Victoria refused to travel any nearer. Whatever the cone was—and she had terrible suspicions that some might call it God—she felt no need to meet it. She lashed out at the angel’s coils, pelting the faceless being with ephemeral punches and kicks, but her efforts produced only exhaustion. She was held fast, her course undeniable. In life, she had loved her fellow man and woman. In her relationships and in her teaching, she had tried to cultivate peace and camaraderie and healthy curiosity. Every night, she had prayed for divine mercy in six different languages. She’d even spent the year after Daniel passed living as an ascetic. If a serene, limitless Heaven shined somewhere on the limits of space or in the outré realms of extra dimensions, Victoria Valencia’s name should have been engraved on its guest list. All she had ever wanted was love, everlasting.
Yet, there, before her, floated the cone.
She latched onto her memories—her father, laughing in his garden; her mother, telling stories to the stars; her husband, refashioning joy with his mere touch; her scholarship, patiently waiting to be read—and squeezed them tight while her angelic warden carried her the rest of the way up the rise.
As they approached the top of the cone, the tremolo of howls and groans grew deafening, vibrating Victoria’s very essence. The cosmic hunger, too, gained talons and fangs and began to gnaw through every thread of her sanity.
The angel made one final push upward and the inscrutable journey was finally complete. Balanced on the cone’s rim, Victoria glanced down and lost all ability to reason. What lay beneath her, inside the concavity of the cone, was a thing that had no conception in human terms, let alone a name. To call it nothingness would have been trite; to call it absence would have been to miss its seething, conscious torment. The hunger here—the need to imbibe of everything, to seek completion by swallowing up the universe—shredded Victoria’s intelligence. Every logical thought was macerated and chewed up by the cone. Because her intelligence had been diced beyond recognition, Victoria had no language, no meaningful words to scream when the angel, its ovoid mound still counting down the seconds to never, released its grip and sent her hurtling into the abyss below.
Victoria—no longer Victoria in any real sense—fell fast and true and the cone, anticipating her arrival, quivered in recognition. The cone savored what remained of Victoria—her emotions and, more importantly, her memories. It hooked itself into her being and ripped her wide open. It sucked clean her happinesses and her terrors; it stripped her experiences from her frame and rolled them about inside its maw. It devoured its way through years of piety and cozy delight, licking Victoria clean, down to the first instant of her existence. And when it was finished, when it had consumed her father’s laugh, her mother’s stories, her husband’s touch, her life’s work, and every other morsel of experience that had constituted Victoria Valencia, it released her empty shell from its tip and another angel—perhaps the same as had dropped her from above—caught the intangible capsule that spurted from its monolithic point.
New cargo in tow, the angel drifted away from the cone, traveling back through the crevasse, back into the great white cathedral. Finding an open chair, it returned the outline of what had once been a person—a loving person, a person with great, if misplaced, faith in the rightness of the cosmic order—to the storage facility from whence it had come.
In time, the capsule would be sent back to the corporeal plane of reality. In time, it would be filled again. And, in time, another woman or another man would find herself or himself, confused and alone, on the precipice of the cone of Heaven and that person’s life, that person’s memories, that person’s hopes and dreams and fears, would be just another course in an inexhaustible buffet.
Kurt Fawver is a writer of the horrific and the weird. He has published or has forthcoming fiction in venues such as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Weird Tales, The Second Spectral Book of Horror Stories, and Strange Aeons. He has released one collection of short stories, Forever, in Pieces, through Villipede Publications. You can find Kurt online at http://kurtfawver1.blogspot.com/ or www.facebook.com/kfawver
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Story illustration by John Carlucci.