BY DAVID MOORES
This story is a sequel to “The Pitch.” Copyright is held by the author.
MARK WILLIAMS felt, saw and heard nothing when he blew himself up. The shockwave from the expanding ball of incandescent gas moved faster than his nerve impulses, and his brain was insensate anyway, blown vertically upwards still encased in his head, which in due course returned to earth with a thump and bounced around like a grisly soccer ball.
Shocked beyond belief, Mark did not at first realize what he’d done. His plan had been to detonate 10 kilos of plastic explosive at the executive council meeting of Eastern Telecom and take the jerks with him. Matters, obviously, had turned out differently. Here he was in the parking lot, surrounded by a burning cars and some sort of mess that included fragments of raw meat the size you’d chop for a stir-fry.
“Easy, buddy,” something said. “That wasn’t the smartest way to check out. Let’s get on over to that bench before the crowds arrive, and you can chill, while I explain a couple of things.”
Mark looked down at himself. He was still wearing the black suit he’d put on this morning. He raised a hand. It was the same hand that had carried the briefcase holding the bomb into the meeting not half an hour ago.
He felt numb and detached, and a walk over to the bench at the edge of the parking lot was about all he could manage. And some explanations would definitely be helpful.
He sat. The voice came again, close to his ear.
“Damn, you made a real mess of that nice Audi, and that Mustang’s going to pop its gas tank any second. Whoa, there she goes! Pleased with yourself? Man, you shit the bed today, that’s for sure.”
Bit by bit, Mark was recovering his composure. He was not in pain, no injuries, mind clearing, albeit very, very puzzled. There was nobody beside him on the bench.
“Who the hell are you?” he said, though he had a sneaking suspicion.
“Aw c’mon Mark, you’re smart, how many guesses do you need?”
“You’re not . . . God, are you?”
“Hole in one, pal! I knew you weren’t dumb. Mind you, pretty senseless to go and blow yourself away like that. Maybe I should revise my assessment.”
People were pouring out of the HQ building to view the results of the explosion, and a couple of red-faced security guards were trying in vain to corral them. The horn of a fire truck, and police sirens, could be heard approaching.
Mark thought he’d better make himself scarce.
“Don’t worry, they can’t see you. You can’t see me, can you? Well then.”
“You don’t sound much like God.”
“Excuse me? Now you’re going to tell me how I’m s’posed to sound? Think I oughta sound like Morgan Freeman? I get that a lot. Tough shit Mark. Nice old ladies who die peacefully in their beds get Morgan Freeman. You get me. I come in many flavours. Deal with it.”
Mark said nothing.
“OK, time to establish the framework we’re working with here. You good at outside-the-box thinking? Sure you are. So — number one thing: yes, you are indeed dead. You probably figured that. Number two thing, as evidenced by my presence here: yes I do exist and I am not a figment of your imagination. How can you be sure? You know who won the Raptors Game last night? No? Well I do. The Heat: 102 to 97, LeBron James scored last. Check it out. No, I mean now. Your phone still works, along with your watch. Go on.”
Mark considered this. I could still be dreaming this whole thing he thought, but it would have to be the most amazingly big-screen HD dream I ever had. Go with it. He pulled out his smartphone — as ‘Chief Nerd’ at Eastern Tel, he naturally had the biggest and best one out there — and checked last night’s score. Yep, Miami Heat by 102-97.
“Shall I continue?”
“Number three thing: you have what religious people call an immortal soul, in fact that’s what I’m speaking to: you, here, now.”
At this point, Mark, who had been getting distressed about his situation, began instead to be intrigued, fascinated even. He wanted to take a more active part in this bizarre discussion. He had questions.
“So God, if that’s what I’m supposed to call you, what’s the go-forward plan here? What happens to me now? Is there a Heaven?”
“Hold on, buddy, yes there is but there’s other stuff to deal with first. Next thing you need to get your mind around is you’re not going anywhere right now. You’re sticking around. Notice how you’re sitting on this bench and not falling through it?” Notice how you still have your nice suit on and your phone works fine?”
“That’s because you’re in transit, on probation, call it what you want. You can have limited interaction with the physical world, but anything living you’ll have no interaction with. You can pass clean through the trunk of that tree over there, and you can stroll down the street and people will walk right through you. Get it? You don’t need to eat but you can sleep. You can go home, take a nap, and part of my job is to ensure nobody sees anything like your door opening or other minor signs of your presence. But I warn you . . .” The tone in God’s voice caused the hair on Mark’s disembodied arms to rise. “. . . If you try to get cute and write messages to the living, or do something stupid like building another bomb, it will be very bad for you, capiche?”
Mark sought a quick change of subject. “There must be a lot of others like me around?”
“Yes but you won’t encounter them. Last thing I need is a bunch of you ganging up and forming a union or something.”
“So I’m like, on probation, like Purgatory?”
“You got it pal, and it takes as long as it takes. Then you can come join me in Eternity, about which I can tell you only that it’s nothing like anything you can imagine. And get this: I know your every thought and emotion. Right now you don’t like me much but you’re glad I’m here, right? Don’t bother answering.”
“So what do I have to do? You just said I can’t go doing good deeds, helping old people cross the road, whatever.”
“Nope, you just have to wait it out and learn. How you spend the time is up to you. Spend it wisely. When I see wisdom and repentance, you’re in. But I gotta tell you, suicide, which you were intending anyway, needs a bunch of repentance my friend.”
“So I just have to, like, hang around like a lost soul?”
“Exactly, and it ain’t fun and ain’t meant to be. See ya.”
“Wait, what if I want to contact you?”
“Just speak up, I’ll hear, and I will answer. Some people call it praying. Ever tried it? Bye for now.”
In the weeks and months that followed, Mark began by wandering the local streets and bars, but stifling boredom soon drove him further afield. He discovered that he could get himself to Pearson Airport, through security and on a plane, no problem.
His apartment closed, his possessions shared among relatives or sold, he was truly lonely and travel helped. Then one day he wished he were on a beach in Bali, and he was there! He didn’t need a plane. He could wish himself somewhere and there he’d be. Amazing!
He travelled the world and not just the garden spots. He went to Afghanistan, Syria, and failed states cursed with corruption, superstition, cruelty, and downright evil such as he had never encountered. And although this broke his heart as a soft, western-raised executive manager, he could feel it gradually toughening him, and breeding certain convictions, and a certain resolve. But never did he consider breaking God’s injunction not to interfere.
He took to lurking. Had he been able to trade, he could have made millions on the markets and he could have blown the whistle on dirty dealings behind closed doors, in the worlds of business and politics both.
After a year, Mark felt that it was time for a little chat with God, whose image had not been enhanced by what he had seen.
“Hi Buddy, you’ve been quiet, and now we’ve made contact I sense you have some issues. Been on your travels, I note. What’s on your mind?”
You know bloody well what’s on my mind, Mark thought, but let’s have it out.
“God, my issue is that you made this world and it’s a sorry piece of work. Kids starving, people blown up — yes I know, let’s not go there — disease, grief, repression, suffering all over. Why are you not ashamed of yourself? Aren’t you supposed to be all good and all powerful? You’re a fraud!”
“My friend, I get asked that a lot.”
No, really? Mark thought.
“This is a two-valued universe: binary zero and one — as an IT guy you’d know about that — black-white, happy-sad, ugly-beautiful, matter-antimatter, is-is not, and therefore: good and evil. Can’t have one without the other, pal. Even I can’t change that, sorry but there it is.”
“No God, I’m the one that’s sorry. Guess I’m not ready for Eternity just yet, bye.”
Came the day that Mark was lurking at his brother’s place. They had never been close but Mark was curious and felt like family company, even detached as it had to be with himself the silent observer.
Not a happy scene. Tears and sorrow. Mark’s five-year-old nephew Brandon was in the hospital. Cancer. Nothing specific was said but it sounded hopeless.
Mark had seen it all by now and he didn’t hesitate, got himself to Sick Kids, found Brandon’s room and lurked some more. He listened to the docs and nurses, watched what they did, saw how they were administering painkillers because that was all that could be done. No point in talking to God about it. Been there and done that.
The next night he lurked again when the nurses, heroes he thought, how do they do it, were away for a few minutes. He approached Brandon’s bed. The kid was awake, grey-faced, shrunken, obviously suffering despite medication. All the soft toys, and there were dozens, couldn’t help. He touched Brandon’s hand and the boy looked up at him.
“Uncle Markey.” He can see me, Mark realized in a moment of intense joy?Sadness? He didn’t know.
“How’s it goin’ big guy?”
“I hurt, Uncle Markey.” The poor kid looked so defeated and forlorn and Mark knew what he was going to do. Watching the treatments had made it clear.
God’s voice in his ear. “Remember what I told you. Don’t interfere with the living.”
“God, get lost. He can see me and hear me, that’s interference already. I’ll take the consequences, whatever they are. I’ve seen enough of your two-valued bullshit Universe. Either stop me or piss off and pester somebody else.”
Mark turned the volume on the heart monitor alarm way down, grasped the feed on the painkiller drip and opened it wide. “G’night Brandon, sleep well, I’ll stay for bit ‘til you doze off.” He squeezed the small hand and the kid gave a weak smile. The eyes closed.
It only took a couple of minutes. The trace on the monitor flat-lined and Mark turned the drip way down again, no point in getting some nurse in trouble. Then he turned the alarm’s volume back up and walked out, with a sad heart.
He rode the elevator down and took the exit to Elizabeth Street. Frost on the sidewalk. Quiet at 3 am, a few clubbers laughing and staggering homeward.
The sound of a high-performance engine blipping down through the gears drew close. A black Maserati executed an illegal U-turn, tires protesting, and scorched to a stop beside Mark. A cool-looking dude, fashionably bearded and unkempt, was at the wheel. Mark knew, without having to think, that it was God, fully visible for once. The passenger door opened. Now comes the retribution he thought. I’m ready. Bring it on.
“All aboard pal, c’mon it’s cold out there!”
Mark complied. He didn’t bother with the seat-belt, kind of redundant at this point. Here it comes, he thought.
“So, ready to go see your nephew?”
God reached into a bin on the console and handed Mark a plastic pass card with his picture. On the front it read: “Eternity: Mark Williams, Unrestricted Access.”
“Mark, one of the great things about being all-powerful is that I can break my own rules for special cases. What you’ve said and done tonight have been an eye-opener. I’m going to make some changes. Wanna help? Do up that seatbelt and hang on.”