Death came as something of a shock to Benjamin Knox. A faint recollection of diagnosis and swift decline swam in his mind, the barely remembered distress of it fading like a dream as he tried to grasp each evaporating moment. Only when its substance fully slipped beyond reach did he notice the man.
A cavernous room stretched into the distance. Devoid of furniture except for two plastic chairs, its floor-to-ceiling windows and geometric carpet tiles suggested some kind of office. Next to the chairs stood the man.
Dressed in jeans, shirt and a sports jacket he looked like some ageing businessman, his grey hair almost white. Despite his maturity he exuded a vigour Knox associated with younger men. Walking toward the man, looking around the empty space, confusion gave way to curiosity, the unexpectedness of it making him wonder if he was hallucinating. If so, why conjure up this of all places? An empty office.
The man’s deep voice resonated through the spartan room with a timbre like that of a smoker. Although ten or fifteen years older than himself, he was the healthiest person Knox could imagine at that moment. The realisation prompted a glimmer of recognition as he considered how to respond. An almost-remembered thought of exhaustion surfaced in his mind contrasting with the apparent strength of the stranger.
‘What do you mean? What is this place? Who are you?’
‘That is three different questions, Ben.’
‘How do you know my name?’
The man gestured to the empty space. ‘Where do you think this place is?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What do you remember?’
Knox had to think. A mental image almost formed then slipped away. ‘I’m not sure. A hospital I think.’
‘No.’ The almost-memory lay just beyond his grasp. ‘I don’t know.’
‘That often happens.’
Knox searched the man’s face for a clue as to what he meant.
‘Am I dead?’ he asked, observing the empty office around them. Outside the windows a city sprawled into the distance, the cold light of a winter afternoon bleaching the concrete and glass into a colourless haze. Like the office, the city seemed abandoned as if it had never been used. ‘I mean, is this some kind of hallucination?’
The man stood, impassive, saying nothing.
Then Knox remembered, the fog beginning to clear.
‘You knew what I was thinking. So this is either a dream or…’
‘Or what, Ben?’
The question lingered in the silence. Outside the windows he could see the city, its static form seemingly dead, like an image. Nothing moved, and no noise filtered up from streets that must have been far below.
‘Am I dead?’ said Knox. The man remained impassive, unmoved by the question. ‘Is that it?’
The briefest flicker of recognition flashed in the man’s eyes, gone in a moment. But it was enough.
‘Jesus,’ said Knox. ‘I am dead.’
Recollection blossomed in his mind. The hospital. White machines. Or was it white uniforms? And nurses. It vanished quickly, like his earlier thoughts. He remembered noises too. Was that the machines?
‘Yes, Ben. You are dead.’
The deep voice drove through him like a punch. He instinctively stepped back, away from the man. ‘What do you mean?’
‘You asked. That is the answer.’
Knox didn’t know what to think, the calm expression on the stranger’s mature features unchanged.
‘So what does that make you? God? Is this heaven?’
The flicker appeared again, this time only briefly, as if the man were controlling his reactions.
‘You are God,’ said Knox. Despite the confusion of the place, the stranger, everything, it felt true. The involuntary acknowledgement in the older man’s eyes confirmed it.
He peered down at his hands and feet as if trying to find something solid in this place. The interlocking shapes of the patterned carpet reminded him of a puzzle, its detail resolving as he concentrated. The confusing repetition pulled him in, his mind drifting. ‘I’ve always believed.’
‘I know you believed,’ said the man. ‘You’ve always been a believer.’
‘Yes!’ said Knox, looking up. ‘Ever since I was a child. So many don’t believe, but I knew it was true.’
A rush of elation cleared his mind, the sense of relief welcome after the overwhelming confusion of the man and the office.
‘Indeed. You’ve always known. You’ve always had faith,’ said the man, taking a step closer. Standing right in front of him. ‘And that’s a problem.’
Knox thought he’d misheard. ‘What problem? What do you mean?’
The stranger didn’t answer, turning away as his hand swept around the empty room. ‘What do you think of the afterlife, Ben? Does it meet your expectations?’
Knox considered again the dreary office, devoid even of basic furniture or fittings. It sprawled away in every direction, one side dominated by the floor-to-ceiling windows emitting their cold light. In the distance, behind the man, he could see a solitary door, the only exit.
‘Well, I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, what is this? Is it heaven?’
That didn’t seem likely. But he struggled to take it all in after what the man had confirmed. God himself!
‘Would you be happy if it was, Ben?’
‘Well, it’s not quite what I expected if I’m honest.’
‘So I gather,’ said the man. ‘That is part of the problem.’
Before Knox could respond the stranger continued. ‘It is a construct. One you can easily understand. Were you an ancient Persian, for instance, it might be a garden, which would ironically be closer to what you imagine it should be. Equally, were you a lowly worker in the early days of the Industrial Revolution it might be a textile mill. I’m sure you get the idea.’
‘So what is this place really?’
‘A holding area. Somewhere we can talk.’
‘Before what?’ said Knox, his voice quavering. ‘Some kind of judgment?’
Mild amusement appeared on the man’s face, his only emotion so far. ‘It’s a little late for that, Ben. Think of this as a courtesy.’
‘So we have a chat then I’m sent to heaven or hell. Is that it?’
‘No, Ben. Not heaven or hell. You are being sent back.’
‘Sent back? What do you mean? Back where? I thought I was dead?’
‘You are dead. That is to say, you died. Shrugged off the mortal coil and all that.’
‘You mean I get another chance?’
‘Yes, but not in the sense you mean.’
‘I don’t understand,’ said Knox.
‘You are being sent back because despite living your life you haven’t lived at all.’
‘What do you mean I haven’t lived?’
‘Believers never do. Not fully.’
‘That doesn’t make any sense.’
’Think about your beliefs. What did you really believe?’
‘I believed in God. A God at least.’
‘Someone who created the heaven and the Earth? Someone who watched over you?’ The man’s face remained neutral, unmoved.
‘Yes,’ said Knox. ‘In a sense.’
‘Yet there was no evidence for such a belief. No proof. Why would you believe such a thing?’
‘Well I was right. Assuming you are God and this is not a hallucination of some sort.’
‘But how did you come to this conclusion, Ben? Was it through rational analysis? The very thing your superb brain is designed to do.’
Knox hesitated. What was he talking about? ‘I don’t know. Why does any of this matter? Why am I being sent back?’
‘Take the ancient Persians I mentioned,’ said the man, ignoring the question. ‘The pioneers of horticulture. Obsessed with the cultivation of plants. Any gardener wishes to see his plants flourish and grow. The ultimate goal for the gardener is to ensure his plants are independent and resilient. If you plant a seed and cultivate it over a long period you are disappointed when, in the end, it refuses to blossom, the key activity of plants. You would view them as failures.’
‘What does that mean? People aren’t plants. Our flourishing, if that is what you mean, is more than just our beliefs. Independence and resilience shows itself in other ways. Usefulness, for example. I was useful,’ said Knox. ‘At least I think I was. I can’t remember.’
Awareness slowly bled into his mind as he recalled fleeting moments from his life, struggling to retain them with any clarity. Only the sensations they triggered lingered behind. His work and his efforts, the knowledge and familiarity there but difficult to embrace, another life entirely. Behind it all lurked his faith, embedded in childhood, a vision of the church flickering before bleeding away with the rest. That’s all it was, a childhood thing long buried, but there all along.
‘You understand the point,’ said the man. ‘To realise your full potential requires the kind of rational thought you are designed to manage.’
‘I was rational. I mean, I am rational.’
‘Belief with no evidence is not a rational position to take, Ben.’
‘So what?’ said Knox. ‘Even though I was a believer I kept it to myself. I mean, I don’t think I even went to church. It was just there, at the back of my mind. It’s not like I was out there converting the heathens. It didn’t interfere in what I did. My usefulness. So it doesn’t make sense you’d punish someone because they didn’t reject something they were taught as a child. That’s absurd.’
‘You are missing the point, Ben. This is not punishment. Indeed your preoccupation with that aspect is itself one of the effects of the belief system you never quite got round to challenging.’
‘So what is the point? One part of my life wasn’t to your liking. What about the rest? Was that for nothing?’
‘Now you’re getting closer. You had a life, but did you really live?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Do you think your belief system could have limited your potential? Remember what I said about gardening. Gardeners want plants to reach their full expression and to blossom, otherwise why bother?’
‘How could a private belief make any difference? I kept it to myself as far as I can remember.’
‘Those kind of beliefs are the most limiting kind, Ben. The internal ones that shape how we think and perceive the world. All self-limiting beliefs are by nature internal and private, even if shared by many others.’
An abrupt vision overwhelmed him, fleeting like the others, his pulse quickening in response. Euphoria flared in his mind, lasting only a moment, giving way to unease. An impression of images, scenes and events swept past, quickly lost as he recoiled at the intensity of the sensation before it vanished.
Distressed by the unexpected onslaught Knox recognised it as the life he never lived, the life he could have had. As the revelation dissipated the understanding cut through him like a cold wind, leaving no trace except the echo of regret reverberating in his mind.
Quite forgetting the presence of the man and the empty office, Knox reeled at the emotional assault, his mouth dry as he lost focus, aghast at the unwanted epiphany. ‘What the hell? This is crazy.’
‘It is, Ben. A kind of mental illness.’
The unmoving expression on the man’s face conspired with the grim, harsh light to make him appear stern and menacing as he delivered his judgment.
‘But I didn’t have self-limiting beliefs.’
‘Well you believed in an afterlife.’
‘And I was right,’ he said, motioning to the empty office around them, exasperated by the absurdity of the situation. ‘I’m in it!’
‘But you imagined a glorious afterlife. A heaven.’
‘In a sense. Sure. So what? What’s wrong with that?’
‘Think about it. You believed the amazing life you actually lived was to be superseded after death by something even better. Given how few people ever come into existence, and the unlikely sequence of events required for you to exist at all, you took for granted all that you had for the promise of something better. That is what your belief gave you, Ben. Your actual existence was second-rate, to be replaced in the end. Don’t you think that might have affected what you did with your life, how you managed your opportunities to really live?’
Knox remained silent, unsure how to respond.
‘What we believe affects how we behave. This is true for everyone.’
‘It still seems like a harsh judgment.’
‘Is it? As harsh as the meek inheriting the Earth? Just slug it out and you’ll get your reward in heaven? As harsh as that? A life of low expectation. An entire, unique existence that achieved nothing of its potential. That really is harsh.’
‘I mean, fine. I get the point. A belief system and all that. Maybe I did occasionally think about some kind of heaven. But also a hell. It’s a two-way street. Some of those beliefs helped develop my sense of morality. Surely that cancels things out?’
‘Does it? Two wrongs don’t make a right. More to the point, you are thinking like a slave. Again I have to remind you of your impressive brain and its astonishing potential. The purpose of this little chat.’
‘A slave? What are you talking about?’
‘This heaven you imagined. It is bad enough to think you will get something better after life. But that something is to be provided by someone else. The responsibility to provide this better life is to be outsourced. The rejection of responsibility, Ben, is the hallmark of the slave. Only a slave really believes in an entitlement of that sort.
‘Such an expectation, a belief that something better will be provided for free simply because you exist, would make for very high-maintenance organisms. And what kind of gardener wants that? Except maybe high-maintenance fetishists like the bonsai people. Even then for them the bonsai tree is little more than a toy, attractive because of its smallness. It says more about the bonsai gardener than the bonsai tree.’
‘You are assuming a lot,’ said Knox. ‘And from a private belief someone holds. That is arrogant.’
‘Yet you worship God,’ said the man. ‘A God you imagine is paying attention to your mindless devotion. That sounds a lot more like arrogance to me. Logically, any omniscient being, as you imagine your God to be, is unlikely to choose personal worship as a method of interaction. Don’t you agree? A powerful being who insists on adulation is only worthy of contempt to the free thinking. Unless one is not a free thinker.’
‘So that’s it? I am sent back to mend my ways? For what, another year? Ten years?’
‘For another life.’
‘A new life? Wait, will I remember any of this?’
’No. You start again.’
‘What is the point of that?’
‘You have everything you need to manage to avoid this fate, Ben. The mental machinery, if you will. Perhaps next time you will make better choices.’
‘And what happens if I fail again?’
‘You get another go. You get as many as you need. Everyone does.’
‘How long have you being doing this?’ said Knox.
‘Forever. If it is any consolation most are sent back. Fewer now of course.’
‘But there are a lot of people who die all the time.’
‘Indeed,’ said the man. Still emotionless and calm, as if delivering a mundane report. ‘The population is rising.’
‘But how can that work? My parents are dead. They can’t have me again. Do I live the same life again?’
‘No. A fresh start. A brand new life. You will be born very shortly to live again. A soul transference thing.’
The dull office drifted from his attention as he tried to make sense of it all. He didn’t notice himself slip away. The whole idea bothered him beyond words. He had so much he needed to ask. It didn’t really add up. Would the man, God himself, keep going until everyone rejected belief in the very person who controlled all this?
He looked up in time to see the stranger fading, his intensity petering out even though he remained in front of Knox.
‘Wait,’ he said. ‘I have questions!’
But it was too late as the office dimmed, its substance dissipating.
’This doesn’t make any sense.’ His shout barely registered, as if dampened by some force. ‘This is crazy! What happens when no one is ever sent back?’
The man focused on him then, at the very end, faint and insubstantial as Knox strained to hear his voice. ‘By then none of you will need any God.’
✷ ✷ ✷
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Special thanks to Simon Smith, Crisyah and desertdemon.
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