This story is by Charles Parker and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The process of dying had been easier than Martin Stegnor had imagined.
There was, at first, that horrible downward pull, the same sickening feeling from his boyhood, when he had been dragged beneath the water by the undertow during the summer his family had vacationed at Sandbanks in Dorset. But after what felt like unbearable minutes (“although, really,” he told himself, “what is there to be afraid of anymore?”), he seemed to be drawn through an opening that was just slightly too small for his frame. And there he was, basking in a warm, bright light that somehow didn’t seem too intense.
“This seems a bit clichéd,” he thought, with some petulance. “Next, no doubt, I will be inundated by all the dear departed ones who I avoided so assiduously in life, when the layabouts were trying to tap me for some quick cash.” Although, without any money, he considered -– the phrase “you can’t take it with you” leapt, unbidden and unwelcome, to his mind -– perhaps, no one will show?
And, in fact, no one he knew did show. But as his eyes grew accustomed to the light, he did begin to make out images. He seemed to be in a large, sterile room, filled with lines of chairs, like the sort of government office that he used to dread going to to renew his driver’s permit every ten years. A large area behind the counter was filled with tables and filing cabinets, with a number of people sorting and filing paper. They were all dressed in what Martin would have called — with great derision — “business casual”; and which never seemed appropriate for any business that he knew.
Then he started to notice that there were also people on his side of the counter; but, with some sense of relief, no one he knew. A handful of people were seated, like himself, among the rows of chairs; and number of other people stood in a line on his far right, in front of a small, balding man stooped over an enormous, but somewhat haphazard stack of papers. As Martin’s gaze pivoted from the man to the line of people, he realized that everyone was naked. It was slightly jarring at first, but not nearly so jarring as realizing that he was also naked, which he had — thus far — not noticed.
Engaging in a cursory examination (it felt odd to be obviously inspecting one’s self in a public place), he noted, with some disappointment, that he appeared to have the same body that he had died in. Not that he was deeply disappointed; he had always been comfortable with his body (rather too comfortable Penny used to suggest). But he had been intending to drop ten pounds, and now… Could he still do that, he wondered?
Looking back at the waiting line, Martin recalled his experience accidentally walking onto a nudist beach in France, and his overwhelming chagrin at how profoundly uninteresting it was; not nearly as titillating as the airbrushed nude photos in which he had occasionally indulged. In the vast majority of cases, apparently, the human body really did benefit from clothing.
Without any clear direction, Martin joined the queue in front of the small, balding man, relieved to discover that everyone there seemed as lost as he was. There was an air of restrained anticipation, and he caught snippets of hushed conversation. “What do you think will happen…?” “Why is there a wait…?” As the line edged slowly forward, Martin could see each person exchange words with the man, while he would page through his sheaf of papers. One by one, he would pause for a moment, and then wave the person through with a smile.
Once through, Martin could see the people walk down a narrow hallway the to man’s left. The taupe of the walls was so uniform, that Martin had not noticed the hall until he had got in line. Craning his neck, Martin saw that it ended in a drab door. But as each person opened the door, Martin caught a glimpse of a glorious garden beyond, filled with color and sunlight, and — maybe — the distant sound of birds singing.
On seeing this, Martin breathed a sigh of relief. He had always had a deep fondness for gardens; “love” was probably too strong a word. They were the one place where he could breathe a little more deeply. So whenever someone new walked down the hallway, Martin would step slightly out of line to watch again.
As Martin got close enough to the balding man, he could hear the exchanges.
“Pullbrough…Pullbrough… Could you spell that for me, please?”
“Ah, yes, two l’s; here we are. Everything seems in order. Welcome!”
“Oh, dear. From where?”
“Pennsylvania or the UK?”
“There you are; fine, fine. Everything is in order. Welcome!”
Eventually, Martin got to the front.
“Really? Any relation to the author?”
“No,” Martin answered, more brusquely than perhaps strictly necessary. But in fairness, he had spent his life answering this question, and he might have hoped to have been given some respite after death.
“Fine, fine,” the man said, paging through his sheaf of papers.
Conscious that he may have been too sharp, and aware that it was important to keep bureaucrats appeased, Martin asked, “Are you Saint Peter?”
“No, no,” the man laughed good-naturedly. “Just one of the staff. Hmmm,” he said softly. “It seems that we’re missing a piece of your file. Nothing serious. If you could take a seat for a moment, we’ll get you straightened out.”
Somewhat unwillingly, loathe to leave his place in line, Martin sat among the people in the rows of seats. It was cold and uncomfortable — even worse when he leaned back — but there seemed little to be done. Patience was not Martin’s primary gift. Scanning the room, he noticed a man sitting in one corner who smiled at him somewhat more enthusiastically than Martin was entirely comfortable with. He quickly looked down.
After sitting for what seemed far too long, and watching several dozen people get waved through, Martin approached the front counter. Clearing his throat, he caught the attention of a youngish looking woman at a desk.
“Yes, Sir?” she said approaching the counter, which had seen a lot of wear.
In his most polite and respectful voice (the one that nameless bureaucrats always responded well to), Martin said, “I was wondering if there is anything I can provide that would be helpful in completing my file? The name is Stegnor.”
“Let me check for you,” she said cheerfully, disappearing out a side door. Martin stood there as long as seemed appropriate for a naked man to be waiting expectantly for a youngish woman and then sat in the front row, so that he would be easily seen when the she returned.
After what seemed an absurdly long time, the woman returned carrying a pile of manila folders. She walked to her desk, and set them down, after which she sat down herself. Martin had been in enough government offices to know that it was important not to antagonize the workers needlessly, so he remained seated long enough that it felt physically painful.
Finally, he arose and ambled, with studied nonchalance, to the counter. “Excuse me, Miss?” he offered, fairly exuding patience and understanding. He saw her tighten her shoulders briefly before taking a breath and turning to him.
Approaching the counter, she volunteered, “I’m sorry, sir, the problem is on our end. We seem to be missing a Form 3078-C from your file. I’m sure that’s it’s been filled out and is just misplaced.”
“Can’t we just fill out another,” pleaded Martin. The youngish woman sighed and rolled her eyes (but only slightly.)
“No, I’m sorry, Sir. There’s only only form per applicant. They are generated automatically upon,… upon…”
“…upon death,” interrupted Martin. “I get it; no need for meaningless euphemisms. But there must be something we can do. Perhaps it has fallen off a desk? Slipped behind a file cabinet? Can I come back there and help you look?”
“Absolutely not!” said the youngish woman, starting to get that brittle feeling that insecure people often seemed to get when pushed by a personality as forceful as Martin knew his to be. “We have highly confidential material in these folders!”
“But I’m sure I could be helpful in some way,” Martin insisted.
“You could be most helpful by taking a seat, Sir,” she commanded, her voice rising.
“This is inconceivable!” Martin roared in his most outraged voice, the one that he used when he was ready to see someone’s immediate supervisor. “It is nothing short of hellish!” he continued. There was the briefest flash of a smile on the lips of the youngish woman, so fleeting that most people would have missed it. But Martin didn’t. And then he knew; it would be a long wait.