This story is by Carlene Griffith and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Tony patted at his chest and suddenly realized he was not on the cold concrete bleeding out any longer but in a quiet darkened room with a flashing neon sign that read WAITING ROOM. The wound was gone. His limbs were light, and he moved with a fluidity he’d never experienced before. The sensation tickled, and he laughed out loud.
A movement drew his attention to others around him.
Mr. Mir, the convenience store owner, was chanting softly in the act of prayer. Tony had seen him pray many times through the window, waiting for the store to reopen.
Across from Mr. Mir was Rachel, the teenage girl he had just sold dope to. When she started over-dosing, he bolted for help, but then he got shot. She nervously paced the room.
The lady cop, Officer Williams, a first responder on the scene, was seated against the wall. She had stood over him, trying to stop the bleeding. She gave him a half-smile.
He recalled her words, “Hold on. It’s going to be alright!”
“Where are we?” he finally asked out loud.
“You’re dead!” came a gruff voice from the corner. Tony recognized the man at once as Old Tom, the homeless veteran from the alley.
“What do you mean we’re dead?” asked the girl, nervously.
“We died as in…” he brought both his hands around his neck in a strangle motion and stuck out his tongue. “you know… It’s over!”
Suddenly the girl lost it. “No, No, No! I can’t be dead. I’m only 16. No, I can’t be dead. Nooo!” she cried. Officer Williams crossed over and put her arms around Rachel.
“It’s going to be alright! Don’t worry,” she said.
Tony was confused. “What do you mean it’s going to be alright, lady! You said that before and now look, we’re all dead. What happened?”
Finally, Mr. Mir stopped praying and looked up. “Tony? You know it’s true. Someone in that passing car shot you. I came out of the store to see what happened. Then they shot Officer Williams and me.”
He remembered; he didn’t want to believe it. He just needed to hear it from someone else. Tony closed his eyes and shook his head.
“I wasn’t shot!” shouted the girl who suddenly sprang up and got in Tony’s face. “You killed me! You did this to me.” Tony didn’t understand. He hadn’t killed anyone.
“Girl, what are you talking about? I didn’t do nothing to you.” He pushed her away from him. “Man, you’re crazy!”
“No, the dope, you gave me. It killed me,” Rachel shouted. Officer Williams instinctively pulled her back from him.
“Sweetie, you took the dope. He didn’t make you use it.” Officer Williams looked at Tony smugly, “But you didn’t have to sell it to her, you know.”
“Lady, don’t judge me! You don’t know nothing about me.” He turned to Rachel, “But girl, she’s right! You didn’t have to use it. Man, I didn’t kill you. You killed yourself.” The look in Rachels’ eyes stung deep into his chest. He turned away looking for an exit, but there wasn’t one. There was no escaping the waiting room.
The room was small, maybe 16 by 16 feet wide; all white, wall to wall with seats lined up against them. Tony slumped down into one of the chairs expecting it to be hard and cold to the touch, but when he sat down, it cradled his body like a down pillow. Somehow it released all his tensions.
He knew Officer Williams was right. He didn’t have to sell Rachel the dope. He knew that batch was bad.
Why did I do it?
His mother would be so ashamed of him. He didn’t want to do it, but that was the only dope he had left. That girl was waving money in his face, and all he could think of was that he needed it. He shouldn’t have sold it. But, there were so many bills, and his job at the garage didn’t pay enough. He had Gina and the kids to provide for. He thought about going to mechanic’s school so he could provide like a real man, but he never did. He hung his head.
Oh, Gina! What will you do now?
“It’s too late for regrets, kiddo!” spoke up Old Tom. “I killed a lot of people. Didn’t want too. I was drafted and made into a killer. I will have to face that. Just like you all are going to have to face whatever you did or didn’t do in your life.”
“I’m saved! Praise Jesus.” sang Officer Williams.
“Jesus is your God.” said Mr. Mir, “Allah is mine!”
“Same difference! You’ll see.” She whipped back. Mr. Mir snorted and shook his head at her arrogance.
“We will all see very soon, won’t we?” said Old Tom. They all looked at the old man in shock. As the reality of the situation settled in one by one, they all sat, and the room grew very silent.
Tony’s mind wandered. He was raised Catholic, and his mother made sure he went to church, but he didn’t understand it. He hadn’t been back since her funeral. He looked around the room, and it was apparent they all believed differently. Rachel paced the room, chewing on a charm necklace with the Star of David symbol, Mr. Mir bowed in prayer on the floor, and Officer Williams praised Jesus with arms raised in the air. The old man suggested they’d be judged. Most religions taught that. He wondered what that meant for him.
Catholics believed in purgatory. Would he go there for dealing drugs and stealing? His mind racked with torment from images of being pulled apart limb by limb and his flesh burning from fire and brimstone as he thought of all his crimes. But then he thought of what he had done right. How he had loved his family and how he had always put them first. Would that be enough to keep him from hell? Or was there a hell? Was this hell or heaven or just a waiting room? Never-the-less they had all just died and were all there together. The old man was right. They would all see soon enough.
Rachel started to cry. “I had an abortion,” she mumbled. They all looked at each other, not knowing what to say. “I was 13; I was raped. I couldn’t have it.” She cried.
Tony felt sad for her. He didn’t know what that meant for her. He cringed as he saw how much pain she was in. Officer Williams went over and sat next to Rachel.
“I had an affair,” she said. “That’s why I’m divorced. We all have things we’re not proud of sweetie.” Rachel seemed to calm down. Tony was glad she said something. She was kind.
He could see that everyone was already silently judging themselves. He didn’t feel the need to judge them too. Mr. Mir sat quietly in the corner. He remembered him as a good man.
“Mr. Mir, you were kind to me. You always let me off when I didn’t have enough money for my food. I just want you to know that I’m thankful for that,” said Tony. Mr. Mir smiled at him.
Tony looked over at Officer Williams and Rachel, “Officer, you tried to help me. I’m sorry. You’re right; I shouldn’t have sold drugs. I’m so sorry. You’re all dead because of me.”
“I’m not!” said Old Tom. He suddenly stood up and as he did his rags fell to the floor, and his countenance changed from an old worn man to an angelic being, filling the darkened room with a warm glow.
Mr. Mir fell to his knees and bowed before him. Rachel cowered covering her face. Officer Williams stood with a wide grin as tears ran down her cheeks.
Tony couldn’t believe his eyes. The man he knew to be a vet wasn’t human at all but a supernatural being. “What…who are you?”
“I am known by many names!” said Old Tom. “The Grim Reaper, Angel of Death, Charon the ferryman, Anubis of the Egyptians, Shiva by the Hindu, Shinigami by the Japanese and to the unbeliever I am a surprise. Those are a few of the names I am called. I am whatever name Man gives me. To you four, I am your friend, Tom. A comforter to you as you wait until it’s time.
“Time for what? Where are we going?” asked Rachel.
“It is not for me to decide. It is my call to only bring you to the bar,” answered Tom.
“To judgment,” said Mr. Mir softly.
“But for now, you wait, and I will comfort you,” said Tom as he opened his arms wide and a peaceful feeling washed over them.
Tony suddenly realized Officer Williams was right. Everything was going to be okay.