Heaven, if this was Heaven, wasn’t anything like Francis had expected. There were no clouds. There was no shining, golden light. And the only creatures that could be counted as angels floated silently to his side, their mechanical heads down in what he could only assume was prayer. And before him stretched what he could only conceive as the very definition of the word ‘infinity’: a confusing and awe inspiring mess of dark and light, of matter and space, superimposed with the light of a billion blazing suns shining like pinpricks through the blind eternities.
Francis shivered. Or, at least, he thought he did, because when he actually turned his attention inward rather than outward it came as a sudden shock to realize his body didn’t exist, and all of his being was nothing more than a thought that had given itself a name, an identity. And that name was Francis Godfrey.
“Where am I?”
His voice, a silent wail through the space between seconds. Not sound, but emotion and thought. The deepest parts of himself revealed through the confused cry of a single question. It almost hurt, if he could feel pain. It almost hurt to hear himself so clearly, and in that moment, he imagined he cried, because the deepest parts of him burned like fire upon his scarred soul. Francis was scared. Not of this place, but of himself.
Do not cry, little one.
This voice was like his, spoken with intent and emotion and as clear as a bell in the darkest part of winter. And it spoke with so much love, with so much good will and kindness, that this time Francis cried not out of fear but out of desperate joy, that something in the Universe would expend this much feeling on him and him alone.
You met your end rather soon, didn’t you?
The voice came from everywhere at once, from beyond the farthest stars and from deep down inside himself. Confused, Francis turned his gaze everywhere he could, but the only beings who made themselves known were the silent angels of steel and wire that kept up their quiet sentinel to his sides.
“What do you mean?” he asked in return. There came a gentle, kind laugh, and it sounded like leaves rustling in the wind and water playing at the rocks. Like the soft things in forests that chitter and speak when no one is around.
Dear Francis, it whispered, and this time the voice came as an ocean breeze that filled his mind with visions of the sea. You’ve died.
It took a moment for the casual finality of those words to sink in. It wasn’t as though Francis held any misconceptions of being alive anymore. He could, barely, remember pain. The darkness. He could remember, vaguely, the unkind voices of those who had killed him, arguing over something he couldn’t make out. He could remember the way time had seemed to slow down to a near crawl, to a point where every heartbeat lasted a small eternity all its own, until even the rhythmical drumbeat of his own heart gradually slowed and stopped.
And now this. The afterlife? Heaven? Or was he somewhere and sometime else entirely? Though he didn’t speak, his emotions welled up within him and spread from the centre of his being in an aura of distress and fear. This was too final. He still had a family, had friends. Francis still had so many people in his life that needed his help. He couldn’t be dead, not now.
This was too soon.
Hush, little one. Don’t be afraid. Death comes for all, in time.
It felt like a pair of arms had taken hold of his soul and embraced him in a warm hug, and he broke down.
“What will they do without me?” he cried. “My friends, my family. They must be so scared and alone. I should be there with them, not… Wherever here is! Where am I?!”
You are a child of the Universe, and you have come Home.
“Is this Heaven…?”
It can be, if that’s what you want to call it.
“..Are. Are you… God?”
I can be.
Francis looked around once more, but everything was the same and it left him feeling even more confused than he had been earlier. He felt as though the universe had pulled a great cosmic joke on him, as though this was all a giant ruse and somewhere, he was in reality fast asleep, dreaming strange dreams where he had died and gone to Heaven. He desperately hoped he would awake soon.
His thoughts were met with more gentle, sad laughter.
No, Francis. You’re dead. That’s all there is to it.
“But I don’t deserve to be dead!” Francis yelled, and anger coloured his thoughts a shade of ruddy, poisonous red.
You don’t, the voice agreed. Its quiet acquiescence fueled his anger, his indignation that he was here, dead, when he still had so much more life to live. Francis’ emotions were a tornado of extremes and he made no effort to hold them back as they switched rapid fire between love and hate and anger and fear, between every imaginable emotion he didn’t even know he could feel and everything in between.
“I should be back there. I should be home! I should be with my friends and family, not for my sake, but for theirs. They don’t deserve to be alone. They can’t be alone. I need to help them. Please. I need to help them. I need… They need me…”
His anger left just as suddenly as it had come and left Francis feeling tired and drained, like there was a hole somewhere inside him, and all he could do now was beg and whine quietly for a chance to be back on Earth. For a chance to love his family and friends again. For he had left their lives so quickly, and it pained him to know they were alone and grieving in his absence.
…You have a lot of love inside you, the voice said quietly. Francis cried quiet tears, and as he watched they glittered in the void like captured stars.
“I really am dead, aren’t I?” he asked. The voice uttered a quiet yes and became silent. And together, in silence, he and the voice, the being who spoke to him through the fabric of reality, watched the sea of stars. They watched, and they listened to the silent song of the universe, and Francis slowly came to terms with his death. He didn’t know how much time had passed when the stars slowly began to move and form together before him, changing and morphing in a way that should have filled him with fear but didn’t, until the strangely familiar face of an alien creature finally stared back at him.
Hello, Francis, it said in its voiceless voice. As if on cue, the creatures to either side finally stirred to life and bowed to their master, flaring their steel wings in a show of devotion. Again, there came that warm hug, that warmed the deepest part of his soul and left him feeling very, very content.
Don’t be scared now. You’re going home.
Before Francis could ask he was suddenly whisked away. The stars melted into darkness and that kind alien face disappeared with them. Everything around him dissolved into nothingness, and he cried, because he was still so very, terribly scared.
Don’t be scared.
But he couldn’t help but be so.
You’re going home.
“But I thought I was home…”
And only when the darkness became so dark he could feel it closing in like a living thing, did he suddenly awake to--
--Rain. Dismal, cold rain. Francis took a sudden deep, shuddering breath, having forgotten what it was like to be alive once more. Something ticked and clicked like an old machine and when he breathed it sounded like the clitter clatter of a broken toy. He let out a sob and shambled to his feet, losing his balance time and again until the grass held firm underneath and he stumbled only a little.
He opened his mouth to speak and issued forth a burst of steam and a harsh gyrating cry instead. If he was indeed alive, this wasn’t what he had been expecting at all. Where was the inner warmth of flesh and blood? Where was the beating of his heart? Where was the comforting skin to cover his skeletal steel hands? He fell back down to his knees and brought a hand to his head, distraught when it produced a hollow clang.
“What am I?” he cried, and his voice was a hiss of steam and the dull clank of gears, the voice of industry. Soft, wet grass that should have tickled his skin went unfelt instead. He dug his hands into the soggy ground and tried so hard to cry, but even that didn’t happen. So he screwed his eyes shut as the pain of life washed over him.
“I’m alive!” he yelled, climbing to his feet once more. For a moment it filled him with giddy ecstasy: he could walk again. He spread his arms to the sky and looked up, into the ashen gray of the clouds above. “What did you do to me? you said I was going home again!”
There was no response. If he had been hoping for godly intervention, nothing came. The sky remained destitute and miserable and the rain continued to fall without pause, and it only succeeded in making Francis feel worse.
“Where are you?!”
He was alone.
And, alone, he slumped back down to the ground, leaned against a tree, and let the rain cry for him. In the middle of a wet forest, he closed his eyes, and let the rain lull into light, fitful sleep. And he dreamed, that perhaps, he was a man again, and that when he cried the tears were warm and his own.