Some of you will note that I often write about religion, despite not being a religious sort myself. The whole thing does fascinate me, though: hence, this prompt.

Trial at the Gateway.

Your lead character is freshly dead, and is at the gates of…whatever positive afterlife you feel like writing about. However, there is a trial at the gateway that must be passed in order to earn admission.

Joseph Rakstad, The Hidden Legends of Temple Grandin

“John Felderman. Look, I only cheated the one time, I swear. And I…”
“Yeah, but you thought about it six hundred and eighty-nine times. Not to mention you dishonored your mother one hundred and eighty times, you took the Lord’s name in vain twenty-thousand seven hundred and thirty-three times. You also…”
“Okay, I get it. I did bad things. But I also did good things! I gave to charity every year. And I put money in the offering plate every time I went to church.”
“Every other Christmas and nine Easters, sure, but that doesn’t cover all the other stuff.”
“I did a mission trip when I was 19!”
“To impress a girl.”
“I still did the work.”
“True, but I’m sorry, I still can’t let you in.”
“What do I gotta do?”
“Well, you know what you have to do. It was made very plain to you.”
“What? Believe in Jesus? Is that really all?”
“Well, let me put it this way, what was your relationship with Jesus.”
“Uh… I don’t know. Like I said, I went to church every once in a while.”
“Did you ever pray to Him?”
“Once, when my father died. I think I may have prayed once in college just before a test.”
“Do you even want to be with Jesus?”
“Do you want to be with Jesus?”
“Well, I don’t know, what’s it like to be with Jesus?”
“You are around him all the time. You share your thoughts, your time. You sings songs worshipping him and adoring him.
“So… it’s like being in church 24/7?”
“I don’t know if I wanna spend my eternity in church.”
“Well, there is the alternative.”
“What’s that?”
“That door over there.”
“And what’s behind that door?”
“The alternative. There is no Jesus, there is no God. There is no justice. There is no mercy. There is no healing. There is no goodness. There is no peace. There is no love.”
“So what is there?”
“Everything else.”
“So… I have to choose now?”
“Most people have already made their choice. They make their choice every day.”
“How many people choose…. the alternative?”
“Too many.”
“Well, I don’t know. I never did care for church, but I don’t want to be somewhere without that other stuff.”
“It is quite the pickle.”
“… How long do I have to decide.”
“Not long… everyone else has made their decision.”
“Where did my family go?”
“Do you want to know?”
“They went to the alternative, didn’t they?”
“They heard ‘church’ and headed the other way.”
“Did they know what wasn’t in the alternative?”
“Okay… I guess I’ll choose….”
What will you choose?
K: If Heaven is that goddamned boring, I’ll choose the alternative. I mean, okay. This is a pretty well-meaning story, I guess, but comes off as total proselytization and the conversation is about as straightforward and predictable as I can fathom. This takes the most familiar major religion to me and does…nothing interesting with it. Sure, it didn’t mean to, but that doesn’t help.

MN – Well if this doesn’t just sum up the whole traditional-view-of-the-afterlife-quandary, huh? I feel like it ran in place a little bit during the second half, with too much hemming and hawing, and I wanted a point of decision for our character. But I wanted that because he had a real humanity to him. Not a good person, but not a bad person either. Well if that doesn’t just sum up the whole of humanity, huh?

Joshua Longman, Hidden Legends

Wayne fidgeted on the wooden bench of the skiff, clearly uncomfortable about where he found himself. So far, death hadn’t felt so much different from life; actually he felt abnormally good somehow, like his limbs weighed less. That didn’t help appease the sense of dread lodged in his gut, though.
The Ferryman was silent, matching his surroundings, as he paddled them to unseen shores – even as the oars hit the water, the sound of ripples were muffled as if filtered through velvet. Perhaps their only purpose was to scatter glittering fragments of light throughout the inky darkness.
Is that supposed to be my soul or something? Wayne pondered of the swinging lantern.
He had given up trying to break the silence with his guide long ago, having been completely ignored. At this point, he couldn’t even remember how long he’d been on the water, or how he boarded the vessel.
What should have been a welcome change was in reality a sharp sense of apprehension as they abruptly beached on an ashy shore. The Ferryman turned with terrible purpose, pointing to the cleavage between obsidian hills, the only source of light the occasional ghostly firefly. His intent was clear.
Wayne scratched his tattooed neck nervously as he disembarked and took the only route provided. The walk was long and morose, as he no longer even had the sound of his heartbeat to comfort him. Eventually a beacon shone high in the distance. He approached what appeared to be a streetlight, his eyes dropping down to see what they illuminated.
What the fuck?! He said with a soundless voice. Before him lay a wounded woman, clutching her bloody stomach. Next to her lay her infantile child, its wails suddenly piercing the dead air.
MARSHA HORNSBY AND HER SON, JACOB, a husky, rattling voice boomed behind him. Wayne spun in response, shocked to see a ram’s head sitting atop a boulder.
REMEMBER HER? YOU SHOULD, YOU ASSAULTED HER A MERE 23 HOURS AGO IN MORTAL TIME, the presence thundered. His memory had begun to fade, but the incident still stood fresh in his mind.
“I, I needed the money….life is hard on the streets! I ain’t never grow up with anything, I gotta eat too!” He blurted with a newfound voice.
“I didn’t mean for anything to happen to her, honestly…I just had the knife as a threat. She started to struggle – it was an accident, I swear!”
“What am I supposed to do with this?”
“How can I do that? It aint up to me!”
Wayne stood for what felt like hours in indecision, understanding nothing but that he had to make a decision. With teary eye, he approached the mother with a grim purpose, when suddenly all was black.
Suddenly, brilliant red flames replaced the darkness and Wayne felt again.

K: Again…wow, this one really sets up expectations for the reader, and then meets them completely. Wayne has potential at first given his backstory, but he’s such a punchless, pathetic protagonist that it’s hard to feel anything for the story. His dialogue is too on the nose, and nothing is left to subtext. With eternity on the line, these characters need more guile.

MN – This one pretty much misses the “positive afterlife” but I’m going to let that pass because it’s so colorful. Some the descriptions work beautifully, and some fall flat (the second paragraph uses the word “as” three times in the first sentence, which sadly turns something excellent into something less so). I like that there’s a sense of condemnation on the reader here too, since I certainly didn’t think of the “killing himself” option. I wish we’d gotten a little hint of Wayne earlier in the piece though.

Shawn Ashley, Hidden Legends

These hands are not my hands. They must be, they look like mine, but I can’t really feel. I was looking down on them- the scar was still close to my right thumb. The scar that I had gotten falling off of my brother’s bike.
Must have been five, six years old.
The scars, the lines, the memories. They were all there. But I wasn’t. I was dead.
She laughed.
I saw her face so clearly as if she were standing in front of me- the smattering of freckles across her slightly crooked nose. The long, blond mess cascading down onto her shoulders.
She was laughing, like she would when we were together. And she was beautiful, like she was when we were young.
I reached out. I wanted to touch her.
“You have to be processed,” she said. I blinked in disbelief, my hand just short of resting on her shoulder. I left it suspended in air.
“Wh-what?” I stammered. I hadn’t spoken to her in fifteen years.
“You have to be processed, honey.” Then she laughed again. “You’re such a dodo bird!” The blond hair flipped, like she used to.
My arm, still suspended.
“What, you shit…you thought my bedside was the last time you were going to see me? You’re not that lucky,” she winked at me and I blinked again, not believing her hazel eyes were in my line of sight.
She grabbed my outstretched hand and held it, just like the time we walked Jeffrey to the bus stop on his first day of kindergarten. She had known I wanted to cry. She grabbed my hand and squeezed, as tears welled up, making something churn in my stomach. Something I’ve never forgotten.
“You have to be processed,” she said, again. “Before you can come in.” At this, she looked serious. A mixture of her face new and old together. Her sad, pained cancer face. Her young, fresh, wedding day face. They seemed to be one.
I understood. I was not a good man. I had to be processed.
I followed her to the line where The Others were also waiting. She turned suddenly and grabbed the sides of my face, holding it close to her own. “I loved you,” she whispered so softly, yet it rang in my ears as if she were yelling, and then I was first, I was in front of The Judge and I was being processed.
It was as if all of the things that I had ever done flew before my eyes- colored grey from all of the pain I’d seen. But even still, this woman loved me. Seen the horror I had built and loved just the same.
The Judge spoke as if all of the sadness of the World Below was on his shoulders. His words made sense, but they certainly weren’t in my native tongue.
All of a sudden, I wanted nothing more than to be past The Gate. The yearning overtook me and I found myself wishing I could take it all back; everything I had ever done. But it’s always too late, isn’t it? Once it’s done, it’s…done.
I looked again at my hands, or what I thought were my hands. I had once felt fresh blood on them. Yet, also the soft skin of her cheek. I felt those sensations simultaneously as I looked down at my hands.
The Judge nodded. He understood. Trial over.
The Gate opened slowly. She was standing just beyond the entrance, hands clasped together at her pouty mouth. Her eyes smiling.
“You dodo bird,” she mouthed.

K: F(*&in’ right. Characters, exposition that allows for a callback that brings a tear to the eye, and an outcome that is seriously in doubt – you made all the right decisions along the way, and this story is a treasure for it. GOLD

MN – This is a really moving trip through the final judgment. It’s not exactly a new take on it, but the way you’ve made it so the narrator doesn’t go through it alone was a really smart choice – we’ve got reason to root for him because she roots for him. It could use a little more action from the narrator – everything is him being acted upon – but it’s really heavy and sad and beautiful. BRONZE

Annette Barron, The Devil Wear PRADAZ
The crash still echoed in my ears as I reached the iron gate. I gingerly felt my forehead, expecting to feel glass, but my forehead was smooth and unmolested. “Dead,” I whispered. The sound died. There was a small circle of light over the gate, but I couldn’t see its source. It didn’t illuminate anything but the gate.
“I’m dead,” I said louder, the sound fell to my feet, but at least my ears registered that I had spoken. The gate was icy. I shook it but there was very little give.
“Hello? Anyone there?” I rattled again. I sidled to the right, holding on to the gate and stepping into the dark. The fence continued but the dark was cold and … hungry. I sprang back into the light, heart pounding hollowly. There was a rustling just out of sight, back the way I came. I turned to the gate again, “Hello?”
“Coming, dear.” A woman’s voice floated out of the dark, warm and welcoming.
“Aaaaaaahhhhhhhg.” A loan moan, full of fear and suffering, sounded in the dark behind me.
“Hurry!” I whispered.
“Just stay in the light, honey. Nothing can hurt you there. I’m on my way.” Her voice smoothed over me like just-washed linens.
There was a low growl, like a really big rottweiler, behind my left shoulder. I pressed myself against the gate.
“Elizabeth,” someone whispered behind me, “Help me. Save me!” The dog growled again as my stomach climbed into my throat. I squeezed my eyes tight against my stepfather’s voice. “Please!” there were tears behind his words, I recognized them. (I’m sorry, baby. I swear it will never happen again.)
“I have the key right here,” the elderly lady stepped into the circle of light, white hair gleaming. She was tiny and plump, one little hand digging around in the pocket of a frilly, checkered apron.
There was a fierce bark behind me and I jumped. A scuffle sounded and a man started screaming in short gasps. I pressed my fists against my ears and willed my savior to hurry.
Behind my eyelids, I saw my stepfather’s (dad’s) face when he landed that 12 lb. rainbow trout. He was so excited. I think if the line had snapped, he would have swam after it. He was so proud of my natural aptitude for fly fishing, like I really was his blood. I was nine, long before I got breasts.
“Do you have a light?” The words burst out.
“No, dear. Let me just open this gate and we’ll get you away from those awful noises.”
I turned and tried to pierce the blackness. My dad whimpered piteously and I took a step away from the gate.
I heard the key in the lock. “Come with me, sweetie.” She slipped the key back in her pocket and clasped her hands in front of her.
“I have to go,” I said helplessly. “Wait for me?” I plunged into the blackness, flailing my arms in front of me, bent over so that I could find him if he had fallen. I waited for hot breath and fangs to close around my outstretched hands.
Abruptly, there was light and sweet air. I straightened; a bearded man was smiling at me. “Welcome, Elizabeth. We’re so happy to have you.”
I looked around (so green!), “where’s my dad?”
“Sorry, child, he’s not here.”
“Is that a gate to hell, then?”
“Well, if only heartless cowards choose it, I doubt very much it’s pleasant, eh?” He held out a hand and I took it.

K: I wanted so badly for the child to choose her father over eternal life. This one set up the possibility for an extremely interesting dramatic choice, but didn’t make that choice. There’s nothing glaringly wrong with it, but I think it had power that it didn’t show.

MN – This was executed very well. It’s a pity the last lines say too much. I’m not entirely sure the relationship between Elizabeth and her stepfather, and whether there was some ickiness there, but Elizabeth’s love for him regardless is fantastic, as is the fish backstory. Work on trusting the reader a little more, and this jumps. BRONZE

Pete Bruzek, PRADAZ
Howard awoke in pervasive darkness. Claustrophobic and terrified, he felt his way around the rock walls of the room, desperately hoping for any sort of entrance. Finally, his fingers fumbled into a doorway of sorts. He frantically threw his weight against the giant stone slab sealing the tomb.
Light flooded his senses.
When his eyes had adjusted, he found himself in front of a well dressed man standing behind what looked to be a podium.
“Welcome! uh…” his host glanced down at the notepad in front of him “Howard Stevens! How are you finding the afterlife so far?”
So he was dead. Rather than being shocked, Howard felt the news fit into place neatly and gave him an odd sense of catharsis, like fitting the last piece into an impossibly complex puzzle.
“Good so far, I guess” he replied, “and this is?”
“The gateway” the man said, “sorry about the reception room, by the way. I tried to tell them that you were more of a ‘cathedrals and ambiance’ kind of guy, but SOMEONE insisted that you would insist on a traditional look, and the craftsman are annoyingly literal about stuff like that.”
He waved his hand dismissively, “but that’s behind us now. Are you ready for your trial?”
“What trial?” Howard said tentatively.
“The trial to determine your eligibility for paradise!”
“Sure, what sort of…”
“Wonderful! See this rock?” the man gestured to Howard’s left, and there stood a massive boulder which Howard was certain had not been there a minute ago.
“In life, you were hesitant to use your full potential to accomplish tasks you deemed impossible. Remember your dreams of becoming a professional lacrosse player?”
“Well, I mean, at the time, there wasn’t even a professional league…”
“So you should have started one! Anyway. Your first test is to lift that boulder above your head. Have fun!” and with that, Howard’s host disappeared into a puff of smoke.
Howard stared dumbly at the rock for god knows how long.
“This is just your way of telling me that you’re sending me to hell, isn’t it?” he called to the infinite white expanse of a ceiling. There was no response.
Finally, Howard approached the rock and gave it a slight nudge. To his shock, the boulder moved as though it were made of paper-mâché. He set himself and grabbed hold of the boulder, lifting it above his head with relative ease.
“Lifting with your legs! Very smart” the host beamed, “not strictly necessary around here, but proper technique is always appreciated.”
“So, the rock is a fake?” Howard puzzled.
“No” the host said, as if Howard had just offended him, “I’ll have you know I pulled that rock from the bottom of the Mediterranean! We pride ourselves in solid rocks.”
“Then how?” Howard asked, dumbfounded.
“You’ve passed”, the man said, avoiding the question, “but before we move on, you should check in on your funeral. I’m sure everyone is saying all sort of lovely things about you.”
“How do we do that?” Howard asked.
“Where is the funeral held?” his host replied.
“I would imagine it’s at St. Anthony’s on Murphy Boulevard.”
“Then I would guess that’s where you should go.”
His host disappeared again.
Howard sighed and closed his eyes, when he reopened them, he was in the chapel.
“Most people take months to pick up the rock,” said the man, who was now sitting in the pew beside him, “You got it in two days. Very impressive.”
“I still don’t understand” Howard said.
“You will,” said his host. “Welcome to eternity. You’re going to love it.”

K: This story kind of sputters at the end, but the idea of a disorganized, bureaucratic afterlife is one that resonates with a reader far more than more obvious fare. I feel like we’re a little bit Beetjejuice here with the paperwork and whatnot, and it was a fun, interesting choice. I really do wish the ending had been stronger, but the setup made me laugh a few times. GOLD

MN – You know who loves this? Me. I love this. It’s funny, but not cheap. It mostly shows instead of tells, though some of that showing is through dialogue which can be a cheat, but I use that cheat all the time, and that makes it character driven… The first paragraph doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the story, but I want to see much more of this world. My only complaint is that it feels so unfinished. SILVER

Beau, Hidden Legends

Stan spit out a cheekful of moss and two or three jewel beetles. His right ankle was broken but the pain kept him sharp. He forced himself up off the jungle floor and stumbled to the edge of the clearing. After watching Lewis and Ahmad exploding on mines, he was his only support left.
The sun was out. More surprising was a line of thirty gook kids holding hands.. Behind them stood the enemy, weapons drawn.
He hit the deck as shots fired over his head. He grabbed the machine gun he wrestled off a dead tunnel rat. He took out fourteen kids before the last feeling ripped through him.
When Stan awoke he was on a translucent something. He forced himself up, though he wasn’t entirely sure what ‘up’ meant here.
“Welcome, Stanley Jane Plouman,” said a voice.
“Heaven? Hell?” he replied.
“Not yet,” said the voice. A corporeal form, also translucent, appeared before him.
Stan was annoyed.
“Normally I would detail your sins for you, but given that you just murdered innocent children, I think we can dismiss the formalities.”
“Are you offering me something?” Stan said.
The form nodded. “All humans are sinners. And all are forgiven if asked. Be humble before God and let him into your heart and you may enter His kingdom.”
Stan had left the church at fourteen after hearing this same shit from a minister back then.
“And if I don’t?”
“You will be eternally cast into Hell.”
Where all the fun people are, Stanley thought. He noticed he still was wearing his camouflage and carrying everything he had with him before he died.
“What do I do with all this shit?”
The form’s voice was annoyingly serene. “It is your choice.”
“Good,” said Stan. He pulled out his handgun and put the barrel in his mouth. Winking at the form, he pulled the trigger.
When Stan awoke he was on something. He forced himself up, though he wasn’t entirely sure what ‘up’ meant here.
“God is forgiving,” the voice said. “Though you can no longer see or speak, you can still be forgiven if you let Him into your soul.”
The voice was right. Stanley no longer had a head. But he could move his hands still. He reached into his uniform and grabbed a grenade. He pulled the pin and rested it against his heart.
When Stan awoke, he was…something. The voice was no longer there. He could sense nothing. He had his thoughts, though they had no context. He was alone.

K: Stan is a fairly interesting character in theory, but he seems ripe for development, and he really doesn’t manage to do anything but what we expect of him. He’s a terrible person who’s done terrible things, and the fact that he never deals with it or admits it kind of hurts the story, given the prompt.

MN – This is another clever take on things. Subsequent afterlifes is a concept I toyed with once for a Spookymilk entry, but was never able to get working, so the fact that you’ve got something along those lines here earns huge appreciation from me. I just can’t empathize with a character like Stan, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the heck out of how fun he makes this story. SILVER

erik sunshine, For the Love of Pete

I can’t.
I just can’t right now.
I must stay awake.
The 2nd floor of the house is a half story, and the ceiling is sloped heavily downward on two sides of the room. It once gave the bedroom a close, cozy feel. Now it feels oppressive; clutching me to its breast without regard to the stifled cries.
I realize the old crocheted blanket that’s wrapped around my legs is a little too comfortable, so I kick it off and adjust my legs under me in an awkward fashion. I again try and focus on the TV. The movie is full of bombast and banality. The loud explosions and action might be doing some towards keeping me awake, but it’s so insipid that I find my focus drifting.
I can’t see her tonight. It’s been several weeks now and my grasp on reality is tenuous right now. Sleep invites me cordially to slip inside its warm embrace, but I think I’d lose the last of my grip and just slip away.

I snap my head back. The movie comes back into focus. I’m losing the battle. I dig jagged, bitten nails into the underside of my arm, but I know it’s hopeless.
My eyes squint, focusing on the screen. I think of who that man is and how he fits into the plot. Did I see him before? I think on it for a moment, hoping the act of keeping wheels turning in my head will keep the engine going.
In exasperation, I toss my head back and rub my eyes. I take a deep breath, and re-center myself. When I open my eyes again, the ceiling looks higher, the slope of the wall more extreme. When I look around, the angles of everything seem to shift and undulate. I yell to myself, but I know it’s already too late: I am asleep.
A low guttural groan from the earth itself begins rumble, felt through the foundation of the house. Gaining momentum, it develops in a piercing shriek; the vibration of the ghastly crescendo threatens to rend my very molecules apart and my own screams are lost inside of it.
Brick falls apart behind me and the wall opens to a sky filled with blood red stars. The television in front of me shatters and explodes, and when I reflexively turn, I find her face pressed up against mine. I would scream but I’m too terrified to make a sound.
Her eyes are wide and awful; deep pits of melancholy and despair. She screeches and pleads for answers I don’t have. She pushes and claws at me. She flits around the room in unnatural fits of movement and seems in several places at once.
I tell her I can’t help her. I tried. I cannot help her. All becomes quiet and the silence is even more petrifying. She stares at me. Her mouth hangs open and her head is held at a funny angle, as though something was pulling it from around her neck.
I’m wrecked with tears and terrified. I tried, I tell her. I tried to help you for years. I couldn’t do it though. I wasn’t strong enough.
She’s still staring. Her skin looks like armies of insects are crawling beneath its surface.
I tried.
You need to go.
You need to move on.
I tried to help you.
The air is sucked out of the room. I feel my own lungs deflate like balloons and painful needles are plunged into skin.
She flies back and becomes dreadful and terrible.
She screams and screams and screams.

K: This story unfortunately keeps the reader at arm’s length, telling a lot and showing almost nothing. It’s a very passive story, and all the feelings that could have been present were lost as a result of how this was told. There are also two sentence fragments in the back of of sentences with semicolons. Respect the semicolon!

MN – This is horrifying. Your descriptions absolutely drove this forward, captivating me with a genre I don’t usually enjoy all the much. I think the test here – staying awake – is interesting, and the fact that it keeps coming up over and over is really cool – but I felt like it didn’t offer any sense of hope or opportunity, and as such felt more like a cruel trick (which is maybe how hell would feel?), and less like an actual test. And the movie seems a bit out of place for all the focus it gets. But those descriptions! Chills.

Bret Highum, For the Love

The water was so clear I couldn’t tell how deep it was. The fish could have been fingerlings feet from the surface, or giants swimming forty feet down. I don’t know how long I sat on a flat slab of sandstone on the edge of the short cliff and watched them swim, the flames and the screams in my memory fading into the gurgle of the current and the flicker of the sun on the ripples.
“Lovely day for a swim,” came a voice from behind me.
My instincts are to spin and attack, but I’m calmer than I can ever remember being. I turn and face the speaker, a slight man with brown skin and soft eyes.
“Where am I?” That wasn’t what I meant to ask. I wanted to know if I was dead. I wanted to know how the rest of my squad was doing, and if Anna missed me, and what my mom would do when I wasn’t going to be there to help with dad. But that’s not what came out.
He smiled, teeth slightly crooked. “In my experience, most people think this is paradise.”
That wasn’t the answer I was looking for, but I’m still calm, so I let it go. “Who are you?” I ask instead.
“I’m your guide,” he replied. “I’m here to take you to where you want to be.”
I look up and down the shoreline. I can’t remember seeing an area less touched by man, and I’ve been in some desolate areas. “Where can I go?”
He crossed his arms and shrugged, a surprisingly detached gesture that didn’t fit with his appearance.
“That’s up to you. You must choose the path,” he replied.
I glance over the water again, the soft light shining down into the tranquil depths, and step away. There’s a slight trail along the bank, leading either north or south. I chose the south, and stepped off decisively, my guide trailing along. I make good time; with no pack and no weapons, I can hold this pace for hours.
The sun was getting low in the sky when I stopped in a slight clearing. I could still hear the water flowing somewhere not too far away to my left, and the guide kept up with me all day with no complaints and no comments. I’d tried asking him a few things, but given up after his various cryptic responses gave me no insights into what was going on. The night was calm and warm, so I bedded down in some dry grass and quickly fell asleep.
I woke up with the sunrise, the heat of the day already prickling my skin with sweat. Stretching, I noticed the guide was still asleep, snoring softly with his arm across his face. I slipped away from the clearing, cutting off the path and heading for the water.
The river or whatever it is has changed. The water is thick with mud and ash, and the fish I’d seen yesterday were dead on the shore or gasping for breath in the shallows. The brush around me has gotten more coarse, brown and bristling in places with yellow-tipped thorns.
Stepping back from the edge in shock, I stumble into the guide and I nearly fall down. His slight form has thickened and hardened, and his crooked teeth are longer than I remember when he smiles at me.
“May as well keep on walking, boy,” his voice is guttural, and his eyes are no longer soft. “You gave up paradise to see if you could find something better. You’ve made your choice.”

K: Well, there’s an ending. Whereas some of these are too predictable, this is nearly too twisty, but the story allows for us to feel something for the character before he does what he does. We also have a little subtext here, which is a massive step considering that we normally have literally none. I would have taken more of the conversation, as I found the interplay extremely strong, but all the same, it’s a good story (with only one misuse of a semicolon). BRONZE

MN – I found myself wondering if staying at the pool was an option, but found it strange that the narrator never considered it. I think the fact that he didn’t consider it makes the ultimate reveal feel like it comes a little out of the blue. Being tested when you don’t know you are is… well, Kafkaesque. Indeed, this feels like it could be a Kafka story. That’s saying something good, but also that you’ve created a cruel world here…

Colin Woolston, Long Distance Phone Call for Friendship

A violence occurred. It was a typical violence, mundane even. Regardless, the recipient of this particularly uninteresting violence had been preparing for that moment for over half his life.
Ye break the curtain of death, and the great robed one stands before ye with his tablet of gold. Three questions asks he, and ye be the bearer of the answers true or ye pass down into hellfire!
The last bit had seemed over the top, delivered at full voice with a dash of some powder in the fire for effect. Witches were becoming so commercialized. Still, useful information.
Twenty-two days you will walk the deserts of the unland, to arrive at the gates of sorrow. There the beast of eternal burden will ask you three questions. Answer them correctly or your soul will carry the beast’s burden for all eternity.
I’ve always loved the Jews. One step closer.
Under the seas of tranquility lies the many-headed dragon, who awaits your return to his palace. When you arrive, you will be asked three questions. your answers determine your destiny.
Nothing will stop me when I have the three questions.
A violence had occurred, in two parts.
The first part was sheathed in silence. It was in the bitter, clipped words he used in response to her simple questions. It was in the distance he created between them, wishing for solitude with his books. Always he wished, fervently, for one more page.
The second part was drenched in blood. It was in the alley behind their home, where he made her wait for him. Where he found her.

The white blanket of death lifted from his eyes, and he beheld a great steel desk of moderate magnitude, occupied by a middle-aged-looking woman with mother-of-pearl glasses and a lime green shawl.
The shock of this reality began to freeze his blood. He gaped and stared about him. Stacks of bookcases hundreds of feet high and stretching on to infinity, and this slightly wrinkled lump of boredom at the desk.
“Peter Knightley?”
He gulped, or rather attempted to swallow the lump of fear in his throat and was met with a dry click. He swallowed again, to better result. He set his jaw, even.
“Indeed. Ask me the questions three.” He settled to one knee, and bowed his head.
“Yes. Very good. Take this form and step to the right.” She held a single page in her pale fingers. Peter took the page and discovered a counter with pens dangling over the edge on little chains. One of the pens was in its holder on the counter, and he moved to it and scanned the page.
1: What is the meaning of life?
To live.
2: What is the purpose of living?
To experience all that life has to offer with an open mind and heart, in order to become our best selves.
3: How do we become our best selves?
By accepting what is our responsibility, and what is our reality, and by behaving with compassion and prudence in our heart and mind.
Peter returned the document to the woman and stepped back proudly. She glanced at the page, lifted an improbably large stamp onto a pad of blue ink, with no little effort, and stamped his page “ACCEPTABLE.”
A welling of joy in his breast. A wash of relief. He checked his hair.
“Congratulations Mr Knightley, your life’s true wish will now be granted.” The woman punched a black button on the top of her desk, and she began to fade. “An eternity of quiet solitude in our library.”
His screams echoed.

K: I feel like the final words could be stronger – either go for more description or, in the essence of the story, underplay it for laughs. I adore the banality of the afterlife here, and I think the writer made the most of the moments that could be played toward that end. Fun. SILVER

MN – Heh. So much Twilight Zone up in here. This has to be Beau, right? You could have just come right out and said “The dude was a bookworm” but you didn’t do that. You let us experience his studying. Or whatever the heck that paragraph with the italics was… I think I’ve deduced that it was him reading and preparing. I’m not entirely sure why we have two death scenes, but they’re written very very well. So, in short… this could have been clearer, but what was clear was brilliant, with the “answer is to live well and here’s a guy who knew it but didn’t do it” moral. BRONZE

Brooks Maki, Phone Call

Konot crawled across an endless plain. Behind him nothing stretched away to infinity. Ahead of him, at long last, a simple pedestal appeared. The Gatekeeper arrived. Konot lowered his eyes. This part never went well.
“Do you have the payment?”
Konot adopted his most contritious tone. “I do not. My masters never saw fit to reward me for my many labors.”
“You cannot pass without payment. Without money, what can you offer the afterlife?”
“Information. I have traveled far and wide in my life and heard much. Surely there is something there that is of interest?”
The Gatekeeper laughed. “The gall! To suggest there are things you know that are unknown here. The door to your left will take you to the holding room to await your fate.” A door, black as obsidian arose from the plain. Konot very purposefully avoided looking in that direction.
“I know where you work.” The Gatekeeper didn’t flinch, merely pointed to the door.
“Sorry, what I meant was – I know why you work where you work.” And now the Gatekeeper started.
“There is nowhere you could have traveled to come across that information.” The eyes that regarded Konot were sharp and unforgiving.
“Perhaps you are right. Or perhaps my information is more valuable than you thought?”
Sharper still the Gatekeeper’s gaze bored into him. “What do you propose?”
“If I can find that information, maybe I can find out what you really want to know?”
Konot paused. Was this the iteration that ended things? Finally? Already? He discovered he was holding his breath.
“You would release me?”
Konot very carefully did not sigh with relief. “I need time. But I believe I know where to look.”
The Gatekeeper waved his hand and the black door became a sky blue. “You will return in 5 years with the information promised.”
Konot flicked his tail, and The Gatekeeper’s eyes clouded for just a moment. As they refocused, the blue door swung shut. He glanced down at the pedestal and found a new carving in his own writing. “KONOT – 5”. Rage boiled within him, that konere was right here and he could do nothing. But soon he stilled. The man that held his soul in his pocket was returning in five years. He had much to prepare.

K: “He discovered he was holding his breath” is your Stephenie Meyer moment of the week. Otherwise, I do like the jockeying for position here, and wish we’d seen more of it for this challenge. This is ETERNITY, gang. Why aren’t these characters trying harder? Anyway, the lack of resolution here is a tad disappointing, but at least we have a character who’s fighting for something, and is equipped mentally to do so. BRONZE

MN – This almost reads like a Dual Manipulation, and I suspect Spooky is going to love you for it. I do too. This is the most interesting afterlife we’ve seen so far. Unfortunately, it’s not always as clear as it could be, and I think the formatting has a lot to do with that. But this is all show and no tell, and we have enough information to go on – and two characters to root for here, really – that this comes together fantastically. GOLD

Zack Sauvageau, PRADAZ

Once his eyes adjusted to the brightness, George saw the sheet of paper in front of him.
Name: Milosh the Vanquisher (George)
Race: Orc
“What the –“ but the last word wouldn’t come out no matter what he tried.
“We’re not fond of that kind of language here, so well, you just can’t use it.” He could only see the head of the man who said it. He was sitting across the table behind some sort of folded screen. “I’m St. Peter, George. And you’re just in time for this quest. I have your character sheet all rolled up for you.”
This wasn’t getting any clearer to George. “Character sheet for what?”
“Dungeons and Dragons of course. We’d been playing second ed for a long time, because three and three point five were so bad I just skipped fourth. Fifth is the newest and it’s great, so we’ve migrated to that. I hope that is okay!”
George stared blankly at St. Peter.
“Ohhh! I always forget. Yeah, to get to Heaven, you finish this quest with me and slay Fenrich the Bloodeater. If you fail, well… things will be a little warmer. But we’ll have fun and I try not to make this too hard. You’ve obvious played D&D before right?”
George hadn’t. His mom told it was a tool of the Devil when he was younger. So did his Sunday school teachers. Now that he was an adult he didn’t have time for such childish pursuits.
“Well George, you’ve got a divine instructor to show you the ropes if I do say so myself,” St. Peter said with a chuckle. He explained combat and initiative, and the basic flow of the game.
George was smart, and a quick study. And hey, this wasn’t all that bad! The weird dice were fun, and they were treating him well. It wasn’t all that long until he had reached the climactic battle with Fenrich the Bloodeater.
“I’ll use a two handed strike with my bastard sword,” George said and rolled his D20 for attack.
It was a 1. “Oh no, George. A 1 is a critical failure. Fenrich will counter.” St. Peter rolled a 20. A critical success.St. Peter cringed.
“Uh, now what?” George asked
“Well um. Fenrich sliced at you with his razor sharp claws and lopped your head clean off. And uh, you’re a really great person and you lived a great life and yadda yadda but uh. Rules are rules, and you didn’t finish the quest so you aren’t allowed into Heaven. Better luck next time?”
Eternity in hell because of one bad roll. How cruel.

K: The last line is another in a long line of needless explanatory finishes, but otherwise, I really love this idea and it does a good job of mocking the pointless religious crusade against dice rolling. Given the backdrop I’d love for things to be a little more ho-hum and matter-of-fact, but still, it’s good fun. SILVER

MN – This is funny. And very well written – you introduce this existing world with great economy and yet a solid level of detail. The second half is really much too quick, and telling us the awfulness of the cruel roll is taking it a bit too far unfortunately. We can see the cruelty of the dice coming from a mile away, so trust us to have fun getting there. St. Peter is a riot here, though, and you’re not missing by much for me.

Will Young, For the Love

When you think about it, it’s pretty strange that we know St. Peter guards the entrance heaven. Who straddled between life and death sufficient to catch a glimpse of the entry proceedings and brought back the secrets to earth? Isn’t it a bit unfair that Christians have a built in advantage to entry sort of like the socioeconomic biases that plague standardized testing for college admissions? But I digress.
Anyway, our secret shopper who entered the line awhile back, monitored the process, and returned with intel on God’s admission process was there on a pretty standard day. The whole process is pretty basic and relies entirely on the merits of one’s life.
God, of course, is quite compassionate, so He gives Peter a vacation each year. But He also has infinite sense of humor (He always teases Peter about how He convinces so many people to believe inconsistent things so passionately that they fight each other in His name. Seriously, His humor is a little bit dark.), so He places St. Joseph of Cupertino in charge that week.
Robert just happened to die during that week with St. Joseph in charge. Robert had lived a life of piety and charity, and he was confident heaven would be open to you. As he waited in line, he saw a steady stream of people enter the examining room. He never saw where they went from within the room, but he never heard any screams or saw outward signs of displeasure. As he reached the front of the line, a tall, bearded man summoned him to enter.
“Good afternoon, St. Peter.”
“My name is Giuseppe.”
“Oh, like the guy who designed Pinocchio?”
“Never heard of him,” the man replied with a smirk.
“He’s an old story that Walt Disney turned into a cartoon movie. You probably never got to meet Walt Disney passing through here since he froze his body.”
“Ok, two things: First, he didn’t freeze his body. That’s a myth. Second, you do realize you’re no longer in your body, right? I mean, you still visualize yourself in it if you look around, but your body is back on earth.”
“Yes, yes. I know I’m dead.”
“Ok, good. We make sure never to admit people who don’t actually realize they’re dead. It becomes awkward. Some people tried to exploit that loophole, so we sent an angel back once to have M. Night Shyamalan explain why. Anyway, St. Peter is vacationing and I’m the stand-in gatekeeper.”
Shit, Robert thought instinctively. Shit, I cursed in heaven.
“So what do I have to do?”
“Somehow I became the patron saint of a few things, so let’s run through and see how qualified you are in my realm. First, fly.”
Robert knew he couldn’t fly, but he spread his arms, pushed down his feet, tried to jump and levitated.
“Ok, good. You’re not restricted by your earthly limitations, and you showed a decent sense of faith. Now, can you name for me the third prime minister of Bangladesh?”
Robert thought long and hard. After a minute, he reluctantly admitted he had no idea.
“Very well. What element has an atomic number of sixty-six?”
Gold? Silver? It’s obviously not hydrogen or oxygen. Robert again thought long and hard, but remained stumped.
“You’re not doing so well any more. Last question: what is my birthday?”
“I had never even heard of you before today.”
“Excellent, you’re in.”
Robert stared at St. Joseph with a blank expression unsure how to proceed. Finally, he said, “I don’t understand.”
“I’m the patron saint of terrible test-takers.”

K: That’s it? Okay, we have some decent humor here, but “He was getting in all along” is a pretty weak choice, even in a comedy as bizarre as this. Any time you hand us an ending so neatly wrapped up like that, where the protagonist has to do nearly nothing to succeed, the writer feels a little cheated. If we were doing micro-fiction, that might be fine, but you had a few more lines this time.

MN – Us Catholics, eh? This is witty, and the test is fun. It’s really a tale of two stories here, and while both halves are entertaining, they really don’t fit together. The first half reads like someone trying to sell a product that’ll help you pass the heavenly exam. That would be a great concept. But then it shifts to the second half. Which is, as I said, quite funny, though it doesn’t really fit with the first half.

Brendan Bonham, For the Love

Nathan was surprised when he woke up. This was a different hospital entirely, but it was definitely a hospital—the labyrinthian hallways, lack of windows and fluorescent lighting proved it. The hospital gown was way nicer, too– Softer.
Things started getting weird when he saw a door that just said “Nathan!” But, he’d felt better than he had in ages, so he willed his way through it.
“THIS!” A voice boomed, “IS! NATHAN!”
It was all there, a lone podium with a buzzer and a blue screen on which he could write. A wall of monitors that just said “NATHAN!” The host was there, too, his trademark moustache had turned into a long, fuzzy beard. Had Nathan really been out that long?
“Hello Nathan,” the host said, “are you ready to play?”
Nathan couldn’t get over how much planning this must have taken. Brett always liked a good practical joke, but this was borderline psychotic.
“Uh, Ale—“
The host quickly cut him off.
“You mean Peter.”
“Sure, whatever, Peter.” Nathan’s head was swimming, “Brett put you up to this?”
“No, Nathan, Brett didn’t put me up to this. His time will come soon enough, though. Nathan, may we play the game? It is very important.”
“Sure,” Nathan decided to play along.
“Ok,” Peter looked to the board, “forever’s categories are…”
There was a slight ding as each monitor changed.
“’Was That Funny or Mean?’ ‘Remember the Time…’ ‘Plucky or Lucky’ ‘Is There a God?’ and ‘Things You Should Regret But Don’t.’ Remember, every correct answer must be presented in the form of a question.”
This was quickly losing its cuteness, Nathan thought, “I’ll take ‘Things You Should Regret But Don’t for, uh…400 Al—Peter.”
“She had to go to counseling for eating issues for two years after Nathan called her a ‘fat little piggy’ in 8th grade.”
Nathan stared blankly. A buzzer buzzed.
“I’m sorry,” Peter said, “The correct answer is, ‘Who is Kathy Miller.’ The board is still yours.”
“Same category,” Nathan sighed, “600.”
“Nathan stole this,” Peter emphasized, “from a Wal-Mart when he was a junior at Wake Forest.”
Nathan squeezed the trigger and blurted out, “Call of Duty: Ghosts!”
Peter stared at him blankly.
Hurriedly, Nathan continued, “What—what is Call of Duty: Ghosts?”
“Correct,” Peter said a little too solemnly for Nathan’s tastes, “Your next selection?”
“Let’s try ‘Remember the Time…’ for 1,000, Peter.”
“This was the car in which you lost your virginity outside of wedlock.”
Nathan buzzed in again, “What is a 1987 Buick Century?”
“Correct, Nathan,” Peter looked at the man, “no regrets?”
“Well,” Nathan smirked, “I kind of wish it woulda been in a Ferrari or something.”
“Uh huh. The board is still yours.”
“’Was That Funny or Mean?’ for 200.”
“You instigated this act of vandalism at Doug Honeywell’s 5th grade birthday sleepover.”
Nathan’s brow furrowed as he rang in.
“What is, putting a fiery bag of poop on Mr. Simms’ front porch?”
“Yes. Correct.”
“But that wasn’t me!” Nathan protested, “Sean Larson pooped in the bag! It was his idea!”
“A challenge! Judges?”
A large screen descended from the ceiling; on it four young boys sit around a table in a dark room.
“Sean,” one of the boys says to the other, “Mr. Simms would find it funny, he was a kid, he’s the one who told me about this.”
Nathan looked at Peter, mortified.
“This isn’t funny anymore, guys. I’m done! I’m out of here. I don’t even want the money.”
“Oh, there’s no money,” Peter said, eyes piercing Nathan, “the stakes are much higher than that.”

K: We continue our un-root-for-able protagonist week with this one. Nathan is completely clueless here, which again, is not the kind of thing that makes us care about a lead character. He should have at least grown into some sort of understanding here; maybe he goes with it at first, but by the end he should know the stakes. If the stakes are real high, great, but if the lead character doesn’t know they’re high, then….honestly, they’re not.

MN – This reminds me a lot of a story Beau wrote many Survivors ago. It’s tight enough, and the fact that you came up with so many scenes from Nathan’s life is remarkable. The writing is really… well, tight, like I said. It just hums along. I wish Nathan “got it” though… it feels a bit unnatural that he doesn’t, when the audience does from the start. SILVER

Brian David, Hidden Legends

Parking-lot gravel cracked along the wheels of the cadillac and the brakes squeaked as the vehicle came to a stop. Jorge stepped out of the car, walked passed the neon-lit windows and into the building.
The place was empty. A lonely jukebox sat in the corner, record spinning:
Drive on driver
There’s no one home

Jorge sat at the bar and looked at himself in the mirrors that lined the back wall.
“What can I get ya’, buddy?”
The bartender seemed to have come out of nowhere. He leaned against the counter, sunglasses over his eyes and long, gray beard waving in some imperceptible wind.
“Um, what kind of beer have you got?”
“This is the styx, man. We’ve got fuckin’ Bud Light.”
“Jesus,” Jorge whispered, rubbing his eyes. “Give me whatever whiskey you’ve got.”
The bartender smiled a gap-toothed, yellow smile and filled up a shot glass. Some of the brown liquid spilled over the sides, sending upl wisps of steam as it hit the countertop.
“So, what brings you here?”
Jorge sipped the whiskey and then tilted the glass.
The old man chuckled, his beard still waving dramatically.
“No, I mean, what brought you here?”
Jorge drained the glass and and leaned forward.
“Alcohol,” he said flatly.
The bartender grabbed the whiskey, held it up to his mouth and took a deep swig. He exhaled loudly and slammed down the bottle.
“Can’t say that I blame you, buddy.”
Jorge rolled his eyes.
“Look. . . um, dude,” Jorge mumbled. “I’ve been driving all day. Along that . . .” Jorge leaned back in his chair, his body relaxing slightly as the alcohol ran through his veins. He waved at the entrance. “. . .along that highway. I can see that city out there, just off in the distance. It . . . “
Jorge squinted.
“It’s beautiful. White and shining just above the desert horizon. I’ve been trying to get there for who knows how long, but it never seems to get closer. You know what I mean?”
The bartender nodded.
“I don’t suppose you can tell me how to get there,” said Jorge. “You seem like the kind of person who would know.”
The bartender took another drink.
“Sure thing, buddy, but there’s just one catch: You’ve got to beat me in a game.”
The bartender waved his hand towards a chess board that was sitting on the counter. A stream of light came out of nowhere, landing on the board and highlighting the contours of the pieces. Jorge lifted an eyebrow.
The bartender scrunched his shoulders and laughed uncontrollably, whisky and spit flying out of his mouth.
“Nah, man, I’m just fuckin’ with you! There’s no game. Who the fuck would do that?”
He pushed the chessboard off the counter and it hit the floor, pieces shooting across the carpet. The bartender grabbed a jacket that sat on a hook behind the bar.
“Let’s go, man. It’s a nice night for a drive.”

K: I very much enjoy the idea that the bartender is just as stuck as the weary traveler (though, at least he has a function). What better is there to do in Purgatory than just kind of hang out? Probably not much, so I enjoy the small-town feel of the story. SILVER

MN – A bar at the end of life seems entirely appropriate. The fact that this ditches the test for nothing leaves me feeling a bit left out, since the setup was remarkably entertaining. I like that we don’t quite know whether Jorge gets it or not. Needed a bit more plot, but what a setting!

Melissa Diamond, Phone Call

The doors to the examination room snapped open. The doctors pushed the examination table into the room, and the wheels grinded like knives against rock. Mina grimaced. The speakers in the observation room amplified every sound so that her family suffered each screech of the wheels, each scrape against the cold, steel table that carried Aron. Mina’s father. The doctors rolled him under the harsh lights. They recited his information in monotone. Aron Mansfield. 62. Social security number 463-47-9999. They matched it against his toe tag. They asked the family to confirm his identity.
Mina’s nieces were terrified, so Mina stood up and nodded for the doctors. “Yes, that’s him.”
The doctors photographed the body, still in its PJs. Aron’s chin slacked, his eyes wide and unseeing. Mina’s clenched her fists, remembering all the dead she’d observed in judgment, all their eyes glazed, pupils black and wide, fingers rigid. Remembering her mother…
The doctors weighed the body.
“Obese,” one of the doctors said.
Mina bit her lip. A point against the family.
The doctors x-rayed Aron. “Satisfactory,” they determined. Mina imagined they sounded disappointed. “He’s lived a life producing for his community. His bones speak to this.” They placed black checks over the arthritis, the cracks, the healed breaks from hard work.
They took fingerprints, and they matched what was on file from his 18 year check in. Mina breathed a sigh of relief.
Aron’s clothes were removed. The doctors ran fingers over the single tattoo he’d received before tattoos were outlawed. Point against him. The doctors examined every mole, every scar, every injury of note. Some evidence of sun damage. Point against him.
They examined each organ and checked against his records. Damage to the pancreas was minus a point. Health of his heart and lungs was plus two. Proper sterilization following the birth of two children meant more points, canceling out those for the damage to his liver from drinking.
The points were high, on the cusp of ruining everything for Mina’s nieces. Mina glanced at the girls who waited, jaws agape, staring into the examination room with that mixture of fear and fascination that came with childhood and one’s first judgment. They might have heard stories, but they didn’t truly know how bad it could be. The loss, the heartbreak. Mina had taken them in after the last death. Ages 2 and 1. Too young to know their father before they lost him to judgement.
And now the lab reports. Mina held her breath as the doctors read through them. Her hands shook. One of her nieces laid a hand on Mina’s and smiled. So innocent.
“Blood cleared of all substances,” the doctors read. “A1Cs normal for his condition. Cholesterol levels normal–”
Mina wept.
They’d survived. Whatever his mistakes — his poor parenting, his mistreatment of his wife, his drinking — he’d given them the most important thing yet: life after death.
Mina grabbed her niece’s close. They pressed their cheeks to her chest, and she hoped her heart beat stronger for them than it felt. She hoped her body was as healthy as she worked to make it for them.
Her tears wet their beautiful heads, and then the doors opened, and they were allowed to leave.

K: Apparently we Americans are buckling on the spelling of “judgment” because so many people misspell it, meaning both spellings are…ugh…acceptable. Still, commit to one or another, because both are here. As for the story, it’s a lot of plot thrown at us with not enough to ground us and make us feel for the characters. The points system is great, but we have no reason to be invested in the character before it begins. BRONZE

MN – Now this is a concept! The salvation of Mina and the nieces depending on the holiness of another person. Wow. I wonder if that kind of thing would make us more or less good people on earth? And for all of it to be so darn physical… One might note my issue with the line about sterilization… gotta know your judges! (I’m kidding, of course. I mean… I disagree with the assertion of the line, but whatever, I’m still giving this a gold). GOLD

As often with the religious themes, we had some pretty choice submissions. Do the kids still say “choice?” No? Well, lick me.

Jordan Graham was persona non grata, but a pass chip was activated and he is not a nonsub.

Long Distance Phone Call for Friendship: 4-6-6 = 16/3 = 5.33
The Devil Wear PRADAZ: 1/8/3 = 12/3 = 4.00
The Hidden Legends of Temple Grandin: 0-0-6-3-3 = 12/5 = 2.40
For the Love of Pete: 0-1-0-3 = 4/4 = 1.00

For the Love, you will now shrink down to three, just like all the remaining tribes save for one. This is starting to look a lot like the first Turbo, eh? Anyway, the four of you shall vote by Monday night at 9pm Central. If for some reason you have a crazy Labor Day planned, let me know, but this IS just a vote so I’m hoping we don’t have any trouble here.

For the next two weeks at least, my schedule is very night-heavy and this may affect judging. Hopefully I can adjust and get things done at night, but I make no promises yet. I’ll try to strike a balance between fulfilling prompts and realistic turnaround times.

Cheers, Survivors.