Listen to Earth Regained:
Eugene put on his reading glasses. The waiting room appeared no different from most waiting rooms. The walls were a pale yellow. The cushioned seats were not overly comfortable. Eugene was in a chair across from an elderly man, who abruptly spoke to him.
“Hey, so I got a really cheap friend.”
Eugene glanced around.
“Yeah, I’m talking to you,” said the elderly man. “I got a really cheap friend. I mean I had a really cheap friend. He died two weeks ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear it,” said Eugene.
“No, it’s fine. Good news. He got to heaven. But listen, when he gets there, Saint Peter gives him the tour, twelve pearly gates and all. Then he shows him his new house and his yard. It’s nothing crazy. It’s just a beautiful simple house. My friend says, ‘this is great and all, but how am I supposed to make money around here?’ Saint Peter tells him, ‘don’t worry, my son, everything is provided. Your table will always have bread. Your flowers will always grow.’ Sounds pretty good, right?”
Eugene shrugged and nodded.
“Not to my cheap friend. He can’t believe it. He asks Saint Peter again. He says, ‘you’re telling me I can’t make any money in this place?’ Saint Peter is a nice guy. He just smiles. ‘Everything is provided,’ he says again. My friend has had enough. He says, ‘thanks for the tour, Pete, but could you tell me how to get to hell? I’m going to go live there and rent this place out.’”
The door opened into the waiting room. An angelic woman in a white gown appeared with a clipboard. She said nothing.
“That’s me,” said the elderly man.
Eugene picked up the book on the table. He hadn’t held one in his hand since his confirmation class as a teenager. He flipped through the pages until a verse caught his eye. “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” He raised his head in time to see the angelic woman appear again with her clipboard. She said nothing. Eugene nodded. He set down the book and followed her through the door into a hallway.
“Do I need to fill anything out?” asked Eugene.
The woman smirked pleasantly and shook her head.
“Yeah, I suppose not. Habit.”
The empty hallway was lined with closed doors. After a few steps, Eugene peeked beyond the woman and noticed that the hallway seemed to have no end. He could see as far as the vanishing point, where the luminous walls appeared to merge. Looking over his shoulder, he saw that the waiting room door had disappeared. Behind him, the straight and narrow hallway stretched endlessly. Eugene drifted along, reading the gold lettering on each door.
“Are all the rooms the same?” he asked.
The angelic woman slowly glanced back and shook her head. They walked on for several minutes before the woman stopped at one of the doors. She held out her hand toward the door and nodded once. Eugene read the gold lettering and nodded at the woman. Before he could touch the doorknob, the door swept open and light shone through. Eugene stepped through the doorway into a blinding brightness, which forced his eyes closed.
When he opened his eyes, he was looking out on a lush lawn next to a still pond. He checked behind him and saw that the door had disappeared. In place of the door was a massive oak, towering above him. Lining the pond were reeds and full leafy trees, rustling in the breeze. Verdant rolling hills surrounded the yard and spread as far as he could see. Eugene walked up a gently sloping hill to a white clapboard house overlooking the pond. As he ascended the hill, his uncle stood up from his rocking chair on the porch and walked to the top of the stairs. He held out his arms with open palms.
“What do you think?” he called down.
“Not too shabby, Uncle Guido.”
Eugene met his uncle in an embrace at the top of the stairs. When they separated, Uncle Guido held him at arms length and examined him.
“Look the same to me,” said Uncle Guido.
“You, not so much,” said Eugene.
“Yeah, you look like, I don’t know, a movie star.”
“I’ll take it.”
Uncle Guido patted Eugene on the back and returned to his rocking chair. He bowed his head and beckoned Eugene to sit next to him. They sat in silence for an unknown amount of time, enjoying the warm breeze as they watched the wind blow patterns through the tall grass in the distance.
“So this is heaven.”
“Sort of. This is my heaven. I’m told every room is different.”
“So this is your heaven.”
“For now. Of course, there is only now here.”
“Did you choose this?”
“Oh, no. They choose it for you, or your brain chooses. I don’t know. Anyway, they always get it right.”
“It changes? How long does it last?”
“Who knows? There’s no time. I just know that I’m always happy. They know you want something before you even know you want it, which means, you know, you don’t want anything. Weird, right? Let me show you around.”
Uncle Guido led Eugene down to the pond. When they got to the edge, Eugene instinctively stopped. Uncle Guido continued to walk. The water was up to his ankles, but Eugene could see vivid rainbow trout swimming in the depths below him.
“Come on,” said Uncle Guido. “You’ll be fine. The water’s just right. Obviously.”
Eugene stepped carefully out onto the pond. The water felt like soft sand on his feet. They wandered across the pond, gazing through the transparent blue. The colorful trout circled beneath them, shimmering in the sunlight.
“I forgot how you love trout,” said Eugene.
“Yeah, I used to love to fish them. Now I find I just love looking at them.”
“Could you fish here?”
“I don’t know. Never really thought about it,” said Uncle Guido. “Here, I want to show you something.”
Uncle Guido led his nephew to the other side of the pond and into the forest, where the sun was streaming down through the branches. Rays of light glimmered as the leaves flickered in the gentle breeze. The mossy earth massaged Eugene’s feet. Uncle Guido stopped and put his arm on Eugene’s arm.
“Don’t be frightened.”
Peering deeper into the forest, Eugene could see a shadowy form slowly moving toward them, swaying and shifting through the trees. A massive grizzly bear was gracefully approaching, its weight swinging back and forth as it stepped across the forest floor. On all four legs, the bear was nearly as tall as the two men. It bowed its head as it came closer and nuzzled its snout against Uncle Guido’s chest and underneath his arm. Uncle Guido took the bear’s enormous head in his arms and rubbed his jowls.
“Touch him,” said Uncle Guido.
Eugene extended his arm and placed his hand on the bear’s shoulder blade. He slid his palm down his fur, letting his hand fall along the planted arm of the bear. The bear slowly raised himself up onto his haunches and held up his front paws. Eugene reached up and pressed his dwarfed hand against the cushioned pad of his paw.
“Incredible,” said Eugene.
The bear came back down onto four legs and lumbered past them. Uncle Guido smiled and walked on through the trees. Before Eugene could follow, he felt a sharp prick on his finger.
“Where do you feel most comfortable here?”
Uncle Guido stopped, flashing a suspicious glance at Eugene.
“What do you mean? I’m comfortable everywhere here.”
“Right,” said Eugene. “Of course. But look, could we maybe head back to the porch?”
“I want to sit down.”
Without another word, Uncle Guido led Eugene out of the forest and across the pond. They ascended the gently sloping hill up to the house and sat down side by side in the rocking chairs. They faced the view, both lost in their own thoughts. When Uncle Guido spoke, his voice took on an earthly tone.
“What is it?” he said. “Why’d you come here?”
“I’m sorry, Uncle Guido. They said it would be best for someone in the family to tell you. They said it was better than sending in one of the nurses.”
“Do you know how long you’ve been here?” asked Eugene.
“It’s been three years.”
“I know. You remember how long we thought it would be?”
The breeze swept across the leafy trees and the pond. Uncle Guido stared off blankly. Eugene sighed and began again.
“We just can’t afford it. I wish we could—this place is amazing—but we can’t. The money in your estate ran out months ago. The family has been pooling resources ever since.”
Uncle Guido groaned. He shook his head and shifted in his rocking chair.
“Don’t feel guilty. That’s not why I’m telling you. We wanted to keep paying for this. But we just can’t any more. The finances are too tight.”
The two went silent again.
“I just don’t understand,” said Uncle Guido. “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I’ve said my goodbyes. I don’t want to go back.”
“I know. I know.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“The problem is that you’re too healthy.”
They laughed together freely, the absurdity of the situation suddenly striking them both. Uncle Guido stood up and leaned against the porch railing. Recovering from his laughter, he shook his head slowly.
“Absolutely ridiculous,” he said.
“All your measurements are above the threshold,” said Eugene. “They simply aren’t allowed to go through with it. It’s against federal regulations.”
“Damn government. Always the damn government.”
Eugene felt a second sharp prick on his finger.
“Look, Uncle Guido, I have to go. We have to go. They’re telling me it’s time. But I have to explain what’s going to happen. Could you sit back down for a moment?”
Uncle Guido reluctantly returned to his rocking chair.
“I’m going to leave you here, in this rocking chair. They will give you a moment alone to adjust to what I just told you. Okay?”
“Then they are going to shut down the program. Okay?”
“In a few minutes you’re going to return to reality. You have to try to visualize it. You are going to be in your bed. I will be sitting next to you. Everything is going to be okay.”
Uncle Guido nodded. Eugene reached for his uncle’s hand, which was resting on the arm of his rocking chair. He squeezed his hand.
“Look at me,” said Eugene. “Everything is going to be okay. I’m going to take you home with me. You’re going to come live with us. When you open your eyes, I’ll be sitting right next to you. I’ll have my hand on your hand.”
Eugene squeezed Uncle Guido’s hand once more before standing up. He walked down the stairs of the porch and turned around.
“I’ll see you soon,” he said.
Eugene crossed the lawn toward the massive oak. Placing his hand on the rough bark, he closed his eyes and felt for the doorknob. He pushed through the door and opened his eyes. The angelic nurse was awaiting him. She nodded and led the way down the hallway lined with doors. The waiting room door at the end of the hallway had reappeared. The nurse opened the door into the waiting room, and Eugene returned to his seat. Shutting his eyes and taking a deep breath, he removed his reading glasses.
On the bed lay Uncle Guido, his eyes still closed. Wires, neatly bound, ran up from a blinking device into his head. Tubes flowed out of the inside of his forearm. A nurse stood beside the bed, monitoring his heart rate.
“How’d he take it?” she asked.
“He’ll be okay,” said Eugene.
Eugene leaned forward and put his hand on Uncle Guido’s hand.
B. W. Jackson lives in the Hudson Valley Region of New York State. This year, his work has appeared in Cloudbank, Light and Dark, and the Medusa’s Laugh Press anthology Twisted.