Describing his face on the day he died would be a terribly hard thing to do. Not his face while he lay dead – that is easy to describe; swollen and starting to rot, all evidence of a shameful death that we will speak of later. It is his face in the afterlife, the look he carries on it as he stands in the proverbial Hall of Judgement. This is what is hard to describe. Be that as it may, it would interest you to know how his face got that way.
Larry was standing in a white room that was as wide as it was tall. The ceiling was a collection of white fluffy clouds and the walls seemed to be miles away. It felt like he was standing in the middle of the hall. All of his senses persisted and so in addition to seeing all the things in front of him, the faint smell of urine and rotting flesh greeted his nose, he could taste something sour in his mouth, and felt a gentle directionless breeze on his pasty white skin. As for his ears, they were taking in the words of a dark-skinned woman who stood in front of him dressed in an impeccable white robe that was in sharp contrast to her skin.
“Do you understand what I am saying?” She repeated, because he had an indescribable look on his face and hadn’t uttered a word since she last spoke. Their encounter had started like this; Larry had walked into the Great Hall from no door in particular and like most people thrown into a strange place, had stared around for what could be described as too long. After a few moments of hopelessly staring at nothing, he noticed her standing there. She was tall, taller than he was. He stood at almost 5’9 and she was easily 6’5, forcing him to look up at her as they spoke.
“Hello” he started. He was shocked at the way his voice sounded, like it belonged to a different person; a younger him.
“Hello and welcome to the Hall of Judgement. You are Larry yes?” She responded in a voice that shook the entire hall, this vibration coursed through his body and caused a slight disturbance when it got to his scrotum. He had not looked down until that moment and was now staring at a body that used to be his but he had since forgotten. This body was naked, he stared at it; white with no blemishes, he liked it. A part of him thought to cover up his nakedness but his hands would not move, they rested by his side, unbothered, like they were enjoying the show and would rather not be disturbed.
“Y-yes, I am Larry.” He started, “…actually, Pastor Larry, I was the minister at God’s Assembly Ministry in Wisconsin.” He added with a slight gloating in his voice and a slight nod of his head that seemed to say ‘yep, it is I’.
“Oh, you were? Fantastic.”
“Yes I was.” His tone was sharper now, he recognized her sarcasm and did not appreciate it. “I was until… well until…”
“You died Larry, until you died. Do you remember how that happened? We try to allow people get a little glance at how they died before we get down to judgement and all that.” There was an unmistakable smirk on her face as she talked of allowing people get a glance. And a glance is what he got. The white room suddenly started to disappear, bit by bit, as each of the white walls split into a million square tiles and fell away. Larry was soon standing alone – naked still – on the street where he last remembered being. It all looked like he was within a picture, everything around was still, a piece of paper rolling down the road was stuck in its tracks, a meowing cat looked like it had half of the sound left in its throat, a black boy running up the street had one leg in front of the other, his face laced with terror. Larry started to search for something to cover himself with whilst looking around for the woman.
“I’m still here,” came her voice from somewhere within him, “and oh, no one can see you so stop with your fretting.” She added sternly.
“But can’t I just get something to wear, like that robe you were wearing.”
She laughed now. A long noisy laugh, it was the ‘slap-your-knee-and-clap-your-hands-while-shaking-almost-violently’ type and he could hear it very clearly.
“You tried it! Haha. No you can’t get something to wear and definitely not the robe I’m wearing. Robes are given after judgement.”
“But I was a pastor, I don’t think-”
“Shh, you’re going to miss it…” she said this as the world in the picture suddenly resumed. The cat’s meow hit his ears, the paper rolled down the street and the boy continued his running, terror still plastered on his face. There was the faint sound of men running coming from far behind him, it sounded like three of them. It was late and there were no cars in sight so the boy quickly abandoned the sidewalk and began running on the main road. Larry stared, and soon he could see himself in this replay, walking down the street from the opposite direction towards the running boy, with his Bible under his arm, his jacket over the other arm and his shirt rumpled from the intense demon-casting prayer session that had ensued some hours before. The boy runs up to him.
“Pastor, Pastor Larry, please help me, they’re coming after me and I didn’t do nothing.” The boy is out of breath and leaning on a 60-year old Larry. Larry stared at himself in this replay, stared at the body he now had, and wondered how he had allowed himself to get a gut.
“Who are they? Other gangs?” Larry replies in the replay, looking towards where the boy was coming from and trying to step away from him.
“Gangs? No. Don’t you remember me, it’s Jamal, me and my mom attend the church beside yours and we live a few blocks from you. It’s the police. They think I’m someone else. They fired a few shots at me, I had to run.”
“My boy, you never run from law enforcement, it makes you seem guilty. Now what you will do is go back to them and let them take you in for questioning and if you are really the wrong person, they will let you go, it’s that easy.”
The look on Jamal’s face suggested that he thought Larry was batshit crazy. He didn’t bother saying another thing and made to move to the left of Larry and continue his escape. Their footsteps were soon close and they emerged, each of them with their hands on their triggers and pointing in the direction of Larry and Jamal.
“Please tell them to stop, Pastor Larry. I didn’t do anything.” Jamal’s voice comes from behind Larry. He hid as he saw them coming and knew he had nowhere to run to.
“Now boy, remember what I said, you have to obey the police.” Larry cooed, trying to convince Jamal to come out from behind him.
“Sir, is that man bothering you?” The officer in the middle of the other two, the one with shaky sweaty hands, says as his finger remained on the trigger. Jamal’s face contorted at being called a man. He was sure they knew he was just a kid.
“Well officer, he refuses to move away from me, he thinks you want to shoot him.” Larry replies. There is a mocking in his tone, like there was a joke being shared, like it was incredulous to think that the police would want to shoot an unarmed boy.
“We just need to question him sir so please step away so we can apprehend him.”
Larry moved, he moved like he knew. Like he knew what would come next.
“He’s got a -” came the voice of one of the other officers and before the word ‘gun’ fell from his mouth and into the silent night, two shots rang in the air causing lights that had been on in houses to go dark and the cat to meow and scram. There was a third shot soon, and then a fourth and then a fifth. There were five shots that night and as the officers approached the bloodied body of 12-year old Jamal, they could not help but notice that he only had four bullet wounds. They turned to look around for Larry and soon found that he was gone.
“Where did you go?” the voice of the woman, still ringing from somewhere within him, said to him. He looked hard and soon saw himself a few miles away from the scene of the shots and the memories started to rush in one by one. He started to remember his last moments, the reason he was not yet found, the reason he could smell rotting flesh and people’s urine. He had run after hearing the two shots and gotten away to an alley. It was in this alley, with dumpsters that had trash piled up higher than him and where he smelt foul things, this was where he would take his last breath. A bullet had pierced and lodged itself in him, somewhere in his chest.
“Right below your heart” she said as he stared at the replay of him fall among the trash on the ground. The white walls of the hall soon started to reappear, just as they had fallen apart, reattaching themselves like a puzzle. She was now in front of him again. He hadn’t bothered to look at her properly before. She had kind eyes, they were brown, the kind of brown that made you stare into them even when you knew it was rude to, but you just couldn’t help it. Her skin was smooth and dark – everything you wanted chocolate to be. Her curly black hair was held back in a huge bun by what looked to be a halo-scrunchy.
“So, now that you have seen that, ready for judgement?” She heaved a sigh before starting to speak. It was the kind of sigh you heaved after watching an intense movie, it was the credits-are-rolling-and-I-am-about-to-stand-up-and-leave-the-theatre sigh.
He nodded. There was a smirk on his face that said he was cocky. It laid his mind bare and told of what lay within and at that moment it was clear that he was extremely certain that he was going through the Pearly Gates to go see God.
There was a loud thud as she opened a huge hardback book with white covers on both sides and a golden spine that was easily the height of a coke can. She began to scroll through the book with her index finger, presumably through names before finally stopping abruptly.
“Aha!” she screamed. His smile widened. Enough of the shenanigans, he thought, let me in.
“But adrenaline though…” She looked up from the book and straight at him, the tone of her voice said she wanted to make conversation, to stall.
“Wait, what?” Larry’s face registered all the confusion that his mind willed to convey and this made her laugh. He could tell she was one of those people that laughed a lot. He did not like people like that.
“Yeah, adrenaline. We call it ‘the juice’. Look at how you were able to run even with a bullet in you. It’s pretty neat isn’t it? One of the best things made on this side of eternity, trust me.” She continued after stopping her laughter.
“Yeah, that’s great. Can I go in now?”
“Woah there Bolt, there’s a process.” She said with her palm raised.
He stared at her with a blankness on his face that was almost comical. He was not enjoying the delay. She did not seem to mind it so much.
“I have all eternity to do this so you better fix your face. Okay, let’s play a little game.” She started. His exasperation could be seen in his eyes and she ignored it as she began to tell him the rules of the game; she would show him the pictures of different individuals and he would say where they were; heaven or hell.
“Is this also one of the things done here? Like the replay death thing?” he asked with a resignation in his voice that came from knowing he was getting in and so a little delay would not matter compared to eternity.
“No it’s not. But I just felt like it okay?” she stood there, taller, looking down at him. He nodded and the game began soon. There was suddenly a huge screen in the place the book had been, floating in mid-air a few feet from them. On this screen there was a picture of a man. He was the gay athlete who had moved into Larry’s neighbourhood a few years before his death. His name was Mark. Mark had tried attending one of the services after being invited by a neighbour and had been chased out and called the devil’s spawn by Larry. It had been one of Larry’s proudest moments – doing God’s work. And even now, a smile played across Larry’s face.
“Hell” he said. She nodded, a slow, thoughtful nod, as she looked at him before she snapped her fingers and the picture became a woman. She was a hijabi named Halima. He remembered her from the hospital, she had been one of the nurses there. On one occasion when he had had to pass a gallstone and she had been the only one around to help, he had told her not to touch him.
“I would rather die and be with God than be defiled by your sinful hands. Repent and give your life to Christ. Leave this heathen cloth you have around your head. I serve a living God and he will save me without your help.” He remembered saying these words to her when she walked into his ward. He was even surer about this than the last one.
“Hell.” Came his reply.
The next picture was of little Jamal. He had answered the other two with a swiftness but this time he stood and took his time. He moved his mouth around like he already knew what to say but wanted to taste the words first.
“Well, I’m not certain. He is a young boy but you know how these…” he stopped
“…these people?” she said, cocking her head to one side.
“No, I didn’t mean it that way. I-” He started to explain before stopping.
“Hell.” He said, with a steeliness in his voice. He wanted to be done with this.
The next picture was a picture of him. It was the last picture he had taken while on earth, his eyes were slightly closed and the greying hair in his nose had started to poke out of the nostrils. He turned to her with questions on his face.
“Heaven.” He said, smiling as he turned back to face the screen that was slowly fading into nothing. She was now standing in front of him again. Her face was less jovial than it had been since the entire encounter began and he knew it was finally time to go into his mansion in heaven. He simply could not wait to see God.
“Well?” He said to her after waiting for some time. She had just stood there staring at him with her big brown eyes.
“Did I get it?”
“You enjoy playing God. That feeling, of being sure that a person is where you think they should be, you relish it. But the truth is, I can’t tell you where they are” she paused and looked around before leaning in and whispering, “we operate on a strictly confidential basis, but I can confirm that you got the last one wrong.”
“Wait, what do you mean?”
“I mean what I said; you said you’re going to heaven, I’m saying nope.”
“But I was… I am a servant of God. I did all he asked me to do…”
“…and then some. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not you, it’s the way the world is set up. Ever heard of predestination?” she asked him as his once smiling face was now set in a scowl.
“Well, that’s it. Regardless of what you are or what you do, you are either going to heaven or hell and it is determined before you are even born. So there you go.” As she said this the screen reappeared and in it he saw people dressed in robes not unlike hers. Their faces bore smiles and in their hands were glasses of wine and he could hear the faint music of a harp. He stared on and soon caught the face of a young boy who looked a lot like Jamal, smiling.
This was when the shock hit him. This was when the indescribable look came upon his face and remained there. His face looked drained of blood, his nose contorted like there was suddenly a smell in the room and his eyes, they were squinting so much that they were almost shut. This is as far as the description will go. The look stayed on his face even as she asked him again,
“Do you understand what I am saying?” He did not respond. He just stared straight at her, the look still on his face. She called a name as he stared. A name he did not quite hear properly. He was still staring at the screen when a poof sound filled the great hall and a man dressed in a well-tailored white suit was suddenly in the room with them. He was Caucasian with chiselled features; a jawline that could cut glass, baby blue eyes, a full head of sandy-brown hair. He had one of those faces that you were certain had been in a Hollywood movie at some point.
“Do I really have to wear this every time I come in here? I still have to change every time I leave.” The man in the suit said as he tugged on the sleeves of his suit and walked towards Larry and the woman.
“Yes you do, I won’t have you coming in here with those things you call clothes, messing up my hall.” The woman replied him with a sternness in her voice that said they had history, the kind that was broken, that would never be fixed.
“Oh where are my manners? Hi.” He said walking forward towards Larry and taking his hand in a firm shake.
“My name is Larry. Pastor Larry. I am here for judgement and I am being told I am going to hell, you look like you could help me explain to her that there must be a mistake.” Larry said all the words quickly. As he spoke, a comical look of surprise started to play across the man’s face, he looked like he was trying hard not to laugh.
“Oh, well, okay. My name is Luci. You may know me as the Devil.” Luci smiled a toothy smile as he said this. Larry leapt backwards as he untangled his hands from him. Luci began to laugh a laugh that racked his whole body and the woman joined in briefly before stopping abruptly, Luci stopped almost as soon as she did.
If nothing else would have made it clear, the red colour of Larry’s face told all who could have seen it that he was beyond pissed. As he opened his mouth to speak to the woman, there was suddenly a desk in front of her, on which she rested her right elbow and her face of her right palm, a file appeared that moved by itself over the fingernails of her left hand as she raised it up. The file went back and forth, filing her perfect nails. She was chewing gum. She suddenly had the demeanour of a receptionist. One would say she made an excellent actress.
“I demand to speak to God! Now!” Larry bellowed. His voice filled the hall but did not do much else. The woman kept up her receptionist persona while Luci stayed on the side trying hard and failing to hold in his laughter. Larry continued to scream his demands as he stood in one place and watched as they fell on two deaf ears and two others that were nearing convulsion from laughter.
“Okay I can’t take this anymore,” Luci started, using the handkerchief in his breast pocket to clean the corners of his eyes, “She was messing with you.”
Larry looked from Luci back to the woman and saw that the desk, file, and gum were all gone. He started to heave a sigh of relief at the fact that it was all a joke when he felt Luci’s hands on his shoulders.
“When I say she was messing with you, I meant with the whole predestination thing. You lived a horrible life, you were a racist loveless asshole and so… you are going to hell. With me. Now in fact, we don’t have much time.” There was a timbre in Luci’s voice as he spoke into Larry’s ear. Larry could almost hear him smiling as he spoke.
“But, but…” These were the last words Larry spoke as he stared at the woman’s smiling face and her hand waving him goodbye before a force turned him around to face the wall that he had had his back to. His legs were moving of their own accord paying no mind to his wishes not to move. Luci trudged on beside him.
“You really need to stop trying not to walk. Your new body is aware of where it should be and it is heading there, don’t fight it.” Luci said, patting him on the back as they neared the wall.
“But I am a servant of God, I served him my whole life, I am sure once I speak to him, this will be sorted out. I really don’t think she should get the final say. Or any say to be honest.” Larry said all this as he struggled, to no avail, to turn his head and entire body around and head in the opposite direction.
“Are you really this dense? Like are you actually this fucking stupid?” Luci’s voice carried a hint of pity and a lot of rage. He stared at Larry as he spoke. A door appeared on the white wall and it began to open slowly. Larry looked at Luci, unsure of why he was being insulted.
“She is God, you moron. Creator of the universe, yada yada. Yep, that’s her.” Luci said this part while shaking his head. But there was a calmness in his voice as he explained. A calmness that came from explaining it several times to several people and watching them stare at him in disbelief. As the door opened, it revealed a cave, filled with volcanoes of varying sizes that covered every single space that was not already occupied by bodies. As they drew nearer, it was suddenly hotter and Larry could feel his skin change. He looked down to find that the body he had had in the hall was gone and was now replaced with the 60-year old body he had had on earth – give or take a few acid burns. He looked up to speak to Luci and was met with a different person too. Luci now had a fatter face, grotesquely fat body, and tinier hands. His hair was an atrocious blonde toupee that didn’t sit too well on his head. Larry took it all in as the volcanoes of varying sizes erupted around him. He looked at all the people, ugly and rotting they were. He wanted to protest, to say that this was not where he was supposed to be, not for eternity. Luci, as if reading his mind placed a hand on his shoulder.
“We are ugly, all of us. And not in the way you’ve been taught to think, we are ugly now because we did ugly things. All of us are ugly people.” Luci removed his hands and started walking away from Larry to join some other rotting bodies as they writhed in the growing heat before he turned around to face Larry again like he had forgotten something.
“Oh, and Larry, that’s really why we are here. You see God, She don’t like ugly.”
Edwin Madu (@) is a Nigerian writer. He writes short fiction, non-fiction and poetry. His work had been featured in: African Writer, Brittle Paper, The Kalahari Review, Jalada Languages Anthology, AFREADA, The Jeli and Per Contra. His short story “Only By Immersion” was longlisted for the 2015 Awele Creative Trust Award. In 2015, he was one of the selected participants at the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop. He blogs at edwinmadu.com.
Related country: Nigeria