by John Schuler
The woman returned to the living room carrying an armload of hat boxes, which she carefully arranged on two suitcases that looked about ready to burst. I thought I could hear stitches popping, one by one, although it might have been my imagination. At any rate, I was determined to maintain a healthy distance from her luggage.
She flashed a quick, nervous smile before bustling off again toward the back of the house.
This is getting out of hand. “Really, this isn’t necessary,” I said.
“Just a few more things,” came a shout from the bedroom, followed by the noise of a minor avalanche that must have come from one of the closets. A few minutes later she emerged dragging yet another large, wheeled suitcase with her right hand; in her left were a couple of empty nylon duffel bags.
Enough of this. I stood between her and the dining room, blocking her path back into the rest of the house. She turned, a mildly puzzled look on her face.
“Who do you think I am?”
The woman hesitated, glanced over her shoulder, and headed towards the foyer. “I better get the umbrella. Yes, I mustn’t forget that.”
I placed my hand on her shoulder, she shrank at the touch. Gently, I turned her to face me.
“Who am I?”
The woman blinked several times. “You’re from the airport?”
“Why, there you are!” She bent down and snapped her fingers, “Here Socks, here kitty kitty, say hello to our nice visitor.” But Socks ignored her, and he wasn’t about to leave the safe haven beneath his couch.
“Long black robe, scythe, horrific visage of fleshless bone...ring a bell?”
“You’re here to take me to Heaven, right? To be with my husband George?”
“Yes, to be with George. Let’s go.”
“Wait a minute, just a minute.” She took an empty duffel and gave me a wide berth on her way to the dining room, “What was it I could take, again?”
“Only what is most dear to your heart.”
She was rifling through a china cabinet, “And, that other thing...what was that?”
“You may keep only that which has eternal value.”
“Like?” she held up piece of china, it had a picture of Elvis holding a microphone.
“Don’t be silly.”
She surveyed the room, “Ah ha! I know,” she produced a small statue of the Virgin Mary from a drawer and showed it to me, beaming with approval.
“Shoot. Well, give me a minute, I know I’ve got things of eternal value around here somewhere.”
I would have rolled my eyes, but instead started browsing the magazines on her coffee table. Cat Fancy, TV Guide, Seashell Collector Monthly.
“You know, George would love it if I could bring him his television.” She said, “Look at that screen! Is there room on your broomstick for that?”
My mandible almost unhinged and clattered across the floor.
“Ma’am, I don't ride a broomstick.”
“I figured something selfless... He loved that thing, loved to watch his games.”
The very large plastic box dominated half the living room wall and was certainly the most contemporary thing in the house. An enormous flat screen gig, it cost a moderate fortune. The remote sitting on top of the unit was so worn, many of the functions couldn’t be identified. Yep, I remember George. 'How many channels will we get up there?'
By the time I turned back to the woman, she was standing near a curio shelf at just such an angle I couldn’t quite make out what she was doing. She was still in shock, so I decided I better investigate. As I approached, she spun around, clutching an object tightly to her chest.
“How about this!” and as if to ward off a vampire, she thrust a crucifix in my face.
Aw, man...this is awkward. We both just stood there, the woman was shielding her face with her left arm. Slowly, she spread her fingers and peeked at me through squinted eyes.
She sighed, and put the crucifix back in its place. She started wringing her hands; her eyes cast glistening sparks as they darted from one object to the next, piercing the room, searching for a source of hope. She finally spotted the Bible.
“Oooh, yes!” Her face brightened.
“It belonged to my grandmother.” She removed it from the shelf; from amidst a collection of books, which judging by the various titles, seem to have been selected purely on the basis of the rich, antique appearance of their covers.
“Lots of family history in here. Is this what I’m supposed to take?”
“You can’t take it. Not the physical book, anyway.”
“Have you ever read it?”
“Of course. I’m a child of God...look here,” she cleared a spot on the coffee table. “This is the Hershel family tree, and here is a picture of the church where my mother went as a child. Look, they had an outhouse, isn’t that quaint?” Her brow furrowed as she unfolded a tattered piece of paper she didn’t recognize. “Oh, this is maw-maw Betty’s birth certificate!”
“No, no, no,” I shook my head, “Have you read it?”
“What do you mean?” She was nonplussed, “It’s a Bible. You’re not supposed to read it - it’s supposed to be read to you. On Sundays, if you can make it.”
I let the weakness of her reply linger in the air while she picked nervously at the worn edges of the book. At length, I said, “Turn to Philippians 3:8”
She closed the book, “Why?”
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
“Well, I certainly wasn’t asking for a sermon - and you’re the last person I would expect to give me one. I mean really, with what you do for a living?”
“Shall we just go, then?”
“Wait, tell me again, slowly. What can I take?”
“It’s not really about what you can take. It’s what you will take, or rather what you’ve been storing up, so you needn’t worry about packing. It will be waiting for you.”
“And I get to keep all of it, right?”
“Only the things most dear to my heart,” she mused. “Things of eternal value.” She was silent for a moment. “I still don't understand. Why the distinction?”
“Oh some petty, whimsical preference of The Almighty, no doubt.” I patted her on the shoulder, “Be sure to ask about it when you stand before Him.”
She cast a furtive glance at the book in her lap, then to the mountain of objects heaped in the middle of the room.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret, might give you some clarity.” I leaned close to her ear and whispered, “The only man-made objects in Heaven are the scars of Christ.”
“What?” She said not with astonishment, but a sort of startled irritation; not as one who had received an epiphany, but as a obstinate child being told, once again, to put away her toys before bedtime.
“'All things as rubbish - filth, manure.' Why would Paul say such a thing?” I asked.
“But I’ve felt that way about Jesus. Plenty of times.”
“Then my next question should be easy.” I cuffed her on the back, amused. “What if you could only choose one item?” I gestured toward her diversions, her escape, her lifelong investment.
“Hmm, only one?” she scrutinized the pile in front of her. “But, all these things are dear to me. There are handmade quilts in there, stuff that’s been passed down for generations. It’s not an easy question at all. How long do I have to decide?”
“A long time usually, but who ever knows? Why don't you just take it all, I’m sure your collection of matchbooks will be a big hit.”
She scuttled to the edge of the couch and regarded me with suspicion. “Are you the Devil?”
I chuckled, and started inching closer. “No, no. Why would you think that?”
“You frighten me.”
“Of course I do.” I was now within inches of her face. “But the God of gods, the King of Glory, the Ancient of Days...doesn’t?”
Her lips began to tremble. “Please, don't send me there.”
I settled back into overstuffed cushions, “I don't send anybody anywhere.”
We waited, and for several minutes neither spoke. The woman was idly thumbing pages.
“There was this verse...” she began.
“First John 2:6?”
“I think it was in Corinthians.” She opened the book.
And I gently reached over, and closed it.
She began to weep.
“Hey, there. What’s wrong?” I handed her a box of tissue from the coffee table. “You’re His child, right?”
“I...” her lips kept moving but no sound escaped.
“Jesus will be there. He who died for the sins of the whole world, aren’t you looking forward to that? You can show him your figurine collection, music boxes, the very nice hats.”
The woman clutched at my robes and pulled me close, searching the depths beneath my cowl for some measure of assurance, a presumed hope of alliance. “W-Will you h-hide me?”
The woman turned and buried her face in the arm of the sofa. I sat with her, counting the books on her living room shelves, until she finally quit sobbing and began in due course, to regain her composure.
“I must look a mess,” she said, adjusting her hair. She took a tissue and blew her nose; took a few more and started dabbing her eyes.
Before long she was her old self again. “Well, no god of mine would condemn an innocent person.” She said, “Lets go get this straightened out, shall we?”
“So, you’re ready to go?”
“Yes. My god is a god of love.”
“That’s right.” I leapt from the couch. We’re off to see the teddy bear god!
“Never mind His glory, honor, justice, righteousness, jealousy and oh, yeah, wrathfulness toward sin—”
“—all He wants is for you to be happy, above all else, right?”
“Exactly,” she stood and dusted off her blouse, “I have rights. This is America.”
“God bless the USA!”
“Help me with my things.”
I took her by the arm, led her across the room and wiped the palm of her hand across the front of that really big television, leaving a rude trail through the dust on the screen. She pulled away, wrinkled her nose and wiped the hand on her pants leg.
“What was that for?” She asked, gazing at the faint gray smudges on the tips of her fingers.
“What you hold is of equal value, and it packs smaller.”
© 2007 John Schuler
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
John wrote this story for his writer's group to critique and somehow ResAliens got a hold of it and wanted to publish it pretty much as it was originally written.