STEPPING THROUGH THE PORTAL out of Level Two is like jumping from the high dive out at the swimming hole. There’s a whoosh of air, the exhilarating and slightly terrifying sensation of flying, and then the freezing plunge into murky depths. Unlike when I used to hit the lake water, though, I keep my eyes open, fixed on the hand that Neil holds in a death grip as we spin through an inky blackness.
With a heavy, bone-jarring thud we land on a hard surface, dripping wet and disoriented, but whole. I look up from the white of my knuckles to Neil’s face, just in time to see his mouth slacken in shock.
He expected to walk into the Christian vision of heaven—streets paved with gold and cherubs playing harps.
Maybe I did too. Instead twisted, blackened filing cabinets tower over us like angry sentinels. Their deformed bodies line both sides of a narrow passageway.
Already regretting our decision to move on from Level Two, I turn. Behind us is a brick wall, making it clear that there is no going back. In front of us, a few paces away, stands a lone woman, her spotless pale pink blazer and pencil skirt at odds with the soot-covered walls. She hasn’t noticed us. She begins to flit about, pulling on the handles of warped steel drawers and kicking at all the burned-edged papers that flutter out and lap at her heels.
I run my free hand down the soggy skirt of my sundress and then bend down to scoop up a charred sheet that has flown in my direction. Though the edges flake off as soon as I touch them, it is obvious this was once a document of great importance. Fancy gold lettering unfurls across buttery-cream linen, like a wedding invitation, but it’s not in any language I recognize.
Neil leans over to inspect it too. He shakes his head and mouths, “What happened here?”
I can’t imagine it was anything good. I shrug and let the paper fall back to the ground. Neil steps forward, pulling me with him, and the crinkle and crunch under his foot finally alert the woman to our presence.
As she turns, she snaps her fingers. Intense bright light floods into our faces, momentarily blinding us.
“State your names, please,” she says in a curt, high-pitched voice that sets me more on edge than I already am.
Once my eyes adjust to the light, the hallway and the woman come back into focus. She clutches a clipboard tight to her chest and peers over at us, her face pinched.
Neil pulls at the collar of his red polo and clears his throat. “Neil Corbet and Felicia Ward.”
“Felicia Ward,” she says thoughtfully. Her whole demeanor softens, making her look much younger than I thought at first. Though that doesn’t mean much in the afterlife, since as far as I know, people are preserved at the age at which they died on Earth. This woman could be a thousand years old and still appear twenty. “I’m Libby.” She steps toward me and bows. “It’s good you’ve come. We’ve been expecting you.”
The bowing throws me off. “What do you mean? How could you know I was coming?”
“Ordinarily I’d say it’s because you’re in our files.” She taps her fist against the nearest hunk of metal. “They used to contain the name, birth date, and death date of every human ever born on Earth. When a person ascended from Level Two, his or her card would automatically appear in these cabinets. But the files haven’t been useful to us since someone blew up this records room.”
Wait a minute. People are blowing things up? Here? But how? I squint at her, overwhelmed. I don’t know what to say.
She whistles loudly between two fingers. “Megan! Please turn off the welcome light.”
The passage dims, bathing us in the warm, dusky glow
of candles. A girl wearing a neon-orange T-shirt dress and kneesocks descends a ladder I didn’t notice before. “Sorry,” Megan says, showing a mouthful of braces. “But the bright light is absolutely essential to the experience.” Her delivery is slightly mocking, like she’s parroting a phrase she’s heard one too many times.
Megan hands us fluffy orange towels, as if she expected us to arrive like drowned rats, and we accept them gratefully, wrapping them around our shoulders.
“Yes,” Libby says. “We may have a mess, but we haven’t abandoned all our matriculation procedures.”
“Does everyone arrive soaked to the bone?” Neil works on drying his hair with the ends of his long towel.
“Every time you cross into a different level, you pass through the Styx River. It’s the border between all dimensions.” Libby has the polished monotone of a flight attendant.
She spins a desk so that it cuts us off from the rest of the hallway. With a grim smile she scoots the clipboard and a pen across it.
“These forms are our interim solution while we wait for a celestial custodian to deliver updated files. Fill these out, and then we’ll take you down to get processed.”
I’m too bewildered to ask questions. Libby’s request is so simple, and while I get my bearings, I might as well go with the flow. I release Neil’s hand reluctantly and pick up the pen to complete the form. It has only two lines: name and age. My name is easy, but my age is more difficult. I
could write “seventeen,” since that’s how old I was when I died. Or I could write “one hundred million,” because that’s how old I feel after spending so much time in Level Two.
Libby extracts another clipboard from her desk and clamps a sheet of paper and a pen onto it. “There you are, Neil,” she says a little too sweetly for my taste. Maybe his reputation as the always perfect, always friendly Boy Scout precedes him as well.
“How do you know who we are?” It comes out more harshly than I intended.
Libby materializes a pencil and uses it to secure her thick, curly reddish-blond hair into a bun. At least I’m familiar with materialization from my time in Level Two. If it works the same way here, all you have to do is call something up in your mind, and it appears, seemingly by magic. Of course, it’s only a copy of what you had on Earth, not the real thing. “Everyone who’s been arriving from Level Two has been talking about Felicia Ward,” Libby says. “It had been years since anyone had come through, and now we get hundreds in every day. They keep telling us the Morati had been holding humans back, and you set things right.”
I lift my clipboard to eye level, pretending to get a closer look. “I helped a little, I guess,” I mumble.
“Oh, c’mon,” Neil says, rubbing my shoulder. “She was so brave.” I peek over and see his adoring smile.
“That’s good to hear,” Libby says. “You must summon that courage again, I’m afraid. The Morati must have slipped in with the crowds and destroyed our files so we wouldn’t
know they weren’t human. Angels are the only ones capable of destroying such celestial creations. And you’re the one who ruined their plans. They’ll be looking for you.”
Me? I shudder and drop the clipboard onto the desk. Of course it makes sense that they’d want revenge, but I honestly thought I was beyond their grasp for good now.
“And if they find you, who knows what they’ll do?” Megan adds. Despite her earlier snark, her wide-eyed gaze and the hitch in her voice convey genuine concern in a way that Libby’s businesslike tone cannot. “People who die here disappear. No one knows where they go.”
If dying in Level Three is the end, I don’t even want to contemplate it. Not after I finally found Neil again. Not when I’ve finally found a measure of happiness. “But I was told that Morati were trapped in Level Two. How could any of them get through?” My information didn’t exactly come from the most reliable source. After all, Julian was Morati. He was a Morati aligned with the rebels, and he took my place in the machine to bring the system down, but he was a Morati nonetheless. I have to admit that since then I’ve thought about Julian’s fate far more than I should, and each time it makes me ache. Against all reason, despite all the lies, I miss him. The way he stared at me before he disappeared—determined to protect me—I can’t get it out of my head.
Libby shrugs. “I don’t know. But the Morati are here.”
And when she says it this time, it’s like I’m punched in the stomach with the certainty that she’s right. I feel
them. Not as strongly as I did when I was plugged into their mainframe, but just enough to know that they are indeed somewhere on this level. I can’t help hoping Julian is here too.
“How can you be so sure? What about other angels?” Neil asks as he slides his completed form across the desk. I glance at it. Since he has written “eighteen” for his age, I retrieve my form and hastily scrawl eighteen on it too, even if it’s not technically true, before letting my clipboard clatter on top of Neil’s.
Libby grimaces. “Angels were never assigned here. Humans administrate this level as we see fit. And we only very rarely get visits from celestial custodians. The last time was fifty years ago at least, and that was long before my time. We think the Morati destroyed our files so that we can’t verify anyone’s identity. We can’t track them down.”
Neil shuffles his feet. “So you saw fit to have all your records on material that could burn?” There’s an annoyed, almost accusatory edge to his voice, but the girls don’t seem offended.
“If you can believe it, they used to have rolls of papyrus.” Megan rolls her eyes, making me warm to her even more. “Normally the files wouldn’t burn. But angels can destroy what angels create.”
Libby stands up straighter. In the way she holds her shoulders, rigid but slanted forward like too much responsibility is weighing upon her, Libby reminds me of my mother, someone I was never able to get along with, no matter how
hard I tried. Libby retrieves our clipboards, dematerializes the desk, and motions for us to follow her. We pick our way through the long, dark hallway, with Megan trailing behind us. In the dim light the cabinets cast ominous shadows.
I drag my feet, dreading going any closer to Morati hell-bent on getting revenge. There must be some way to find them before they find me. “Couldn’t we track them down by searching everyone’s memories? That’d verify who they are, right?”
“In most cases, yes,” Libby confirms. “But angels and the more powerful humans here can control their memories, showing only what they want to and concealing what they don’t. That’s why we haven’t had any luck finding them yet.”
“Careful!” Neil maneuvers me away from a drawer that juts out at a sharp angle, but my foot catches on something, and I trip into his arms, dropping my towel. He’s thin, but strong—the steady presence in my life I was missing for most of my death. And for a minute I allow myself to rest on his chest and imagine we are far away from here, that his heart still beats, and that we’re still alive.
“Yes, please watch your step.” Libby looks back at me over her shoulder with a mixture of envy and pity, but she keeps walking. “The people of Level Three need you.”
I pull away from Neil, startled, and hurry after her. “What? Why?” It’s totally selfish, but I don’t want to be needed—not by anyone other than Neil. I want to be able to figure out what I want, without any pressure. And time
with Neil. That’s what post-Morati Level Two offered me. But we became restless, and the lack of privacy, as well as the promise of something exciting just beyond our reach, convinced us to move on. It might turn out to be the biggest mistake of my afterlife.
“You have a ton of potential, Felicia. You were able to bring down the Morati once, and maybe you can do it again. If you develop your skills further, we think you could be the one who can expose the Morati, by looking into their memories and seeing their true selves. And then we can neutralize their threat.” We’ve reached a door, and Libby stops in front of it. “If you survive that long,” she says, low enough that Neil doesn’t seem to hear it, but I do. Despite my potential she’s skeptical of my current value. And I can’t say I disagree with her.
Libby turns the knob. “What I’ve told you is classified, known only to the security force and a few others. If people were aware of the Morati’s presence, and that they can blend in with us, people could panic. It would only make our hunt for them more difficult. Please keep this to yourselves.” When we nod our assent, Libby throws open the door. Now that we’re both completely dry, Megan takes Neil’s towel and dematerializes it.
We walk out into a small courtyard bordered on all sides by arched walkways, and with a fountain at its center. I look up and see blue sky. The whole scene is so Earthlike, so real, it makes me want to cry. I can almost imagine I’m home again, that the artificial white surroundings of Level
Two were only a long nightmare and I’ve finally woken up.
Neil peers upward as well, and his eyes shine. He puts his arm around me and draws me close. I rest my head on his shoulder, and his curls brush against my forehead. If time could stand still in this moment, we would be perfectly happy, wrapped up in each other, regardless of what’s going on in Level Three.
“Before you go through processing, you can get an idea of the layout of this section of Level Three.” Libby waves us over to a sign that features the sort of map I remember from shopping malls, complete with a red dot proclaiming “You are here.” “Megan, please do the honors.”
Megan grins so widely that sunlight reflects off her braces. “I’d love to!” Her eagerness gives me the impression that Libby doesn’t let her do much. “We’re in Area Two, also known as the Training Center. Dorms are all between Western Avenue and Western Bridge, which leads to Area One. Oh, and then your classes will be in these buildings here to the east, past Eastern Avenue. The middle corridor includes this central administration building, where Libby’s office is, and other important buildings such as the Muse Collection Library. It’s all separated by courtyards or lawns until you get farther north.” She taps a drawing of a hill. “This is where we have all our assemblies. And then beyond that we have our sports fields. Got it? Or do you have questions?”
I have so many questions, I don’t even know where to begin. But Neil blurts, “Why do you still have braces?” It’s
a good question, if a little rude. We can materialize our appearance to the best version of ourselves, so it is unusual that Megan would keep unnecessary metal in her mouth.
Megan pulls her lips back, like she’s at the dentist, revealing a gap between her top front teeth. “When I died, I’d had these on for a whole year. Back then I couldn’t wait to get them off. But now they make me feel more like me, you know?”
I understand. I spent most of my time in Level Two in a plain white shift, and I love being able to wear my familiar clothes now.
“Libby says that once I’ve distanced myself enough from earthly things, I’ll be ready to let my braces go, and pin them on the Forgetting Tree.” Megan sneaks a glance at Libby. “Detachment is part of my training to be a muse, my chosen career.”
“They’ll hear about all that soon enough,” Libby admonishes. “Give them a chance to settle in first.”
“Wait until you see more of the campus.” Megan changes the subject and ignores Libby’s look of irritation. I appreciate it, because her chatter helps to lower my anxiety level. “We have everything a vocational training center needs. Well, except we don’t have a cafeteria, of course. Or bathrooms.”
While it would be heavenly to take a long hot shower, I’m not too bummed about the lack of a dining hall. In my book, in the competition for foods I miss the least, cafeteria offerings are up there with those cardboard-like pizza
pockets they serve on international flights.
“So we’re staying in dorms?” Neil asks. “Aren’t there tons of people here? How do you find a place for everyone?”
“Enrollment has been down as a result of the Morati keeping everyone locked up in Level Two for so long,” Libby answers. “And most of the trainees we had before that time have long moved on to their afterlife careers. It was mostly just us murder victims until about four months ago, when people were able to move up again.”
“That was four months ago?” My head feels fuzzy when I think about time. It never mattered in Level Two, and there was no way to mark it, so I lost my sense for it.
“Yes. It was chaotic that first week, with all the changes we had to make,” Libby says. “We have a larger security force now, but most of our population isn’t aware what the destruction of the records room means. And like I said, we want to keep it that way.”
We’re walking again, turning a corner and arriving at a bank of three booths with turnstiles, much like the tollgates on a major highway. This must be processing. “You go through the center one,” Megan says. She explains that the booth on the left is to process children under twelve who return to Earth to be reincarnated, and the booth on the right is for those who died on Earth at age sixty-five or above. The elderly are allowed to take up residence in the senior center in Area Three until the next Ascension Day retirement ceremony, when they can move on to the next level. Both children and the elderly have caretakers until
they leave Level Three.
Libby hands our clipboards to the attendant in the center booth, who scrutinizes us briefly and then returns our documents. It’s like passport control, only we’re entering a whole new world instead of a new country. When the attendant nods us through, Neil and I push forward, followed by Megan and Libby.
Megan steps ahead and leads us around another corner. When I look up, I gasp. Because leaning against a column is the last person I ever thought I’d see again. My former best friend, Autumn.