Four Judges

This is one of my favorite stories, and has gotten me the most outreach so far. Let me know what you think of it! 🙂

In a room blacker than night, devoid of stars or any other such beauties, I floated. It was some shattered gap between nowhere and everywhere, the kind of lonely afterlife I’d always imagined would suit me best.

I deserved nothing more.

It stayed that way for — how do I put this? Forever, and yet not forever. I did not age, or move, or even feel the eons slink by in a human manner, and yet I knew it had been an eternity by the time the angel first appeared. He was a stark contrast to the void around us, brighter than the sun, yet cast light on nothing, as if his glow were being devoured by the abyss.

Suddenly, I was standing on a circular piece of stone, and had some semblance of weight and being.

The angel opened his arms and spoke not in words, but directly to my mind. “Timothy Halpert Bennington. You are now ready for judgment.”

Judgement. Ha, of course the afterlife would be something like religions predicted. I’m sure my life had left a bad taste in God’s mouth. I didn’t respond, only stared into the nothing below me.

“Your first Judge: the one you were cruelest to in life.”

I cocked my head, brows knitting into a line. People from my life would be judging me?

No. No, please, just send me to Hell.

My eyes tried to shut, like slamming the door behind you to avoid a conversation you don’t want to deal with, but something kept them open. The angel hadn’t moved a muscle, and yet, I knew it was him.

A pocket of light smudged something within itself. That smear of darkness stepped forward, onto another stone tile, and clarified as the pocket zipped up.

It was her. I knew it would be, but that didn’t make it any easier to bear.

“Oh, Timmy, you’re so young,” she said, a soft smile on her face. “I’ve missed you so much.”

I couldn’t meet her eyes and searched for words, but my lips only trembled, mouthing empty motions. My eyes fell to the stone beneath her.

“Look at me, Timothy.”

I obliged.

“When you were a boy, no more than fifteen, you once burned all of my photo albums. Not just the ones with your father in them, but the ones of us, family trips and gatherings, every memory I ever had. They were erased forever, those last bits I had of him and our carefree times. I cried every day for a month, when you weren’t home. That was my joy, mementos of when life was simple and fun, which you turned to ash.”

There was nothing I wanted more than to squeeze my eyes shut, but I could not; I was forced to watch the sadness in her eyes as she spoke.

“That was your most cruel action– it hurt me more than when your father left us. He had always been unkind, but for you, the light of my life, to torch away our memories like that… it broke me.”

Before I could muster the courage to apologize, she slipped away into light. I felt sick, so humanly sick in my stomach, but knew there would be no relief. One does not vomit in the afterlife.

The angel offered me no reprieve. “Your second judge: the one you were most kind to.”

Once more a flash, and once more an approach. My eyes widened, face flickering as I tried to understand.

“You didn’t expect to see me again, did you?” Her smile was wide and bashful.

“How…?”

“Oh, silly boy. The mind plays tricks on us sometimes. You probably thought that, because you’d caused me a great pain in life, there was no way you could have brought me joy, but life is not that black and white. It’s so much more than that.”

Still I searched, and still I found no words.

“You were harsh — even cruel — at times, but it wasn’t always like that. Your pain changed you, and even then, you weren’t a purely cruel person. Just one that lashed out once in a while because you didn’t understand how to handle it. Life can get very confusing.

“This is my favorite story. When you were ten — such a cute little man — you wrote me a poem for a school project. I’ll never forget the words on that card: To Mom, my bestest friend. I love you more than gummy bears or mac and cheese. You make me happier than Racer when I drop a potato chip and he eats it. Happy birthday to the best mommy in the whole wide world. You wrote that on a card decorated with hearts and smiley faces. You didn’t know it, but that was right when I’d first been diagnosed and your father started to show signs of his poor character as a man. Then, on top of it, you cooked me dinner, and it was so bad but I ate every bite. It was the best meal I’ve ever had.

“Never in my entire life have I felt as happy as I did in that moment. You were such a deeply caring boy before everything went wrong.”

I barely even remembered any of that. Had I really done something to make her happy? Why didn’t I remember it, when I remembered such other, terrible things so clearly?

She disappeared into the light as I searched my soul, digging for answers but only turning up dirt. The angel, kind as he was, did not let me take a moment to figure things out.

“Your third judge: the one whose life you saved.”

I froze. The one whose life I saved? I’d never saved a life, I’d only done things far from it. Perhaps it was standard practice, and no one would walk through the portal this time.

But, just like clockwork, she was back again, her smile warmer than the halo over her head.

I gaped at her. “No. No, I killed you. This makes no sense, I didn’t save you. Is this some kind of sick joke? Do angels play pranks on people?”

“Oh, sweetie,” she said, shaking her head. “It was mercy. Besides, the sickness had already stolen me. Letting me go in peace in no way makes it your fault. Have you held yourself accountable all this time?”

I couldn’t find it in me to respond, mashing my teeth together instead.

“It was my time to go. There was so much pain and suffering that plagued me, in the end; my sickness was no fault of yours. The fact that you put all your hurt aside and stayed with me so I wouldn’t be alone meant more than the world. You did the most brave thing a boy can do for his mother, and saved me.

Finally, there were words I found that I’d been looking for, choked and jagged as they were. “I love you, Mom. I’m so sorry I wasn’t a better son.”

“Shh, now, darling. Your hurt is almost over. I’ll be waiting for you.”

One final time, she faded away.

“And now, your final judge,” the angel said. “The one whose life you took.”

My nails bit into the skin, I clenched so hard, and I breathed deep to keep myself together in front of the angel overseeing it all– though, honestly, hiding things probably didn’t work when in the presence of Godly beings.

For when the swirling portal of light opened, it was not my mother that walked through as it had been the previous three times. No, it was someone much more familiar, and somehow, more terrifying.

Me.

I fought hard to look away, harder than I’d fought before, but I just couldn’t. There was no power in me, wherever I was, and so I simply stood there, frozen and sobbing at my own reflection.

“This is probably pretty rough for you,” he said, pursing his lips.

I let out a croak in response.

“You’ve always been too hard on yourself, you know that? Isn’t it time that you get a little peace, too?”

“I don’t deserve it,” I whispered.

“Everyone does. This world is a complicated and terrifying place, and everyone knows their own pain. You lived a life consumed by yours, more than equal penance for your mistakes.

“You’ve heard what she had to say, and seen the smile she still wears. You hurt her, yes, but you were also the joy of her life. Your father left because she was sick, not because you weren’t worth it; he was the problem, not either of you. Your mother loved and still loves you, and you’re not a bad man for the things you suffered. I only wish I could’ve shown you that earlier.

“But, alas, I digress. Let’s not do this– you’ve spent long enough convincing yourself you don’t deserve to be happy. It’s time to rest, now, Tim. Be at peace.”

He held out a hand.

I stepped forward and took it.

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