The young man stood in the background, leaning against the marbled wall of the Bush Intercontinental Airport terminal with an easy, unconscious grace as the crowd eddied past, oblivious to his presence. He ignored them in turn, eyes remaining fixed on the middle aged man standing in the phone box across the way, arguing heatedly with he person on the other end.
His thoughts, had they been discernible, would have probably confused any listener. /Fish. Definitely a fishy aspect here/
The irritated man finally slammed the phone back onto the hook, knocking his leftover pile of change over and muttering under his breath as he knelt stiffly to recover the money. Smith watched quietly as the man fished the last quarter from the floor and stood up. Or tried to. Halfway, his flushed face suddenly paled, and he clutched frantically at his side. The coins fell to the floor once more, unheeded this time as their owner followed them.
The crowd noticed, women and men rushing over, kids clutching mini-travel bags and sweaty adult hands staring with enormous eyes as the ruckus grew.
Smith sighed, and moved closer. Time to go to work.
"I'm dead? But I can't be, I'm not ready! I've got too much to do, I mean, I haven't even got a will...and my insurance, I'm not sure I paid it this month yet, what will Blanche do if those jerks give her a hard time and won't pay up just 'cause I was a couple days late gettin' it in the mail...". The mans frantic babble trailed off as he took in more of his surroundings, the silvery rippling barrier that closed the two of them off from the chaotic scene around them. "I...I'm really dead?" he whispered.
Smith nodded, hiding his smile at the humorous picture the guy presented-heck, he looked like a surprised goldfish, with his eyes so wide and his mouth open like that. He amused himself at times trying to predict how people would react to the news of their own death, based on the usual few minutes he had of observation before the event, and he'd nailed this one on the head. Definitely fish like.
"Yes. I'm afraid you are" he said, then tried to offer some reassurance to the poor guy. He looked like he was going to have another heart attack, if that was possible without his corporal body. "My name is Smith. I'm here to help you."
"Help me? Help me what? I'm dead, what kind of help is there for that! And you...". Grasping at anything to bring some sense of control of the situation, he looked the absurdly young man standing before him over closely, from his black leather jacket and white tee-shirt to the casual jeans and boots. "Your just a kid. Are you an angel? Am I going to Heaven now?" He paled abruptly, as another thought occurred to him. "I'm not going to Hell, am I?"
"Aahh, no, your not." THAT wasn't a question he got very often. Thank goodness, just the thought sent chills up his spine. To be separated forever from God - since he'd died, he'd definitely come to appreciate the true horror of the concept. "And no, I'm not an angel. I'm just a...guide. I'm here to help you."
The guy was quick to recover, Smith had to admit that. He snorted, looking about at the rippling walls separating them from what the world thought of as 'reality' and then back at the young man. "Well, I've had bigger welcoming committees. So, how are you going to help me? Is there, like, red tape to getting into Heaven, too? I thought Someone else would be here to meet me," he ended in a hopeful rush.
"Usually, yes, but yours is a special case." Smith wished the Judge would bestir himself from his mansion or wherever he was and get himself over here. This guy, what was his name-Hobart, Bob Hobart, yeah-was already asking the difficult questions, the ones he'd rather someone like Judge Othneil answered. Face it, the guy practically radiated trustworthiness.
It was probably the robes.
Maybe he should get a set?
That particular train of thought was interrupted by Hobart's agitated yelp. "Special! What do you mean, special. I thought you said I wasn't going to ...that other place." He was suddenly reluctant to mention Hell by name. Funny, it had never bothered him before, but it left a dirty taste in his mouth, here. Wherever exactly here was.
"Your not, your not. Go--I mean, Gosh, calm down, buddy. I just meant that your one of those people who have...unfinished business." At Hobart's uncomprehending look, he clarified: "In your past."
"In my past? I don't...well, I wish I hadn't bought that stock just before the market fell, yeah, but I don't really think that would..." his words trailed off as he peered more closely at Smith. "Excuse me, but...do I know you, young man? Have we met before?"
Now that was a odd remark. Had they met before? How was he supposed to know? This was getting weird. "Ah, no, I doubt it. I haven't been around much, lately." /That's an understatement/ Then curiosity got the better of him. "You really think you know me?"
"Well...your face, it seems so familiar, I could swear that I-oh, my God!" he finished, taking a half step closer to Smith, and looking, really looking, at his face for the first time. "It's you! Oh God, I can't believe it, your here to meet me!" He rushed on, not noticing Smith's shock. "I'm so sorry I didn't recognize you at first, but it's been a while since I...since you..." He stopped in a mumble, suddenly looking sad, before finishing. "Since you died." The man impulsively threw his arms around the slim shoulders of the boy before him. He seemed about to cry, but with tears of joy rather than anger or fear.
Smith felt as though the already insubstantial floor was dissolving out from under his feet. This man knew him? Really KNEW him? It was beyond belief, it was something he'd secretly hoped desperately for, a chance to learn more about himself.
He couldn't believe it.
Hobart-Robert Hobart, he reminded himself dazedly- was still talking.
"I see now, I see. Your here to escort me! I'm so glad He sent someone I know. And you," he continued, stepping back a half pace and smiling, "...you look wonderful. Just like I remember, you haven't changed a bit. I'm so glad, so glad. Your dad is my best friend, you know. I always kind of thought of you as my nephew. It was such a terrible thing, when you died I'll tell ya, it tore your family up so to lose you...and in that way... but here you are, now. And I can't believe it, I'm here with you! So, will we be leaving soon? You know, going ..up There?" He pointed vaguely above their heads while looking hopefully at Smith. "I've always wondered, you know, what Heaven was really like. And now I'm going there to see!"
Smith was torn between the urge to laugh at Hobart's enthusiasm or to whack him for not telling him about his past immediately. /Calm down, the guy doesn't know you don't remember, just get him talking before the Judge gets here and maybe puts the kibosh on it/
"I, uh, I don't really remember all that much about when I , uh, died." he began hesitantly. "Were you there, at the church?"
"Oh, no, no, I wasn't there myself." The older man drew back, his face settling into sad lines at the memory. "I was at your father's house, you know, just visiting on holiday. I remember when the phone call came, from the hospital." Unconsciously, his shoulders drew in at the memory of that awful night. "Your mother answered, she had been putting up the supper dishes while we set up the card game, you know? You remember how your dad likes to play Cribbage whenever he can? We hadn't even started yet, were waiting on your mother to come sit down, when we heard her drop some dish...made quite a crash. Glass everywhere. Your dad started to go out to see what happened, when she let out this scream...God, I'll never forget it." He paused. "You were dead. You'd died just a few miles away, while we sat there, eating supper. The...the hospital wanted someone to come down and identify you. It was awful, just awful. Your mother was screaming and crying, and your father looked like someone had punched him in the gut. I took the phone and said we'd be right down. I don't remember driving, but I guess I did. I had the keys in my hand when we...saw you, anyway."
Smith was frozen, eyes wide as he listened to this play by play rendition of his family's grief. "Saw me? You mean, at the...?"
Hobart cleared his throat. "At the morgue, yeah. Ain't ever been there before. Don't ever want to go back, neither. It was, well, it was real cold and they had you in this room with a bunch of other stiffs. We had to wait while they sorted out which one was you and put you in this other room for us to view." He laughed uneasily. "It's pretty weird telling you all this now, but at the time it was just ...horrible. Anyway, so your mom wasn't doing so well and they'd told us you'd been in a fire, and your dad was afraid that you'd been, well, burned up. He convinced your mother to wait outside and let us identify you. Was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do."
It was like poking a sore tooth. It hurt, but he just had to do it. Smith prompted him. "So...?"
"Yeah, well, we went in, didn't we? Was this young guy there, waiting to show us, a cop hanging about, bunch of people walking by the door...was just no dignity to it. And when they lifted the sheet, I thought your dad was gonna faint right there on the floor. And I could understand why, I mean, they'd told us you'd had ID and this was just confirmation, but to actually see your kid lying there covered in soot and..." Hobart stopped talking and just stood shaking his head sadly. "It was just real bad." he finished simply.
Smith didn't know what to say. Here was this man telling him all he'd wanted so to know, and yet he wasn't sure he could stand to hear more. /Take it a bit at a time/ he told himself. /Find out about your family/ "Did my family...my dad, know why I was at the church?" he asked, a random question from the dozens spinning through his mind. And was confused when Hobart shook his head and glanced away. For a moment he thought the man didn't know anything else, that this was a dead end after all.
Robert Hobart dispelled that notion pretty quick.
"Your dad...your dad took it real hard, harder than anyone else in the family, even your mother. And she was devastated, totally devastated." He smiled lopsidedly. "I think she was counting on you for some cute little grand kids in the future."
Smith just looked at him. What could he say to that?
"Well, I didn't know what was going through his mind for quite a while. He isn't a very open man, your dad, you know that. Doesn't like sharing his thoughts. But I knew something was up. No one could figure out why you were at a church, of all places, at that time of night. Why you weren't home...well, just why, is all. And the fire. They cops and arsonists that came around, they figured it had been set, but nowhere near where you had been found. They figured you had been just unlucky, got caught in the smoke and couldn't get out in time. I heard the other day from your mother, the cops think they might have a suspect now, a kid. A firefighter's kid. That really tore your parents up too, that you may have died 'cause some loser kid wanted to get even with his daddy. Same guy who saved you, got you out of the fire." He reflected. "Tried to save you, anyway. We met him once, at the funeral. Seemed like a nice guy, Ray something-or-other. Too bad he hadn't controlled his brat a long time ago. Might have saved people a lot of grief."
Something was wrong. Hobart was talking in circles, as if he didn't want to talk about- "What about my dad?" /What was going on?/
"It took me awhile, but he finally told me. Seems like he'd forgot to check his E-mail at work that Friday, didn't get your note that you'd meet him at the church to talk. You two had been having some problems lately, just teenage stuff, he told me. Nothing real bad. Stuff 'bout where you wanted to go to college, opposed to where he could afford to send you. But you wanted to talk away from home. Church was always open, he figured that you thought he'd come, hash out your problems, both be home for supper. Only he didn't check his box. So when he never showed up at the church, he figured that you must have decided to just hang out and wait a little longer, in case he was running late. We don't know what happened then. Our best guess was that maybe you fell asleep waiting, and woke up in the middle of the fire and just were too confused to get out. God, that was hard on him. He felt like he'd killed you with his own hands, that he'd let you down so bad, there was no way his hands would ever be clean again."
Hobart stopped and cleared his throat. "Boy, I want to tell you, no matter what trouble you were having then, your daddy loved you more than anything in the world. I think he's just about stopped living, since your funeral. Doesn't do nothing, just sits around staring into space. Keeps that note of yours by his bed, your mother told me. Reads it every night. Spends most of his time after work hanging about the church, or what's left of it. Or out at the cemetery. Won't talk too much about it to your mom or me, though. Hear the city's gonna raze what's left of that church, by the way. Say it's dangerous to kids." He chuckled weakly. "Got that right, haven't they?"
"Ahem." The sound of Judge Othneil's voice woke Smith up to his surroundings. He had been so immersed in what Mr. Hobart was saying that he'd totally forgotten his current situation. Around the three of them, the crowd still milled beyond the hazy barrier, though it looked as though the emergency personal had passed on the patient to an ambulance and were loading up their equipment.
The Judge stood a few feet away, his crisp black robes in stark contrast to the foggy world around them. He looked...solid, more real. And of course, in a way, he was.
"I see our Mr. Smith has been making you feel welcome." he spoke, nodding genially at Smith.
"Mr. Smith? Whose Mr. Smith? This is..." Hobart started, only to subside as the Judge smiled and waved him down.
"No matter, sir. What is important is that you are here now, and are being given the chance to go back and change a life."
"Change my life? Change my life? What, you mean I'm not really dead? Er, not permanently? And what was wrong with my life, anyway. I mean, I don't WANT to leave Blanche, but if it's my time, then..."
The Judge heard him out patiently until he ran down, then turned his eyes on Smith. "I did not actually say YOUR life, Mr. Hobart. I said A life. Well, Mr. Smith? I know what you have been discussing with Mr. Hobart here has been extremely enlightening to you, has it not? Are you ready to go back and help a man...to help you father?"
"My father? I can help him? How?" Smith felt as if he must have taken a turn into the Twilight Zone. A few minutes ago he'd known nothing about his past, and now he was being told that he could be of aid to the most important man in his life, whose face he couldn't even remember.
"As Mr. Hobart has told you, your father has taken your loss very hard. He blames himself for your death, perhaps unjustly so. If you wish, you can go back to the world and help Mr. Hobart, help your family heal...and at the same time, perhaps heal yourself." Judge Othneil cleared his throat gently. "Though I must tell you now, you will not regain all of your memories that you have lost. It is not yet time for that. You have not been judged to be ready."
Smith looked at Bob Hobart, standing nearby with his mouth open- /fish time again/ he thought inanely- and then back to meet the Judge's steady gaze. Tilting his head quizzically, Judge Othneil lifted his gavel and waited for him to speak.
For once, he could find no words.