About this Story
Heaven is everything Samantha dreamed it would be...sort of.
Heaven is everything Samantha dreamed it would be...sort of.
Samantha anxiously tapped her foot on the linoleum and pinched her eyes as the incessant hum of the fluorescent lights gave her a headache. How long had she been here? Ten years? Twenty? A hundred? No worries, she wouldn't be here forever.
She checked her slip. Just five numbers ahead.
She knew Purgatory wasn’t supposed to be comfortable, but why did it have to look so much like the DMV? A guy biker in a scraggly beard coughed a few plastic chairs over from her. Samantha instinctively leaned away.
The inside of her foot itched. Why? Her body was dead on Earth, probably long buried by now. A lifetime ago she’d died in her sleep of some untreated heart condition. What a boring way to go. That light at the end of the tunnel you see when you die? Just one of those awful fluorescent lights.
The coughing biker hoisted himself out of the chair and walked to the counter. The little bell by the glass door rang as an elderly woman in a hospital gown entered. The attendant whispered instructions, handed her a ticket, and pointed her toward a chair.
Samantha looked at her number again and smoothed the wrinkles on her pajamas. Thank God she went to Confession the Saturday before she died. She was surprised she even had to wait in Purgatory before getting in, but little things add up. She did let her mind wander a little during the homily last Sunday. And yeah, she was a little brusker with that panhandler than she needed to be. At least she wasn’t a real sinner; imagine how long she’d have had to wait then!
She checked her slip. She rechecked it. Guess they skipped a few numbers!
She jumped up and walked to the desk—not too quickly. The clerk behind the glass pane finished blowing her nose before taking Samantha’s ticket.
“Samantha Collingwood,” Samantha offered.
“You don’t need to tell us, dearie, it’s all in the computer.”
The clerk clacked away at her 90s keyboard. The curls on her wig bobbed.
“Are you an angel?” Samantha asked.
The clerk pulled down her glasses and glared at Samantha.
“Don’t I look like one?”
“Oh no! I’m not judging! Just, nobody’s told me anything so it doesn’t hurt to ask!”
The clerk returned to the computer, “Well, you check out. Please exit through the doors on your left. Welcome to Heaven.”
A few seconds later, Samantha found herself in her old house. No, not quite. This was like her old house, but better. She’d always been orderly in life, but there wasn’t a thing out of place here. That awful wallpaper was gone from the living room, replaced by a cool shade of lavender paint she’d always pictured. That bothersome cupboard wasn’t hanging off a busted hinge either; in fact, the whole kitchen had been redone exactly as she’d always wanted it. The entire house had a lovely scent to it: fresh like lilac, yet not phony like those plug-in air fresheners.
There was a stack of books on the kitchen table, and on top was a handwritten note:
Congratulations on making it to Heaven, Samantha! Now you’ll have all the time you’ll want to catch up on these books you intended to read before you moved here. As soon as you’re settled, come see me in the white house down the street. Love, Luke, Vice President of the HOA (Heavenly Order Association)
Samantha smiled and tacked the note up on the blank corkboard next to the calendar. After giving the whole house a once-over, she grabbed a pitcher of iced tea from the fridge and stretched out on her favorite chair on the patio. The sun filtered through the trees at just the right angle, warming the air without getting in her eyes, while a cool breeze kept the bugs away (if there were bugs to keep away).
“Sam? Well, I’ll be! You made it!”
Samantha winced. She knew that voice. Sure enough, there were those brown bangs bouncing up from behind the fence.
“Tanya! What surprise! When did you get here?”
“Who knows? Time really doesn’t mean anything here. I lived to be a plucky 89 years old, would you believe it? One moment I’m gasping for air in a hospital bed, the next I’m here! I feel like that house of yours has been empty for far too long though! Oh Sam, isn’t this place perfect?”
“Oh just perfect!” Samantha put on that plastic grin she’d perfected when talking with Tanya. She wrinkled her nose when she noticed Tanya’s furry little monster rolling around in the grass.
“Well, I’m going to take a look around the block. I haven’t checked in with Luke yet,” Samantha said.
“Oh, Luke’s wonderful. The man’s a doll (not too hard on the eyes, either)!”
Samantha strolled down the street but couldn’t enjoy the fluffy clouds floating by, the exotic mixture of birds perched on fountains, or the kids happily zipping around on their bikes. All she could think about was Tanya. Not only had Tanya made it to Heaven, but she’d been there long before Samantha. Did she have to go through Purgatory first? Samantha must have a word with Luke about it.
Before she’d even finished ascending the front steps of the beautiful old New England-style house, the door flew open and she found herself wrapped in sky blue polo and the scent of pine.
“Come on in, Samantha!”
She broke off from the hug and oriented herself.
Luke herded her inside, threw back his long black hair, and laughed, “Yes, but I’m not that Luke. I can arrange a meeting with Saint Luke if you’d like. I’m the angel in charge of this block. If you have any questions, come to me.”
Two minutes later, he had two steaming cups of coffee on the table between them. Samantha admired his collection of religious art. Beautifully dark, tragic pieces; none of this hippy-dippy happy Jesus stuff she saw in some churches these days.
“So how’s Heaven treating you so far?”
“Oh it’s just wonderful!” she sat down, “It’s everything I loved about home but better!”
“Well that’s only part of the joy,” he leaned back and sipped his coffee, “Heaven isn’t so much what you have, as who you’re with. It’s being with Jesus, you know?”
Samantha nodded. Luke leaned forward.
“You want to meet Him?”
Her eyes widened, “Right now?”
“Whenever you want!” Luke pointed out the window. Straight up the street, at the far end, stood a beautiful red ranch house with golden trim, “He’s always home, and always open for company.”
Samantha’s eyes glazed over. She pictured herself being welcomed into Jesus’ warm embrace. The chance to look into His eyes and hear from His lips the affirmation that yes, she was one of His good and faithful servants.
She shifted uncomfortably.
“Luke, who do I come to with…concerns? Like, about other occupants?”
“You’ve got a complaint? Here?”
She looked away, ashamed to even think of it, “Well not so much a complaint, just…I was wondering about Tanya.”
“Ah yes. Next door to you!”
“Yes, you see, I knew her somewhat when I was alive. She lived in sin with a boyfriend, she often had signs on her yard promoting the most appalling ideals, and I can’t even repeat the casually blasphemous language I often heard coming from her mouth. I don’t think that woman went to church a day in her life! So how…”
“How did she get here before you?”
“Well, have you thought to ask her about her story? You might be surprised.”
Samantha bit her lip. It was true that anything could have happened in Tanya’s remaining years. Plenty of saints came to Jesus later in life. Still, Samantha had done everything right! She went to Mass every Sunday! She prayed daily! She tithed and volunteered and breathed the faith!
Luke furrowed his brows while he tried to read Samantha’s face. She blushed.
“I’m just confused why I had to wait so long in Purgatory and Tanya seemingly just got in with no issues. What did she do right that I didn’t?”
Luke smiled, “I can’t tell you all about Tanya because that’s not my place, but I will say this: you lived in a position of great privilege, Samantha. Kind Catholic parents, upright upbringing, a strong, supportive community. Not everyone is blessed with such riches, but sometimes all folks need is the friendship of someone who is.”
“But we’ve got all these rules and commandments for a reason. So many of us sacrifice and work so hard to live a holy life. I’m glad Tanya made it. Really, I am. But what’s the use of going through all that when seemingly anybody can just waltz in?”
After a moment, Luke spoke up again.
“I’ll be honest, Samantha, I don’t know that anybody has brought that up before. I know I certainly haven’t given it much thought until now. I’ll tell you what, I’ll pull her file, bring it up to the board, and we’ll look into it. Maybe it is time we made some adjustments to our admission process.”
Samantha jumped up, “Oh thank you! That’s all I’m asking. I hope I don’t sound crazy.”
“Not at all! It’s good to consider these things from time to time.”
He took Samantha’s coffee and showed her to the door. The night air was cool. A full moon cast silvery light over the neighborhood. Samantha looked up the street at the red and gold house at the end.
Tomorrow. First thing in the morning, I’ll go see Him.
Early next morning Samantha’s house filled with the scent of fresh-baked rhubarb crisp. The recipe was a favorite of hers, a specialty she’d perfected over the years. She placed the hot dish in a wicker basket lined with a red checked cloth before taking off up the street. As she passed Tanya’s house, she noticed her dog didn’t bolt out of some corner to yap her head off as usual. In fact, the house seemed quieter than usual. Samantha could actually hear herself think, and didn’t need to knock on Tanya’s door to tell her to turn the music down. She shrugged. Maybe in Heaven Tanya finally learned to be a good neighbor.
The sun rained golden light. A group of kids chased each other around a sprinkler, trying to dodge the streams of water while pushing each other in. They ran into the backyard when an adult called to them that the hot dogs were ready. Samantha was brought back to her childhood when she would spend her summers biking to the lake. She thought about what Luke had said yesterday. She really was blessed. She was thankful that she was raised in the years before smartphones and social media. She’d always attended strong parishes rooted in tradition, instead of these rowdy guitar churches you find more commonly today. She’d had a good background and the sense to keep herself in good company. She had worked hard to get here!
She pulled herself out of her reverie. A smile beneath a shock of black hair beamed at her from behind a wooden fence.
“I’m Tony Olsteen! I was just about to come over to your place to see if you wanted to join our little barbeque! Most of the neighborhood’s here.”
Samantha looked up the street at Jesus’ house. She looked down at her crisp.
“I’d be delighted, neighbor!”
It was an old-fashioned block party. Samantha added her crisp to the collection of food on the folding table. A few teens threw a frisbee around while couples tossed horseshoes on the side of the house. Samantha chatted with Tony and his wife Edith about life on Earth (they’d left a small town’s worth of kids and grandkids behind, and somehow recalled the names and birthdays of all of them) and Samantha basked in the camaraderie. Here were good, God-fearing people! Upstanding folks she could break bread with. She mingled, swapped stories, and enjoyed the hot dog buns she couldn’t back on Earth (she was intolerant of gluten). Everybody on the street seemed to be there…everybody except Tanya.
Eventually, Samantha found herself next to Luke, who was kicked back in a lawn chair with a mimosa, khaki shorts, and a Hawaiian shirt.
“About that,” he pushed his sunglasses down in answer to Samantha’s inquiry about Tanya. I pulled her file like you asked, brought it before the board, and we decided you have a point.”
“Well, to a degree. We’ve always offered a measure of grace, but we’ve also taken into account how people are often a product of their environment. Some folks only know what they’re raised to know. Which is true, but ignorance is also no excuse, right? Can’t be having double standards!”
Samantha nodded. Finally, somebody who understood!
“Absolutely!” she said, “It’s just what I’ve always said. Imagine if everybody relied on deathbed conversions! Though I do hope you didn’t send Tanya down-”
Luke waved that concern aside, “Oh of course not, but you won’t see her again until we see some real growth. We’ve gone ahead and applied the new regulations across the board. If you’ve ever got any other ideas, my door is always open.”
A wave of relief flooded over Samantha. She said a prayer under her breath for Tanya and returned to her hot dog.
She hit it off with Tony and Edith splendidly, and soon she found herself laughing over drinks with them well after everyone else had gone home. Edith showed off her trumpeting skills (“Well now I’ve got all eternity to get better!”) and Samantha stumbled her way through the one song she’d learned to play on the piano when she was in high school.
As the evening wore on, Samantha noticed that she hadn’t seen so much as a crucifix on the wall. Now that she thought of it, the Olsteens didn’t cross themselves before meals earlier.
“So what parish did you go to back home?”
“Holy Hope Baptist, in Portland,” Tony beamed proudly.
Samantha didn’t contain her surprise, “Oh interesting! Baptist! So seeing Heaven must have been a surprise.”
“How so?” Edith asked.
“Well,” Samantha searched for words, “to find that everything was so…Catholic. Must have been quite eye-opening.”
Tony laughed, “It’s interesting to see all the different kinds of folks that get here, but I wouldn’t say anything is really all that surprising.”
“Yeah, but don’t you wish you’d lived according to the real Church when you were alive?”
Edith tenderly took her husband’s hand on the couch, “Well, God called us to the life we lived, and it was a good one. We all served Him and look at us now, all up here together!”
The next day, Samantha showed up at Luke’s with a few more notes. What is even the use of having One True Church if people from any church can be saved so easily? As she knocked on his door, she once again looked up the street at Jesus’ house. How she wanted to finally sit down with Him, tell Him about how much she’d done for Him, hear the approval from His own lips. But He’d understand. She was doing His work, right?
Luke sat back, listened to Samantha’s concerns, nodded along, and agreed that she might have a point.
On her walk up to Jesus’ house the next day, she noticed that the neighborhood was a little quieter. There weren’t as many kids playing, and more homes seemed eerily empty. Not to worry, they’d soon fill up again. But a few houses away, she noticed the Joneses were playing some role-playing board game that looked suspiciously occultish, so she made a detour to have a word with Luke.
The next day she discovered the Martinez family had fraternized in ungodly social circles in life. Some of their friends sounded absolutely vulgar (and certainly weren’t up here now). Surely, true Christians should be more discerning in the company they keep.
Every morning on her trek up to Jesus’ house, she got distracted by some new concern from her fellow neighbors, and every couple of days the street grew quieter.
One day she decided that nothing was going to distract her. She was going to meet Jesus today. After all, she’d been so busy keeping Heaven clean, He was sure to appreciate all that she had done. She put on her favorite summer hat and nodded approval at her reflection in the mirror.
As she walked up the street, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. Everything was too still. Now there were no children playing, no music, no chattering, just…nothing. A row of empty houses. Even the birds didn’t seem to be chirping. She shook the feeling of discomfort.
As she ascended the steps to Jesus’ front door, she noticed that she didn’t feel that wonderful tingly feeling she expected when coming into His presence. Then she noticed the note taped to His front door.
The occupant of this house has been found in violation of several new ordinances that have been put into place recently and there is now no place for him here.
Samantha frowned. Jesus needed some education in the Faith? Surprising!
She walked to Luke’s house. Nobody answered the door. She returned home, put on a kettle, and settled into her comfy chair on the back porch. The breeze was perfect. The sun was perfect. Her house was perfect.
Samantha anxiously tapped her foot on the wood porch and pinched her eyes as the stillness gave her a headache. How long had she been here? Ten years? Twenty? A hundred? No worries, she wouldn’t be alone forever.