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August 15, 2022

"Next ..."

By Tyler Willson

Mike Morrow was just a bit confused. He kept looking at the little piece of paper in his hand, and then back up to the digital display above the only doorway in the room. The chair he was sitting on was horribly uncomfortable, and he was completely unnerved by the amount of old chewing gum there was in the pot of the fake plant whose leaves kept creeping over to tickle his neck. Yet none of these had anything to do with his confusion.

"NOW SERVING CUSTOMER NUMBER ... TWO ... THIRTY ... FOUR ... AT WINDOW NUMBER ... SIX"

Mike looked down at the number in his hand again just to check and make sure it wasn't his turn yet. The scrap stubbornly continued to read 678. How much longer was he going to have to wait? The other people in the room appeared to share varying levels of the same confusion, yet nobody was talking. A few were poking through ancient magazines that were scattered throughout the room, but none of them seemed to actually be reading. It was more like they had given up figuring out what was going on and were trying to find something else for their minds to focus on. Mike had tried a magazine but they were all so old and irrelevant to his life that he gave it up before he got past the ads at the beginning. Mike checked his number again, hoping against hope that he would be next.

"NOW SERVING CUSTOMER NUMBER ... TWO ... THIRTY ... FIVE ... AT WINDOW NUMBER ... THREE"

No such luck. Although time seemed to have come to a comatose stop in this waiting room, at least the number line seemed to be intact. An old lady wearing a knitted shawl and a dress of indeterminate color struggled to her feet and shuffled through the door. Mike wondered for a second how young she had been when she came here. Would he be that old before he left as well? He was trying to cheer himself up by being ironic, but instead felt a cold creeping terror in his gut that he was closer to the truth than he really wanted to be. He blamed that cold creeping terror for the mewling cry he made when he felt someone lay a hand on his arm. He was probably right in his placement of blame, but it turned out to be the occupant of the chair next to him.

"Hand me that magazine would you?" he asked in a tremulous voice that betrayed his own nervousness. Mike looked at him for a second, noting the bedraggled red hair and the rumpled flannel plaid shirt. Then he looked to see the magazine he was gesturing at. There were several scattered across the table, and Mike had no idea which one he was referring to.

"This one?" Mike said, pointing to one with the cover mostly torn off. The title was "Better Farms through ..." something that had disappeared when some long ago occupant of this waiting room had been careless in their handling of the magazine. The red haired man nodded numbly.

"It don't really matter does it?" he mumbled, shaking his head as if it was filled with liquid that was slowly sloshing back and forth. Mike had to admit that it didn't and picked up the magazine and handed it to the man. He leafed through a few pages listlessly, his eyes not even seeming to focus on the page. Then, he and Mike both checked the small slips of paper in their hands as the voice filled the waiting room once again.

"NOW SERVING CUSTOMER NUMBER ... TWO ... THIRTY ... SIX ... AT WINDOW NUMBER ... FIVE"

The silence in the room was meekly interrupted by a younger-looking man who was grossly obese who stood and started walking towards the door. His labored breathing echoed through the room as every other occupant watched him make his way around the maze of chairs. Then he was through the door and gone, and everyone else went back to whatever occupation they had discovered to while away the time in the waiting room. Mike turned to look at the red haired man again. The magazine was still clutched in one hand, and the tiny slip of paper in the other. Mike suddenly decided to make some conversation.

"So ... whatcha in for?" he said, trying to force his face into a smile. Unsuccessfully, apparently. The red haired man jumped and yipped, much as Mike had when he laid his hand on Mike's shoulder a moment ago.

"Who? Whatcha mean 'in for'? What're you here for? Why you ask?" the man stammered, his red moustache twitching with anxiety. Mike pondered for a moment and tried to smile again.

"Just makin' conversation guy." he said in what he hoped was a soothing voice. It sounded unaturally loud across the silent room, and quite a few heads turned to see who was disturbing the peace. Mike was determined to continue.

"I was just asking why you were here. What are you waiting for?" Mike was feeling more and more that this conversation was somehow taboo, but he pressed on. He had always been just a bit too stubborn, a bit too quick to shake the boat just to watch his fellow passengers reactions. The man looked at Mike for a few seconds, as if seriously pondering the question.

"I have no idea at all." he answered after an uncomfortable pause. "Do you?" his face took on a hungry, anticipatory look, as if Mike's reason for waiting could also be his. Mike thought deeply about the question and realized he still had no idea either.

"Me neither." he finally admitted in a small voice.

"NOW SERVING CUSTOMER NUMBER ... TWO ... THIRTY ... SEVEN ... AT WINDOW NUMBER ... TWO"

Both men checked their tickets. Neither was number two thirty seven. The red headed man was flipping madly through the magazine, apparently hoping desperately that Mike would now leave him alone. He didn't.

"What's your name?" Mike asked in a quiet voice. The man ignored him until he got to the last page of the magazine, an advertisement for organic compost made from worm castings.

"Andrew." he answered, studying the ad as if his very existence depended upon the details of how worm feces could save us from global warming. Mike grinned and stuck out his hand. The grin must have been closer to a grimace as Andrew drew back in fear. Mike wiped the grin off his face and tried for solemn instead. It seemed in this place that smiles tended to be misinterpreted.

"Name's Mike. I live ... " Mike started, but realized that along with his confusion about being in this room, he had no idea where he lived. Not like he had forgotten his house number, or zip code, he had absolutely no memory of having lived anywhere. All he could remember was his name. And a fuzzy recollection of some people that he called family, though their names also escaped him.

"Do you remember where you live?" Mike asked suddenly, though he was sure he knew the answer. Andrew looked shocked, then puzzled, and then frightened.

"No ... I can't remember anything, except ..." he looked down at the slip of paper in his hand as if it was a ticket to all of the memories that he had lost. Mike looked down at it as well, and what he saw there made his throat constrict.

"NOW SERVING CUSTOMER NUMBER ... TWO ... THIRTY ... EIGHT ... AT WINDOW NUMBER ... FOUR"

Andrew checked his slip of paper, and looked up excitedly.

"It's almost my turn! I'm next!" He stood up and watched intently as a teen aged girl who was as skinny as a rail and had uncomfortably obvious scars up and down her arms walked listlessly to the doorway and disappeared. The other occupants of the waiting room looked at Andrew with obvious disdain. Apparently, it was also taboo to announce that you were next. Mike could care less. He had no memory of his life before he took a number and sat down in this room, but he was sure that a strict obedience to social norms had been no part of it. He was going to get that number from Andrew. He was going to be next.

The interval between numbers being called was irregular, and so Mike had no idea how long he had to finagle the slip of paper from Andrew. He had to get started right away.

"Hey! That's great, Andrew. Congratulations!" Mike held out his hand to Andrew, as if to give him a congratulatory handshake. Andrew was having none of it. He pulled the hand with the ticket as far away from Mike as he could and narrowed his eyes at him suspiciously.

"I know your kind. You just want my number. Well, I have been waiting here long enough. I am next!" Mike clenched his jaw. It was going to be this way then, was it?

"Hey, calm down, buddy. I was just congratulating my new friend. Don't worry, I won't take your number. Just promise me you'll come back and tell us all what in the hell this is all about! The suspense is killing me!" Mike remembered not to grin, just tried to keep his face even. Andrew relaxed slightly, but kept the slip of paper clenched tightly in his fist. Mike felt his pulse quicken, but he focused on staying calm and relaxed.

"Are you finished with that magazine now? That article on growing organic eggplants looks absolutely riveting." Mike said, having learned his lesson about reaching towards Andrew he leaned back in his seat and tried to look relaxed while ignoring the fake leaves that were tickling the back of his neck.

Andrew looked skeptical for a moment, and then picked up the magazine and tossed it towards Mike, who clumsily dropped it on the floor. As he bent to pick it up he watched Andrew out of the corner of his eye, and when he saw Andrew's hand relax just the slightest bit he made his move.

"NOW SERVING CUSTOMER NUMBER ... TWO ... THIRTY ... NINE ... AT WINDOW NUMBER ... ONE"

Mike rolled sideways out of his chair and snatched the ticket out of Andrew's hand. He was rather surprised how easily it happened, but he didn't stick around to ponder it very long. He jumped to his feet and ignoring the anguished protest of Andrew behind him, sprinted towards the doorway. He heard other sounds that could have been pursuit, and he caught fleeting glimpses of angry faces as he dashed towards the window, but Mike never hesitated. He shot through the doorway and nearly slammed headfirst into a wall directly in front of him. He managed to change direction quickly enough to avoid braining himself, and sprinted down a darkened hallway. He passed numbered windows without looking in, worried that at any minute an angry mob would enter the hallway and come after him. He had to get to Window Number One and present his ticket before they could catch him and take it away. He had no idea what would happen at the window, but Mike had never let details like that stop him before, so why should he now? Winning was all that mattered, and getting what he wanted.

Mike only had a brief moment to be surprised that he had just remembered something from outside this room before he reached Window Number One. He slid to a halt and held the ticket out to the window expectantly. He glanced around nervously, but nobody had pursued him into the hallway. He stood there panting, the slip pressed against the glass, waiting for something to happen.

Inside the window sat a very bored looking man dressed in what appeared to be a cheap halloween costume. Mike stood there stunned. He had waited what seemed to be an eternity to see a fat middle-aged angel? The wings weren't even straight, and the cheap tinsel that made up the halo was almost as bald as the man wearing it.

"Name?" the angel said in a voice that was beyond bored -- it seemed devoid of any interest whatsoever.

Mike didn't answer, he simply stared and waited for the punchline. The angel looked up in annoyance and repeated his monosyllabic request.

"Name?"

Mike decided to answer. "Mike Morrow." he said, sneering slightly. He had worked hard to get out of the waiting room, so he could stand to play whatever game he had to play to find out what came next.

"Date of death?" the angel said, in the same uninterested voice.

Mike's sneer melted away in an instant. "Date of what?" he asked, incredulously, the terror of a few minutes before creeping back into his gut. The angel looked up, his face filled with disdain. As before, he simply repeated his question, managing to squeeze a bit more boredom into his voice, as if that were possible.

"Date of death?" The angel fixed Mike with a baleful glare and folded his arms across his chest as if to signify that he would not be moving until he got an answer.

Mike's lips were dry, and his tongue seemed to be stuck to the roof of his mouth. He summoned the breath to protest but when he opened his mouth to speak, the words that came out frightened him even more.

"November twenty-ninth, two thousand ten. Eight-oh-five in the morning I was trying to watch a movie in the bath tub, but the dvd player fell in and electrocuted me."

Mike's head spun. Where had that come from? The memory was there, as clear as it had been non-existent a moment before. He could still taste the metallic flavor of the current as it passed through the fillings in his teeth.

"Oh, is it all coming back now?" the angel said, the vaguest shadow of a smile touching his lips.

"Is ... is this Heaven?" Mike stammered. He remembered ridiculing an old friend for such an idea just a week ago, but now things were just a bit different.

The angel laughed out loud, his portly body shaking with the effort. "Heaven? Are you serious?" the angel asked Mike.

Mike had no answer.

The angel pushed a button and a small slip of paper spooled out of a slot in the wall next to the window. Mike took it, and read the number printed on it.

1667

"Down the hall, to the left, have a seat and wait for your number to be called." the angel said.

"NOW SERVING CUSTOMER NUMBER ... TWO ... FORTY ... AT WINDOW NUMBER ... ONE"

Article © Tyler Willson. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-11-29
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