The Leaching of Ian Burns (Abridged) by Audrey K. Agnothedy - HTML preview

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter 1: In the End, the Beginning 6 Chapter 2: My Initiation 14
Chapter 3: The First Nap 23

Chapter 4: The First Snoop 30
Chapter 5: Some Answers 38
Chapter 6: My First Introversion 43 Chapter 7: I’m ready to Listen 48 Chapter 8: Wandering 55
Chapter 9: I'd Just Like to Be Old 60 Chapter 10: The Watering Hole 64 Chapter 11: Julia to the Rescue 69 Chapter 12: Garden of Eden? 74 Chapter 13: The First Class 79
Chapter 14: Homework in Heaven 86 Chapter 15: Piecing It Together 97 Chapter 16: The Hangman 102

Chapter 17: Full of Myself, and Ready for Action 107

Chapter 18: Joint Effort 116
Chapter 19: Overwhelming Guilt 124 Chapter 20: Preparing for Emma 129 Chapter 21: Emma's Adjustment 136

Chapter 22: An Honest Conversation 146
Chapter 23: Anger Management, 1001 154 Chapter 24: Pow-Wow with the Guys 161
Chapter 25: Getting It All in the Past 164 Chapter 26: 9/11 178
Chapter 27: The Ocean Floor 183

ii
Chapter 28: Little Irene 191
Chapter 29: A Trip to Hell 197 Chapter 30: I’m Ready to Work 206 Chapter 31: Communication is a Wonderful Thing

212
Chapter 32: Hardly a Break 216 Chapter 33: The Physics of Good and Evil 221 Chapter 34: Getting to Know Bill 226 Chapter 35: We’re a Team! 231 Chapter 36: And We’re Off! 235 Chapter 37: The Board Room 238 Chapter 38: Let the Tailing Begin! 246 Chapter 39: Check In With the Team 255 Chapter 40: Just Like in the Movies 262 Chapter 41: The Dinner Meeting 271 Chapter 42: What to do Next? 279 Chapter 43: The Devil in the Corner 282 Chapter 44: The Plot 286
Chapter 45: First Mission Accomplished 290

Chapter 46: Mission II, If I Choose to Accept 296

Chapter 47: Evil Incarnate 309 Chapter 48: Hermes’ Alter Ego 314 Chapter 49: The Race Is On 321 Chapter 50: Back to Work, Newly Focused 328 Chapter 51: What’s the Matter with Larry? 334 Chapter 52: A Meeting of the Minds 341 Chapter 53: Got ME Thinking 351 Chapter 54: My Shield Is Shattered 356 Chapter 55: Back to the Oil Gig 359 Chapter 56: Making Connections 366

iii Chapter 57: What about Henry? 374 Chapter 58: Moving Right Along 378

Chapter 59: I Asked For Excitement…. 384 Chapter 60: Fast Forward 388 Chapter 61: Leo, Lenny and Larry 392 Chapter 62: Larry’s Pet Peeve 403 Chapter 63: Danny’s Last Chance 412 Chapter 64: Leo and the Lawyer 420 Chapter 65: Larry’s Observations 426 Chapter 66: Change of Heart 430 Chapter 67: The Unthinkable Begins 434 Chapter 68: Gold Retrieval, On Steroids 439 Chapter 69: The Ultimate Catharsis 449

CAST OF CHARACTERS 452 COLOR CODE 454 VISUAL AIDS 454

iv

 

1
In the End, the Beginning

The pain was indescribable. A spray of sharp needles flying at my face wouldn't hurt as much. Instantly, it spread to my chest and then to my belly. ‘Help me! PLEASE, HELP ME!!’ My legs were next. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't scream. I couldn't see. I fell to my knees; then forward onto my face. Prone in the fire, through the fog of agony, I thought, ‘What have I done? WHAT HAVE I DONE?’

I became dizzy from lack of oxygen, but the pain seemed to be fading. I felt warm; not hot. And very light. I sat up (I think) but I couldn't see anything. I panicked. ‘I'M BLIND! Nooooo! Take my hearing, my sense of smell, my legs, anything BUT MY SIGHT!’

"Chill out, would you please," a calm voice near my shoulder said. "I'm here to help, but you've got to help me, too. I can't do this alone, you know.

"WHAT!!! I'm burning alive and I’m supposed to help

YOU!!?"
"Yes. Now, just take a deep breath and relax."
"RELAX!!!!? RELAX!! Are you crazy, or what!!?" "At least TRY to help me. Relax, and open your mind.

Ask your question again, but mean it this time."

I groaned. But, I suddenly realized, not from pain. There was no pain. Not even my usual old age aches and pains. My panic waned. ‘What question could this voice be talking about,’ I thought.

"The one you asked just before you started whining about not being able to see," the now slightly annoyed voice said.
My mouth was agape (I think). ‘She can read my mind!’
"Well? Do you want to know what you’ve done or not? We can't stay here forever, you know," she said impatiently.
"NO! I DON'T know! Who are you? Am I dead? Where ARE we?" I was starting to feel rather frustrated.
"Gee, they told me you'd be an easy one. Okay, maybe 'chill out' wasn't a good choice of words, but you don't need to be in such a snit!"
I had expected a guardian angel to be a bit more patient and helpful. “Are you taking me to hell?" I asked worriedly.
"Aarrgghh!!" was her response. "You know you're not evil! You're just cranky. And stubborn. And cantankerous. And too curious for your own good. Now, do you want to know what you've done or not?"
She was right about the curiosity. "I want to know what’s going on, if that’s what you mean," I replied.
Instantly, the darkness was transformed into a warm, bright mist. It felt so good. So soft. So fuzzy. I didn't care if I ever saw anything again. I'd be perfectly content to stay in this suspended state forever, which is saying quite a lot, for me.
A glimpse of the family and friends I'd leave behind ran through the depths of my mind, but they seemed ready to let me go. They didn't look too unhappy, though I thought I sensed a tear or two from one of them.

I was dead, whether I liked it or not.

I soon felt myself drifting down like a leaf in the autumn breeze. The fuzziness stayed above us, but the 'feelgoodness' stayed with me. ‘Not a cranky bone in my body for the first time in my life!’ I thought.

My angel cleared her throat loudly. "Did you forget already? You're dead. Or at least the old you is no more. Look at yourself."

I was a wisp of my former self. My basic form was the same, but I could see through my hand and I could slice my hand through my forearm with minimal resistance.

"Does this mean I don't have to eat any more to stay aliv-I mean to stay dea---I mean to exist?" Eating was a waste of time. There is, or was, so much else to do.

"You can do as you like. To eat, or not to eat, that's up to you. Here you can basically do whatever your soul desires. You can play football, golf, read, talk with friends, watch the mist swirl up above, play cards, or anything you wish you had more time for in life. Except sleeping. Sleeping is different here. It can really wear a soul out. Even the most productive sleepers have to wake up for a few hours to rest."

I pinched myself, or tried to. My fingertips just touched each other through what looked like a skin-like substance. Did I just hear her say sleeping was hard work? I had lived to sleep! When I wasn't trying to sort out something interestingly complicated, that is. But, now that I thought about it, I didn't feel the least bit sleepy. Hummm, I could get used to this place.

I looked around. We were at the top of a large treeless hill, or mountain, or volcano of some sort, ringed with various sized, shaped and colored bubbles connected by a conduit or conveyor belt sort of thing. A few feet away from where we had landed was a contraption making a humming noise. I stood up to get a better look.

It could have been straight out of the airport baggage pick-up area. "Am I finally going to get all my luggage those darn airlines lost!? This really IS heaven!" I exclaimed happily, although I knew full well I would never need ANY luggage here, and my old stuff was gone forever. "I had heard that lost baggage is what makes up the rings of Saturn," I joked.

My angel wasn’t amused. She looked like my first grade teacher, oh so many years ago. "Since most new arrivals are elderly, we let them ride to their pod," she responded matterof-factly.

‘She doesn’t look so young herself,’ I thought, forgetting she could read my mind. But she actually smiled, and I got the feeling that being old here was a not necessarily a bad thing. After all, she did say I could play football if I wanted to - at my age! "What's a pod and how do I know which is mine?" I asked.

"A pod is the living space for a collection of kindred souls,” she explained.
"No!" I felt a small surge of dread, though not as much as I'd have felt at the same thought in life. "I thought I was rid of the b-------!" The end of this feeling filled word did not come from my mouth. Rather, a small light gray dart flew out towards the angel at a fairly slow rate of speed. She dodged it without any apparent thought and little effort.
"There is really no need for strong words here. We can read your feelings as well as your thoughts," was her response.
‘G—A------,’ I thought. A small tan fluff came out of my ear as I thought this less than heavenly phrase. ‘Is there no privacy here? How's a fella to pick his nose, or relieve himself?’
NOW the old bat laughed. It was a happy laugh, not filled with sarcasm. Somehow I knew why - bodily functions here are not necessary. "But a bit of freedom from prying angels has to be a rule here, doesn't it? I mean, some of us humans are, or were, bashful souls, ‘(alright, maybe not me)’. I just don't want my thoughts out in the open for all to enjoy. Surely there are some limits to this invasion!” ‘A guy could develop a healthy case of paranoia in this place,’ I thought.
I became more than a bit annoyed, as an answer was not to be had. She just shook her head like the schoolmarm she most certainly had been. I swear I heard her cluck a ‘tsk, tsk’, even with the smile on her face.
Luckily, another, more helpful looking soul appeared. "Hi, I'm Karl. I'd been assigned to you for years now, Mr. Burns. Sorry I couldn't be the one to bring you here, but events can't always be altered or predicted. I didn't expect you to do something so silly at your age. I thought you had a few more human years left in you."
"No harm done," I said dryly. "This tremendously helpful lady kept me entertained with 'guess what I’m thinking' while I was trying to decide if I was dead or alive." I was sure to emphasize the helpfulness of my angel of deliverance. “By the way, you don’t look much older than a teenie bopper, sonny.” I shot a sideways glance at Mrs. Cratchet as a comment on HER age.
They looked at each other knowingly. "We are both MUCH older than you are, by decades. And her name is Pearl. Or Ms. Gates, if you’d like," Karl offered.
"Well, if you ask me, neither of you are dry behind the ears. If I were your boss, you’d both be fired! What kind of place is this? Can't a human being get better service than having a fill-in angel sent when he's dying, for C-----'s s---?" A small brown thumb tack flew out of my mouth instead of this phrase. It bounced off Karl's ear. He didn't even flinch.
"Being trusted to the less potent souls is an honor of sorts. It means you have more good in you than some, and needed less intervention. Or maybe I should say, you asked for guidance less often," he said. "You could have saved yourself a lot of headaches if only you had asked us for help more often."
All this gibberish was very irritating. ‘Why the h--- would I have wanted THIS kind of help?’ I became more and more furious the more I thought about it. A puff of chocolate brown grit snorted from my left nostril.
"Time to get to your pod, then," Karl said abruptly. I think he saw my innards start to churn with frustration. I couldn't handle any more of this kind of information. It was too illogical and I was starting to decompensate. Maybe Karl knew me pretty well after all.

Riding the conveyor belt gave me time to calm down a bit. It moved quickly with just enough bumps to make the ride interesting without fear for one's life. Not that one's life needed to be worried about here….

I thought about being able to do anything I wanted here. I wondered if the golf courses were any good. "Hey!” I suddenly realized I had no clubs. “How am I supposed to play golf without MY clubs?! I can't use just any clubs, you know" I glared at the angel of deliverance with this question to see if the 'you know' phrase annoyed her as much as it had me.

‘I guess some things do get past them,’ I thought when she didn't react to my jab right away.
After a pause, she smiled and said, "You'll hit holes-inone using your foot if you so choose."
‘Gee, what fun would that be?’ I wondered. ‘What would be the challenge?’
We rode by some wrinkled pods full of happy interactions. I began to wonder if I wouldn't be bored to death here. Well not bored to death maybe, but to tears, without any lively disagreements or interesting conflicts. ‘If there aren’t any souls here that could be easily riled, I’ll go berserk. Winding people up is one of my favorite past-times. And she didn't list it as hobby in her 'you can do anything you want here' spiel.’
In one pod, several occupants were in small window-like out-pouches in a wall, scowls on their faces. ‘Nice cranky souls! There IS fun to be had!’ "Can I be in that pod?" I asked Karl.
"No. They have their hands full with the grouches they already tend. You'll need more assistance than they can give you," he replied. "Your pod is further down the hill. They have more experience with your types of problems."
‘First they tell me I'm too good to need a decent angel, now they tell me I'm too challenging for the beginners. I wish they'd make up their minds already,’ I groused to myself.
"Get used to shades of gray, Mr. Burns. The quicker you learn to not think in black and white categories, the quicker you'll deAge," schoolmarm Gates admonished.
I felt a pang of ‘I like me just the age I am, thank you very much.’ "I don't want to deAge, whatever that is. I worked hard to get these gray hairs; what's left of them, anyway. And what's wrong with black and white? I hate all those crybabies who want to have it both ways.” As I remembered interactions with my wishy-washy workers, my face screwed up into a contemptuous scowl. “Yes, but, Mr. Burns….., But it could also be….Mr. Burns….That’s YOUR point of view, Mr. Burns…..,” I mocked. “Why can’t those mealy mouthed idiots make up their ------- minds!” The nearly black dagger that zoomed out of my mouth startled me, and Ms Cratchet flinched as it flew through her forehead.
“What the h--- was that?" I asked, barely noticing the tan fluff that floated out next.
“Seeing the world in black and white is easier for most people as it helps them make decisions more quickly, and keeps the uneasy feelings of uncertainty at bay,” Karl explained. "It's much harder to live in grays on earth, but here we add color and texture to help identify what's what and who's who. You'll adjust in no time if you'll open your mind to possibilities other than those currently ingrained in your psyche." Karl’s tone of voice was not curt, but his comment still didn’t set well.
‘If I'll open my mind,’ I thought with a curl of my lip and a snarl in my mind. ‘As if I could close it if I wanted to.’ I looked at them through narrowed eyes expecting a reaction to this thought. They just looked at each other without saying a word or showing any emotion.
‘How the h--- am I to survive here like this!’ With this thought a black puff of sand exited my right nostril in a gust. I began to wonder if some of the ashes from my playing with fire escapade had gotten up my nose, but this was sand, not ash. ‘D---,’ I thought, and a smaller tan fluff exited my other nostril. ‘Is this how a cold acts in heaven? But I don't ache, or have a fever. And I'm not sneezing. Maybe heaven’s viruses are wimpy. Good. I hate getting colds.’
We rode for a while in silence, which was just fine with me. It gave me time to look around. Some of the pods were actually changing color and texture, some slowly, some quickly. The ones nearer the top of the mountain had many large red bumps all over them. I watched dumbfounded as one of the zit-like swellings popped. Yucky goop sprayed everywhere. A wisp of a gold, glittery substance floated up into the fuzzy cloud high above us and disappeared.
I looked back down the mountain towards the nearest pod just in time to see another zit pop. The goop smelled rotten. As gold glitter floated up to the fuzz overhead, silver glitter dripped from the ragged edges of the remaining wall. ‘Interesting,’ I thought.
The conveyor belt stopped. "Your pod," Karl said solemnly.
I searched his face for clues as to my future. "Aren’t you coming with me? Aren’t you my guardian angel?" I asked.
"No. Not anymore," he replied, and slowly faded from my sight.
I looked at the fill-in spirit hopefully. "Me neither" she said as she followed Karl into the unknown. Once again, I was more afraid than I was annoyed or curious.

I wasn't convinced this wasn't hell.

 

2
My Initiation

At the opening of the pod was a child of what appeared to be 8 years of age. "Welcome to Camp Canopy. Here we exist as our hearts desire. You will not have to sleep before you are ready. You can have any thoughts you feel like having, but be aware of how you feel, and how you choose to express yourself. Follow me."

Her greeting reminded me of those canned ‘answering the phone’ phrases secretaries rattled off when a human being used to actually answer business phones. I never could make sense of THEIR rapid-fire speeches, either. Besides, the pod was so amazing it quickly pushed all my questions to the back of my mind.

As she led the way through the pod, I could see there were many more nooks and crannies than I had imagined judging from the outside. Some areas even seemed to BE outside.

My curiosity grew as we went deeper into the pod. Several nurseries full of sleeping babies were tended by mere infants. One nursery looked as though the caretakers were just born themselves. "This is the newborn section. The intensive care nursery is off to the right and out of sight. Seeing the amount of work they do can be traumatic for the not yet young," my guide said with a bit of a sigh, then added, "My name is Julia. I'll be your first deAger."

I looked at her for a while, then decided not to ask questions just yet.
"Smart decision,” Julia replied to my thought. Somehow, though, her invasion into my thoughts did not feel unwelcome, and I didn't feel the urge to give a smart retort. I felt only a slight nostalgic twinge at the absence of the hereto-fore automatic reflex.
We turned to the right, making almost a complete U-turn at the next corridor. We seemed to be entering mountains, with souls camping near a river’s edge, happily socializing around campfires. "Do you trust me around fire?" I asked with a smile. ‘If it wasn't one of those blasted new fangled gas stoves, I’d have been okay. It didn't have a pilot light, for Chri--- sake!’ I thought I felt something in my right ear. I stuck my little fingertip into my ear canal and removed a tiny bit of fluff, slightly tan in color. My forehead wrinkled with puzzlement.
“You may have noticed strong words and thoughts are turned into visual props. It helps us notice the strength of our feelings so that we are better able to deal with them.” She smiled and added, “And it also helps us to communicate, in case we are not properly tuned in to others’ thoughts.”
‘Chri--- must not have been too strong a word, then,’ I deduced, as a small puff filled my other ear. I smiled when I remembered that I thought I had a cold when the puffs of sand flew from my nostrils. “So that was why that dagger flew out of my mouth and into Mrs. Cratchet, then?”
Julia nodded rather sadly.
I didn't realize I used strong language so often. What would they do with some of my old cronies? ‘Humm, I wonder if any of them are here...’
"Look up ahead," Julia said.

They were at a card table that looked like a huge mushroom shaped tree trunk with a wide rim of smooth bark around the periphery of its flat top. The chairs were similar, with an arc of hollowed out bark as the backrest. They were playing my favorite card game - euchre.

"We heard you were coming, so we dealt you a hand," said my closest friend, Arnie. He had died just a few months ago. If he hadn't left me to cook for myself, I'd still be alive.

"You old coot!" I exclaimed as we gave each other a bear hug. "Why'd you leave me like that, you old f--t?" He swooshed away the yellow fluff from my mouth as though I had bad breath, and laughed heartily.

"You were driving me crazy! I was so p----- o-- at you that even the purple pill couldn't have helped the heartburn you gave me! That may have been because it wasn't heartburn, but never mind. Didn't Karl help you with that new stove? I told him I didn't think you heard me tell you there was no pilot light. I figured you'd be persistent enough to try to find a way to light something, somewhere on it. He didn't seem too worried about you blowing up the place though."

"Well, obviously, he was wrong," I said with some disdain. I didn't think angels made mistakes, but then again I didn't think they'd send substitutes to bring their charges to heaven, either. “By the way, this is heaven, isn't it?" I asked a bit too seriously for the guys to handle. They burst out in such intense laughter that they turned a deep red.

I stood there, annoyed and puzzled. Finally Harry was able to get out: "We were....har-har, hee-ee....worried... snort, wheeze, cough....too...cough, cough, cough……"

"Gee, don't die laughing," I said coolly, which only caused a more intense round of laughter. When the color of their faces between inhalations took on a deep violet hue, I really WAS worried they'd explode. And I really DID wonder if this was heaven, especially when I noticed who was also at the table. I NEVER thought Johnny would be in heaven. That old piece-of-work was so bull-headed and hateful on earth; everyone avoided him....sorta like they did me, now that I thought about it.

We never did get to play a card game that day. After they reminisced about their deaths and properly razzed me about the stupidity of lighting a match after I had spent over an hour turning the burners off and on in futile attempts to get one to burn, Harry, Larry, and Arnie said they felt like a nap.

That left me, Johnny and Joe at the table. Johnny seemed a bit perturbed that the others wanted to nap. "They don't need to sleep, and they know it," he said irritably. "At least one of them could stay to make a foursome."

"Why don't we just find another person to play? Surely, if we're here, other card players are here, too." I ventured hopefully.

"The ones up the hill play the hard stuff, like poker, for high stakes. Too much for me, even on earth. And the ones down the hill are too hoity-toity," answered Johnny.

"What about others here in our pod?" I asked, still hoping for a good rowdy game. I wasn't a bit sleepy, and a good game might take my mind off of all the novelty I've had to endure since I died. Johnny and Joe looked at each other and grinned mischievously. "Mikey. He's better than no one," Johnny said. I thought I sensed 'and if he pairs with Ian, here, we can finally beat the b--------.' Red fluffs floated from their ears as they rose and hovered off to get Mikey.

As I waited for them to return, I took in the scenery and wondered how a card game with mind reading worked. ‘Is there a poker mind here, as opposed to a poker face? Maybe that’s the way to survive the intrusions of heavenly mindreading.’

I looked down toward the river where there were men fishing. Some of the other campsites were full of souls cooking over a fire; others were tossing horseshoes. There were lots of hammocks strung between the trees with relaxed and snoring occupants. In one hammock, a fluffy white cat was purring in time with the snores. Back toward the mountain some horses were being saddled as other souls walked by on foot towards a wide path into rather dense woods. In a field several souls were throwing sticks for very happy, energetic dogs to catch.

Johnny and Joe returned shortly with disappointed looks on their misty faces. "Mikey was asleep. Who on earth would give HIM a job. The guy can't even tie his shoes!"

"Let's go golfing instead," suggested Johnny.

Joe was not at all enthusiastic. "I'm fed up getting 18 holes-in-one. It's not fun anymore," he groused. "May as well go to sleep…" and faded out.

Johnny frowned angrily at me. "What do YOU want to do?" he asked gruffly.
"How the h--- should I know?” I answered defensively.
He studied my face for a few seconds, ignoring the brown tack that floated out of my mouth towards him. He softened his gaze. “Yeah, I guess you wouldn’t know all the options at your ripe old age. Let's go down to the Watering Hole. Sometimes the older sleepers have some good stories to tell." As I walked, Johnny glided along the river. I wondered again what sort of place this could be. It wasn't as warm and fuzzy, nor as well controlled as I had been taught heaven would be, but it sure felt too good to be hell. ‘This is just too d--confusing.’ Johnny smiled at my little ear puff production.
"I really miss the puffs of all colors and textures that used to come out our ears and noses when we first arrived. I guess we're all a bunch of softies now," he said. Somehow I couldn't see Johnny as a softie. But he didn't really appear too distraught at the paucity of puffs, either.

Up ahead was music and laughter. A multifaceted silver ball like those that hang over dance floors on earth floated over the scene. Light of all colors bounced from it onto the crowd below. Lots of souls were dancing anything from the Waltz to the Hustle. Many more were sitting around tables and the bar, talking and laughing. Some of them looked vaguely familiar, as I was seeing people from my past at younger ages than they were when they died. And some who I never saw smile on earth were even harder to place, as laughter changed the wrinkles left on their now youngerlooking faces.

The souls seemed to be in groups of comparable ages. The younger ones were not as animated as the older ones, but they were still very happy. Almost everyone had a glass with varying amounts of different color drinks. It was easy to tell who had the most to drink - their beings were the color of their drinks. Some had obviously tasted some of their neighbor’s drinks, as their colors were not the same as the fluid in their own glasses. A purple soul next to a red soul had blue fluid in her own glass. Some of the more gregarious souls were a nondescript brown from sampling way too many glasses. And no one seemed to need to go to the bathroom, as the floor was the color of their innards if they drank to overflowing. I could have stood and watched forever. I wondered ‘how do the church ladies deal with alcohol in heaven?’

"The drinks here taste like alcoholic drinks on earth, but they don't have alcohol in them. We just enjoy the atmosphere, and most souls are so happy at baseline, they don't need the buzz," offered Johnny.

He floated over to join an older group that was full to the brim of a rainbow of colors. They were laughing more than they were talking. "When you get good at mind reading, words aren't as necessary," Johnny explained. "It leaves more time for laughing."

I thought about asking my 'poker mind' question, but decided to wait.
"Worry about that later - you'll have LOTS of time" Johnny answered my thought. "Come on! You've got to hear this!"
If I didn't know better, I'd swear the old men around the table were wearing rugby outfits. "Listen to this one! It's hilarious!" Johnny was summoned over by Matt, who I vaguely remembered from my years at college. He was a pompous a------ .
"Nice to see you, Ian! You've aged a bit, I see!" Matt came up and shook my hand.
‘If the b------ tries to give me a hug, I'll deck him, heaven or not,’ I thought with a snort.
“I expected those gray sandy puffs from your nose, but not quite so dark and forceful. You always did have a great memory, and it appears you remembered every little slight." That he seemed amused by this was exceedingly annoying.
I didn't have the enjoyment of dwelling on this feeling, however, as I was thrust into the midst of the gaiety immediately. Arnie was at the center of the attention, looking very refreshed. "Didn't need a long nap this time. Listen to this assignment!"
"As soon as I fell asleep, I popped into the middle of a rugby game. The home team center had just been irked but the visiting team's center. Boy was he mad! Apparently mad enough to wish for something bad to happen to the b------, because there was this really evil-looking blob over that other center. I never had such a good game since I died! I grabbed the blob and we wrestled. Man did he stink! I had to block him over and over! He was doing his best to get the other center's head rammed into the ground. That visiting center sure looked mean! I wasn't anxious to have him killed and brought here, or worst yet to lose him to those soulless reptiles in h--- on earth. He'd 'a been good fodder for their pets. Then there'd be h--- to pay!"
No puffs came out of Arnie's ears or darts from his mouth, even though he said these ‘strong’ words aloud.
"Then Harry and Larry popped in just in time to help me with the pieces of the blob that broke off during my blocks. Man that stench was rough! Really got my juices flowing, though, just like old college days! Wanted to wring the blob's neck, if I knew where the blooming neck was! So there we was, the three of us and the parts if it, in a fight even past the end of the game. The props were trying to calm the home team center down-I guess that's why Larry and Harry showed up- he just wouldn't cool off. We even had to keep the blob out of the bus before the visiting team left for home. Can you believe that gutless blob tried to get the driver to run the guy over! Thought for a while I'd have to sleep for days to protect that b-------. To top it off, I never did get to hear what it was that made the home team center so mad. It must 'uv been good!"
"If you'da looked at the home team center's face and sleeve, you'da known. The a------ hocked a loogie all over him. My prop wanted to deck him, too, but I was there to stop him." Harry shook his head slowly. "That blob sure did look hateful. And the baby blobs were just about as bad! I wish I could have wrung that slob's neck myself. Took everything I had to fight the blobs instead of him! Yeah, that was a battle."
"So who won the game?" asked Johnny.
"We did, you idiot! You know we always win!" replied Harry testily.
"Not OUR game. THEIR game, you b------!" retorted Johnny, literally shooting a dagger at Harry as it flew out of his mouth instead of the word. And it was a very dark dagger, at that.
A few younger souls appeared above the table.
"Let's settle down," said one. Another was wringing her hands and looked rather worried. "Let's be nice," said a third.
"Let's be nice," mocked Johnny with disdain dripping from his voice. "Let me tell you about being nice." He continued through gritted teeth looking hatefully at the third young soul. "Being nice is what got me here, remember? Or is your memory gone along with your wrinkles?"
He began oozing dark gray smoke from not only his ears and nose, but from every pore in his bo-, uh, being. I sensed a definite change in the atmosphere of the entire crowd. The child nearest Johnny tried to reach him, but the smoke had quickly grown so thick that it fully encircled Johnny. His form became more and more difficult to make out until he disappeared into his nearly black cloud. It continued to grow thicker and thicker until it looked like the oil from the old clunker I had to drive as a teenager. Just as its viscosity increased to tar, a funnel shaped wisp of whirling fluff descended from above and sucked the tar up into the fuzzy cloud. I watched in amazement as Johnny's tar disappeared. I couldn't take my eyes off of the spot in the cloud where I last saw him, or what was left of him.
‘Can someone be killed in heaven, for C---- s---?’ I thought. I felt a twinge of fear when a baby blue puff drifted out of my ear.
‘I didn't mean 'for C---- s---' I meant, I meant, oh h---, that WAS what I meant!’ Another lighter blue fluff escaped just before a smaller very light blue puff. The last two bounced off Arnie's shoulder. He was hovering above me a bit. He had been shorter than me in life.
"Don't worry, Ian. He just popped up to the fuzz for a fuzzy. Look." He chuckled and pointed up to the spot in the fuzzy cloud I had been focused on before the puffs distracted me. Silver glitter was raining down and a soft wind was blowing it out over a distant ocean.
"Well I'll be-" I stopped before I actually said 'd-----'.
Arnie laughed. "Don't worry. You won't turn into tar just thinking or saying 'naughty' words. Salt maybe. But not tar." After he made this comment, he glowed red with mischief as he took a large swig from his glass. He tried his best to suppress a belly laugh until after he swallowed, but didn't succeed. He snorted his drink out of his nose before he burst into laughter. The rest of the guys quickly joined in with almost hysterical laughter as Arnie coughed and hacked between guffaws.
The crowd went back to their tables and resumed their conversations as if nothing unusual had just happened.
‘Johnny disintegrated into a blob of tar, and his ashes were blown out to sea, and NOBODY cared! Not even his friends! They actually LAUGHED!’
Julia appeared at my elbow. "Got you thinking, huh," She acknowledged softly. "Stop thinking and feel instead. How do you FEEL?" she asked with a sincere look on her face.
I hated that phrase. I cringed with disgust. I wanted to say, 'what are you, a shrink? A bleeding heart liberal? A California hippie?' but I couldn't. She looked so innocent.
I suddenly felt drained. My knees nearly buckled. As the lump in my throat turned to tears, I felt myself drifting away from the others, Julia's small hand leading the way.

3
The First Nap

"Okay, girlie, you got me that time. I'll be ready for ya next time though, now that I'm on to your tricks," I said with as much testosterone as I could muster. I worried the others may have seen me lose it. ‘Real men don't cry, ESPECIALLY in front of real men. But, I'm not real in any sense, anymore, am I?’ I thought sadly.

Julia just smiled and with a broad sweep of her arm, motioned for me to notice my new surroundings. We were in a sterile looking bright room with rows of cots. Those closer to the walls were stacked two or three high. The souls on the top bunks looked like teenagers, while the ones on the lower ones looked middle aged or older. Most were sleeping with smiles on their faces, intermingled with tics and starts and an occasional muffled squeal. ‘Or were those screams?’

"It depends on their dream," offered Julia.
"Would you please stop reading my mind!" I said with an effort to sound annoyed. But, funny thing was, I wasn't annoyed at all. It felt so good to be in her presence that I probably would agree to anything she asked me to do. It wasn't the physical attraction of mortal flesh. This was very different. It was like a wave of warmth combined with a tender hug from Mom, and a belly full of apple pie, and......
"Mr. Burns," Julia interrupted my reverie. "You'll be able to emit the same feeling, once you're sufficiently deAged."
"So tell me how to deAge already, whatever the h--- that is!" I pretended to be irritated. The red puff of smoke that floated from my mouth gave me away.
"Boy, if this isn't more challenging to figure out than a Rubik's Cube. I'm worn out. Can I pull up one of these cots and catch a few zzzz's?" I asked.
"Certainly." She motioned to one on my right. "Would you like a pillow or a blanket?"
"Both, and I prefer goose down. Those polyester things get up my nose." I tried to be demanding. I had an image to keep up and she had seen me cry like a baby.
"Certainly," she said again. With the thought, came the bedding.
"It's a miracle!!" I exclaimed with mock disbelief. I was getting used to the unexpected. I crawled under the blanket, nestled in for a nap, and closed my eyes.
Within a split second they sprung back open as I suddenly remembered that I was too old to work, if sleeping really was work.
"We'll start you out gently" Julia reassured me and gave me a loving kiss on the cheek. I hoped I had remembered to shave before I died. I'd hate to give her brush-burned lips.

I closed my eyes again and within seconds, I was asleep. I wished I could have fallen asleep that fast in life, I mused wistfully.

My eyes popped wide open with that thought. How could I be thinking if I were asleep? I looked around in amazement. I wasn’t in the sterile bright room anymore, but in a scene right out of a National Geographic documentary. A herd of gnus grazed quietly to the left, with some zebras close by. To the right was a village made of huts with grass roofs and almost no walls. Behind me was thick vegetation of some sort. I wished I could hear the narrator of this documentary, so I'd know where I was and what the h--- was going on. A barely visible yellowish mist meandered out of my ear.

Why don't things happen when I just think them, like they do for Julia?
A jolt of fear hit me as I suddenly realized I may be reincarnated as some subhuman creature. I looked down at myself and sighed with relief to see the old wisp of me instead of a boa constrictor, or some other low life form. ‘G— Almighty, that would be awful! It had been hard enough being human!’ A bit of white fluff lodged in my ear canal.
As I tilted my head a bit to try to thump it out, I noticed a toddler close to the thick vegetation. 'Cute little thing,' I thought as I wondered where his parents might be. The people in the village seemed too busy to notice the little tyke. I hoped he wouldn't get into any poison ivy. He was naked, and just having a rash on one square inch of my arm had been torture. I moved closer to the child to see what he was doing. He was laughing as he played with something in front of him. His back was towards me, so I couldn't see what it was. Not knowing whether or not I was visible to living beings, I didn't want to go around him out in the open, so I tested my solidity by turning into the bushes. I breezed right through with nary a scratch! This was fun!
But my joy turned to horror when I spotted the lioness crouched in the bush just yards from the youngster. I stopped cold. ‘God, no!’ I thought in a non-specific plea. ‘What can I do?’ My mind raced. I tried to pick up a stick to throw at the lion, but the stick didn't budge as it slipped right through my substance-less hand. I hollered "Git!" and waved my arms, but obviously I was not heard or seen by the lion or the child. I had only seconds to come up with something I could do that this world would notice, or the boy would be dinner!
I rushed towards the village. As I rounded a corner of the closest semi-wall, I ran into, or rather, through, a young woman grinding some sort of grain into meal. As I put on my brakes and turned to get back to her (wishing I could have run this fast before I died), she looked up from her work toward the youngster, and immediately bolted towards the bush to get the child. She must have sensed me somehow!! Hallelujah!!
She screamed as she ran. The other villagers dropped everything and ran towards the bush to help. The lioness apparently realized she had to pounce then, or never, and was feet from the boy when an arrow flew by my ear.
'Jeez, that was close!’ I thought. Never mind that an arrow would have gone straight through me anyway. But it didn't go through the lion. Caught her right in the haunches, and broke her stride. The young mother reached the child just as the lioness limped into the bush, with the men and arrows close behind her.
I stood, transfixed, staring at the bush, listening to the commotion as the men finished off the lioness. ‘Poor thing,’ I thought. ‘What if she has cubs?’ Apparently the men thought the same thing as they examined her after they pulled her carcass into the open and noticed she had been nursing. They talked among themselves for a short while in a heated discussion about whether or not they should go look for the cubs, as best I could tell from the gestures. Eventually the older men were satisfied that they were right, and went back to their chores. The younger men, and some boys, pouted and kicked at the dirt, obviously unhappy with the elders' decision. The younger men sat on the ground in a circle and began scheming as soon as the older men were out of sight and out of earshot. The boys busied themselves by examining the dead lion from head to toe; tooth to tail.
I was curious to find out how the mother had sensed my presence, so I wandered over to her hut. She was holding the boy tightly, rocking back and forth with tears streaming down her cheeks, too distraught to talk. The women around her were trying to comfort her with soft words and gentle hugs. Eventually she was able to speak. ‘God, I wish I could understand their language,’ I thought. As I strained to hear, I swear I heard her say "cold breeze" as she shuddered. The others looked at each other in amazement. The air was as still and warm as the sky was blue. And the sky was very blue.
I was a bit put off that I was sensed as a cold breeze. ‘After all, I did have good intentions, didn't I? Heroes aren't exactly ice cubes, now, are we?’ I enjoyed the self-pity a few minutes before I allowed logic to intervene. Of course I would have been cold. If I had been warm and fuzzy, she might not have felt the fear that prompted her to run for her child.
With a sigh, I looked back at the young men and boys. The boys were pretending to ride the lioness, whipping her carcass with large twigs. The young men were looking shiftily back at the village, biding their time for an unnoticed slip into the bushes. I sat down on a stump and put my head in my hands. This did NOT feel fun after all. I wanted to wake up.

And so I did. The bright lights caused me to squint. ‘ How did I ever fall asleep with those d----- lights on?’ I was most cranky. I ignored the brown sand that spurted from my nose. ‘If this is a sample of my job in heaven, I wonder how much worse it could be in hell.’ I felt the vague discomfort I used to feel in life after waking from a very frustrating dream, like I should have been able to do more. I couldn’t understand why I felt so badly. After all, I did save the little boy. ‘Why do I feel pity for the lioness? She was going to eat that kid! But those boys showed no respect for her at all, abusing her dead body like that. And those old men were going to just let those poor cubs starve to death!’ I felt myself rooting for the young men. I wondered if I could help them find the cubs if I went back to sleep.....

And I did. Instantly. The young men were splitting up. Some went back to the huts, others headed to a water hole. Only three slipped off into the bushes. I followed this last group, as they seemed to be the ones elected to do the tracking. They were very good at it, too. They covered what seemed to be miles in just a few minutes.

As we reached a slight elevation in the landscape, they slowed down and started looking among the rocks and vegetation instead of looking for tracks on the ground. They looked for quite some time in an area sheltered from the hot sun.

After a bit, they began to look rather discouraged. They sat and began discussing options. One pulled a piece of raw meat out of his pocket. The others nodded their heads as he went to place it in the most secluded spot they had found so far. When he returned to the group, they hid behind a rock and watched. And waited. And watched. And waited.

It was enough to put a guy to sleep! This thought reminded me that I WAS sleeping, and I was here to help, not just watch. I smacked (through) my forehead with my palm. ‘What an idiot!’ I reprimanded myself harshly.

‘Okay, so what can I do to help?’ I asked, and then answered myself: ‘Just go through the bushes and boulders and look!’ I smiled as I recognized that I was now talking to myself. Not only was I dead, but crazy, too. Or maybe not dead, just crazy? ‘THIS is crazy! I don't even know what those guys are going to do if they find the cubs. Are they going to raise them? Where would they get milk to feed them? How could they keep them a secret from the elders?’ I paused to ponder these issues. It didn't take long to come to the conclusion that they were going to kill them. Logically, this is the only thing that would make sense. After all, cubs grow up to be lions that eat meat, be it people or people's animals. In order for the people to survive, the cubs had to go.

I had been an avid hunter, and here I was, worried about a couple of cubs. It wouldn't have caused me any consternation to shoot a deer, although I wasn't one to hunt when the fawns were young. Now something just didn't feel right about killing animals. I'd eaten animals all of my life. I used to casually kill chickens and hogs and cattle - a quick ‘chop off the head’, or ‘shot between the eyes’, and that was that. Now it seemed barbaric. ‘Jeez, this is confusing.’ Since I couldn't decide how I wanted to help, and didn't really want to know the ending, I wished myself to be awake.

But I didn't wake. I stayed there in the bush, seemingly forced to watch this to the bitter end. I almost wished I hadn't saved that little boy. Maybe it wasn't me, anyway. Maybe the mother just happened to remember to check on the little squirt. I no longer wanted to be a part of this drama of nature. It wasn't a battle of good against evil but survival of the fittest. There would be no happy ending. Someone or something had to die.

It was the cubs to die this time. Not at the hands of the young men, however. I spotted one of the cubs atop one of the rocks, way too high up for the cub to get to by itself. Whatever killed it took it there. Two other cubs, or pieces of them, were at the base of the other side of the rock. I felt numb. It was a lot more fun watching a movie than being in one, and that's what this felt like. Movies weren't real, so they could be entertaining. This was real. This was very real.

I was relieved I didn't have to watch the men kill the cubs. It was sad enough to see the results of their violent demise. I went to the young men to try to let them know about the cubs. This time, I expected them to feel cool, and they did, but took it to mean that it was late rather than as a signal of something amiss. They got up and headed home.

I stayed at that rock for some soul searching. I didn't like the unsettledness I was feeling. I decided to enjoy the scenery and put all of this nonsense out of my mind. I laid back and watched the clouds roll by. I soaked up the warmth of the setting sun.

I woke up.

 

4
The First Snoop

I stayed on the cot for a while, staring at the ceiling. It was a different sort of ceiling. The lighting was not from bulbs or the usual fixtures, but from the entire overhead area. It was a soft brightness. Almost made me want to go back to sleep...

‘H--- NO!’ I thought, fighting off the sleepiness as I jumped off the cot. Luckily I was on the bottom bunk; I forgot to check first. ‘But then again, I couldn't really hurt myself now, could I?’

As I cleaned the pure white cottony fluff from my ear, I looked around. Julia was nowhere to be seen, so I took the opportunity to snoop about unescorted. I snuck through the aisles hoping none of the children tending the nappers would stop me. No one did. I took a side door to what I hoped was the outside.

It wasn't. The room was furnished like a large living room, minus the TV. There were little cubicles, however, with what looked like computer keyboards, but no monitor. I went into one for a closer look.

It was a keyboard, all right, but the keys weren't the usual letters and numbers. The icons on them were very faint, like they'd been rubbed off from overuse. ‘You'd think they could just wish them to be new, and 'mwah lah!' they'd be new,’ I thought semi-bitterly. I touched one, and jumped back with a start. It felt warm and soft! I stepped up again and tried to get a closer look at the symbol on the key I had just touched. ‘Drat, where are my d--- glasses,’ I thought. I squinted, moved back and forth a bit, but without my glasses, it was hopeless. ‘It would be nice to not need the blasted things at all. I wonder if they would be solid or a mist like me, if I had them.’ I looked at the keyboard again to find it all to be in perfect focus!

"I did it!" I shouted aloud in my excitement, when I realized I made something happen by just thinking it. "I did it!" I sat down at the keyboard and again touched the key that I now could see had a folded blanket on it. I supposed it meant 'warmth' and I was ready for the warm soft feel of the key this time. But that was all it seemed to do. No blanket materialized, nor did I feel all warm and fuzzy. ‘Humm... let me try another one,’ I thought, looking over my choices.

"May I help?" an adult voice over my shoulder inquired. He didn't startle me too much, considering he hadn't been there a second ago, but I did jump a bit. Enough to amuse the chap, at least.

"You could start by not laughing at me, sonny!" I replied, more than a bit perturbed. "You could’ve warned me you were coming. At my age I could have had a heart attack!"

He escalated into a hearty belly laugh at this statement, which didn't help my mood a bit. ‘I wish I could have been this entertaining in life,’ I thought. ‘I've had everyone in stitches since I got here, but d----- if I know why!’ As I cleaned out my ear canal, the young man regained control of himself.

"I'm sorry, but you newcomers are always so funny! We don't mean to make you feel as though we’re laughing at you, but I can see how it might feel that way. Try to be patient with us, and work on your sense of humor. We have a ball with all the 'punny' things we can do here." He grinned impishly.

“I have more of a sense of humor than you, just not as juvenile," I growled.
But my curiosity about the keyboard overcame my irritation so I took him up on his offer of help. “I thought I had mastered these blasted things in life. The grandkids had all kinds of gadgets they tried to explain to me. Most of 'em didn't interest me at all, but the computer was fun. They gave me one of their hand-me-down computers they said was too slow for them. It was a perfect speed for me. It gave me time to figure it out. But this thing doesn't have a monitor. How do you know what the key you push does?" I was surprised at the relief I felt at not having to figure this out on my own. I usually loved puzzles, and I was peeved if someone tried to help me solve any of them.
"It's not really a computer. It's a tool we can use to develop our receptive and self-improvement skills. Try to feel the emotion or feeling pictured on the key,” he suggested. “When you get good at it, you can begin to sense the feelings of the rest of us without us having to say a thing. Sorta like reading body language, advanced level. All you needa do is hold down a key, empty your mind, and 'feel'," he said. "The feeling should wash right through you."
I didn't even try to do as he suggested. The whole thing smelled too much like that meditation stuff my crazy daughter wanted me to try years ago. It was an awful experience. She made me go with her to some guru's office for ‘relaxation’ lessons. While he sat there with HIS eyes open, he told us to close ours, and to focus on our breathing and heartbeat. Well, I tried, sort of. I focused on my heartbeat and breathing, all right. Both went faster and faster until I thought I would hyperventilate! And my eyes wouldn't stay shut without holding them tightly shut - hardly a relaxing posture. It was a total waste of time and money.
"Maybe if you pretend I'm not here," the man offered.
"NO WAY!" I shouted angrily. "I'm NOT going to 'empty my mind'!" The last words were said with as much mockery as I could muster. "And I'll be d----- if I'll put up with everyone reading my thoughts! It's an outrage! Where's the respect for privacy in this place! Who's in charge!? I'd like to have a nice long chat with him, if you don't mind, sir." My tone was very sarcastic. A black dagger had flown rapidly out of my mouth, but it bounced off the wall behind the keyboard. Lucky for him I was facing the cubicle instead of him.
"No problem. I can take you to Pat right now, if you'd like. But may I ask you something first?"
"Why don't you just look for the answer yourself?! Why should I even bother thinking the answer for you to 'read' it!? Or aren't your powers good enough to put the thought together, too!?" I was furious, and sarcasm was now dripping from my words.
The man smiled that hellishly annoying smile everyone around here seems to have, and said calmly, "Lord, give me strength!" Instantly, he bulked up like a young'un on steroids pumping iron 24 hours a day!
"I mean patience, Lord, patients." Out of the door opposite from the sleep room, some souls entered, one holding a handkerchief to her nose, another holding his hand over his heart and stumbling as though he was having a heart attack, a third pretending he was using crutches.
Doing his best to keep a straight face, the man sighed, and said, "Okay, I guess I mean to ask for insight." He looked at me for a second, then his eyes rolled backwards into his head! I stood there flabbergasted and speechless while the others went red with laughter. One of his eyes rolled forward for a few seconds, looked me up and down a time or two, and then flipped back to join the other eye.
I was livid! I started to smoke, like Johnny had done.
Instantly, the man's eyes boinged back into proper position under a now furrowed and puzzled brow. "Sorry, sir. I'm dreadfully sorry. I didn't realize you didn't like puns. I had heard you had a really good sense of humor. Don't blow a fuse, now Ian! Calm down! I said I'm sorry!"
He was starting to panic, as was I. I didn't want to find out what happened to Johnny by joining him! I tried to calm down, but my heart beat faster and faster and the air around me turned darker and darker. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine being in my hammock under the tree in my backyard. I took some deep breaths. My heart slowed a bit and I felt less panic. I felt the fear slowly lift.
Gee, I puzzled, ‘I didn’t have a chance to tell the b-----off before I started literally burning up inside. This can’t be what Susan meant when she tried to explain to me about turning anger inward.’ I never had THAT problem in life. I was excellent at venting my anger at anyone or anything that got in my way, which was usually my family.....
When I opened my eyes, the man was looking at me with a most serious expression on his face. "Let's go to see Pat before you tar out on me!"
I shot him a look that guaranteed he would be speechless on the way to see Pat. I was not too fond of this man, and I WAS still in danger of turning into tar.

We glided around a few turns and past several doors, some closed, some open, revealing souls busy with what I swear looked like paperwork. ‘That d----- stuff even exists in heaven! Now isn't that just h---ish. Next I'll be asked to fill out a 1040EZ form!’

I glanced at the man's face to see if he 'read' me on this, and thought I saw a hint of a curl at the right side of his mouth - I was on his left, so I supposed he felt he could safely emote on the other side. ‘Maybe he isn't so bad. His puns WERE creative.’ At this thought, he couldn't hide the smile any longer. ‘Humm.. I can have some fun with this. What thoughts can I have that could get him into trouble?’

Lucky for him, we arrived at Pat's office. At least that's what the name on the door indicated. But the soul behind the desk couldn't have been more than 4 years old.

"Three and one half, if you please," the child answered my thought. "I understand you have a few problems with 'this place'. Hopefully we can help you adjust to our pod. We have plenty of scars already from bubbles that have ruptured over the eons. I'd hate for you to choose to add another."

"STOP READING MY MIND!!!!" burst out of me with the frustration of it all.
"Why? Do you have something to hide?" the child asked calmly.
"Of course I don't! But a guy's thoughts should be private!"
"Why?" was the quiet response.
"Because, d--- it!" A dark tack shot out of my mouth and sailed right over the child’s head. ‘Oops. I don't want to hurt her. Or him...’ I couldn't tell which sex it was.
"Are you a boy or a girl?" I asked. I tried to keep the edge out of my voice without success.
"Yes," Pat answered.
That did it! I thoroughly despised when anyone answered me like that. "YES, WHICH!!! It was an either/or question, you idiotic a------!!!!" This time, the dark dagger that sped out of my mouth went right through Pat’s forehead.
Now I'd done it. Insulting the boss even in heaven should get a soul into trouble, even if the boss is a child. I waited for my reprimand, but none came. I watched the gap in ‘its’ head slowly close. I then looked around the room and realized I had drawn quite an audience. Everyone was sitting, standing, or floating with glum looks on their faces. The 'patients' of the punster had come along, and a crowd had gathered at the door to Pat's office. One soul, about 6 or 7 years old, had to 'amoeba' her way in and hovered by Pat's desk. At least this soul appeared to be a female. It was most unsettling to not know if Pat was male or female. Knowing the boss's mind set makes a huge difference in how to interact to get what is wanted or needed from the higher-ups.
"Gail, I believe you may be able to help Ian more than I. He works better with souls that are obviously female,” the child said to the 7 year old girl.
"Yes, sirma'am!" replied Gail enthusiastically.
"You all may go now. The excitement is over," said Pat, still without any signs of rumpled feathers.
‘Must not be human,’ I thought as we left the office. I looked to the punster on my left for a reaction.
"If you would have let me ask you some questions, I could have warned you about Pat. But you had to get you're back up. I don't know how Karl dealt with you for all those years. But to answer your question, most of us are fully human souls, but none of us is sure about Pat. That is unless Gail, here, knows something we don't." He looked through me to Gail, who was on my right side, both figuratively and literally. At least she hadn't gotten on my bad side....yet.
"I try not to ask too many questions so I don't accidentally tell something I shouldn't." She sidestepped the question, which seemed to amuse the punster.
"Her typical airhead answer," he leaned towards my ear and whispered, "but she sure has mastered the mind reading wall.”
I looked at her for signs of her hearing what the punster said, but saw only a rather bland expression.
“Or maybe there's nothing there for us to read!" He was not overly careful to whisper this last comment, but Gail still didn't register an expression. ‘Maybe he's right,’ I thought. ‘She’s probably an idiot. So I'll still have to figure all this out on my own, if I don't go crazy or explode first.’
"I'll help you if you promise not to go postal on me, and if you work on your sense of humor," the man offered, then turned down a hallway and disappeared.
‘I never did ask what his name is.’ I looked to Gail for the answer. She still had the same blank expression. "Didn't you hear me?" I asked, a bit irritated.
"Hear what? Did you say something?" she responded. She seemed to be sincere.
"No, I guess I didn't actually say anything, but I thought it. Can't you read minds like everyone else around here?" The irritation was still very audible in my intonation.
"I thought you said you didn't like souls reading your mind, so I didn't. Are you changing your mind? Please don't expect me to read your mind as to when you want me to read your mind. That would put me in a terrible pickle. It would really take some thinking to figure out just how to do that one." With that, she developed a puzzled look and put her finger up to her mouth as though she were already trying to come up with a strategy.
"No!!! Don't read my mind! Ever!!" I was very happy to hear someone actually take me seriously about the mind reading. "I'll be happy to tell you what I want you to know."
"So do you have something to hide, then?" she asked quite innocently.
I managed to stop feeling so aggravated for a moment and pondered the question a bit. ‘I guess I do have something to hide. I can't go talk with my buddies until I can be sure they can't pick up on my PETA-like response to the lioness and the dead cubs. I'd NEVER live that one down. And here it's not just a lifetime I'd be ribbed about it - it could be for eternity!’

5
Some Answers

"So, didn't you hear what the punster was saying? He was actually talking out loud. Couldn't you hear him?" I changed the subject.

"Oh, yes! Mark loves to tease me about being an airhead, so I oblige. It's great fun! It's actually fun to pretend even when he's not around. And I can get away with a lot, too. Souls don't expect much from me, so I can get more done....oops, maybe I shouldn't have said that…" She either was a very good actress, or she really was worried that she may have said too much.

D--- if I know what use I could make of anything she said so far,’ I thought as I began to wonder if she was going to replace Julia. ‘I sure hope not. Julia is a lot more helpful than Gail has been so far. Although, Gail did rescue me from Pat.’ I was tired of getting puffs out of my ear, so I didn't bother removing this one. This place may be easier to take muffled.

"So, are you replacing Julia?" I didn't think I had done anything to upset Julia. "She hasn't put in for a transfer, has she?" I asked worriedly.

"No. Ms. Drew will be your deAger as long as you need and want her to be. I'm just assigned to help you adapt to the pod without causing a zit," she answered matter-offactly.

"Snit. You mean without causing a snit," I corrected. "No. I mean zit. Remember? Pat hoped you wouldn't choose to become another scar, that we had enough popped bubbles already," she reminded me gently.

Now why the h--- would I want to become a reeking zit?’ Hoping to get a sensible answer, I asked, "Why, or how, would I turn into a zit?" The puffs in my ears made it a bit difficult to hear her answer. But even muffled, her answer was infuriating.

"Remember how you stopped yourself from exploding by imagining yourself back in life in your hammock?" she asked.

How did she know about that?! She said she wouldn't read my mind! Is she reneging already? Or did she read Mark's mind after he read mine?’ I felt the anger rise again. ‘If she knew what I was thinking before she even met me, that meant she knew I had been upset by all the mind reading that had been going on all along, so she shouldn't have listened. And if she was listening, G-- knows who else listened!’

A jolt of panic struck. ‘ L---, does that mean my mind can be read from a distance? Does that mean my buddies already know I'm a whussie?’

My knees felt weak. I managed to sit before I fell, or floated, to the floor. I wished I'd have emptied the prior puffs before these two new ones appeared, because I couldn't hear what Gail was asking me.

She seemed to realize why I couldn't hear her, though, and helped me remove the fluffs. There shouldn't have been too much earwax on them, given the number of fluffs that came before them. At least she didn't seem to be grossed out.

"What happened?" she asked worriedly. "I'm not used to being in the dark. What in heaven were you thinking to make your knees buckle? You’d done an amazingly good job with the imagery technique to defuse that near tarnation! I meant it as a compliment, honestly I did!"

"Listen," I said as I tried my best to keep the fear out of my voice. "I need some answers. And I need them now. No games.” ‘I hope you're not really an airhead,’ I thought. “Give it to me straight. Tell me about this mind reading stuff. How close to a soul do you have to be to read his mind? How many souls can listen at one time? Is there a 'what he thought' chain letter system? How can I block the intrusions?"

She looked at me for an uncomfortable minute while she seemed to be mulling over what she could and could not tell me. She suddenly grinned broadly. "Mark would have great fun with that question. He'd furrow his brow, lift one eyebrow and say as seriously as he could 'If I tell ya, I'll hafta kill ya'" She began to chuckle briefly, but stopped abruptly when she noticed the furious look on my face. She quickly went into a more serious mode. "It's not that we try to keep things from you. We don't want to overwhelm you with too much at a time. Don't think badly of us. I can sense your frustration and fear without reading your mind; if I'm paying attention, that is. Your body language is quite clear. And I understand why you are so upset. We sometimes forget ourselves here; we are having too much fun, you know."

She was KILLING me with her evasiveness. "So answer my questions, you d--- idiot!!!" I was fuming with impatience. Not that they wouldn't try the patience of Job.... Mother Teresa herself would lose it with this bunch.

She deftly dodged my dart. "Okay. Are you ready?" She continued to stall.
"YES!!!!!!!" I was a deep gray color by now, and apparently beginning to smoke, as she immediately began:
"Generally, adults need to at least be in sight of the soul being listened in on. But in your case, we, I mean Pat and me and a few other younger souls, needed to have a conference about some of the unexpected difficulties we were having with your choices so far." She hesitated for a second when she saw the "WHAT!!!!!" forming on my lips. She cut me off and continued. "We knew you were going to be a handful or we wouldn't have gotten you for a replacement for Dick, God rest his soul. He was the one who popped the zit just before you arrived. Every pod has to have a few 'challenging souls'. Evens out the work and frustration."
"FRUSTRATION!!!!!!" I spat before she could stop me. "I'M FRUSTRATING YOU!!!??"
"I think we all underestimated your level of curiosity. We thought you'd be content to play cards and golf with your buddies, no questions asked," she admitted with a sigh.
"Well you all thought wrong, missy,” I snarled through clenched teeth. “I can understand why Dick and Johnny would choose a fate worst than death to escape this hellish ‘heaven’!!" I sarcastically emphasized ‘heaven’. The longer I existed here, the more I felt like it really was hell after all. ‘This is worse than Big Brother in '1984'!’ I was fuming. Literally.
"Please hear me out before you rush to judgment. Our fault was in overestimating your tolerance for transparency. In life you were sure of yourself and seemed to be able to say whatever came to your mind, no matter what the consequences. We underestimated the softness of your soul."
I calmed a bit as I heard her admit that they had made mistakes. ‘Dick really did smell awful when he popped. And I’m his replacement, huh. Maybe I'd better try a bit harder to contain my temper unless I want to rot in a pimple like he did. Sounds like THEY don't want me to rot either. I wonder if they get Brownie points for every soul like me they save.’
"You see, most people who behaved like you acted in life really DON’T care about how other people feel. They just say what they want, no matter who it hurts. We didn't believe Karl when he said you really had more empathetic DNA than you showed."
"Pathetic! Karl called ME pathetic!! What about HIM! He wasn't even there for my death, the swine!" I hissed.
"Are you sure you got all the puffs out of your ears? I said EMpathetic DNA, not that you are pathetic." I heard her add without moving her lips – ‘he sure is acting pathetic right now, though.’
My expression changed from fuming to surprised. ‘Did I just manage to read HER mind? Even Mark couldn't read HER mind! And what was this DNA stuff all about?’

"Karl would have been with you at your end if he could have managed it. He was most upset at his alternate assignment. That may be why he asked for reassignment of duties after he left you here. He cited 'conflict of interest'. He really had grown quite fond of you. He said you 'were so cranky you were cute', or something to that effect. I guess that goes to show sometimes 'conflict of interest' can be a bad reason to not follow through. But this wasn't really a conflict of interest, now that I think about it. He had nothing to gain for himself by remaining your guardian. But it sure would have helped you. Unless his conflict would keep him from helping you deAge… I wish I could recall just how that discussion went..." Her expression was becoming pensive now, as though the attempt to remember was all consuming.

"Excuse me, Missy, but you’re rambling." I was just a BIT sarcastic. "You are making no sense at all. How many d
-- conferences do you have around here, anyway?" A small brown tack flew out of my mouth and over her head. She didn’t seem to notice it as she appeared to be deep in thought.

I was beginning to run out of enough energy for a really good hissy fit. I'd had so many of them lately. Almost as many as my worst day on earth.

"Oh, no more than one or two a day," Gail eventually said as she came out of her reverie. It took me awhile to realize she was answering my rhetorical question. They sure didn't answer many of my REAL questions. "Most of them are routine issues. I can't tell you about them, though. They're confidential."

"Well, well, now. Isn't that interesting. Some things here ARE confidential, if you're in the right circle and have enough power. Just like on earth. So is this purgatory, or what? It sure isn't heaven!" I was more disgusted now than angry. "So do I have a personal spot somewhere to 'contemplate my sins'? I need to be alone." My sarcasm had to be obvious even to this hopeless twit.

We walked rather than floated as I was feeling much too heavy to glide anywhere, and Gail seemed to sense it. She also sensed the need to be quiet, or risk another of my near meltdowns. We went down several halls and made too many turns for my seething mind to remember. If she was trying to get me lost in the maze, she was succeeding.

We finally arrived at a rather desolate place with only a few sulky souls on what looked like windowsills with the glass of the window pouched out like a half bubble. Their backs were to us. She pointed to an empty bubble rather near the floor, and said "I hope you'll find it to your liking. I'll let Julia know you're here."

With that, she faded away.

 

6
My First Introversion

I slid through the opening in the bubble which then closed magically behind me. I plopped onto the floor and pouted. I needed a good self-pity party after all that's happened since I died. When I thought about the many mood swings I’ve had since I arrive in this hell-hole I remembered that my daughter tried to get me to take some ‘mood-fixing’ medication. There was nothing wrong with me and she knew it! If they would have done right, I wouldn't have been on them all the time. Somebody needed to keep them straight.

I had to admit, though, life was lonely without them. ‘I just wish they wouldn't have blamed me for their mother's death. I took her for check-ups. Could I help it they didn't find the cancer before it was too late? And didn't I show my concern when I cursed out all those blasted doctors for not curing her? Just because Susan is a doctor didn't mean she had to side with them, for C------ s---!’ I snorted out some grit black enough to be coal dust. I sighed, and laid my head back against the bubble, which was becoming as dark as my thoughts.

My son was no better. He left for college and never looked back, except to ask for money. ‘That's all I was to him - the bank. At least his wife brought the kids to see Irene and me once in a while.’ I used to overhear her talking with Irene about trying to convince Lenny that I'd mellowed in my old age. ‘Yeah, I mellowed, all right.’

I tried to look out of my bubble, but it was like trying to look through the darkly tinted car windows those drug dealers use. I closed my eyes, but I couldn't sleep. ‘I guess I have to be in the 'sleep room' to sleep, so they could keep a closer eye on me. Yep, this must be hell, disguised as heaven.’ I never felt so alone. ‘Now I can't even talk with my friends until I master some thought blocking wall of some sort, and I'll be d----- if I can stand being around these batty souls long enough to learn anything of use. They're having too much fun playing with me.’

This second puff of black dust from my nose seemed to fill the air in the bubble. I wondered if this is how a zit started.

‘But didn't Pat and Gail say I'd have to choose to cause a zit? I don't want to rot into a smelly zit. Do I have to choose to NOT turn into a zit? How do I make the choice? Can I just think it? I have been able to think a few things into happening. But this is a bigger, more important issue. Where is Julia?’

‘Just stop thinking and open your mind .’ I thought I could sense her, but I couldn't see her. I did feel a hint of that good feeling she gives me, though.

‘What the h---. What do I have to lose?’ I was pleased to have to remove the familiar tan puff from my ear. I took it to be a good sign that coal dust didn’t come out of my nose. ‘I must be on the right track.’

I tried to not think, but my mind kept wandering through upsetting and depressing life events, and now death events, too. I had no idea how to stop thinking.

‘Yes, you do. Or at least you know how to keep yourself from feeling. Remember the hammock? And the rock in your dream when you didn't want to feel pity for the cubs? Try those methods.’

Where this thought came from was a mystery to me. It wasn't Julia's voice. But I didn’t panic and managed to stop thinking.

And those d--- feelings took over.
I cried. And cried. And cried.
Quite a few swear words snuck in amongst the feelings,

too, so that I almost had enough navy blue puffs to blow my nose on after what seemed like hours of wretched sobs. If I were alive, I'd have dehydrated.

When I was all cried out, I noticed the color of my bubble was a blue-gray. I still couldn't see out, so hopefully no one could see in either. ‘After all, I have an image to keep up.’ With that thought came the realization that now I REALLY couldn't face my buddies. ‘I REALLY have something to hide now.’

I seemed to have perfected the feeling thing though, as I burst back into tears without a seconds' warning.

After the second spasm of major, uncontrolled self-pity was over, the bubble was dark blue. I sank into the puddle of tears on the floor in disbelief. My favorite whine slipped out of my mouth: "Why me Lord?"

The answer this time: ‘ Because you choose it to be this way.’
‘Where the h--- are these thoughts coming from? Who in their right mind would choose to be in this situation?’
The air darkened again with my nasal coal dust puff.
‘You're not in your right mind. Not yet, anyway. When you are, you'll make better choices.’
‘Not in my right mind, huh. Who is this putting thoughts into my mind - my daughter?!’
She always implied I wasn’t normal.
‘You’re not abnormal. You are just too wrapped up in being what you think you should be. Susan knew you had a soft center. She just had trouble getting past the harsh exterior.’
I was beginning to feel uneasy. "Okay, I give up. What do I need to do get to my mind right?" I said out loud, feeling like a lunatic.
‘Be yourself. Be who you are.’
I felt like screaming. I pounded the walls of my bubble. To my amazement, the color of the walls lightened with each blow. I continued to hit, but with less frenzy and fear and more curiosity. ‘Surely this can't mean I'm supposed to beat the c--- out of anything or anyone whenever I get the urge.’

The puff from my ear seemed to almost dance as it floated to the ground. I could have sworn it was happy. ‘But that'd be crazy!’ Definitely crazier than anything that's happened since I've been here, and that's saying quite a lot.

As I stared at the happy fluff, I noticed some glitter on the sill near it, under my tears. I tried to pick it up for a closer look, but it was stuck to the floor of the bubble. I got on my hands and knees to see it better. Luckily, the light seemed to brighten, and I could see the glitter was made of symbols, or letters, or numbers. It reminded me of the glitter I saw float from the cloud to the ocean when Johnny blew his gasket, and the stuff that dripped from Dick’s popped zit. But this was just a tiny bit, just a fraction of the amount I saw at those times.

I felt an overwhelming urge to sleep. I looked in to the pod side of my bubble to see a smiling Julia. It'd been nice if she could have spared me all the bizarre agony I had just been through, but I couldn't give her a hard time about it. Those management sorts probably had her busy at some useless confidential meeting. I noticed, with a bit of nostalgia, that I was too numb to be truly annoyed by this possibility.

Besides, with Julia here now, life, or rather, death, was not so bad.

 

7
I’m Ready to Listen

She took my hand and we were in the sleep room in the blink of an eye. My cot was still unmade from the first dream, but I didn't care. I snuggled up with my down pillow and pulled the down comforter up to my chin, and promptly fell asleep.

When I opened my eyes I was in a teenage boy’s bedroom. He was in his bed reading a book. He yawned, closed the book, turned out the light and pulled up the covers. As I watched, I thought I heard him say ‘Thank you, Lord, for not taking that prayer of mine seriously. I really would have felt terrible if the Vikings' center had broken his neck. I'm glad you knew it was just the heat of the moment.’ The next thing I heard was the soft breathing of his sleep. Then I woke up.

This time Julia was still by my cot, grinning broadly. "How was that one? Better?" she asked expectantly.
"It was too short to tell. I couldn't have been asleep more than a few minutes, max," I replied.
"Thirty five seconds, to be exact. I thought a shorter dream with me staying here to prevent you from going back to find out more than you need to know would help you forget the trauma of your first job. You really caught me off guard when you decided to go back to sleep to see what happened to the cubs. I thought you would be here, grinning with pride at being able to save the toddler when I got back after that first assignment. You may do well to control that curiosity of yours!" She was grinning with a twinkle in her eyes as she said this, so I didn't know if she really meant it.
She took my hand, and we were instantly transported to a ledge overlooking a river valley. We sat and took in the scenery for a short while.
"So what was this three second task all about?" I asked.
"This was a completely 'feel good' trip rather than a true job. We thoroughly enjoy hearing when someone thinks we did him some good. It's a perfect opportunity to send souls in need of a lift to hear the positive feedback."
"Was that the home team center that Arnie, Harry and Larry went to help?"
"Good memory, Mr. Burns. But if you remember the events of that game, your friends were there to prevent the visiting team center from being injured. The outcome is the same, but Allen, the boy you just heard express his appreciation, didn't realize we were actually doing battle for him, not just ignoring his hate filled wishes for harm to come to his rival center. He was able to realize in the end that he really didn't want to hurt anybody. He is a really good human soul. He has great potential." She was offering so much more information than on previous interactions, I wasn't sure I should interrupt her. She was on a roll, and she had told me to control my curiosity. I tried very hard to not ask a question. It helped that I wasn’t able to follow her explanation enough to even formulate one...
"You look puzzled, but I can't make out any questions you may be thinking. Do you want to know more?" she asked.
"YES!!!" I couldn't contain my enthusiasm.
She laughed, and continued, "You see, sometimes when someone thinks they are communicating with their higher power, they are really being intercepted by the lowly counterclockwise forces. We have to step in to stop the slimy demons from following through with what they claim is a legitimate request for their services. They are crafty, and creative. Your buddies are especially good at fighting the types of beings that tend to respond to these types of requests. They enjoy responding to the sports’ induced pleas for evil to happen. We have a system set up for Arnie so he knows when we need his services at a game; especially the Rugby games. It helps him with his violent tendencies."
My mouth hung open idiotically; my expression was glassy-eyed. I had no idea what she was talking about.
She paused for a moment, apparently trying to listen for any coherent thoughts I may be having. She realized I was too confused to have a complete thought, and switched into a more personal mode. "We can set up a system for you, too, once you've had enough dreams to find your strengths. I'm not sure I know a good way to help you deal with your temper, though. You don't get violent; just frustrated. Humm.....maybe jobs that keep you thinking, problem solving.....yes - that may be the way to go..."
I tried to piece together some of this garbled information. I felt a bit more challenged and a bit less frustrated now that I had heard a few bits and bobs of how things work. This may actually be a solvable puzzle with a few more blanks filled in.
She and I came to the end of our self-musings at the same time and our eyes met. I thought I heard her say ‘I hope I didn't tell him too much, but I believe he'll do better with more rather than less information. He is a very quick learner.’
‘Finally I get some credit for being more than a peabrain!’

"So, when do YOU teach me to mind read and how to block others from reading my mind?" I didn't want to deal with any of the others souls I had met so far, especially Gail. And I was becoming more anxious to talk to my buddies. They could fill me in on LOTS more, and more quickly.
"Mind reading is a skill, rather like walking is to human infants. You really just have to practice. You already have the methodology mastered. You heard Allen in your dream, and his was just a thought, not an audible thank you prayer. And if I'm not mistaken, you just read my mind. It is easiest when you have eye contact, but eye contact is not necessary. It is also important that there be a complete thought, not just ideas all jumbled together. Only the very young, advanced souls can make sense of the hodge-podge type of thoughts." She paused to see if I was ready for more information.
I think she heard me think ‘YES!’, as she continued before I could actually say it.
"I know how important it is for you to feel less transparent when you are with your friends. I also know that if I merely told you to trust me that they will accept you for who you really are, you won't believe me. You were not as successful in fooling them about your true self as you thought you were before you all died. And some of them have been through the same rough start as you have had so far. I know you have to find this all out for yourself in order to be comfortable returning to them and the comradery you crave."
"Learning to block others from reading your thoughts is rather like blocking human souls from reading your body language. You must be aware of what you are thinking around which souls. Some souls are able to pick up some thought types better than others. Only trial and error will help you with this. Until you know who is who, and what each soul is interested in, it's best to try to keep a comparatively empty mind." She couldn't help but smile at the AARRGGGHH!!! expression on my face the ‘empty mind’ phrase induced. The body language in this case was so clear she didn't need mind reading. "You can do it, but it takes a large amount of effort. Most souls give up trying after they become more comfortable with transparency."
She continued with my lesson: "There are two sets of neurons in our brains. One set is myelinated, or coated. The other system is not. Human infants are born with only the unmyelinated types. As they grow, most of them develop into myelinated cells. The myelination helps speed the thoughts along so that more can be thought and done quickly. The unmyelinated cells of human adult brains are unused potential. You can learn to use that potential here much more quickly than when you were alive, but the thoughts will be much slower, at least at first. You will need to use all the patience you can muster."

‘So don't use it up with too much useless info!’ I thought impatiently. I had to smile at the irony in the thought. After all, I had been asking for more information since I arrived, hadn't I?

Julia smiled too. "You seem to do well with concrete imagery. Remember how you imagined yourself in cozy places to block out unwanted emotions?" I nodded in reply. She continued, "Instead of picturing a physically comfortable place, think of an elephant verses a chipmunk." My brow furrowed with this one. "How do you feel when you think of how a chipmunk moves?" She paused for me to ponder this question.

"Jerky. Nervous. Wired." I almost felt that way thinking about watching one zip along at the bottom of a tree, stop on a dime, look my direction, size me up, then zoom up the tree with a prize nut in its mouth.

"Very good. Now picture an elephant."
‘I wish all my teachers in life had been this good,’ I thought, and did as I was asked. "Slow motion, lumbering, heavy," were the adjectives that came to mind.
"Okay. With your next thought, (thanks, by the way, for that complement), think 'elephant' and slow it down."
‘Think. Thought. Humm, my mind is blank’ was the best I could do.
"Great!!! Ian, you almost emptied your brain for a few seconds!! Very good!" she was ecstatic.
"You don't mean I emptied my BRAIN, do you? I mean, all the info I worked so hard to put in there didn't leave, did it?" I felt silly asking this, but you never know around here....
"Oh. I meant to say you were without a coherent thought for a few seconds, and not just because I had told you too much too fast."
"Woo, that's a relief. I'd be afraid to try again, in case it would stay empty!" I pretended to tease with a sheepish grin.
"Okay, now try again to have a slow-motion thought." She waited expectantly.

'How can I have a slowmotion thought of any sig nif i cance?’ My arms even felt heavy with the effort, but this was fun!!!

"Excellent! I don't think anyone has ever mastered it on the first try!" she beamed.
‘But I need to prac tice a lot be fore I see the guys.’ My thought sped up a bit at the dread of a failure with them.
"I could sense the end of that thought. Can you fill me in on the first part?” she asked with a proud grin.
“I just thought that I’ll need lots of practice before I’ll be able to feel safe with the guys,” I admitted.
“You can practice with me, or you can try your skills with Mark and his cohorts. If you can block them, you can block anybody. They’re interested in everything imaginable!" Julia knew better than to suggest Mark. The mischief on her face was precious.
She also knew that I was so comfortable with her that I’d not have much trouble controlling my stress practicing with her. "There’s got to be somebody more stressful than you who would be safer to make a mistake with," I suggested.
Before Julia had a chance to answer, I shouted, "Karl! He already knows me inside and out, even down to my pathetic DNA, apparently. But I don’t feel as comfortable with him as I do with you, little one."
"Your EMpathetic DNA, Mr. Burns,” she corrected. “Yes, that's a good idea. I'll see when he can meet with us." She stood to go. "Where do you want to go while I find out? Your bubble?"
"ABSOLUTELY NOT!!!. I've had enough raw emotion to last me for eons.” I thought for a moment, then asked, “Can I just wander around, if I promise to stay out of trouble, or at least TRY to stay out of trouble?" I really wanted to wander around to get my bearings. Maybe then I wouldn't feel so disoriented.
"Okay. If you need me, think hard about me and I may be able to come right away." With that she poofed into nothingness before I could stop her.
“WAIT!!” I hollered immediately, almost in a panic.
She faded quickly back by my side. “What is it, Mr. Burns?” she asked a bit too sweetly with a crooked little grin.
“You little stinker, you!” I reprimanded. “You know I need to get back to civilization before I can even hope to find my way around!” I was smiling, too, as I held my arm out for her small hand.

8
Wandering

She deposited me back at my cot, then left again with a hearty smile and a deep curtsy.
I wondered when I would be able to transport myself to wherever I wanted to go, whenever I wanted to go there. I sighed, and looked around at my current options.
I decided to go the opposite direction from the one that took me to the keyboards and the Punster. I zigzagged through the sleepers quietly. Looking at their various expressions was interesting. Some had a unique grin, almost like a smirk, but without any malice. Others looked clearly frustrated. Few looked very happy this time, at least not as many as I recall seeing happy after my first nap. A few were very restless. I could imagine that they were having dreams like Arnie, Harry and Larry had. I was glad they didn't sleep walk; I'd have gotten tackled.
I saw some souls from the uppermost bunks wake, rub their eyes, roll over, and go back to sleep. There were other apparently new older souls who were on the bottom bunks with younger souls at their sides. They didn't look as confused and "green" as I felt, so they couldn't have been as newly dead as I. At least I hoped so. It then occurred to me that new souls could be arriving even at this moment.
With this thought, I found myself at the doorway of the pod.
‘I did it!’ I thought proudly. I looked up the conveyor belt, but saw no one coming my way. I did notice a lot more souls milling about the entrances of the pods than I remembered seeing when I first arrived. I stepped, or floated, over the moving belt to what looked like solid ground, but I couldn't quite drop onto it. I stayed suspended above the ground no matter how hard I tried to will myself down. Floating isn't so bad, I convinced myself as I gave up the effort to land.
I looked around slowly. The sights were awesome. How I missed all of this on my arrival was a mystery to me. Even the most unobservant person couldn't help but notice all this unique scenery. The top of my hill was really not that far. Only a few pods were above me. But almost all around me were mountain ranges bigger than the Tetons and the Alps put together. They stretched farther than even heavenly eyes could see. And they all seemed to have similar beads of podlike structures wound around them from top to bottom. Above them all was the fuzzy cloud. Far in the distance, I saw sparkling dots drifting down from the cloud in what reminded me of a rainsquall. A golden rainsquall... The cloud seemed to be much thicker around that mountain peak than anywhere else. The golden rain was showering down the top of the mountain and ran down its sides in rivers and streams.
I looked more closely in the direction of the ocean. The water was clear and the waves were relatively quiet at the foot of my mountain. But the water at the base of the stormy mountain was lapping far up the shoreline as if too anxious to wait for the golden liquid to reach it. The water in the ocean did not just turn golden as it absorbed the rain; it glowed. It actually produced light!
I floated up my mountain for a better look. I now could see some new souls arriving at the top of my mountain and hop on the conveyor belt. I also noticed some silvery glitter floating out of the fuzz; it was gently blown out to the sea.
I returned my gaze to the stormy mountain. As the storm cleared, an arc of silvery mist floated out over the ocean. As the misty cloud lifted, the rivulets of golden glitter could be seen more clearly. They were actually multitudes of souls making their way down their mountain. Most did not wait for the conveyor belt, which I felt sure the line linking their pods must have been. Few entered the uppermost pods. Most went to the bottom where the pods seemed to be swollen even before these newly arrived souls entered them. They grew and grew with each entering soul until I was afraid they would pop like the zits did here. But they didn't. Instead, they slid slowly toward the shoreline where the waves gently picked them up and they floated out into the ocean.
With some effort, I managed to tear my eyes away from that mountain and scanned the horizon. Though none matched the drama of the stormy mountain, there were some peaks with different, interesting qualities. One just past the glittery storm had a thin layer of fuzz way above its peak and very few pods, and the pods that were there were tiny. Almost just dots. Of course, that mountain was farther away, too. I floated around the top of my mountain and circled the peak. I found quite a few more of the scantily podded slopes closer up and easier to see in detail. The pods WERE much smaller. And there were no connecting conveyor belts, or lines of any sort. I could make out shapes of what I imagine had to be souls moving about the pods like friends visiting neighbors on holidays. The colors of these small pods were happy and bright. I couldn't see if the bottom of that mountain quite reached the ocean, but I felt sure it did not have a shoreline.
As I tried to make sense of all of this, Julia appeared with Karl. "You won’t be able to go back this way," said Julia. "But you may work your way down the slope if you want to leave us. You can stay at any level you choose, forever, if you'd like."
My mind must have been blank as I turned to look at her and digest what I had just seen and understand what I had just heard, because Karl gave me a hefty pat through my back and exclaimed, "That's it, Ian! You're doing exceptionally well with your mind block! Julia told me you were a quick study!"
I could see the mischief in his eyes as he said this. "Quit razzing me, Karl. You know I'm too befuddled right now to have ANY thoughts, let alone a coherent one!" I retorted, but without my usual twinge of irritation. I was just too dumbstruck by all I had seen. "What is all this?" I asked.
Julia beamed as she explained, "This is Earth's Dark Energy Blanket. It’s sort of like a protective coating, or a cozy comforter that isn’t sensed even by the earth’s best scientists. It's almost like a mirror image of earth in that some things work in opposition to earth's ways. Here you arrive older and grow younger, but by your own personal timeline, not by days or months. And you can stop at any stage you decide is best for you if you feel you are in balance with your skills and desires. You couldn't stay a teenager forever on earth, but you could here, if you chose."
"I can chose anything I want?" I asked rather deadpan, sneering at the phrase. So far it didn't feel that way.
"Yes," Julia continued. "Just remember your choices have consequences, and you must be ready to accept them. And be patient with yourself and us. Recall how a newborn infant has to learn the world around him in stages and often becomes very frustrated along the way. You will learn in stages, as well, but in reverse order, of a sort. And the potential for frustration is much greater."
"Great." I muttered with disdain. "You DO realize patience is definitely NOT one of my strengths..." I glanced over at Karl with a glare that dared him to comment. He just smiled.
"We do,” Julia continued. “But we also have to balance your needs with your ability to process and be open to the answers you crave. If you, or we, try to go faster than you are able to handle, you could make the VERY grave mistake of wishing for something you really don't want seriously enough to actually get it. There is no going back from that mistake." Julia was extremely somber as she said this. I thought of Johnny. ‘But didn't Arnie say 'don't worry, he'll be okay' after Johnny morphed into tar and blew away in the wind?’
"We'll tell you about that and other matters when you are ready to hear and understand. The hope is that you will internalize the information. If we move too fast, you may reject it, which could be very painful. So until then, please try to control your curiosity. Remember that a too curious toddler can be poisoned when he can't resist tasting a bottle of medicine found on an expedition to the top of Grandma's cupboards. Please trust us to tell you as much as we feel we can, as we feel you are ready." She almost seemed to be pleading.
"Why don't you just spank me when I get out of line. Rough me up. Knock some sense into me," I asked, semiseriously. I didn’t look at Karl this time.
"You are bigger than I am, now, aren't you, Mr. Burns?" she replied with a smile. "And honestly, you know it would make you even more obstinate."
I couldn't disagree with her there. "Okay, Missy. Point taken,” I sighed.
“So, are you ready to practice your ‘poker mind’ then, Ian?” Karl asked.
I had been so focused on what I had just seen and heard that it took me a bit to get my thoughts back to the reason Julia had allowed me to roam in the first place. “Uh, sure… sure. Whatever.”
“Let’s get busy, then!” Karl said with a chuckle.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen him like this,” he whispered to Julia. “It’s rather entertaining!”

9
I'd Just Like to Be Old

We floated back into the pod. I was actually beginning to feel like one of them, now that floating felt so natural. Almost like second nature. I smiled to myself as I thought about the analogy of the baby. ‘Maybe this is like an infant learning to crawl. Or walk, if I want to flatter myself about being a quick study.’

"I hate to burst your bubble, Ian. Floating is definitely a desirable skill here, and it does take some ability, but walking is like being able to fade from one area to another. Crawling is the closer comparison for floating." Karl didn't have any smugness in his voice. He said this in a matter-offactly sort of way. I wasn't used to this kind of response to my tendency to think highly of myself. ‘Arnie would have razzed me for hours on this one.’

"We can play that game if you want to, but I thought you wanted to learn how to block others from reading your thoughts." Karl remained on task.

"Yes. I do. I can't go back to be with my friends until I can be sure they can't see right through me. My mind, I mean. I don't care that they can see through this old body." ‘The Punster would have had some fun with that slip, wouldn't he?’ I thought with a grin.

"So when do you want to start practicing?" Karl interrupted my mischievous musing.
"Well, I guess now is as good a time as any." And I tried to think in elephant speed. ‘But what should I think about?’
"Very good!" Karl said with more of his usual demeanor. "All I could make out was 'But what', then you lost me! You've found your unmyelinates quicker than anyone I've worked with before! You'll be back with your friends in no time!"
‘So how can any one get any think ing done at this pace?’ I paused to see if Karl was going to respond. He just looked at me, smiling in amazement.
"So what did I just think, Karl? Be honest." ‘Actually, how would I know if he were telling me the truth or not? I need to learn how to read HIS mind, not just block him from mine.’
"Yes, you do. And it is actually easier to read minds than to block them, so I know you'll do well. So what were you thinking on your unmyelinates?" Karl asked.
"How can anyone get any thinking done at that slow pace? I'll have to take so long to think of a good retort to an Arnie jab, it'll be too late to use it!" I was determined to be able to maintain my usual social interactions. I had finely honed skills at verbal jousting before I died. I wanted to keep them well tuned.
"As long as you’re busy thinking along the lines of socializing, you'll be keeping your myelinates so busy with fun thoughts, none of the sensitive ones will break through. And if they read your retort before you say it, all the better!" He was a bit too overconfident that 'the sensitive ones' wouldn't be found out. I didn’t feel ready to go for a visit just yet.
‘What if there is a pause in the con vers ation... It could be a VERY awk ward silence..’ I practiced slo-mo thinking. ‘This is surprisingly easy considering the amount of anxiety I’m feeling.’
"Why are you feeling anxious? You're doing very well. What was the thought you had before the one about being easy even though you're anxious?" Karl asked seriously.
"I can't risk letting the guys read my feelings about my first dream. I'd never live, well, ..er I'd never be able to get them to stop ribbing me about it, and I don't think I could handle the harassment for some reason." ‘I really don't understand why I feel so sensitive about it. Maybe because I used to run people down who bellyached about being mean to 'poor animals'. They’re unrealistic sissies, as far as I’m concerned. And I still think that way, so d----- if I know why I reacted the way I did in the dream.’
Karl knew why I had the puff appear in my ear. I wasn't remembering to think in slo-mo. "You chose to go back to sleep to see the end of the drama. You 'crawled too high up the cupboards' but you may not have taken a lethal amount of Grandma's medicine."
Using the toddler analogy did help make a bit of sense of it all. "So you're telling me to not worry about what I saw and felt?" I asked with a definite sense of relief.
"Yes. It’s too much for you to process right now." He didn't elaborate, and I was glad he didn't. I was very happy to hear it wasn't that important right now. I felt very happy to stay out of the 'cupboards', now that I've experienced the consequences.
Becoming less preoccupied with myself, I noticed Julia was gone. ‘When did she leave?’ I thought in slomo, and glanced at Karl for a reaction. He was looking across the large entrance room at a collection of teenaged souls in an intense discussion about a recent job. I couldn't hear them, but apparently Karl could. He looked a bit worried. I thought I could make out, ‘Not a good sign. Not a good sign at all’ before he turned back to face me. He then must have used his own slo-mo, as no further thoughts were to be sensed.
He smiled wearily. "Ian, you're too smart for your own good. You're really going to keep us on our toes."
But he had given me permission to be a toddler equivalent. I felt relieved to be able to brush the overheard tidbit aside as not my problem. I wasn't young enough yet. Whatever the 'not good sign' was, I was too old to have to deal with it.
"So, where are my buddies?" I suddenly felt ready to see them again.
Karl looked at me for a few seconds as if deciding whether or not he should tell me. "They, or some of them, are down by the river at the Watering Hole. There are some lively discussions of some fun jobs going on. You may find some of them interesting. It may help you decide to ask for a specific task the next time you feel ready for a nap." With that, he turned and thought ‘follow me.’
"I could hear you think 'follow me'. When do I learn how to fade out of one spot and into another, and why are you not fading out with me to the Watering Hole instead of floating me to it?" I did fade from one spot to another after Julia deposited me back by my cot, but I didn't know how I did it.
Karl stopped and turned to me. He appeared somewhat somber when he finally replied, "Maybe we shouldn't go to your friends just yet. It would be best if your questions were answered by younger souls. You may not get an accurate picture from your friends. They’re not as curious as you are. They’re content with understanding just as much as they need to know to function, and little more. They may give you their partial knowledge, based on their limited experiences. Combined with your intellect and puzzle solving abilities, that type of information may result in a dangerous combination of partial truths."
I sighed, and my shoulders drooped. "Karl, what can I do to fit in here without all this conflict?" I wasn't in the mood to attend a class, or learn intricate details. I was ready to see my friends.
"Can you stop asking, or thinking, questions while you are with your friends?" he asked as though he knew the answer to be 'no'.
I had to be honest, so I admitted, "No, I can't. But if I don't take any of their answers seriously, would I be okay? I never took them seriously in life, so that should be easy; like second nature," I added hopefully.
Karl smiled and turned, and we resumed our float to the Watering Hole.

10
The Watering Hole

We went a different way from any of the other trips I'd made through the pod. I worked hard to not ask why this was necessary, so Karl wouldn't change his mind about taking me.. ‘OOPS, I thought, I need to slow my think ing so he won't even know that I'm think ing the ques tion.’

Karl smiled and nodded. "You're getting better. It WOULD be best if you could remember to put your questions through your unmyelinates. Then your friends won't be tempted to tell you their theories; I am correct that you did make the switch just then?" He looked me straight in the eyes as he asked for this conformation.

I couldn't resist the temptation to stay on my unmyelinates; ‘How could I say no with a straight face?’

His smile turned into a hearty grin, and my 'straight face' took on a smirk. ‘Now I'm ready for that card game. Boy will Arnie be surprised.’

"You've got to tell me that last thought. Judging by the look on your face, it was rather sinister." Karl didn't look too worried as he said this, though. "You do want to stay out of trouble, now, don't you?"

"I'm going to win my first game of heavenly euchre. I've mastered the 'Poker Mind'! They won't think I could have learned to block so quickly. It'll shock Arnie to death!" This phrase reminded me, "Oh, by the way, I can't really give him another heart attack, can I? I mean, I'd really hate to cause his death twice...." This was a semi-sincere question. I really did feel responsible for his heart attack, even though I didn't think he'd get SO d--- wound up arguing about a silly game. My puff was blue.

"No. I can answer that question quickly and easily. No. And don't blame yourself for his attack. He could have prevented it if he really wanted to."

I managed to return to my unmyelinates by the time the question ‘How could he have prevented it?' was fully formulated. Karl only noticed that he couldn't sense anything, and nodded approvingly.

The Watering Hole was less crowded this time, and also less jovial. But the guys we floated up to seemed happy enough. They were in basketball outfits this time. As we drew near enough to hear, Karl faded out. I hesitated a bit about joining in. Harry and Larry were there, but I didn't recognize the others.

"Come join us, Ian!" the hefty soul to my left patted my back so hard his hand went through to my sternum. "We're discussing the game Harry and Larry just worked. Arnie’s still there, but he should be back soon."

Harry looked my direction and smiled. "We were starting to worry. It was taking you quite a while to come back. You didn't ask for a challenging dream to start off with, did you?"

"Why would you ask that?" I struggled to not think about my first dream. I was ready to jump into 'slo-mo' if any thoughts of it surfaced, and I quickly changed the subject. "Why is Arnie still at the job and you two are here?"

"He wanted to see if he could find out if the whole team was involved in the wicked scheme, or if it was just the coach and the home team's point guard," Harry explained. "But I guess we'll need to recap the job, so you'll know what we're talking about. Is that okay with the rest of you?"

The hearty backslapper laughed and said "Sure thing, Harry. You tend to dress up the second tellings nicely. Sometimes it’s hard to believe it's the same job!"

After the others were done laughing in agreement, Harry started over at the beginning. "We were sent without a specific invitation, so it took a while to figure out just what we were there to do. It started to look like maybe the point guard on the home team had wished for the visiting team's point to get hurt, because the visiting point was getting up from the floor, rubbing his head. But at the next play, we saw the home guard try to trip the other guard and there were no blobs to be seen. Then Larry poked my in the ribs with his elbow - kinda hard, I might add - his elbow went halfway through my chest!"

"Sorry 'bout that. I was a bit excited when I noticed that hateful coach signal the home point to try harder next time," Larry interrupted. "I wanted to figure out what the problem was before any one got hurt."

"About the same time, Arnie flew out onto the court to break the visiting point's fall - he had just been blind-sided so quickly we didn't see who did it. Arnie barely had time to fill himself up with ghost fluff." Harry paused when he noticed the look on my face and read my question before I could say it. "Ghost fluff has some earthly substance, so that we can actually break a fall with our substance-less bodies. It can't be seen on earth, and just barely felt. It was fun watching Arnie get flattened, though! I always enjoy seeing him squished like a balloon being sat on!" The story had to wait a while so everyone could laugh at this image.

"Anyway, after that, we split up. Larry went to float by the home team coach, and I shadowed the home team point. Arnie stayed with the visiting point to keep him from getting hurt. It didn't take us long to figure out the scheme. The home team was told to 'take out' the visiting point because he was their best player, and the visiting team tended to fall apart without him."

"Not very sportsmanlike, now was it," the soul on my left interjected. "The bastards." I looked for a dart or puff, or something as a result of this word being said, but nothing was produced.

Larry saw my puzzled look, and answered my not yet fully formulated question. "We can still use strong words when they’re the best way to convey our feelings about beings on earth. No other words can describe some of them. Even the strongest of curse words aren't strong enough for some of the evil down there." The others nodded in agreement. They looked unusually somber for a minute.

"Anyway, as I was saying, the coach had schemed to injure the visiting point and the home team point was the leader, or at least he was the one who read the signals from the coach. He was amazingly good at purposefully tripping or pushing the point without the refs seeing him. Either that, or the refs were in on the plot. The rest of the team wasn't as obvious, so it may have just been the coach and the point carrying out the plans. Arnie wanted to know, so he went with them to the locker room after the game to listen in on the post-game talk. We didn't want to implicate the rest of the team if it really was only those two."

"What do you mean by 'implicate'?" I asked. I had obviously completely forgotten about Karl's warning to not ask my buddies questions. "Do you have to report to someone after a job?" It seemed to me that Julia and Karl knew everything about my naps without me having to report anything.

"When we believe we see an ongoing plot, not just some kid wishing ill on his opponents, we make sure the younger souls in charge of jobs are aware of the situation. Sometimes that's why we ask for the 'uninvited' jobs. They can get intricate, like a spy story. But being a spy after you're already dead is a lot safer!" Harry was quick to add. "Most of the time, the young souls already have an idea something is amiss, and send us to verify the goings on. Sometimes, though, it’s a rather dead-end job. A one time deal. Arnie is hoping for some good dirt so we can have a good adventure with this one!"

I didn't feel interested in a spy story. Actually, I was hoping for a card game.
"Sure, you want to hear about a spy story!" Arnie appeared with a wide grin on his face. "The coach and the home point were the only two involved in this plot, as best I could tell. But I thought I saw the Ghost of the Coach from Hell hovering in the corner of the locker room. Heaven knows (or at least the heavenly youth hopefully know) how many other coaches he's trying to sway his evil way!"
The Ghost of the Coach from Hell. Now I've heard everything. "Arnie, quit pulling my leg! You can't sucker me into believing that story!" I looked around at the men's faces for signs of ‘Hah! Gotcha!’ but all I saw were lots of knowing smiles.
"Yeah, it is kinda hard to believe at first, but it's true. We get to match wits with the hateful souls who choose to stay on earth rather than come here or go to hell after they die. They thrive on control, never mind how many people are hurt in the process. They thoroughly enjoy convincing people to do sinister things for them, and they relish scaring the bejesus out of people, just for fun." Larry explained with a serious expression on his face. "It's like the proverbial good versus evil."
"They think we're all weaklings because we want to help people rather than hurt them," added Harry. "And they can really make a good case sometimes. You have to be on your guard all the time. They take a small truth and convince people that black is white, or up is down. They’re real bullies. No other way to describe them. They're pure evil."
"So these jobs are really going back to earth to fight evil?" I said with a bit of a smirk. ‘How hokie can you get!’
The gang became quiet with that thought. They didn't seem angry. They just looked sad. Forlorn, actually. I looked around at them trying to get on my unmyelinates, or change the subject, or anything to escape this very tense moment.
Julia tugged on my arm, and said, "Come with me please, Mr. Burns. We need you to go to sleep for us. You're the best one for this job." She took my hand, and we faded out of the scene....

11
Julia to the Rescue

We re-emerged in the now familiar sleep room. "Is there an official name for this place?" I asked lightly. I hoped Karl hadn't told Julia I was supposed to not ask any questions of the guys.

"Yes. We call the rooms used to take working naps

Dream Domes. Why do you ask?" Julia replied.
"Oh, just curious." ‘Oops. Wroooong answer,’ I thought
as I remembered that I was to keep my curiosity under
wraps.
But Julia just smiled. "Would you like to know more
about your career choices?" she inquired hopefully. "Why, yes, I would," I replied rather politely in a further
attempt to act innocent. Also, Julia could really bring out the
best in me, somehow.
"You've experienced two types of jobs so far. The first
was getting a chance to prevent something bad from
happening. You kept the boy from being killed." She
thankfully didn't point out that I caused the lioness to be
killed instead.
"The second one was a brief 'thank you' visit," She
continued. She paused at this point, seemingly to judge my
reaction so far, or waiting for me to ask a question. I didn't take the bait, and switched to slo-mo mode to
think: ‘I sure hope she keeps going.
There have to be more types……’

Julia positively beamed when she realized how well I had
mastered the mind block already. Made me feel quite proud
of myself, actually. ‘Maybe I am ready for another dream.’
"Bring it on!" I gushed with confidence.
"The next level of difficulty is the type of dream Arnie,
Harry and Larry had when the home team center wished for
the visiting center to break his neck. We prevented the SS
agent who answered the call from carrying out their attempts
to do harm, since we knew the wish was not genuine." I
wanted to ask what an SS agent was, but I managed to hold
my tongue AND my thoughts.
"Quite a few souls with sports in their earthly past really
enjoy the assignments where the basically good natured
players are pushed just a bit too far. It gives them a chance
to get aggression out of their systems. Seems there were lots
of games where an immense amount of self-control was
needed to remain sportsman-like in their earthly lives. With
these types of dream jobs they finally get to let the steam
out!" She looked truly radiant thinking about how much
good was done for both the people and the souls in these
dreams. "It's a win-win situation, although the person
wishing ill for someone else doesn't think so at the time. It
really works out for the best all the way around when nobody
gets hurt."
I recalled how enthusiastically Arnie talked about that
game. And how the home team center was truly grateful that
his wish did not materialize. ‘If I were the sports type, I'd
almost think about volunteering for that type of job.’
"Oh, you can volunteer for a similar type of job." Julia
obviously read my thought. "Not all ill-wishers are involved
in sports. I'm sure you had plenty of co-workers and bosses
who you wanted to strangle, figuratively, if not literally.
And think of all the road rage. Even saintly people can go
off the deep end with angry wishes, especially when the
offender is anonymous. There are multitudes of choices with
this type of dream. But it would be better if you knew the
history of the type of evil you would be fighting in the
various sub-sorts before you signed up for those types." I waited patiently for her to continue without forming any
coherent thought or question. This information was very
interesting. I didn't want to interrupt.
"One of the more difficult adult job types is the one you
just heard your friends talk about. It requires problem
solving and observation. It really CAN be thought of as a
'spy' type of job. It's really not as safe as Harry would have
you believe, however. You have to know how to deal with
the ghosts and ghouls and their manipulative ways." She
took on a more worried tone with this statement. They must
really be bad...
"Until you are ready for the higher levels, I suggest you
think about dreaming into your past. Are there any burning
questions you have about your life?"
She really didn't need to say 'burning', given as that was
how I died. She realized this almost as soon as she said it,
though. I could sense her sinking feeling before she even
began to say she was sorry. I smiled, and she smiled back.
Thanks.’
But I really didn’t want to think about my life. ‘What’s
done is done, so why bother.’
I made no effort to block her
from the fleeting memories of the most painful times that
zoomed uninvited through my mind; she seemed to know my
entire history anyway. ‘H---, she’s probably dredging them
up, the meddling midget
.’ I sighed, waved away the tan puff,
and said dejectedly, “Since you obviously have a plan in
mind, go ahead and let me in on it.”
"You must choose because it’s your soul you may be able
to alter. I can only give advice. The final decision must be
yours." she replied.
I could understand her point. If I were unhappy with her
choice, I'd possibly be upset with her; I'd blame her. "Well, if
it’s all the same to you, I'd rather not relive my life right
now. Probably not ever, actually. Once was enough." I said
wearily. "Are there any other types of dreams?" I added
hopefully.
Our conversation was interrupted briefly by a slight
darkening of the room. A fog-like cloud seemed to be
dimming the light that shone from the ceiling of the room. It
reminded me of the change in weather just before a storm on
earth. I thought about the storm I witnessed while I wandered out of the pod earlier in the day. ‘Is this a sign of a
similar storm happening here?’
I wondered
"Our storms can be good things. The smaller ones refresh
the air with a warm fuzzy aura when we are feeling too
vulnerable to the low, counter-spin forces on earth. The
bigger storms bring us many more reinforcements, but those
are more difficult emotionally. Lots of the new souls' are
desperate to spend more time with their loved ones left
behind, but they concentrate on our needs here instead." “Wait a minute," I said tartly. “Do you mean to say that a
storm here is when lots of people on earth are killed at one
time?" The idea of this being a good thing was appalling. "Try to tuck that thought away for later, Mr. Burns, when
you have had more time to adjust; more time to deAge. You
couldn't possibly understand it now, no matter how I'd try to
explain it." Julia said this so matter-of-factly that I couldn't
question it. I tried to stuff the feeling of horror away deep in
a corner of my mind, which was actually quite easy, as I still
had most of the coping skills I mastered in life. Not thinking
about unpleasant things was a piece of cake for me. "Okay, so what are my other choices?" I tried to refocus
on the original discussion.
Julia didn't answer right away. She was watching as quite
a few of the youngest souls floated, awake and crying, up
and out of a hole, which had developed in the top of the
Dome. At least I didn't recall seeing it there before now. I
watched with Julia for what seemed like hours, but was
probably just a few minutes. Some of the less young souls
returned first. They looked refreshed. Not radiant, but no
longer unhappy. Younger and younger ones followed,
looking the same way. They floated back to their cots and
went back to sleep.
Julia looked at me and said nothing. I asked nothing. I
felt as though I had just witnessed something very important;
something very revered; something very profound. Julia sighed, then resumed our prior discussion. "Your
other choices are basically to just go and watch without needing or wanting to intervene. Given your mixed needs,
this may be the next best step." She seemed a bit weary. I didn't disagree with her. That option did feel like a
much safer course for right now.
She waved her arm towards the cot I had been using so
far, and bade me a good nap.

12
Garden of Eden?

I found myself in a very unfamiliar setting. It reminded me of the movie ‘Jurassic Park’ without the mist, but there were no signs of humans anywhere. Huge trees of a type I'd never seen before rose to the sky seemingly without end. I doubted even the famous California redwoods were this tall. The forest floor was like carpet with a mix between moss and grass. The sounds were eerie. None were the familiar birds chirping or even monkeys squealing like I'd heard on The Discovery Channel. It sounded more like huge cows chewing their cud, or giant horses munching their hay.

A sudden loud shrill shriek that sounded way too close caused me to jump...I laughed when I realized that I had jumped literally 10 feet with the force of my startle. Being a bodiless soul defied gravity quite a bit; it was rather interesting and amusing.

My amusement was short lived, however. It evaporated with a second shriek. It came from the treetops. I could see leaves moving, but not what was behind them. After doublechecking that I was indeed still substance-less by slicing my hand through my body with little resistance, I floated up for a closer look.

High in the branches of those tall trees was a humongous bird’s nest. The baby birds were at least 10 feet from their beaks to the tip of their featherless tails. Their skin was leathery and wrinkled. They had their eyes shut.

"SHREEEEEEEKKK!" I winced as the force of the sound waves went through me - I wished I had some puffs in my ears. The sound seemed to be thousands of decibels louder up here with the 'little dears' than down on the forest floor. I floated farther away to avoid the full force of the next shriek. I leaned on a branch close to the trunk of a nearby tree and took it all in.

Looking down onto the forest floor from this distance I could clearly see huge footprints. The shape was not any I had seen before. I tried to think back to my college days and the course I took on the prehistoric era. I wished I had paid more attention then. Little did I know how handy it could become! I smiled as I wondered how I could forewarn students everywhere that ‘You never know when you might need this information’ was not just a teachers' ploy to try to get them to stop whining!

I thought about looking for some creature that needed saving, just in case Julia was wrong and I wasn't in the dream type where I was to just watch. I floated around in the treetops for a while. Finding nothing in danger, I went back to the forest floor. I was thoroughly enjoying this trip back in time. Floating amongst the huge tree trunks was calming. I practiced graceful floating, then speed floating. When I zigzagged through the woods, I felt like when I was a teenager again, riding my favorite horse in the poles at the local horse show.

‘No damsel in distress to be seen,’ I thought with relief. I didn't want any responsibility right now.
I was doing summersaults around the lower branches and pretending I was swinging from tree to tree like Tarzan when I noticed the lake. Or ocean. Or whatever body of water it was. I couldn't see the other side, but there were no waves. Looking closer, I wondered if it was even water. It was awfully muddy and discolored. Almost burgundy. With a metallic hue floating on top. Kinda like an oil slick/pond/swamp all put together. And the smell was just as unattractive. I looked around the shore for any signs of mobile life. I could make out some movement in the forest to my left. There was more vegetation there, and it camouflaged the creature nicely. I floated over and through the plant life for a look.
It was a Taurantasaurus Rex. Or one of those big meateating dinosaurs I was supposed to have learned about. Whatever it was eating didn't look like the 'little birds' mother. The trail of burgundy grease from the shoreline indicated the battle had been in the water. ‘So the water's not like that everywhere, then,’ I thought.
I looked around. There were huge eggs in a poorly made nest under a bush at the edge of the dinosaur-made clearing. (It had stomped all the vegetation flat, wooden branches and all.) Way above us was a bird larger than all the baby birds put together. It watched as the Rex ripped muscles from the bones of its victim, as though waiting its turn.
I was relieved to realize I didn't have any of the sissy feelings of pity for the half eaten beast. It didn't look too small, and judging by the cuts on the victor, it put up a good fight. The scene, though not pleasant, felt right. No bad vibes were coming from any of the participants.
I pondered on this for quite a while as I calmly watched dinner progress. ‘Why am I so bothered by the African scene, and not by this one?’ I smiled when I realized I was actually paying attention to my feelings for the answers. ‘Julia and crew would be so surprised! But these feelings aren't bad, just confusing.’
Thinking back on the problem I had with the lioness, I didn't remember feeling really bothered until I saw the boys abusing her; riding her dead body. ‘There was no purpose behind that act. They were enjoying the fact that they won, that they were more powerful than she was - now that she was dead.’ Watching the current scene was not bothersome, because the violence had a purpose - the Rex needed to eat. The same conclusion explained my reaction to the cubs. ‘Whatever killed them didn't kill them for food. It seemed evil to kill something just because you could.’
I decided to float on to the next 'lesson', as this was beginning to feel like. At least it was causing me to sorta remember and use what I had learned in school and college. I was content as I wandered aimlessly through the woods in search of the next topic. I hoped it wouldn't be so deep. I didn't like thinking about corny, girlie issues. ‘Maybe I should wake up now to avoid the possibility of another deep revelation.’
I didn't wake up though. I guessed it was because it was a half-hearted wish. Other than the risk of having to deal with another pensive situation, this was a very pleasant experience. I wasn't really ready to go. ‘Not just yet. The atmosphere is just soooo relaxing. And peaceful. Even more so than heaven, if that's what that place really is. I wonder if this isn't heaven instead. There are no annoying punsters, no jobs, no worries about what the guys would think, no nothing. Just privacy. And peace. And solitude. A good solitude. I wonder if I could ask to come here the next time I needed to be alone. I sure don't want to ever go back in that bubble!’

I awoke with a peaceful feeling emanating from me, judging by the look on Julia's face. "Why did you stay here while I slept this time?" I asked her. "I think I learned my lesson about going back to see more..."

"Are you sure about that?" she said with a knowing smile. "I thought I sensed a wish to stay there forever."
"But that wasn't because of curiosity. You said my curiosity was what got me in trouble. This was a completely different reason," I argued. She was right about me wanting to go back. It was very tempting and I was hoping she could send me back soon.
"You can go back there if you want. Whenever you feel the need to be able to really relax, I can help you get there. But if you want to go for a different reason, such as to escape what you really need to deal with, it would be best if you chose not to go."
I cringed at the phrase. "And just what might I be trying to escape?" I was also just a bit perturbed by being told I shouldn't do something, even though it was Julia that was saying it.
"If you are angry, or hateful, or having some other negative feeling, then you'll do better to go to your bubble," she explained.
"Oh, so my bubble is the equivalent of my 'time-out corner', like the new-fangled theories of the wimpy generation, huh!? I'd rather get the tar beaten out of me, like my dad used to do!" I snorted.
"Exactly. So the bubble is a greater deterrent than a beating. Isn't that what we want, in the end?" Her eyes were glittering with delight at ‘getting' me on this one. I was cornered. She was right, which meant all those psychobabble theories about discipline MAY have a point. MAY have A, as in ONE, point.
"So, what's next?" I changed the subject. "Is there another dream where I can just watch? It was nice to be a pure spectator."
"Yes, we can arrange that quite easily. Do you have any preferences?" She asked.
"Just so it's low stress. I'm not in the mood for any conflict right now." I replied.
"Okay. Just roll over and go back to sleep." She sounded like a doting mother putting her child to bed for the night. It felt good to be pampered.

13
The First Class

I found myself in a classroom of sorts. It had no modern equipment. The paper looked thick. Almost like wood. The pupils were sitting on the floor gathered around the teacher who was on an uncomfortable looking chair. Their pens looked like quills, and they had some strange, small stones with a dimple in the middle that apparently had ink in them, as they dipped the tip of the quill into the fluid before writing their notes on their paper.

I couldn't understand a word. I had no idea which language they were using. It may as well be Greek for all I knew. I was slightly disappointed that I couldn't listen in. ‘It IS Greek’ came a thought from nowhere, and suddenly I could understand what they were saying. ‘Weird,’ I thought. ‘And it just keeps getting weirder and weirder.....’

I listened for a while before I realized that understanding the language was not enough. The words were being used in a context that didn't make a bit of sense. It reminded me of that awful poetry c--- we had to analyze in college. ‘Didn't make any sense then, and it sure doesn't make any sense now.’ I cleaned the tan puff from my ear, and realized that I hadn't had one in a while. That had to be a good sign.

I decided to relax in a cozy corner of the room and just watch. Maybe I was supposed to learn something from their body language. I studied their clothing. It looked like pictures of Romans in their togas, but this must be Greece. Once again, I wished I had paid more attention in my classes, although literature was my least favorite subject, even when it wasn't poetry. ‘Why don't people just say what they mean, for C---- s---!’ I cleaned the fluff from my other ear and wondered why the fluffs tend to alternate ears when they appear. Then I wished I'd left the puffs in my ears; this teacher was dreadful!

The drone of the teacher eventually stopped. I decided to try to pay attention now that one of the students may say something coherent. "Sir Homer," said one boy after the teacher acknowledged his raised hand. "Why does Hera put up with Zeus? As a goddess, doesn't she have enough power to do something about his infidelities?"

"Alas, dear boy, she does not. Power is a very complex thing. Even the powerful have to acquiesce to those with more power than they. These poems are about the intensity of those power struggles and the pain that results, even for the powerful gods and goddesses."

"Well then, why doesn't Zeus do away with Hera? He doesn't seem to think very highly of her, and he desires all the other lesser gods' wives." The student was trying to be logical in the most illogical of places - a classroom for the study of literature.

I didn't listen to Homer's answer. ‘What was Julia thinking when she sent me here? Karl would have known how much I disliked this junk.’ I wandered around the room, looking at the book titles. They were all in Greek.

I went back to my cozy corner to sulk. ‘ This is SO boring.’ I debated with myself about whether or not to wish myself awake. I decided to wait it out. Surely something of interest will happen soon.

I listened to bits and pieces of the conversations between the teacher and the pupils. I smiled knowingly as I realized they couldn't understand it any better than I could when I had to read it in college, and they had the luxury of having the actual poet right there to explain it himself. ‘Communication is a wonderful thing. Why do eggheads try to ruin it?’

After what felt like ages, the class was dismissed. Homer went to his desk and sat down, looking rather exhausted. ‘That's what you get for being so obtuse. Just say what you mean, and life could be so much easier!’ I thought.

I watched him just sit there for a bit. I began to wonder if he were still alive. He was so still, I could barely see him breathing. His eyes were fixed in a stare, unblinking. I floated over to him and waved my wisp of a hand in front of his face, as though that would bring him 'round. ‘Strange,’ I thought, arms crossed and index finger at my lips. ‘What could possibly be going on?’

I looked at his desk. He was holding his book, The Iliad. It was open to a page that described how Hephaestus was cast out of Olympus because he was born deformed. His eyes were fixed on the center of the page. I looked from the page to the poet and from the poet to the page, wondering what I should do next.

‘Gods and goddesses are embodiments of good’ I could hear him think. I listened more intently than before. I felt like I was listening in on a person possessed by Satan, but he didn't have red glowing eyes, or anything supernatural like that. It sure was an eerie feeling. I was kinda scared, to tell the truth. I hoped his head wouldn't start spinning while he spewed green slime everywhere. I wished I hadn't seen "The Exorcist". My knees were shaking.

‘Yes, Queen Hera, I'll be sure to include that in my next passage. Yes, Queen Hera, the most beautiful of all in Olympus, I will praise your good nature and point out all the transgressions you have suffered at the hands of Zeus. I will tell the world how you loved your defective son.’ He then cringed for reasons unknown. I couldn't hear what Hera was saying to him, just what he answered to her. ‘Yes, Oh Glorious Queen. I am always at your service.’ He flinched again, then came to.

He sighed deeply. ‘ How did I ever get myself into this mess?’ he asked himself. ‘Now what am I to do?...’ He read the page about Hephaestus over and over. I tried to read it too, thinking it may make sense by osmosis, if I got close enough to him.

As I moved closer, though, I may have caused him to feel something. "Heph, old buddy, is that you?" Homer said out loud with a look of relief on his face. I was the only other being in the room as far as I knew. But, h---, who was I to say that a Greek god wasn't here too?

I backed away. His expression went back to one of dread. He sighed again. "Woe is me. Woe is me." Homer looked so helpless and weak that I wished I could do something to help him, even though this was a ‘watch only’ dream, or so I thought. Homer got up and paced around the room. I tried to stay out of his way, in case he could sense me and get his hopes up again that Hephaestus was here, but he pulled a fast U-turn on me and walked right through me. His expression immediately brightened again. "Well, even if you're not Heph, I can sense that you are warm and caring, not full of evil." Homer apparently had ESP. I thought ESP only existed on cop shows so they could find their criminal with a beautiful woman's help.

"Please make yourself known to me," Homer said as if he knew something I didn't about how spirits can materialize in dreams. No one warned me this could happen!

Homer continued to look upbeat, even though I could do nothing to communicate with him.....’unless he can read my mind even though he can't see me...’

"Yes, now that I know you are here, I can read your thoughts, though not so clearly as to fully converse as if we were face to face." Homer seemed anxious for a nongod/goddess spirit to talk to, and I was that hapless soul, whether or not I would suffice. ‘I don't feel intelligent enough to talk to such an intricate person.’

"You are perfect for my current dilemma. I need to be reminded of the good in the life here after. My will is at an ebb. These selfish gods and goddesses are draining me of all my strength. Just your presence is enough, even if you don't want to let me read your thoughts."

My curiosity was definitely tweaked. Julia must have known the temptation she was sending me into. ‘I've got to find out what Homer was really trying to say in all that gobble-de-gook.’

"What do you mean by 'gobbled book?' Did someone try to EAT my book?" Homer asked in disbelief. I doubled over in laughter. Homer laughed, too.

“What do you want to know?” He asked through his chuckles.
‘What the h--- did you mean in those horrid books of yours?’ I thought, not the least bit worried that he'd take offense at my description of his life's works. I removed the puff from my ears. I wanted to hear every word he said.
“If I could just write what I want to say, it wouldn't be so illogical, but those damn immortals just won't let me be! As soon as I write something good about one of them, another gets upset and threatens me if I don't write something bad about the good one, and something good about the bad one. Does that make sense, um, what is your name, by the way,” Homer added.
‘Ian Burns, at your service, sir!’ I thought playfully. ‘And that thought made infinitely more sense than anything of your printed stuff that I've been forced to read! Actually, just knowing that little tidbit may give me enough motivation to try to read them again. It just may make sense thinking of you in a tug-a-war with the gods.’ He knew full well I was never going to try to read the horrid conglomeration of words again. ‘It would be nice, though, if you can give me the real scoop in a CliffsNotes.’
“Give you what in a what? Could you think in Greek, please?” Homer said. I wondered where the translating of English to Greek and Greek to English was taking place. He may actually think I could think in Greek, or else he's making a joke. I can't imagine the Homer I thought I knew from those awfully serious books making a joke...
“Oh but I can have a sense of humor when I'm not being brow beaten by the immortals. Oh how I wish I'd never learned to communicate with them!” he said, slouching with the weight of it all. “Now they send all of their bickerings through me, and a handful of others foolish enough to listen to them. Once in their grip, there's no escape.” His lively grin vanished completely, replaced by the most depressed, trapped, helpless, hopeless face I'd ever seen.
‘Surely there must be a way to block them. They taught me in heaven to use my unmyelinated nerve tracts to think when I didn't want my thoughts read. Could that work for you?’ I asked hopefully. It was hard to watch anyone be this miserable.
“I have no idea what you're thinking about. What are 'nerf tacks'?” He wasn't smiling.
He didn't have to know modern anatomy to learn to think in slo-mo. I could teach him like Julia taught me. ‘How do you feel when you imagine being a chipmunk?’ I started the lesson as Julia had for me.
“Tell me what a 'chipunk' is and I'll try to become one if it will free me from the gods!” He said this with a very despondent look. “I don't need to block them from reading my thoughts. They can only communicate when I tune in to them. But if I don't check in now and then, or immediately when I feel them wanting me, they cause terrible things to happen to me or my friends and family.”
‘There is no danger of any of them listening in on this conversation?’ I thought. ‘You don't know how good you have it! Imagine if the gods and goddesses could read your mind any time they desired. You'd be mincemeat!’
“What's 'minsme' and how could it be worse than being enslaved to a bunch of supernatural evil beings!” He closed his eyes and put his head on his desk.
‘Can't you talk with any of your close friends about this? Even if they couldn't help change the situation, just being there for support may help.’ Was this thought really mine? I wondered in disbelief. That could have been word for word out of my daughter!
“Ian, would any of your friends believe you if you told them a story like this? They'd burn me at the stake!” he said with despair.
I wasn't feeling too helpful. I should have known that.
“But you ARE being very helpful just by being here. It gives me hope that maybe eventually the forces in heaven will figure out how to keep people out of the gods clutches. They must be on to something. Sometimes I sense several good spirits a day visiting my classes. I just wish I could tell more of them what I've been able to tell you. Please tell me you'll spread the word in heaven that these gods are very real and very evil. Except Heph. If it weren't for him, earth would really be hell.” He seemed to brighten a bit thinking about his friend.
‘So anything good written about any of them other than Heph was written under duress?’ I wanted to be sure I understood correctly.
“For the most part, yes. If you take out the positive writings about the really evil ones, it will make more sense..... I must go now. I'm being summoned by Zeus.” With that he went back into the trance-like state.
I thought briefly about staying and listening in, but I wasn't sure it wouldn't be picked up by Zeus, so I wished myself awake....

14
Homework in Heaven

Julia hadn't waited for me this time. I sat up and looked around. I wondered if there was a library in heaven. I wanted to start reading the Iliad and the Odyssey as soon as possible. I decided my best bet would be in the direction of the keypads. They were learning tools, so classrooms and libraries may be nearby, too. After all, wasn't I told when I arrived that I could do anything my heart desires here? Many people I knew were addicted to reading while they were on earth. I bet I'd find some of them in a heavenly library.

I looked over my options when I reached the keyboard room. There were three doors other than the one I had just come out of and the one I was lead out of on my way to see Pat. I decided to choose the one with the brightest lights. Libraries tend to be well lit. I also didn't want to take the one the punster's patients emerged from. I didn't have time for such nonsense now.

As I walked, I thought about asking Julia if heaven was aware of what Homer told me. ‘It would be the easiest way to find out, and she could tell me where the library was, too.’ But I was in the mood to find things out for myself, so I was careful not to wish for her to show up.

"This way, Ian," Julia said, her head poking out of a door up ahead. "The library is here. I pulled the books you want out for you. They're here on a stand by a nice comfy chair." She looked a bit sheepish. "I didn't overload you with that dream, did I? I sensed you would become impatient sooner rather than later, so I forged ahead for you. Wasn't it interesting?"

"You little imp!" I scolded her in jest. "So are the heavenly youth aware of the reality of the Greek gods at the time of Homer's works?"

"Not just Homer's time. And not just Greek gods. In all time, and many different names and characters. If you can master the cast of characters in Greek Mythology, minus any good traits, you'll be ready for any dream in any age group!" She seemed to be quite pleased with either me or herself.

"Feel the top of your head, Mr. Burns. You may be surprised."
"Why? Is there bird dew on it or something?" I cautiously touched a finger to my head. "Well, I'll be! I can feel some peach fuzz there! My hair is coming back!" ‘I must be doing okay then, if I'm getting younger.’
"Yes, you are! I’m so proud of you!" She gave me a quick peck on the cheek, a tiny hug and a smile. Then she faded out.
I settled in for the long haul with The Odyssey. I lasted half a page. ‘C----- A-----! This s--- is impossible!’ I thought as two puffs simultaneously flew out of my ears. ‘There's gotta be a translation for normal people to read. Who besides college Lit professors can read this so-called poetry jibber-jabber!’ I wished there were an edition of the 'evil only' mode that already edited out all those lies Homer had to put in about them being good so I could zoom through without any confusion.
"Sorry Ian. You have to read the good with the bad." Karl at least had the decency to fade in slowly so he didn't scare me. "You can read the non-poetic versions as well, but they are a combination of all the authors in the gods' grips. If you want to know only what Homer wrote, you'll have to plow through these two books Julia found for you."
"Can't you wiggle your nose or something, and put all the info right into my brain? Or at least there must be some sort of heavenly speed reading I could use?" I was in a hurry to know it all, NOW.
"Patience, Ian. You are still an older soul, so you can't jump too quickly into the younger dream types for a while anyway. Relax. Take your time. You may even learn to enjoy poetry." He thoroughly enjoyed ribbing me with that last comment. He knew me better than that.
"But Julia said I couldn't go on dreams where I was responsible for helping some poor person unless I understood more about the forces I'd be up against." Until I said this, I was not aware of the strength of my desire to join the guys in their dreams. I didn't want to be left behind.
Karl thought this over a while. I couldn't make out any details, but I got the sense he was questioning Julia's judgment. "Maybe so," he said, and faded out.
‘Chicken,’ I thought. ‘He could have stayed around for a lively debate on Julia's recommendations if he really wanted to.’
I went looking for a crib sheet section in the aisle. When I found none, I realized I was thinking I was in a bookstore instead of a library. Libraries don't use marketing techniques like racks full of non-books in your way so you'll notice them and buy them, I thought cynically. I decided to ask the librarian for help. It's not as bad as asking for directions, I told myself to keep from feeling less masculine. I just need help because I'm in a hurry.
The soul floating above the librarian's desk had a smug look on her face. "No, we don't have any crib sheets on anything. The quickest way to learn about the gods and goddesses is to read this." She handed me the thickest book with the thinnest pages I had ever seen. It was worse than the Physician's Desk References my wife used to keep as hand-me-downs after Susan was done with them. And they had thousands of pages thinner than Bible pages.
I put the monstrosity back on the librarian’s desk, and turned back to my chair and the books Julia had found for me. I wondered what would happen if I fell asleep reading and started snoring. There was a bit of hope I wouldn't fall asleep, though. If we are only able to sleep in a Dream Dome, I may be able to do this...
I picked up The Iliad. I looked at the back, the front and the inside covers for any hints of helpful translations. None found, I turned to the introduction. It may as well have been in Greek for all the sense it made. I sighed and turned to the first page. Just looking at the poetic word positioning made me groan. I laid my head back on the chair and stared at the ceiling. I sighed loudly. I looked at the page again. I tried to think of poor Homer in his misery as I saw him in my dream. We had bonded. Surely that should give me enough motivation to read what was so important to him.
‘But these aren't his exact words anyway,’ I rationalized. ‘He had written in Greek. This is in English. Whoever translated it had to make some changes. No language has word for word meanings.’ I learned enough Spanish in high school to realize that. ‘So what's the harm in reading someone's interpretation of the English interpretation of Homer? I would need YEARS to try to make sense of it all myself.’
I got up to look for the file drawer with the Dewey Decimal System cards in it. I was determined to NOT ask that cranky uppity librarian for help. I found the files and started looking under the author. I was happy to find I had remembered how to use the file. I hadn't been in a library for over 50 years, and even then I didn't use the files very often. The librarians weren't as annoying in my younger years, and were more approachable.
I looked for the aisle where the books about Homer and the Greek Gods were supposed to be. I followed the numbers right to the spot. ‘Who says men can't find things without help,’ I smirked to myself. I turned my head sideways to read the titles, and the rest of my body floated into a horizontal position as well. My heart sank when I realized there were FIVE shelves full of books on Greek Mythology! I decided to look only at the skinny ones with big type and lots of pictures.
Having made my selection on this basis, I went back to my chair and plopped into it. I opened the tiny book and was relieved to find the table of contents listed much of what I needed to know. I skipped the introduction and went straight to the chapter where the names of the gods were nicely listed with brief descriptions under each one.
By the time I got to the fifth god, the characteristics of each became a blur. They were so similar in their evilness that it didn't seem to matter which one's name was at the top of the description. I sighed again, and rested my head on the back of the chair.
‘This is torture!’ I moaned. ‘I had enough schooling in life to last me a lifetime.’ I had to smile at the next thought; ‘Well, my lifetime is over. This is a whole new slate.’ The lighthearted thought gave me a boost to try again. I decided to start with the ones that were supposed to be the most important.

Supposedly, Olympus was some fanciful place where the gods had no cares or worries, except those that they brought on themselves. They drank and partied all the time, stopping every now and then to cause misery to the poor mortals on earth.

I read about Zeus, who was the most powerful, and Hera, his wife who was also his SISTER, for C---- s---! Poseidon was Zeus' brother and Ruler of the Sea. He didn't sound so bad. He was given credit for giving humans the horse. Hades, now, is a different story altogether. He was King of the Dead, Ruler of the Underworld. His vacation home was deep in the earth, and even the Olympians didn't invite him to stay with them. They considered him a terrible god. Athena had no mother. She grew out of Zeus' head full grown and in full armor ready to go to battle. Apollo tried to help people deal with his family and sounds like a pretty good guy over all, but he did lose his temper now and again. Apollo's twin sister, Artemis, made a bunch of Greek sailors sacrifice a maiden to her before she let them sail. ‘Wonderful little lady, now, wasn't she.’ Not to be outdone, Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, was the ultimate seductress. She had men under her thumb, and loved to watch them squirm.

After reading about these hateful, self-centered gods, I needed a break. I put the book down and got up to clear my mind.

I wandered around the library for a short while, but that got old quickly. I decide to see more of the pod. At least I didn't have to worry about getting lost. I knew Julia could always find me.

I went back to the keyboard room. This time there were actually some souls sitting at them trying to better their heavenly skills. I decided to take one of the two doors that I had not yet been through. It didn't appear to be very different from the hallway to the library. There were some office-type doors like in the hallway to Pat, but these were closed. There were numbers on the doors, but no names. I wondered what kind of work was done in them. I then recalled seeing the souls in the offices to Pat doing some sort of paperwork. I was a bit curious to know what sort of paperwork heaven would need. I wondered if I were to go down the hallway to Pat's office, if anyone there would let me see what they were up to. I thought not, but it may be worth a try.

I turned back to the keyboard room and took the hallway to Pat's. The doors there were still open with the souls working more feverishly than ever. I stood outside one door wondering if I could interrupt for a second. The soul looked up and asked "May I help you, sir?" The child looked very young, and was apparently one of the more skilled souls who can put your thoughts together before you can gather them yourself. Before I could even start to ask a question, he answered, "I'm sorry sir, but that needs to be cleared by younger souls than I. You might ask Gail for help with your question."

‘The airhead?’ I thought with some disgust. ‘She doesn't know anything. She's afraid to ask in case it's something she's not supposed to tell anyone.’

As I hadn't switched to slo-mo, which may not have helped with the skill level of this young'un anyway, he answered, "She at least knows who CAN tell you, though."

"So, where do I find her?" I asked with a rather deadpan tone. I wasn't in the right frame of mind to deal with her.
"Go a bit further down this hall. Take the first right, then a left two halls later. Her office will be the fourth on the top." He rattled this off so quickly I didn't have time to process it. But I didn't ask for clarification. I'd just as soon get lost.
I managed to remember the first right, but by the time I had passed the first hall in that corridor, I had forgotten the rest of the directions. Except the last part. Did he really say her office was on the top of that hallway?
At the second hallway, I decided to try a right first. After a few minutes, I thought I'd turn around and try a left, since I saw nothing that looked like a 'stack' of offices. Soon after taking the left turn, I saw a rather amazing sight. It reminded me of the work space in The Monster's, Inc. the grandkids made me watch with them. It was a cavernous atrium with office doors in rows upon rows. No steps or ladders were needed, since we all could float to the desired door. Some of them were open. The souls in them had both a computer and a bunch of file cabinets. Most of their desks were covered with piles of paperwork. Some of the closed doors had names plates, but most just had numbers. I looked around for some sort of directory. Surely everyone here doesn't know everybody else. I floated around the entrance for a while, wondering if I should ask one of the souls with an open door if they knew which one was Gail's office. I didn't even know her last name, so I decided not to bother asking.
I was not the only one floating around in here, so I didn't think I stuck out. I just drifted around the cavern, looking as though I knew where I was and what I was doing, or so I thought.
"Excuse me, sir. May I help you?" a small voice just above me asked.
I had forgotten about my age. I stuck out like a sore thumb. No one else in here was even a teenager. So I had to fess up about what brought me here. "I'm looking for Gail. I don't know her last name."
"Follow me," the young soul said pleasantly. At least I wasn't in trouble, but I still wasn't sure I was ready to deal with Gail.
"Come in, Mr. Burns!" Gail said enthusiastically. "You look very well! Grew a bit more hair, I see. The wrinkles are beginning to fade, too." She didn't have a clue that pointing out that I had wrinkles, though true, was rude. I brushed it aside.
"What can I do for you?" she asked.
"I'd like to know about the work being done in all these offices. Could you direct me to someone who could tell me?" I didn't even bother asking her if she could tell me. She probably wouldn't get it right anyway.
She looked rather pensive for what seemed like minutes. Then she said, "I can give you the general picture, but not any specifics. Not yet, anyway. The specifics wouldn't make any sense to you yet, even though you are obviously making progress judging by that new hair!"
"Any information would be helpful." I tried to be as polite as possible. It may keep her on track if the conversation stayed a bit more formal.
"Sure. Okay, humm, where to start.... have you noticed ours is not the only mountain with pods?" She started answering my question with a question.
I took a deep sigh, and answered, "Yes."
"We need to stay in constant communication with all the other mountains and pods in heaven. We even have representatives at the animal hills inland, just in case anything there seems out of kilter. There are millions of other pods on thousands of other mountains. It keeps us very busy, especially when there is a disaster on earth."
"A disaster?" My ears perked up. "Was there a disaster on earth recently?" I thought about the storm I saw on the far away mountain, and Julia's comments in the sleep room when a storm seemed to be occurring here.
Gail pondered this question for another few minutes, obviously trying to decide if it was okay to tell me the answer to this. "Why do you ask?" She asked finally. I felt good to know she remembered that I didn’t want her to read my mind.
"I saw a storm over a mountain a little while ago. And Julia said storms here were good things. She said something about reinforcements." I felt the excitement of a revelation about to happen. "And, I know that the Greeks gods were, and are, real." I added, thinking that if she knew how much I knew, she may be more forthcoming with details.
She looked a bit shocked, and then it took her ANOTHER few minutes to process this additional information. I wondered if she were using her unmyelinates so I'd not be able to read her mind.
"You definitely don't do well when you are kept in the dark about things. And you seem to be doing very well with all that you have learned in the short time you've been here. I will try to answer your questions to the best of my ability, within the limits of my own understanding. I don't know all the answers myself. I've still got several years of deAging to go, you know. So please don't be upset with me if I honestly don't know the answers to your questions." She was definitely NOT in her airhead mode.
"Yes, there has just been a major earthquake in Turkey. The storm you saw was the arrival of thousands of innocent souls who perished. It really is sad, but it happens. The forces of evil are overwhelming. The mountain to which they went is the one for those of their country and culture. From there they can choose to help souls in their culture to protect the vulnerable people there from being taken in by Ares and his hateful, murderous ghouls." She paused for a while. The emotion she was feeling was palpable. It seemed to thicken the air in her office. Even the souls floating by took note of it, and steered clear. Gail floated over to her door and closed it gently.
"I would normally have strength to will it closed, but just the thought of what is happening on earth drains me." She slumped somewhat back into her chair. She sighed deeply. "And the small storm we had here was the result of a bad night of tornados in the United States. We sure can use the help to deal with all the anger building up in the misguided souls in the States, though. Hermes and his hordes have taken a strangle-hold on some of the more powerful people in the States, and their influence is spreading." A tear dropped off of her cheek. She sighed again. "I don't know how our infant spirits can handle it. They're sleeping almost 24 hours a day. They have to wake up for a rest sometime soon or they're going to burn out." She looked at me carefully, and asked, "Did I tell you too much? Do you want to know more?"
She really did look drained. I didn't have the heart to ask her anything more, but she continued. “You see, Hermes can hijack people in search of guidance. These people think they are giving their lives to a higher power, and Hermes or one of his cohorts jumps in and pretends to be Jesus, or God, or whomever the person is praying to for guidance. Once the person has made the connection, it is almost impossible to break. They are SO convinced that they are in touch with the power of good that they have no motivation to open their minds to the warmth of the true high. Not only are they lost, but they are actively controlled by Hermes, and do horrible things ‘in the name of the Lord’.” She paused to gather some strength, then added, “But as bad as it is in the States, the Middle East has the forces of Ares to deal with.” When she began to think about Ares again, she literally wilted, looking more like a puddle of mist in her chair than a soul.
“Please, don’t say any more,” I whispered. I was afraid the full volume of my voice would blow her away. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
I stood there wondering what I could possibly do when I noticed a tiny form hovering beside her chair. The infant looked at me reassuringly. I knew by his slow nod that everything would be okay. He turned his attention to Gail, and I floated to the door and let myself out.
As I closed her door, I noticed a nameplate. Gail Cristal. "Thank you very much, Ms. Cristal. I'm truly sorry to see you so upset," I whispered to the closed door. I really felt terrible about how I was thinking of her earlier.
But I was now much more motivated to go back to the book on the Greek gods to find out who these two gods she mentioned may be. I didn't remember reading about them yet. Maybe what she told me would make more sense after I learned a bit more about them.

15
Piecing It Together

I only made a few wrong turns on the way back to the library. My book was still there by the chair, open to the last page I had read. I sat down and stared at it, unfocused. I wondered if the guys knew anything about any of this. They seemed so happy and carefree. They couldn't be aware of what is going on. But, then again, they did go all funny on me when I made fun of the analogy of their dreams being a battle between good and evil. ‘After I finish this book, I'm going to find them and feel them out. I can't ask them flat out about the Greek gods. They'd think I was crazy. But then again, they did make reference to some lizards, or slugs, or something like that, when they discussed their rugby dream. Hummmm....’

I'd figure that out later. Right now I have to know more about those other two Greek gods Gail named. ‘I hope I can remember them when I see them. Strange names should be against the law! I never could follow stories like Lord of the Rings because of those blasted strange names!’

With a sigh, I returned to the book. Hermes was the next one in the list. I thought that sounded familiar. ‘Was it the name of the god in the Middle East?’ It really felt funny using the term god, even though it wasn't always capitalized, to describe these horrid beings.

Hermes was the God of Commerce and the Market . ‘No, I guess that wouldn't be the Middle East's god. Sounds more like the United States where the free market actually IS worshipped.’ He was described as a most greedy fellow.

Ares was the God of War. Both Zeus and Hera detested him, according to Homer. ‘Gee, he must be pretty evil for two very hateful gods who are his parents to hate him.’

‘Could these two characters be why Gail is so worried? Surely not. There’s no way we would have to worry about those little Arab countries having enough power to do any real harm to us. And Hermes wasn’t all that bad. A little bit of greed is what makes the markets go round.’

I closed the book. I sighed. I stood up and stretched. I felt as though I had hit a dead end. It was kind of a let down. It did make me feel a bit smug, however, to think that I was right about all those holier-than-thou hypocrites. Some of the most hateful, opinionated people I had to deal with were those ‘born again’ Christian types. If they were the hijacked people Gail referred to, then all the contradictions they posed made some sense. ‘They don’t MEAN to be hateful. Not really. They’re just too stupid to realize how stupid they are.’

‘No, for things to be as bad as Gail made it appear, those evil gods have to have more than hapless idiots to push around. They would need to have REALLY evil people available to use.’ I shuddered as I remembered some of those types I had met over the years. They had no redeeming factors. They weren’t just hateful. They actually spread hate. Wherever they were, bad feelings multiplied. And the more they could stir up, the happier they were.

‘Gail had said something about powerful people being under the control of the gods. If some of those purely evil people are in positions of power, horrendous things could happen. Like with Hitler. And Stalin.’

Now I began to worry. Not as much as Gail, but at least enough to understand how she could be so worried. ‘If she knows about another Hitler or Stalin brewing up some genocidal plot, her meltdown would make more sense.’

I began to pace. I was working myself into a panic when Julia suddenly appeared. She looked worried, too - her little eyebrows were raised so high they almost met her hairline.

"WHAT’S HAPPENING?" We both hollered at once. Others in the library heard us, of course, and stared in our direction.

"Please tell me there’s not going to be another Hitler down there on earth,” I blurted out.
Julia immediately relaxed but still looked concerned. "Well, no, not exactly. You scared me there for a moment.” She paused, then added, “I may have let you stray too far too fast." She took my arm to guide me to my chair.
She asked, “Why do you think there might be another Hitler in the making?”
I confessed about my visit to Gail. I wondered if Gail would be in trouble for telling me too much. I urged Julia to not tell on her.
“You’re forgetting how transparent things are here, in general. And I’m sure she got clearance before she told you anything. But how did you get from what she said to Hitler? I wasn’t tuned in to your thoughts until I sensed your anxiety.” She seemed to feel a bit guilty about not watching me more closely.
“Not to worry, little one. I’m a grown man. I can take care of myself now and then,” I joshed with her to lighten the atmosphere. Then I explained how I came to my conclusion. “I started to think about the annoying converts I knew in life, and how they weren’t truly evil, just stupid. I couldn’t see how those sorts would have gotten even an airhead like Gail so emotional, so I thought that if some of those evil Greek god types got behind truly evil people in powerful positions, like Hitler and Stalin, then THAT would be bad enough to explain her reaction to what she told me.”
Julia looked startled. "Mr. Burns, I am in awe! How ever did you figure so much out so fast?"
“Uh, does that mean there IS another genocidal dictator coming to power? I was hoping I was wrong.” I felt a jab of dread at the thought.
"You are amazing," Julia said, shaking her head. "You just figured out what most teenagers have no clue about! Karl was definitely right about you. No wonder you were so furious with us when you first arrived."
"So, what is being done about this situation on earth?" I needed an answer.
Julia looked at me for a while, reminiscent of Gail's pauses. I waited, uncharacteristically patient. "Let's go talk with Pat. Pat knows more than all of us put together. You won't blow a gasket if your questions still aren't answered, will you? Even the infants don't know as many of the details as Pat knows."
"Blow a gasket, huh. That doesn't sound right coming from you. Me, yes. And my 'angel of deliverance', yes. You, no." I was smiling as I said this. The phrase sounded kinda cute coming from her. "No, I promise I won't blow a gasket, and if I do, I know Zeus will smite me with plagues and a long and painful death for breaking an oath." I thought I might as well have some fun with my newfound information.

We were in Pat's office in the blink of an eye. ‘ I've got to find out how to do that on my own,’ I thought. I grinned sheepishly at Pat, realizing I was not in slo-mo, and she-he could read the curiosity imbedded in the thought.

"We have all become aware of how quickly you can figure things out, and how much better you feel, on one level, when you find the answers to your questions. However..." Pat paused for a moment, and took a deep breath. "On the other level, you have done yourself a disservice. You are depriving yourself of the heavenly equivalent of a childhood. You need not worry about the state of the world. The piece of the puzzle you have figured out is miniscule in comparison to the scope of the problems already solved. As bad as you may feel about what you have discovered, evil is on its last legs. We are winning the war. Maybe not all the battles, and we may not win this battle in specific, but the battles have become smaller and less vicious over the ages."

"So, what can I do to help win THIS battle?" I desperately wanted to do something. Anything.

"I know you don't want to hear this, but right now, we need you to stay with your friends. Help them win the smaller, person-to-person, small group to small group type of battles. The amount of knowledge you have can only add to their effectiveness. And there is much you can learn from them. You have to learn the alphabet before you can write."

I had to think about this for a while. I guessed she-he meant I had to learn all the little bits and pieces about the problem before I could march off to war. ‘I should have known that. I'd never send out one of my trainees to do a foreman's job, no matter how intelligent or quick the trainee was. There were too many things to learn before the job could be done safely.’

Pat smiled. She-he stood to shake my hand. ‘ She-he had a pretty firm grip for a substance less soul. Maybe that means she-he is a he, not a she.’ However, judging from the raised eyebrow she-he gave me at the thought, I guessed not...

16
The Hangman

Julia chose to glide to the Watering Hole instead of instant messengering. She wanted to know how I managed to piece together the things I learned from my visit to Homer with current events so quickly. "I thought it would keep you busy for ages," she admitted.

"I was never one to do things the long way. I find short cuts if a task is too cumbersome. And I couldn't make it through the first line of the Iliad without that sinking feeling of 'this is impossible' in my gut. So, I found the smallest book on the subject." I was rather proud of myself.

"I'm proud of you, too." Julia said with a smile.

We drifted quietly along through peaceful areas of the pod I had not previously seen. Julia couldn’t have picked a longer way to get to the Watering Hole; it gave me lots of time to reflect……

"Julia," I started rather hesitantly, "Could I ask your opinion about something strange that happened to me when I was a teenager?" I wasn't sure I wanted to talk about it, but ever since Gail told me about hijacked people, this memory had been trying to surface.

She stopped and looked me full in the eyes. "Yes. Come with me."
We faded into a small, vacant living room type of place. "I sense you need as much privacy as is possible here in heaven. Am I right to guess that what you are about to tell me has been held deep inside you all these years?" She was making this as easy for me as possible. And I still wasn't sure I wanted to tell the story.
"I thought I was going crazy. I COULDN'T tell anyone." I took a deep breath. "It’s the biggest reason I hate religion." I looked at her for a reaction. After all, saying I hated religion while in heaven had a bit of irony to it.
She only smiled and nodded. "Do you already know about it?" I asked hopefully. There still was a chance I could get out of telling it.
"I have a vague idea, but the details are too fuzzy to be able to help you deal with it," she answered gently.
I took a deep breath, and began. "When I was just growing my first chin hair, my best friend was a member of a very strict religious group. I went with him to some of his church’s functions, but it wasn't for me. I was also going through the training, catechism, I believe it was called, at the church my mother went to. All of this exposure to religion was soon after my little brother had survived a bad infection of his brain, but was little more that a vegetable. My sisters and I had tried to make sense of why this had happened to an innocent little boy by looking into ALL the religions. We studied the Eastern beliefs, including reincarnation, and really studied the Bible. Well, sorta studied it. Anyway, we didn't come up with anything that answered our questions. We looked into the ESP and other supernatural eerie theories. We even thought about using the Ouija board stashed up in our attic to ask it for answers." I stopped when I thought I saw a look of fear flash across her face.
"Go on," she urged, regaining a neutral expression.
"Well.…now, remember I was under lots of mental pressure from my friend, and I was just an impressionable teenager….and I never had any more experiences like it since….” I had managed to stuff this memory into the depths of my mind by convincing myself I had been brainwashed by trying too hard to understand the illogical. I wanted to be sure Julia understood that this incident was very out of character for me, even then.
When Julia didn’t respond in any way to these ‘excuses’, I managed somehow to continue. “One Sunday night, after a particularly guilt inducing sermon, I was lying in my bed, awake, trying my best to 'give myself to God' as the pastor had said we all should. Well, you know, especially in my younger years, I tended to have very concrete thinking. I never was any good at symbolism. If I couldn't picture it, I couldn't understand it. So...." I hadn't been able to look her in the eyes as I was telling this. I paused to glance at her expression. It was still neutral. I sighed. "This is silly. Can't you just read my mind about this, so I won't have to actually say it?"
"I’ll understand it much better if you say it," she said encouragingly.
I waited for an explanation of why reading my mind wasn’t as good, but there was none. "Okay, okay. Remember, I was just a kid. And I was thinking like a kid." I was stalling, and she knew it, but let me get away with it. I sat, or rather, hovered, over the stuffed chair under me. I sighed. Then I sighed again.
"I can't do this." I finally said, and stood, planning to leave. But Julia didn't stand, and she didn't look as if she planned to follow me if I did try to go. Not that I’d know where to hover off to…..
This time, SHE sighed "You are not crazy, and you never were crazy. From what I can make out of the jumble I CAN read, it seems to me you were amazingly perceptive."
"If I look you straight in the eyes, could you read my mind better, and save me the agony of actually having to say it all?" I was pleading.
"You may feel infinitely better if you do say it," she suggested softly.
I stared off into the distance, trying to think of any other way to get out of this. ‘Why did I ever bring it up?’ But Julia had me cornered.
"Okay, here goes, then." After one more deep and procrastinatory sigh, I started at breakneck speed: "I pictured myself holding something up to God, hollering 'Here I am, come get me,' or something corny like that. What I pictured next was an old man on a platform at the top of some wooden steps, with his back to me. I walked up the steps. ‘What do YOU want?’ he said very irritably. ‘Here's my soul,’ I replied. Then he turned to look at me. His face softened immediately and his tone changed to very pleasant. 'Oh, it's you! Yes, yes, come to me.' I walked up to him and gave him my bundle, but the smile on his face bothered me somehow. As I turned to go back down the stairs, it hit me. I sat bolt upright in bed, my eyes wide open. THE DEVIL! I had just given my soul to the DEVIL! Still sitting, I closed my eyes and pictured myself turning back to the devil, grabbing the package, and running down the steps, which I then recognized as steps to the gallows. I was in a panic. I had almost given my soul to the DEVIL!!”
I paused. I had made it through the sappy part, but the eeriest, craziest part was yet to come….I glanced at Julia – she was beaming!
“Go on, Mr. Burns,” she said.
Her positive reaction helped me continue… “I sat there in my bed for a long time, afraid to lie back down." It still seemed so real, even after all these years. "I eventually just thought, ‘What should I do?’ in a rhetorical way. But darned if the thought ‘Stay away from the paranormal’ didn't pop into my head. ‘Sure, sure, no problem,’ I actually thought back to my own thought. I was sure I was crazy. I even thought, ‘but if you know you're talking to yourself, you're not really crazy, right?’ I managed another glance at Julia now that I was back in semi-joking mode. She was actually glowing! I mean, really emitting light!
She gave me the tightest bear hug one spirit can give another without hugging all the way through. When she let go, she looked up at me, her face was shining with tears of joy. "Mr. Burns, do you realize what you had done?!!!"
"I scared the bejesus out of myself, that's what I did! Never did go back to church, and I never will!" Of course I never will. Unless there are churches in heaven...
"Mr. Burns, you recognized The Hangman! You were able to escape his evil influence!" She looked truly impressed, so I thought I'd play the part. I pulled back my shoulders, and puffed out my chest and strutted around taking large, masculine strides.
"See how much better you feel!!?" Julia was literally zooming around the room as though she were my cheerleader.
"So, explain to me what really happened." I wasn't convinced I had really faced down the devil, or the hangman, or whoever, alone. "Was Karl looking after me even back then?"
"Maybe. But you had to be receptive to him or you wouldn't have recognized the Hangman for who he was, especially so soon. YOU are the one who noticed something wasn't right about his smile." Julia was trying to give me too much credit. But I was thoroughly enjoying it, to be perfectly honest.
"So, let me at the b-------!!" and I hoisted a make believe sword into the air. "To battle!!"

17
Full of Myself, and Ready for Action

Julia just shook her head, and we faded back to where we were before my confession.
Now that I felt superior to any of the guys (and THEY had been here months and years before me), I was ready for some rabblerousing. I had my working orders, and I was ready to go!
"May I make a suggestion?" Julia asked.
"Certainly, dear heart," I answered rather pompously. Just acting, of course.
"Remember they still know more of the details than you know. They know the trees, you know the forest."
"Your point, my dear, is....? Remember, I'm a concrete sorta guy. Speak English."
"Be sure you follow their lead until you know what they know. Ask them lots of easy questions, and try to not show off." She said this gently, but it sure did leave some air out of my bubble. I sighed, but I did still have a bounce in my float.
"Can't I show off at all?" I asked, feeling a bit put off. "What good is knowing more than they know, if I can't gloat a little?" I knew the answer before the entire question was out. "So you little souls are sending me out to be your diplomat, huh. You want me to be good and pretend to be nice, and stupid.” I knew what they were asking me to do. After all, I was a supervisor for almost forty years. I had to use lots of tact.
"But this has to be SMART tact. Before you just barked an order, and it was done. Here you have to be more like your right hand man was." She looked a bit worried.
"I thought you all wanted me to be comfortable being transparent. Now you're telling me to lie! Make up your minds!" I was sure she wasn’t going to be able to weasel out of this one.
"Yes, you do have a point. But you just won’t tell them all that you know. You shouldn’t need to lie. It’s unlikely they will ask you a direct question, so you will just be aware of more than they are. You'll be sparing them too much knowledge. They may not be able to handle it as well as you," she pleaded.
I thought she was just trying to butter me up. I didn't think I could be motivated enough to try to keep GOOD stuff from them. Sissy feelings, yes. 'I'm better than you' feelings, no.
“Mr. Burns, don’t you think they would have a hard time understanding why you feel so superior?” Julia asked innocently. She knew if I tried to explain to the guys what I had just learned; they’d think I was insane.
“D---, you’re good, you little squirt, you,” I replied. The red fluff danced out of my mouth and landed on her sweet little head. “Now you’ve REALLY burst my bubble. Gee, thanks.” I tried to look upset with her, but her crooked impish smile made keeping a straight face impossible.
"Are you sure you’re ready to be with the guys? Are your unmyelinates ready?" there was a bit of worry under her look of mischief.
With my own crooked grin, I explained, "I won't be needing slo-mo. I've got too much else on my mind. And the trip back to Jurassic Park helped me understand my sissy reaction to the cubs, so I feel it's settled. I'll be so busy picking THEIR brains, they won't have a chance at mine." I was still feeling a bit smug. I tried not to remember that whenever I felt this way, I tended to get tripped up…. "By the way, how much DO the guys know about the Greek gods and how things work?" I had to know more details about just how careful I needed to be.
"They know that there is real evil on earth in various misty, ghost-like beings. Their forms are not necessarily human, although some are. These hateful entities can sense when a person is vulnerable, either in thought or deed. They grab every opportunity possible to meddle. Your friends are very good at stopping them from carrying out most of their devious plots. But your friends haven't yet learned how to stop their influence on people's thoughts." She paused for a few minutes to let this sink in.
"Stop and think about your ultimate goal. You would like to learn all that they know while using your insight to help them do even better. Use your well honed earthly skills here, for a much bigger, more important outcome," she coached.
"Okay, okay. I'll try to act my age.”
She looked at me rather dubiously. She seemed to be pondering her options. My confidence level was high enough that I tried to read her thoughts, but her one eyebrow raised laterally, sorta like Pat's did when I tried to guess his/her gender. "When are you all going to teach me to mind read? It’ll mean I'll know what the others know quicker," I added hopefully.
"Mind reading can't really be taught, remember. It's like learning to crawl, or walk. You just have to practice. Clear your mind, and listen." She smiled, and I thought I sensed, ‘and I know how much you enjoy clearing your mind!’ I laughed, and she broke into a wide grin.
We floated into the midst of the crowd at the Watering Hole. The usual guys weren't there, at least not at their usual table. Julia and I wandered around. She pointed out some souls she thought I might remember. Some were vaguely familiar, but like I noticed when I first arrived, they were lots younger than when I saw them last. The people I saw most recently were still alive, on earth.
I thought for a second about my wife. But knowing her, she was probably deAged to the nursery level by now. Probably started out there. Everyone considered her part saint even before she died. And not just because she was able to live with me.
Julia looked at me and I thought I sensed ‘she's been an attendant in the infant's nursery for the last few years. She nurtures the sleep-o-holics.’ Her grin let me know I was right.
‘Wouldn’t be long before I’ll be able to read everyone’s mind,’ I decided.
Julia just shook her head with an exasperated expression. ‘He’s hopelessly competitive.’
I looked over the crowd once more. I was disappointed my buddies weren't here, but I hoped when they did show up, they'd had a good adventurous job to tell about. "Don't you know where they are?" I asked Julia.
"Yes, they'll be here in a few minutes. I just thought giving you time to wind down would be a good idea. And their job is taking longer than we had anticipated." She looked a bit concerned.
"Should we pop up to the Dome and look for them? Maybe you can send me to join them. They may need my expert advice." I pretended to hold my lapels as I struck an important pose.
She through me a motherly type of glance. ‘Now behave.’
"Just kidding, Ma." I protested, playing the part to the hilt. I resumed my normal posture and added, "No, seriously, though. Can we go see what they are doing? Can't you come along to keep me in line, if you're so worried about me?"
"No," was her rather terse reply.
I decided I'd better stop kidding around for a bit. "Why don't we find a place to sit down, and order a drink?" I suggested.
She didn't answer for a while. I figured she was thinking in slo-mo, so I waited. And waited. And waited.
I scanned and rescanned the crowd. No one struck me as particularly interesting. I was glad I didn't see that a-----from college. I glanced at Julia to see if she noticed the puff float from my ear. She didn’t.
"Come this way," she said finally, and headed in the direction of the guy's favorite spot. "They're here! And look who they've got with them!" Her mood had definitely improved. I guess their mood swings even followed them to heaven, poor little ladies.
The stern glance over her shoulder as she thought ‘as if you guys don't have testosterone surges!’ quickly put me in my place. I couldn't argue with her, now, could I?

"JOHNNY!!!" I couldn't believe my eyes! "What the h--happened to you!" He artfully dodged my dancing yellow fluff as we vigorously shook hands. I almost shook his arm off, I was so glad to see him.

"Easy Ian!" Arnie laughed. "We just managed to put him back together!" As I stood there wondering what the h--- he meant by that, the gang went hysterical with laughter. I waved away the sunshine yellow ear puff and thought ‘These guys could make a bundle working for the bottled laughter company. It's all they do.’

Johnny got himself together first. "I just had a little talk with the Fuzz. We negotiated a deal. I gave up some of my silver, and got set free." His grin was definitely full of fun.

"You mean to tell me, you bribed the law to get off?" I knew that couldn't be right, especially since the other guys, who were just then catching their breath, burst into another round of even more hysterical laughter. This was getting to be a bit annoying. I looked to Julia. An impish grin filled HER face, too, as she faded away, thinking ‘they're your friends. You get to choose how to react to them....’

I waited what seemed like half an hour for them to get hold of themselves. Finally Arnie noticed my extra hair. "Ian!! You're getting younger already? It took me DAYS to grow back even one hair on my head. I still don't have as many as you do, and I've had a months' jump on you. How'd ya do that?" His question almost sounded sincere.

But I decided to take no chances. "If I tell ya, I'll have ta kill ya," I said in the deepest voice I could muster. This time I was glad to see them all return to their belly laughing. It felt good to get them laughing on purpose. I was glad they appreciated the punster's type of humor. And I was glad Gail reminded me of that one.

We eventually took our seats at the table, and ordered drinks. I wondered why the bartenders and waitresses looked so happy to be tending to us. "It must be what they really enjoyed doing while they were on earth. There's a huge restaurant on the other side of the pod run by the cooks who couldn't stop cooking, feeding the souls who couldn't stop eating. Seems there's always a soul here who enjoyed doing almost anything in life enough to keep it up here. Even washing and ironing. Can you believe it?" Harry took my thought and ran with it. "What a waste of time! But, you know, I never see anyone coming around to clean up after us. I guess that job has NO redeeming factors."

The others took on a more serious tone, too. "Yeah, anyone who enjoyed being that subservient went straight to infancy," agreed Joe.

"Either that, or the fuzz had a nice long negotiation with them and inserted some ego strengthening DNA," added Larry.

"Yeah, and they probably got what used to be mine!" Johnny was very pleased about this for some reason. The look he gave me after he said this was inquisitive. "So, Ian, have you figured it out yet?"

"Figured what out?" I did my best to not think about what I DID figure out by concentrating on figuring out what it was that Johnny wanted me to figure out.

"What happened to me in the fuzz! I know you'll be upset if we tell you, cuz you always wanted to figure everything out for yourself. Even when we told you the answer, you were too stubborn to believe us, and still had to figure it out for yourself. So, figure it out, Ian, ol' buddy, ol' pal!" Johnny was definitely in better humor than when I saw him before his meltdown.

In fact, I'd NEVER seen him this happy. ‘ Maybe that trip to the fuzz WASN'T such a bad thing. And what is all this talk about DNA?’ I stopped short when I noticed that they were all looking at me intently, chins in their hands, elbows on the table.

"Isn't this grand, guys! We'll actually get to listen to his mind in action! We'll finally get to see how he does it!" Arnie looked more intent than I'd ever seen him.

"What the h--- do you ....mean." I realized the answer to my question as I waved away the meandering tack. Immediately, I switched to my slo-mo fibers. ‘I had hoped to save this til a card game.’

The looks on their faces were priceless! "Hey, can I get a picture of this?” I joked. “Anybody have a camera?!!" They had dropped their hands and their mouths were all hanging open. Every one of them.

"What's the matter with you lot? Can't read minds anymore?!” ‘Oh, this is fun! I can do this the whole time I'm with them even if it does take for ever. The re action makes it all worth while!’ I felt rather smug.

"Well, I'll be d-----!" Arnie was the first to speak. The small tack gently floated my direction. I blew it back to Arnie, and laughed.

"Any idiot with two brain cells could figure out how to block mind reading," I had to rub it in while I could. I loved to gloat!

"Okay, then, what else did you figure out, you smart-a---" Johnny's old self was showing. His tack was dark green but very slow moving.

Uh-oh, I zoomed back into slo-mo in a panic. ‘I can't let them know what I know.’ But they could see my panic, and my slo-mo wasn't slow enough.

"Okay, Ian, out with it. You may as well tell us, now. You know we'll keep at you ‘til you do." Johnny's crooked grin looked almost evil.

I decided to go on the attack instead. "You guys would never understand it if I spent eons explaining it to you. You're all too thick. I'm not wasting my time." By now I was over my panic, and could return to proper speed slo-mo. "So, let's play cards."

They looked at me for a few minutes. I concentrated on useless thoughts in slo-mo. They gave up rather easily, and Arnie pulled out a deck of cards.

"We'll need two more players and another deck." He said, counting the heads around the table.

"Nah, count me out. I'd rather go over to the restaurant. Talking about it made me want to eat. Anyone else for a meal?" Harry asked.

"I'll go with you, Harry," said Larry. And off they floated.

That first round of euchre was great! I partnered with Arnie, against Johnny and Joe. Arnie and I had been partners at most of the games in life, so we knew how the other tended to think. All we had to do was block Johnny and Joe from reading our minds better than they blocked us. We slaughtered them!

Unfortunately, they didn't want to play a second set. I sensed a bit of resentment. "You aren't sore losers, now are you?" I asked innocently.

They rolled their eyes and floated off.
That left just me and Arnie. Maybe I could get him to be serious enough to ask about the dreams he had. I didn't bother to think in slo-mo, so he answered me before I asked the question.
"Dreaming can be fun, but it is serious stuff, too. Maybe you could join me and the guys at some of the games. We'll let you watch at first, and if we need help, you can jump in and help," he began. "I know you weren't into sports, at least not into actually playing them when you were younger, but with you're smarts, you could look out for our backs. You may notice something that will help the younger squirts do more about the bigger picture."
‘How would I get the big picture at a sports game?’ I wondered.
"I don't know. You usually manage to see things we don't, is all I'm saying. At least you could give it a try." He seemed a bit weary. He sighed. "It's really scary how much influence those evil b------- have. Just physically stopping bad things from happening isn't good enough. Sure, it's fun. But I don't think it's helping in the long run."
"Could you tell me what you know about how these dreams work? Who decides which job to give to which souls, and how many, and when?" I couldn't stop at just one question at a time.
"Sorry, Ian. Like I said, I can't figure things out like you do. All I know is that Kenny lets me know when there’s a good game, and I go to sleep. Sometimes, I ask for something different, then POP! I'm in the situation I sorta asked for. And if Harry and Larry want to go at the same time, they ask their deAgers, and we usually get what we ask for." He paused. I waited.
I thought I'd ask a more specific question. "What did you mean when you said you didn't want the visiting team's center to go to 'those lizards'?"
He perked up. "Oh, that. Well, we do know there are these mean, ugly ghosts and ghouls that show up at most of the really violent games. We figure they’re there to help the mean kids of the team do their hateful deeds. They usually look like gargoyles, or reptiles, or some other god-awful creature. Their forms are more solid and usually not as clear as ours – they tend to be kinda blurry. And they can change shape, size, smell, or whatever, at will. It keeps us on our toes."
"Do you ever lose?" I was hesitant to ask.
He looked at me for a while before he said, "To be honest, I wonder if we ever win." He took a deep sigh. "They’re always there when we go back. If not the same ones, more just like ‘em. There seems to be a never ending supply."
"Well, hey, partner. We're a winning pair. Let's go get 'em!" I said as cheerfully as I could. I wasn't used to seeing Arnie this serious. At least not about anything serious, that is. He'd been worse than this over a stupid soccer game. He had a fatal heart attack over one!!
"Let's see what Kenny and what's-her-name have to suggest," he said with less enthusiasm than I had hoped.

18
Joint Effort

We floated towards the Dome, as I wasn't able to fade in and out at will. Arnie tried to tell me how, but he eventually admitted he didn't know how to explain it. Sorta like when you learn to tie shoelaces. It becomes so automatic that when you try to explain to someone else how it’s done, you interrupt the flow and can't tie your own anymore.

"Don't I have to know more about the techniques you use in your dreams? I mean like the fluff you filled yourself up with to brake the fall of that basketball player." I wanted to be as prepared as possible. "And how can you interact with the living? And how do you wrestle the blobs, if they're ghostlike? Don't your hands go right through them?"

"Whoa! Slow down, Ian old boy! One at a time!" Arnie grinned broadly. "It took me weeks to learn ONE of those things! And you know I'm no good at teaching. But I'll try. Now which of those do you want to know first?"

I weighed the options. I'd be unlikely to be the one to break someone's fall because Arnie could do that. But I had already run into the problem of trying to communicate with people. The best I could do was the cold breeze. So I asked, "How do we let the people we are supposed to help know what we want them to do?"

"Just like you to ask the hardest one first." But he was still smiling. "We don't. Next question?"
I stopped, and faced him. He stopped, too, but didn't face me. "Arnie, look at me and say that with a straight face."
He did. With a very sad expression, he said, "Ian, we can't tell people what we want them to do. We can only try to influence what THEY decide to do. Or not do. It's frustrating as h---." The tack stuck in the wide space between his front teeth. I guessed he didn't say h--- with enough umph. He spat the tack out to the side, and it promptly disappeared.
"Okay, so how do we INFLUENCE them, then?" ‘Why does he take things so literally!!? He knows what I mean!’
"I beg your pardon, mate, but I do NOT 'know what you mean',” he said mockingly. “You asked 'how do we tell them', and I said we can't. So there. If you don't like my answers, ask someone else." He seemed genuinely annoyed. Just like he did on earth, now that I thought about it. Some things never change.....
"Okay, Arnie, you're right. I'll try to be more specific. How do we let them know if their life is in danger, like, to get them to move if a rock is about to fall on them. Or if they fall in a lake, how do we get them out?"
"We can't push them. We can't speak to them. We can't throw things to get their attention. We can only cause them to feel cold or warmth." Arnie sighed. "And we can't stop the rock from falling once it starts, either. We can try to stop it from being pushed, if we see who is pushing it in time to stop them. Our best hope is to try to find the spook before he begins to act. Once the b------ got the person pushed into the lake, it's too late."
"Okay, then what about other tricks, like the fluff? Couldn't that help?" I couldn't imagine having to just stand there and watch, if we couldn't stop the act from starting.
"Fluff’s just that. Fluff. It can cushion a fall, but the force of a rock is too much for it to absorb. The Laws of Physics still do apply, you know," he added sadly. "And, yes, it is hard to watch. It really gives you motivation to 'Find Willie' as fast as you can."
I thought about this for a while. ‘If we can't physically interact with people, why can the evil ghosts? Aren't we both just 'wisps' with no substance? If we have no substance, why should they? Isn't that stacking the deck a bit?’
"They have more dark matter than we do, so they’re more solid. And yes, the deck is VERY stacked in their favor. You see, their methods are more aggressive, like predatory animals. Our methods are more passive, like prey-type animals. When they connect to tin and steel DNA in animals, they've got the benefit of 'natural instincts' on their side. We can only connect with the copper and bronze DNA, which are in control of the sissy instincts. It can really be embarrassing sometimes. So what me and the guys tend to do is to keep the slimy b------- from getting into the person's head to begin with."
"Right. Yeah, this is making sense. Loads of sense... Okay, so if we go to a job together, can WE communicate with each other, at least?" My head was spinning. ‘I need to ask someone else to explain these things.’
Arnie was a bit snippy when he answered, "If we can't communicate here, how the h--- can we communicate in the rush of a job?"
I had forgotten to think in slo-mo. "Sorry, Arnie. This is all so new. Try to be patient with me." I held out my hand for a shake.
Arnie's mood changed immediately as he grabbed my hand with so much force, I thought I'd lose it!
"THIS I can teach you! When you wrestle with a creature, you have to remember to control your grip. If you grab too hard, pieces of the slime ball fall off and then you have baby slime balls to deal with. You have to use just the right amount of force, and no more. Too little, and they slide right through your hands. Let's practice!"
Now we were in Arnie's territory. He was always better at physical things than just pure thinking things.

We spent the next hour or so practicing the physical techniques of tackling a ghost. And how to pull one out of a person's ear if they got a head start. I could still catch its tail, but it was like trying to catch a salamander. The tail ended up writhing in my fingers while the lizard-like prop Arnie had conjured up escaped. I just couldn't get the hang of it.

Arnie didn’t even try to hide his amusement at my limited skills. He put on a great show whenever I grabbed his salamander-shaped arm too tightly and pulled it loose from his body. He acted as though he were in great pain, and pretended to die. Then he'd get up, reattach his arm, and we tried again. Quite an audience eventually formed. Arnie REALLY hammed it up when groups of souls were passing by.

When he was satisfied I would at least be able to defend myself, we continued on our way to the Dome.