Greg Smith took a deep breath and looked up the face of Old Man. The crisp granite had a wet sheen to it this morning. He glanced up the hundreds of feet that he was planning to on-sight. He’d climbed the Old Man before, but never on this side. It was going to be one hell of an adventure. Particularly because he had never done it alone.
Their fight this morning had been epic. Sheila was pissed. She didn’t want him going up the mountain alone. She didn’t understand his need to escape the rat race. Or the feeling of freedom he could only find at the top. How it took him out of his head. Out of the petty problems he was sick of dealing with. Work was dragging him down. Today, regardless of what anyone else wanted or needed from him, he was going to climb.
Greg checked his equipment and looked at the sun. He breathed again. Put the job out of his mind. Put the argument with Sheila away. I’ll make up with her tonight he thought. He began to climb. The rock called to him. The top called to him. All of it sang softly. The cool, crisp air. The warm sun on his back as he worked his way slowly upwards.
After he’d reached a distance he guessed was about 200 feet up from the bottom, he stopped for a minute to collect himself. He placed an anchor point into the face, checked his chalk, harness and carabiners, and continued upward.
After what seemed like a few minutes but was actually more than an hour Greg stopped again and took in the view. The valley below was breathtaking from this height. He saw an eagle above him and wondered what it was hunting. From this high he wouldn’t be able to spot whatever the bird was stalking. He looked down anyhow.
A vehicle’s dust trail was coming down the gravel road towards where he had parked. Greg wondered if he knew the climber or climbers inside. He wondered what Sheila was doing. If she was still fuming at him for needing this today. Those worries could wait. He begin wedge a nut into a crack in the face. And felt the first trembling. His heart skipped a beat. Had the mountain just moved?
He looked up. Then down. What the hell? This time the earth definitely shook. The mountain was unhappy. He clung to the face, desperately trying to get the nut further in. He gave it a tug and attached the rope. The mountain was shaking now. He scrabbled as dirt and small rocks came down on his helmet. Getting his grip and settling in, he waited. More shaking came, and more showers of dirt. The rocks were bigger now. A boulder bigger than his head fell past him. And then a few more. His heart beat faster.
And then it was over. Greg looked up. No more debris. He looked down and saw two figures far below. The vehicle had pulled up next to his Xterra and he could see two small figures looking up at him.
Should I go up or down? He couldn’t believe his brain was wondering this. I need to go down. What if the Old Man shakes again? For reasons he couldn’t understand Greg found himself looking for the next handhold leading up. He began climbing again.
Then he discovered the door. The impossible door. Set a few inches into the face was a red wooden door with an ornate brass knob that looked like a human face. Stunned, Greg paused on the face. What the hell? After a minute, unable to contain his curiosity, he climbed up to the beckoning mystery and put his hand on the handle. He turned the knob.
Greg stepped into the door in the mountain wondering what was happening to him. This place couldn’t be real. It hadn’t been here the last time he climbed Old Man. He felt nervous and excited. Inside, the room he found himself in was filled with cool air but warmly lit. He took it in, stunned. A rectangular space with rich wood paneling. Most of the wall space in the impossible place he found himself was dedicated to bookshelves. He took in the entirety of the madness and noticed more details.
He saw a fireplace. The fire crackled and glowed invitingly. Rich carpets and comfortable reading chairs were scattered about in between the shelves in the walls.
He gasped as he noticed a composed, regal woman sitting in one of the chairs nearest the crackling fire. She was dressed in a white flowing garment that shimmered in the firelight. She looking at him commandingly.
“Please, have a seat. We have a discussion ahead of us.”
Greg’s knees went weak. He automatically grabbed for the harness, intending to check the rope. It wasn’t there. Astonished, he looked down and realized that he was no longer wearing his climbing gear. Rather, his outfit consisted of his favorite cargo pants and sneakers. His continued the self-inspection and realized that he was dressed for lounging around the house on a fall day.
“What the hell?” Greg turned towards the red door unsure what he should do. The door was no longer there. The place he had just stepped into the room through was now a bookshelf. He noticed one of the titles on a red spine: Abrahaim Abadi.
“Take a breath Greg.” The woman looked at him without any apparent emotion. “Have a seat. Let’s talk.”
Greg shuffled towards the woman woodenly. She graciously pointed at another chair on the opposite side of the fire. Oddly, she used her entire hand to point instead of a single finger. He lurched towards the seat and flopped into it feeling weak-kneed.
“What is happening to me?”
She nodded. “That’s a perfectly natural question Greg. But let’s start with orientation. My name is Saphira. I am an agent of change. You are here because you are in the midst of a major change. You’re dead Greg. And now you have to make a choice. Take a moment to let that sink in.”
Greg thought of Sheila. “I’m not dead. I’m right here. Talking to you.” Another part of him screamed silently. He felt the truth of what she was saying in his core.
“You’re dead Greg. The first rock knocked you off the Old Man. The shell of you is down at the bottom. Those two people you saw called 911. The authorities will come clean up the scene. You were dead within seconds of impact. Welcome to what some would call Purgatory. I have this discussion often Greg. You’ve had a pretty grounded life. Now it’s over. Time to choose a new one.”
The woman sipped from a cup of something on a little wooden table next to her chair. She smiled at Greg.
“Look around. Every book contains the bones of a life. You can stay in this room as long as you wish. Until you’re ready. Until you make a choice. Choose one of these lives. This is the nature of the universe.”
Greg found himself unable to speak. He looked around at the shelves and the hundreds of books.
“Gah.” It was all he could muster.
“The Hindus sort of come closer than the rest of you to getting it right. I’ll run you through the basics. Every life starts as the bones of a book. Every soul chooses which bones to anchor itself to. The rest will be up to you. The stories you see here, the bones available to you, the anchor points – they are all an algorithm. Every choice you ever made, in your time as Greg, has led to this point and these selections.”
She looked into his face. He noticed that her eyes were an impossible purple color. That she was beautiful. In a way that was somehow completely asexual.
“But what about heaven?” Greg’s voice surprised him.
“None of those ideas come close. There is no heaven. There are only infinite pathways and endless choices. And this room. You’ve been here over and over.”
Greg thought about it. The woman looked deep into him and continued.
“You have the benefit of memory for now. Once you make your choice you’ll be born again. Into the bones you’ve chosen, into the time and place you’ve selected. You won’t remember any of this life. It will be a fresh start. But it won’t be completely sanitized. Sometimes, the echoes of past incarnations will be audible. You may get prompts. You may see little glimpses of other roads you’ve walked. This is all there is. Endless stories made up of endless choices.”
The woman pointed again in her odd way, using her entire hand to sweep the bookshelves. “I’ll be here the entire time you are reading. There is no rush. This place is timeless. Compose yourself and choose a book. We have eternity to talk about your options.”