Stan didn’t remember dying.
“Few do,” said the cloaked figure beside him, his liaison into the Underworld.
“How did I die?”
“Not my department,” replied the shadow.
Stan looked across the gray landscape. The lands of the dead were dingy. Even the dirt seemed grimy between his toes. He was naked too. Everybody was naked. All the souls of women, men, and children crowded on the shore. Each of them accompanied by a shadow.
“This place sucks,” said Stan. “Am I in hell? I didn’t think I was a bad person.”
The shadow laughed. “There is no hell.”
“Fine. Purgatory then?”
“You could call this place that. All the dead pass through here. Many never leave.”
An old man, wrinkled and stooped, lurched into the water and started swimming.
“Where’s he going?” asked Stan.
“The other side. Or so he hopes.”
Stan squinted, gazing at the far edge of the water. He couldn’t see any land. “Can you drown if you’re dead?”
“No. The fate of those who don’t make the swim is worse than that.”
“What’s worse than death?”
The shadow shrugged.
“Crazy old man,” thought Stan aloud.
“Many do not dare the swim,” said the shadow. “Of those that do, not many make it to the other side.”
“What’s on the other side? Heaven?”
The shadow shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Don’t know? Or won’t say?”
“Is there a difference?”
“So this is it then?” asked Stan. “We just stand here for eternity?”
“Time will end,” said the shadow. “Though eternity is close enough for our purposes.”
The old man swam on, and Stan watched him get smaller and smaller.
“Will he make it?”
“I don’t know. It’s a test of spiritual endurance. It is impossible to say.”
Stan glanced at the gathering on this shore. Thousands of naked souls, all of them too afraid to dare the crossing. How long had they been here? How long until the end of time?
He stepped into the waters. They were freezing, but he didn’t let that stop him. He pushed forward, not thinking about the distance or the unknown mysteries ahead. He just swam, one stroke at a time.
He passed the old man, who was floundering now. He wouldn’t make it. Stan could see that. The old man’s gray eyes showed his acceptance of his fate. At least he’d tried.
“Put your arms around my neck,” said Stan. “I’ll carry you.”
“You’ll drown too,” said the old man.
“Then we’ll drown together. I’m not going on without you.”
The old man did as told. Stan pushed on.
From the shore, his shadow nodded to himself. The swim was difficult, but not impossible. The truth was that no one could make it alone. The shadow knew this, though it didn’t know, could never know, what was waiting on the other side of that distant shore.
He wished Stan luck before fading into oblivion.