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Open Features: After Life - A Fantasy - Part Three

Here is the third and final part of Brian William Neal’s startling story, After Life. Parts One and Two appeared on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.

Some may be shocked by Brian’s sweeping, imaginative tale, but no-one could fail to be impressed by his narrative power.

5. THE CONFESSION


Sometime later, Peter woke; why, he did not know, since he still felt quite tired. He was prepared to put it down to sleeping in a strange place – something he had always had trouble doing – or the fact that it never seemed to be night here. Then he noticed that the sleeping bag Jesus had laid down on was empty, and he climbed out of his own bag and stood uncertainly in the glade. What they would do if the object of their quest were to disappear, Peter did not know, and he began to feel a stirring of panic. He looked further into the glade; there was no one in sight, but he thought that if Jesus was still here, he would have gone that way. There was nothing in the other direction but the road, and he couldn’t imagine why the man would take off that way on foot when they were going there anyway in the cab. Doing his best to ignore a small flutter of panic, Peter set off into the glade of trees.

His fledgling fears were groundless; after only a few minutes, he saw Jesus up ahead, sitting on a large rock and staring at the trees. He turned at Peter’s approach and nodded, then gave a small smile.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not about to break into a chorus of ‘I Only Want To Say’.”

Peter smiled back. “I always liked the ‘Hosannah, Heysannah’ song, myself.”

“Andrew and Tim,” said Jesus, reflectively. “They got it very close, you know.”

“Yeah?” Peter climbed up on to the rock and sat down.

Jesus nodded. “Oh, yes. One of my special favorites, that was.” His eyes went distant for a moment, then he said, “I wasn’t much like the way the scriptures painted me, you know. The ‘Lamb of God’, and all that rubbish. I liked a good time as much as the next man. Did my share of chasing the girls and getting pissed at the inns. At least until…well, the last couple of years or so. Anyway, that’s why I like the musicals of modern times. They’re more real. And I love rock.”

“Pardon?” said Peter, not sure he had heard correctly.

Jesus smiled again. “Yes, shocking, isn’t it? Jesus Christ, son of God, is totally into Motorhead.”

Peter began to smile, and Jesus went on, his voice escalating while Peter’s smiles turned to laughter.

“And Queen, for their brilliance, and The Stones, for their raw power, and The Eagles, for their perfection. The Beatles, of course; well, you can see why I’d like them, and David Bowie is way closer to divine than I ever was.” He looked at Peter, a huge grin creasing his face. “Never could carry a tune, myself,” he went on conversationally. “All but tone deaf. That’d confuse the Catholics, wouldn’t it? Not perfect after all, eh?”

Peter laughed harder, and Jesus joined him, and for a while the glade rang to the happy sound of their hilarity. Gradually, they tapered off, and finally went quiet. They sat in comfortable silence for a time, then Jesus said, “Don’t you want to know why I don’t want to go back?”

Peter shrugged. “Well, if your reaction to the ‘Temptation’ remark is anything to go by, I can guess most of it. Satan tempted you, offered you a normal life; wife, kids, mortgage, a family of your own, if you’d renounce God.”

Jesus nodded absently. “You’ve got it. Didn’t even have to do that much, actually. Just come down off the cross. See, what he wants is not just to destroy Christianity; he wants to make like it never existed. If I don’t do the crucifixion thing, then the religion you’ve known for all of your life will never exist. Can you imagine what that would do to the world?”

Peter nodded. “Well, not completely, of course. But, as your look-alike said, and as you said just then, imagine. No religion, no heaven, no hell…what else would it mean?”

Jesus continued to gaze into the glade, then turned to Peter.

“The ultimate revenge. No God.”

*

Peter stared at the man whom millions of people believed was the Savior of the world, and who millions more, if they could see him, would believe was Fab.

“No God? Why not?”

“Because, stop me if you’ve heard this, He needs us as much as we need Him. More, maybe, since His very existence depends on our believing in Him. If everyone stops believing, then there will be no rational, logical reason for Him to continue to exist. I mean, He’s done everything He set out to do; created the earth, heaven, all that. All that’s left is existing.”

Peter thought about this. “You mean God would just, I don’t know, sort of wink out of existence if we all stopped believing in Him?”

Jesus nodded. “More or less. And what do you think would happen to the universe then? That’s why He chose me, you know. Back then, things were pretty much like they are now. Wars, famines, many nations of the world run by despots and petty tyrants, with an international policeman deciding which ones got to rule and which were overthrown. Then, it was the Romans. Today, it’s America. God just decided He’d better do something about it, so He picked me to be his scapegoat. Of course, I didn’t want to do it, not…”

“’Take this cup away from me’?” quoted Peter.

“Exactly. The old poisoned chalice. ‘You only have to die’, and all that.”

Peter looked at him. “So, did you refuse?”

Jesus laughed. “Are you kidding? Back then, I was a good, solid Israelite. If God wanted something of you, the last thing you did was say no.”

“So you…”

“I played the part, followed the script, as you so eloquently put it. God helped me, of course. Gave me all kinds of special gifts, things I could do.”

“So, all that about walking on water, raising the dead, curing leprosy…?”

“All true.” said Jesus. “At first, it was a rush, you know. A real high. Crowds following me everywhere, Jesus Christ Superstar, the whole rock star bit. But then it became clear there was a price to be paid. The ultimate price.” He sighed, and stretched his legs out before him.

“That was when I tried to get Him to take it back, but it was no good.”

“So you went through with it.”

“Partly. But not completely. However you look at it, I betrayed my trust, not to mention God.”

Jesus didn’t seem to want to elaborate, so Peter said, “And then along came old Pitchfork Pete.”

Jesus chuffed. “Yeah. Offered me all kinds of dreams. Took me on my very own Magical Mystery Tour. Showed me what my life could be like, if only I would do this One Little Thing, this tiny, almost insignificant thing.”

“So you did it.”

Jesus was silent for a long time; then he spoke, in a voice so low Peter had to strain to hear him.

“Not exactly; at least, not quite what he wanted me to do.” He paused for a few moments, then went on with his explanation. To Peter, it sounded almost like a confession.

“No, I let him think I was going along with his plan, but at the last minute I escaped his influence and came here to think. He can’t come here, you know. Another one of those rules. Stops him, you see. That’s why they call it heaven. No evil may enter here.” He got that distant look again, a small smile on his finely chiseled lips. “Boy, was he pissed.”

Peter thought for a moment. “I thought this was hell.”

Jesus shook his head, his long hair whipping from side to side. “No, that’s…another place altogether. You really don’t want to go there.”

“But the end result is the same,” said Peter.

Jesus looked at him, his gaze enquiring. “How so?”

“Well, if you’re here, then you’re not back there. That’s the same as if you had never existed, isn’t it? Or can you be in two places at once?”

Jesus’ tortured expression told Peter that this was not the case.

“So if you’re here,” continued Peter, “then you didn’t die on the cross, either. What does that mean?”

Jesus looked at him. “You know, I knew another Peter once. He was one of my closest friends, and he used to ask me difficult questions, too.”

“But he betrayed you. Or, at least, denied knowing you.”

Jesus laughed, a bitter, scornful sound. “What would you expect him to do? Admit to being one of my supporters, in the middle of that mob? That’d be like going to Old Trafford and cheering for the Reds.” Then he sobered, and went on.

“I find no fault in anything any of my followers did, not even Judas. After all, he was only following a script, just like the rest of us. Another good man corrupted.” He smiled again, a sad, self-mocking smile. “God’s Plan,” he said, half to himself.

“But you’ve derailed it haven’t you?” commented Peter. “At least, temporarily.”

Jesus smiled the sad smile again. “I don’t know. Maybe. But then again, who’s to say that things aren’t going exactly the way He wants them to? Maybe this is all His Great Scheme. Maybe whatever happens is what He wanted to happen.”

“Well,” said Peter, not without irony, “that’s what they mean by ‘Omnipotent omniscience’, isn’t it?”

They were silent for a while, each lost in his own thoughts, then Peter said, “As I see it, you’ve done some of what God wanted you to do, and some of what the Other Guy wanted. Far be it from me to advise you, but it sounds to me like this is a watershed, that you’ve got a decision to make.”

Jesus lifted his head and looked at the other man, a slight smile on his lips. “Fish or cut bait, huh?”

Peter shrugged. “As I said, it’s not my place to comment, but…”

Jesus nodded. “That’s what I was afraid you’d say. And you’re right. I’ve been trying to find a way that I can satisfy both, some kind of compromise. But I can’t.” He squared his shoulders. “I’m going to have to go back, face the music.”

Peter was silent for a moment, then said, “Maybe there is a way.” Jesus looked at him, and he said, “Don’t get too excited, but there might be a way you can swing this. Of course, you’d need help.”

“You’d do that? For me?”

Peter smiled. “For the Redeemer of Man? In a heartbeat. Think of the credit I’d build up.”

Jesus laughed, and Peter said, more seriously, “As I said, don’t get your hopes up too much. It may be that we won’t be able to pull it off. But, for what it’s worth; well, how about this?”

Softly, Peter began to speak, Jesus listened, and time passed, unnoticed.

*

Some time later, Sarah and Warwick awakened to find Peter and Jesus striking their makeshift camp, rolling up their bedding and stowing it in the cab.

“Come on, sleepyheads,” called Peter. “Time to go.”

Sarah rolled out of her makeshift bed and stood, scratching her head through her short hair. “Where have you two been?” she asked, glancing at Jesus and then looking back at Peter.

“Oh, just talking,” he said. “Come on, Warwick, shake a leg.”

Grumbling, Warwick rolled out of his bed and began to pack it up. They carried their gear to the cab and stowed it in the trunk, then got into the car. As before, Warwick and Sarah took the rear seat, while Peter rode in front with Jesus driving.

Jesus took the cab out on to the dusty track and started off. The scenery looked the same as it had before; boulders, spires and Medusa trees lined the road and the day, while bright, was still overcast. The sun could not be seen.

After they had traveled a few miles, Sarah leaned over the back of Peter’s seat.

“Does either of you have any idea just where we are going?” Peter looked around at her and she continued. “This road doesn’t seem to go anywhere, just on. In fact, how do we know we aren’t going in circles around some gigantic loop?

Warwick piped up from the seat beside her. “Oh, I thought of that too, but there’s no tire tracks in the road ahead. I think there would be, if we’d come this way before, don’t you?”

“Why?” Sarah countered. “This place is so weird, I shouldn’t be surprised if, after we’ve passed a place and it’s out of sight, gangs of strange men in yellow coveralls come out and sweep the road clear with brooms.”

Peter started to laugh, but it died on his lips as Sarah glared at him. “Go on, laugh. But would you like to turn around and go back, see if it’s true?”

Peter looked at her, decided she was probably not joking, and changed the subject.

“You were asking what we were doing back there,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder back the way they had come. “Well, we think we may have come up with an idea that might let us all get what we want.”

Sarah looked at Jesus, who shrugged. “Hey, it’s his idea,” he said, indicating Peter. “But I have to say, it’s not bad.”

Sarah returned her attention to Peter. “All right, let’s hear it.”

“In a minute,” said Peter. “But it depends on one huge piece of luck.”

The others looked at him, and finally, Sarah said, “Are you going to tell us, or do we have to guess?”

Peter glanced at Jesus, then said, “We have to go back to our universe first.”

“Why?” asked Sarah and Warwick together.

“Because we have to see a king about an insect.”


***

6. THE EGGMAN


The return journey was as uneventful, relatively speaking, as the downward leg. They entered their craft, doors and hatches closed, vibrations began and, outside the ship, everything began shrinking.

Relatively because, in fact, it was they who were growing, enlarging at a fantastic rate. Soon, they were the size of the world they had been on; then the star that was the nucleus of the atom about which it revolved. Then, nothing could be seen from their ports until a soft thump beneath them announced their arrival at their place of origin.

They stepped from the craft, and their friend St. Peter was there to greet them. When he saw who was with them, he broke into a smile. His joy, however, was short-lived.

“What do you mean, you’re not staying?” he asked, when Peter gave him the news.

Peter spoke soothingly, calming him down. “Don’t worry, Harry…er, Peter. We won’t be…”

St. Peter looked accusingly at Jesus. “You told them.”

Jesus shrugged apologetically. “Couldn’t be helped. Actually, it just kind of slipped out.”

“Uh huh.”

“Honest.”

“Mmmm hmmm.”

Peter intervened. “Look, you have to find someone for us.”

St. Peter/Harry maintained eye contact with Jesus for a moment, then turned his attention to Peter. “Find someone? Who?”

Peter looked at the others, then whispered in Harry’s ear. The keeper of the Gates stared at him, then at the others.

“What? Are you out of your ever-lovin’ minds?”

“Please,” said Peter. “It’s desperately important. You have to help us.”

Harry looked at them in frustration, then at Jesus. “This is all your doing, isn’t it? Oh, when I think of the years I wasted worshipping you…”

“Actually, it was his idea,” said Jesus, indicating Peter. “And a pretty good one, too, I might say.”

Peter looked at Harry. “I’ve been informed that, if we ask you to do something, and it’s possible, then you have to do it. Is that right?”

Harry glared at Jesus. “Blabbermouth,” he said. Then he returned his attention to Peter. “Yes, all right. If it’s possible.”

“Well, could you find out?”

Harry tsk’ed in annoyance, then left, saying he’d return soon. Meanwhile, Sarah and Warwick were almost jumping out of their skins.

“What do we do if this doesn’t work?” asked Sarah. “What if he doesn’t want to go along with it?”

“Aye,” added Warwick, “what then? We’ll be right buggered then, won’t we?”

Peter nodded. “Well, we’ll just have to make sure he does.”

Sarah said, looking over his shoulder, “Ah, it looks like we’re going to find out. Here comes St., er, Harry. He’s got someone with him, but…Oh my G – goodness, it’s him!”

Peter stood a little straighter, and squared his shoulders. “Okay, guys,” he said. “Showtime.”

*

A short time later, the three travelers were in a comfortable room, with cozy chairs and refreshments; tea, coffee, cakes and biscuits. They had been directed there by Harry after they had spoken to the person he had brought to them. Amazingly, he had agreed to their proposal, and they had been directed to await a decision from Above. Jesus had been less forthcoming, saying only that he would see them before he ‘went’.

“What I don’t understand,” said Sarah, pouring herself a second cup of coffee, “is how you managed to convince him to agree to your mad scheme. When you and Jesus shut yourselves in that room with him, I fully expected to see him come storming out a minute later. When nothing had happened after fifteen, I had an idea that we might just get lucky. So how did you convince him to do a Sydney?”

“Not a matter of luck,” said Peter, helping himself to another chocolate biscuit. “I had a pretty good idea that the hardest part would be getting to put the proposal to him. As it turned out, that was even easier than him agreeing to do it.”

Warwick looked up from the tea he was slowly stirring. “Still, how did you get him to agree?”

“Well, I was gambling on him feeling bad about the way he…exited the world, if you like. Something Jesus said to me during one of our talks. About how people who are murdered go straight to heaven, while non-Christians have a lot of hassle to go through, and often don’t make it. I knew he’d want to be with his life-partner when she eventually, er, joined us, so I was fairly sure he’d go along.”

“So he’s gone back, has he? Back to 29 AD? He’s really going to do it?” Sarah asked questions in a staccato fashion, and Peter smiled confidently.

“Has to, really. If he wants to be with his partner in the afterlife, that is. And I’m sure he does.” He turned to Warwick.

“You see, Warwick, his partner on earth is not a Christian. Now, that didn’t bother our man then; I suppose he assumed they would go wherever people like them go. More likely, he didn’t believe there was an afterlife at all. Whatever, he said he got quite a shock when he woke up here. Put him in a right state, it did. Now, in exchange for what he’s doing, she’ll be allowed into the Christian heaven.”

“So, your gamble paid off,” said Sarah. “Jesus has agreed to…by the way where is he?”

“‘Tying up a few loose ends’, was how he put it,” replied Peter.


At that moment, the door of the room opened, and in stepped Jesus.

Peter smiled. “Speak of the devil.”

Jesus deadpanned him, good-naturedly. “Ha, ha, very droll. Well, I just wanted to say goodbye, and to thank you, Peter. I owe you one.”

Peter stood and walked over to where Jesus stood, and held out his hand.

“Don’t mention it. You just have a good life, okay?”

“You bet.”

Sarah and Warwick joined them, and they embraced in an awkward huddle. Then Jesus stepped away and opened the door.

“Thanks again, everyone. I, um, I suppose I’ll see you all later.”

They all nodded, and as he left the room, Peter said, “Is it Mary?”

Jesus looked back and smiled. “Let’s just say that Dan Brown got it partly right, and leave it at that.” Then he smiled again, and closed the door behind him. The three looked at each other for a few moments, then returned to their chairs. Sarah poured tea for Warwick and coffee for herself and Peter, and they sat and sipped in thoughtful silence for a time.

A little while later, the door opened, and Harry stood there, smiling.

“Well, well,” said Warwick, “look who’s here. Must be St. Crispian’s Day. Come to give us a pep talk? Let’s see, how does it go? ‘We few, we happy few, we band of – ”

“Yes, well, enough of that,” said Harry, with a wry smile. “If you’re ready, we can be off.”

They looked at each other, then put their cups down and stood. Harry held the door open as they filed out; a short way away, they could see a golden light slanting down through the fog from the clouds above.

“Our ride, is it?” said Peter.

“Yes,” smiled Harry. “One thing: when you get Upstairs, you’ll find you can alter your appearance. Just think of the best you ever looked in life, and that’s how you’ll be. But don’t worry, you won’t be stuck with it. You can change at will. In fact, you can do anything you want.”

He smiled at Peter again. “And you know what? They’ve got a wicked band.”

They all smiled at this and, arm in arm, walked into eternity.


***
EPILOGUE


ALL YOU NEED


The bleeding man stumbles along the rough street, the crown of thorns digging painfully into his forehead and the taunts of the crowd ringing in his ears. The heavy wooden cross rubs his shoulder raw, and every few yards he stops to switch sides. When he does so, the soldiers hit him with ropes or the flat of their swords, and the crowd throws stones that cut his body.

It seems as though he has walked for hours, but it can’t have been more than thirty minutes; ahead, he sees the slight rise of Golgotha, and the two crosses already erected. A man hangs from each, and the sight causes a ripple of fear to run through his body.

The day has been a hard one; first Pilate, then Herod, then Pilate again. Neither of them had known what to do with him. Eventually, Pilate had had him flogged, and had actually given him the chance to save himself. Greasy dago bastard, the man thought. How close he’d come to giving him the old Liverpool kiss, a head butt right between the eyes. But he couldn’t do that; the script was written and he had to stick to it, and play his part out to the end.

For her.

Looking ahead, he again feels the fear as he thinks of what awaits him, the ugly, painful second death he has chosen. He thinks of his love, still on earth but far away in time, and how this act will ensure they will be together forever. He also thinks of his life on earth, the people he has known, and those who wronged him. With a sudden burst of compassion, he raises his head and says, inaudibly and in English, “I forgive you, Paul.”

The stumbling procession continues on the last few yards up the hill to where the soldiers wait, hammers and long spikes in hand. As he takes those final steps, he begins to mumble under his breath a tune he has always liked. Before he left heaven, he was given an understanding of Aramaic, so he could say the famous last words from the cross. But now, he uses his native tongue, and the tune, barely discernible, gives him the courage to take the final steps.

“All you need is love, ra ta da da da
All you need is love, ra ta da da da
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need”


***

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