Tony grew up in Plano, Texas. He was a big city type of guy. The closest he had ever been to nature was when he ran his new shiny red convertible Ford Mustang into a tree while backing out of his garage. For a graduation gift, his parents had sent him on a camping trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota, and now, instead of cruising the streets in his Mustang, Tony sat in a canoe in the middle of nowhere.
Tony reached behind him into his equipment pack to find a cup so that he could have a cool drink of clear lake water. He had never been on a boat before, let alone in a canoe, and as Tony dug in his equipment pack for a cup, he lost his sense of balance. His left hand clasped tight around the edge of his canoe as he tried to steady himself, but this sudden weight shift only threw off the balance throughout the canoe. His body tilted back even farther, and when he went to pull his right hand back for balance he found that it would not leave his equipment pack. Tony's hand, tangled up in a shoulder strap from the pack, had become securely wedged under the pack's many pots and pans. When he pulled on his hand, he pulled on the entire weight of the equipment pack, and after mere moments of this struggle, the lack of balance in the canoe triumphed. The canoe capsized with a large splash releasing previously well contained camping supplies into the water where they fell to the fathomless depths below.
Tony, unable to remove his hand from the equipment pack, was quickly pulled toward the bottom of the lake by the heavy weight of his large equipment pack. Tony began to feel the pressure build up as he descended, painfully compressing his brain. However, the pain lasted only as long as his short supply of breath could keep him alive. Tony died before he ever felt the rocky bottom of the lake.
Tony opened his eyes squinting in the bright blinding light. Before his eyes could adjust, he felt someone pushing a pair of glasses into his hand.
"Here, put these on," a friendly voice said. "These sunglasses will help you to see." Tony put on the sunglasses and found that he could indeed see much better.
"Where am I? How did I get here?" Tony asked confused. The last thing he could remember was that he was on a camping trip in Minnesota.
"You're on cloud 9. You know, the one with the silver lining," the friendly voice said. "According to your chart," the friendly man said pausing to read the small sheet of paper while he rubbed his white beard with his elegant smoker's pipe, "you drowned in a freak camping accident. I'm sorry Tony, but you're dead."
"Dead!? How could I be dead!? I don't feel dead," he said, and it was true that he didn't, but the more he thought about it the more he realized that indeed he was dead. "You say I drowned, but that's impossible," Tony whined. "I know how to swim."
"Well, according to your chart here you didn't. It says here you canceled taking swimming lessons six times claiming that you were too busy for such boring activities. But apparently knowing how to swim or not was not the problem in this case."
"What do you mean swimming wasn't the problem?" Tony asked puzzled.
"It says here," the friendly man said once again reading from the small chart while he scratched his friendly little beard with his friendly little pipe, "that you neglected to take those free canoeing lessons and skipped the basic camping class so that you could 'meet girls, shop for souvenirs, and suntan.' You see, if you would have taken those canoeing classes, then you would have known not to stand up in a canoe, and you probably wouldn't have flipped the canoe. Also, if you would have taken that class in basic camping, then you would have known how to pack your equipment making it easy for you to find a drinking cup quickly. In other words, if you wouldn't have been so lazy all the time, then you'd still be alive today."
"Oh…," Tony said as he began to realize just how much he had wasted his life, and that he really was dead. The more he thought about it though, the more he wanted his life back. Tony knew nothing about the afterlife, and fearing the unknown, he frantically tried to think of a way back. "So, what happens to me now?" Tony asked sounding more than a little nervous. "I mean I just can't stay here. I have to go back."
"What for?" asked the man reading Tony's chart. "Why do you need to go back?"
"I…I just have to," Tony pleaded. "I mean, come on man, I just have to."
"Look Tony," the man said still sounding as friendly as ever, "just calm down. You're not the only person here who's ever wanted to go back, you know. We just can't send anyone back. Only the people who really deserve to go back get a second chance."
"But I need a second chance more than those guys did. I'm not ready for death yet. I'm too young to die. I wasn't finished with my life; I wasn't finished living." Tony whined almost in tears. "Come on man, you have to send me back. I still have so much left to do there."
"I'm sorry Tony, but you just don't qualify for a second chance."
"What do you mean I don't qualify? I qualify," Tony said stubborn and frustrated. "Look at your sheet again. There has to be a mistake."
"Well Tony, I'm sorry," the man said trying to remain friendly, "but you just didn't accomplish enough during your lifetime. I am only allowed to send someone back if they have made the most of their life. And quite frankly Tony, you have not done so. You procrastinated at every possible instant, and you've never once taken responsibility for your actions. I'm sorry Tony, but there is nothing I can do."
"Yeah, but… but, I mean, you can make an exception… can't you."
"I'm afraid not, Tony. You see, you have to qualify to be an exception as well. And, well, you've never done anything worthwhile in your life at all. You made no real friends, you didn't greatly influence anyone or save anybody's life, you didn't invent anything significant, and you never once even said thank you for what was given to you. I'm sorry Tony, but you just don't deserve a second chance."
"So, what happens now?" Tony asked. "Will I go to hell?"
"Hell?" asked the friendly man of cloud 9. "Oh, you're talking about that religion stuff aren't you? Well, you can forget all about those falsehoods Tony. There's only one place to go in the afterlife, and I think you'll find that you won't need any of that religion nonsense up here. Which religion was it you studied back on Earth?"
"I was a Christian," Tony said a little confused.
"Ah, yes. Those faithful bible loving Christians."
"Is there a problem with that?" Tony asked, becoming a little offended this time.
"No, no. Not at all, but I think that after being here a while you will realize that the bible is nothing more than a long manuscript from an author who died long before editing ever became popular. Some consider it the first history book ever written, but I think of it more as a work of historical fiction." The man shifted his weight and smoked his pipe in silence for a moment before continuing. "I'm sorry Tony, I am rambling. My point is that there's only one afterlife world and you're in it. So, you'd better get used to it, and cheer up because eternity is a long time to be miserable."
"What happens now?" Tony asked, finally accepting the fact that he was here for good. "I mean, what will I do for an eternity?"
"Well Tony, that's not really up to me. I just stand here and sort out who stays and who goes. You'll probably end up like most of them do though, working in the weather center. It used to be that no one was sent back, you know, because we had so much to do up here in the clouds, or in the heavens as you might refer to it. But, now man is a lot smarter than he used to be. All that we have left to control up here is the weather, and soon they'll have found a way to control that too."
"Do you mean to tell me that I am going to spend eternity deciding how the weather is going to be?" Tony asked disappointed.
"Don't worry, Tony; it's not as bad as it sounds. After all, time passes very quickly when you're dead, and you're lucky you arrived when you did. I mean, we have enough people here now that we can work in shifts and still have a little time leftover for rest and relaxation. You might enjoy going to visit the library. We have a fully edited copy of what you call the Bible. It's only about 400 pages and very entertaining. You should go check it out, now that you have the time. I think you might enjoy it."
"Thanks," said Tony. "Maybe I will check it out - now having the time and all."
"So, you see Tony, the afterlife is not all that different from Earth in most respects, except that here, our pens never run out of ink, and we actually can predict the weather successfully." The friendly man from cloud 9 then put his pipe in his mouth and stamped the words WEATHER CENTER onto Tony's chart in bold red ink. He then handed Tony his chart saying, "Here's your chart, Tony, and have a good afterlife."
back to the Short Story Page.The Weather Center, 7 September 1997