The opening of As Above, So Below

A bunch of great people entered a contest here recently and three won places as characters in my next novel. It’s going to be a fun book. I’m almost 50,000 words into it now and wanted to share the first chapter (about 2,600 words). I figure I’ll finish the novel and have it to my beta readers in the next two weeks. I hope you enjoy it. The premise is pretty simple: 

Jon Recluse, a detective when he’d been alive, wakes up in heaven and quickly (within the first few chapters) notices several things that disturb him. He learns that he committed suicide (and there are other Suicides there, all outcasts); that there are shadows there and they eat men whole; that there are trees bearing fruit with the knowledge of Good and Evil but anyone who eats them will die a second death; that among the millions lining the shores of eternity there are no boys (someone has been taking them); and although he had grown accustomed to being alone in life, he cannot do so here, not when so many quickly depend on him

One

Franklin Jon Recluse was fifty-five when he died, but had never really felt over forty, so when he came into a new form of existence, he wasn’t too startled to find himself much younger.

First his parents, and then classmates, had called him Frankenstein since the time he was a child. When he’d told them—in his overly large body, his misshapen head wobbling on his muscular neck—that they meant Frankenstein’s monster, they’d slap the bald, swollen lump on the right side of his skull and call him hideous, a freak. He would end up in the locked basement again, the small, wet room without light or warmth, and he’d curl there in the corner and listen to the rats scampering about the rock walls and high above in the ceiling rafters.

All through his childhood and his teens he’d found solace in living a double life.

The better of the two was the one in his head, where he was, at age seven, a handsome and rugged cowboy who saved small-time ranchers and rode off into the sunset on a horse he called Ghost. And then by fifteen, being a cowboy and getting shot at seemed like too much work, so he lived in his fantasies as a star quarterback and he drove a muscle car and people were always flocking about him because to be seen near Franklin Jon Recluse was like being seen with Elvis…

But then, shortly after graduating high school, he decided he wanted to be a policeman, or more accurately, a detective. His nature seemed to lend itself to such a dream, one that if he thought hard and long enough on, it might manifest in reality. But the boys in blue—although he was sure they shouldn’t, or couldn’t—discriminated against him and the way he looked and they cut him out and pushed him away. He told himself he was fine with that, that he didn’t need them like they’d needed him. Their loss, that’s what he told himself.

After he turned twenty-one, lost for a short while in the nectar of gods and devils, he began to go by his middle name, not that anyone addressed him often. He cut all ties with his parents and the community in New York that had judged and belittled and misunderstood him.

When he’d become a grown man, twenty-five, nearly seven feet tall, he’d still had a passion for investigative work, mostly because it allowed him the freedom of moving by night, unseen and therefore unbothered. He launched his own private agency, manned by one, and he loved it, despite his lack of clientele.

Jon battled insomnia and walked the streets late at night, and sometimes felt a tinge of jealousy when he looked in lighted windows and saw happy families gathered around their kitchen tables, playing cards and laughing. The few clients he’d found—mostly those wanting to catch a cheating spouse; it was boring, mind-numbing work with very little reward—never referred him to others for his expertise, his thoroughness, and his professionalism. He knew they did not want to draw attention to why they’d hired his services in the first place.

He took it in stride. There were many times when he’d been a child, when he wasn’t crying or afraid, that he would wonder if the strange mass on his head might one day offer him a special power. He liked to believe that there was more than ugliness to the ugly. He’d never truly felt inside like he looked outside, and as he grew into a formidable man, most people thought of their own health and chose to leave him alone.

And when he died, and woke again in this other place, he thought at first that he would like heaven. That first morning, in the strange, long bed fitted for his gigantic frame, before he discovered he had a mission there and a quest he must fulfil even if it meant being exiled or dying a second death, he wiped his eyes tiredly and yawned like an old bear waking from winter’s hibernation, and there was a hunger inside him of him that he couldn’t explain.

Next to the unfamiliar bed in which he laid, an old man, narrow of shoulder but wide across the hips like a fleshy pear, tugged at his long white beard. The old man’s sparkling eyes appeared mad with glee. Jon Recluse found the man and the strange room both disconcerting, but he was used to waiting for answers to come to him, and slow in making his decisions, normally, unless angry, and being that he was a guest in a new place, he stifled his annoyance.

The old man said in a high-pitched voice that grated on the ear, “How are you, boy?”

“Where am I? Who are you?”

The old man leaned back into the chair and rubbed a meaty hand over his bovine belly. “You’re dead, lad. You’ve moved on.”

“Am I?” Jon said. He did not feel dead. He felt very much alive, groggy, sore, unaccustomed to his own mass.

“You wouldn’t be here if you were alive. We have strict policies.”

“And this place is…”

The old man’s chuckle boomed off the room’s narrow walls. Jon’s head felt as if it would cave beneath its force. It pushed at his chest like aggressive fingers. He rubbed a hand over his shirt. It was an old shirt, one he’d had for nearly a decade, a button up flannel of dark blue with faint yellow stripes. The room contained only the bed, a mirror, and the chair the old man occupied. The old man said, “You wonder if you’re in heaven or hell?”

“Yes,” Jon said, studying his face. “Which one is this?”

“Some people say that either one is what you make it.”

“Meaning?”

“A person who carries a lot of guilt could make heaven into hell. It’s what guilty people do, young man. It’s best just to accept that you’re here and try to fit in.”

“I’m not guilty of anything.”

The old man’s eyes twinkled. “There’s no need to convince me.”

Jon said, more firmly, “I’m not guilty of anything.”

“I’ll leave you to your non-guilty party,” the stranger said. He stood, stretched his back, his face reddening considerably. He exhaled noisily and said as he neared the door, “Be careful where you step out there, boy.”

“Pardon me?” Jon said.

“Shadows out there that swallow guilty men whole.” He winked and waved and left, shutting the door softly behind him. Jon sat up slowly and found that he was breathing hard. His head felt light, his shoulders tense. He had a difficult time opening and closing his hands since his knuckles were swollen. He whispered to no one (although he had the suspicion someone was watching him): “I can’t be dead, I’m hurting too much…”

He had been dealing with arthritis for a few years preceding his passing. He could still feel it and the pain was constant and brought tears to his eyes. He thought about the way his head felt again—so light—when his entire life his head had felt like there was a cinderblock growing out of the right side. His neck was exceptionally thick and well-developed. But now it felt as if someone had cut that misshapen, swollen right side of his head away. It generated a sense of loss he didn’t know what to do with, so he raised his giant hands to his skull and probed at it gently, already aware of what he’d find, and the tears spilled down his cheeks when his hands traced the round, normal smoothness, the hair there now that had never grown on that part of his scalp when he’d been living. His skull felt round, symmetrical, beautiful.

He felt it for what he assumed hours—there was no clock in the room—and after a while he stopped crying, and he set his feet on the floor—a highly polished wooden floor—his knuckles hard against the soft mattress. He pushed himself up. He stood and stooped, used to normal ceilings, but the ceiling above him was almost double his height, the room as tall as it was wide or deep.

I’m in a fourteen-by-fourteen-by-fourteen-foot box, he thought.

There was a mirror in the corner of the room, hanging on the wall. He hunched in front of it, and it was heartbreaking in a way, how he looked at his reflection. In life he had had a sunken, blunt face, one marred by acne scars and an almost scaly skin and if his tongue had not been so short and fat, people may have called him The Lizard instead of Frankenstein, or maybe they would have just killed him so that no one had to look at him.

Now his age did not show at all. He looked thirty, not over fifty, his complexion was clear, nearly glowing, radiant, and the sunken appearance of his face (his parents had always joked about hitting him in the face with a sledgehammer when he was an infant) was gone, and his face was average—neither freakish nor handsome, he thought, but one with character.

It was a face he thought he could love, although he barely recognized himself. He first thought after spending ten minutes of being unable to think due to shock, was that God had played a cruel life-long joke on him. Anybody he’d ever met had to have known how lonely he’d been.

Even a hooker—Chalice—he’d frequented had made him cover his head with a pillow case, although she had let him cut holes in the fabric for his eyes, and being that she was black and he was white, and in a way, he was assaulting her with sex, he always felt like even more of a monster than he appeared. But he liked her not only because he thought she was beautiful, mostly because she was nice to him and listened those rare times he found the courage to talk instead of just leaving her fee on a scarred motel nightstand.

Now that he looked normal he could find a girl who might see him for who he was instead of with dread, or that strange kind of embarrassment the sympathetic had for not only him, but for those who had lost limbs, and those who had been burn victims, and those with some disease that left their bodies wasted and nearly unrecognizable as human.

But he doubted he could find love in heaven. Not female love that could fulfill the parts of him he’d always longed for and never once held; although Chalice, the hooker, had treated him with something like a motherly gentleness and patience.

He missed her, he realized, and he laughed loudly, what sounded to his ears, madly. When he stopped, he inhaled deeply, uncertain if he even needed to breathe, or if his body simply carried on involuntarily with what it had known. Looking around the room, he missed his old living room, his bathroom, his dog, and he missed ice cream, and watching television. He said, “There isn’t going to be any ice cream ever again. I might be in hell.”

Jon listened for early morning sounds: of birds in the trees outside the door, of morning rush hour traffic, of a random crying child, or the sporadic, intense cursing of someone who was in such a rush they nearly lost their heads.

It seemed like early morning there. Long gray shadows were nestled deeply into the corners of the door-side wall. He checked the door to see if it was locked. His breath felt caught in his throat. The metal was cool to the touch. He let his hand rest on the knob for a minute, uncertain what he’d do if he was unable to walk outside, to come and go freely (that had been something he’d loved about living: he could always leave his office and walk through the park and watch mallards in the pond, and he could feel the sunshine and ignore the people who ran the other way when they saw him tromping clumsily forward under his own momentum, looking as if he’d fall on his face and crush anything he might land on whether it be child, adult, or military tank.)

He somehow found the strength to twist the doorknob. It turned easily and he felt the cool eternal morning air as the door cracked open and he closed his eyes, tilted his head back, opened the door wider and inhaled deeply. He could have stood there with his head tilted back and his eyes closed for hours or days. There was no sense of time other than that single second of existence that had neither beginning nor ending.

Jon listened again for the sound of birds, but heard none, although he could hear people singing in the distance—a chorus of men and women and girls, what sounded like thousands of them, or tens of thousands, the reverberations of their voices subtly shaking the floor and tickling the soles of his feet. He opened his eyes and stepped outside.

The place he figured he’d call home from now on was one tiny door in a tower of them that spanned as far as he could see to the left or the right, and the building stretched into the whiteness of sky above him. There were crisscrossed walkways on every level like steel veins on the colossal building’s flesh. The walls and doors looked to be freshly painted in a baby blue. There was no sun that he could see, only the white light, and the ridge it illuminated, and as he turned, he looked at the valley down below. A river ran through the heavily wooded areas and the open pastures and men, women, and young girls idled along the bank nearest him. Their limbs, their white gowns, their smiling, angelic faces, dotted the bank like sand. There were millions as far as the eye could see and the river ran into the horizon, carrying the people with it. They all sang a song, a simple melody without words, and it sounded like the wind across the craggy peaks and, listening to them, Jon shuddered.

Having lived his whole life as an outcast, he had a deep fear of becoming one of the masses. They had never offered him a place, and secretly he hated them for it, and he hated himself for the things he’d lacked that would have enabled his acceptance among their ranks. But here, he thought, I many not have a choice at all. Can man be aloof in paradise?

He scanned the people in the valley. From a distance they looked like tiny figurines and he had the urge to trample them like a bear might, figuring that as he approached he’d see that they were tiny figurines, small as pixies and just as fleshly soft, their fragile limbs like gossamer wings. He wasn’t sure why he wanted to kill them all other than they looked perfect and they buzzed with a hive-like hysteria. But he was a gentle man for the most part and had never seriously hurt anyone. 

It was his first, and what would be his last day there, all wrapped in one seamless breath. He had a nose for trouble, one he developed while watching what one spouse would do to another after he validated their worst fears, and he could sense it there, that reckless anger, that need for violent expression to consume one’s misery.

He breathed deeply, and then frowned.

The disturbing scent of murder permeated the air.

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