“The Message” won second place in the 2 Elizabeths Literary Magazine Love & Romance contest in 2017. The story was first published in 2018 in 2 Elizabeths Volume 1: Love & Romance, edited by Elise Holland. For a video interview with the author produced by ORTV of Prospect, Connecticut, see here—Ed.
The best thing that happened to me in college was meeting Olivia Ann Evans.
Those years prepared me well for my future career as a small-town high school chemistry and physics teacher. But more importantly, being on campus allowed me the opportunity to fall in love with a college classmate, Olivia, and we married two years after we graduated.
Olivia’s black, curly hair and warm brown eyes had drawn me to her as I walked into my freshman Latin class, and I took the empty seat next to her. I had chosen to take Latin because I thought it might help me later in science, whereas Olivia had taken two years of Latin in high school, so this language was a natural choice for her. It turned out that I was pretty terrible at Latin, but Olivia became a good friend. She studied with me and was a big help. So I passed.
I repaid Olivia for her language assistance by coaching her in analytic geometry. We had a running joke through the years. As she entered classrooms to sit for challenging math tests I always sent her a brief text of encouragement, “Carpe diem.” Of course, this means “Seize the day.” Afterwards, if she was certain that she had done well, she would text me back “Omnes bene est”—“All is well.”
Our friendship grew into love, and I proposed marriage during junior year with the idea that we would have the ceremony after we graduated. It turned out that those plans were delayed another year by the onset of my lymphoma. But after radiation to my chest together with other treatments, the doctors seemed satisfied that I was cured. Olivia and I had little money in our checking accounts, so to celebrate my medical recovery we kept it simple—we had steaks at a local restaurant where we exchanged humorous coffee mugs. The future seemed bright, and we shortly thereafter completed the wedding plans. She made clear, however, that she would keep Evans as her last name since she didn’t really care for my last name, Debreceli. She was independent-minded, and I liked her for that.
I took a job as a science teacher at an academically strong but financially struggling Catholic high school, and Olivia became an account manager at a local company.
In December I received an invitation to a science teachers’ retreat. The meeting was to be held in mid-March on the campus of my alma mater. I showed the invitation to Olivia and I was excited that I likely would see some of my former classmates and learn how they were doing with their new teaching careers. Olivia was happy for me to go, but she had to work.
The retreat was valuable, and I also enjoyed strolling around the campus because Olivia and I had made so many memories there. After the retreat, I spent a vacation day with one of my good friends from school who was still living in town. I had dinner at his house with his young family, then started my 180-mile drive back home that evening.
My Chevy Cruze was comfortable to drive, and there was little traffic at midnight on the two-lane highway in this region of farm fields. It was dark but the road was dry, good conditions for mid-March. Soon I would be crawling into a warm bed with Olivia. I was adjusting the radio when I saw a blur come at me from my left.
Wham! Suddenly I was dead.
Of course, I didn’t realize it at first. It took several minutes for the notion to crystalize.
I had felt no pain. The lights came back on a second later and I found myself floating about thirty feet directly above two mangled, smoking, entangled cars. Of course, I was pretty freaked out for the first couple of minutes to find myself floating there suspended by, it seemed, an invisible cable attached to my back. I touched my face, chest, and abdomen, and all seemed normal. My skin was warm, and I had no trauma. I was wearing the same flannel shirt and old blue jeans I had put on that morning. How could I just float in the air above these wrecked cars? After about two minutes I realized that I must either be dreaming or dead, and the second option seemed more likely because I clearly had just been driving. I waved my arms and kicked my legs without effect, and I looked down at the sandals and socks on my feet.
Olivia always told me not to wear socks with sandals. “That makes you look like an old man,” she had complained.
But my sandals were my most comfortable shoes. And in the cool March weather I insisted on wearing socks with my sandals. Just logical to me.
“I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing sandals and socks,” she had said.
Well, I had been!
I realized that I was still thinking clearly, and after the initial shock had worn off I was even finding some humor in the situation. I remained a bit nervous, but I was more optimistic that perhaps death might work out well for me after all. Besides, there was nothing that I could do about it. I was just hung in the air as if I were on a hook.
I looked to the left and right. No cars were yet coming along this lonely highway. The night air was cool on my face, and I could smell the earth. Stars twinkled overhead, and the familiar constellations were a comfort.
I placed my fingertips on a shirt sleeve to experience again the soft sensation of the flannel, but I noticed that the cloth now felt altered. I looked down and found that I was wearing blue and white striped pajamas. This unexpected change in my clothing was disconcerting, but within seconds I had calmed myself. The pajamas seemed familiar. Yes! These were the very same striped pajamas that Grandma Phelps had given me for my eighteenth birthday. I had loved these pajamas, and had worn them through my college years until they had gotten so worn and ragged that I had to throw them out. I concluded, still scrambling to think clearly, that my clothes, and probably my body, did not exist any longer as fixed physical entities. Yet they felt normal to me.
It was only a little disconcerting when I looked at my sleeves five minutes later and I found myself back in my flannel shirt and old blue jeans. For some reason, this shape-shifting did not bother me because I knew that I was in the grips of something far beyond my understanding. I would remain calm, I decided, as long as I had no pain and could think clearly.
I looked straight down and scanned the wreckage again. A car had crashed at high speed into the driver’s side of my car, nearly cutting my car in half. As I looked left and right I could see that the car must have approached on a small paved road and the driver had failed to stop at a stop sign. The idiot! The impact had caused the twisted, merged autos to slide sideways and forward off the highway, through a wire fence, and about thirty yards into the field, leaving marks in the stubble and black dirt along the trajectory. It must have been a tremendous collision.
My thoughts turned to Olivia. She would be devastated. I wondered if there were some way I could communicate to her that I was still sentient and comfortable in the next life, but that seemed highly improbable. We were Catholics, but she had been less religious. I hoped her faith would comfort her. We had no children, of course, so my next thoughts were about my students and workmates. We would miss each other. My thoughts drifted further. I wondered if I might see my parents and others who were already populating heaven.
It may seem bizarre, but I next thought about how this was March 16 and my federal and state income taxes were due on April 15. I had assembled all of the 1099 forms and statements on my desk in the living room, and I had purchased the software package but I had not yet begun completing the forms. I hoped that Olivia would easily find the statements on my desk. I felt a little guilty, but I also was happy that I would not have to struggle through that April exercise. In fact, it began to sink in that I would never again fill out income tax forms! I laughed out loud when it struck me that the topic of taxes was running through my spiritual mind 20 minutes after my death. Death and taxes, indeed.
Suddenly I saw a small flash of light to my right. The invisible cable holding me in the air started to move me toward that light, which became gradually brighter. As it grew still brighter I had to shut my eyes and I even covered them with my hands. When I next peeked out between my fingers I realized that the light intensity again was normal, and I was sitting in a chair in a small ordinary-appearing office. At a desk in front of me was an elderly man dressed in a grey pin-striped three-piece suit, complete with white bow tie. He was typing on the key board of his laptop. After a moment he looked up at me.
“Mr. Stuart Debreceli, welcome to your entrance interview,” he announced.
I sat in stunned silence, so he continued, “I am Saint Peter and this is, as you would say, the pearly gate. Hardly a gate though, as you can see.”
“So this is heaven?” I murmured, still a bit disoriented.
“It’s just the entrance, but before you enter there are a few things to clear up,” he replied as he scanned his computer screen.
As I composed myself, I looked again at his immaculate three-piece suit. “I thought that you would be wearing a white robe.”
He smiled at me, and lifted his right index finger three inches from the keyboard. Instantly the three-piece suit changed to a flowing white robe. He smiled a bit more broadly as he observed my startled expression. Then he briefly lifted his finger again, and the robe changed back to a three-piece suit. “The clothes and this little office are just manifestations to make you feel more comfortable as you enter your new life.”
“And you use computers in heaven?”
“Of course not!” he replied. “Centuries ago I sat here with a scroll and quill pen, then for more centuries I sat here with a thick leather-bound book. But the new fad is to use a laptop. The truth is, those things are only props and all the information is right up here.” He smiled and pointed with one finger to his head.
“So,” I began tentatively. “Have I been approved to enter heaven?” My mouth was dry and my hands were trembling. I swallowed hard as I realized what a momentous question this was.
“Of course you have been approved! You were a loving man with acceptably strong faith and hope. So you may now stand up and take a few steps through that door. You’ll be there for all eternity, and you will find it to be superb. Congratulations, and well deserved!”
I’m sure that my relief was plainly visible. I gathered a bit more courage.
“That is truly wonderful,” I replied. “But may I ask a question?”
“How can I help you?”
“My young wife, Olivia Evans, will be very upset by my death. Could I briefly appear to her to tell her not to worry about me—could I tell her that I am in heaven?”
He looked me in the eyes for a few seconds, then responded. “No appearances or anything like that. In present times communications from the grave are strictly forbidden. All of that hocus pocus about mediums and ghosts is a bunch of hogwash.” He paused, then added, “People on Earth must find their way to the truth without such help. It is all part of a larger plan, you see.”
I was still worried about Olivia. I was afraid that she might become despondent, and perhaps even bitter. She was a strong woman, and I didn’t want her to react to my death by starting an argument with God. She might come to view God as unfair and ugly. How could she respect a God who had snuffed out the young life of her good-hearted husband? After another moment I tried another approach with my host.
“If ghostly appearances are not allowed, could I perhaps leave a short letter for her to find among my things? Please understand that I am desperate to find some way to comfort and reassure her.”
Saint Peter smiled knowingly at me. “No appearances, no phone calls, no vivid dreams, no letters.”
My mind was racing. I had a feeling that once I walked through the door into heaven proper I might find myself with no opportunity ever to try to send a message to Olivia. Perhaps my mind might be elevated or changed in some way that I would no longer even have that concern about trying to console her. So I suspected that I had to act fast.
“What if Olivia should find a little reminder of me that might console her? It would be a very general sort of thing without any concrete specific message. Could that be allowed?”
Saint Peter sighed and shrugged.
“Allowing a loved one to find or experience a remembrance can, in fact, be permitted. Your desire to console and reassure your loved one is not unique. I have had this conversation millions of times. I even have some suggestions for you. Presently the number one requested sign is to have a rainbow appear briefly after the burial. The number two request is to have a special song coincidentally play on the radio as a spouse is traveling to the funeral. Those are both acceptable signs. Of course, they are general occurrences that could be due entirely to chance, and they do not clearly communicate anything about your status in the afterlife. But either of those signs would be allowable if you would like to choose one. I can put in the order on this non-existent laptop right now if you like.”
In a flash I had an idea. My heart was racing, though, because I thought that my request might not fully meet the restrictive communication criteria, and I might precipitate a scolding.
“Saint Peter, a few years ago I recovered from lymphoma. Then Olivia and I were able to start planning our wedding. To celebrate my cure, Olivia and I exchanged coffee mugs during a steak dinner. The coffee mug that I gave her that night is sitting with her sewing stuff in the corner of the bedroom, and that cup now holds a pair of scissors and several emery boards. Would it be possible to remove the stuff from the mug, and move that mug to the center of her desk on the other side of the bedroom? She writes letters and pays bills at the desk, so she will quickly find the mug.”
“A coffee mug?”
“Yes, it was a special gift from me and we had a running joke about it.”
Saint Peter was amenable, but he remained a bit suspicious. “But are there slogans written on that mug? There can be no clear, concrete communication.”
“No words,” I replied. “Just initials.” Then I continued, “And finally, it would be great to have my unopened box of income tax software placed next to that mug on her desk. She would see it as a sign that she could drink coffee and think about me as she completes our taxes.”
“Just initials on the mug,” Saint Peter mumbled. “Her name is Olivia Evans. Hmmm.”
“Yes, there are just three letters on the mug. But she will certainly think of me when she finds it.”
After a moment Saint Peter winked at me, but I was uncertain what he meant. “I actually think I am being hoodwinked here,” he said. “You had better take care if you try to play tricks on beings with infinite wisdom.”
I swallowed and looked down at my socks and sandals.
I looked up again and I was relieved that he was smiling. His smile, however, seemed to indicate that he knew more than he was about to say.
“Well, I will allow it in this case,” Saint Peter responded with a definitive air. “You are a good man, Stuart.” His fingers flew over his non-existent keyboard. Then he stood and reached out his hand. I stood and shook his hand, and then he guided me briskly through the door into heaven.
Heaven is gorgeous, but in spite of the many distractions I persisted with keeping a watch on my house. The next morning’s phone call from the police with news of the accident was unbearably painful for Olivia. After she hung up the phone she sobbed in bed for an hour. She had coffee and showered, then curled up in bed to sob for another hour.
Finally she got dressed, and sat for a moment at her little desk. I smiled as I saw her notice the mug and tax software. After a glance at the unopened software package, she set that aside. But she weighed the mug in her hand. She looked toward her sewing table then back at the mug. She walked across the room and picked up the scissors and emery boards, and after a few seconds she set them down again and returned to her desk. She looked at the mug for a full minute, seemingly without breathing.
Although my heart was already full of joy in heaven, my elation was further increased as I watched my true love murmur the initials on the mug.
“OBE,” she whispered. “Omnes bene est.”
Her eyes filled with tears of joy, and she fell to her knees on the carpet as she clutched the mug to her chest.
James Magner, MD is an endocrinologist and scientist who spent years studying the biochemistry and physiology of the pituitary hormone, TSH, and providing medical supervision for several projects within the pharmaceutical industry. He is an avid chess player and expert poker player who placed 27th in the world in 2015. Dr. Magner is married and has two adult daughters. Seeking Hidden Treasures, his third book and debut collection of fiction, was published in 2019 by Archway Publishing. He is a member of the board of directors of Today’s American Catholic.