It was a shape in a room. It was a circle. Looking down from above, there were the tops of heads. Shoulders. Hands on laps. An assortment of shoes, all facing inward. There were four of them. Two men and two women. And a fifth—one who hadn’t shared in their experience, a facilitator, Dr Theodor. He dressed casually, expensively, smiling and tapping his Mont Blanc on a notepad, as he faced the group. The group looked back, expressionless.
“Ok,” said Dr Theodor. “This is the second of two group sessions on Near Death Experiences, NDEs. Each of you has claimed to have had such an experience, and have consented to share your experience in this group for research purposes. Last session we spent most of our time introducing ourselves. Today we’ll get right into describing our experiences. So, who would like to start off?”
There was some uncomfortable shifting in seats. One of them coughed quietly into her hand.
“We’ve come this far,” said Dr Theodor. “We must trust one another.”
“Must we?” said one of the women, Edith Calderón. She was prim and sitting erect in a navy business suit. She wore a small crucifix.
“Yes, I think,” said Dr Theodor. “You each share a rare experience. Who else do you have, in that regard, if not each other?”
“I have Jesus,” said one of the two men, Matthew Quipp. Grey and a little stooped in his chair.
The man next to him snickered. It was Terrance Winkle, fortyish with tattoos, wearing ragged jeans and a tee-shirt. He seemed tense, in spite of mocking Quipp.
“You think faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is funny?” Quipp said.
“Funny?” said Winkle. “It’s a bloody musical comedy.”
“I’ll pray for you.”
“Oh please, you two….” It was Tammy Janwari, mid-twenties in a leather jacket, plaid skirt and heavy boots.
The room became quiet again.
“It’s alright, Tammy,” Dr Theodor said. “Mr Quipp, you made a similar statement last session. Can you tell us more about your relationship with Jesus, and how it relates to your NDE?”
“Yeah,” said Winkle, “Tell us, was He there with a cocktail to welcome you home?”
Quipp hesitated, then said, “I saw Him. I felt His unending love, but….”
“But?” said Dr Theodor.
“It’s difficult to describe, to understand.”
“Well, I was seated at a table with Jesus, and his disciples. Many of the patriarchs were there, too. There was food and wine. It was like the painting, The Last Supper, except the table was round.”
“Jesus, Mary, Paul and I,” Quipp continued, “were playing cards, while all of the others looked on.”
“Cards?” said Theodor. “What game, specifically?”
Quipp was uncomfortable. He wrung his hands. “It was poker,” he said. “I’d never played poker before. I didn’t know the rules. But suddenly I did.”
“No way!” said Winkle. “That’s fucking hilarious.”
“I was winning, and Jesus was losing,” said Quipp, shaking his head. “I was up 18 denarii.”
“You were beating Jesus at poker?” Winkle laughed. “Wish I could’ve been there for that. What He do?”
“He seemed to be getting angry,” Quipp said. “It just wasn’t His night, I guess. He wasn’t getting the cards.”
“What happened?” said Theodor.
“It came down to one last hand,” said Quipp. “This time He bet big, kept raising. Like He’d finally drawn a winning hand. Mary and Paul folded. Finally, He bet everything, all he had. I matched His bet, and it was time to show our cards. But Jesus looked sheepish.”
“He’d been bluffing!” Winkled said. “That sneaky little Messiah. The Lord your Saviour was bloody well bluffing. What’d he have?”
“Pair of tens.”
“Full house,” said Quipp. “Queens over sevens, though I’m still not sure what that means.”
“That’s worth the price of admission, that is.”
“Let Matthew finish,” said Theodor.
“Well,” Quipp said, “He and Mary just stood up and began to leave the table. Then He turned, looked at me and snapped his fingers. In a second I was back in the operating room. The surgical team was trying desperately to get a pulse. But my heart had been stopped for five minutes. As the surgeon looked up and asked the nurse for the time, I returned to my body, and my pulse resumed. I wish they hadn’t resuscitated me. I was dead. I was with the Lord.”
“You were hallucinating,” Winkle said.
“How do you know?” said Edith Calderón.
“Because he was dead,” Winkle said. “Not breathing, but the brain still functioning. Lack of oxygen leading to hallucination. Plain and simple.”
“So how about you?” said Dr Theodor. “What did you see, Terrance?”
“I said it last session. I didn’t see a damn thing.”
“Really?” said Dr Theodor.
“Then why are you here?” said Edith Calderón.
“Because participating pays $75, and I was dead and resuscitated. That qualifies me,”
“Yes,” said Dr Theodor, “you consented to being in this study. And you made a detailed statement to the interviewer. Would you mind if I read what you said in that statement, for the group?” Theodor flipped through pages in a file.
“Go for it, Sigmund. I don’t give a shit.” Winkle crossed his legs, leaned forward and wrapped his arms tightly round his chest. He began rocking in his chair. “Tell the whole fucking world. I don’t care.”
Theodor read silently for a moment and then recited, “It was calm and warm. I’d risen out of my body, above the scene, over the filthy street with the paramedics and the cops below, trying to get me to breathe, pumping me full of naloxone. The light was bright, but not blinding. Wilma Waits was there. She’s an ex, who’d walked stoned into rush hour traffic the year before. She ended up bug splat on the grill of a dump truck. But there she was, and she said I didn’t have to suffer any longer. Suddenly I didn’t feel like using, anymore. It’s funny. I wasn’t really anywhere, but I could have stayed there forever.
“But then, everything changed. Suddenly I was driving this bad ass black 1950 Studebaker along an empty desert highway at the bottom of a canyon. Wilma riding shotgun, and Roy Orbison on the radio.
“After driving for a while, we finally arrived at this wide open area where there were hundreds of derelict airplanes, all lined up, gleaming in the sun. I parked and we got out to look it over. There were passenger liners and fighter jets. Some of them corroded and broken, others like new. But there was one that really seemed outta place.
“It was this old Qantas 747. The paint was faded and a lot of the windows were knocked out. But there was music playing somewhere inside. Zeppelin and the Stones. There was a lot of whooping and hollering, too. And some stairs. So, Wilma and I went up to take a look inside. What I saw blew me away.”
“Stairway to Heaven,” Tammy Janwari said.
“There they all were, sitting in the rows of seats,” Theodore picked it up again. “All my friends who’d died on the street. Freddy the Tank, who’d gotten stabbed in a bar fight at the Balmoral. Bobby Needles, who’d cashed it in shooting up on rat poison. Angel Agnes, who’d had the ultimate bad date and was found buried at a pig farm up the valley. Tommy, who had a heart attack when he got Tasered. And a lot more, drinking beer and eating pizza. And they all yelled, ‘Hey Terry, glad to see you. About fucking time. We thought you were indestructible.’ Shit like that.
“But then Agnes comes up and says, ‘It ain’t your time, Terrance.’ And I said, ‘Fuck if it ain’t, this place is cool.’ And she says, ‘Ain’t your decision to make, boyo.’ And I guess I looked kinda tragic, so she hugged me, and that hug was the sweetest thing I’d ever felt. Pure love, baby. Unquestioning light and warmth and happiness. None of that street love that’s only round as long as you’re sharing your shit. This was for fucking real.”
“Do you remember saying that, Terrance?” said Dr Theodor, looking up from the page.
“It’s bullshit. When I get my cheque, I’m gone.”
“And you’ll shoot that money right into your arm,” said Edith Calderón.
“That’s none of our business,” Tammy Janwari said.
“You died of a heroin overdose,” said Quipp. “Shame.”
“And you died of congestive heart failure,” said Winkle. “From too many bacon cheese burgers. Shame on you, you bastard.”
“Please, please,” said Theodor holding up a hand.
“It offends me,” said Quipp, “that we’re all here talking honestly, in the company of someone so profoundly dishonest.”
“What if I challenged you, Terrance?” Theodor said, ignoring Quipp. “What if I said that your statement is not bullshit, and that you’re really just afraid of what you experienced and feel as a result? What would you say to that?”
“I’d say fuck you.” Terrance Winkle hugged himself and scratched.
“They estimate that you were gone for eight minutes, Terrance,” Dr Theodor said. “Long enough to have witnessed something, if there was anything to witness.”
“I was gone for seventeen minutes,” said Tammy Janwari.
“Yes?” Dr Theodor said.
“It was a lot like what Terrance experienced, the warmth and love I mean. But there was something like a tunnel. Beautiful sounds, like singing almost. It was like I was a note in the music, delightfully repeated again and again. I saw Krishna dancing. And then there were elephants. Lovely, lovely elephants. I love elephants.”
“Death fairies,” Winkle said.
“Elephants?” said Quipp. “Krishna?”
“Lovely elephants,” said Tammy Janwari. “Someone had drawn exquisite chalk patterns on them, in all of the colours in the universe. And I was a note in a universal song being sung by saints and angels.”
“That simply can’t be,” Quipp said.
“Why not?” said Edith Calderón.
“God wouldn’t allow it.”
“How do you know?” said Tammy Janwari.
“There’s no place for Krishna and elephants in Heaven,” said Quipp. “You must have been in Hell, Miss Janwari.”
“How dare you?”
“Well, just look at you,” Quipp said. “With your blue hair, dressed like a….”
All eyes fell on Tammy Janwari.
“Like a slut?” she said.
Quipp said nothing.
“I’m a punk, not a slut, Mr Quipp. Though there’s nothing wrong with being a slut, if that’s what you want.”
“Punk’s dead,” said Winkle.
“Punk’s not quite in style at the moment,” Janwari said. “I know it’s gone underground. But I like it, all the same. And my hair isn’t blue, it’s turquoise.”
“Alright, alright,” said Dr Theodor. “Let’s focus. Edith, can you share with us?”
“Yes, of course.” Edith Calderón sat up and pulled at her skirt. “Moments after impact, I found myself on a ship at sea. It was dark, a ship of demons; it must have been. There was an endless storm, and what little light there was glinted red off of the high waves. The ship rolled violently and I was seasick all of the time.”
“Hell,” Quipp said, shaking his head.
“None of the passengers had faces,” said Edith Calderón. “Where there should have been a face, there was just a blank space. When I tried to talk to any of them, a hole would open in the void and they’d scream. A man named Stick was the Captain, Captain Stick. He had a face. White with black eyes and red lips. He’d sit at his own table during dinner, staring at me as he ate the bloody meat on his plate. My plate was always empty.”
“Satan,” Quipp spoke again.
“Yes…,” said Calderón, “…maybe. But my cousin Iván was there; he was the Ship’s Purser. He was faceless, like the rest, but I recognised him by his voice and his manner. He came to my table one evening and said that I had to go back, that being there was wrong for me, that there had been a mistake. It may have been hell, but I felt such love coming from Iván.
“At first I couldn’t believe him. In life he’d been a killer. He murdered a woman in Durango in 1986. Later, he was shot by police. He’d been forsaken by our family. They talked about him like he was evil. But there he was, helping me to understand. He reached across the table and put his hand onto mine, and it was warm.”
“Then what happened?” Winkle said.
“I came back,” said Edith Calderón. “By then, my body was surrounded by firemen and paramedics, and one of them said the steering wheel had impacted my chest too violently, that the trauma to my heart was too severe. I stood watching, outside of my body, as all of them stood up at once, like they’d given up and were going to walk away.”
“And then?” said Tammy Janwari
“I saw myself cough,” said Edith Calderón. “And then I was back in my body, and the firemen and the paramedics came back and started working again. Later at the hospital, a nurse whispered miracle to another.”
“How did it feel to return?” said Dr Theodor.
“Just a temporary reprieve,” Quipp said.
“Let her answer,” said Winkle.
“I’m a Catholic,” Edith Calderón said. “It’s confusing. There must be some reason I was there. Perhaps I haven’t prayed hard enough, or I haven’t confessed everything…. I don’t know. But God is God, and if He puts me in Hell, then that’s where I belong.
“That’s just wrong,” Tammy Janwari said.
“My point, though,” said Edith Calderón, “is that Iván proved to me that there is love, even for the damned. It prevails, even in that place.”
Edith began to weep. She held her head in her hands, and wept from deep inside.
“God is God,” said Quipp. “Amen.”
“Oh, fuck off,” Winkle said. “You Christ-psycho.”
“That’s enough,” said Dr Theodor. “There’s twenty minutes left in the session, and I’m willing to go overtime. We should all take a five minute break.”
“I’m outta here,” said Winkle. “This whole thing’s just some voyeuristic shit for scientists and philosophers to chuckle over.”
“You’re leaving without your cheque?” Quipp said. “How will you pay for your next fix?”
“I’ll get one, one way or another. I always do.”
“This shouldn’t end this way,” Tammy Janwari said. “Let’s acknowledge what we all have in common, what makes us unique.”
“What the hell do I have in common with you lot?” Winkle said.
“Death and discovery,” said Edith Calderón, sitting up now, with almost perfect posture. “We have death in common, all of us. And now I know that I’m stronger than Hell. I’ve seen it, and it’s small and inconsequential compared to the love Iván showed me.”
“You’re wrong,” said Quipp.
“There is hope,” said Edith Calderón. “Even there. Iván proved it.”
“That’s an interesting insight,” Dr Theodor said.
“Fucking lack of oxygen,” said Winkle.
“The elephants were lovely,” Tammy Janwari said.