James Scargill

James Scargill is a writer based in the Shetland Isles. In a former life he was a theoretical physicist but he now explores the world through fiction rather than field theory. His work has appeared in Valet magazine.

The Choice of a Lifetime

The impact lanced through Peter’s body quicker than nerves could respond and the first thing of which he became aware was the queue he had just joined.

            He blinked in the bright, sterile light, emitted by fluorescent strips embedded in the ceiling about five metres above; soft, comforting muzak played, peppered with the sound of conversations in myriad tongues, that never rose beyond a reassuring murmur. Peter knew he had died—the echo of the pain he hadn’t felt at the time grumbled in his joints—and he supposed he should be upset or angry, but instead felt flushed with content resignation. The mortal fear which had barely had time to blossom as he plummeted now receded as upon waking from a nightmare. Was the music designed to lull, or was it that here he didn’t have to make any more decisions? Like choosing to have dessert, which meant he then didn’t take the stairs, which meant he was here—a fitting price for crumble.

From the clock which appeared broken, to the temporary bollards and retractable ribbons which twisted the line back and forth, like they were waiting for passport control after an international flight, the whole scenario felt as if it were a temporary stopgap, as if God, or whoever was in charge, was doing their best, and thanked him for his patience.

            The queue itself was vast, at least thousands of people long, the kind of thing a sensible person would endure only if they had no choice, and Peter worried if he had any, but looking behind him, he saw he was no longer at the back. In the few minutes he had spent surveying the situation, several people had already joined after him, and so with mild embarrassment he shuffled to close the gap that had formed between him and the person in front.

            So, the afterlife was a queue? If life was death’s waiting room, then what were they waiting for now? He chuckled at this and thought to share it with the chap in front, who, however, responded in French to Peter’s introduction. As Peter spoke no foreign languages—he had never been able to decide which one to learn—they were reduced to simply smiling at one another. Peter turned to the woman behind him, who had heard the stunted dialogue but also didn’t speak English, so just offered a good-natured shrug.

            Peter realised this made sense, if they each joined in order of death from around the globe, but it would have been nice to have someone to talk to. There were occasional groups of two or three conversing, who must have died together, and he could see a large chattering mass up ahead, most of whom wore casual clothes, as if they were on holiday, though some in suits—presumably a plane crash. Who would guess they would be the lucky ones, he mused, whereas he was alone in life, and alone in death, like so many others.

            “Wondering what’s to come, eh?” Peter was startled out of his musing by a man ahead in the queue, where it snaked back towards him. “Well, it’s no clearer from here!” the man laughed, and Peter joined in with a chuckle.

            “How did you die?” Peter asked, “If you don’t mind me asking?”

            “Not at all! We’re all dead here, aren’t we? For me it was a car crash.”

            “Yet this seems so orderly.”

            The gregarious man laughed again as the queue’s flow separated them.

            Soon, however, they were once more facing one another. “Hello again,” Peter said in mock awkwardness.

            “So, what about you?” the man asked, drawing his finger across his neck.

            “Oh. A falling lift…”

            “Really? I thought that basically never happened?”

            “Should’ve taken the stairs. Now I get to be a special case that’s talked about in engineering lectures.”

            “Ha! Well, if it makes you feel any better, I’m sure my final moments will be used to warn new drivers.”

            “What happened?”

            “It was a snowy night. I should have remained at my cabin, but I decided to drive home—a decision that didn’t get me far, as you can tell!”

            The man chuckled as they parted again, and Peter marvelled at the good humour with which he accepted that his own decision had caused his death. It must have been vital he get home, Peter supposed.

            They became acquainted in snatches as they zig-zagged. John was a few years older than Peter, approaching middle age, though like Peter he had not left anyone special behind. Was his voluble laughter a mask, or was he really as carefree as he appeared?

            “Well, this is it. Our final meeting.” John said with playful solemnity as he processed along the queue’s final section.

            “What do you think happens next?”

            “‘Interview Room’”


            “That’s what it says above the door.”

            Peter bent around to look, and indeed, above the door it was now possible to make out those words, printed on a cheap sign, which looked like it should label some rarely used side door at an airport. He could also see a dutiful looking, uniformed gentleman, who was holding an avuncular conversation in a foreign language with the woman at the front of the line. After a few moments he beckoned her forward and through the door. Peter and John both strained to catch a glimpse of what lay beyond, but the door swung back, and the cycle repeated with the next person, though in a different language.

            “A shame they no longer weigh one’s heart against a feather.” Peter commented.

            “You’d prefer that?” John asked, incredulous.

            “At least it would be out of my hands.”

            “Out of your body, more like! But this too is out of your hands: bit late to convert now, isn’t it?”

            Peter nodded, considering John’s point.

            “So, to answer your question, I don’t know what happens next,” John said, “but life was an adventure, so why not afterlife also?” John was serious and smiled as they once again parted, and he approached the end of the line.

            Peter pondered this man’s relaxed approach to the situation. Perhaps he should look up John on the other side—or the other side of the other side, as the case may be—though how best to broach second contact? He would have to decide.

            Soon the steady flow brought Peter himself to the front, face to face with the official in charge of the door, who beamed at him. This was the chance to get some information, Peter thought—anything to help prepare for the quiz that lay ahead— so he had best make the most of it. But what to ask? It would have to be incisive—he didn’t have long—and what if this itself was the interview? The official continued to smile as Peter muddled through these issues in silent angst until he was instructed to step forward.

            The door led to a sparsely furnished office which was at once windowless and without walls. To the right was a simple, wooden desk, in front of which was a cloth chair, and behind which sat a kind, efficient looking, middle-aged woman who invited Peter to sit.

            “Welcome! Sorry about the wait. We need to hire some more people, but it takes aeons around here! Make do with compressing time instead. I think the queue might actually be a good thing—gives time for people to adjust to being dead. Time was, I had to spend the first few minutes of these sessions just explaining what had happened!” Peter politely listened to this monologue, unsure what he should say, and eventually the woman said, “Sorry, for yammering like that, most people jump in! Anyway, this meeting is just to determine what kind of afterlife you’ll get started with.”

            “But aren’t you omniscient?” Peter said, hopeful.

            “Oh, no,” the woman laughed, “thanks to free will we actually know very little. Besides, many people want something different in an actual afterlife compared to a hypothetical one. Here, take a look at these.”

            She handed him a couple of glossy brochures which showed resort-style places, one a tropical beach club and another an alpine retreat; Peter gathered he had to pick one, to which he would be sent. They both seemed pleasant from the pictures, populated with relaxed people, but which one was right for him? He read the blurb for each and was pleased to note the brochures had helpful tables listing things like air temperature and number of bars. Looking back and forth between the two documents, with a smile Peter asked the woman behind the desk if she had a pad of paper. Disgruntlement shaded her face, but she put it to one side as she handed him a notepad and a pen, with which he busied himself.

            Peter boldly drew a line down the centre of the page, thought, worried, and drew a horizontal line to form four squares, which he labelled and started to fill with the pros and cons of the two locations. The sand at the beach, the snow in the mountains, the fact that each place had a name which had the same number of letters as his, the fun time he had once in the Bahamas compared with the novelty of snow-capped peaks. To his consternation, each box held the same number of points, except, wait! The beach cons list was one shorter. That settled it. He looked up and opened his mouth. Hope fluttered over the woman’s face, but before he spoke, he realised he had forgotten something—jellyfish! What luck to have thought of that before making his decision.

            The woman grew agitated as Peter once more perused his list and the brochures, and after many minutes of glancing in order at the door, her watch, and the silent, intent man in front of her, she said in a courteous but pointed tone, “Perhaps you have some questions?”

            Peter looked as if he had been drawn up from a pitch black well, and after a second’s hesitation said, “Oh, yes! Let me think. When are the bars open at the beach club?”

            “All the time.” The woman smiled.

            “Right.”—Peter made a note—“And how high are the chalets? The brochure says, ‘two thousand feet’, but I’m not sure how precise that is. And for that matter, is there a real mountain, or is it all somehow simulated?”

            “Two thousand is the average—there are chalets higher and lower.”

            “What about music?”

            “In either place you yourself can listen to whatever you want,” she said, her tone bordering on curt. She regretted her choice of words, however, when he tensed at the immensity of the task implied, so quickly added, “but there’s also a default soundtrack.”

            The tension was released, but he still wore a look of embarrassed agony, through which flashed relief. This settled uneasily on his face as if it were a creature he was afraid to touch, and he asked, “Can you tell me which place others have chosen?”

            Hopeful, she said, “Yes, I suppose so. Who would you like to know about?” She tried to make this sound as singular as possible.

            “There was a chap I got talking to in the queue—John. Do you know who I mean?”

            “Indeed. He chose the beach.”

            Right, Peter thought, that settled it. But was this really a basis for making such a decision? What if John thought it strange to be followed like this, or turned out to be a bore? The snow, then. Though was it correct to choose that just based on John?

            Peter was despondent—this new information had merely tightened the Gordian knot, though more of the same seemed the only unexplored route. “What about my parents?” he asked. They had died together, a number of years previously.

            “Hmmm,”—the woman debated duty and desire—“Your mother first chose the village and your father, the castle.”—she got out two more brochures, adding, “these places are less popular nowadays.”

            Peter attempted to hide his disquiet at this. Should he look through these new leaflets, bring these places into consideration? A skirmish flourished in his overworked mind, and he grimaced, though was drawn away from his better judgment and flipped open these new brochures. He finished both then went back to the earlier ones and completed this cycle several times before she interposed and said directly, “Have you made a decision?”

            His life clobbered him on the head as he said, “No, not yet…Wait…Could you choose for me?”

            She looked genuinely pained as she said, “I’m afraid that’s not allowed. This has to be your decision.”

            Glumly he accepted this and looked down at the page of scrawls in his lap, which held no extra space for the ideas contained in these new brochures. He felt so small and stupid as he tore off the page—it ripped—and prepared to lay out a larger grid. He was cursing himself for this torment when it struck him—he was having an awful time. He looked up at the woman and said, “This is it, isn’t it? There is no choice to be made here, no paradise awaiting me. My own incapacity to pick one is what denies it to me. And this is how it is meant to be. This is Hell. Isn’t it?”

            She had been staring at the door into this capacious chamber and switched her gaze to him, blinking. He expected some kind of demonic laugh but instead she was silent as if she had zoned out and was only just now processing what he had said. “Um, no,” she said, “you’re wrong. But your indecisiveness is causing a problem.”

            Relief at the incorrectness of his assertion only flashed briefly before being overwhelmed by her second remark. “What do you mean?”

            “The line isn’t moving.” she said, trying to make it sound obvious.

            “But isn’t time stopped?”

            “No, just slowed.”


            “Indeed. So, if you could…”—she indicated his notes.

            Flustered, he went back to them, but it wasn’t long before a discreet red light started flashing on the woman’s desk. Peter noticed and raised his head, as if the light were bearing down upon him. Maintaining composure with effort, she said in a monotone, “The queue has now reached capacity, so it would be good if you could make a decision.”

            “What happens now?”

            “With no more room in the line, people will be prevented from making the journey here. They will not be able to die.”

            “What does that mean? Isn’t that a good thing?”

            “Would you like to live forever?”

            “Sure! Wouldn’t want to have died in that lift, at any rate.”

            “And what if you hadn’t? Would you want to experience that pain, of which you perceived but an iota, continuously for all time? Would you want others to suffer through the agony of mortality stretched to eternity? Some may avoid an accident for a while, but sooner or later everyone will succumb.”

            “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that.”

            “And what about society? Will the world’s aged leaders give up power to the next generation, or will the world become a gerontocracy? And how long before there are no new generations?”

            Peter understood the implication of stagnation and, with mounting terror, looked down at the brochures once more. The beach. No. The snow. No. Oh, if only he had more time! His inward wail took no time to break out and he broke down. “How can I possibly choose where to spend eternity?” he wailed, “How can anyone? It’s no better than the hell to which I’m condemning all life.”

            The woman looked confused as he continued to bemoan the irrevocability of his choice and interjected. “Eternity? Who said anything about that?”

            “But I thought…?”

            “What you choose here is just the first place you’ll go. You will go on to others, everyone does, and eventually you’ll transcend recreations of mortal pleasures entirely. That’s why I said this meeting was just to determine what kind of afterlife you’ll get started with. Emphasis on ‘get started.’”

            “You said that?”

            “I said that.” She reassured him. “Your parents, for example, originally chose those two places, but have since moved on to other realms.”

            “Oh,” he said, deflated rather than relieved.

            “I assure you, there is no way to make a wrong decision. You can even flit between them every five minutes if you want! You just have to pick one with which to start, just as you have to push the first domino.”

            He felt stupid for having conjured the trap which snared him and could barely look up at the woman as he mumbled that he would go to the beach club. If this choice didn’t matter, then what did?

            She warmly congratulated him, and ushered the dazed, despondent man through a door which had just appeared to the left of the desk. As he shuffled out, she felt relief wash over her in an ambrosian cascade.


Peter marvelled at the soft breeze which carried a whiff of salt and at the gentle sunshine which warmed his skin, bared in a short sleeve floral shirt and turquoise shorts. The tension suffusing his body dissipated, carried away by the lapping waves and carefree laughter whose tone replaced it. This was the correct choice, he was sure.

            Not too far away, music played as people danced and up ahead was a straw-roofed bar, to which he walked, sauntering by the time he reached it.

            “Hi Peter, what can I get you to drink?” the welcoming barman asked.

            Peter was just about to name a drink when he stopped, and said, “Um, well, let me think what would be best…”


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