It was a bell that woke me up. I think. A very light ¨ding¨. I didn’t even want to open my eyes because I don’t think I’ve ever felt so calm or relaxed in my life. But I decided to open them because I don’t sleep near any bells. I also don’t sleep 10,000 feet in the air in an airplane, but after glancing through the small oval window with my half-opened tired eyes, it seems like that’s where I was. Where panic probably should have filled my body, it was just calm, the same feeling from when I woke up. I rubbed my eyes and blinked until they stayed open by themselves. I stood up to see over the soft, tall, blue airplane chair in front of me. It looked like a very normal airplane to me; except for the three other people scattered on the seats in front and behind me. They slept, looking calm too.
¨Hello?¨ I called out. I heard a deep inhale come from the seat three in front and adjacent to me.
She turned to the window, then to me, and a content smile came across her face, one that didn’t show her teeth, ¨Did you hear that bell? It’s very pretty.¨ I don’t think she was even looking for an answer because she looked away from me and looked back out the window.
¨Do you know where we are, Clara?¨ I thought really hard about why I knew her name, but her face didn’t spark any memories. My thoughts were cut off when a guy two seats in front of me stood up, a blank look on his face. He didn’t look as happy as Clara, but he didn’t look upset or even confused.
¨Am I dead?¨ he asked, with the same emotions on his face (well I guess lack of emotions).
¨No we aren’t dead,¨ said another younger man two rows back and to the left of me, a friendly smile strung across his face. All of the reasons for being dead made sense in my head, but the panic of being actually dead was gone.
¨Well, if anyone else can think of a reason we are on an airplane by ourselves then I would be very open to hearing your ideas,¨ I said, looking around at the oddly happy people. They just stared back or turned away, examining the plane, completely disregarding my question.
¨Maybe we got kidnapped?¨ said the first man to wake. His name was Randall, and I’ve never seen him in my life.
¨I’d rather be dead,¨ Clara said, with a small fake laugh.
¨Well I guess it’s your lucky day.¨ All of our heads snapped to the small woman standing in front of the curtain separating our rows of seats to whatever lies beyond. She slicked a small piece of hair behind her ear, blending it into the rest of her dark, slicked-back low bun. We all just stood back at her staring blankly. She smiled, exhaled, and continued.
¨Welcome to Flight 164. I’m the captain and you’re all dead.¨ She stepped back. I looked around to try to tell what everyone else was thinking about the news since I didn’t even know what I was feeling. I’ve never seen an expression like the ones on Randall, Clara, and Ricky’s (the last guy to wake up) faces. It was like the front was calm and okay, but the longer you looked into their eyes, the more you saw the underlying confusion and shock.
“Sorry but you’re going to have to do a lot better than ‘sorry, you’re dead’” said, Ricky. It was odd how the words coming out of their mouths don’t match their demeanors.
¨Dead? How?¨ said, Clara.
¨Where are we going?¨ Randall asked.
¨I’m sorry can we go back to the dead part?¨ I asked.
¨Who are you?¨ asked Ricky.
¨Is this some sort of sick joke?¨ Randall asked, his relaxed face turning more confused and angry.
¨I think I want to go home,¨ Clara said calmly, looking down at her feet. I could sense the panic in her voice. You could have thought there were like 20 people on the plane with the yelling and questions coming out of everyone’s mouths at once. I looked at the captain who seemed to just take in all the chaos like she’s dealt with it a thousand times before. I looked out the tiny oval window by the seats next to me. We were all standing in the aisle, but there were no clouds, just blue. I squinted through the light pouring in from the window. Where are the clouds? There should be clouds.
By the time I looked away from the window, the shouts had died down and they were all just staring at the captain, awaiting an explanation to their planeload of questions.
¨Okay let me answer a few questions. Who wants to go first?¨ she asked, so normal like she wasn’t in a plane full of dead people.
Randall jumped on the chance before anyone else could find the first question they wanted to ask, ¨Where are we going?¨
The Captain took a deep breath, ¨The Middle Ground,¨ she said with a smile, like we had any idea what that meant, ¨Once we land there will be a guide assigned to you, who will walk you through the steps of your afterlife,¨ she said calmly.
She smiled and started back through the curtain, ¨Hey! You can’t just leave! We need more answers,¨ I shouted. She slowly turned to look at me. I looked straight back at her, ¨You can’t just say ‘oh congrats you’re all dead’ and then go back to flying your little magic death plane!¨ I said, throwing my hands up and letting them hit the sides of my thighs.
She nodded at me, gesturing for me to say something, but my mouth was dry. The calmness of the plane was clouding my brain, trying to trick me into thinking this is normal and everything’s okay, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s that everything is never okay.
After a moment of silence, the captain waiting for me to spit something out, Clara clears her throat, ¨Okay, well, I guess I’ll address the elephant in the room: how did we all die?¨
The captain inhales slowly and grabs what looks like a transparent glass tablet off of the wall of the plane, ¨Sit down, please.¨ We all sat down in the seats we woke up in, Randall and Clara in front of me, and Ricky behind me. She pulled her thin, black-rimmed glasses down from her salt and pepper hair, and tapped and swiped on the screen until finally squinting at the screen and finally lifting her eyes back to us.
She blew out with an ¨O¨ shaped mouth, took a deep breath, and then landed her eyes on Randall, ¨Randall Peters, Age of Death: 22. COD: Liver Failure. You leave behind your mother and sister, ages 58 and 13.¨ My heart sank, and I gave him a sympathetic look. He didn’t see it. He was too focused on looking down at his hands, trying to hide the tears dripping down his face.
The captain wasted no time, ¨I’m sorry, Randall,¨ she said without taking her eyes off the screen, ¨Clara Louklin, Age of Death: 17,¨ my eyes opened wide, she was so young, ¨COD: Stroke after insulin shock.¨ You leave behind your three brothers and grandma, ages 19, 21, 24, and 86. I’m sorry,¨ the captain said, like she was reading off a script; well, come to think of it, she could have been.
Clara’s eyes were darting all around her feet, leaning over her hands gripping her stomach, ¨Can you throw up when you’re dead? Because I think I’m going to be sick.¨ Her head sank between her knees.
¨If it’s any consolation, you can’t,¨ said the captain, immediately realizing it didn’t help poor Clara, and her eyes shot back onto the screen. Tears welled up in her eyes, and the sound of her rhythmic inhaling and exhaling was the only sound that filled the plane for what felt like minutes.
The captain rolled her shoulder back and let them drop, ¨Ricky Barnes,¨ I immediately heard his knees tapping the blue carpet ground behind me, ¨Age of Death: 19,¨ Wow he’s as old as me, ¨COD: Extreme anemia caused by drinking lead-contaminated water. You leave behind your fathers, ages 52 and 53.¨
He buried his heads in his hands, rubbing them up and down his face. I remember learning about the water crisis in places like Michigan. I didn’t know people were dying from it. I wish there was something I could do, but it’s too late. I’m dead now. Clara walked over to Ricky and put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it twice.
¨And Georgia Folt,¨ she glanced up at me. We locked eyes and hers glanced back at the screen, ¨Age of Death: 19. COD: Staph Infection,¨ She looks up confused since she probably didn’t get a whole lot of people ending up dead from a staph infection, ¨and you leave behind,¨ her eyes scanned the screen, her eyebrows scrunched close together, ¨um, you leave behind your cat, Dennis, age 11.¨
¨Dennis!¨ I shouted. The crying people around me all looked up at me, teary-eyed.
¨I’m sorry for being the bearer of bad news,¨ she turned to leave through the 80s triangle patterned curtains, ¨oh and I’m sorry your dead.¨
¨You’re leaving?¨ asked Clara through a sniffle.
¨Well currently there’s no one driving this plane, so I think it’s for the best.¨ She gave a quick nod and spun back into the cockpit. Silence fell on our sorry group for a while, except for an occasional sniffle or long exhale. Randall stood up and moved to the row of seats across from Clara and Ricky, who had sat down together.
A voice coming from behind me grabbed my attention, ¨Georgia, come sit¨ said Randall, probably the most composed of all of them. I stood up and shuffled my way over to the aisle seat next to Randall.
¨I want to go back. Really badly,¨ said Clara, still looking down at her hands in her lap.
¨I don’t,¨ I replied blankly.
¨Don’t say that,¨ Ricky said sadly, ¨your cat will miss you,¨ he said like it would fix the fact that I’m dead now.
I traced my fingers over the scar on my left shoulder, given to me by my lovely cat. We had a mutual hatred for each other, but I don’t know if I can live without him. Well, still not living.
¨Well at least you have family up here. Your mom, your dad?¨ asked Randall, bending his neck to try to meet my eyes, which we focused straight ahead on the back of the seat in front of me.
¨Yeah, bold of you to assume my dad is ‘up here’¨ I said, laughing.
¨Oh boy, I’m sorry if-¨ Randall started
¨Oh it’s okay, I was just joking,¨ I reassured him with a ‘don’t worry about it’ hand gesture.
¨Come on, you had to have had one happy memory with him!¨ said Clara, like I was full of it. I racked my brain for times when I was younger and did not pick up on any clues that my dad was cheating on my mom.
¨Well, there was this one Thanksgiving, two years before we found out my mom was sick. My dad decided to take one night off work, and me, my mom, and my dad all made turkey and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and pie together like a family. And that was probably the last family dinner I can remember that was planned or that didn’t end in a screaming match.¨ I smiled and nodded, forcing out a laugh to make the silence less horrible.
¨Sounds nice,¨ said Ricky with a laugh.
¨Wait, let’s all go around saying our favorite memory from Earth before we died,¨ Clara said excitedly.
¨Sure¨ Ricky said with a shrug.
¨I’m down,¨ I said. We all looked at Randall, whose eyes scanned each of us.
¨Yeah, okay,¨ he said, leaning back in his seat.
¨Okay, yay! I’ll go first,¨ Clara swallowed and sat up straight in her chair like she was going to give the biggest presentation of her life- or afterlife I guess. We all sat silently, listening to their stories about the best times and trips they had with their families, and how those happy times ended when they got sick, had financial issues, their parents divorced, they were bullied. I wish they could have lived longer to see how life isn’t just suffering, I hate that it’s too late.
¨It’s weird how much we remember all of the moments leading up to our deaths but not the actual death itself, huh?¨ I pointed out.
¨Yeah, I noticed that too. Maybe it’s for the same reason I felt so calm when I woke up here,¨ answered Clara. We all murmured in agreement.
¨Maybe they just thought that they would cut us a break since we just, you know,¨ Ricky suggested.
¨How thoughtful,¨ I murmured.
The stern but reassuring voice of the captain came on the loudspeaker, ¨We will now be starting our descent to the Middle Ground,¨ and then a quiet click to sound her placing the speaker back on the hook. All of our heads snapped to the windows next to us. I leaned over Randall and my mouth practically fell open. Below us was something I’ve never seen before. It was what looked like a huge floating island, or more like an airport with different landing strips going in different directions, buildings that looked anywhere from straight out of a science fiction building to plain glass or brick tall buildings. The patches of green in between the landing strips and on the front lawns of the building were filled with little black dots. Little black dots that I figured out as we got closer to the ground were people. Hundreds of people all walking around in and out of the building.
¨Wow,¨ Clara said, amazed.
¨You can say that again,¨ said Ricky. The plane hit the ground of one of the hundreds of landing strips and glides to a smooth stop. We stand up and make our way to the front, where the captain is standing in front of a lowered door. We all walked down the steps onto the fluffiest, greenest grass I had ever seen. A tall skinny man was walking up to me with a big friendly smile on his face.
¨Troops, these are your guides. They are going to show you around the Middle Ground and explain some… options you have,¨ announced the captain, still standing on the top of the steps, her royal blue dress pants and matching blazer without a wrinkle. She glanced at the small, golden pocket watch in her hand, stood up straight, and walked back into the plane, the stairs slowly closing up behind her. My guide made his way over to me, holding his hand out for me to shake.
I smiled probably too wide and shook his hand, ¨Hello! I’m Georgia!¨
¨I know!¨ he said, keeping a stretched smile on his face. I laughed because I didn’t know what else to say, ¨Oh,¨ said the man, picking up on my awkward expression, ¨where are my manners? I’m Spinny, your guide to the afterlife.¨ He presented the land in front of me with an open arm, like he was presenting the lead singer at a concert. ¨Well?¨ he asked, ¨are you ready?¨
¨I guess it’s now or never,” I replied with a friendly laugh.
¨Technically, it’s now and forever,¨ he said with a bland smile, nodding his head. I just looked at him for a moment. This is going to be quite the tour.
He took a sharp breath and turned, walking across the fluffy grass, ¨Well, let’s carry on then.¨ I took a few jog steps to catch up to his side.
His huge stride was consistent like he was really on a mission, ¨Welcome to the Middle Ground. This is the place everyone on Earth comes after their life on Earth has come to an end,¨ a very pleasant way of putting it I guess, ¨once you die, your death is categorized into one of our many categories: animal caused, suicide, infectious disease. There are like 30 different categories in homicide alone!¨ he said like he was telling me how many puppies are born per day (1.2 million if you wanted to know).
¨Well I have so many questions. First, why did I feel so relaxed when I woke up on the plane?¨ I ask.
¨Oh! That? We added that feature a little while ago, to make the plane ride less of a volcanic eruption. We’re still working on it though, since it seems to start to wear off as the flight goes on.¨
¨Okay. What category was I put in?¨ He whips out a tablet similar to the one the captain had on the plane. He hummed a tune while tapping away, trying to find the screen that would tell him the information he needed.
¨Ah, Flight 164: Preventable Deaths,¨ he nodded, keeping his eyes locked on my chart, ¨people who die from things that one day, some person will come and fix. Unfortunately, it’s too late for us to do anything about it,¨ he said with a sigh.
¨Huh. I feel like there should have been more people on my plane that died from preventable deaths though,¨ I replied.
¨Well we categorize the deaths every minute. The three other people on your plane died preventable deaths in the same minute as you,¨ he answered.
¨So there’s what? Thousands of planes coming in every minute? Where are they all?¨ it was almost on cue as I heard the roar of another plane slowing after hitting the runway.
¨What’s that plane for?¨ I asked, shouting over the sound of the incoming plane.
Spinny turned to me, ¨ That’s plane 16-9. People who died in prison.¨ He said with no emotion.
¨So there could be a serial killer on that plane?¨ I exclaimed.
¨Sure, there could be,¨ he replied.
¨Wait, why don’t they all just go straight, you know,¨ I leaned in closer to Spinny, ¨down?¨
Spinny sighed, ¨Okay well this is where it gets sticky. There is no down or up. It’s basically like the Middle Ground is an intersection and people get to choose which path they want to take,¨ he said.
¨Hm. So I can be walking around the Middle Ground and pass like, Jeffery Dahmer in a pilot outfit?¨
Spinny laughed, ¨No, no. See, if you’re a good person on Earth then you have more options available to you. Serial killers, brutal leaders, and some politicians have… limited choices in the afterlife, for the better of everyone else here and on Earth,¨ he answered. I didn’t really understand, but I just let him go on.
We had started walking again, reaching an old, cracked, paved road, ¨Okay I’ll bite. What are these options we have?¨
A smile cracked across Spinney’s face,¨Oh I’m so glad you asked. So a PIP gets the option of four paths to choose from-¨
¨I’m sorry, a what?¨ I interrupted.
¨Oh, right. A PIP is a Positive Impact Person. That means that on Earth, PIPs made the world a better place, or even kept it the same. Well a PIP can choose from four choices. Number one: you can start your training to work in The Middle Ground, like me or the captain. Option two: you can be reincarnated back on Earth, with no recollection of your past life or the Middle Ground. Number three: you can choose to press a big red button and will be erased from the universe. And option four, the most popular option among the PIPs: walk through the Middle Pass Door, and it will lead you to whatever afterlife you imagine, wherever you want, and with whoever you want to be with.¨
My heart felt like it was in my throat. I could imagine myself walking through the going door and hugging my mom for the first time in what felt like forever.
¨What do I need to do to get to the door?” I said immediately. Spinny turned to me, but continued, walking backward.
¨A morality test. Everyone has a different one. It always has something to do with an experience on Earth. If you pass, you can go through the door, if you don’t quite meet the requirement, then only the other three options are available to you, but if you fail the test, only working for the Middle ground or, ya know, hitting that big red button and ‘bink’ right off the face of the universe,¨ he explained with a big smile.
¨So even if you have absolutely no moral compass, you can still have an afterlife working in this beautiful place?¨
¨Well, no. See, the morality test is made so it’s not an easy test to pass, so those who fail aren’t necessarily those with no morals,¨ he finally stopped walking, ¨now remember when I said some have a very restricted choice? I was talking about those who are NIPs, or Negative Impact People. Here in the Middle Ground, our scorekeepers decide your place on the spectrum, and those who score into the NIP section aren’t granted access to reincarnation, since you can’t become a PIP in your next life if you were a NIP in your last one. NIPs also can’t work here since they can’t share all of the information about the PIPs choices when they don’t even have access to them. And these are the people with no morals, so they don’t even get the chance to take the test. So yeah, they just get blinked out of existence.¨ Spinny said nodding.
All I could do was sigh.
¨I know, this is a difficult decision. I’m now going to pull up your life stats to see where your score is at.¨ He stopped over by a beautiful white stone fountain, tapping away at his device. “Since your Age of Death was only 19, we can expect your stats to be slightly lower, but- oh, wow,¨ he looked up at me, clearly very surprised. ¨Many people your age can’t qualify for rebirth based on their age and experiences, but you qualify, and check off all of the boxes: selfless, composed, mentally tough. You donated your kidney to your dying mother knowing that your immune system wasn’t as strong as they would have liked it for a transplant. Oh, and your mother died in transplant surgery. I’m so sorry¨ he whispered, giving me a sympathetic glance.
¨She’s who I want to see when I walk through that door. I can finally be with her.¨
¨Okay, I’m going to go get your morality test scheduled then,¨ he smiled and buried his head back into the tablet.
I thought back to just a little while ago when I was on the plane with these new people. They all died because the ¨somebody¨ who will eventually come save all of these problems just what? Hadn’t been born yet? Had not stepped up? I thought of this saying my mom had on this one wall decoration. She absolutely hated those basic wooden planks with an inspirational family ushy-gushy saying on it, but boy did she buy this one in a heartbeat. I remember it said, ¨I cannot do all the good the world needs, but the world needs all the good that I can do.¨ The thought of the hundreds of people being picked up by the captain made me feel something. Guilt? Regret?
¨Spinny, cancel the test. I want to go back,¨ I saId, looking straight ahead over the flatlands of the Middle Ground.
¨Oh, okay. Are you sure? What caused the change of heart?¨
¨It is too late now,¨ I say.
¨I’m sorry?” he asks.
¨That’s what you said after you explained why we died. But it’s not too late! Maybe it’s too late for them to save us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t save them!¨ I exclaimed.
¨Well it looks like you’ve got yourself a one-way ticket to Earth.¨
He brings me to what looks like a small forest garden,¨Now remember, once I send you back, you won’t have any recollection of your previous life or the Middle Ground. Do you understand?¨ Tears stung my eyes at the thought that I’m leaving my whole old life behind, losing all my friends from the plane, and never getting to say goodbye to my mother. That formed a knot in my stomach. What if she’s on the other side of the door waiting for me, and I’ll never tell her what I did? She’s just waiting, forever, thinking I never cared enough to reconnect with her.
I let out a slow exhale, ¨I understand.¨ I turned to him, a black and white pad in front of us.
A pad that will soon transport me back to Earth as a different person, ¨Spinny, what if this doesn’t work? What if I turn out to be making the world worse than it was before, and I don’t do any of the things I went back for?¨ My eyebrows were scrunched together and I started biting my nails.
¨I like to believe that the Universe has its way of working things out. And Georgia, I think if the rebirthed you is anything like you now, you’ll do just fine,¨ he said, almost sadly, but with a crescent smile across his face.
¨I second that opinion,¨ said an elegant, but old and stern voice behind us. We both shot around. Shivers ran up my spine and it felt like my stomach and heart were in my throat.
¨Oh, I’m sorry. Georgia, this is the Head of The Rebirth Bureau, Lydia Folt.¨
I almost couldn’t see my mother through my ocean of tears welled up in my eyes, ¨Mom!¨ my choked laughter gave way to the flood of tears pouring down my face. She tilted her head and opened her arms wide. I ran and didn’t stop until I ran full-speed into her. I buried my wet, snotty face into her business blouse, but she didn’t care.
¨You didn’t think I’d go to some hanky-panky perfect afterworld did you?¨ mom said, trying to sound like she wasn’t crying too.
¨Oh, like you would even pass the test!¨ I joked, a laugh getting caught in my throat, and ended in more sobs.
¨I also didn’t think you would even stay here. You’re always looking to do more good no matter what it costs you,¨ my mother added.
¨Well thank you for making it impossible to leave, momma!¨
¨Oh honey, what good will you do up here? The world needs you more than I need you. Go.¨ I let go of her hug slightly so we were holding each other’s forearms, looking into each other’s teary, melancholy eyes. It was like a year ago in the hospital room, saying goodbye all over again. I backed away from her, making my way to the pad that I was standing in front of before. I step onto it slowly, doing exactly what Spinny explained to me: cross your arms, feet together, chin up. I took a deep breath and looked at my beautiful mom standing in this beautiful garden, where we are about to do this beautiful thing.
¨Don’t forget Georgia, you’re a fighter!¨
¨See you in another life.¨
I closed my eyes and felt the tingle in my head, fingers and toes, and the sounds of The Middle Ground slowly faded out.
Certificate of Birth
NAME: DRENDLE, ELLA
DATE OF BIRTH: 1/14/21 SEX: F
BIRTH COUNTRY: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
MOTHERS MAIDEN NAME: TOLK
FATHER’S NAME: DRENDLE, SPENCER
DATE FILED: 1/20/21 DATE ISSUED: 1/14/21
¨She’s beautiful¨ Mr. Drendle whispered, laying next to the exhausted Mrs. Drendle.
¨Look at that red hair,¨ she says softly, ¨oh I can just tell she’s going to be a fighter.¨
¨I second that opinion,¨ he replies.