"So," said Daniel abruptly from behind me, startling me from my thoughts, "Sheriff Freddie says he's got someone coming to show you around."
"Yes," I replied. "He's sending a friend of my Dad's, a guy named David."
"He didn't say," I said.
"Oh well. Not important," said Daniel. "I'm sure he's a good guy if the Sheriff likes him and he's a friend of your Dad."
"Before we go on with formalities, Al, can I get you anything?"
"Yes. Coffee, water, something to eat? Are you comfortable?" he asked. "We can provide you with a few simple items of clothing, if you'd like to get out of that robe."
"Oh," I said. "I'm okay for now, I guess. What do people usually do?"
"Oh, it varies," he said. "I guess most people stay in the robe until the get settled in for some sleep and then change, but we can get you something now if you'd prefer."
"No, that sounds fine," I replied.
"Okay. Great. And no water or anything?"
"Okay. Good," he picked up a clipboard from the desk and sat up straight, getting to business. I wasn't sure what to expect. "Well, Al, you're undoubtedly wondering exactly where you are and what's expected of you."
I thought about it for a second. "Yeah," I said. "I guess I am."
"Well, Al, I'm not a philosopher or a religious teacher, so I'm just going to tell you what I know for sure, okay?"
"We do have counselors and ministers available, by the way, if you'd like to speak with one at any time."
I indicated with a nod that he should proceed.
"Okay. Well, Al," he said, "this, as Naomi may have told you, is Aphter. Aphter is a like a city." He paused, and I nodded that I understood. "When humans die, they come to Aphter, as you've experienced. Your experience, the light, the hill, the greeter, this is how it's happened for a long, long time." I nodded. "We do not know where Aphter came from, though some religions have beliefs about it." I nodded. "Any questions about any of that, Al?"
"Well, I guess not," I said.
"Okay. Let me tell you a little about the town. The center of town, which we call The Center, is the Lightstone. The Lightstone is the source of all light in Aphter. We don't know what it is or where it came from. In addition to providing light, it is the doorway through which the newly dead, like yourself, enter Aphter. It was the light at the top of the hill back there. Do you understand?"
"Right," I said.
"Okay. So, like I said, all light in Aphter comes from the Lightstone. Here, near the center, it's very bright. As you move out toward the edges, it gets darker and darker. In those places, people make lights from chips of the Lightstone."
"That's right," he said. "Long ago scientists studying the Lightstone discovered that you could take chips from it and they would continue to give off light."
"As far as we know," Daniel replied.
"So, there are a bunch of chips in it?" I asked. It seemed irreverent somehow.
"Well, no," he said. "They fill back in eventually."
"Huh," I said.
"Yes. And so, the Lightstone provides all the light we have. There is no other source of light."
"What about fire?" I asked.
"Well, we have fire," he said, "and you can see it, if you have light, but it gives off no light of its own."
"Yes," he said.
"Well, we don't know," he replied. "That's just the way it is here. Lot's of things are the same here, but some things are very different."
"Dark fire," I said, "it sounds dangerous."
"You get used to it," he said.
"Has anyone tried making electric lights?" I realized that it was a stupid question as soon as I said it. Of course people had tried.
"Well," he responded, "no one has tried because, as far as we can tell, there is no electrical current here."
I wasn't sure what he meant. "No electricity?" I asked.
"Well, the scientists say the electricity is there," he said, "but - and keep in mind I'm no physicist - it just doesn't move in a useful way."
"So, there's no electrical devices?"
"Not one," he said. "People have tried and continue to try various experiments, but so far there is nothing."
"Wow," I thought aloud. "That will take some getting used to."
"It's quite an adjustment for people these days," Daniel said. "In my day, we didn't think that much about it."
Daniel didn't look any older than me. "How old are you, Daniel?" I asked.
"Oh my. I always forget. What year is it now?" he asked.
"2007," I said.
"Wow. 2007." He shook his head. "I died in 51. I was 85 at the time. That was, what, 56 years ago? 141? Is that right?"
I did the math in my head. "You're 141?" I said. "You don't look 141."
"Well," he said, "I'm not sure that I am," he said. "That's another thing about this place. We're already dead, you understand. We don't die again. There is no aging and there is no decay. We just are."
I tried to understand that. "So, you were 85 when you died," I said. "You don't look 85."
"Right," he said. "Our appearance in Aphter is not tied to our age. It's tied more to our maturity, I guess, and to our health."
"Health," I repeated.
"Yes," he continued. "When a person first arrives, they have the appearance that they had at their prime in life. So, an adult looks like a healthy, mature adult. A teen looks like a teen, but develops into an adult. A child looks like a child, but develops from there."
"So..." I started, but I wasn't sure what to say.
"And there's the issue of health," he said. "Although there is no decay, a person can still live an unhealthy lifestyle and become fat or out of shape or weak," he said. "A person can even become incapacitated," he went on, "but, of course, a person cannot die. Not again."
As he spoke, I began to notice my own body. There were none of the aches and pains to which I had become accustomed. I could move easily. I felt great, in fact. "So, we all start off healthy?"
"Right," he said. "We're you unhealthy in life?"
"Oh, not too bad," I replied, "but I'm noticing the difference. I feel really good."
"I've worked with people who were very old and or very sick or even disabled in life," he said. "It's quite liberating for them."
"So, since you're just noticing, I take it you weren't elderly," he said.
"No," I replied. I tried again to remember how I died, but it was a blur. I did, however, get a kind of sick feeling in my stomach. "I can't remember very well," I said, "but I know I was only in my thirties. I think..." I stopped.
"Yes?" he said.
"I think my death may have been bad," I said. "I think it was violent."
He got a concerned look on his face. "You don't have to think about it now," he said. "There's plenty of time for that."
"Right," I said, and I let the bad feeling pass. Daniel was right. I didn't want to think about it right now.
"Any other questions about all of that, age and health and so forth?" he asked.
"No," I said. "I think I understand."
"Good. The wheels seem to be turning in your head," he said, smiling, "so tell me, what is the chief question in your mind right now?"
I thought for a second, and it came to me, "So, what now?" I asked. "I mean, what do we do here? What's it all about? You know?"
He smiled and sat back in his chair. "Yes," he said, "I know what you're asking. It's always the question people get to in the end. What now?"
"Right," I said.
"Well," Daniel said, crossing his arms, "I can't answer the 'What's it all about' part, you understand."
"But there are a few things we've learned to say prove to be helpful to people." He looked at me and I nodded. "Life here, and we do call it life," he smiled, "is not a journey. People tend to think of life as a journey, Al," he said, "but it's not, at least here it's not. It's not about getting somewhere. It's about growing."
"Growing," I said.
"Right," he continued. "We develop. We learn. We grow. Life here is not about moving or doing, it's about being."
"Right," he said. "Now, that's a little esoteric, but we've found that it's helpful for people to keep in mind. Just file it away and come back to it."
"Okay, I will."
"Great. Now, on a more practical level, you'll still get sleepy and hungry and thirsty. You'll still need food and drink and shelter."
"Right," I said. I found the familiarity of the ideas strangely comforting.
"But," he said, "it's a pretty casual system, as compared to most parts of the living world these days."
"Yes," he said. "For one thing, there is no money. There's plenty of space and food and water for everyone."
"Right," he said. "So, most people settle into a community somewhere and find some niche or skill to help out. The community will take care of you," he said, "but they'll expect you to do a part and pitch in."
"Pitch in," I said. "That sounds okay."
"It seems to work pretty well."
"So, a how does one get into a community?" I asked.
"Well, generally people will have friends or family waiting for them, like your Dad," he said. "Most people start there and things develop naturally."
"That makes sense."
"Right," he said. "Occasionally someone will start out here and just strike out on their own. We have some places you can stay for a while, but it's strongly encouraged that you find a place outside of the Welcome Community pretty promptly."
"So," I said, "I could maybe stay there until my Dad gets back?"
"Back from where?" he asked, seeming puzzled.
"Oh," I got the funny sense that I had said something I shouldn't. As I was thinking this, a memory popped into my head. "I'm a Detective."
"What?" he asked.
"A Detective. I just remembered that," I said. "That's what I do. Or, what I used to do."
"Oh," he said. "Like your Dad."
"Well, he was a patrol officer," I said.
"Oh. And a Sheriff." He smiled.
"The answer to your question is yes," he said. "If Wayne is busy for a few days, you are welcome to stay with us until he can come around."
"Oh," I said. "That's good to know."