© 1996 Faith L. Justice
McElroy pushed his wire spectacles up his nose and looked closely at his hands. The knuckles were swollen and the fingers beginning to twist with a hint of the grotesque to come. They throbbed with the effort of twisting keys and winding springs.
Time, he muttered pushing wisps of white hair behind his ears. I have so little time left, and they rob me of an hour. He pounded a painful fist on the oil-stained workbench. What right does the government have to take away my time? Two red spots appeared high on his bewhiskered cheeks and his breath came in short ragged gasps. He clutched his right arm to his chest.
Time. No time. No, he whispered as he fell to his knees, knocking over a ceramic ballerina poised to dance.
McElroy came to awareness. He moved - shuffled actually - in a line of people stretching across a flat, featureless plain. A low mist swirled around his ankles, but it didnt feel wet. The temperature maintained that perfect balance between warm and cool that you dont feel at all. He gazed, mouth open, at the people shuffling ahead. Old people on canes, skeletal children carried by adults with scabrous limbs, others with no visible afflictions.
He raised his hands to rub his face and drive the muzziness away. His hands. He stopped and stared at them until a large woman in a flowing dashiki bumped him from behind. He shambled on turning his hands palm up then back again. What was wrong with his hands?
No pain. Thats what was wrong. Or right. His hands were still swollen with beginning arthritis, but there was no pain. He patted his chest. He wasnt breathing. He opened his mouth to scream but, with no air to work the vocal chords, his mouth just stretched into a tortured O.
Youll get used to it, a voice chimed in his mind.
Get used to what? he replied in the same mental speech, then clapped his hands to his head as if trying to hold the thoughts in.
To being dead, the voice replied.
McElroy heard a low murmur of thousands of voices - mumbling, singing, crying, and praying. The sound swelled and diminished like the waves of the ocean.
Who are you? How did I get here?
My names Sheila. I dont know how you got here but I died of AIDS. A small dark hand with neatly polished nails cupped his elbow and steadied him when he stumbled. He looked down at an ethereally thin woman. She may once have been beautiful. Now her skin pulled taut over a glowing spirit. She grinned and gave him that universal sign of encouragement - thumbs up.
AIDS! He cringed away.
Her grin turned to a frozen mask. No need to worry now, Pops. Were dead. If you dont want to talk to me, fine. I just hadnt found anyone in our immediate vicinity who spoke English. She surveyed the crowd. Bye, Pops. That one looks interesting. She drifted toward a dazed-looking young man carrying a motorcycle helmet; his head tilted at an impossible angle.
Wait! Dont leave me, Sheila. McElroy grabbed the young womans arm. She pushed his hand away with surprising strength.
Dont touch me. No one touches me unless I let them, you hear? If she were using speech, hed be wiping a spray of spit from his face.
Im sorry, Sheila. Im confused. Stay, he pleaded. Please tell me whats going on.
She looked up at his bent frame and frightened face. Okay, Pops, I dont know much more than I already told you. Were dead. Someone said in Spanish that at the head of the line we get to talk to the gatekeeper - St. Peter if youre Christian. She shrugged her shoulders. I suppose someone or something else if youre not. No one could say whats on the other side of the gate. I guess well find out in time.
Time. He pulled an antique pocket watch from his vest. 9:07. He jabbed a finger at the face. Its stopped. I was cheated. I should have another hour of life.
Yeah, and I should have had fifty more years. So whats new?
No. I mean daylight savings time. Its really only 8:07. They owe me an hour.
Sheilas small frame started to shake with tremors. She put her hand to her mouth as if to keep in the laughter she couldnt voice. McElroy kept waiting for the gasp and high trilling giggle that never came.
Thats rich. Youre owed an hour because of daylight savings time. Howre you going to get it back? Demand it from the gatekeeper?
His jaw set with a stubborn clamp. Im certainly not going to waste my time hanging around on this line. That hour was stolen from me and Ill get it back. Im going to the head of the line. Coming with me? He held out his hand. (Read the whole story here.)