On the day you die, you find yourself in a fully furnished, medium-priced, one-bedroom condominium. Power, water, cable, phone and internet are all complementary. There are dishes in the cabinets and food in the refrigerator. Rent is $900 a month.
On your coffee table, there are a few pamphlets that should prove informative. You skim a few, and find “Life Afterlife” and “Exploring the AGMA” are particularly useful.
These address some of your most immediate questions: Yes, you’ve died. Yes, this is your Afterlife. You might have expected pearly gates and choirs of angels, or perhaps you thought you’d find yourself on a boat in the river Styx. Some newcomers are perplexed by the absence of a dedicated staff of 72 beautiful virgins. But this is not Jannah, nor is it She’ol, nor Hades nor Heaven nor Aaru.
This realm was known, once, as Hel. But, due to the confusion brought about by the similar-sounding “Hell” of certain faiths, it has since been rebranded as the Asgard Greater Metropolitan Area. It is ruled by Odin the All-Father.
Having perused a few of the pamphlets, you set about exploring your accommodations. The kitchen is a little small, but it’s clean. The refrigerator boasts the usual fare—apples, milk, orange juice, deli meats, et cetera. The television is hi def, which is nice, although it’s smaller than your old one. A few minutes of fiddling with the remote and you realize it’s just basic cable.
There is a port on the wall for broadband, but you can find no computer.
Beside the telephone is a list of numbers: directory assistance, emergency services, and financial establishment. A quick call will reveal your bank balance—a positive or negative sum, calculated in advance by your financial officer according to tried-and-true algorithms for determining your karmic reward, adjusted for inflation and cost of after-living. You may be disappointed to learn you maintain a negative balance—$12,349.89, to be precise. The automated teller instructs you to visit your nearest Bank of Asgard to confer with your financial officer about structuring an affordable payment plan.
Stepping outside of your condo, you realize you are on the third and top floor of a rather expansive condominium building. It’s about the size of a city block, and next to it is another building just like it.
It’s a sunny afternoon; maybe 78 degrees Fahrenheit. It feels like southern California.
Down below, a four-lane thoroughfare passes left and right, separated by a grassy median. Cars amble by at about 40 miles an hour. A thin strip of freshly mowed grass separates the road from the sidewalk. You can smell the grass clippings all the way from the third floor.
Across the street is a laundromat. Beside that is a car wash, and past that is a Micky D’s. In the other direction, the laundromat adjoins directly to a computer repair shop and a dollar store. The signs are written in a handful of different languages, but they’d be recognizable with no writing at all. Most are brands you've seen your whole life, with logos you’d recognize instantly, whether you were walking through a shopping center or cruising by at 80 miles an hour on the freeway.
All in all, it is an entirely unremarkable suburban environment. Unremarkable to you, at any rate. In the next condo over, someone is making a commotion. After a moment, your neighbor’s door flies open and a dark-skinned man bursts out from the front door of his new home. He is dressed only in a skirt of lanky, yellowed tree leaves, and he is gazing about his world in bewilderment. The language in which he makes his desperate pleas to his gods is lost on you. You know next to nothing about the remote aboriginal tribes of New Guinea, just as he knows very little about the Western World, on which the AGMA clearly seems to be modeled. The man sprints down the walkway to the nearest staircase and half-stumbles down to the next landing and out of sight.
Scratching your head, you make your way down to street level by a different route, and from there you take to the sidewalk. Only now does it occur to you that you should have come up with some kind of plan before leaving home. And maybe you should have had a bite to eat. Your stomach is already grumbling.
Anyway, you decide not to turn back. You’re in no hurry. You’re content, for now, to stroll along the sidewalk, taking in the sights—the cinema, the optometrist’s, the outlet mall with its usual fare: Baby Gap, Victoria’s Secret, Game Stop, Cinnabon, Old Navy, Banana Republic, et cetera, et cetera. The sidewalk isn’t crowded, but you pass people now and then. You haven’t spotted any wings or robes of white yet, though you are reluctant to be caught staring. So you just look away as you pass, or if you make eye contact by accident, you nod politely.
You decide to memorize street names, worried about getting lost in the sprawl, but it doesn’t help much. The names are not particularly memorable—Winston Avenue, Weather Street, Autumn Street, Winter Avenue, East Fall Street, East Falls Avenue, Wood Street, Park Avenue, Parker Avenue…
At any rate, you’ve only been walking in one direction. So long as you remember to head back east on Winston Avenue, you should be fine.
It’s a nice enough afternoon, but it’s difficult to relax. It seems like there’s something you should be doing, something you should be watching for, but there is nothing. There is no more war to fight. No more enemy combatants; no need to wonder whether a sniper might be crouched on the roof of that book store, or if that car parked near the corner might conceal an I.E.D. The only item on your plate at the moment is visiting the bank. But financial officers and payment plans are things with which you have too much experience, and it’s not the way you’d like to start your afterlife. So you just walk until your feet hurt, and then you stop. There’s a black metal bench that’s been baking in the sun, and it burns at your touch—but only at first. You sit back to watch the world go by.
The people here are pretty diverse—a lot of Asians, probably more than any other ethnic group, but still, pretty diverse.
You wonder, idly, whether you can get in touch with some of your old friends now that you’re here. Bobby got blown up a few weeks ago, but you didn’t know him that well. There’s your old C.O., who bit a bullet on your last tour… There’s that girl you knew who died in high school, what-was-her-name? And your gramma on your mom’s side, she was your favorite grandparent until she died when you were eleven…
The word “bank” catches your eye, and in a moment you realize you’re looking at the sign for a branch of the Bank of Asgard in the outlet mall across the street, next to a coffee shop.
You let out a sigh of resignation. Maybe you mutter something along the lines of, “May as well get it over with…” and then you look both ways and jog across the street.
“Hi, welcome to the Bank of Asgard, how can I be of service to you?” A middle-aged blonde woman with a big smile and a South African accent sits behind a low wrap-around desk near the door. The air conditioning of the bank is pleasant enough at first, though you’ll find it gets to be a bit cold after a few minutes.
“Um…” you say to the receptionist, but you aren’t sure exactly how to proceed.
“Bonjour? Hallo? Hola?” she tries experimentally.
You’ve got no better ideas, so you blurt, “I was told to speak with my financial officer about working out a payment plan?”
“I see. Well, you’ll want to fill out one of these green forms and turn it in over there.” She points first to a stack of hospital-green forms on her desk, then to a row of teller’s windows, the line to which is badly backed up.
You let out a heavy sigh, take a slip of paperwork (double-sided, you note), and find an empty chair to start.
To start: your name. Easy enough. Your date of birth, also easy. Your date of death… It takes a minute to remember, and then you recall the lurching Humvee, the cranking of the engine so loud, and then a sudden sickening thrust and a mind-numbingly loud bang, everything is upside-down and there’s this ringing in your ears, the frantic calls of the others, the cracking of unintelligible radio voices, ringing ringing in your ears and you’re going to be sick, sand mixing with something warm and wet and sticking to your face…
What day was it? Who the fuck cares?
You write “Tuesday” and move on.
It asks your faith, and it gives you a few options: Norse Pantheism, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, Not Sure, or Other (write in the blank).
You have a sneaking suspicion that the correct answer is Norse Pantheism, but you’re not sure if they double check this sort of thing or if it really even matters, so you check Not Sure.
“What, in your opinion, is the best thing you ever did?”
You roll your eyes and wrack your brain. Surely you’ve done something...
You remember the time you loaned your brother $150 to get his car out of the impound lot. You never even asked for the money back, though it was over a year before he got around to repaying you.
Well, that was pretty weak… so you write, “Died for my country.”
“What, in your opinion, is the worst thing you ever did?”
You purse your lips and tap your pen for a few minutes. Worst thing? The image of an Afghan boy, maybe nine years old, and he’s shouting and he’s crying, his hands behind his back, and he won’t show you what is in his hands and he won’t stop running at you, even though you’re repeatedly shouting out your command in broken Arabic and your gun is leveled, and he’s running at you…
You write down, “Backed over the neighbor’s cat; didn’t tell them,” and after a moment's consideration, squeeze in the word “Accidentally.” Moving on.
The questions go on. It doesn’t ask what country you were from, it doesn’t ask your race, it doesn’t ask your age. But it does want your earliest childhood memory, your most beloved pet, your favorite family member (“of all the rotten awful…” you mutter, before putting your little sister’s name), and it asks some curious questions about blood type, sexual activity, and whether or not you were an organ donor.
The last question asks whether you served in the armed forces or an organized militia and, if so, did you die in conflict?
The line takes twenty five minutes to wait through, which isn't as bad as you feared. Then the teller takes your form and directs you to “Jeffrey Townes’ Office, down the hall on your left, third door on the right.”
You nod, “Thanks,” and you walk away, but the teller calls you back. You look at her for the first time, and realize she is an Indian woman with a Bindi on her forehead, which confuses you. You thought those “red dots” were some kind of religious symbol, which seems a bit null given the state of things.
You return, and she hands you a photocopy of your form. “You’ll need this,” she says with a smile.
Jeffrey Townes’ office door is closed, so you knock softly. The muffled response comes, “In a moment,” so you take a seat outside the door and wait.
There’s someone else waiting, in the chair just across the doorway from you. She seems young—like maybe 14 or 15.
She’s looking at you. When you meet her gaze, you smile politely and look away, but she’s still studying you, curiously. So, to break the uncomfortable silence, you say, “Hi.”
“Hi,” she says.
A moment later, you introduce yourself.
“Kristin,” she replies.
“So, Kristin… how long have you been dead?”
“Dead?” she smirks, and when she speaks her accent is French, you think. “I’m not dead.”
“Oh. But… are you some kind of angel, or something like that, then?”
At this, she laughs uproariously. “No, no I am the same as you. We are all just, uh... folks, you know?”
This perplexes you. “But if you’re not dead…”
“See, it’s called the ‘afterlife’, not the ‘afterdeath’. I died, but that does not mean I am dead. See the difference?”
“Right. I get it.”
“Maybe it does not seem like much of a difference to you, but after a while you will get over this whole “being dead” idea. Life is basically the same now as it ever was before.”
“Yeah,” you say, “I’m starting to get that impression.”
The door of Jeffrey Townes’ office opens, and an elderly gentleman departs. Kristin rises to her feet and walks in.
Kristin is in the office for a while. Business as usual continues in the Bank of Asgard. People waiting, people filling out paperwork, people talking with tellers and clerks and other bank people.
Then Kristin leaves and you finally get your turn.
Jeffrey Townes seems tired. From your experience with loan officers, you doubt he’ll be much help to you, though he hasn’t said anything yet. He sits back in his office chair looking relaxed and unsympathetic. You hand him your form and sit down.
He studies the sheet in his hand from back to front, face impassive until he reaches the top of the front page. He softly chuckles, “Tuesday.” Then he looks at you, and his face is stone. “Did you just get here today?”
You nod. “Uh huh.”
And he hammers a few keys on his computer.
“I see they’ve got you at the Baldur’s Creek Suite.”
“Well it’s not a bad place. Pretty convenient, really. Just a short walk from everything you need, yes?”
“I guess. I only just walked here from there.”
“Huh,” he says, “Most people like to take some time to get acclimated when they first get here. Look up their loved ones, get a guided tour of Asgard, that sort of thing.”
You shrug again, and then say, “So everyone who dies comes here?”
“Every last one.” He smiles, “But the AGMA is… pretty big, as I’m sure you can imagine. You’ll probably never see anyone you knew in life, unless you take the time to look them up.”
“Huh,” you reply.
A moment of silence, then Mr. Townes, apparently weary of the pleasantries, says, “Well, let’s look at your account,” and he hammers away at his keyboard again.
“Twelve three forty-nine eight-nine,” he reads.
You’re feeling acutely embarrassed. “So that’s pretty bad, huh?”
“You might be surprised,” he says noncommittally.
“Well the only reason I can think of is the war,” you say. “So… was I on the wrong side? Or is war just… inherently wrong?”
Jeffrey tilts his head and says, “Well, war is a pretty big gray area nowadays, isn’t it? And it certainly isn’t my place to say one way or another. Frankly, the higher-ups don’t like to muck about in ‘right sides’ and ‘wrong sides’ when they’re cranking out their karma figures. But, generally speaking, no, Odin doesn’t mind war.”
“No, in fact Asgard values its warriors rather highly.”
“So… you’re saying things you do in war don’t count against you?”
“Some,” he says, “Some things count in a big way. But for the most part, we’re pretty forgiving. It’s all very… morally ambiguous. And the ‘why’ generally just isn’t as important as the ‘how.’ You catch my drift?”
You aren’t sure you do, but you nod. “So then was I just a bad person?” you ask bleakly.
The financial officer sighs heavily. “Look, I’ll let you in on the truth, okay?” He looks you dead in the eye, expecting affirmation. You nod.
“The moral compass of civilization…” he begins, and he leans forward in his seat now, like he’s revealing a big secret. “Well, it’s drifted a bit since the Big Man set down the ethical laws of the nine realms. You just don’t have any more sacrifices of rams or sheep to the All-Father down there anymore. No soldiers dedicate their battles to Tyr. Sailors never pray to Thor, fathers never pray to Odin. And these are the sort of things Odin really values. I mean it doesn’t count against you if you don’t, mind you, but they certainly aren’t earning themselves any favors these days.”
You’re staring at him blankly, wondering if he’s serious. “God… or Odin, whatever, wants slaughtered rams and sheep.”
“I mean, take this cat you say you backed over,” he continues, glancing back at your form. You shift in your seat. “Hey, I’m not judging you. Everyone is guilty of something. And yes, you probably ought to have told your neighbor what happened and financially compensated and all that. I mean, this one probably ran you somewhere in the neighborhood of… oh, three hundred, four hundred dollars. But if you’d have skinned the cat, cured the skin to make a garment, and roasted the cat’s body over an open spit as a sacrament to the gods? Well, that would have taken that debt completely off your record.
“Come on now, don’t make that face,” he says, “Alright, between you and me, I wouldn’t have done it either. I mean it’s gross, right? And who on Midgard even takes that sort of idea seriously? They probably would have locked you up for that, right?”
You nod slowly and say, “Midgard?”
“Earth. Midgard. Same thing.”
“But that’s just my point. The values of Earth just aren’t the values of Asgard anymore. I mean I can count on one hand the number of people who have had a positive balance the first time they stepped into my office. It turns out that people just generally do more bad than good in their lives.”
“Well, sure. People litter. People pollute. People cut each other off in traffic. People forget to write ‘thank you’ notes. And with the advent of the internet? Shoot. All the songs, videos, and pictures downloaded illegally, all the anonymously posted slanders and insults, and the porn? I mean the gods don’t mind porn in general, but some of that shit…” Mr. Townes shivers in revulsion. “And all the ‘Our fathers’, the ash and sackcloth, the self flagellations, the confessions, the fasting, none of it helps a damned jot, Norns know.”
“That’s pretty bleak,” you say.
“Yeah? Well, it’s just the way the world looks after two hundred fifty years of sitting at this desk.”
You scoff. “How long?”
“What?” he says, his face deadpan, “Don’t I look it?”
“You look…” you say, taking in his striped tie, his blue long-sleeve button-down shirt, his close-cropped, combed-back hair, his silver wristwatch, and you finish, “modern.”
“Well, I keep up with the times, of course,” he explains. “Most folks do. I mean even the Neanderthals wear suits and shave, and they’ve been here longer than anyone else.”
You nod. “Good to know.”
“So if you think you’ve got a bad lot with this, you don’t. Back when I first got here, folks with a negative balance were tortured and beaten for their sins. You should see the scars on my back.”
An awkward moment passes as you process this.
“But, around the turn of the last century, the higher-ups seemed to finally come to grips with the fact that people just weren’t going to follow the old ways anymore. They couldn’t very well flog everyone to within an inch of their life. Yet, the old laws are basically carved in stone. It’s this doctrine of moral absolutism that the bigwigs stick to.” And he intoned in a big curmudgeonly voice, “‘What’s right is right, and by the Norns, what’s wrong is wrong!’” He chuckles at his remark and clears his throat, then goes on, “So that’s why they switched to this system of debts and perks. It’s more humane than just giving lashings, you see.”
“But it hardly seems fair,” you say.
“And that’s one of the old laws,” says Mr. Townes, “one of the oldest. Life isn’t fair.” He’s half-smiling, like he thinks he’s just imparted on you some profound truth of the universe and not a meaningless, played-out platitude.
“So anyway,” he carries on, “you’re not too far below average for your age. No need to feel ashamed. But, what you’ll want to do is pay this off as quickly as you can, in order to keep the interest from getting out of hand.”
“Isn’t there always? It’s 5.9% to start with, compounded monthly. But, as you establish your credit score, that’s subject to change. Make your payments on time, make sure you understand all the fine print, and you should be just fine.”
“But how big will my payments be? And where will I get the money?” This has been the burning question now for a little while.
“Well, you’ll get a job. Asgard doesn’t run itself, you know.”
“A job? You mean just an ordinary job like in the real world?”
Mr. Townes glares at you balefully. “This is the real world. You should start getting accustomed to that fact.”
his is hardly a complete explanation. “But how much will I be paid? How much of that will go to paying my debt? What happens if I miss payments? Will I still have to pay for groceries, have insurance, pay bills?”
The financial officer shakes his head. It seems he’s reached the end of his patience. “Look, you already know the answers to all of those questions, because it’s exactly the same as it is back on Midgard. Payments will depend on your salary. If you miss payments, you’ll be penalized. If you willfully refuse to make your payments, you’ll be put in jail—we call it Niffelheim. We’ll work out your payment plan once you have an income. For now, you have a three month deferment period while you get your bearings. Don’t wait too long, though, or they’ll kick you out of that nice condo you’re living in. Any other questions?”
“How do I find a job?”
“You can talk to a career counselor or just try whatever you did before you died. Listen, there’s just one more item we have to discuss. You say you died in combat?”
“Yes, I did,” you reply, apprehensive.
“Then there’s a chance that you’ll qualify for a Valhalla membership.”
The name is familiar to you. “That’s a warrior’s heaven, right?”
His smile is condescending. “Something like that. Valhalla members are issued a Valhalla Membership Card and a Valhalla Plus-Points Rewards Card. These will get you cover-free admittance to a number of participating bars and night clubs throughout the AGMA in addition to a small monthly stipend.”
“Oh.” You sit back in your chair. “Well, it will cover the rent.”
“Yes,” he says, “and it will factor into your payment schedule as well. You’ll still want to find a job, however, and it does come with certain obligations.”
“Like what?” you say.
“One weekend a month for training,” he says, “and you will be made part of the Asgard Reserve Guard.”
“Oh. So it’s basically the Army Reserve Corps.”
“Think of it as the Army Reserve meets the V.A., but with better perks. This is, of course, contingent on your qualifying for membership. Valhalla will conduct its own analysis to determine that.”
“What kind of wars do you fight in Asgard?” you ask. It never occurred to you that this place would have enemies.
“Just one kind that involves you,” he says. “We’re all just waiting for Ragnarok.”
“So… the Apocalypse.”
Mr. Townes shrugs. “Not really. I mean maybe, if we lose.”
“But if you win, what then? Is that the end of war forever?”
You wait for further explanation, but none comes, and you’re through asking questions. Jeffrey Townes is tapping his fingers against his desk impatiently. He’s ready to be rid of you.
“So…” you say.
“So if you’d like to sign up, contact the Valhalla Enrollment Board. You’ll find all the necessary information in this pamphlet.” The literature he hands you, you recognize as one of the booklets already sitting on your coffee table, but you take it anyway. And as he hands you the pamphlet he rises from his seat, which means it’s time for you to go.
You snatch a root beer-flavored dumdum off the receptionist’s desk on your way out the door.
Back on the sidewalk, and you’re heading in the general direction of your condo (assuming your condo is down Windsor and not Winter; you’re not quite sure). The sun is setting now, and as the shadows stretch across the parking lots and the lawns, you start to wonder about crime in Asgard. Are there muggers in the afterlife? Will they try to attack you? Can you even be killed? If you were, then where would you go? You wonder if you’d just wake up back in your condo, with all the transgressions you’ve committed since arrival added to your bank balance. You wonder if all of this, the shopping centers and the trimmed lawns and the bureaucracy, if this could really be… it?
Well, why not? Why should the afterlife be any different than life before? Why would you expect perfection? So maybe you weren’t totally fazed to discover that the afterlife wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
But as you amble along a sidewalk strewn with grass clippings, occasional bits of plastic, and worn-down chips of broken glass, hearing the cars pass and the crickets tuning up, the smell of exhaust and pollen and fast food lingering in the air, and as you flip through the glossy pages of your Valhalla pamphlet, you find you really are stumped.
“Let the gods reward you for your valorous death,” it reads, in big bold print.
So this would be your prize? This is how the universe operates? Really?
You were two months into your second tour in Afghanistan, and you were standing in the machine gun turret of your Humvee, half-dead on your feet, as the convoy made its way through yet another small Afghan village in southern Kandahar. The name of the place is lost to your memory; it doesn’t make any difference to you, anyway. It was the hottest part of the day, and you’d been standing in that bumbling vehicle since 0530. The convoy trudged along at a snail’s pace, just as it always did in these towns, because the villagers would always fill the streets and mob the vehicles when they heard you coming. You and the others in the Humvee tossed bottled waters into the crowd; just a small gesture to build goodwill with the locals.
It was always nerve-wracking. Anyone could be a terrorist. You kept your eyes peeled, though the dust and wind had them itching like a bitch.
The engine stalled. Your vehicle was last in line, and the convoy was starting to make a little distance from you. The mob closed in around the front of the car, though Doreen behind the wheel shouted repeatedly, “Please clear a path!” in piss-poor Arabic.
It was bad. You could feel it from your blistered ankles to the back of your eyeballs, and Greg and Eddie definitely could too. They stuck close to the vehicle on either side, waved their weapons about, shouting “Step back! Clear out!”
The hairs on your neck were standing. You scanned the crowd carefully, the covered heads and the bearded chins, for anything that stood out, anything suspicious at all.
Doreen was cranking the engine. “Piece of shit!” she cried, and then you heard her shouting over the radio. The convoy had stopped, and the others from your unit were working their way through the crowd to reach you.
There. A disturbance in the crowd. A little boy was making his way toward the vehicle, and his hands were clutched behind his back. This was the sort of thing you’d heard about—terrorists sending children to blow you up, because they didn’t think you’d be willing to pull the trigger.
You shouted, in Arabic, “Stop!” But you didn’t know the words to get his attention. You couldn’t say “little boy,” or “you with the hands behind your back,” and you couldn’t even remember the phrase “Stop or I’ll shoot.” So you just leveled your weapon at the boy and shouted as directly as possible, though he didn’t seem to be aware that anyone was talking to him.
The boy looked frightened. He was crying out loud, and everyone was shouting, the soldiers and the crowd and the boy and you, you cried at the top of your lungs, “Don’t take another step,” and in Arabic, “Stop! Stop!”
And Greg looked up at you. He couldn’t see shit through the crowd, only you could see the boy with his hands behind his back from your position above the vehicle, and Greg said, “Just pull the trigger!”
Just pull the trigger.
When the boy was only a couple yards away from the vehicle, he brought his hands out and you saw the object that he’d hidden, but it was too late.
Doreen was cranking the engine and the radio was cracking, everyone seemed to be screaming bloody murder, and then that little boy exploded, and so did you, and so did half your unit, and a dozen-odd villagers. All that damage done, all those lives lost, at the hands of a little boy holding what looked to be a Russian RGD-33 stick grenade.
So now here you stand, one small soul lost in the necropolitan sprawl, amidst every other person who has ever died, between a burger stand and a gas station, and you can only wonder: Would there be a place in Valhalla for a soldier that didn’t pull the trigger?
Stephen Logsdon graduated from UT Dallas with a master's degree in neuroscience. This was nearly two years ago now, though he can hardly believe it. After graduating, he spent the obligatory year of his life trying to find himself (and/or a job), although this journey of self-discovery involved only briefly traveling the globe, and only occasionally writing powerful tales that plumb the depths of the human condition. The following year proved far more productive. He spent it working in a rehab center for people suffering from post-acute brain injuries, occasionally trying to write a novel, and occasionally trying to get his depth-plumbing short stories published.
Bay Laurel / Volume 1, Issue 1 / Autumn 2012