Shoebox Heaven (Andromeda Spaceways InFlight Magazine #57)

Andy found Oscar, his fur clotted with lint balls, behind the dryer. Oscar’s body was still warm because he had curled up underneath the exhaust vent, but Momma told Andy that Oscar had been dead for hours — it was just old age, was all. Andy wanted to pet Oscar, because Oscar’s head was still tucked underneath his paws. It was like his cat was playing a game of hide and go seek.
Andy couldn’t understand why Momma was crying. “Let’s go to the airport,” he said, “And fly to heaven, and get Oscar.”
So they did.
Andy didn’t like the seats on the plane to Heaven. The inside of the plane looked like an old church, all narrow aisles and sun-faded carpets and rickety folding chairs. It was shivery quiet and musty, and all the men wore black suits. The women had black nets over their faces. Nobody talked to each other. Andy smiled at them, hoping to say hello, but they all pressed tissues against their noses and tried hard not to cry.
He got out his Nintendo DS. One of the attendants snatched it away from him.
Andy frowned. Seeing Oscar was much harder than he’d thought.
Momma told him to mind his manners, but it was hard; Andy’s legs couldn’t reach the floor, and the edge of the folding chair was splintery and rough. It wasn’t too bad until the plane took off, screaming, into the sky, and then a bunch of people tumbled over backwards.
Momma kept asking if there were seatbelts, but the attendants — who all had smooth, stretched skin like Saran Wrap and kept their wings trussed – just laughed. “You’re going to Heaven one way or the other,” they said. Andy didn’t understand that, but after that Momma put him on her lap and hugged him tight.
It was a long flight, and Andy was the only kid there. A young lady in front of him kept sneaking glances back at him – she was about teacher age, and clutched a baby binky in her hands. She kept squeezing it over and over again, like a lucky charm, and every time she squeezed tears dribbled down her cheeks. Andy smiled at her.
“Such a brave boy,” she said. She reached out to stroke Andy’s cheek; Momma yanked him back. “Who did you lose?”
“Oscar,” said Andy.
“It’s so hard,” said the woman, nodding solemnly, “For a child to lose his father. And so beautiful that you’d both risk — ”
“Oscar’s not my dad,” Andy snapped. “He’s my cat. He likes TV and bananas. And there’s nothing in Heaven he can like better than what we have, so we’re going to get him back.”
“Oh,” said the woman, glancing up at Momma real nervous-like. Momma stroked Andy’s hair protectively, glaring back at binky-woman.
“A cat,” muttered the woman. “It’s a fine thing to… to ruin a child’s afterlife. For a cat.” And she clutched her binky to her chest so tight that her whole body seemed to collapse around it, and she rocked back and forth and shot mean little glances at Momma for the rest of the trip.
Then there was a bump and the attendants got everyone off the plane. It all felt like that field trip Andy had taken to the petting zoo with Mrs. Framingham. Everyone had to stay in a group, and there were attendants everywhere making sure nobody wandered off, and you had to raise your hand if you wanted to go to the bathroom. The grownups didn’t like that at all.
The grownups kept complaining about how they came to see their loved ones and they thought angels would be so much nicer, and they kept griping all the way to the hotel. The hotel was made of clouds, all wispy and sky-blue. The walls and floors were shifting tendrils of fog, knitted together like the macramé plant-holders Andy had made in class once.
“Now this is Heaven,” said the Binky Lady with satisfaction.
“It’s just a holding area,” said the attendant. “You’ll get the tour of Heaven tomorrow. Unless you want to go back home today. That might be a real good idea.”
Momma didn’t like the hotel, because it wasn’t private. Every time a wind came along it whooshed fluffy holes through the walls. The walls drifted back together soon enough, but you could see glimpses of the other people in the cloud-building — flashes of a red tie or blonde hair.
Momma pulled Andy down into a fog-bed and covered Andy’s eyes with her hands. But when she fell asleep, Andy pushed Momma’s palm away. Maybe Oscar was here.
The moon was so close up here in Heaven that it hung over them like a low ceiling. Its light lit up the wispy hotel walls like glow-in-the-dark stickers, so that Andy could see the X-ray shadows of everyone moving in the hotel. He peered into the patches of darkness, hoping to see Oscar’s raggy ears bobbing down the hallway. But all he saw was that the men and women from the planes had snuck into each other’s rooms and were jumping up and down on top of each other naked.
That didn’t make any sense. They looked really desperate, like Heaven wasn’t making them happy, and when they were done they rolled away from each other and cried.
Andy hoped they’d find a cat. Cats made people happy.
In the morning, the attendants hauled everyone out of bed and pushed them onto a chariot with fiery wheels and flew them over Bug Heaven. The people wrung their hands and asked when they could see their loved ones, but the attendants just snapped the reins and made the pegasi take off so fast that one lady almost toppled off the back.
Bug Heaven was a huge garbage heap of tiny glass containers about the size of shoeboxes, bigger than anything Andy had ever seen before. There were so many glass boxes stacked on top of each other that it looked like a million skyscrapers had shattered. And in every one of the glass boxes was a bug on a leaf.
“That’s every bug that ever lived, Mom!” Andy told Mom, leaning over the rail to point at the caterpillars and ladybugs and ants. The attendants snickered.
“Just the unfulfilled ones,” they said. They sounded bored. “These are the bugs that didn’t get what they wanted. They get heaven. The rest just get discarded. Why make space for the ones that made out okay?”
Andy frowned. Maybe Oscar wasn’t here. After all, Oscar had had both TV and bananas, plus lots of Andy-cuddles. What else could Oscar have wanted?
He suddenly felt a strange double-worry growing inside of him: maybe Oscar was gone, like the time his Nintendo had died and taken all of Andy’s save-games with it. Or maybe Oscar was here because…
…well, Andy didn’t know what else Oscar could have wanted. But he had an awful, sick-tummy feeling that maybe he’d let Oscar down.
Momma hugged him and told him that he’d done a fine job taking care of Oscar. Andy still sniffled back tears when he looked down. “They’re trapped in boxes,” Andy muttered, and now in addition to worrying about Oscar — who might be in a horrible shoebox heaven, or maybe just gone — Andy thought about his fireflies.
Last summer he’d run out and caught a bunch of fireflies in a jar, and he didn’t know to punch holes in the lid, and they suffocated on his dresser while he slept. When he woke up in the morning they were just sad dying things, glowing weakly like coals in a fireplace, and he felt really bad when Momma told him that bugs needed air, too.
That seemed awful to Andy; a world where fireflies died in a jar and went to another jar. Maybe Andy should find his fireflies, too, set them free.
An attendant, noting Andy’s distress, bent down over the rail to grab a box. It put the box in Andy’s hands. The glass was warm, like a summer day. Inside was a praying mantis, gnawing on a struggling wasp.
“The bugs don’t know they’re trapped,” said the attendant. “See that wasp? It doesn’t really exist. Neither does the leaf the mantis sits on, or the grass below him, or the lady mantis he mates with sometimes. Everything in that box except for the mantis is made up. Nothing’s real, but the mantis thinks it is. And that’s heaven.”
Bug heaven,” said Binky Lady. “They don’t know any better.”
“No,” said the attendant, shrugging. “That’s every heaven.”
“That can’t be true,” protested a man in a dark black suit, “Why would you tell us that Heaven’s just an illusion? I mean, once we know that everything we see for the rest of eternity is just our own minds, and that the people we love are actually elsewhere and completely apart from us in a place we can never be, won’t that drive us crazy? Won’t we spend our whole afterlife locked in a box, gibbering mad?”
“Well, we told you not to come,” sniffed the attendant.
The people on the chariot murmured to each other, disturbed. Andy didn’t quite understand why. He’d played videogames. He thought a life inside a magic box would be pretty neat.
The attendant knelt down next to Andy.
“I’ll talk to you,” said the attendant, chucking the box over the side, “Because you’re young. You might be as good as a bug. God loves bugs — they hardly ever complain, they mostly live their lives and go away, He doesn’t feel like He has to make it up to them. That’s why He makes so many bugs, Andy. It looks like a lot of bugs are up here in Heaven, but most of them just die and leave God alone, just the way He likes it. And if you manage to be content with your life, then you’ll just dissipate when you die, spreading apart like foam on the sea, and not bother any of Us. And wouldn’t that be nice?”
“But I don’t wanna drift away like foam,” Andy protested. “I like doing things.”
“You would.” The attendant rolled its eyes, and talked louder so all the other people in the chariot would hear. “That’s why God hates you, you know. He’s a nice man, so He keeps you around if you didn’t like what He made — but don’t think He wants to!”
The attendant snapped the reins, and Bug Heaven blurred underneath their feet. Then the pegasi skidded to a stop on the clouds, the fiery chariot wheels kicking up plumes of steam.
Andy heard the noise before he saw the glass towers, the sound of a billion people all yelling their heads off. The yelling bounced off cold glass, a vast crowd laughing and shrieking and screaming and moaning, like a million angry dodgeball games, like a million Mommy and Daddy fights.
People Heaven was a maze of glass elevators stacked unevenly on top of soft clouds, piled so high that they brushed against the luminescent sand of the moon above. Inside each of the elevators, a single naked person ranted and raved at their reflection.
“People Heaven!” announced the attendants, kicking folks off the back of the chariot. “Everyone out.”
Andy pressed himself against the chariot’s railing, feeling Momma curl around him to shield him, wishing he was elsewhere. People Heaven was scary, but he couldn’t look away because each of the folks were so crazy. Some of them did naked pushups on the floor, their eyes all bulgy as they jumped up and down on empty air like the people in the hotel rooms last night. Other people clutched imaginary guns and shot, shot, shot, laughing crazily. And still other people were dancing with themselves and smiling off at nowhere, or drank from imaginary bottles and staggered face-first into the walls.
They were all smiling… But not with Mommy-smiles. These were monkey-smiles, stretched tight over their faces, ready to bite. Andy didn’t like those smiles at all.
The still-living people, who looked weird in their black suits among the cages of naked people, got up from where the attendants had kicked them and brushed themselves off. As they gazed up, they looked as terrified as Andy felt.
“Give a bug a box, and it wants a leaf,” muttered the attendant darkly. “Give you a box, and you drown yourself in the worst possible things. Oh, you think it’s so grand, your imagination, your vision, your stolen understanding of life. All it ever lets you do is think of more things that you shouldn’t have. Think God wanted you to extract cocaine from the leaf, booze from the grape, shame from the sex? No, but you did. Will you ever realize that these dreams just make you sick with visions? You can’t even be happy here.”
“Is my Harold here?” asked a woman in a black dress. She shielded her eyes with her hand as she scanned the towers of boxes.
It fluttered its hand at the sprawling streets. “Somewhere. You’re all in here. Holler for Us when you find ‘em.”
Andy looked over to where the attendant was gesturing, and saw that other people were wandering through the great glass maze, little more than distant specks. Some climbed towers. Some were dressed in rags, some completely naked. He wondered how long they’d been here.
Binky Lady was the last off the chariot. Andy grabbed her hand.
“You should stay with us,” he said. “We’re going to find our cat. You should get a cat. Cats are cool.”
“I have to find my baby,” said Binky Lady. She pressed her binky against her cheek.
“Your baby’s sea foam, lady,” Andy said, surprised that Binky Lady hadn’t figured that out. “Babies are happy. They don’t know any better than bugs. There’s no babies in Heaven, Binky Lady. God just lets ‘em go.”
Binky Lady looked to Momma. Momma nodded, slowly. Then Binky Lady hauled back and slapped Andy.
“You lie,” she hissed. And she walked away to get lost among the boxes.
Andy clutched his cheek, then burst into tears. And then Momma whispered in his ear. “This is Hell, sweetie,” she said. “When living people come up to Heaven, it becomes Hell. But it’s all one place. Remember that.”
The attendant planted its foot in the small of Andy’s back, trying to push him off the back of the chariot. “Everybody off, kid. We’re done here.”
Andy grabbed the railing tight. “I wanna see Oscar!” he cried. “I wanna see my cat!”
The attendant frowned. “You came here for your cat?”
“His name is Oscar. And I thought he liked TV and bananas, but maybe he didn’t, and now I wanna know what my cat liked. So you take me to Oscar.”
The attendant chuckled. “Even if I brought you to Cat Heaven, kid, it’s a big place. You could wander for years. Why should I bother, when you can get just as lost here?”
Andy hadn’t thought of that. But the attendant was right. There must be a zillion more cats than people.
“Bring me to Oscar.” Andy stood straight up and put his hand over his heart, like he was making the Pledge of Allegiance. “Bring me, and I’ll never want anything else.”
The attendant did a double-take. “Like a bug?”
“Like a bug. Like sea foam. I don’t wanna be stuck in a glass cage anyway.” Then, seeing the way the attendant scowled, he balled his hand into a fist so that only one finger was poking out. “Pinky promise.”
The attendant laughed, then jabbed Momma in the ribs with one elbow. “Kids,” it said. “They say crazy things, right?”
Momma was white as Elmer’s Glue. But she stood behind Andy, putting her hands on his shoulders.
“It’s the same thing I said when Daddy took me to this awful place when I was a girl,” she whispered. And slowly, she raised her fist to put her pinky sign next to Andy’s.
The attendant tried to sneer, but couldn’t quite manage it.
“Humans,” it said. “You’re serious?”
“Oscar,” said Andy. And he thrust out his pinky.
The attendant snapped the reins again, and People Heaven shrank to nothingness, and Cat Heaven whizzed into view. It was an endless field of boxes stacked on clouds, but the attendant took Andy straight to Oscar.
“There he is,” said the attendant.
Andy pressed his nose against the box, which smelled like Oscar. Momma knelt down beside him. Andy saw Oscar inside, his one tattered ear, the crook in his tail twitching as he stalked something gray and fast through a field of grass.
“If you want,” she said, “You can open that box and bring Oscar home. And then he’ll never ever die. He’ll wander the world for as long as you’re living, and then some.”
Andy didn’t open the box, not yet. He wanted to see what Oscar Heaven was like.
He watched, and Oscar chased a mouse through the yard outside their house. He’d never been allowed outside when he’d been alive. Then Oscar found a sunbeam, slept on a branch, chased some birds.
Andy realized now why Oscar had sat by the window for hours. He felt sick.
After he caught a squirrel, Oscar went inside to drink water from a cat dish, and a hand gave him kibbles. Then a hand stroked him.
Andy started to cry, because there was no face with the hand. It could have been anyone, giving Oscar treats. It could have been anyone, petting Oscar. And though he watched for hours, sniffling and sobbing and hoping, Oscar never watched TV, not once, though he did gobble up a piece of banana he found in a garbage can.
Oscar Heaven had no Andy.
My Heaven would have had Oscar,” he sobbed, feeling a terrible emptiness boiling inside him. “Why doesn’t he have me?”
Momma stroked his hair.
“Sometimes, you carry someone within you, but you’re not in them,” she said. “That happens. All the time. Even to Mommies.”
That didn’t make Andy feel better at all. Momma kissed his forehead.
“But you must be good,” she said. “The world is full of things you can’t have. And if you keep wanting to be in Oscar’s Heaven, then you’ll die and go to a box. And do you want that?”
Andy shivered as he thought of the crazy people in the boxes. He didn’t want that. Better to be sea foam, even if dying was so scary now his knees trembled just thinking about it.
“It’s an awful life,” she said. “But it’s okay. We can make it okay. We can be happy. Do you want to take Oscar with you?”
Momma stared at him, all calm and quiet, and Andy knew this was a Very Important Decision.
Andy put his hand on the box. A mean part of him wanted to smash it on the floor, dropping a surprised Oscar right out of his shoebox Heaven. Then he could hold Oscar to his chest and kidnap him back to Earth, where Oscar would never die. How could he? Andy would have smashed his Heaven. And from then on, Andy and his bananas and cuddles would be the closest thing to Heaven that Oscar would ever have.
That seemed like a pretty mean thing to do to something you loved, though.
So he petted the box like it was Oscar, and swallowed back a big sniffle, and said, “No. He should stay.”
Momma beamed. Andy was still sad about Oscar, but he felt like he’d left something even sadder behind here, though he couldn’t say what. All he knew was that his cat was dead, and he would die too, and then there would be nothing if he was lucky.
What a strange world.
The attendants were surprised to see them return to the Heaven airport, but they welcomed them back with hugs. “Earth’s where you belong,” said the attendants, bringing Andy a big glass of cold chocolate milk. “I don’t know why you never get that, but you don’t.”
The plane started back. They were the only people on it. Momma ruffled Andy’s hair.
“When you die,” she said, giving him the pinky promise, “Sea foam. Right, kid?”
“Right,” said Andy, and it was the best chocolate milk he’d ever had.