“Dead or Alive?” A Short Story

I’m not tired anymore.

I must have fallen asleep, because, just moments before, I was exhausted and falling into the oblivion. The weariness, as extreme as it was mere second ago, was nothing compared to the pain. It’s difficult, in this dreamy state, attempting to piece together the events that led me to fall asleep. It’s not like I rested on the bed and closed my eyes—nothing of the sort. I was driving—

Did I fall asleep while driving?

Willing myself to wake has no effect, though. If I’m asleep at the wheel, then I’m in trouble. That doesn’t seem right, however. I’ve never fallen asleep while driving—and it was broad daylight. I was returning to work after my lunch break—some excellent sushi, a glass of iced tea, then the customary after-meal cigarette. I remember that. I remember also getting into my car, cranking it, and beginning the drive back to the office.

But when did I fall asleep?

I turned right and out onto the highway. Then my phone rang, and I saw the time. I was late. Only by a few minutes, but that wouldn’t matter to the boss; late was late. That really wasn’t good, because I’d been late to work twice this week already—things are chaotic for me at home. My oldest daughter is in a rebellious phase and has been staying out well past her curfew with her friends, then refuses to wake for school the next day; making sure she goes to school is becoming an enormous pain in the ass.

I approached an intersection, didn’t I? The timing couldn’t have been worse. A lot of times when lights turn yellow, the driver has plenty of time to slow down and stop. Sometimes, though, the light turns yellow at that worst possible moment, when the only options are to either slam on the brakes like a maniac or floor it and hope to make it through before it turns to red. I hate those moments—and they always happen when I don’t need them to. And sure enough, this was one of those. I made a split-second decision and went for it. The traffic behind me was too close for mashing the brakes; doing so would probably have caused a wreck—isn’t that just terrific?

There was a wreck anyway, though. But I didn’t see it or what caused it. I was passing through the intersection trying to catch the light when it happened. There was a lot of noise—very, very close noise—which sounded an awful lot like a bomb exploding within just a few feet of me. Horns blared like obnoxious seagulls—Yes, people, that’s really helpful, thank you—and tires screeched like eagles diving in for a kill.

And then there was a lot of pain. One of these idiots hadn’t been paying attention to what they were doing and hitme. I wish I’d seen what idiot started the chain of reactions. I wish I’d seen what idiot swerved or slammed on his brakes or was texting and didn’t see it was red or didn’t subject his vehicle to regular maintenance so his brakes had gone out or who was just in too much of a hurry to wait for the red light and decided to just try to barrel on through the intersection and hope for the best.

Idiots.

I must be unconscious, then.

I know what you’re thinking: How do you know you’re not dead?

 I’m absolutely certain that I’m not dead. No, it’s not denial. No, I’m not going to become a ghost because of my inability to realize that I’ve died. I know I’m not dead, because, unlike many of the people with whom I share the planet, I have no delusion that I am immortal. That is” I don’t believe in souls or gods or afterlifes or any of those other mad things that human beings have invented so that they could convince themselves that they will live forever.

I mean, after more than 7,000 years of civilization, I’d expect that there would be at least one indication that any of those things existed if they existed. The idea that there is a soul, an afterlife, and a god has struck me as remarkably delusional ever since I first entered junior high and started giving the matter serious thought. It has, since that time, been obvious to me that the soul is something that we humans invented and dreamed up so that we could convince ourselves that death wasn’t the end of the road and, to justify our belief in that soul, we had to invent gods and heavens and hells and reincarnations and all the other mad things.

For many, many years have I been an atheist. Please feel free to draw about me from that statement whatever generalizations you like—I promise you that nothing you assume about me will be something I’ve never heard before. Sure: I eat babies. Sure: I worship the Devil. Sure: I still believe in Hell. Sure: I’m mat at Yahweh. Sure: I’m mad at Allah. Sure: I worship Zeus. Sure: I hate Jesus. Sure: I’m evil. Sure: I hate goodness. Sure: I hate Christians. Sure: I’m bitter. Sure: I hate everyone. Sure: I’m amoral. Sure: I have orgies with both men and women—especially men dressed as women and hermaphrodites!!! Yes, sir!—while covered with the blood of virgins I have sacrificed on stone altars at noon on the Equinox to appease the almighty Ra. I mean, don’t all atheists?

At any rate, the fact remains that I am unequivocally not dead,because I still think, and the ability to think—to dream, as I do now—is indisputable proof that I am still alive. If I was dead, then my brain would be dead and unable to dream. Why don’t I open my eyes, then, and prove to you that I am dreaming—

I open my eyes. I do not see my steering wheel, of course, or the interior of my car. I see clouds; I am on a cloud.

This… might be bad.

A brilliant flash of light forces me to close my eyes again. Jesus Christ, that’s bright.

The most well-known and easily recognized Pokemon of the past few decades is known as Pikachu, and Pikachu’s name comes from the detonation of atomic bombs. Right as an atomic bomb is detonated, just before the explosion en sincera begins, there is an extraordinary flash of light. This flash of light is called a “pika.” The brilliant light that just forced me to close my eyes makes both Pikachu and his namesake event—the pikadon of nuclear bombs—look like 30 watt lightbulbs.

When I open my eyes, they sting and water. The light remains and still shines, ahead of me by about ten feet. I don’t look at it—I’d probably go blind if I tried. My eyes may even catch fire, who knows? It’s fucking bright. Instead, I look far to the left—and there stands what you would unmistakably and instantly recognize as—

An angel.

A goddamned angel. And it isn’t just one angel, no. There are dozens of the winged things, some of them flapping their wings—I briefly wonder whether that means they have four shoulder joints (Since every animal on Earth has wingsattached at shoulder joints, any creature with wings will either not have arms or will have four shoulder joints)—against the endless azure backdrop over the sea of ivory. Some are far in the distance, but some are very close. Three of them stand within feet of me, and their gazes fall onto me. They’re squinting because of the light, too. Apparently sunglasses are not standard attire for angels. I think it’s time to call for a new President of the Angel’s Union.

“What the—is that the sun? What, have you got a giant magnifying glass on me or something?” I ask them irritably as I hold up my left hand in the direction of the glowing light in a vain attempt to shield my eyes from it.

The angel furthest to the right chuckles. Angels with a sense of humor—great. Makes perfect sense. Now I know I’m dreaming. Someone roofied me. That’s it—that’s why the pain went away suddenly. It wasn’t because I fell asleep; it was because some wonderful paramedic injected me with a healthy dose of morphine, and this is just an opiate dream—like Samuel Coleridge’s inspiration for”Kubla Khan.”

That also nicely explains why the angel is smiling. Everyone smiles in an opiate dream.

“You got a dimmer switch or something around here?” I ask.”That—” I jerk my thumb in the direction of the light as I say this—”is obnoxious. You need to pull the plug on that or someone’s going to be blinded and have a nice lawsuit against Heaven.”

I guess the angels are mute. Or maybe they’re just stupid. Hell, who knows—they’re fucking angels, right? Anyway, he—I assume it’s a “he,”thanks to the programming of Christian mythology, but the angels are all androgynous—just chuckles at me again, like a fucking re-re—like Barney Fife, really, just smiling and nodding—or like Elmer Fudd if he’d ever managed to catch the “Wascally Wabbit.” Can you imagine the stupid grin on his face?

“I am sorry that you find the Light of God to be… ‘obnoxious,’ my child,” says a… I don’t know how to describe it. God help me; it’s “booming,” of course—just as one would expect the “voice of God” to be in the opiate dream of someone raised as a Catholic until he came to good sense in junior high—and it was… just read the Book of Daniel or something if you want an idea of what the voice sounded like.

“The “Light of God,'” I repeat, with obvious incredulity. “I suppose ‘Light of God’ is a hallucinatory euphemism for ‘high on morphine, lying on my back, and staring up at a fluorescent bulb above my head in a hospital with one half-opened, cockeye eye?’ I’m probably drooling on myself, too. Ugh—I hope that’s the worst bodily fluid I’ve leaked onto myself.”

“You are not high; you are not sleeping. Your body is no longer leaking anything. Your body is in a hospital, and youYou are dead,” the voice booms majestically.

“Well, don’t beat around the bush.”

It’s really difficult to have a conversation with “someone” without even looking in their direction, but I can’t turn to stare at the light. I know I’m in a hospital bed, staring up at a light, on lots of pain killers, and in my dreamy stupor, I don’t have the sense to blink whatever eye is half-open and staring at the light. If I turn to face the light in this dream, the eye that is open in my actual body will probably focus on the light and burn out my retinas. No, thank you—I’ll pass on that. However, I’m learning how difficult it really is to fight the impulse to look in the direction of someone I’m talking to.

“As much as I believe you, I’m going to ignore you… and focus my imagination on a beautiful, naked woman, okay? So… don’t be upset when you disappear and she appears to take your place. It’s nothing personal, but as long as I’m having a lucid dream, I’m going to do it right, you know what I mean?”

“This is not a dream,”the light boomed majestically. How else would a light claiming to be “God” speak?

I shrugged. “One way or another, it is a dream. I’m either on heavy drugs and dreaming or I’m dying and these are my last thoughts.”

“Your last thoughts?”

“Yes, my last thoughts.” What, am I talking to a child? “If I’m dying, then my subconscious doesn’t know I’m dying. Dying is probably identical to falling asleep for the brain. If I’m dying, then my brain triggered this dream, thinking itself to be asleep—it may even be aware that it’s dying; I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter, because it triggered this dream either way.”

“Do go on.”

“Well, we completely lose track of time in our dreams, don’t we? Sometimes we dream and we wake up and say, ‘Wow! That dream lasted an hour!’ In reality, though, the dream was a flash, probably no longer than a minute or two. It’s not a far stretch of the imagination to fathom that as the brain dies, its final dream seems to last an eternity to the dreamer. No doubt when Christians die, their final dream is of what they imagine Heaven to be like, reuniting with their loved ones, their dog that died in the fifth grade who their parents said had ‘run away.’ To them, though, the passage of time, just like in all dreams, is distorted. Just a few seconds passes on Earth during this final dream, but the dreamer isn’t aware of that. To the dreamer, it lasts forever. Then the dreamer slowly stops dreaming, having finally died, and is dead and thus isn’t aware that they stopped dreaming.”

“Interesting theory, my child, but you are incorrect. You are dead, and you stand before me now to be judged.”

“I suppose you intend to recount all the works and deeds of my life? Other than visions of the afterlife—which, as I just explained, are dreams in every sense—those who have near-death experiences consistently report their ‘lives flashing before their eyes.’That only tells me I’m right, that I am dreaming. You say I’m dead; I am not dead, because I still think. I am dying, and this is my final dream. And now—my life shall flash before my eyes.”

“Then why are you here, my child? Where is the beautiful, naked woman? Why am I here? Have you not proclaimed for years and years, with foolish pride, ‘I am an atheist! I am an Atheist!'”

I’m stumped. That’s a damned fine point. I am an atheist. Why am I having a religious dream? I know why.

I remember once, decades ago, when I was in the… fourth grade, I believe. I was still a firm believer in the Christian mythology in those days. A true believer, I was. I had doubts, though, and—as I was beginning to hit puberty—I had unclean thoughts. I constantly had “unclean” thoughts. In later life, I reflected on what a horrible concept it truly is to tell children they are sinful and unclean, essentially, because they hit puberty. I was ashamed, and I asked a dear friend of mine, my best friend who was also a firm believer, to try to “cast out” the demons in me. I was firmly convinced that I had demons inside me and that I needed an exorcism. I would never have taken this to the priest or my parents, but I practically begged my friend to stand before me and loudly state with all his belief backing him, “Get behind me, Satan!”

He wouldn’t do it. I don’t blame him, in retrospect. What can be said of any belief system that can so brainwash a person that they truly believe that their body is inhabited by demons, simply because they hit puberty and were starting to feel a little randy? Hearing about spiritual warfare and the devil walking the Earth, corrupting mankind, and hearing about demons whispering into our ears constantly… What a wretched thing.

That indoctrination stayed in the back of my mind for years. I became an atheist at the age of 14, but I was 39 years old before I was completely rid of the fear that nagged in the back of my mind: …what if I’m wrong? It wasn’t the “Voice of God” trying to keep me in his flock; it was the result of being brainwashed from the age of 2 to fear a vengeful, unforgiving, omnipotent, and omniscient father figure who loved unconditionally—but had a few conditions.

Damn any belief system that does that to a human being. Damn the parents who instill that fear into their children before the children have even learned to think. Damn the priests and rabbis and preachers who have little kids all over the world convinced that an omniscient and omnipresent anti-god known as Satan is out there trying to win them over. Damn the scourges that are Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Damn any belief system that requires fear.

“Indoctrination,” I answer. It’s simple, and it’s true. I’m here because of that nagging fear that I thought I was rid of. My brain does know I’m dying, then, and that nagging fear won. That nagging fear that I might be wrong defeated all the evidence, all the logic, all the knowledge, all the wisdom, and all the common sense. That one fear, as my body started to die, defeated 7,000 years of civilization and methodical proofs that the fear is unfounded. Only brainwash can do that; only evil indoctrination can do that.

“You’re not as concerned as you should be.”

“I’m dying, quite obviously. It won’t matter to me very soon.”

“My child, my child… I fearthat is where you are wrong. As you said,… ‘To the dreamer, it lasts forever…'”

Whirlwinds of thoughts and realizations spin through my mind. I know exactly what that means. If the fear won, then… If my brain was convinced on its most basic level that I was wrong and that Christianity is right, then… If I dream that Christianity is right, then atheists… If I’m dreaming, and “to the dreamer, it lasts forever,” then…

“I’m going to Hell,” I whisper. There’s no fear in my voice; there’s no resignation to my fate in my tone. There’s only the cold, logical realization. No emotions seeped in, just like no emotions seeped into my decision regarding atheism. I didn’t let that fear—that stupid emotion that has now defeated me—into my decision. I couldn’t let go of that fear, though. I thought I did, though… It apparently remained on some level. And now that fear will win.

My brain’s doubt has convinced itself that I am wrong, and because of that, my brain is going to dream that I’m going to Hell. And the dream will seem to last forever, even though it will only last seconds on Earth. My brain is going to send me to Hell and torture me because of that goddamned religious indoctrination.

“Not because of religious indoctrination,” said what I might as well go ahead and call Yahweh. It doesn’t matter at this point. It doesn’t matter whether—

It doesn’t matter whether I was right or wrong. It doesn’t matter where there is or is not a god. It only matters what I believe on a very basic, fundamental, and subconscious level. On that level, I was afraid that I was wrong. It doesn’t matter whether I am standing before Yahweh and being sentenced to an eternity in hell or whether I’m simply dying and dreaming that I am standing before Yahweh and being sentenced to an eternity in hell. The result is the same.

What if that fear had been gone? What if I’d let go of that fear completely? Would I be dreaming of something else—perhaps the beautiful woman? Would I dream of being reincarnated if I was a Hindu? Would I dream of being greeted by Allah if I was a Muslim? Our beliefs determine our afterlife because our afterlife is a dream created by our brains based upon our beliefs.

Since I, deep down inside, believed I was wrong,but on shallower levels was an atheist who had cast off Christianity, I stand before Yahweh being sentenced to hell… If I did not have that fear but was an atheist, I would dream something non-religious. If I had that fear but had cast off Islam, I would stand before Allah being sentenced to hell or whatever the Muslims call it.

How can I know? Is Yahweh real?! Is this a dream? Am I going to hell or am I dreaming that I am going to hell? Is this the afterlife or is this a dream of what the religious indoctrination I experienced as a child led me to once believe the afterlife would be like?

Or am I lying in a hospital bed on my back, high on morphine, and staring up at a bright fluorescent light with one half-open, cock-eyed eye?

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