The first thing I remember is rising. Shooting skywards like a balloon cut from its tether, utterly uncontrolled, disoriented and frantic. Plummeting upwards.
I remember wisps of cloud, spinning green ground receding below, blue above as I rocketed upwards, a roaring in my ears. I remember thinking, Why am I not cold? Why isn’t there wind?
All around me, dimming my view of my surroundings, was a thick, translucent haze, which emitted continual arcs of energy in bright colors―crimson red, emerald green, powder blue. As I rose, I was continually barraged and battered by these discharges. I didn’t feel pain―Am I even capable of feeling pain?, I thought—as much as a continual, inescapable, overwhelming discomfort…a spider crawling up my leg, an itch I couldn’t scratch, all over my entire body, throughout my entire being, as if I were allergic to my own skin. The light display might otherwise have been beautiful, but the sensation was maddening, overwhelming me with an intense desire to escape upwards, to rise higher.
I remember desperately grappling for my bearings, for understanding, for a single thought I could hold onto. What is this? What’s happening to me? Who am I?
And, as if in answer: Will. My name is Will. I am sixteen years old.
I remember reaching inside my mind for more information, and coming up empty. And then, looking deeper. And then scrambling around inside the dark, vacant room of my own head…and finding nothing else. Not a clue as to my identity. Not a single memory.
The haze around me was thinning as I rocketed upwards, the colored bolts growing less intense and more infrequent, the full-body itch mercifully beginning to loosen its grip. Above, the sky was darkening from blue to black, though the sun still blazed directly overhead. I must be near the edge of the stratosphere. Then how can I breathe? Wait…AM I breathing? And how do I know what ‘stratosphere’ means? Who taught me the word? Where? When?
As the haze diminished, my sight grew clearer. Something in the corner of my eye captured my attention. Above me and off to my left was a luminous speck of light, rising like a spark from a campfire. As I focused my attention on the light, my position changed; I felt myself angling to my left and increasing my velocity upwards, catching up to the glowing spark. What? How did I… Startled at having regained control of my own movement, I lost focus on my target; I found myself sliding straight up again, out of control, like a cork through clear water.
Fighting for a grip, I refocused on the light. Slowly, I felt my path begin to change, to angle upwards and left towards the glow. With no point of reference there was no way to judge distance or size; was I about to catch a firefly, or was I in futile pursuit of a star? I reached out towards the speck of light―
―and for the first time, I got a look at my own hand. It was perfectly transparent and translucent, as was the arm attached. There was barely more substance to my hand, to my arm, to me, than there was to the ever-diminishing haze. Holding my palm up in front of me, I could look straight through it and clearly see the spark above.
I looked down at my body for the first time, and was nearly blinded by an intense, luminous glow in the center of my torso. Squinting to reduce the glare, I found the rest of me―my chest, my stomach, my legs―to be equally transparent. Aside from the light beaming from my heart, I was barely there at all. I should have been awestruck by this fact, by the panorama below me―the curve of the earth now plainly visible on the horizon, most of a continent stretching out below in a pastiche of faded browns and greens and blues. But I wasn’t. Instead, I found myself wondering: why am I squinting? If my eyelids are transparent, how can tightening them reduce the glare?
I looked up again at the glowing spark, and then off at the horizon. Was it an after-image, or was that another tiny glowing light off in the distance below me?
I shut my eyes―Why does that work?―then opened them again. Fighting against my panic, I sought focus, that same feeling which had drawn me towards the spark above. My mind fumbled with distractions, then grappled at the edges of…something, some inner sense I’d never used nor known I had. Gradually, my grip on myself grew surer, more confident. I willed myself to slowly rotate as I rose; my body obeyed.
There was no mistaking it this time. The light I’d been chasing was real. As I spun slowly in midair, my ascent now slowing dramatically, the mist gradually dispersing, I could see other glowing lights off in the distance. I counted them as I rotated. One…two…three…four? Five… Shooting stars in reverse, rising against the darkening sky.
I looked down again at myself. My body was an afterthought, almost invisible. And yet the heart of me blazed on, luminous in the gathering black. I could not name the color of it; I had never seen it before, yet it was somehow familiar. And those other lights were, unmistakably, in color and by nature, a match for the light in me.
People, I thought. Each of those lights is a person.
The last wisps of electric haze dwindled in the distance beneath me. The roaring in my ears had faded to nothing. I was free of the full-body itch, free of the atmosphere. Below me was the whole Earth; above me blazed the sun and stars, simultaneously, in the black void. I was merely another glowing light among many. The silence around me was absolute. There was no air, yet I felt no cold, no heat, no pain, no sense of suffocation.
The realization didn’t provoke any particular terror or awe. I felt no pain. I felt no regret. Shouldn’t I be missing someone? My family? My friends? Yet, stumbling around in my mind, I could not find any of them. The word “mother” had a definition, but I couldn’t tie a picture to it. I could remember people, as a concept; I could not recall a single specific human person.
In truth, I could barely remember myself. My name is Will. I am sixteen years old. What did I look like? An image came to mind, a bit unclear, as through a foggy mirror. Brown hair, yes…a big, thick, unruly mop of it…darkish complexion…a face a bit too broad to be handsome, with narrow eyes beneath heavy brows…medium height and build.
Am I smart? Dumb? Strong? Weak? Awkward? Popular? Who are my friends? What are my hobbies? Nothing. A total blank.
What do I do next?
Of all the questions I was struggling with, that was the one that really had me on edge.
Isn’t there supposed to be someone or something here to tell me what comes next? Dead relatives waiting? A set of huge pearly gates guarded by a winged man with a checklist? Nasty horned men brandishing pitchforks and beckoning with sinister expressions? SOMETHING? I didn’t remember holding any particular religious beliefs, but surely no major faith believed that, after death, God dropped you off in low earth orbit, gave you amnesia, slapped you on the back, shouted “good luck!” and then wandered off about His business?
In the absence of an instruction manual, I was presumably going to have to find my own answers. And I wasn’t going to find out anything by just drifting aimlessly in space. Once again, I checked my surroundings. The―person? Soul?—that had been above me on my way up was now just off to my left, floating motionless. I brought up my arms and legs, pushed them forwards in a powerful butterfly stroke, and achieved utterly nothing. No, that’s not right. It isn’t about your body. Not here. It’s about the mind... I willed to move towards the glow; and, in willing it, I found it was happening. Slowly, like a dandelion seed on a summer breeze, I drifted forwards.
Approaching, I gave a cheerful wave, only to remember that both my neighbor and I were virtually invisible to one another. I grew closer. In the combined glow of the lights in each of us, I could just barely see the outline of a humanoid form. The ghostly shape has its arm outstretched, as if to touch something, and it was looking in…
I paused in my approach. What direction is that? My neighbor was reaching out in a direction for which I had no name.
Something in my mind twisted. Somewhere in my consciousness, a switch was flipped. Something behind my eyes opened. And I could suddenly see the direction in which my neighbor was looking. It was an angle incomprehensible to the mortal mind; I was looking at a right angle to the entire reality I had known. I was looking outwards.
And in the far distance outwards was The Light. The Light!
Have I said that we, my neighbor and I, were luminous? Relative to The Light, we were tiny flickers. If we were rising sparks, The Light was the bonfire itself. How could I not have seen it before, when its intensity would have dimmed a hundred suns? It’s no accident that living human beings can’t see The Light, I thought. The flesh isn’t equipped for it. It would fry your brain like an egg inside your skull.
I didn’t have to be told what I was looking at. It seemed to me that I had always known it, that it had always been a part of me, and of every person ever born. The Light is unity and love. The Light is destiny, the purpose of all human existence. Had I sought instructions for my afterlife? The Light was, in itself, all the instruction needed. This is what we were made for. To join with The Light.
Pulling my eyes away from The Light, I could see that the other human souls which had arisen alongside of my neighbor and me were rushing outwards, with all the speed they could muster. Rushing towards fusion with the light, heeding its call, seeking to disappear into it entirely.
And suddenly, I had something new to be confused about.
Because I could look into the light, and recognize what it signified. I knew, at a purely instinctive level, that The Light had to be the destiny of every human being. That there could be no purpose outside of it or apart from it. That every single fiber of me should crave union with it.
And yet, somehow, I didn’t.
I didn’t want to merge with The Light.
I didn’t want it at all.