There was a twisting, a sensation of being turned inside-out, and then he was rising. He was shooting skywards like a balloon cut from its tether, utterly uncontrolled, disoriented and frantic. There were wisps of cloud, spinning green ground receding below, crystal blue above as he plummeted upwards, a roaring in his ears.
All around him, dimming his view, was a thick haze through which electricity arced and danced, discharges of bright color―crimson red, emerald green, powder blue. As he rose, he was continually barraged and battered by the strange energy. He didn’t feel pain, but there was a continual, inescapable, overwhelming discomfort…a spider crawling up his leg, an itch he couldn’t scratch, throughout his entire being. The light display might otherwise have been beautiful, but the sensation was maddening, overwhelming him with an intense desire to escape upwards, to rise higher.
He desperately grappled for his bearings, for understanding, for a single thought he could hold onto. What is this? What’s happening to me? Who am I?
And, from somewhere inside himself, as if in answer: Will. My name is Will. I am sixteen years old.
Will reached inside his mind for more information, and came up empty. And then he looked deeper. And then scrambled around inside the dark vacancy…and found nothing else. Not a clue as to his identity. Not a single memory.
The haze around him was thinning as he rocketed skywards, 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, he thought. 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, Will’s sight grew clearer. Above him and off to his left was a luminous speck of light, rising like a spark from a campfire. Focusing his attention on the light, he felt himself angling towards it and increasing his velocity, catching up to the glowing spark. What? How did I… Startled, his focus lost, he was sliding straight upwards again, out of control, like a cork through clear water.
Fighting for a grip, Will refocused on the light. Slowly, he felt his control return, and once again he angled towards the glow. With no point of reference, there was no way to judge distance or size; was he about to catch a firefly, or was he in futile pursuit of a distant star? Will reached out towards the spark―
―and for the first time, he caught a glimpse of his own hand. It was perfectly transparent and translucent, as was the arm attached. There was barely more substance to his hand, to his arm, to him, than there was to the ever-diminishing haze. Holding his palm up before his eyes, he could easily look straight through it at the spark above.
Looking down at his body for the first time, Will was nearly blinded by an intense, luminous glow in the center of his torso. Squinting to reduce the glare, he found that the rest of him―his chest, his stomach, his legs―were as insubstantial as his hands. Aside from the light beaming from his heart, he was barely there at all. He should have been awestruck by this fact, by the panorama below him―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. But somehow, he wasn’t. Instead, he found himself distracted by odd questions: why am I squinting? If my eyelids are transparent, how can tightening them reduce the glare?
Will looked up again at the glowing spark, and then off at the horizon. Was that another tiny glowing light off in the distance below him? He shut his eyes―Why does that work?―then opened them again. Fighting against panic, he sought focus, grasped for the feeling which had drawn him towards the spark above. His mind fumbled with distractions, then grappled at the edges of…something, some inner sense he’d never used nor known he possessed. And gradually, Will’s grip on himself grew more confident. He willed himself to slowly rotate as he rose, and found that his body obeyed.
There was no mistaking it this time. The light he’d been chasing was real. As he spun slowly in midair, his ascent now slowing dramatically, the mist gradually dispersing, he could see other glowing lights off in the distance. He counted them as he rotated. One…two…three…four? Five… Shooting stars in reverse, rising against the darkening sky.
Will looked down again at himself. His body was an afterthought, almost invisible. And yet the heart of him blazed on, luminous in the gathering dark. He could not name the color of the light at the center of him; he 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 him.
People, he thought. Each of those lights is a person.
The last wisps of electric haze dwindled in the distance below. The roaring in Will’s ears had faded to total silence. He was free of the full-body itch, free of the atmosphere. Below him was the whole Earth; above him blazed the sun and stars, simultaneously, in the black void. He was merely another glowing light among many. There was no air, yet he felt no cold, no heat, no pain, no sense of suffocation.
The realization didn’t provoke any particular terror or awe. Will felt no anguish, no regret. Shouldn’t I be missing someone? My family? My friends? He was certain he should, but searching his mind, he couldn’t find them. The word “mother” had a definition, but he couldn’t fit a particular image to it. He could remember people, as a concept; he could not recall a single specific human person.
In truth, Will could barely remember himself. My name is Will. I am sixteen years old. What did he look like? An image came to mind, indistinct, as through a foggy mirror. Dark 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 Will was struggling with, that was the one that really had him 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? SOMETHING? I mean…I don’t remember being particularly religious, but surely no faith believes that, after death, God drops you off in low earth orbit, gives you amnesia, slaps you on the back, and then wanders off to do God stuff?
He was going to have to find his own answers, and he wasn’t going to find out anything by just drifting aimlessly in space. Once again, he examined his surroundings. The―person? Soul?—that had been above him on his way up was now just off to his left, floating motionless. Will brought up his arms and legs, swung them back in a powerful butterfly stroke, and achieved utterly nothing; he remained anchored, flailing in the void. No, that’s not right. It isn’t about your body. Not here. It’s about the mind... Instead of exercising nonexistent muscles, Will simply decided to move towards the glow, and in wishing it, he found it was happening. Slowly, like a dandelion seed on a summer breeze, he drifted forward.
Approaching, Will gave his neighbor a cheerful wave, only to remember that the two of them were virtually invisible to one another. As he grew closer, he found that the lights at the center of each of them blended and echoed off of one another; in the combined glow, he could just barely see the outline of a human form. The ghostly shape has its arm outstretched, as if to touch something, and it was looking in…
Will paused in his approach. In what direction was his neighbor looking, exactly?
Somewhere in his consciousness, a switch was flipped. Something behind Will’s eyes opened, and he could suddenly see the direction in which his neighbor was looking. It was an angle incomprehensible to the mortal mind, oblique to the entire reality he had known. He was looking not up or down, not left or right, but outwards.
And in the far distance outwards was The Light. The Light!
Had Will thought that he and his neighbor and were luminous beings? Relative to The Light, they were tiny flickers. If they had been rising sparks, The Light was the bonfire itself. How could he 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, he thought. The flesh isn’t equipped for it. It would fry your brain like an egg inside your skull.
It seemed to Will that some part of him had always known and longed for The Light, that it had always been a part of him, and of every person ever born. The Light is unity and love. The Light is destiny, the purpose of all human existence. Had he sought instructions for his afterlife? The Light was, in itself, all the instruction needed. This is what we were made for. To join with The Light.
With difficulty, Will pulled his eyes away from The Light. He could see that the other human souls who had arisen alongside of his neighbor and himself were rushing outwards, with all the speed they could muster. They were rushing towards fusion with The Light, heeding its call, seeking to disappear into it entirely.
And suddenly, Will had something new to be confused about.
Because he could look into The Light, and recognize what it signified. He 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 him should crave union with it.
And yet, somehow, he didn’t.
Will didn’t want to merge with The Light.
He didn’t want it at all.