I stood in heaven’s prairie, surrounded by rolling hills of clouds. It was emptier than I thought it’d be, not a soul to be found. The cloud floor had a slimy residue that stuck to the soles of my feet, and it was more wet than cream. I wasn’t really expecting pearly gates, but Peter and Paul were waiting for me all the same, approaching like travelers from an ancient time in their beards, robes, and sandals.
“Roberts. Liam,” Peter said, reading from a list. “How was it?”
Steam wafted over this 1950s stereotype of heaven, all blue sky and golden light, the saints waiting for me to review my deeds, though I didn’t feel any euphoric bliss. “It was alright,” I said, screwed some stuff up, I guess.”
I tried to wipe some cloud sludge off my feet. I wasn’t sure how comfortable I felt telling them about my wife, Sarah, or Kyle. “I didn’t kill anyone, if that’s what you mean.”
Peter made a checkmark on his pad with a scuffed plastic pen. “How about weed?” Paul glared, “you smoke any weed?”
There was no point in lying. “That a deal-breaker?”
They held on as long as they could, faces swelling, then exploded with laughter. “We like to get the newbies with that one,” said Peter. “Works half the time.”
“Less so now. The times they are a-changin’,” Paul said. “This is just the landing pad, you know. Real party’s up there.” An island of clouds floated high behind, thick and gilded: the sky’s sky. I thought I heard music—flutes, maybe—though it could’ve been wind throbbing in my ears. I was in heaven’s ditch, the watershed between death and eternal life.
“What would you say was your favorite part?” Peter asked.
“Just one?” The raging sun passed through my hand as I tried to block it. “The first years of love. The in-love parts when you’re still curious and the mystery makes you put faith in each other. Like every moment’s gift-wrapped.”
They snickered. “Sorry,” said Peter. “That’s what everyone says.”
“Yeah. That or the thing about paying it forward, giving back. Blah blah.”
Peter scribbled. “If you could change anything, what would it be?”
“You looking to improve the service?”
“We don’t write the questions.”
“We don’t even know what they’re for,” said Paul. “Like, we ask each other all the time.”
The sun expanded the lump in my chest. I hadn’t heard Sarah’s last words at my bedside, too deep in the soupy haze. Our ending haunted me, and I hated myself for how I’d treated her after we lost Kyle. “There’s plenty I’d do differently. Can I go back and change it?”
“You’ll have to stay here,” Peter said. “Once you go up, that’s it. Locked in.”
“Go back,” Paul muttered in disbelief, “everyone’s usually so scared they won’t go up.”
There were memories I wouldn’t have changed for anything: the evening cuddled on the couch when I first realized I loved Sarah, then years later, my hand on her belly, feeling Kyle kick. But there were so many times I’d failed Sarah and others, when I’d let my ego or impatience get the better of me and I’d shirked away or snipped at them, memories that’d nagged me in the stillness of night, robbing my sleep. Getting rid of that guilt would be the best gift heaven could offer. “Can I start with my childhood? Get some practice before the big stuff?”
“It’s your funeral,” Paul laughed.
They rose up to the second layer of heaven and I sat in the clouds to think.
Sarah had worked in fashion, sketching the next season’s high-waisted shorts and summer dresses as I crafted corporate digital landscapes, new worlds in PHP, AJAX, HTML, and Java. Occasionally, I’d visit my sites, organic and pulsing, and she’d spot a girl on the street wearing the styles she’d brought to life. Creation made easy.
In the third trimester, we learned about Sarah’s condition: HELLP, something hidden in her genes that caused her liver enzymes to run wild. Kyle had a fifty-percent survival rate. She lay in the hospital nine days before he passed away. When we were ready, we buried him next to her grandmother in the cemetery at the edge of town.
I thought we’d move on, try again, but she wasn’t ready. We’d married late, both thirty-six when Kyle passed. I pushed too hard, kept picking out names, kept the crib in the attic. She never said ‘no’ and maybe that’s what’d hurt the most. Maybe she didn’t know. But I’d foolishly resented the uncertainty. We loved each other too much to end it, and I’d let life turn into a waiting room, a chore. Even in death, that unrequited need for fatherhood hollowed me out, and I didn’t know how to fill it, how to fix what we had. What I’d let slip away.
“I know where to start,” I announced.
After some time, Peter and Paul came down panting. Paul’s robe was ripped, a half-scabbed gash on his torso. “Perfect timing,” he said. “It’s getting going up there.”
“Where to?” Peter asked.
“Kindergarten,” I said, “around the second week.”
He whistled. “Way back there.” He got on his knees and dug through the fluffy cloud muck to open a window to the world below. Paul licked his finger and wiped his cut. “Here,” said Peter.
We watched the magnified earth through the hole in the clouds. Scenes from my kindergarten class played like a movie, kids coloring pictures of trucks and rainbows, my scrubby six-year-old-self furiously decimating a happy Stegosaurus with red crayon.
“You’re sure this is okay?” I asked. “Isn’t time a tightly woven series of cause and effect? Couldn’t this create some weird paradox? Destroy all of creation?”
“Nah. It’ll adjust,” said Peter.
Paul nodded, pretending not to be confused. “Yeah. It should hold up.”
A red-head and her freckled son entered the classroom. My younger self hadn’t noticed yet, but I was already cringing. “Oh, I remember this,” Paul laughed. “That was rough.”
“Boys and girls,” the teacher said, “this is our new student, Brian. Everyone say hi.”
And there I went, straight for his freckled cheeks, connecting the dots with my marker. The teacher was mortified, and Brian’s eyes started to water.
“We all make mistakes,” said Peter. “I denied Christ three times. Now look at me.”
“I killed a ton of Christians,” Paul said. “Killed. And I was a lot older than six.”
Still, it seemed wrong not to fix it if I could. The saints told me to make it quick, and before I could mention the paradox again, down I went.
The world looked hazy, like those moments before death. Maybe life had always been that way, all of it blurry until you stepped back, saw it as it was.
My teacher’s voice echoed as my mind entered my six-year-old body. “…going to be joining your table today…”
I caught myself, marker in my hand. I froze and dropped it. The class welcomed him and this time I joined them. I could feel my guilt evaporating like steam on asphalt. The world came into focus, and I remembered the teacher’s name—Mrs. Saunders. She looked relieved, almost like she was in on my shame-removing heist.
But why stop at that, I thought. I was already down here. I offered my chair. Brian was reluctant at first, but eventually took a seat.
Mrs. Saunders boasted about my kindness, wrote my name on the “all-star” list, and Brian beamed, filled with some new confidence as I faded back to the clouds.
“Much better,” Peter said.
“Yeah, sure,” said Paul, “put an eighty-year-old with decades of reflection and social progress into a child’s body and poof, he’s not a tool.”
I had hoped to get one last glimpse of the happy classroom, but the scene had started to fade to black until the hole in the clouds was nothing but a mole on the endless white fluff. I stared at the darkness until I felt vertigo, like I was losing myself in a great expanse. Suddenly, I felt grateful that there had been anything at all, then terrified that it’d been lost. I looked anxiously at Peter and Paul.
“It’s processing,” Peter said. “It takes time to calculate the adjustments.”
There were sparks and crackles, like the prelude to the big bang. Light pierced through the darkness to reveal existence once more, the universe flashing back on, all its stars and galaxies spinning brightly once again, and I was relieved to see the Earth and heaven still intact.
Peter skipped ahead to Brian’s acceptance into Yale. He’d been a lawyer, and he still was, but this time he’d become New York Attorney General instead of an overworked public defender. He was wealthy, happy. Best of all, my guilt was gone.
“Ready to go up now?” Paul asked. “I want to see what Lazarus was going to do with that auger. Those nuns looked pretty scared.”
There were dozens of moments that needed righting, but maybe life wasn’t important. I could forget it, go join the party upstairs, the smoke wafting in pillars, clouds cloven by light. The heartbeat of a drum had joined the flutes and part of me wondered if I’d find Kyle up there. I was too afraid to ask, unsure if the unborn even had souls. I’d have loved nothing more than to see him as a grown man, who he would’ve become. But seeing him as he’d passed, eternally reminded of that hurt, would’ve been the worst punishment the afterlife could’ve conjured.
“I think I’ll keep going,” I said.
It was the fight in our early forties that’d tortured me most. I’d been bitter after realizing we’d never have children, could feel us sinking. I told Sarah I wasn’t sure if she cared if I was happy anymore, and I was considering divorce, maybe trying to start a family, though the thought of doing it with anyone but her choked me up. I said we shouldn’t be together if we didn’t want the same life. I hadn’t meant it, I realized now. I never wanted anyone but her. I was trying to force her to leave me, and I was sure she’d be relieved to see the divorce papers. Her way out.
Instead, like a prophet, she said, “This is our life.”
We worked through it, somehow. But she had to live with those words I’d said. I’d given voice to any spouse’s worst fears, and nothing I did could erase the voice that told us I was faking, that we no longer meant anything to each other, even when we did.
Even now, I wondered if she might’ve been better off without me. Or at least, without who I’d been. Maybe I could make myself a better person from the onset, learn what to do. We’d try to have another child, or I’d overcome the loss, accept what couldn’t be. With enough tries, I thought, one of us could be who the other needed.
A third man came to see me, a dead ringer for a short-tempered bus driver I had, his rich shiny face like tanned leather. He walked right past me, watched the world through Peter’s hole in the clouds. “You’re the one who changed Brian?”
“A little,” I said, “indirectly.”
“Seems pretty direct to me.”
“I meant it was unintentional, I guess.”
“I really liked Brian.” He paced, basking in the sun. “If you want to spend your afterlife dwelling on what you should’ve done differently, that’s up to you, but it seems like a waste of time. I’ve got a good thing going here.”
“Did I do something wrong? I only have a few others to fix.”
“Fix?” he scoffed, and I already knew he’d seen my life, all my mistakes. “Look, Brian died three years ago. He’s already up here. But when you revised that day, he changed right before our eyes. Now he’s one of those judgy Boomer yuppies in Zappos sandals. I hate him.”
“I don’t understand. He has a different soul?”
“Of course. Life’s a tightly woven series of cause and effect. It changes who you are.”
I sighed. “Well, what happened to the old Brian?”
The tan man refused to look at me as he prepared to ascend. “You killed him.”
I felt even worse than before. I never intended to destroy a soul. But even if the old Brian was gone, I’d created a new one. It wasn’t a death; it was a replacement. Wasn’t the new soul just as valuable, my creations just as valid?
I called Peter and Paul back down and told them I wanted to continue. Peter’s face was covered in scratches, infinitesimal paper cuts, red like a rash. Paul’s left eye was missing, and his black cavity looked menacing, like space without stars. “You guys look terrible,” I said.
“What?” Paul asked, and I pointed. “Oh, the eye. He’s preparing us for our new bodies.”
“Haven’t you been dead for a while?”
He dabbed at the socket. “Time’s relative here.”
I listed other moments to modify: the time I told my mom I wished Andrew’s mother was my mom instead, the night I drove through our neighbors’ lawns. Before I could continue, Peter interjected. “You know, he wasn’t so happy about the last one.”
“Who? The tan man?”
“He’s sort of our supervisor. I think you offended him.”
“He spent a lot of time designing existence,” Paul said, “days and days.”
“It’s his masterpiece,” said Peter, “he doesn’t really like to hear criticism.”
I paused. “He’ll stop me if he needs to, right?” I still wasn’t ready for Sarah.
“You’re wasting time down here when you could be up there with us,” said Paul.
“I thought time was relative.”
Paul elbowed Peter. “Told you. A complete tool.”
I tried to focus on the world below. The more time I spent in the cloudy off-white muck, thick like a Brunswick stew, unable to escape the unremitting choral music above that kept returning to the same low notes, the more anxious I felt about real heaven. Maybe the melodies were more pleasant up close. Perhaps the sun’s heat was like a blanket. But here it was a microwave baking my skin, and it was the last place I wanted to go.
By adolescence, I’d practiced myself into a decent person—patient, funny, someone people would miss. Each time, the tan man was more irritated than before, and I could’ve sworn he was shrinking, his face like knotted bark. I’d changed my parents, teachers, and friends, he shouted. He could hardly recognize a soul in heaven anymore. He wanted his old souls back.
“Why don’t you just make another timeline? An alternate universe?”
“Have you seen the universe, Einstein? It takes a lot of work to get that right.”
I began to work on a scene before my high school graduation. I wanted to write Brian a letter congratulating him on his acceptance to Yale, but just as I started to write, the tan man brought me back. “Well, you did it,” he said, “Brian’s gone.”
He was barely up to my shoulder now, his face a wrinkled rag. I was tired of him nagging and it was all I could do to not roll my eyes. “I know. He’s been modified a dozen times.”
“No,” he said. “Gone. Like, not here.”
“That can happen?”
“Don’t play dumb with me. How many times have I warned you? Now Brian’s gone forever, and there’s no way we can get him back. So, thanks for that.”
“It’s not like I messed with his birth or something.”
“He’s still alive, genius. He just didn’t want to come up. Said he’d be happier somewhere else.” He pointed down repeatedly, like he was drilling through the clouds. “Come up,” he said, “before we lose someone else.”
The second tier’s smoke looked thicker, blacker. Voices sang some plangent Gregorian chant, all those forced low notes. “I’m not ready yet.”
“You’re ruining it. By the time you’re done, there won’t be anyone left.”
The landing pad was getting hotter, clouds stickier. I was nearly blind from the sun’s glare and heaven was so blurry I could hardly distinguish it from my revisions on earth. I was nearing the day Sarah and I met, and still didn’t feel ready.
I called Peter and Paul back down for help.
They approached slowly. It was hard to see, but it looked as though Peter was missing patches of hair, maybe a few teeth. Paul was missing a leg and wobbled as he hopped over. Both were angry, and I immediately apologized about Brian.
“It’s crazy,” said Paul, “everyone’s freaking out. Like, everybody.”
“Should probably work things out with Sarah before it’s too late,” Peter said. He opened the hole and showed our first date: the cool air and calico autumn leaves, much more open and vibrant than my current cloud holding cell. I’d met Sarah on the brick stoop outside her apartment, and she’d sidled up next to me, her head nearly touching my shoulder. I prayed I could rewind and live that moment again, the anticipation of a touch I’d grown so numb to. I’d never missed it more than now.
My trespass on the date wasn’t major—she’d paid for dinner because I’d forgotten my credit card—but I knew I could’ve been more gracious if I hadn’t been so preoccupied with my own embarrassment. Peter tried to stop me. “That went fine. You married her, after all.”
“I just want it to be perfect.”
“Oh, you and your precious Sarah,” Paul said, “we’re so sorry your life wasn’t good enough. I hope heaven can meet your standards.”
Her chestnut hair bobbed with our steps, her face just out of view from our camera’s view. Maybe they were right. She deserved better than me, my unfair expectations. Maybe I’d finally do what I was too scared to do. Maybe I’d ruin it instead, end it once and for all.
The L rumbled overhead as we strolled through downtown Chicago. We got dinner at the same Indian restaurant, ice cream at the same shop. I was anxious and overly friendly, just as I had the first time, though I genuinely couldn’t help it. She had that sure, calming voice, that low soothing laugh like a warm rain that I never felt worthy of. During the lulls, we looked into each other’s eyes. Back then, I hadn’t noticed the way she kept touching her face, how she seemed to find me more interesting than I was. This time, I could tell that she’d already known. Somehow, she’d already loved me, or knew she would. We’d be together. No matter what.
She took her first bite of mint chocolate chip, the pink plastic spoon swirling in her mouth. I had to remember to eat at her pace, time my bites with hers, just the way I had, so that she wouldn’t have to wait for me, or feel like I was rushing her. I’d wanted to stay in her rhythm. The air was cool and freeing, even in that small shop. I got lost watching Sarah’s fingers on the spoon when the server cleared her throat. “Eight ninety-three,” she said to me.
I pulled my wallet, empty beside my blood donor card and license. I recalled all the apologies and jokes that I’d thought of decades later, something to help get us past the awkwardness. Do you guys take euros? How about I wash the dishes? I guess we have a good excuse to go out again. But before I could choose, I panicked. I feared how it might change us and our future. I feared I might lose her.
I gave her the sheepish glance, picked at my cuticles and stared at my lap, all the details of my shame that I’d never let myself forget. I did my best impression of myself and hoped it was similar enough and that I didn’t accidentally change the future.
“It’s okay, I got it,” Sarah said, without skipping a beat. I’d forgotten how delicate and confident she was, so far ahead of me. We’d only shared a few hours, but she seemed to know me still, to the best of me. I couldn’t help but think of Peter and Paul and the tan man, all that omniscient knowledge but not an ounce of understanding.
“Thanks. I’m sorry,” I said to her, before hiding at a table. I pulled a chair out and the legs squeezed so loudly that I could swear every eye in that place was looking at me.
I kept to the script the rest of the night, and we ended with the same hug, the plan to get lunch the next day. When I got back to heaven, Paul and Peter were gone, bored by the rerun. I clung to the ghost of our hug, the only part of us I’d been allowed to keep in this place.
“You’ve really done it now, d-bag.”
The tan man was back, stomping like some sizzling ember loosed from a campfire. He was no taller than my hip, and he wouldn’t stop talking.
“What?” I said, “I didn’t change a thing.”
“You made eye contact with the server at the ice cream parlor as you left. April Cunningham. She was my favorite. And now she’s gone, burning for all eternity, thanks to you.”
The sun was singing the tips of my hair white. I ducked to hide from the heat, but it was no use. “From eye contact?” I said, incredulous, and he kicked my shin. The stabbing was worse than any pain I’d felt on earth.
“Look. I make things. That’s sort of my job. I made a pretty decent world and afterlife before you came along, wouldn’t you say?”
“Well stop guessing. You don’t know squat. It took a lot of effort to fine tune all this junk. If you want to save Brian and your family and friends and April Cunningham and Kyle then it has to go back to the way it was.”
“Kyle’s up there?”
“You have to reenact your life,” he told me. “The one you hated so much. Relive it exactly the way you did the first time. No cheating. No extra smiles or synonyms or second pieces of pie for dessert. You’ve got to wear the same frickin’ socks if you want this to work.”
I recalled all my improvements, the guilt replaced with pride. How much worse would it feel to ruin them a second time? To relive those moments with the intention to offend, to hurt? “I can’t do it,” I told him, “even if I wanted to, I’d feel too self-conscious. I’d never get it right.”
“If at first you don’t succeed,” he said, grinning up at me like a child. As I fought tears of self-pity, he bubbled over with giggling, and soon he was outright laughing, holding his stomach, his little cherub feet romping in the clouds, kicking up muck like a dog. “I tried to tell you,” he said, “but you wouldn’t listen. You tried so hard to be a better person, and now you have to go back and do what you know is wrong, over and over, until you do the wrong thing right.”
“Is Kyle…is he…” I didn’t know what to ask. Happy? Safe?
The tan man just ignored me. “Tough luck, kiddo. You’ll have to live with that guilt after all. It’s not so bad, really. Just own up to it. You’re an integral part of an imperfect world. At least you can be proud of that.”
I stared down at the clouds. Existence for the sake of itself. I prayed for another solution. Anything. But I couldn’t stop picturing Kyle up above, chanting or burning.
Black birds started circling, though at certain angles I thought I spied their tails, slender cords flailing behind them, their soundless wings skeletal like bats’. Ash fell all around me as black smoke wafted higher. If heat rose, I wondered, what was burning above?
At times, I swore I could hear the tan man’s laugh.
I called Peter and Paul down again.
Paul didn’t show. Peter staggered over, cuts all over his body, his fingers smashed and mutilated, his head singed bald. I didn’t have the heart to ask him.
“I’m supposed to go back,” I said. “I’m not sure I’m up for it.”
“So I heard,” Peter said, and he seemed to dread it as much as I did. I’d thought he was Peter this whole time, but maybe I’d been wrong. This didn’t seem like a place for saints, and who knew what Peter looked like? This could’ve been any man from any time, coming down to roll back the clouds and help me fix my life.
“Is Kyle up there?”
He avoided my eyes. “You still want to go?”
I gave him the date and time. I’d memorized it, kept it inside me all these years. The moment I was most certain of, the one I’d never want to change. If I could just start there, relive it one more time, maybe I could figure the rest out.
“He’ll be pretty upset when you come back.”
“And if I don’t come back?”
He didn’t answer. “I’ll give you as long as I can.”
I closed my eyes, took an ash-tainted breath. I wasn’t going to do what the tan man said. I was going to stay by Sarah’s side, learn to better. I didn’t know what the ramifications would be, what might get lost up here. But I was going to do right by her. Eternity could figure itself out.
I’m in the sonographers’ room, the walls baby blue. The technician steadies her hand on Sarah’s stomach as we listen to the Doppler. Kyle’s heart.
There’s the outline of his head, the curve of his spine. He’s white on black, light in darkness. It’s all I can do not to try to reach over and touch the screen. He’s more beautiful, somehow. Somehow, I love him more this time. I couldn’t relive this moment the same way, even if I wanted to. “What do you think?” Sarah asks me. It takes me a moment, but I remember. She wants to give him her grandfather’s name.
“I love it,” I say, this time without pause. I take her hand, place the other on her stomach. The gel sticks to my palm. Kyle’s swaddled in there, part of it all. He’ll have a few more months like this, and then he’ll leave us. A small part of me wishes I could follow – I don’t think I’ve been where he’s going. The rest of me, the new part, wants to stay. My hand on Sarah’s stomach. Gentle. Unshakable. There’s a fault in her smile this time, something I hadn’t noticed before, and for a moment, I wonder if she’s revising, if she knows what’s to come. But I think she always knew how uncertain it all was. So, I keep my hand there as long as the moment will let me.