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  • Jeff Pollak

Peak Preview: Draft of Chapter 1, The Recycling Center

Chapter 1 – Strange Magic (ELO):


Oh, for God’s sake – this queue stretches to the horizon! Why am I standing here, more docile than my pet dog Chewbacca? This line must contain a thousand or more people, every one of them in a dark blue, shapeless, hooded full body smock. What’s that about?


If we all continue to shuffle forward at a rate of one step every minute or two, I’ll get to the front in a century. Or longer. Do I have that much patience? No. Who does? Fifteen more minutes of this will drive me crazy. But what’s the alternative?


Acres of sand? I’m in a desert, but the flat featureless locale hides any other hints about my whereabouts. The Mojave, maybe. That makes some sense but it raises questions, too – like “how’d I get here?” and “why don’t I know?”


The stars are unusually clear and numerous in the cloudless night sky. They don’t twinkle. Why is that? They always have. This is weird, too – a planet in view bears a strong resemblance to Earth. Why's the night sky so dang different?


“Where in God’s name am I?” Not a soul turns to answer. Are these people all drugged? Sleepwalking? Dead on their feet? Damn! Must I figure this out for myself?


What’s the last thing I remember? The 405 freeway, headed southbound up the incline through the Sepulveda Pass. Rain, falling in sheets. The windshield splattered, impairing visibility. An endless barrage of what sounded like marshmallow bars plunging from 3,000 feet to pummel the roof.


Despite the raging storm my Mercedes powers ahead, unperturbed. To ensure a timely arrival at my office I even pushed the envelope a bit. Okay, maybe more than circumstances allowed. Investors love to hear me unveil my newest documentary idea, but they abhor tardiness. To them, even L.A.’s rare bad weather days don’t serve as a punctuality excuse.


Near the top of the incline an eighteen-wheeler changed lanes. Cut off, I swerved to avoid a collision. The car hydroplaned. A sickening screech permeated the cabin when the truck side-swiped me. The crunch of the passenger side doors came next, as the car uprooted the guardrails and left the freeway. Airborne all too briefly, the car hurtled down toward rain-soaked ground. In the midst of the loudest, most horrified scream I’ve ever uttered, the world blinked out the way movies do once all the credits roll.


Has the movie of my life ended? Who knows how much time passed since that crash? I sure don’t.


“You!” Someone’s bark cuts my reverie short. A translucent male face, or a replica of one, invades my private space. This guy’s the only one not in line.


In a uniform that reminds me of those worn by teenager ticket-takers back in the day when movie theatres existed outside instead of in our living rooms. But the guy’s eerie, flat robotic voice is what commands my attention.


“Your current name is Denis Montmartre, correct?” The question’s not spoken, although it is heard.


That confirms he’s not human and I’m in some weird place.


What’s this about a ‘current name’? I’ve only ever had one. But after finding my vocal capability gone, I say “yes” in the same strange telepathic manner he used to address me.


“Arrival confirmed,” he says to no one in particular. “Come with me.”


After two steps everything blurs. Within seconds my vision clears. I’m in a vast circular gray brick plaza chock full of people divided into four lines. I’ve moved from the back of the line to the front. The scene reminds me of overloaded TSA security lines at LAX.


Each line leads to one of four bearded men who look like Roman senators in pale white togas. Long thin gleaming white slab tables lack legs, but hover in place. The only object on each one is an alabaster white laptop with silver trim. The screen nearest me shows a list of names in neon green lettering against a black background. Columns are filled in with either an “x,” a checkmark or symbols I’ve never seen before.


The senator facing my line beckons me forward. These men aren’t seated on chairs. They’re supported on air. Everyone’s feet, including mine, remain a few inches above the gray brick that carpets the plaza.


Wherever I am is a long way from L.A., that’s clear.


“Montmartre,” the senator says, more to himself than me. He taps his laptop a few times. “Most recent birthdate?”


“Like everyone else, I only had one.” These words are spoken, not telepathic.


The eyes leveled at me are peculiar. A whitish film covers the pupils but doesn’t prevent Mr. Dead Eyes from seeing me. But his weary tone is unmistakable. “To restate, what’s your birthdate?”


“March 24, 2003. Born, raised and lived in L.A. my entire life, if that matters.” The usual impatience I display is once more in my voice.


“Identity confirmed. Now that you’re checked in, follow Andre to your next stop.” An odd name for an Android, but so is CP3O.


“Can you answer a couple of questions for me before I go?” The non-answer is a yes to my way of thinking. “Where am I, and why are all these others here, too?”


“Soon enough, you’ll know. Here at check-in its full capacity, one soul after another, and you’re holding up the line. Next!”


One soul? What the –? Without time to ponder that comment I follow Andre. A step or two brings us to a large room without windows, doors or furniture. It’s below ground, I assume, because no buildings appeared at ground level. Andre disappears into thin air, leaving me alone for several minutes until a blonde woman materializes the same way he left.


Now I know how Alice must’ve felt when she arrived in Wonderland – confused beyond words.


Except for the dark brown embroidery around the edges of her golden toga, the cloth covering somehow generates a modest amount of light from no obvious source. Like the four men in the plaza, her eyes are filmy white but her vision isn’t obstructed. “Mr. Montmartre, we’ve expected you. Welcome.” The lady’s voice is rich and casual, but modulated. The impression I get is that she’s reciting lines from a play. Somehow that voice is familiar, but I’d need more time than I have to match the voice to anyone I’ve come across.


“Since all new arrivals have questions, you must have them too.” A wave at nothing in particular is followed by “please, take a seat.” The gesture’s repeated when I don’t move. “Here, I’ll show you.”


A moment of slapstick comedy would have her fall over backward because no chair’s behind her. But that doesn’t happen. Instead she pantomimes squatting onto a chair, finishes with a flourish of raised hands that convey a ‘see how easy that is’ message.


When I try, it feels like a thick comfortable chair cushion is beneath me although I can’t see one. What a confounding place this is!


“Denis, if I speak first, some of your questions may find answers.” With a snap of her fingers, a rectangular legless table appears. A laptop materializes after the second snap.


“This facility is under new management here, as you may know.” Despite my quizzical stare and a ‘stop’ raised hand meant to interrupt the conversation, she continues. “What alarms the new boss is the widespread dissemination of wishful thinking on your planet. After some sober consideration of our options, we have concluded –”


“On my planet? This is my planet. Sorry, but I have no idea what you’re talking about. Start at the beginning, okay? Tell me about this facility you mentioned.”


If she had normal eyes they’d surely show surprise. The way her head snaps backward achieves the same effect. “So sorry – I assumed – I mean, everyone knows – my apologies.” After clearing her throat she poses a question. “Didn’t you attend the orientation?”


“What orientation?”


“The one our new arrivals go through –” she shakes her head, as if to dispel the thought. “Never mind, you’re in green. Of course you didn’t. Let’s get you into one. The orientation will answer your questions and help you understand the documentary we’d like you to create for us.”


So this is a business deal? “M’am, I’m honored you know my work and consider me worthy of directing your documentary. However, I must satisfy myself that you’re making the right choice. Tell me what you have in mind.”


“Oh, without doubt you’ll accept the assignment.” The mysterious smile, paired with a ‘you don’t know what I do’ tone of voice, unsettles me for reasons I can’t pinpoint. “But as you suggest, let’s start from the beginning. Come with me.” While pointing at the wall several feet to her right, she rises and moves toward it. I follow.


Several steps before we bump into the wall we’re no longer in the room. The indoor Romanesque amphitheater we’ve popped into contains only a midsized stadium screen hanging above the lowest level. To avoid straining our necks, we sit on another comfortable air chair about midway to the topmost section. No one else is here so we get a private viewing.


The room darkens until the screen shows a flickering ring of light at a campfire. A backdrop of bleak brown mountains appears only when the screen lightens enough to show it. Steady soft throbs of electronica music plays in my head, not in my ears. Once the sound fades, a smooth rich baritone voice that’s both authoritarian and comforting takes over.


A dim realization strikes me. Not one muscle can twitch, much less move.


“Welcome,” I hear. “Whether you realize it or not, most of you are here to continue your journeys. In your last life, many of you came to believe that death is a permanent condition, that life on Earth is a one-time roll of the dice. Here is some good news: you were not told the truth.”


What am I doing here if this is an orientation for the dead? Is it possible that – surely I’m not – or am I? It is possible, right? How can I deliver a documentary if I’m dead?


The on-screen fire grows larger. “The body you no longer inhabit, whether male or female, has expired. All terrestrial bodies of any kind on your planet are subject to the universal rule of impermanence. Souls, however, are incorporeal and, therefore, indestructible. Think of yourselves as butterflies that rotate between states in which they change from larvae to caterpillars to winged creatures. Most of you will begin a new larval stage once you’re processed through here. This cycle of death and rebirth will continue until you no longer need to reincarnate.”


The Abrahamic faiths don’t cotton to this concept. They favor the one-and-done deal. But Buddhism embraces reincarnation. So do many other Asian cultures – Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, even Hasidic Jews. This makes more sense to me, if a reason exists for the cycle – but what’s the justification? Something this complex can’t happen without serving some bigger purpose, can it?


The campfire on screen separates into two smaller ones. “An exceedingly small percentage of you have completed your journey and will proceed to Nirvana after working here for a spell. The rest of you, with some exceptions, shall again undergo rebirth once our cleansing process is completed.”


I’m not Buddhist. Did my guide bring me to the wrong orientation room?


The two small fires grow, split in half and continue to do that until screen’s full of a countless number of them. “Humans regard this place as heaven, but I have re-named it. You have arrived in the SRC – the Solar Recycling Center. Our exclusive process, now patented throughout the universe by Milky Way Galaxy, Inc., provides the speediest and most efficient means of exchanging used bodies for fresh new ones.”


The fires dwindle and disappear until the screen goes dark for a moment. That voice returns over a collage of photos ranging from a maternity ward to funerals. “In case you are wondering, I am your new God. Yes, the one you saw on the Ram Forrester Hour. If you are wearing a blue shroud, your body has expired. If you’re in green, your body will expire in no more than forty-eight earth hours from the point of your arrival. Most of –”


What??? If I’m doing a documentary, I have only two days to get it done? Impossible!


“– you underwent a prolonged antiquated recycling process after each of your past lives. The recently retired former God had little knowledge of silicon chips or integrated circuits, which improve efficiency at a level that begs non-belief. That is why death intervals took decades, whilst your next life will, on average, begin in forty days. This new process incorporates my considerable technological skills. Each of you, among the first souls who will soon experience rebirth through this process, can look forward to a speedy return to Earth.”


Silence would not take place, in other circumstances, due to applause. But my companion and I don’t express our appreciation. So God continues. “Go now and proceed to the first stage. Good luck! When your next lives end, I shall look forward to greeting you again.”


The screen darkens while my hypnosis dissipates. This is a pre-recorded orientation message from Earth’s new God? Come on now. What is this – an LSD trip? A medication induced hallucination?


My guide and I return to the room where we met. On the off-chance that this is legit I can’t let my body die in less than forty-eight hours. Death in my mid-thirties? That’s way too young. What would Kayla do without me? At age three Denis Jr. needs me around, so will little Jeannine. Gosh, she’s due in two months. I can’t pass away before her birth - - -


“Mr. Montmartre!” The raised voice brings me back to the here-and-now. “Your body’s in a coma. You can return to it before it expires, however we only return souls that arrive prematurely for a reason. If you wish to go back, you must accept our offer.”


“To do the documentary you mentioned?”


“Yes.” Finally, a slight, flimsy hint of emotion – a smile flickers across her face. “Here we don’t pay for your services. The completed documentary will provide more than sufficient compensation. What we offer is more time with your loved ones, free and clear ownership of the copyright and success beyond your fondest hope with this documentary.”


What a deal! “That’s an offer I can’t refuse.” But how can I do the job with no video or audio equipment?

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