"Hey, I thought you were dead."

A short story by Warren Phillips. Copyright © 1986-2003. All rights reserved.

Even though the world raged around him, Jack didn't notice, or even care. Tensions rose between the have and have nots, governments rose and fell while Jack remained mostly untouched in the middle of it.

The reason Jack didn't care was because he knew he was going to die. His parents had known from his birth that he probably wouldn't live to his tenth birthday. They didn't bother to tell Jack, but he found out anyway. He surprised everyone by living to the age of 21. By then, he was bedridden most of the time and was just waiting to die. Then it came, the one day that he closed his eyes for the final time in this world.

And opened them in the next.

He awoke on a hard surface still in his hospital gown. It was cool, almost cool enough to be uncomfortable. The darkness the he saw was not really dark, just a sort of twilight. Everything he saw, besides himself, was a dull uniform gray. He noticed two things immediately. First, no pain, second, no noise. The first was welcome as he had been living with pain for so long he could not remember anything else. The second was annoying as he was accustomed to hearing his life support equipment day and night.

"Hello!" he shouted. He heard himself speak, but heard no echoes.

He looked out through the dim twilight at the gray horizon. He scanned it once and saw nothing. He saw nothing on the second of third ties. But on the fourth attempt he saw something, or thought he did. Not knowing what else to do, he walked toward it.

Jack had no idea how long he walked, but he never grew tired or hungry. The bump on the horizon resolved itself into a small gray dome, then to a large dome as he got closer and finally to a tremendous dome. He looked at the dome trying to find any breaks in its smooth structure. While he was doing this, he noticed another break in the horizon. The break was person-shaped but very distant. He didn't bother to guess how far, because by this time, he learned that he was constantly misjudging scale.

"Hello! Can you here me?!" he screamed at the figure. The figure made no response, even after a minute. Being incredibly lonely, Jack started running towards the figure. He slowly began to tire from this, but still managed a yell every so often. The figure was moving directly towards the dome while Jack was moving towards him.

After what felt like forever, the other figure noticed Jack. He waved, shouted something that Jack couldn't make out, waved again and sat down on the gray ground. Renewed by a fresh burst of energy, he ran toward the sitting figure. As he got closer, he realized he knew the person. It was his friend Eric, only Eric had died in a car crash over a month ago. He ran up to Eric, caught his breath and spoke.

"Hey, I thought you were dead," he stated smiling. Before he could say anything else, Eric answered.

"I am dead. So are you. So is anyone you might meet here."

"What do mean dead? I feel fine. This is the first time I've been pain free in years."

"Trust me, you're dead. At least to the real world."

"Huh?"

"Simple. Here you're alive, back in the real world, you're dead. You have to be dead or else you wouldn't be here.

Jack and Eric argued/talked for several hours. (Eric knew how long because he was wearing his watch when he died.) They discussed being dead among other things. The subject of the gray dome came up and they agreed to find out something about it. They talked as they went and arrived two days later. (According to Eric's watch anyway.)

The gray dome was bigger than large, bigger than huge, and good deal bigger than tremendous. Ten miles tall and neither man could find a single break in its structure. Nothing so large could have been built on Earth. Not discouraged, they started walking around it, trying to find a way inside. A third of the way around the structure, Jack noticed a small button.

The button was gray and raised an inch from the surface of the dome. After talking over the possible consequences with Eric, Jack pressed it. They expected a door to drop open or for the gray to disappear. As the button click back, a crack appeared in the gray and a door dropped down to reveal the inside.

Inside there were books, books as far as the eye could see, all in gray, black and white. The bookshelves extended from floor to the ten foot high ceiling. Eric remembered a science fiction story he had read years before and reached for the volume closest at hand. To his relief, the pages weren't covered in gibberish, although they were not in English.

It only took five minutes of searching to find something written in English. They also found occasional open spaces with gray overstuffed chairs and tables. Having nothing better to do, they sat down and started to read. After two years, Eric disappeared. Jack spent six months searching the Library. He discovered entrances to other levels of the dome that he'd never found before. He learned something of the Library's structure, if not its purpose. But of Eric, he found nothing.

Several years later, Jack heard a noise. At first it was so faint, that he didn't believe his ears. It then grew to a dull buzz, like the mumbling of a far away crowd. As he traced the sound to its source, the noise became louder. Finally he reached the door he had entered with Eric so many years ago. He open the door to see a lone figure well in front of what had to be a sea of people. All heading straight for the Library. The lone figure looked familiar and was running straight for the door.

"Long time, no see," Eric exclaimed as he rushed in, slamming the door behind him. "That little army behind me will be here soon and I was advise putting up some defenses before they get here."

"Why? I wouldn't mind some company. I've been alone here for quite some time."

"About five years by my watch. The problem is they were all killed in a war..."

"Who started it?" Jack interrupted.

"Doesn't matter," Eric answered. "They aren't taking being dead too well. A lot of them expected to be in Heaven and are upset that this ain't it. I talked to a few of them so I should know. I started for here and they've been following, hoping to find some answers."

Jack thought about what he should do. In all he had read, there was nothing to cover this situation. He thought fast and motioned Eric over. Once he arrived, Jack hit him in the solar plexus. Hard. Jack had done more than just read at the Library. He had trained himself. By running up and down corridors, by pushups and other things, he managed to get into shape. Jack didn't know the rules of the reality he'd come to, but they had allowed him his.

Jack decided that to resist the oncoming mob would be suicide, so he chose to save himself. He hit Eric. Hard. Eric went down and Jack kept striking until he had knocked Eric out. Then he carried him outside and set him down. The mob saw this and increased their pace. Before they burst in, they tore Eric to shreds, making him leave this afterlife and forcing him to the next. Jack was nowhere to be found. He used his knowledge of the Library to hide. Once he felt safe, he waited. He waited until the crowd thinned out. He waited until all the ones who did not want to learn had left and only those who cared remained. Only then did he come out.

My name is Jack. I have been the Head Librarian here for over a century now. This afterlife has been good to me and all the others who came here. I still wear the hospital robe I had when I first came to this place. Everything is still gray, black and white, except for me and the other people. We have found other libraries like ours and have gone to them, finding even more information. But as of yet, understanding still eludes us. I never regretted murdering Eric, as I feel sure that he has gone on to yet another stage of life. As I now voluntarily follow him to wherever I sent him. Farewell.

Author's notes: I originally wrote this story for a creative writing class back when I was in college many, many moons ago. The world has changed since then, and so have I. But a good friend asked about this story, so here it is, slightly updated and hopefully improved.