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by Kelly Whipple

Charlotte’s waiting to meet God and she doesn’t know what to expect. She’s in a crowded waiting room. She assumes it’s God because who else? There are pictures of Jesus everywhere.

A dark elderly woman with short grey curly hair says to her, “You got a number, child? You need a number.”

“No. Where?” Charlotte says.

“Over there,” the old woman says, motioning her cane to a machine at the entrance. A machine Charlotte didn’t notice when she entered. But she doesn’t remember entering — she seemingly materialized in the room.

Beside the ticket dispenser is a rack of pamphlets, for new arrivals — what to do next and realistic expectations. There’s a digital sign hanging from the ceiling that says: Now Serving: 108,757,145,987.

She thought there would be more opulence involved with God, if, in fact, that’s who she’s waiting to see. This place looks like the free clinic where she got tested for chlamydia last year. There’s no blinding light, pearly gates, genial winged angels, her Nana — not the withered old corpse she last saw at the funeral home, but a metamorphosed younger version, one no older than Jesus when he died.

She takes a number, but there’s nowhere to sit. The room is full of bland, ordinary people; it could be an airport departure lounge. Straining, she finds it difficult to make out faces though — everyone seems blurry, like looking through an out-of-focus camera.

Since she can’t think of anything else, she goes back to the elderly woman. She’s the only person in the room she can distinctly make out. She’s crystal clear.

“What is this place?” she asks, taking position at her side.

“Call it what you like, I suppose. I don’t know.” The old woman’s voice is strong with an accent Charlotte can’t pinpoint. The American South?

“Is this heaven?”

“You’ll have to ask when they call your number. Heaven, hell, somewhere in the middle, I don’t reckon I can answer.”

“How long is the wait?” She can’t keep up with the numbers on her ticket because the digital sign clicks away too quickly.

“Drugs,” the old woman says to her.

“Excuse me?”

“You young ones are always here because of drugs. Or car crashes. Sometimes guns, but mostly drugs.”

“It wasn’t drugs.”

“You should pick up one of those pamphlets, child. Lesson one is no lying. I suppose you can taste it?”

And Charlotte does taste it, something foul, a tiny bomb of sulphur exploding in her mouth.

“You’ve lost your way,” the old woman continues.

Charlotte’s eyes flicker, and she hears another voice say something. She sits up, opens her eyes, takes a gasp of air and falls back to the bed.

The sign says: Now Serving: 108,757,146,788, which matches her ticket.

As a sheet covers her face, a nurse says, “Get her phone to the police. They’ll have to break in and find out who she is.”

Kelly Whipple is a Canadian short story writer living in French Switzerland. His first story was published in 1988 and his recent credits include a story in the February 2016 issue of Attitude magazine.