Daniel crawls through a mixture of mud and clothes. The pungent smell of jet fuel and acrid smoke fills and burns his nostrils. There is something else in the air. Something he tastes as he breathes: a human smell. He spits, before he continues to crawl past open suitcases and broken, twisted pieces of metal. He hears the sound of a gas issuing from somewhere, the crackle of a fire, and then a woman’s moan. He looks over his shoulder at the fuselage. He hears another moan. He stands, turns, and staggers back to the wreck.
The wingless metal cylinder is thirty metres long, with a gaping hole in the centre. Daniel peers inside. On the ceiling are rows and rows of seats. Passengers dangle from their waists, held in place with their safety belts. The floor is littered with carry-on luggage and more passengers; their arms and legs bent in contortions.
Daniel hears rapid breathing: in and out, in and out. His eyes dart about the cabin and locate movement. Fingers on a hand ball and flex.
‘Hello?’ he calls out.
‘Hello?’ he calls again.
‘Go. Away,’ comes a reply between gasps.
He steps into the plane, which creaks with his weight. He edges forward and pauses beside one of the dead. The glassy eyes point at the ceiling. He takes a breath and strides over the corpse. He sees the woman. Her face is strained with focus. One hand holds her stomach, which is wet with blood. He reaches out.
‘No, leave me.’
Daniel retracts his hand, confused. ‘I can help you.’
‘No.’ Her breath is weak. ‘Go. Away.’
‘Please, let me help you.’
‘I…said no. I want…to die. I…have never…died…like this before.’
Daniel stands outside the Soul Centre. The building is cold and sterile, with its white-washed walls and straight lines. The organisation’s circular logo over the door is the only break from the perpendicular. The circle is split into three sections by two horizontal lines. The bottom section depicts a pyramid of animals clambering on top of one another trying to reach the section above: a pyramid of desperate, frenzied humans reaching towards the top section: the sun.
He puts his head down and proceeds towards the entrance. The door slides open. His eyes are drawn upwards to the glass ceiling, to the clouds, and the heavens beyond. A man in a security uniform shepherds Daniel, and a few others, towards the reception desk.
The receptionist, a young man, smiles at him. ‘Can I help you?’ His fingers hover over the keyboard in anticipation of Daniel’s answer.
‘No need, Jason.’
A woman in a lab coat, spectacles, and a name badge extends her hand. ‘Great to finally meet you, Daniel. I’m Dr Wilmot. Come with me.’
He follows her around the reception to a lift in the rear wall. The doors open, and they step in. She faces Daniel and smiles. Her teeth are whiter than white.
‘My colleagues have told me a great deal about you, Daniel. Not many people get to see me in my office.’
Daniel nods, not knowing what to say.
They watch the numbers on the lift light up. The doors open on the one-hundred and first floor. Daniel follows the doctor down a corridor and through a pair of glass sliding doors into an open plan laboratory. Men and women dressed in white mill about among white tables, white microscopes, and white computers.
The sliding doors close with a click. Everyone in the room looks at Daniel. He feels exposed.
‘It’s him,’ one of the doctors says.
Daniel is surrounded by smiling faces complimenting him.
‘We’re so happy to meet you, Daniel,’ says one.
‘Yes, exciting times, Daniel, exciting times,’ says another.
Daniel looks open-mouthed towards Dr Wilmot, who shoos the other doctors away. She leads him into her white office, closes the door, and offers him a seat.
‘What was that about?’ He sits down, squinting until his eyes adjust to the brightness.
Dr Wilmot pours a glass of water from a dispenser behind her gloss-white desk. She hands it to Daniel. ‘Ice?’
She perches on the corner of her desk and picks up a tablet. ‘Daniel, you have paid us to provide you with a service and…the final payment has been received, right?’
‘Yes, it’s definitely been paid.’
‘Are you OK? You’ve gone a bit pale.’
‘Good. Well, you’ve paid us to provide you with a service and boy are you going to be satisfied.’
Daniel raises his eyebrows.
‘We’re happy you paid for the premium service, because the findings were sensational. I’ll tell you the results shortly. But first, I need to confirm a few details for our records and, to be quite honest, humanity’s records.’
Daniel smiles awkwardly. His gaze drifts over Dr Wilmot’s shoulder and out of the window. A plane leaves behind its trail in the cloudless, blue sky. He immediately leans forward and places his head between his legs, as he relives the sickening feeling of freefall from three weeks ago. From 36,000ft to the dirt in three minutes. Daniel takes a few deep breaths.
‘I know how you feel, Daniel. This is almost too much to take, so I’ll get on with the questions. You’ve been married twice?’
Daniel sits up.
Dr Wilmot continues. ‘The first time was for five years, and you had a son in that union, who passed away when he was four?’
Michael died eleven years ago. Daniel would have been celebrating his fifteenth birthday this month if he hadn’t have left those button batteries within Michael’s reach. And like always, when his son’s death is mentioned, a wave of self-loathing, guilt and sorrow washes over him. Daniel concentrates on his breath to take his mind off the tears welling in his eyes.
‘You’ve been married to your current spouse for nine years? She and her two boys from a previous marriage live with you? You told us both boys are struggling at school?’ She swipes her finger across the tablet. ‘You’ve been at the same address for the past seventeen years, and you’ve been unfaithful on two occasions to your current wife?’
Daniel shuffles in his chair.
Dr Wilmot swipes her finger across the tablet again. ‘You’ve been working for the same accountancy firm, in the same position, for the past twenty years?’
‘You told us you’re in a bit of debt?’
Dr Wilmot spends the next thirty minutes confirming the rest of Daniel’s details then, in a change of tone that startles Daniel, she says:
‘All done! Now let me tell you the results.’ She taps a few times on her tablet. ‘I am so excited. Are you excited?’
‘I guess so.’
‘You will be. Your soul is almost completely evolved.’ She straightens up, holds a hand to her chest, and takes a breath.
‘Yes. It’s one of the most evolved souls we’ve ever seen here at the Soul Centre.’
‘What, um, does that mean? I was told some stuff in the previous visits, about angels and being able to identify souls, but there’s a lot to take in.’
‘I will explain all.’ She flicks her finger over her tablet. ‘At one point in time, we thought only the physical elements of a species evolved. For example, how the eye came to be. We also believed that once an organism died, its soul left this world. However, using a sophisticated process called Soul Mapping to pinpoint changes in a soul’s energies, we know the soul evolves as well. You’ve heard of reincarnation, right?’
‘Yes,’ says Daniel.
Dr Wilmot taps the surface of the tablet. ‘A soul travels through the lower life forms, like the grub and the worm, higher and higher with each death through cat, horse, lion, etc., peaking at the human form. Here’s the important part, Daniel.’
He squints in concentration.
‘The soul is returned to the lower lifeforms once it’s human body dies, but it departs the human body having “learnt” that route to death. Just like the gazelle had evolved to run quicker to escape fast predators. Once that soul moves back up through the cycle and returns to human form, it’s energy flow has changed, and we’ve found that the body encasing it cannot suffer the same route to the base of the cycle again.’
‘It can’t die the same way?’
Dr Wilmot smiles. ‘Correct. The more times the soul moves through the cycle, the more deaths its human body suffers, the more evolved the soul becomes. Soul evolution has nothing to do with Karma, like in reincarnation, because it’s all about the way the body expires. Don’t you see?’
Daniel furrows his brow.
‘This explains why you survived the crash,’ continues Dr Wilmot. ‘Your soul suffered a major impact in a former human body.’
The first thing Daniel remembers after the crash was crawling away from the wreck. He was in shock. It wasn’t until after the woman died in front of him that he realised he’d just survived a horrific accident. Daniel felt a massive surge of relief, followed by a burst of euphoria, weightlessness, and freedom. These emotions immediately imploded with the thought that he should call his wife, Sandra. The notion that the conversation would turn to financial matters brought him down to earth quicker than the plane did. But there was something about what the dying woman said that gave him hope beyond his current situation. As soon as he could, he started his research and found the Soul Centre.
Dr Wilmot continues: ‘It also explains why people are naturally immune to diseases.’ She holds up a finger, and Daniel shuffles forward. ‘The soul will evolve until it cannot die any more. When it reaches that point, it has reached divinity, and the human body will be as eternal as the soul it carries.’
Daniel sits up. Eyes wide with hope. ‘Are you saying I’m immortal?’
‘Oh.’ Daniel’s shoulders sag. His fingers fidget.
‘Do not dismay. You are carrying one of the most evolved souls we’ve encountered. It’s great news.’
‘So, I’m not divine?’
‘No, but once you die, and your soul returns to human form, that body will be divine.’
‘But not me?’
‘It could be you. For instance, you could’ve been alive hundreds of years ago but you can’t remember, can you?’
Dr Wilmot puts the tablet down and leans towards Daniel. ‘Look, you shouldn’t be disappointed. You’re leading the human race to the next step of evolution. It’s a one-way ticket out of the constant animal-human cycle. Did you see our logo outside? You’re on top of the human pyramid; your hand is one of the closest to the sun.’
‘Of those individuals on our books, you’re the third closest. There are two elderly ladies who are, by dint of their age, closer to divinity than you. They, too, have one more death to experience.’
‘Only one more?’
Dr Wilmot holds up an erect finger. ‘One more.’
Daniel scratches his head remembering the reason he kept paying the money to the Soul Centre, despite not being able to afford the fees. ‘On my first visit, one of the doctors said something about the divine being able to see souls and identify them?’
Dr Wilmot picks up a polished stone paperweight from her desk. ‘Take the mineral. It has no concept of what it is to be a plant.’ She points at the yucca in the corner of the room. ‘Likewise, the plant has no concept of what it is like to be an animal. The animal has no notion of what it is to be human, and we really have no notion of what it’s like to be divine.’ She puts the paperweight back on the desk. ‘But it’ll be more than you can ever imagine. And yes, I believe the divine will be able to “see” souls.’
Daniel’s mouth opens into a giddy smile. He thinks of Michael’s squint-eyed, milk-teethed smile. He imagines pulling his son into a bear hug and playfully falling onto his back; Michael giggling the whole time.
‘The universe will open up to a soul of that calibre,’ says Dr Wilmot, ‘and the world will want to know you. You’ll have no need for money or trivial human necessities.’
Daniel’s hand subconsciously touches his pocket where his wallet is. He imagines himself as an angel floating above the city: free, unbound, weightless, content. He blinks and then jumps up from his seat. ‘OK, I’m up for it. What do I have to do?’
Dr Wilmot reaches over her desk and opens a drawer. She pulls out a small, black apothecary bottle, with a pipette stopper. ‘You live your life, Daniel.’
‘But…how do I kill myself?’
She slides off the desk holding the palms of her hands towards him. ‘Now, now. We don’t condone suicide here.’
‘So, you’re not going to tell me how to die?’
‘We’ll tell you, Daniel. Don’t worry. We’ve studied your soul carefully; you paid for the premium service. You get the method and the means. As the Soul Centre is government funded, we need to insist you lead a long and healthy life before you make any quick decisions.’
‘Why wait though if divinity is so close? I could be the first.’
‘You can do what you want, Daniel. I have to advise you what the government recommends.’ She hands the small bottle to Daniel.
‘What is this?’
‘The means,’ she replies.
Daniel opens the back door and stumbles into his kitchen. He smells fried mushrooms, for the fourth time this week. There are unwashed dishes in the sink, the boy’s muddy shoes left by the door, and the cat’s litter tray needs emptying again. He takes a swig from his bottle.
‘Hey honey,’ Sandra says. She turns and spots the half-empty bottle of liquor in his hand. Her smile fades. ‘What are you doing?’
She marches around the table, with a stern look on her face. ‘I mean why are you drinking? Don’t tell me you’ve been fired. Have you been fired? Don’t say it, Dan. Not you too. We need the money more than ever this month. There are so many bills.’
Daniel places the bottle on the cheap pine table and pulls up a chair. Sandra turns the stove off and sits across the table from him. Daniel touches his wife’s hand. Her jaw tightens, and she places her hand on top of his.
‘Tell me. What happened today?’
He looks into her tired eyes and says: ‘You’ll not understand, but I’ll tell you anyway.’
‘I have,’ he takes a breath, ‘one of the most evolved souls anyone has ever encountered.’
Her hand slips from his. ‘Sorry, what?’
‘My soul will be the first to reach divinity.’ He bites down on a finger as tears well in his eyes.
Sandra pushes back her chair and stands. Daniel opens his mouth to speak, but Sandra gets there first:
‘I thought I told you to stop going. You know how much they charge? Please, say you haven’t paid them yet?’ She looks in his watery eyes. ‘We’ve got no money, Daniel. How are we supposed to buy food for the kids or pay those bills? I thought we talked about this?’ Her hands rake through her hair, and she turns her back on him. ‘I can’t believe they sucked you in. It’s complete garbage.’
‘The government doesn’t think so.’
She slams her hands on the table.
‘I don’t want to argue,’ Daniel says. ‘I just want to let you know.’
Sandra sniffs up and wipes her eyes. ‘I just can’t believe you.’ She paces up and down the kitchen. ‘The Daniel I knew before the crash was on the same page as me.’
Daniel sighs. He takes a gulp from the bottle.
‘You’re killing me, Dan. I wish you’d never gone back to help that bloody woman in the plane; I wish she’d died before you got to her. Then, you’d have never got mixed up with those frauds.’ She places a hand on the benchtop. ‘I can’t breathe, Dan. Please, go back and ask for a refund.’
Daniel shakes his head and rises unsteadily from his seat. ‘I can’t. The money’s gone. I did it for Michael.’
Sandra throws her head back and looks at the ceiling. Her hands cover her face.
‘I want to find Michael’s soul. I want to tell him it’ll be alright, and I want to guide him to divinity.’
‘You what? I…I…what have they done to you? Michael’s dead.’
‘I know, Sandra,’ Daniel slurs. ‘I’m sorry. I really am. But this is something I need to do.’
Sandra watches him walk from the kitchen to the bathroom. She hears him click the lock, and then she follows. ‘Dan, please. We can’t live without that money. Come out and talk to me.’ Her face is millimetres from the door. ‘Come on, Dan, speak to me. We need to pay off the mortgage this week, buy groceries, pay for the boy’s next school term, new school uniform, new shoes. We’ve had the last warning on the utilities. Come on, Dan.’
She waits a moment. She gently knocks. ‘Dan? Are you listening to me?’ The tears break again and run down her face to her mouth. She can taste the salt.
She knocks louder, feeling the pain of her knuckles on the dense wood. ‘Dan? Please answer me. Please.’
She presses her ear to the cold surface and hears a cap being unscrewed. She turns, confused. The bourbon bottle was left on the kitchen table. Her eyes dilate. Her chest heaves. ‘What did you mean when you said it was something you needed to do? Dan!’ She bangs harder on the door. ‘Dan, what are you doing in there?’
She kicks the door and hammers it with both fists. ‘Daniel?’
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