The red light on Skye Sebring's computer blinked rapidly, announcing the arrival of her first client of the day. Within seconds a girl with dark, darting eyes entered the cubicle. She wore spiked leather wrist cuffs and a T-shirt with the logo "Hustle or Die."
Skye barely made note of the grisly splash of red dripping down the front of the girl's shirt. In her line of work she saw more blood-soaked and broken bodies than an ER physician. Her main concern was the young age of her client. She didn't have a lot of experience processing teenagers, and this one looked like a handful.
"Welcome, Chelsea," Skye said, praying the girl's personality wouldn't match her thuglike appearance. "My name's Skye Sebring. I hope you had a pleasant journey."
The teen swept a suspicious gaze around the cubicle, taking in the utilitarian wooden desk, the metal wastepaper basket, and the bare walls. Skye had just been reassigned to a new cubicle and hadn't done anything to fix it up yet. Usually she had a couple of cheerful posters hanging photos of blue-eyed kittens or smiling dolphins seemed to have a calming effect and she generally kept a dish of Hershey's Kisses on her desk.
"Where the hell am I?" the girl said finally.
"Not Hell, thank goodness," Skye said, flashing a reassuring smile. "You've arrived in the Hospitality Sector of Heaven. I'm sorry it doesn't look very celestial around here."
Chelsea slouched against Skye's desk, her hands jammed into the pockets of a pair of scruffy blue jeans. "Well," she said in a low measured voice. "If this is Heaven, where's Morrison?"
"Morrison?" Skye shuffled through the papers on her desk. The girl was making her jumpy. Predictably, most of her clients were older, meek souls, grateful to have been admitted through the gates of Heaven nothing like this stone-jawed hooligan.
"Is Morrison a relative of yours, Chelsea?"
"Not hardly," Chelsea said, jerking a corner of her mouth downward. "What about Hendrix or Cobain?"
Skye studied the girl's information sheet. "Sorry, Chelsea. I don't see any of those people in your record. There is, however, your great-aunt Delilah, who's very anxious to see you."
"Aunt Delilah?" Chelsea's hair, which had a severe part in the middle, was so fine and pale it looked like sheets of cellophane. "That craggy biddy with eye bags? The one who sent me a Little Mermaid sleeping bag for my last birthday? That Aunt Delilah?"
"That's the one. Unless you have more than one Aunt Delilah," Skye said with a chuckle.
"What's so funny?" Chelsea snapped. "I'm taking a dirt nap, and you're having a laugh riot?"
"I apologize. I didn't mean to make light of your current situation. About your aunt Delilah "
"I don't want to see her," Chelsea said, punctuating her statement with a stomp of her clunky tennis shoe.
"It's just that you died so young there really isn't anyone else "
"And whose fault was that?" the teen demanded.
According to Chelsea's death report, the thirteen-year-old had been practicing skateboarding stunts in a church parking lot and had sailed over a brick wall, falling onto the blacktop below. Chelsea would almost certainly have avoided her fatal acute subdural hematoma had she been wearing the hundred-dollar helmet her mother bought for her. Instead, she'd filled the helmet with ice and used it to cool a half-liter bottle of Mountain Dew. Skye didn't see any point in quibbling with the girl.
"Chelsea, I know you're upset "
"No kidding. I'm worm food."
"Being dead isn't the end of the world, Chelsea. In fact, it's a wonderful, new beginning. Heaven is very..." Skye cast around in her mind for some current teenage slang... "tubular?"
Chelsea shoved a balled fist in the crook of her waist. "So what's there to do here? Play harps?"
"That's a common fallacy, Chelsea. Let's go over this pamphlet, 'What to Expect When You're Expired.' "
The girl swept the material from Skye's desk. "I don't want to read a boring pamphlet. Can't you just give me a straight answer? What are you hiding from me?"
"I'm not hiding anything," Skye said with a practiced sigh. The newly dead were a notoriously suspicious bunch, always half expecting Satan to leap from behind the desk like a rubber snake out of a can. "You can do whatever you want in Heaven. It's surprisingly unstructured." Skye picked up the remote for the television. "I have a DVD that will answer "
Chelsea startled Skye by snatching the remote from her hand and lobbing it across the cubicle. "I don't want to watch some lame-o DVD. Do you understand me?" Her kohl-lined eyes glittered like chips of mica, daring Skye to challenge her.
Page seven, paragraph four of the Hospitality Handbook had several specific suggestions for dealing with belligerent clients:
1. Speak in soothing, even tones.
2. Validate your clients' feelings with active-listening techniques.
3. If a client cannot be calmed by other means, administer a dose of Tranquillity In a Can. (Should be kept in right-hand desk drawer at all times.)
When faced with client insubordination, Skye generally skipped the first two directives and went right for the TIC. She was notorious throughout the Hospitality Sector for her itchy trigger finger, as she saw no point in putting up with unpleasantness when tranquillity was so close at hand.
Skye eased open her desk drawer, but the canister was missing. She'd forgotten to stock the drawer when she'd switched cubicles. Dang it! Now she'd be forced to reason with the girl.
"That wasn't very nice, Chelsea, but I understand this is a big change for you and "
"Get me out of here NOW!"
"Chelsea, please, if you'll just "
The girl's pale skin flushed a violent crimson; spittle dotted her bottom lip.
"SHUT UP! WOULD YOU JUST SHUT UP?" she shrieked like one of the Furies.
"You shut up!" Skye shouted reflexively. Bellowing at clients was not standard operating procedure in the Hospitality Sector, but enough was enough. It was far too late in the day to put up with a temper tantrum from a spoiled brat.
"I realize you're dead," Skye said in a much more controlled yet still testy voice, "but I didn't kill you. Would you stop being such a horse's butt and let's get on with this, please?"
The girl's eyes grew so wide Skye could see the gold flecks in her irises. "You called me a horse's butt," she squeaked. All traces of toughness drained from her body, leaving behind a wan, wide-eyed child with a quivering lower lip and a pink nose seemingly on the verge of running.
"If the shoe fits."
"You're allowed to do that?"
Skye glanced at the ceiling. "I don't see any lightning bolts."
Chelsea tugged at her pimpled chin, her voice incredulous. "People call each other names in Heaven?"
"Darn straight we do."
The girl's shoulders melted into a slump as she digested this last bit of information. "Thank God." She bit her knuckle and glanced furtively around the cubicle. "Oops. Do you think He's eavesdropping?"
"He happens to be a She. And of course She's eavesdropping." Skye opened Chelsea's file and made a brief notation. "Hopefully She won't hold this ugly little incident against you."
Chelsea dropped into a swivel chair in front of Skye's desk and began idly twisting it back and forth as if it were a piece of playground equipment. "I'm relieved. I'd never fit into a place where everyone's a suck-up. You'd have to send me to you-know-where." She winced as she pointed at the floor.
"Nobody's perfect here. Well, maybe a few high-ranking angels in Headquarters, but as you can imagine, they're not very much fun at cocktail parties." Skye laughed at her own joke. The teenager blinked blankly, the quip zooming over her shiny blond head.
"You'll also be glad to know there isn't a 'you-know-where,'" Skye continued. "Just Heaven."
"No Hell?" Chelsea looked astonished. "Where do all the bad people go?"
Skye dreaded such questions. The Hospitality Sector functioned primarily as a welcome wagon. There wasn't time for lengthy discourses on complex theological issues.
"There's an FAQ in your orientation packet, which will answer your question better than I can," Skye said. "For now let's just say that 'bad' people have a very hard time getting into trouble once they're in Heaven. Nobody to kill. Nothing to steal."
"I thought Heaven would be like church," Chelsea said, obviously satisfied with Skye's answer. "I figured I'd have to hang out in a pew all day, singing hymns and saying prayers." She caught her fingers in her long, straight hair. "Do girls get their periods here?"
"Absolutely not," Skye said, quick to reassure. "You'll never have to worry about that bloody nuisance again."
Chelsea's lips pulled into a pout.
"Oh," Skye said. "Did you want your period?"
The teen toed the carpet with the tip of her tennis shoe. "I've been waiting for it since I was eleven, and I'm the only one of my friends who hasn't gotten it yet. I'd even picked out the tampons I wanted to use, Tampax Satin Teen in the pink-and-blue box."
"I'm terribly sorry about that. I never imagined someone would actually want "
"What about cute boys?" Chelsea interrupted.
Skye grimaced. Teenage boys were amazingly durable and didn't make frequent appearances in the Hospitality Sector.
"I may be able to scare up a couple of cuties for you, but right now, let's watch your orientation DVD, shall we?"
She dimmed the lights and the DVD cued up. The cubicle filled with a voice saying, "Chelsea Edwards! What's shaking? Welcome to Heaven."
"Who's that?" Chelsea said. "The voice sounds familiar."
"Ashton Kutcher from Punk'd," Skye said. It wasn't really Ashton since he was still alive, but it was someone who sounded just like him. All DVDs were individually tailored for the new arrivals. Little kids watched ones narrated by Dora the Explorer or SpongeBob. Some of the older folks got Dan Rather.
"By this time, you've hooked up with your official greeter, and you're ready to chill in your new crib here in Heaven," Ashton continued.
An elderly woman with a large, bulbous nose and a turkey-wattle neck appeared on the oversized screen and waved vigorously. It was Chelsea's aunt Delilah, her only dead relative. Relatives always appeared in orientation videos as their family members last remembered them.
"Chelsea, welcome! I know this is a scary time for you, my dear, but you're going to adore Heaven. It's a lovely place for little girls. In Heaven, all of your wishes can come true." She held up a device that looked like a BlackBerry and jabbed at the keys. In a flash, an oversized teddy bear appeared in her arms. "Isn't that a darling trick?"
Chelsea almost tumbled backward in surprise. "How did she do that?"
"She used a WishBerry," Skye said, handing Chelsea a similar device. This was Skye's favorite part of the orientation process. "In Heaven, you can wish for anything you want, and, abracadabra, it appears!"
"Go ahead, Chelsea. Give it a whirl," urged Aunt Delilah from the screen. "Baby dolls, jacks, party dresses. Anything your heart desires."
Baby dolls? Skye raised an eyebrow. Aunt Delilah was going to have quite the shock when she reunited with her niece.
"Can I try?" Chelsea asked.
"Sure," Skye said. "Type in whatever you want in the box."
"I know exactly what I want! My dream skateboard. A Flip New Wave HKD Red deck with Grind King trucks and Pig wheels." Chelsea's fingers flew over the keyboard of the hand-held computer, and in seconds, the skateboard appeared in all its glory.
"Snap!" Chelsea said, running a finger along the edge of the shiny deck. "This is off the hinge. Wait until I show it to my skating buddy Horsemouth. He'll have kittens."
It took a second for the reality of her situation to come crashing down upon her. Suddenly Chelsea's eyes glazed over and a panicked look crossed her face. Skye knew the "look" only too well. It was when the newly dead realized they were not only dead; they were positively, absolutely, undeniably, and reliably dead.
"Shoot! Horsemouth won't see it, because I'm...I'm..."
Skye appeared at her elbow with tissue in hand. "It's okay to say it aloud, Chelsea. It's really not as awful as you think."
"Yes, it is," Chelsea said, wrenching away from her. "I won't say the word, because I don't want to be "
She stopped for a moment and her lips twitched into a sly smile. Immediately she gritted her teeth and scrunched her eyelids closed. When she opened them, disappointment darkened her face as she looked at her surroundings. She banged the WishBerry with the palm of her hand as if it were defective.
"It didn't work," Chelsea muttered.
"Of course it didn't, Chelsea," Skye said. "Heaven is your home now. You can't go back to Earth."
"How did you know what I wished for?"
"I've been doing this job for a while now," Skye said, patting the girl's shoulder.
"What about my mom?" Chelsea said in forlorn voice. "And my little brother, Andy. I can't see them either? They're lost to me forever?"
"Not forever. You can see them very soon on a special television channel we have in Heaven called Earthly Pleasures."
"Let's watch it now," Chelsea said, lunging for the remote on Skye's desk. "I want to see if they're okay."
"Not yet, Chelsea." Skye gently pried the remote from her fingers. "Newcomers are barred from watching Earthly Pleasures until they've been here for at least one week."
"We want to discourage unhealthy attachments to those left behind. You have to understand, Chelsea. You and your family are now on two separate planes of existence."
"In other words, I'm plant fertilizer and they're not," Chelsea said with a glum nod. Then her expression momentarily brightened. "Is it okay if I go down and do a little recreational haunting? It would be so cool to scare my eight-year-old brother, the wart. When he tries to sneak into my room I'll whisper, 'Get out!' or maybe I'll make his Matchbox cars float in midair."
Oh, the newly dead and their preoccupation with ghosts! Truth was, there were no such things. What the living mistook for specters were just residual energy fields. The dead could only return to Earth under very special circumstances.
"There will be no hauntings, young lady!" Skye said with a wag of her finger. She was beginning to feel a motherly protectiveness over her young charge. "Shall we finish watching the DVD?"
"Do we have to?" Chelsea said with a frown. "I'm kind of jetlagged from the trip."
"I suppose you can watch it later in your room," Skye said, pressing the eject button. "I'll take you there."
"Where exactly are we going?"
"Newcomer quarters, where you'll be able to relax. Counselors are on hand at all hours to assist you should you feel sad or start to miss loved ones."
"When am I going to be interrogated?" Chelsea asked, fiddling anxiously with a large shark's tooth hanging from her neck.
Skye tutted to herself. No matter how many times she tried to reassure her clients, they were always waiting for the other pitchfork to drop.
"Never. Contrary to what you may have been taught in vacation Bible school, Heaven isn't a place of judgment."
"Are you sure?" Chelsea said. "Because there may have been a time or two on Earth when I accidentally broke one of the Commandments. None of the really important ones, but "
"I'm positive," Skye said, squeezing her hand.
"But if Heaven isn't about judgment, what is it about?"
"Contentment," Skye said with a smile. "Heaven is like a Corona beer commercial the one where the people on the beach toss their cell phones into the ocean without a care in the world."
"Are you trying to tell me there aren't any cell phones in Heaven?" Chelsea said, her voice suddenly panicky.
Skye suppressed a laugh. "Of course there are cell phones. There's just never any bad news or telemarketers on the other line."
Skye led Chelsea out of her cubicle, and the two of them stepped into a hall that contained a glass elevator. When they boarded, Joy, another Hospitality worker, was already inside, comforting a young woman garbed in a satin wedding dress with a long, white train. Skye nodded a greeting as the bride sobbed into a bouquet of daffodils.
"Three hundred guests and not one of them knew the Heimlich," the bride said ruefully through a flurry of tears. "I told Arnold we should have ordered salmon for the wedding dinner."
"Chicken bone," mouthed Joy as she massaged the bride's shoulder.
"Skateboard mishap," Skye mouthed back as Chelsea played with her WishBerry.
The elevator pinged when they reached the ground floor, and Skye and Chelsea exited and hopped onto a moving sidewalk.
"You are now entering the Newcomer Sector," said a soothing, disembodied voice. "Average newcomer stay is from five to seven days, Earth time. Concierge is located on the ground floor and is manned twenty-four hours a day. Join us for a mixer in the Divine Ballroom at seven p.m. with piano stylings provided by Ray Charles."
The sidewalk teemed with clients and their greeters. Some of the newly dead still looked pale and drawn from whatever ailment had claimed them. A group of high school students in torn and bloodied formal wear rode the sidewalks in stunned silence.
"Prom season," Skye said, cutting her eyes in the direction of the students. She'd forgotten it was that time of year. Chelsea might meet some cute guys after all.
The teen scrutinized the knots of bedraggled people traveling with her on the sidewalks. She glanced at Skye with a questioning look. "Are all of these people...? Are they all...?" She made a cutting motion across her throat and emitted a gagging sound.
"Yes, Chelsea. They're all dead," Skye said. "And while they might look shell-shocked right now, they'll perk up soon enough. As your aunt Delilah said, Heaven is a fantastic place to be. It's a lot like Earth but with all the kinks ironed out."
The sidewalk ended, and they entered a vast lobby with arched openings between coupled columns and inlaid ceilings with stained-glass skylights. The glazed terra-cotta floors were covered with jewel-toned Oriental rugs, and the polished brass wall sconces glowed with a soft, welcoming light.
A black-suited bellhop, dressed in a white bow tie and gloves, greeted them and bowed at the waist.
"Welcome, Chelsea. You're in guest-room suite 302. I hope you enjoy your stay."
"This beats the stuffing out of the Red Roof Inn we stayed at in Orlando," Chelsea remarked as they entered another elevator, which would take them to her room. There were more efficient ways to travel in Heaven, teleportation for instance, but many familiar elements of Earth were incorporated into the sector to make the newly dead feel at home.
They traveled to the third floor and strode down a lilac-scented hallway lined with several ornate, gold mirrors and heavy wainscoting. When they arrived at room 302, Chelsea said, "We forgot to get the key."
"No keys necessary in Heaven," Skye said, coaxing her inside.
Skye switched on the light in the bathroom. "This is a very special bathtub. It allows you to soak in anything from Perrier to rose petals to buttermilk. The controls are on the faucet."
Chelsea stood behind her, glancing around as if looking for something. "Excuse me, but where's the...you know?"
"A toilet is just one more thing you won't need in Heaven," Skye said, reading her mind.
Skye stepped into the bedroom and drew the blinds to reveal the ocean lapping against an expanse of white sand.
"This is your view remote," she said, picking up the oblong device. "You can change your view with a click of a button. Mountain vista, Paris skyline, Bavarian village, or you can program in your own preferences."
She pointed to the four-poster king-sized bed covered with a down comforter, heaps of frilly pillows, and an assortment of stuffed animals.
"There's a turn-down service every night. You can also use your WishBerry computer to redecorate this room any way you like or you can put the room into mood mode, and your outer world will reflect your inner world. Why don't you try it?"
Mood mode was a reliable way for Skye to gauge her client's state of mind. If paintings like Munch's The Scream suddenly appeared on the wall, she knew she should send up a grief counselor ASAP.
She showed Chelsea the proper button to use, and as soon as the teen pushed it, loud punk music blared; posters of bare-chested teenage boys plastered the purple walls, and the smell of sausage pizza wafted through the air.
"My, Chelsea," Skye said, covering her ears. "Your inner world is certainly lively."
"I'll save this for after you leave," Chelsea said, changing the room back to its former state. Then she stroked her chin and quickly drew back her hand as if she'd been burned.
"Something's weird." She hurried to stare into the gilded framed mirror above the dresser. "Holy crap! My zits are all gone."
Skye nodded. "That's just one of the many benefits of life in Heaven. Your body gradually loses all of its flaws. Unless, of course, you're partial to them."
"Wow," Chelsea said, continuing to admire her unblemished chin in the mirror. "Lindsay Lohan, watch your back."
"Are you going to be okay?" Skye asked. She felt slightly uneasy leaving such a young girl to her own devices. "Your aunt will be here shortly to welcome you." "I'll be fine."
"If you say so," Skye said, lingering just inside the door.
"I swear I will." Chelsea traced a cross over her chest. "My mom always used to say I was an old soul. She said she could see it in my eyes."
"I bet you miss her," Skye said, trying to empathize, although she'd never personally "missed" anyone. Everybody she knew was right here in Heaven.
"Yeah." Chelsea rubbed her nose as if it itched. For a moment Skye thought she was going to cry, but the teen's eyes remained dry.
"My mom seems so far away now, like I'm looking at her from the wrong end of the binoculars. Is that crazy?"
"No," Skye said gently. "That's the way it's supposed to be. The longer people are in Heaven, the less they tend to pine for those they've left behind."
Chelsea kicked off her shoes, pushed aside a menagerie of plush toys, and flopped down on the bed. "You've been real nice to put up with me, 'specially since I acted so gay when I first got here. Guess you're an old soul too."
"No," Skye said with a shake of her head. "You're the much older soul. I've never been to Earth."
"Never?" Most of Chelsea's kohl had worn off and her once fierce-looking eyes appeared pink and vulnerable. "You were born in Heaven?"
"I was created a little over a year ago. I'm a spanking-new soul right off the assembly line." She sniffed her armpits. "Still have that new soul smell."
Chelsea giggled. "So are you ever going to Earth?"
"Not anytime soon," Skye said. "New souls usually spend years in Heaven before they're selected to live their first life on Earth. Besides, I'm perfectly happy where I am." She paused. "But If I were to go to Earth, would you have any pearls of wisdom you'd want to share with me?"
Chelsea wrinkled her brow as she deliberated over Skye's question. "Obviously, you should wear a helmet when you try an ollie."
"Skateboard talk. And..." She drummed her lower lip in seemingly deep consternation. When a thought finally occurred, she grinned. "Be sure and learn how to fall, 'cause you're going to spend a lot of time on your butt."
Skye laughed. "I'll try and remember that." She reached for the doorknob. "I better scoot. You sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine," Chelsea said, smothering a yawn. "Just a little tired. Death takes a lot out of you." She plumped her pillow and sunk her head in the middle. "One more thing. I know there's a turn-down service "
"All you have to do is pick up the phone beside your bed."
"I don't suppose there's also a tuck-in service?" Chelsea said, shyly. "My mom still insisted on tucking me in even though I told her I was way too old. But now "
"Now you wish she was here to do it?"
Chelsea responded with a hopeful nod, and Skye smiled and tucked the blanket under her chin, and brushed her lips across Chelsea's broad forehead. "Sweet dreams," she whispered.
Skye switched off the bedside lamp and tiptoed out of the room. She rode the elevator down to the lobby and boarded the moving sidewalks cutting through the Hospitality Sector, a structure about the size of a large city's airport terminal.
Saturday was always a brisk day. People on Earth had more time to drown, wreck their cars, or fall off roofs. The only day busier than Saturday was Monday, which ushered in the cardiac arrest and stroke victims. Apparently the prospect of facing another long workweek eked the life out of many people on Earth.
A Muzak version of "Stairway to Heaven" competed with the thrum of the monorail as it wove its way around the building, delivering the newly deceased to various destinations throughout the area. Since there were an average of 146,000 deaths per day on Earth, the Hospitality Sector was a mammoth operation. The monorail never stopped running, and the enormous glass structure always bustled with the comings and goings of greeters and their clients.
Skye closed her eyes, letting the sidewalk transport her throughout the sector. "Stairway to Heaven" was replaced by Ella Fitzgerald singing, "Heaven, I'm in Heaven. And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak."
She'd heard the song so many times before, it barely made a blip in her consciousness. The Fitzgerald tune, along with "Pennies from Heaven," "Tears in Heaven," and "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," played continuously throughout the sector.
"Skye!" someone shouted from behind her. She turned around to see her best friend, Rhianna, ambling in her direction.
"What's your after-work plans?" Rhianna asked as she reached Skye.
"Nothing in particular," Skye said, yelling over the boom, boom of the music coming from the Live a Little Lounge, a watering hole exclusively for Hospitality employees.
"Want to go in for a quickie?" Rhianna asked, pointing a finger in the direction of the nightclub. "Glory and Joy said they were stopping by."
Skye shook her head. "Not in the mood." Ever since she'd started dating her new boyfriend, Brock, she had much less interest in nightclubbing.
As they spoke, two Hospitality workers staggered out of the bar singing, "I think I'm turning Japanese. I really think so!" Obviously the evening's festivities were already under way. Greeters were a notoriously wild bunch, and in Heaven, there was no fear of hangovers.
"Big birds; five o'clock," Rhianna said, cutting her eyes to the left.
Two guardian angels traveled on the adjacent sidewalk, which moved in the opposite direction from Rhianna and Skye. They wore diaphanous white uniforms with gold wing-shaped pins fastened to their bodices. The two angels' heads were nearly touching as they spoke in low tones.
"They always look so serious." Skye called to them as they passed. "Smile, ladies!"
The angels were so involved in their conversation they didn't even look up.
Rhianna grasped Skye's forearm. "Who do you think will get promoted this year?"
"Probably Joy," Skye said. "She's been nominated for Who's Who in the Hereafter two years running."
Greeters were evaluated each year. According to their performance, they either stayed in their positions or were promoted to guardian angels. Every once in a great while, a greeter was selected to go to Earth an incredibly rare honor. It indicated a new soul had developed, in a short time, the fortitude to live their very first life.
"I hear there are surprises every year," Rhianna said. "Who knows? Maybe you'll be promoted."
Skye hooted, knowing Rhianna was teasing. There were a handful of fiercely competitive greeters who desperately tried to distinguish themselves by taking continuing-education courses (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Hospitality Workers) or volunteering for overtime after earthquakes and other natural disasters. Skye wasn't among their numbers and was perfectly happy to put in her eight hours and toddle on home.
"So what do you want to do today?" Skye asked as they exited the main entrance of the building.
"How about cloud art? I'm feeling creative." Rhianna waved her hands through the air as if swiping at a canvas on an easel. She wore a gold ring on each one of her fingers and a silver hoop in her navel, which winked in the sunlight when she raised her arms.
Navel rings weren't regulation for greeters, but there was nothing standard about Rhianna's appearance. Her hair was a riot of red snarls and curls, and she'd woven various colors of shiny ribbons through her defiant strands. She was frequently cited for violating the Hospitality Sector dress code. Once she even fashioned a little skirt out of all of her reprimands and wore it to work, earning herself yet another one.
"I'm not particularly gifted at cloud art," Skye said with a frown. "All my clouds look like fluffy blobs."
"Don't be so hard on yourself. They're very artful blobs," Rhianna said. "I think I'm in a Chagall mood today."
They passed under an awning of oak trees as they headed toward a park. Rhianna scampered in front of Skye, jingling merrily from all her bangles and chains. The waistband of her hospitality skirt had fallen down her hips, revealing a narrow strip of hot-pink underwear.
"On second thought, I'm not feeling ethereal enough for Chagall," Rhianna said, plunking her bottom down onto the ground. "I want something with a touch of whimsy. Maybe Klee."
Cloud art was a popular pastime in Heaven, and involved the use of a brush, pencil, or even a finger as an instrument to render objects in the sky.
"What's it going to be today?"
"A goat maybe?" Skye said, dipping her finger into an imaginary inkwell.
"Bor-ing," Rhianna said, making the word sound like a goat's bray.
"What can I say?" Skye said with exaggerated haughtiness. "Water vapor isn't my preferred medium."
Rhianna's tongue peeped out of the corner of her mouth as she began to draw Klee's round-headed man, one of her favorites.
"Can I tell you a secret?" she asked.
"I'd give my pinky finger to be chosen to go to Earth."
"You wouldn't," Skye said, dismissing her comment with a snort.
"Really. I'm not kidding."
"You want to go to Earth? What for?"
"It's a fascinating place. If, by some miracle, I were chosen to live there, the first thing I'd do is body surf."
"Have you forgotten Earthlings have a charming little custom called childhood?" Skye sniffed. "It would be years before you could surf, if you're even lucky enough to live near an ocean. Besides, why go to Earth when you can body surf right here in Heaven?"
"Not the same," Rhianna said. She uprooted a dandelion and blew the fluff into the air.
"That's right," Skye said, catching one of the errant seeds with her thumb. "Surfing here is safe. No jellyfish, no undertow, and no sharks who like to snack on redheaded girls."
"I happen to like jellyfish. They look like the ghosts of flowers. So pretty," Rhianna said, wriggling her fingers to suggest tentacles.
"And pretty painful if they sting you."
"A little pain never killed anyone."
"What do you know about pain?" Skye scoffed. Like Skye, Rhianna was a new soul and had never been to Earth. Physical pain was as foreign to her as the prick of a cactus needle was to a goldfish.
"The threat of pain or danger is exactly what makes surfing interesting on Earth," Rhianna said, her eyes lively with the thoughts of the varied thrills of the planet.
Skye had heard other greeters express similar desires. They seemed oddly attracted to the ceaseless drama of Earth life. Not Skye. Why should she ever want to leave a place that was so completely perfect?
"Earth sounds like an extremely hazardous planet. Babies should be born with hard hats and knee guards," she said.
Skye gazed up at the pristine blue sky. The weather in Heaven was continuously mild and sunny. If a person longed for rain or snow, there were places in Heaven with diverse weather conditions, but Skye never had any desire to visit them.
"The most frightening thing on Earth is the threat of death," Rhianna said, winding a fiery curl around her finger. "And we already know what happens when you die, so what's there to be scared of?"
"Maybe there are worse things on Earth than death," Skye mused.
"Like what? Potted meat? Disco music? A Brady Bunch reunion show?"
Skye stood and dusted off stray blades of grass from the back of her uniform. She'd completely lost interest in cloud art.
"You know what fascinates me the most about Earth?" Rhianna said.
She cocked her head and grinned. "Hardly anyone wants to leave."
Very true, Skye thought. The first hours in Heaven were the most trying for the newly dead as they mourned the existence they'd left behind, not knowing the life ahead of them was far superior.
"Why are we even talking about this?" Skye said with a delicate yawn. "Neither of us will be chosen to go to Earth anytime soon. Our lives will continue on just as they always have. Blissfully uncomplicated. Who could ask for anything more?"
Copyright © 2008 by Karin Gillespie