Gracie Monroe was born a woman of faith. She was baptized by her pastor at just four days old and attended church twice a week for eighty-five years without fail. Neither a tickle in her throat, sweat on her brow, or the threat of intemperate weather could keep her away from God’s house. Even the births of her children posed no barrier between Gracie and her lord and savior. The older she grew, the more her heart opened to God and the Holy Spirit, and the more she opened her heart, the more she devoted herself to her beliefs. Her kindness and generosity were without equal.
Her entire life consisted of God. As a child, she attended a Christian academy, and on the weekends, she went to Sunday school. Her friends and family shared her love of the Lord, and not a day passed where his name wasn’t mentioned in discussion or praise.
From her first moments of speech, a routine was established that never changed. Each morning before breakfast, her hands were clasped together in appreciation for the opportunity to start a new day fresh. At lunch, she thanked her heavenly father for her good fortunes, and at dinner, she expressed her gratitude for the bounty spread out before her. As the sun disappeared behind the mountains and the day drew to a close, she thanked him for the minutia of the previous twenty-four hours. For the smiles and the warmth, and the potential to do it all over again tomorrow.
When her parents passed away, her faith offered her comfort, and when she had cause for celebration, she counted her blessings. Her God was by her side every step of the way.
Gracie met her husband, James, in her senior year of high school, and they consummated their relationship on their wedding night. She bore him five beautiful children, who in turn gave her seventeen beautiful grandchildren. Her hand was never raised in anger, or her words to cause harm, and for sixty-seven years she honored her wedding vows. Her eyes never wandered, and her heart stayed true. Even to her last minutes, she loved her husband with every ounce of her being. Gracie loved her family as much as she loved God. She was a Christian in the truest sense of the word.
However, even a life spent in flawless servitude was insufficient to prevent the end. The one thing her faith could not grant was immortality. Her final moments arrived, and she found herself in a hospital bed surrounded by her family and friends. The fruits of a pure and full life standing before her, loving her in the past, cherishing her in the present and preparing to remember her long after the physical form was gone.
Her breathing became slow and labored, and James held her hand tighter than he ever had. As the remaining seconds counted down, his mind raced with a million things to say. To recall days gone by, of shared laughter and memories, a reminder of the glorious times they had shared together.
A vicious stroke three-days prior cruelly erased much of her humanity. She could no longer speak or move her mouth, and her brain barely functioned. James stared at her face, desperate to take in every crease, every contour until it was etched in his mind. He gazed upon her as though seeing her for the first time. While time had taken its expected toll on her skin, she was as beautiful as the day they met. He knew his time was short and he would never again look into her eyes. His safe place, his heart and his home was leaving.
James desperately fought back the urge to cry as he watched his love slowly slipping away. He needed to stay strong, just for a while longer. A single tear rolled down Gracie’s cheek. James reached over and gently wiped it away, caressing her skin. It was time to say goodbye.
As the glimmer in her eyes began to fade, he lost the fight and started to weep. He wasn’t ready to lose her, he needed more time. Time he could not bargain for or demand. James was at the mercy of powers far stronger than he.
Connor, their eldest son, placed a hand on his dad’s shoulder and squeezed gently, as if trying to transfer the pain. James reached up and acknowledged the gesture, never taking his eyes off his dying wife.
Gracie had just three more breaths left in her lungs.
James knew they were on borrowed time and she was ready to go. He leaned over and kissed her tenderly on the forehead.
Two more breaths.
“Safe travels, my sweet, sweet angel. Thank you for every second of every day. I’ll see you again.”
One last breath.
“I love you.”
And with those final three words, her mortal journey was complete. A perfect end to a perfect life.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
The bright light came and went, but Gracie kept her eyes closed tight. She felt like a child on Christmas morning about to receive a surprise gift. She knew she was moments away from seeing the Kingdom of Angels, and the anticipation wrapped her stomach in knots. All her life she had waited for this moment. Never at the expense of the present, but deep down at her core she wanted nothing more than to gaze upon her God.
“That’s a pretty dress,” said an unfamiliar female voice.
Gracie slowly opened her eyes to find herself standing in a dark hallway and towards the end of what appeared to be a very long line of people. An unidentified man stood in front of her, obviously not the source of the voice. She turned to see an equally mysterious young woman in line behind her.
“Thank you.” She looked down to see which dress the women referenced. The last thing she remembered wearing was her nightie and was pleasantly surprised to see her favorite blue flowered dress. One she had not been able to squeeze into for many years. “My husband always liked this dress,’ she recalled with a sad smile.
“Is he here?”
“No, not yet. Soon, I hope.” Gracie paused. “No, that didn’t sound right. What I meant was—”
The woman touched Gracie’s arm gently. “I know what you meant. We all want to be with our loved ones. My David was taken from me six months ago.”
“I’m so sorry, sweetie. Were you married long?”
“No, we weren’t married. He moved to Arizona ten years ago and we split up. I never got over him. I don’t think he ever got over me. I heard he died in a car accident, but I never got closure.”
“Maybe he’s here waiting for you and you can get your happy ever after?”
“No? Was he a different religion?”
Karen shook her head. “Atheist.”
Gracie looked genuinely distressed at this news. “Oh, no. Maybe he saw the light before he died.”
“Probably not. David was a stubborn fool, it was his biggest flaw. Well, that and the whole not believing in God thing.” She noticed Gracie looking around the dark hallway. “I’m Karen, by the way.”
“Gracie. Gracie Monroe.”
Gracie frowned slightly. “Yes, but a bit confused. If I were to be perfectly honest.”
Karen raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Confused? What’s wrong?”
“Something doesn’t feel right.”
“What do you mean?”
Gracie looked around her and gestured to the hallway. “I mean all this. It’s a lot darker than I expected. I thought there would be grand sweeping halls with angels and harps. All I see is a dark wall with candles every twenty feet or so.”
Karen smiled. “Have you ever been to Disneyland when it’s so crowded they have to let people out through the back area behind Fantasy Land and Main Street?”
Gracie shook her head in the negative.
“It’s weird. You know you’re in Disneyland, but all you see is behind the scenes. It’s just the trash cans and broken props. It looks nothing like the public side of the park. This is the same thing. We’re just behind the scenes before we get to Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Maybe the original hall is being redecorated or something.”
Gracie smiled at the comforting thought. She was probably right.
“You’re just excited to meet the big guy. I understand. I got this way when I met Harrison Ford a few years back. I was at once excited and terrified. It’s perfectly normal. He’s someone you’ve fantasized about meeting most of your life. Of course you’re excited. You’ve painted this picture in your mind of what Heaven looks like. Don’t let this hallway dishearten you, this is your moment.”
“But, this is God. I’ve waited for this since I was born.”
“So, enjoy it then.”
The man standing in front finally spoke. “I feel it too.”
Gracie turned to face him. “What do you mean?”
“All this.” He glanced around the corridor. “It’s all wrong.”
Karen laughed. “Oh, he’s just winding you up.”
The man shrugged. “Whatever. But this isn’t heaven.”
Gracie laughed uncomfortably. “Of course it is. Why would it be anywhere else but Heaven?”
“You don’t smell that?”
Gracie sniffed the air. “I smell burnt matches.”
“Yes. From matches. There are candles everywhere.” She was not having any of his ridiculous argument. Something did feel off to her, but not for a moment did she contemplate being anywhere other than Heaven. “I’ve been a devout Christian my entire life. I’ve dedicated myself to God and his teachings. I haven’t missed a day of church in eighty-five years. As Karen said, we’re just backstage. Everything will be fine.”
The man shrugged. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
“You’re not funny. This is a big deal for me.”
“I’m not trying to be funny. Something is wrong. I know it, you know it, the nun standing behind you knows it.”
Gracie turned to see a lady standing a few bodies away step out of line. She wore a black and white habit, and a string of rosary beads hung around her neck.
She smiled at Gracie. “My child, if I’m in the wrong place, there’s something much bigger going on.”
Gracie looked at Karen and started to laugh. The mood began to lighten up and Gracie relaxed. She knew the situation was making her hypersensitive.
The nun smiled again. “I’m quite sure we are in the exact place we need to be, my child. Appearances can be quite deceiving.”
“See,” said Karen. “Disneyland. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Thank you, sister.” Gracie sighed nervously. She knew she was on edge, but Karen was right, she was just anxious. Seeing the nun in the same line eased her fears. While she expected Heaven to be more gilded, if a long dark hallway was in fact the way in, it seemed a small price to pay for an afterlife of peace and tranquility.
The line started to move again, and Gracie could see a set of large double doors in the distance. She could feel the excitement knotting up in her stomach again and passed the remaining hour laughing and joking with Karen and delightful nun. Before she knew it, she was at the front of the line and the jaded man ahead of her disappeared behind the doors.
“Are you ready?” asked Karen.
Gracie nodded, her eyes fixed on the entrance. She wrung her hands nervously as it started to swing open.
“Knock em’ dead, kiddo,” said Karen.
“I hope you’re reunited with David,” said Gracie as she inhaled and stepped through the dark entrance.
She found herself in a small room, barely the size of her guest bedroom. Another set of doors barred her way causing her to clench her teeth together, the anticipation was unbearable. The urge to push the doors open and charge in threatened to overwhelm her. She raised her hands to give the handles an encouraging push.
“Name?” demanded a disembodied voice.
“Excuse me?” said Gracie as she pulled her hands away from the door.
She turned to see a disheveled man standing in the corner clutching a clipboard to his chest.
“What’s your name,” he asked
The man lowered his clipboard and looked over a list clamped down on the front of it. He flipped a page and continued to read. Then a third, and soon after, a fourth. “Nope.”
Before she could respond, he pressed an intercom button on the wall. “Scooter, we got another one.”
“Send her in,” a crackled voice responded.
“Another what?” asked Gracie. Something was definitely wrong.
“In you go.” The man pointed to the doors.
“Another what?” she pleaded as the man shooed her away.
Gracie stepped over threshold as the door slammed shut behind her.
The seemingly endless room spread out in front of her exploded with a deluge of strobe lights and electronic bass. A tsunami of manufactured and cigarette-made smoke slammed into Gracie, filling her lungs. She coughed loudly, trying to take in the events of the room. Her critical gaze locked on a table less than ten-feet away where a half-naked stripper was snorting a line of coke from the cleavage of an equally topless woman sitting in her lap. Not far behind the pair, a tangled mass of male and female limbs on a randomly placed bed were enjoying a rather vocal three-way. Gracie’s eyes widened in horror at the debauchery unfolding around her, and instinctively stepped back towards the door. Her mind tried to process what her eyes were seeing, uncertain they could withstand so much sin.
“Hey there, sugar tits,” shouted a strange little man over the din of the music as he danced over to her. He wore a rainbow-colored tutu and a t-shirt proudly claiming him to be ‘Beelzebub’s Bitch’. “What’s your name?’
“Gracie,” she stammered.
“Just Gracie? Like Madonna or Fergie?” he frowned as he mulled the name over in his head. “I dig it. It makes a statement without being overly pretentious. I don’t believe we’ve had just a Gracie before. This is awesome.”
Gracie continued to look around the room in horror.
“The name’s Mack, but people call me Scooter. But you, you can call me whatever you like, honey buns.” He followed Gracie’s gaze towards the threesome. “Looks fun, huh?
“Excuse me?” she stammered once again.
He nodded towards the group. “What they’re up to. You want in? I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.”
Gracie failed to find a response. It did not look fun at all and no, she most certainly did not want in.
Scooter shrugged his shoulders. “So, you’re not on the list, huh?”
She struggled to hear him. “List? What list?” she shouted back.
“The list to get in of course. You’re not on it, silly pants.”
Gracie frowned, nothing was making any sense to her. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s probably some administrative issue somewhere. It’s not a biggie. We welcome everyone here, regardless of past indiscretions. Mostly.” He gestured to the room. “As you can see, we’re a lot more relaxed here than people give us credit for.”
“Where am I?”
“I can tell you where you’re not,” he grinned, as he started to vogue with a pair of neon glow sticks.
The man’s unorthodox presence made her skin crawl, and she could feel the pangs of outright panic beginning to claw their way in.
Another equally odd shirtless man donning a set of plastic devil horns and rhinestone nipple pasties, who may or may not have been under the effects of acid, sprinted by with a loud ‘whoop’.
Tutu-man leaned closer to Gracie’s ear. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions for me.”
“Fire away, you pretty little thing.”
“What part of Heaven is this? Are these the Mormons?”
“Heaven? Oh, fuck no. You’re in Hell, Grandma.