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vol iv, issue 6 < ToC
Death Everlasting
by
Nyamweya Maxwell
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My Son ...Dream
Pez DispenserPillow I
Death Everlasting
by
Nyamweya Maxwell
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My Son ...
Pez Dispenser




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Dream
Pillow I
Death Everlasting
by
Nyamweya Maxwell
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My Son ... Dream
Pez DispenserPillow I
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My Son ...
Pez Dispenser




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Dream
Pillow I
Death Everlasting  by Nyamweya Maxwell
Death Everlasting
 by Nyamweya Maxwell
Oh, he has their attention now.

The congregation is leaning forward as one, eyes are clear and every single person in the room is looking at Joseph, Joseph "Joe" Mwongera; the former death addict.

The gathered people are challenging him with their eyes, exciting him with their expectation, and like the orator he has over the years become, he rises to exceed their wildest dreams.

"What else didn't they tell you?" he demands of them, "What else have they been keeping from you? This world is full of lies. Everyone is out to keep you under their thumb because they want you to believe that we, as a society will benefit from it. What they do not tell us, is that it only them who benefit. They lie so that they can keep us under their control, they lie to us so that they can harvest our hard work, harvest our sweat and our tears."

Someone in the congregation shouts "Amen!" and the rest nod in accord.

"Do you want to know what they don't want you to know? Do you know what they pretend not to know?" He pauses for effect. "Death, is not the enemy.

"From the very moment of our birth, we are trained to fear death, we are taught to avoid it and we are taught to believe that death is not absolute. All the religions I've found in my travels teach of a life beyond death. The great Asian religions teach of reincarnation, assuring their followers that they will be reborn after they die. The Abrahamic religions teach of a great judgment that will come at the end of time, a judgment that will see people raised from the dead to have their lives evaluated. The Christians say that the resurrection of Jesus is evidence that death is not absolute.

"But none of this is true. It is all just the fear of death manifesting itself in the stories and traditions that we cling to. The very same stories and traditions that we pass to our children, ensuring that they grow up to fear death and to worship ideas that promise that they can escape death.

"But death really is absolute. It is the only thing in our lives that we can be sure of, the only thing that we know we cannot avoid. Animals die, plants die, stars die, and some day even the universe itself will die.

"Death is the only god there is. Death is the only god we can quantify, the only god we can touch and feel, death is the only god we truly fear.

"Religions didn't begin because this or that other god came down from the heavens to give men and women instructions on how to live their lives. They didn't begin when some mad prophet proclaimed some divine truth. Religions only truly begun with the fear of death.

"It doesn't matter where you look. All religions have death at their centre, whether it is the death of a prominent prophet or the promise of life after death, death is at the core of every theology.

"Religion only exists to rationalise the unknown and death is the greatest unknown, but they don't want you to know that. They want you to believe that you live a good life now because you will be judged once you are dead, they want you to believe that you live a good life now because it will determine the life you will be born into once you are dead, but it is all just a lie. Nothing comes after you are dead. Death is the end. The promise of a life after death cheapens the pain and suffering we go through in this life. It takes the meaning out of the choices we make in this life because we believe that there will be a chance to live again no matter what we do, no matter our circumstances and no matter the condition of the world.

"But if men and women like you and me populate the life that will come after, then pain and suffering are inevitable because pain and suffering are a consequence of the choices people like you and me make. People will always choose to exploit other people. People will always look to manipulate the systems of the world so that they get ahead at the expense of others.

"There is no land of milk and honey awaiting us after death, no equalization of fates. Poor men will not be born equal to the rich, nor the weak born equal to the strong. We only believe this because we do not take death seriously, and it has cost us our society.

"When it comes down to it, there's only two kinds of people in this world; those that know that this is the only life they will live and those that believe that they will get better lives after they die. The first group exploits the second. The first group pretends at religion and morals while stepping on the backs of the second group to gain wealth and prestige. And that's all religion is; a means of controlling the population, a means of controlling you so that you remain calm and pliable while the elites of the world exploit you.

"That's why you are here, isn't it? To know where you stand so that you can break free of the chains society has imposed upon you."

Joe is moving amongst them now. He is touching the shoulders of the people in his congregation and looking into their eyes. He sees doubt, he sees uncertainty, but every single one of them paid to be here. They will see this through to the end. He just has to make sure that when they leave, they will spread the word and swell their numbers. What he tells them only has to be convincing, it only has to stand a cursory examination; it does not need to be foolproof. He only has to get them believing, and if there's anything Joe has learned, is that no one ever bothers to investigate their beliefs.

"I was like you once, worshiping in church every weekend, desperate to be saved from a death I believed I could escape. It came for me sooner than I had hoped it would. I left my house one day headed for work and the cab I took got involved in an accident. The people that pulled me out of the wreckage emptied my pockets and stole my phone while I lay there bleeding, and before the paramedics could get to me, I died.

"When they revived me, they told me that I had been dead for a few minutes, but in those minutes, my life changed.

"They say that you see a light at the end of a tunnel. They say that you hear the voices of loved ones or the voice of God calling you into the light. They say that you feel acceptance and love as you move into the light. But it is so, so much more than that.

"You don't just feel accepted, you feel free. All the burdens of life, all the hunger, all the pain, all the greed and all the desire, they fall away and your mind becomes clear, clearer than it can ever be while you are alive. In that clarity your whole life becomes a single instant behind you and you can turn back and see it all.

"On that day, I was ashamed of what I saw. It mortified me to think that this was what I was leaving behind. I could see that there was more to life, that what we live is a tiny fragment of what is possible and we let it all go to waste.

"We must embrace death. We must face it and accept it rather than running from it, only then can we see what we can become. Only then can we embrace our true destinies."

He must explain how he does it now. He must tell them that he will kill them all and bring them back.

He lies.

He says that the process is not painful, says that it's like sinking into a vat of ice water. The truth, of course, is far more terrifying. He keeps it from them because he knows that none of them would ever return if they knew, none of them would bring their friends, none of them would grow his congregation.

Even with his toned-down version of what they will endure, they still look terrified. They avert their eyes and murmur with uncertainty. Will they proceed? Of course they do. The price of admission was high, and besides, what they have heard about the transformational power of Joe's procedure has them intrigued. So none of them refuse as they are led into the other room, the Miracle room, where they will be undergoing the experience, where their lives will be changed.

There are beds here, all arranged in rows and columns like in a hospital ward. There are two doctors and ten nurses waiting for the converts. They welcome them and guide them to the various beds. They settle the converts into the beds, take off their shoes, lay their heads on the white pillows and cover them with white sheets. Were the converts not so terrified, or excited, perhaps they would see how stiffly the nurses move, how awkward the doctors are around the medical equipment, perhaps they would realise that the medical staff is all just pantomime.

Only one of the doctors is real, and not a single one of the nurses has medical training. All this is just a show, rehearsed to assure the converts that they are in good hands. One of the nurses slips up. She forgets her lines and instead of keeping talking like they practiced, she freezes and Joe sees her eyes flash towards him. She is terrified of what will happen to her once all this is done, but her "patient" doesn't seem to notice. He eases into position and she goes with the flow.

Joe walks among the beds. The doctors are moving drip bags and machines with gauges, syringes, buttons and dials into position. The nurses are sticking needles into arms, but all the people in the beds are watching him. He is the focus of their attention, just like he wants to be.

"This is your revelation," he tells them all, "this is your awakening. Your baptism, will not be a baptism of water or fire, it will be a baptism of death. When you wake up, you will wake up to new life, not figuratively, but literally. Your sins are your responsibility and I cannot wash them away. Only you can make retribution for what you have done. The only death of significance is yours. You do not get to pin your sins on someone else's death.

"What I can do for you show you your actions in the context of your life, and your life in the context of the universe. It will feel insignificant, but that is the point. You will feel small, but that is the point. Do not let the sensation consume you. Face it, embrace it, and be born anew."

All it takes is the push of a button. The machines on the sides of the beds are repurposed lethal injection machines. Electric actuators push syringes and a custom mixed cardioplegic flows through tubes and into the converts' blood. It causes a sensation like icy pain when it first reaches the circulatory system. Joe sees everyone shudder and grit their teeth. This pain only lasts a moment, but worse is yet to come.

When their hearts stop and the oxygen supply to their organs get cut off, their bodies will fight hard to stay alive. The signal they send to the brain that something is wrong once got described to Joe as a scream of desperation. What it feels like, is actually more like being burned from the inside out. It is an agony worse than immolation, worse than excruciation. Lucky for Joe, it coincides with a hypoxia that cripples the brain's memory function so that no one who undergoes this temporary death actually remembers the torment. But while it lasts, they all writhe and they all scream.

Timing is important. The faux nurses keep a wary eye on their patients. As soon as one stops writing, they rush to him or her and start the revival process. Oftentimes, this is as simple as a few seconds of CPR. Defibrillators are attached to the lethal injection machines, but these are just for show. They don't actually work. Once the heart starts beating, the needles in the converts' hands are switched with those leading to the drip bags and their recovery begins.

The drip bag contains a custom blend of stimulants. Joe cannot afford to let any one of the converts close their eyes. Chances that they will fall asleep and never wake up are very high in these first few minutes after their revival. This is also the period during which the convert will remember and appreciate his experience. What causes it isn't fully understood. The general consensus is that it has something to do with the brain's neurochemical response to trauma, but Joe cannot control this. So he has laced the cardioplegic with some PCP and a smidge of ketamine, and the stimulants in the drip bags with some LSD.

One by one, Joe welcomes the converts back to life. He repeats a version of the line "Welcome to your new life" to every single one of them as they doctors and nurses check their heart rates and adjust their drips. Their eyes are unfocused, minds still revelling in their near death experiences or wallowing in LSD induced hallucinations. Every single one of them looks exactly how Joe expects them to; stunned, and overwhelmed. They have touched death, and have returned. They have partaken of the great panacea, cure to all problems and end to all existence, and no one, no one comes out of such an experience unchanged.

Joe knows this. Joe has experienced this. He has been to the brink and back more times than anyone would believe. The cocktail he uses to revive his followers was one of his very first inventions. He tested it on himself over and over again in the months following the accident. He wanted desperately to feel the incredible, unfathomable rush of his first death, but it wasn't until he was broke and begging on the streets that he realised that he had become an addict.

When he started selling death, peddling it to anyone daring enough, his motivation had been survival. But he had soon realised that people would pay anything for an experience that added meaning to their lives. Inspired to exploit this desire, he had become a preacher, and had founded a church. He had been shut down more than once, the authorities calling what he had started a cult and threatening him and his followers with prison. But greed can inspire unstoppable genius, couple that with the possibility of wealth and you can turn anyone into a psychopath.

Joe makes his way down the room. He sees the spaced out faces, sees the revelation in their eyes and he struggles to keep a straight face. Could it really be this easy? Could people really be this gullible? He cannot help but be optimistic. It does occur to him that he is taking advantage of desperate people, manipulating them with a very dangerous tool, but the voice of greed is louder than the caution in his mind, and he knows that he will not stop what he is doing. Then he gets to the end of the room, turns, and freezes. Something is wrong.

In his absorption, he had missed the commotion that was breaking out behind him. Converts are sitting up in their beds, nurses beside them looking panicked and terrified. One of the doctors, the real one, pushes past the nurse blocking his way and runs towards the other end of the room where the fake doctor is performing chest compressions in a very inexperienced and embarrassing attempt at CPR.

The convert on the bed is not moving. He looks limp, his head lolling to the side as the real doctor takes over the CPR. Joe rushes over, nurses crowding around him as he reaches the bed. The convert lying there looks old, but that's probably because of his grey hair. His face is that of a younger man, one closer to that of the forty something years he had indicated in his admission documents, though from Joe's experience, people tend to look younger while they sleep, or die. This face looks wrong now, however. Joe had never imagined a dark-skinned man could look pale, but there is definitely no blood flowing through that face at the moment.

What the hell happened?

The doctor looks up at Joe, defeat written all over his face. They have had this discussion before. The doctor has warned Joe that something like this can happen, but Joe's argument has always been simple and persuasive; "It has never happened before, we just have to be careful and we don't have to worry about it happening." Seems he had been wrong.

The doctor orders a nurse to continue the chest compressions. He rushes into another room and returns with a working defibrillator tucked under his armpit, and a drip bag and small red bag held in each hand.

"He still has a pulse," the doctor explains, "we just need to get his heart rate up to normal."

He places the contact pads on the convert's chest, connects the defibrillator to the wall socket. He charges it up and shocks the convert. He takes a few seconds to get the convert's pulse, then curses. He shocks the convert again, takes his pulse and shakes his head. From the red bag, he pulls out what Joe recognises as a sternal intraossesous infusion device. He presses it to the convert's chest and connects it to the drip bag he has now hung from the pole that held the blend of stimulants. He continues with the chest compressions, but it is becoming clear that it isn't going well.

The converts are whispering behind Joe. He turns to find that they are grouped at one end of the room, eyes still glazed and hands still shaky, but there is terror in their faces. They are working themselves up to leave, convincing themselves that Joe was a fraud all along. If they leave now, they will spread doubt and undermine Joe's outreach efforts. He cannot have that. He has to keep them here.

"Everything is alright," he assures the converts, his face a mask of practised calm, "a delayed re-entry to life only means that the subject has a very long past to work through. His journey will soon be complete and he will re-join us." Then walking quickly to the doctor, who's still struggling to revive the convert, he whispers, "Do not let him die."

"I have nothing to work with here," the doctor hisses back, "we need an EKG, an automated defibrillator, a bag valve mask. We have to get this man to hospital."

Joe motions for the other doctor, the false one, to take over the CPR and pulls the real doctor out of the room, the chapel.

"We've had this discussion before," Joe whispers once they are in the empty chapel.

"And my recommendations stand,' the doctor whispers back, "we have always needed equipment, this situation is the perfect example of why. I don't have what I need to resuscitate the man. We need to get him to hospital."

"That is out of the question, we cannot afford that."

"You have plenty of money," the doctor snarls, "it's your ego, your...your organisation that cannot afford this."

"If he dies, we go out of business," Joe reminds him, "if we take him to hospital, we go out of business."

"What are you talking about?! If he dies, we go to jail. We should save him while we still have the chance. It may already be too late."

"We cannot have him in hospital. If he talks and the authorities get wind of it, we'll be shut down."

"You cannot be thinking about that right now."

"Calm down, calm down. You can figure this out. This has never happened before. Why would it be happening now?"

"The man may have had a heart condition."

"Wouldn't he have indicated that in his admission forms?"

"People lie about these things. He probably knew he would be let in if he told the truth."

"Okay, okay. So what can you do with what you have to keep him alive?"

"Get the man to-"

The door swings open and the fake doctor sticks his head into the chapel. "We have a problem," he tells them and they rush back into the room.

The two doctors go fussing about the convert, arguing over his pulse and checking his breath. The real doctor tries the CPR again, pressing on the convert's chest and breathing into him, but he soon abandons the effort and throws up his hands. "It's too late," he says, "he's gone."

Joe, however, is focused on a much more serious problem. The other converts are gone. They left while he was in the other room with the real doctor. He rushes to the door, pulls it open and runs into the parking lot. There are cars flowing in streets beyond the boundary wall, there are crickets chirping in the flower bushes around the building, and there is doom looming in the unassuming night.

"Why'd you let them go?" he shouts at the doctors and the nurses back in the Miracle room, all of whom are still arguing over the dead body of the convert. They can't seem to agree who is to blame and are all pointing at themselves and shaking their heads, proclaiming at each other how flawless their work always is.

"Why'd you let them go?" he shouts again.

"We've got bigger problems here," the doctor says, "we have a dead body that we are going to have to explain to the police."

"And how do you think the police are going to find out about it?" Joe screams into the room, "The people you allowed to leave are going to tell them, you IDIOTS!"

"Is that all you are thinking about?"

"I'm thinking about survival, I'm thinking about controlling this situation. What are you thinking about?"

"A man just died," the doctor said, "and it's our fault."

"You're not thinking," Joe shouts, "This is only our fault if they find evidence proving that it's our fault. If everyone was still here, we could have convinced them not to talk. We could be in control of this situation. But you idiots allowed them to leave."

"There is no way out of this!" the doctor shouts back, "Get that into that stubborn head of yours!"

Joe pauses. His eyes pass over each and every one of them. He is waiting for them to realise that they have no choice but to do as he desires, waiting for them to remember that he is in charge. He is waiting for them to accept the same conclusion he reached the very moment he saw the fake doctor struggling to revive the convert, and gradually, they all do. Joe can tell by the look of resignation that comes upon their eyes.

"But there is a way," he finally says, and this time the only objection he receives are slumped shoulders and shaken heads. The real doctor turns away, hands on his head, and one of the nurses drops onto the floor, the strings of resolve that were holding her up suddenly cut.

*     *     *
This is Joe's plan.

There isn't much time before the police show up. In what little time there is, they have to get rid of the body. They could just carry the body in the trunk of a car, but it is likely that they will run into a road block at this time of night. It will be much easier to get past an inspection at one of these if they have smaller body parts that can be hidden in the nooks and the cabbies of the various vehicles they will be using. The convert, therefore, has to be chopped up.

A fight breaks out over who is to perform this gruesome task. Joe recuses himself, of course. No one challenges him on this. They might end up on the chopping block themselves if they do. They will just have to decide amongst themselves who will wield the blade.

Joe cannot understand their hesitancy. If the man is already dead, then they are all to blame in the eyes of the law. No one will be exempt because they were squeamish at the end. Joe estimates that they have an hour before the police show up. Counting from the time the converts left, it comes down to forty minutes. Forty minutes to dismember the corpse, clean the house and dispose of the disparate pieces. It isn't much time, they need to get started.

The doctors and the nurses carry the body out of the miracle room and up the stairs. They are taking it into the bathroom, where a bathtub waits to collect all the gore they are about to engender.

Joe remains behind. He wanders around the miracle room, picking up this and that other piece of abandoned possessions the converts left behind in their rush to get away. There is a wallet, empty, and a watch, expensive. He finds ear rings and bangles, another watch and yet another wallet. He gathers them all into a plastic bag, checking as he goes to make sure that he has missed nothing. At the bed that held the dead convert, something catches his eye and he pauses.

He picks the drip bag the doctor cast aside and examines it. Something is missing. He carries it to a nearby bed and holds it up to a bag still hanging from its pole. He sees it, and curses. He drops the plastic bag and rushes up the stairs. He is screaming as he goes. "He is still alive! He is still alive!" But he is too late. Of course he is too late. The convert is gurgling from a cut in his neck. The doctor is sitting by the tub looking completely crushed, and everyone else is standing around the room, as far as they can get from the calamity that is playing out before their eyes.

"Fuck!" Joe curses. "He was still alive."

The doctor just shakes his bowed head.

"He was still alive," Joe says, "how could you not see that."

"There was no pulse," the doctor mumbles, "there was no pulse for nearly ten minutes."

"You quack! How did you miss that?!" he lifts the drip bag and holds it up for the doctor to see. "How did you miss this?!" The doctor glances at the bag but does not say a word. He looks away, eyes unfocused and distant.

Joe goes around the room, shaking the bag in everyone's face. "Who did this?" he screams as he goes. "Who switched the bags?"

One of the nurses motions timidly with a half raised hand. "There were more people than we expected," she mumbles. "We took extra bags."

"You couldn't read?" he screams. "I didn't mix this. This bag is full of ketamine. You put the man in a cataleptic state. How could none of you see that?" He stalks about the room, fuming and trembling. He mumbles something about being surrounded by incompetents over and over again, then finally stops, looks around and says, "What are you waiting for, get on with it."

Slowly, unwillingly, everyone inches back towards the bathtub.

*     *     *
It is messy. People have died at Joe's hands, many people, but he has never had to do this before. The limbs and head were manageable, falling right off and fitting into the designated bags as expected, but the torso would simply not comply. Joe never imagined that the organs, the lungs and livers and the intestines, would be so unwieldly. Just how many of the things are there?

It takes forever to wrap it all up. Joe has an hour and a half by his watch, and he is livid. Any minute now, he is sure, the police will show up. They have to get moving. They have to get all the body parts into the various cars and get going, but Jesus, have they caused a mess. There is blood on the floor, blood on the walls, and the tub is clogged and bubbling with congealing gore. It would take hours, if not days, to clean this up. They will have to leave the nurses scrubbing the bathroom down. He can only hope that they will quick about it.

The various body parts are rolled into newspapers and dropped into garbage bags, one bag for each part, which Joe distributes amongst nine people. Each of them stands a bag in a corner of the boot of their own cars and Joe gives them directions. Two will go to Ngong' forest, one accessing it through Jamuhuri, and the other accessing it through the Southern Bypass. Two will dump their cargo at two different points in the Nairobi River. Two will drive down past Kibiko, into the sparsely populated regions of Saikeri, and dispose of their cargo down two separate ravines. The remaining three, including Joe, will drive towards Mai Mahiu and dump their cargo along the road that winds down the escarpment.

They are turning to enter their vehicles when the real doctor freezes and shushes everyone. They all stand still, looking at him questioningly, then to their horror, they all become aware of sirens wailing in the distance.

*     *     *
It is a scramble to get out of the compound. Joe is expecting the police to show up just as they are passing the gate, to capture them and put a sudden and calamitous end to the night, but no such thing happens. Joe is confident that it is over and done with. As long the nurses they left behind finish cleaning up before the police arrive, there will be nothing to tie them to the now vanished convert. Whatever claims the converts presented to the police will be indemonstrable, and therefore irrelevant. All he and his fellow driver have to do now is dispose of the body.

As he turns onto Mombasa Road, he leans back into his chair and relaxes. He reaches for his radio but cannot tune it to any station. He switches it off, turns it on again. Still nothing. Well, you can't always expect resurrection to work. He switches to the stored content, but cannot find any music, it's all just old sermons. He used to listen to these while he drove from door to door, looking for new converts. One starts playing automatically.

"Sooner or later," he hears himself say, "we all have to face death. When that moment finally comes, it will not matter how much money you have, will not matter what you accumulated or what your legacy was. Death is the final judgment."

Joe doesn't want to listen to this. He turns the radio off, turns it on again. There is a hiss in the speakers now that wasn't there before. He turns the volume all the way down, but the hiss persists. Then a different sermon starts up.

"There have been billions upon billions of people on this earth. Billions upon billions who lived and died and left nothing of significance behind. Like with all of them, your life will come and will go and it will leave nothing by which you will be remembered. You will be a statistic on the back pages of history, just another person to have contributed to the population graphs."

He switches the radio off again, leans away from it. He hits a bump in the road and it starts crackling again, hissing and whispering and whistling with the half-heard voices of out-of-tune stations.

"Your life only has significance to the extent that you will die. This may not make sense to you, but that is only because you're focused on living, focused on avoiding death at all cost. But it is only when you are dead that you will truly be missed, it is only when you are dead that people will stop and look back at your life and find meaning in your having been here. Your death will have no significance to you. You cannot appreciate it once you are gone. It will only be meaningful to the people we leave behind. If you were a terrible person, then your life shall be a cautionary tale, if you were a good person; then your life shall be an example."

He reaches down to switch the radio off again, but just as his finger touches the knob, something flashes in his eye. He looks up into the rearview mirror and is so shocked at what he sees that he loses control of the car for a moment. As he swerves back onto his lane amidst angry hoots from the traffic around him, he looks up into the mirror again. There's red and blue lights on the horizon. Those are definitely the police. They cannot be after him, can they?

He speeds up, his speedometer creeping past 140 km/h. The road is rough, however, and after a jarring bump over a pothole, he decides to slow down. It might not be him they are pursuing, and driving as if he is being trailed might only draw attention to him. He eases down on the accelerator pedal, and with an eye on the mirrors, he coasts the vehicle down Waiyaki Way.

When the phone rings, the sound is sudden and jarring. He is turning onto the Road to Mai Mahiu, so the phone rings for a bit while he focuses on the traffic on the junction. The phone stops ringing before he can pick it up, and with the distraction of the mirrors still prominent in his mind, he soon forgets about it.

He is driving through Ngubi Forest when it rings again. He picks it up, turns it to speakers and the real doctor's voice comes through.

"It's over Joe," he says, "I called the police."

"What are you talking about? Why would you do that?"

"We can't keep doing this. You are lying to all these people. You aren't selling them enlightenment, you are selling drugs and putting them in enormous danger while doing it."

"You're having a change of heart now? You'll just go the prison with the rest of us."

"I've made my peace with that. I should have gone to prison a long time ago. I was just able to afford a good lawyer."

"I paid for that lawyer, remember?"

"I should not have taken that deal. I should have known that this was where it would take me."

"And I should have known that you would continue killing your patients even after I kept you in business."

"There was no business involved in this," the doctor says, "the only one to ever profit was you."

"What are you talking about?" Joe asks. "Didn't I keep you fed, didn't I keep a roof over your head?"

"You kept slaves," the doctor shouts. "We stayed because we were afraid of the repercussions. No one believed in your insane doctrines, even you didn't believe. It was all just about the money."

"So that's what this is all about. You wanted more money."

"No! This is about reparation. This is about repentance."

"Don't spout that Christian nonsense at me. You can't repent to a god you do not believe in. Besides, what you have done is unforgiveable."

"That's because of you! You did this to us—" the phone crackles and hisses, "Can't live with myself—"

The doctor's voice vanishes in an outburst of crackles. Joe hears the roar of an accelerating vehicle, then lights flash in his rearview mirror just before he is jolted in his seat and his car swerves out of control. He fights the steering wheel, trying, and then failing to keep the car on the road. Rubber squeals on the tarmac, then the car spins onto gravel, and comes to a sudden and jarring stop in the embrace of a thicket of thorny bushes.

Joe tries the door, but a net of branches holds it fast. He climbs to the passenger side and exits the car through the far door. Back on the road, a car he recognises coasts to a stop. Its bonnet is crumpled up and one headlamp is smashed and blind. The doctor emerges from it.

"What are you doing?" Joe shouts. "If you lost your faith then just leave."

"You never gave me a choice!" the doctor shouts as he approaches. "I did what you told me to do."

"I showed you death," Joe shouts back. "I showed you the truth."

"You showed me nothing! I'm a doctor, remember. I know what NDE's are. Besides, you only did to me what you believed would put me under your control. You did this to me, Joe!"

"Stop calling me that. That's not my name! Never has been!"

The doctor swings at Joe. Joe ducks and tries to step out of the doctor's reach but he runs into his car. Joe strikes at the doctor's face but the doctor, who had stepped after Joe, is too close and it is his forearm that connects with the doctor's ear. The doctor stumbles, then launches himself at Joe, and in an instant, they are rolling on the ground, throwing ineffectual punches and each trying to pull free of the other's hold.

Joe manages to pin the doctor beneath him. He pushes himself up and with one hand pressing the doctor's head into the gravel, he aims for the eye and punches him again and again and again, while he shouts, "You owe me!"

Blue and red lights interrupt this intimate moment. The police are still some ways off, but Joe knows that he only has minutes. He scrambles to his feet and, through the open passenger door, he pulls the glove compartment open and rummages through its contents. He can't find it! But he is sure it is here. He never goes anywhere without it. Ah! There! His hand closes about a sachet and he stumbles back from the car, still certain of his victory.

The doctor is still on the ground when Joe kneels beside him. He has covered his face with his hands and is weeping softly. Joe pulls a syringe from the sachet, exposes the needle and raises it high above his head. Then he slams it down into the doctor's chest and injects the cardioplegic right into his heart. As the doctor gasps in surprise, Joe whispers, "Welcome to your new life."

The police are almost upon him. The sirens are loud and the flashing blue and red on each car casts dancing shadows around Joe. They reach the scene of the car crash as Joe struggles with his boot. He has tried the key already, but the metal is all bent up and refuses to open. He finally manages to pry a corner of the lid open and from the darkness inside, he pulls out a round package that contains the dead convert's head. Ignoring the shouts to "Freeze!" and "Get on the ground!" he turns and runs into the forest. Gunshots escort his retreat, but he makes it into the shelter of the shrub unscathed.

He doesn't get far. The vegetation is dense here, with branches that grab onto his clothes growing low to the ground and trees grouped so closely together there is barely in inch of space between them. He pushes through, branches tearing his clothes and skin. Where is he going? He doesn't know, but he cannot stop. He must not stop. Thoughts gather in his mind. They are clearer now that they have been in a long time. He thinks of arguments he made in the past. It occurs to him that he is trying to convince himself that he was right all along. But he isn't fooled, this is not guilt.

"The very simple truth is, we do not choose to live. We are born without a choice and then we get convinced that our continued lives are our choice. But they are not. Life has a hold on us the moment we are born and every struggle, every disappointment that we go through is merely because we have no choice but to live. We struggle to make a name for ourselves, fight for recognition amongst so many voices. But it does not matter. Everybody is doing the same, and there are so many of us that your single voice, your desperate cry for significance cannot be heard. Life can only be meaningless, and yet we are so afraid to die."

There are voices close behind him. People hacking at the thicket and shouting, "He went this way!"

"In death we will all be nameless. What identity we had in life is merely a possession that we take upon ourselves and try to make our own. But it does not belong to us. It belongs to the people around us, the people we will leave behind when we die. It is our responsibility therefore to use it wisely, to make it so that when we are gone we will be remembered for the right reasons. What we get wrong, what we always get wrong, is the weight we put on our identity. If it doesn't belong to us, why should we be so loath to give it up?"

He comes upon a ravine. The ground falls away, seemingly bottomless in the darkness. Should he risk the plunge? No. He can go no further. With a swing, he sets the head sailing into the night. He then pulls a second syringe from the sachet and jams the needle into his own chest.

Death comes swiftly. His heart stops the very moment the cardioplegic hits his blood, and he feels the familiar pain begin to gather beneath his skin. It spreads inwards, a fire that targets his nerves, forcing him to move so that he may get the blood flowing again. He thrashes on the ground, screams and gasps, then darkness, blacker than the night, takes him.

The light gathers before him. It brings with it feelings of acceptance, feelings of forgiveness and he reaches after them, eager to fall into their embrace. For the first time since his first death, he actually wants to die. Not because he is afraid of what is certain to befall him while he lives, but because of the promise of absolution, the promise made to him all those years ago following his first death. Could he have done all the terrible things he had in the years since if he had not known that it would not matter once he was gone? Could he have had the courage to do all he had done?

It doesn't matter now. Nothing does.

It's over.

"Death is the only god there is. Give, now, your lives in sacrifice."

The light suddenly fades away. Something jolts him and he feels blood flow through veins.

No! he thinks, It can't — but another jolt interrupts the thought. He becomes aware of hands on his chest. They press down again and again, then he feels air forced through his mouth and into his lungs.

Joe fights to hang on to death. Despite his determination, he feels his body stir, he heart begins to beat, then he takes a breath, and he knows that it's over.

His eyes open. Beams from a car's headlights burn into his brain. In their glare, he sees a shadow lean over him. "Life has you," he hears it whisper in his own voice. "Welcome to your new life."