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THE BIG EMERGENCY
Darius thought heaven was supposed to be a peaceful place. It had been anything but that for the last fifteen minutes.
Like so much of what had happened to him since his sudden death in a drive-by shooting, Darius had only the most elementary understanding of what was going on around him. New arrivals were normally the beneficiaries of an extensive orientation program, he had heard. That was before “The Big Emergency” erupted.
The crisis broke a few weeks after Darius awoke from a sleep that seemed centuries long. Angels normally paid little attention to time, Darius soon discovered, unless there was an issue of world war proportions brewing. What his superiors referred to as “The Big Emergency,” because they didn’t have time to think of a better name, appeared to have all of the ear markings of a genuine apocalypse. At least it seemed so from Darius McPherson’s inexperienced perspective. Everyone was scurrying around with serious expressions and talking about important priorities. They barely had time to welcome Darius and explain to him where he was and why he was there.
It would be nice to know, for example, what he was doing in heaven at such a young age. Was a premature, violent death his reward for trying to prevent inner-city teenagers from spending most of their lives in prison? Then there was the million-dollar question: If there was a God in heaven, why had He ripped apart an ideal couple like Darius and Colleen while their love was in full bloom. Would he go on longing for her through the rest of time? He had about a hundred questions after those two, five-hundred-pound blockbusters. Nothing made sense anymore, including the events unfolding before his eyes.
It was shocking to watch the Directors bicker like children in the midst of an emergency assembly. He expected these famous examples of higher consciousness would be proposing solutions to the problem, rather than shouting at one another rudely. There was a lull, as the Archangel responded to a question from one of the Director Angels. “If we allow this new drug to be marketed, the evolution of human consciousness will be thrown completely off track. I must tell you, I’ve never seen the Chief this concerned before.”
The Archangel, whose square features and intense expression reminded Darius of Burt Lancaster in the role of Elmer Gantry, addressed the Directors from a round podium in front of fifty, grim-faced Director Angels seated at a long, glass conference table. Darius had trouble seeing the Directors sitting at the far end of the table. One of the first things Darius learned about heaven was that nothing appeared to newcomers as it truly was. The rules allowed new arrivals like Darius to see the shapes of things like a room or a person’s face as familiar objects from their former mortal lives. Darius came to understand this filtered perception as a kindness, a sort of bridge between two worlds. The great arched meeting hall; the appearance of the eleven other Junior Operatives seated around a mahogany table with Darius; and the fifty Directors bearing an uncanny resemblance to famous people; all would remain, until further notice, figments of Darius’ imagination.
It was no surprise to Darius that many of the Directors resembled well-known actors. He was an avid reader and a model student. He spent a healthy portion of his twenty-four years on Earth with his face crammed into adventure novels and school textbooks. The only relief from the disciplined existence he led as a mortal, aside from the track and field team in High School, was his love of movies, both classic and contemporary. Darius’ father liked to catch a movie with him on weekends when he found a few hours away from his busy schedule of building custom furniture for wealthy customers. Darius also missed the closeness and encouragement he shared with his mother, Corrine, and two older brothers. The ache in his heart was as painful as the hole the bullet tore in his chest the day he lost his life for no good reason.
Something else was bothering him. Where, in the name of everything holy, were all of the Senior Operatives? Their table was deserted. Questions from Junior Operatives were unwelcome in general assembly meetings. Otherwise, his hand would have been up and waving long ago. As he pondered the mystery of the missing Senior Operatives, another Director rose to speak. She was a dead ringer for Julianne Moore. “There seems to be no alternative,” Ms. Moore said. “One of us must go.”
“I don’t agree,” the Archangel replied. He regarded the entire Director corps with a level, piercing glare. “You’ve all become a bunch of squealing, spoiled brats. I doubt any of you can still follow orders.”
Julianne Moore wore an FBI training uniform. She spoke in a gritty voice, like one of her tough, cop woman characters. “Please Archangel, not in front of the Junior Operatives.”
The Archangel’s prickly response surprised Darius right down to his African American bones—or whatever substance his body was actually made of these days. Another Director, who resembled Denzel Washington, rose to speak. He was dressed in a casual tropical outfit with a knit shirt wide open at the neck. “Who else besides one of us is qualified to go?” the Denzel look-alike said.
“One of the Junior Operatives,” the Archangel replied without the slightest hesitation. “They haven’t had time to develop your self-important attitudes.”
“Have you fallen out of your tree,” Denzel responded with every bit of righteous indignation he was used to injecting into his screen characters.
A Director with the features of Jett Li had the audacity to imagine this happening. His thought patterns appeared in full color on the domed ceiling. Darius observed the imaginary Archangel falling from a giant redwood tree and bouncing off the ground like Wiley Coyote falling off a cliff in a Road Runner cartoon. The Archangel sat up and a few walnuts from the tree bounced off his head. The walnuts were a good touch, Darius thought. Most of the Directors struggled to keep a straight face. Nicolas Cage, or someone who looked just like him, lost it and broke out laughing. That started more Directors laughing as the images faded from the ceiling.
Darius and the other Junior Operatives stared straight ahead without a sound. “Was that really necessary?” the Archangel admonished Nicolas Cage. Darius raised an arm—a reflex reaction he immediately regretted. One of his seminary teachers, crusty old Brother Lucius, had often scolded him for being impetuous. Inappropriate spontaneous behavior was an unruly habit that clung to Darius like a stubborn crab despite his earnest character improvement efforts.
“We don’t have time for questions from Junior Operatives,” the Archangel reminded Darius.
“I just wanted to make a suggestion,” Darius heard himself say.
The Archangel stared at Darius sternly. He brought his hand up to his chin, as if pondering some ancient Chinese riddle. A terrible thought struck Darius. Perhaps the Archangel was considering demoting him to some menial rank below Junior Operative, if there was such a thing.
The Archangel broke the heavy silence. “Since we haven’t heard anything useful from the Directors, something tells me I’d better listen to your suggestion. Just make it quick.”
Darius wished he had not lost control of his reckless right arm and then opened his big mouth. “I can’t imagine we’re going to solve anything by yelling at each other,” he said reluctantly.
An oppressive silence fell on the room once again. Darius firmly believed he had succeeded in ruining his career as a Junior Operative before it had even begun. Then Julianne Moore applauded. More Directors applauded, until every Director at the conference table was clapping. The Archangel did not clap. Instead, he glared at Darius sharply. Darius felt a twinge of pain between his eyes. He removed his rimless glasses and began cleaning them meticulously. The applause subsided. All attention now focused on Darius. His chest tightened. His heart rate took off. It felt like a jet fighter catapulted from the deck of an aircraft carrier. His mouth went dry.
Then the Archangel said, “I quite agree with the Junior Operative. I’ve heard enough opinions from the Directors. I’m going to project the candidates I feel are the most qualified for the mission. Then we’ll take a vote. I need a motion.”
Another Director—the spitting image of Eddie Murphy—sprang up. Eddie was dressed in an all-black, skin tight, leather outfit. “Second the motion,” he said with a wide grin that exposed his sparkling white teeth. No one rose to object for a change. Darius didn’t understand what the Archangel meant when he said project the candidates. Did it mean the Archangel would lift the candidates from their seats and line them up in front of the conference table for consideration?
“The voting will be silent,” the Archangel told the Directors. “Please project your votes directly to me in order not to embarrass the candidates. It will also save time, which we all know is growing more precious by the minute.”
Apparently, the whole nominations and voting process was happening by thought transference, Darius concluded. He assumed there was a great deal of information flying through the ether. His knowledge of how the process of thought transference worked was negligible since his first class on the subject—Theory of Telepathy—had barely begun. Darius examined the faces of the other Junior Operatives at the table. They were, in fact, all the same face—a moon-faced white kid who liked to tease Darius mercilessly in the second grade. The twelve moon faces contemplated Darius with what appeared to be a singular intention: cold-blooded murder. They frightened him, which was strange when you considered heaven was supposed to be the golden shore beyond death. He always figured heaven would be a place where there was no reason to worry and everyone got along. Maybe it was just paranoia. It would take him a while to trade his old, fear-based thinking in for something better. Or maybe his fellow Junior Operatives truly hated his guts. He wondered idly if you had to spend a lot of time in heaven getting people to like you, just like on Earth. He certainly hoped not. Darius reprimanded himself for wasting time worrying about people liking him with the “Big Emergency” looming. What would happen if the Directors selected him for the mission? No, it was impossible. He had to be one of the most inexperienced angels in heaven.
The Directors closed their eyes. An instant later, they opened them. Their minds seemed to work like powerful supercomputers. There had been no discussion about strategy, qualifications, or training for the mission. Darius figured the Directors had worked the details out before the assembly, or all of the logistics remained to be decided. In any case, he had the distinct impression that all of the Junior Operatives new little about “The Big Emergency.” The Directors probably didn’t want to alarm them. It was obvious, however, even to a newly minted Junior Operative like Darius, a great deal rode on the outcome of the mission. He felt a twinge of pity for the poor soul who was about to be stuck with the awful burden of the pending field assignment.
The Archangel turned to him with a penetrating stare. “Brother and Sister Directors,” he announced, “I give you Darius McPherson, your overwhelming choice for this…very sensitive operation.”
Darius was sure the Archangel had meant to say something like very perilous mission before changing his mind. The room filled once again with applause. Darius fervently believed the Archangel had made a mistake in mentally counting the Directors’ votes.
“Why don’t you stand up and say something,” the Archangel said with an inviting gesture. Darius stood. He opened his mouth—and found it impossible to utter even one syllable. “Thank you, Darius,” the Archangel said in an apparent effort to put a good face on a bad situation. Darius figured the Archangel had to do this frequently. The Archangel was in charge of all the angels in heaven. Anyone strapped with such a ponderous responsibility had to put on a variety of faces, Darius imagined.
The Archangel turned back to the Directors. “I ask all of you to keep your schedules flexible. The chances are we’ll be meeting frequently for the time being without much advance notice.” Then he added with a perfunctory nod towards Darius, “I’ll see you in my office.”
Where, in fact, was the Archangel’s office? An answer to the unspoken question flew into Darius’ awareness with the alacrity of a humming bird bearing the relevant information on its shimmering wings. He had just received his first telepathic message, directly from the Archangel, of all people. Wouldn’t that be something to tell your grandchildren after they arrived in heaven? The crushing thought of never having grandchildren hit him like a blow to the chin. He hadn’t even had time to have children. He thought of Colleen, her big hazel eyes, full of admiration for him, her delicate lips parted, waiting for his kiss. He pushed the memory out of his mind. It wasn’t easy. He loved her. He longed to be with her. He wanted to hold her hand at this moment in the most desperate way.
A moment later, the other Junior Operatives rose to leave. “Don’t leave yet,” the Archangel barked at them. The eleven Junior Operatives crashed back into their seats in perfect unison. No one moved a muscle. The Archangel turned to the candidate-elect, Darius McPherson. “Do you need an engraved invitation?” With growing concern, the Archangel watched the young man leave the assembly. The candidate held his head high and kept his posture erect. That was encouraging. The bewildered look on his face was not. “Now then,” The Archangel said, returning his attention to the other Junior Operatives. “Here’s exactly what I want you to tell your classmates about everything that’s gone on here. It’s very important that you don’t alarm them…”