A heavy blanket of snow illuminated the night while cold flakes pecked at her chapped cheeks. As she took another deep breath, her ears winced at the broken silence. Shivering continuously now, she trudged through the drifts, avoiding obscure stumps and black, low-hanging branches. The item she dragged behind her left a noticeable trail but she knew it would be deeply buried by the storm come morning…

(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)

I’d only been dead for a short while yet I already realized I probably should have thought about the afterlife a little more when I had the chance – like during life. Religion, for one. I should have questioned why a small number of people dictated to the vast majority of people how they should live, and were willing to wage wars, and wreak death and destruction, to get their way. That so-called “faith” would be warped to win elections and steal from others, not just money, but liberty and justice as well. Ultimately, I realize now each of us has our own personal “religion,” though not in the normal bureaucracy model, but more as achieving a self-determined path through life and beyond. The guru or priest in charge? Me. The spirit I was born with carried me through life and here I am moving on, just minus the body. Heaven and Hell? Many of the big religions use these fantasies to frighten people to do what they’re told. Heaven, a beautiful, eternal paradise floating in the clouds, or Hell, a burning awful agony forever. Better do what we tell you.

Now, I’d been out here for hours. When my heart finally performed it’s last beat I found myself plunged into the worst blizzard I’d ever seen. Maybe a burning Hell might not be so bad?  My right arm, at least whatever I had since my body was gone, was suffering muscle spasms from dragging the weighted-down sled. Why was I pulling a sled? The blowing snow blinded me as it filled in my tracks almost as soon as I’d passed. There would be no turning back. I stumbled over stumps hidden in the snow, cursing their very presence. A low branch tore my hat from my head and I grabbed at it, stuffing it back over my head, now iced over. I seemed to have an interim body. This storm was the type that would force the modern world to slow down. To come to a halt. To face the fact that the forces of nature always trump our pathetic attempts to establish our dominance. Even bears are smart enough to hibernate. But the human species trudges on. But I was no longer in that world. I had made it through. The cold moon hung in the sky, a dim disk behind the snow clouds, spreading a pale glow over the deep layer of snow now covering the earth. Was it our own doing, this climate change we had? Were we tipping the scales of global balance or is it just plain bad luck, living on earth at the return of another ice age? As my blue lips trembled and my eyes squinted against the icy crystals, I thought I saw my destination ahead. A destination that I neither feared nor sought. Then it was gone. Has the cold numbed even my mind? “There are strange things done in the midnight sun” – ran through my head, remembering that the subject of Robert Service’s tale, the rigidly frozen Sam McGee, wound up only achieving warmth in the fire of cremation. I shook my head and tried to get the line from my mind. The snow continued.

There was no sense of time. Was I passing through this blizzard for hours, for days? I could not tell. What was time anyway? Something we wrapped ourselves in like chains, requiring to stay within rigid guidelines? A calendar created by a Pope in the 1500’s? Egyptians, just to name one group, had calendars for thousands of years. Why use the Pope’s? Why use any? Why not live a timeless life without boundaries? When would the bus come in such a world? For me, at least for the moment, I existed in a timeless world, though that moment was a measure of time itself!

Just as suddenly as I entered the cold, it ended. I stood on a rock, high up, overlooking a wide valley. A view that stretched forever, over mountains and valleys and trees and animals. A crow, perched on a twisted bristlecone pine, cawed as she watched me intently. Next to me sat the sled, out of place here in what appeared to be a dry, southwestern overlook, one that showed a world with no boundaries, no fences. Freedom, true freedom. On the sled I saw the source of the weight I’d struggled through the snow with – a trunk, of sorts, strapped down securely.

“Open it,” a voice said quietly. I looked around, but only the crow was present, still watching. Throughout my past life, there always seemed to be a crow near. Could this be the same one? Did she speak or did I feel her thoughts? I wasn’t sure, but I bent to open the latch and lift open the lid. A swirling, wispy haze emerged and sleepily dissipated into the sky, forming a small cloud in the deep blue sky above, slowly turning and mixing and slipping farther and farther away.

“Your loves, your sorrows, your addictions, your hate, your war, your pains and suffering, the good and the bad and the in-between. A lifetime of a human existence,” the voice said softly. “They accumulate throughout life until the burden becomes so heavy, it becomes time to move on, but you must free yourself of that burden in order to move. To get yourself to this place you had to let go. Not everyone is able to. They return to start over. You, my friend, will move on. Welcome,” the voice said.

The crow took flight, and circled higher and higher until I could no longer see her. I stepped off my rock and followed as my sled and body melted away. I felt peace.