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There's nothing worse than listening to the sounds of preparations for a great party, knowing that you're not invited. It's even worse when the party is located in heaven, Sterling Brooks thought to himself. He had been detained in the celestial waiting room, located right outside the heavenly gates, for forty-six years by earthly count. Now he could hear the heavenly choir doing a run-through of the songs that would commence the upcoming Christmas Eve celebration.
"Hark, the herald angels sing..."
Sterling sighed. He'd always loved that song. He shifted in his seat and looked around. Rows of pews were filled with people who were waiting to be called before the Heavenly Council. People who had to answer for certain things they'd done -- or not done -- in life, before they received admission to heaven.
Sterling had been there longer than anyone. He felt like the kid whose mother forgot to pick him up from school. He usually was able to keep up a cheerful front, but lately he'd been feeling more and more forlorn. From his seat by the window, he had watched over the years as so many people he had known on earth whizzed past, on a nonstop trip to heaven. Occasionally he was shocked and a little irritated when some of them were not made to do time in the celestial waiting room. Even the guy who had cheated on his income tax and lied about his golf score soared blissfully over the bridge that separated the celestial waiting room from the heavenly gates.
But it had been the sight of Annie that tore his heart. A couple of weeks ago, the woman he'd loved but hadn't married, the woman he'd kept dangling had wafted past, looking as pretty and young as the first day they'd met. He ran to the information desk and inquired about Annie Mansfield, the soul who had just flown by the observation window. The angel checked his computer, then raised his eyebrows. "She died a few minutes ago, on her eighty-seventh birthday. While blowing out the candles, she had a dizzy spell. What an exemplary life she led. Generous. Giving. Caring. Loving."
"Did she ever marry?" Sterling asked.
The angel pressed some keys and moved the cursor, much like a ticket agent at the airport, trying to find confirmation of a reservation. He frowned. "She was engaged for a long time to some jerk who strung her along, then was heartbroken when he died unexpectedly. He was beaned in the head by a golfball." The angel pressed the cursor again and looked up at Sterling. "Oh, sorry. That's you."
Sterling slunk back to his seat. Since then he'd done a lot of thinking. He admitted to himself that he had sailed through his fifty-one years on earth, never taking on any responsibility and always managing to stay away from the unpleasant and the worrisome. I adopted Scarlett O'Hara's motto, "I'll think about it tomorrow," he acknowledged to himself.
The only time Sterling remembered experiencing prolonged anxiety was when he was on the waiting list for Brown University. All his friends from prep school had received thick envelopes from the colleges of their choice, welcoming them into the fold and strongly encouraging them to send in their checks immediately. It was only a few days before school started that he got the call from an official in the admissions office at Brown confirming that there was room for him in the freshman class. It put an end to the longest four and a half months of his life.
He knew that the reason he had only squeaked into Brown was that, although he was blessed with a keen intelligence and excellent all-around athletic skills, he had simply coasted through high school.
A chill that was pure fear engulfed him. He'd finally gotten into the college he wanted, but maybe up here he wouldn't be so fortunate. Until right now he had been absolutely sure that he'd make it to heaven. Sterling had reminded the angel at the door to the Heavenly Council that some of the people who came in behind him had been called and suggested that perhaps he had been inadvertently overlooked. He had been told politely but firmly to return to his seat.
He so much wanted to be in heaven this Christmas Eve. The expression on the faces of the people who soared past the window, seeing the open gates ahead of them, had filled him with wonder. And now Annie was there.
The angel at the door signaled for everyone's attention. "I have glad tidings. Christmas amnesty has been granted to the following. You will not have to appear before the Heavenly Council. You will go straight through the exit door on the right that leads directly to the heavenly bridge. Stand and file through in an orderly fashion as your name is called...Walter Cummings..."
A few pews over, Walter, a sprightly ninety-year-old, jumped up and clicked his heels together. "Hallelujah!" he shouted as he ran to the front of the room.
"I said in an orderly fashion," the angel chided in a somewhat resigned voice. "Though I can't much blame you," he murmured as he called the next name. "Tito Ortiz..."
Tito whooped with joy and raced down the aisle, hot on Walter's heels.
"Jackie Mills, Dennis Pines, Veronica Murphy, Charlotte Green, Pasquale D'Amato, Winthrop Lloyd III, Charlie Potters, Jacob Weiss, Ten Eyck Elmendorf..."
Name after name after name was called as the pews emptied out.
The angel finished reading from the list and folded the paper. Sterling was the only one left. A tear formed in his eye. The celestial waiting room felt cavernous and lonely. I must have been a terrible person, he thought. I'm not going to make it to heaven after all.
The angel laid down the list and began to walk toward him. Oh no, Sterling thought frantically, don't tell me he's sending me to the other place. For the first time, he realized what it was like to feel completely helpless and hopeless.
"Sterling Brooks," the angel said. "You have been summoned to an extraordinary meeting of the Heavenly Council. Follow me, please."
A tiny whisper of hope flickered in Sterling's being. Maybe, just maybe, he still had a chance. Bracing himself, he stood up and followed the angel to the door of the chamber. The angel, his face and voice full of sympathy, whispered, "Good luck," as he opened the door and pushed Sterling inside.
The room was not large. It was bathed in a soft, exquisite light, the likes of which Sterling had never experienced. The floor-to-ceiling window gave an awesome view of the heavenly gates and he realized the light was reflecting off them.
Four men and four women were seated at a long table, facing him. From the halos shining around their heads, he realized immediately that they were all saints, even though he didn't recognize them from the stained-glass windows in cathedrals he had visited while on vacation. The outfits they were wearing varied from biblical robes to twentieth-century dress. With the instinctive knowledge that was now part of him, Sterling understood that they were wearing the typical garb of the periods in which they had lived. The man at the far end, a grave-faced monk, opened the proceedings.
"Sit down, Sterling. We've got a bone to pick with you."
Sterling took the seat, acutely aware that all eyes were fixed on him.
One of the women, dressed in an elegant red velvet gown and wearing a tiara, said in a cultured voice, "You had an easy life, didn't you, Sterling?"
Looks like you did too, Sterling thought, but held his tongue. He nodded meekly. "Yes, ma'am."
The monk looked at him sternly. "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Her majesty did great good for her subjects."
My God, they can read my thoughts, Sterling realized, and he began to tremble.
"But you never went out of your way for anybody," the queen continued.
"You were a fair-weather friend," said a man in shepherd's garb, seated second from the right.
"Passive-aggressive," declared a young matador, who was picking a thread off the end of his red cape.
"What does that mean?" Sterling asked, frightened.
"Oh, sorry. That earthly expression came into use after your time. It's a very popular one now, believe me."
"Covers a multitude of sins," muttered a beautiful woman who reminded Sterling of the pictures he'd seen of Pocahontas.
"Aggressive?" Sterling said. "I never lost my temper. Ever."
"Passive-aggressive is something different. You hurt people by not doing things. And by making promises you have no intention of keeping."
"You were self-absorbed," a sweet-faced nun on the end said. "You were a good estate lawyer, tidying up little problems for the ultrarich, but you never lent your expertise to the poor unfortunate who was unfairly losing his home or the lease on his store. What's worse, you actually considered helping out once in a while and then decided not to get involved." She shook her head. "You were too much of a good-time Charlie."
"The kind who jumped into the first lifeboat when the ship was going down," a saint in the uniform of a British admiral snapped. "A cad, by George. Why, you never once helped an old lady cross the street."
"I never once spotted an old lady who needed help!"
"That's it in a nutshell," they said in unison. "You were too smug and self-absorbed to really notice what was going on around you."
"I'm sorry," Sterling said humbly. "I thought I was a pretty nice guy. I never meant to hurt anybody. Is there anything I can do now to make it up?"
The members of the council looked at each other.
"How bad could I have been?" Sterling cried. He pointed toward the waiting room. "In all this time I've talked to a lot of the souls who have passed through there. None of them were saints! And by the way, I saw someone who cheated on his income tax go straight to heaven. You must have missed him!"
They all laughed. "You're absolutely right. We were on a coffee break. But on the other hand, he donated a lot of that money to charity."
"What about his golf game?" Sterling asked eagerly. "I never once cheated the way he did. And I got hit in the head by a golf ball. As I was dying, I forgave the guy who did it. Not everyone would be that nice."
They stared at him as his mind filled with images of all the times in his life when he'd let people down. Annie. He was too selfish to marry her, but he always let her keep hoping because he didn't want to lose her. After he died, it was too late for her to have the family she always wanted. And now she was in heaven. He had to see her again.
Sterling felt wretched. He had to know his fate. "What are you telling me?" he asked. "Will I ever get to heaven?"
"Funny you should ask," the monk replied. "We've discussed your case, and we've decided that you seem to be the appropriate candidate for an experiment we've been weighing for some time."
Sterling's ears pricked up. All was not lost.
"I love experiments," he said enthusiastically. "I'm your boy. Try me. When do we start?" He realized he was starting to sound like a jerk.
"Sterling, be quiet and listen. You are being sent back to earth. It is your job to recognize someone with a problem and help that person solve it."
"Sent back to earth!" Sterling was dumbfounded.
The eight heads nodded in unison.
"How long will I stay?"
"As long as it takes to solve the problem."
"Does that mean if I do a good job I'll be allowed to enter heaven? I'd love to be there for Christmas."
They all looked amused. "Not so fast," the monk said. "In the jargon of the day, you have a lot of frequent flier miles to earn before you achieve permanent residence inside those holy gates. However, if you complete your first mission to our satisfaction by Christmas Eve, you will be entitled to a visitor's pass for twenty-four hours."
Sterling's heart sank a little. Oh well, he thought. Every long journey begins with one small step.
"You'd do well to remember that," the queen cautioned.
Sterling blinked. He'd have to remember they were mind readers. "How will I know the person I'm supposed to help?" he asked.
"That's part of the point of this experiment. You have to learn to recognize people's needs and do something about them," a young black woman wearing a nurse's uniform told him.
"Will I have any help? I mean, anyone I can talk to if I'm not sure what to do? I'll do anything to get the job done properly, you understand."
I'm babbling again, he thought.
"You are free at any time to request a consultation with us," the admiral assured him.
"When do I start?"
The monk pressed a button on the council table. "Right now."
Sterling felt a trap door open beneath him. In an instant he was hurtling past the stars, around the moon, through the clouds, and then suddenly whisking past a tall, brilliantly lit Christmas tree. His feet touched the earth.
"My God," Sterling breathed. "I'm in Rockefeller Center."
Copyright © 2001 by Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark