Dear Readers, a quick author’s note before you begin:
I began this novel as a writing exercise while recuperating from severe illness and major surgery, so I simply took a highly cliché scenario and set off from there. However, I soon found myself writing the underlying story seriously (although I admit, in the spirit of the beginning, I have continued to toss in more stereotypes as the tale grows,) and decided to begin publishing it. So, if you would be so kind, please don’t mind the tropy beginning.
I decided to honestly leave the beginning as is, rather than substitute a more original one, because, frankly, I ended up making it a vital plot point, as the novel’s title demonstrates.
I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading! – Fushigi
# # #
Chapter 1 – HR Department
On a normal day, I wouldn’t have been in that place at that time, sitting in my car in the middle of the afternoon. I wouldn’t have left work before seven. Being the boss is like that. Even if you’re just the boss of a fried chicken franchise.
But, I had to go in for an eye exam, because my glasses were in bad shape and the shop wouldn’t make new ones because my prescription was too old. So I had the assistant manager come in early and take over for me in the middle of the afternoon.
I didn’t have time to wonder why the truck was coming down the road on the wrong side, speeding past the line of cars stopped for the schoolchildren in the crosswalk. I only had enough time to realize that those kids would not be able to get out of the way.
And I knew I had barely enough time to pull my car into that lane and protect them…
My last thought before the impact, as my fate rushed at me, was ‘Truck-kun? Seriously?’
I think I had only managed to get the nose of my car into the lane by the time the truck arrived, so it didn’t strike the driver’s seat directly. I wasn’t knocked out by the collision. As well as the shock from being hit in the face with the airbag, I could feel a stabbing pain, but couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It seemed to be everywhere for the moment.
Being conscious left me able to think about the stupid trope that had popped into my head, evidence of reading way too many Japanese ‘Isekai’ web novels. An ordinary guy gets hit by a truck and wakes up transmigrated to a different world. So many such novels had begun that way, it had become a trope, and fans now personified the ubiquitous vehicle as ‘Truck-kun’.
At first, I thought maybe I was going to be alright. But, then I noticed just how much blood was issuing from the source of the pain, a jagged piece of my car that had lodged into my thigh.
Ah. I guess that’s what was hurting so bad.
But the pain was fading now. My head swam as things began going gray.
Thanks to thinking about web novels, my last thought before I lost consciousness was insanely stupid.
‘Guess I’ll never see how that series ends.’
# # #
After I faded, I came back two or three times, with a vague awareness of people asking me if I could hear them, or telling me not to worry, or warning me as they stuck needles into my arm. Those became a thing of the past at some point, though. I became just barely conscious of the fact that they had ceased.
I felt, heard and saw nothing, but I was awake. Or rather, I felt as if I was awake. I had no surroundings with which to verify it. It was a very different condition than dreaming though. I knew I was not having a dream.
I don’t know how long that condition lasted.
It did not have a clear end, but, after another vague length of time, that limbo gave way to the sensation of sitting in a chair. I tried opening my eyes and managed to accomplish it on the third try. Returning vision confirmed that I was in fact sitting up, although I was just staring down at my hands folded in my lap.
Raising my head, I saw an old-fashioned office. It was a large office, and a really nice one, like you imagine a corporate CEO would have. I sat in front of a mahogany desk across from a business-suited, professional-looking lady who kept her brown hair in a tight bun. She appeared to be no older than me, but her perfected manner, hair and attire made her seem much more mature.
She was writing something in a hard-cover ledger book. Looking around, I noted many bookcases of the same high quality wood as the desk. They all held similar ledgers, perhaps several thousand of them.
What looked like a really high-quality Persian rug covered the floor beneath my chair, and a couple large, well-maintained potted plants sat on the floor against the walls to my left and right. The office lacked any evidence of a computer or laptop or even a telephone. A pair of ornate floor lamps were providing the illumination.
The woman put down her pen, looked up and pressed her glasses into place on the bridge of her nose.
“It looks like you are finally all there, Mr. Stewart.”
I took a moment trying to figure out where I was, and why, but I eventually gave up. The only thing that did come to mind was, That was a pretty weird thing to say, wasn’t it?
“Do you understand where you are?” she inquired.
After puzzling over the question and looking around the office again, I just frowned and admitted, “Not really?”
“Good.’ She nodded. “That’s normal.”
It’s normal? That’s good.
No, there’s nothing normal about not knowing where you are!!
She looked at something in the ledger she had just been writing in, then asked, “Do you remember being involved in a vehicle collision?”
The image of a truck bearing down on me appeared in my memory. The jarring impact, the shriek of my tires being pushed sideways across the pavement …
“Anything after that?”
I had a few hazy memories of hearing what I think were people helping me after the accident, but nothing clear.
“It was like I was in a dark place somewhere.”
She steepled her fingers over her ledger book and pressed forward. “And then?”
“I guess I was sitting here,” I answered with a scratch of the head. Yeah, that makes no sense.
A sculpted eyebrow shot up. “You didn’t walk in and sit down? You were already seated here when you became aware?”
I frowned and didn’t answer. It was weird question, and the way she phrased it sounded like she knew I didn’t remember doing anything of the sort.
She nodded. “Does this situation suggest anything to you?”
I already knew what it suggested, but it was an idea I had been ignoring. After all, if it was true, then I was in the middle of a very standard scene out of the stories I read. I was going to sound stupid if it was wrong.
Besides, I felt like it was all over if I said it. In fact, that’s exactly what it would mean. It was all over.
I voiced it anyway. “I’m dead?”
With a brief nod, the woman stated, “You are, indeed. You were the sole fatality of a vehicle collision, as I understand it.”
She reached to the side, flipped open a folder and picked up a sheet of paper. For a while, she gave it a careful inspection and didn’t speak. She put that down and picked up another from the same folder, again reading it carefully.
I had to ask it. “Are you God or something?”
Her mouth formed a moue and she again pressed her glasses into place as she looked up at me for a moment. After returning to the paper, she stated, “I would be in the ‘or something’ category, Mr. Stewart. The Almighty leaves minor jobs like this to the staff.”
“Deciding whether I get into Heaven or something is a minor job?”
It would certainly make sense. It was a big universe and all. But I remembered something from my childhood about ‘every sparrow falling’ and felt a little sad.
“Again, it’s ‘or something’. That is what makes it a minor job, from our superior’s perspective. The normal screeners have already evaluated your case and found you not yet ready to enter the afterlife. In such cases, they identify an alternative. Your evaluation resulted in them sending you to the HR Department. Which is where you are, now. I am the manager here.”
“Heaven has a human resources department?” I didn’t mean to sound so incredulous, and realized it might be rude after I said it, but she didn’t react badly.
“Hero Relocation Department,” she clarified as she picked up a sheet of paper.