* * *
Gabriel stared at Stephen, sizing him up for almost a full minute. The eyes covering his wings appeared to follow suit. Stephen couldn't meet his gaze and instead turned away to look at the lavish furniture and décor. Everything in the house was fashioned from some precious material: sapphires, gold, silk, pearls. The smell of incense was heavy in the air.
"Uhm... wonderful place you've got here," Stephen offered.
"You have one just like it, you know."
"I do? Well, that's... that's nice, I guess. But, uh... how do I put this. What's it all for?"
Gabriel frowned. "I don't understand. Don't you find it beautiful?"
"Well, sure. But you can't just look at shiny trinkets until the end of time, can you?"
He shrugged his wings. "To each his own, I suppose. But now I must be getting back to worship our Lord and Master. It's been far too long already."
"Wait! I came here to ask about my daughter. I can't find her, and my wife is... well, there's something wrong with her. She doesn't remember things properly, and she's acting very strange. Stiff. Very happy, but in an oblivious sort of way. It's hard to explain. Can you help me?"
"Very well," said Gabriel. "What is your daughter's name?"
"Sophie. Sophie Lane."
Gabriel walked over to a corner of the room and began rifling through a massive tome identical to the one Stephen had seen at the pearly gates.
He turned and said simply, "Her name is not in my book."
"I... I don't understand. What does that mean?"
"She chose the Pit."
The room was spinning. "She... what?"
"Sophie never accepted our Lord and Master, so she was sent to the other place."
The words clanged dissonantly in Stephen's head. "But... she was so young."
The angel shifted his wings. "I'm sorry, but all who are old enough to reject our Master's gift are sent to the Pit. Is there something else I can help you with, or shall I go?"
The floodgate opened and the tears came streaming down. How could it be? Sophie had always been an inquisitive girl, always asking why, but Stephen had never imagined that she hadn't accepted the faith she was brought up in. He remembered those innocent round eyes, that carefree smile, and he collapsed in grief as he realized that he had lost her forever.
* * *
When Stephen opened his eyes, his surroundings had changed. He was in a room that appeared to be fashioned out of glass, but he decided that given the divine obsession with pointless riches, it was more likely to be diamond. Through three of the thick walls he could make out blurry gold hues of heaven, while the one in front of him had a surface that reminded him of his featureless white cubicle. A pang of loneliness snapped him back into the moment, and he would have collapsed to the floor in sorrow again if not for two powerful hands that grabbed his arms from either side.
"This is exactly what I was talking about, Raphael," said Gabriel. "There is to be no sorrow or crying in heaven, and those are all this man seems capable of."
"Not surprising," said Raphael, maintaining a firm grip on Stephen's right arm. "He ended his earthly life so he could reunite with his family. It would certainly be a disappointment to learn that your daughter chose the Pit and your wife chose erasure."
Stephen let the heat of his anger burn through his tears. "What did you do to my wife?"
"Calm yourself," said Raphael. "When your wife learned the fate of your daughter, she reacted in much the same way you did. We had no choice but to erase her memories of Sophie. But before we could do so, she begged and pleaded with us, told us she would never think of her daughter again. I judged this to be a lie, and our Lord will not tolerate the presence of such sins any more than He will allow sorrow. And so to avoid having to send her to the other place, we removed her rebellious nature as well."
"But that's ridiculous!" cried Stephen. "As long as people have free will, everyone is going to sin eventually!"
Gabriel gave him a small smile. "You have spoken correctly. With our heavenly bodies and our closeness to the Almighty, it becomes easier to avoid sin, and some of us devote ourselves to the Lord so completely that we maintain our autonomy for eons. But in the spiraling depths of eternity, some act of disobedience is inevitable. In the end, everyone faces erasure."
Stephen looked hard into the two blue eyes fixed in Gabriel's head. "Have you?"
The archangel's smile disappeared. "Enough of this. It's been hours since I bowed prostrate before our Master. Raphael, would you mind—"
"To hell with you and to hell with your god," Stephen bellowed. "I want my wife and daughter back!"
Two groups of eyes looked at one another, then at Stephen. Gabriel offered his diagnosis. "This one is beyond help. He is so consumed with evil that after erasure there would be nothing left."
A large gash opened up in the blank wall in front of Stephen. He had expected it to reveal a cavern filled with angry red flames, licking at the legs of people chained to the walls. Instead he saw... nothing. Blackness blacker than soot, so all-encompassing that he imagined at any moment it would burst from the chasm and swallow him up.
He had expected a cacophony of tortured screams. Instead he heard... nothing. In fact, the silence was so intense that it seemed to absorb sound from the room he was standing in. And then he heard it: a single bone-chilling cry, from what sounded like a great distance, that echoed continually but never completely disappeared.
There was a push from behind, and Stephen knew it was the end. During his fall into the Pit, it occurred to him that the wailing he heard was so inhumanly shrill that it would be impossible to identify who the voice belonged to. It could have come from anyone—even Sophie. Had his sentence been total isolation, his memories of her might eventually have been eroded away by the relentless waves of time. But those helpless cries would never allow him to forget what he had lost.
As the pinhole of light in the ceiling began to close, Stephen heard the last coherent words he would hear for the rest of eternity:
"As you writhe in the darkness, always remember: God still loves you. That's why He gave you a choice."