Now she’d never get to finish her book, Elsie thought. She’d just gotten to the good bit when her train derailed.
“So what happens now?” she asked Osiris. “You weigh my heart against a feather?”
“Not personally, no,” Osiris answered. “Too many dead people these days. The gatekeepers handle that now. I just get the process started.”
Osiris reached into Elsie’s chest and pulled out her heart. It was more colorful than Elsie would have guessed, much more luminous. Her heart was a whirl of metallic sheens and colorful glows.
“What did you love most in life?” Osiris asked, eyes on the heart.
“Stories,” Elsie answered.
Osiris smiled and pressed the heart into Elsie’s hands. It squelched with disconcerting wetness.
“I’d start there.” Osiris pointed down one of the countless corridors stretching endlessly into the dark in every direction. Like all the others, it was lined with shadowy figures, each standing before a flickering portal. “Third on the left. Best of luck.”
Elsie followed the directions. She felt her heartbeat quicken in her hands. She was nervous.
The third shade on the left hovered before a portal to an endless library. Up close, Elsie could smell tea and paper wafting through.
“Do you seek to take your eternal rest in my realm?” the shade asked.
“I think so?” Elsie answered. She wasn’t quite certain how all this worked.
The answer seemed to be enough for the shade. It took Elsie’s heart from her and held it up to the light. It turned the heart from side to side, then upside down. The shade shook its head disapprovingly. “No, no. I’m sorry. This won’t do at all.”
“Why not?” Elsie frowned.
“See this bit here?” The shade tapped at a silver bit on the heart’s underside. It produced a quiet metallic ping. “Dragon scale. Or some other mythical creature. Doesn’t matter.” The shade passed the heart back, handling it like a scrap of rotten fish it was eager to be rid of. “If it’s part of your heart, I can’t let you pass.”
“Why does that matter?” Elsie asked.
The shade sighed. “Because this is the portal to the Realm of Literary Readers,” it answered. “Literary.” The shade repeated the word, emphasizing each and every syllable. “This is a place for the souls of serious readers of serious works.”
“I like serious literature,” Elsie insisted.
“Yes, but you also like dragons. Or something just as bad. Something that smacks of genre.” The shade said. “I’m sorry, but there’s no place for you in my realm. Try the Realm of Fantasy Readers.” It stretched out a shadowy limb. “Down that way, fifth on the right.”
Elsie took the advice and presented her heart to the shade guarding the portal to the Realm of Fantasy Readers. It was just as unimpressed as the first shade had been. “No, I’m sorry. I don’t think this is the place for you.”
“The last one I spoke with thought it was,” Elsie said. “They said there’s a dragon scale on my heart.”
“What, this?” The new shade poked at the heart’s silver bit. “Oh, no. That’s no dragon scale. No, looks like chrome to me. You probably want the Realm of Cyberpunk Readers. Back the way you came. Second on your left.”
The guardian of the Realm of Cyberpunk Readers was no more receptive to Elsie’s heart. “The hearts of true cyberpunk aficionados are wrought of naught but chrome and bleed naught but code. Look, you’ve got this much larger dark patch right here.” It prodded a particularly squishy portion of the heart. “I’d try Horror Readers.”
The shade at the portal to the Realm of Horror Readers weighed Elsie’s heart and found it too light. The guardian of the Realm of Comedy Readers weighed it again, and found it too heavy. Her heart was too cold for Erotica, too hot for Cozy Mysteries. Elsie’s heart was too old-fashioned for Science Fiction, too modern for Alternate History.
“Have you tried the Realm of Literary Readers?” suggested the shade guarding the Realm of Thriller Readers, after a rejection full of misdirection and shocking twists.
Elsie slumped against the wall, knees against her chest, clutching her heart tightly. She had wandered the endless halls for what felt like an eternity. She felt no closer to finding the place she belonged. Each of the realms had something which drew her in, but the shades barred her way at every turn.
Elsie looked up to see Osiris offering her a hand. She took it and got back to her feet. “I don’t belong anywhere.” she said, barely holding back tears.
Osiris smiled gently. “Which stories were your favorites?”
Elsie considered the question for a moment. “The ones I told myself.”
“Ah.” Osiris gave Elsie’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Come with me.”
Osiris led her to a portal guarded by a squat and smoky shade.
“Try this one.” Osiris suggested.
Elsie stepped forward. She could hear the scribbling of pens and the clacking of typewriters echoing from the portal. She smelled good coffee and cheap whisky. She glimpsed untidy desks overflowing with crumpled notes and obscure reference tomes. The portal beckoned to her like none of the others had.
“Do you seek to take your eternal rest here, in the Realm of Writers?” the shade asked, holding out a shadowy tendril.
“Yes.” Elsie said, handing over her heart.
The shade inspected the heart. The parade of rejections had drained Elsie’s heart of much of the energy and vigor it once possessed. It was a dark, shriveled thing now, hard and bitter, like an especially withered raisin.
“It certainly looks like a writer’s heart,” the shade said. It placed the heart on a shelf beside the portal. “Thank you for your interest in the Realm of Writers. You can expect an answer in six to eight weeks.”
Elsie sat before the shade and waited. She waited, and waited, and waited. Six weeks passed. Then eight. Then twelve. It was somewhere around half a year when the shade finally picked her heart off the shelf, eyeballed it for a moment, then tossed it back to Elsie.
“Thank you for your submission to the Realm of Writers.” The shade sounded very rehearsed. “Unfortunately, your heart does not meet our realm’s needs at the present moment.”
“What?” Elsie cried. She’d really thought this would be the one.
“We receive many quality hearts of the recently deceased,” the shade continued. “I’m afraid your heart didn’t quite win me over. I wish you the best of luck finding another placement for your eternal soul.”
Elsie sat there a moment, stunned, staring at the withered lump her heart had become. She had no idea what to do now, where to go. This was the only place that had felt right for her, and now it was closed off. Not knowing what else to do, she got back to her feet and prepared to resume what felt like a futile search.
“Didn’t like this one after all?” Osiris was back.
“I don’t belong here either,” Elsie said, holding back tears.
Osiris arched an eyebrow. “Says who?”
Elsie pointed to the shade in front of the portal.
“Ah.” Osiris smiled. “You know… they’re only as strong as you let them be.”
Elsie watched the shade for a moment. When she turned back to Osiris, they had already disappeared.
She looked down at the heart in her hands. She saw a flicker of light somewhere deep in the core. A spark that hadn’t quite been snuffed out. She turned back to the portal and marched forward.
“You again.” The shade seemed both surprised and mildly annoyed. “I’m sorry, I can’t provide personal feedback on each and every heart I examine. If you’d like to try again with a new core personal identity, maybe something a little more mainstream, I’d be happy to review another submission.”
Elsie ignored the shade and kept moving toward the portal. Her heart glowed brighter.
“Wait!” The shade moved to block Elsie from the portal. “You can’t go in. You aren’t a real writer. I haven’t approved you yet.”
Elsie held up her heart. The light shone straight through the shade. She walked through it, ignoring the guardian’s wailing as she entered the portal.
“This time…” Elsie said as the light enveloped her. “I’m going to write my own ending.”