January 4, 2029, Level IV, Heaven
I listen to the waves arrive on the shore in two phases. The first waves roll gently onto familiar sand. The second ones crash into boulders just as they are about to peak. The rolling waves are barely noticeable, but the crashing ones are putting on a spectacular show—for the ears as well as the eyes. When they finish, they fall back into the ocean with their energy spent, and slide to the shore with a soft gurgling sound. With my eyes closed, I can hear the nuances of the synchronized arrivals. I make this into a game. I count the seconds between the two and try to snap my fingers at the precise time they touch down.
Anyone who knows me well knows I’m most like the second round of waves—adventuresome, spontaneous, and unpredictable. My grandfather used to say, “The Meek might inherit the Earth, but they will never be newsworthy. Go choose yourself a life that grabs some headlines!” His advice might be why I have never lived small. I am always putting on a show.
The wave counting is rebooting my brain. Any day that begins with ocean waves as the alarm clock is a great day in my book. The direct sunlight makes it difficult for me to open my eyes. The sun has no respect for people napping. I guess I’ll give up the fight to stay here sunning myself and try to do something productive with this day.
As I pull myself upright, I’m reminded of the downside of ocean napping—the thousands of sand grains lodged into every crevice of the body. Even so, it’s a small price to pay for the peace of waking up on warm sand—especially this sand. It’s the whitest and finest I have ever seen. As soon as I sit upright, I fill my hands with it, hold it high over my head, and allow it to slide through my fingers back to the ground. When I was a child, I could do this for hours.
A dip in the ocean would be the ideal remedy for my slight malaise but, for some reason, I did not wear my swimsuit on this outing. The good news is, I’m finally out of my fatigues. I’m not surprised I ditched them in favor of my favorite beach attire—ripped jeans and Beatles T-shirt. There’s no way I am wearing these clothes into salty water, though. I settle with burying my toes in the sand. Ah, Utopia—or is it the Caribbean? As my grandfather would say, “same difference.” Very few things can convince me to stay in the moment the way a beach can. Time seems to stand still when I am being serenaded by the sea.
I yawn and stretch tall. My arms are toned and tight. They are a much-deserved reward for a fitness routine that includes three hundred push-ups a day. My hair feels soft and velvety as I run my fingers through it. After nine years of military buzz cuts, it is nice to have my hair back. After fingering it into a beach look, I reach through the rips in my jeans to dust the sand off my knees. As I close my eyes and take in a deep wake-up breath, a small buzzing shock spreads through my body. It gives way to a flashback of a bullet ripping through my neck.
I swallow slowly, and lift my right hand and run it across the front of my throat and around to the back of my neck. I feel nothing—there’s no wound. Am I experiencing my first PTSD flashback? My heart races. My rapid breathing is drying out my throat. I look around for a clue as to where I am. In one direction, all I see is a calm blue ocean. The other direction, palm trees and white sand.
The sun is brighter than I remember, but the temperature is completely reasonable for September… Wait, why do I think it’s September? I don’t like this feeling. I’m not a fan of mental fogginess. Snipers know it leads to uncertainty, uncertainty leads to hesitation, and hesitation leads to death.
“Hello, Grayson.” Startled by a voice from behind me, I swing around with fists ready. I stop short as I find myself face-to-face with a dark-skinned man with piercing blue eyes and a toothy grin. His smile is disarming, so I drop my fists. He continues to smile as he talks. “It’s okay. You can relax. I am not the enemy—though you’ll meet her soon enough. She’s why I’m here.”
The man steps back and takes a seat on one of the large white boulders that line the beach. I move cautiously in his direction. “Who is this enemy? And before you answer that question, maybe you can tell me who you are and how you know my name?”
“My name is Seneca. I am a guide—some say a teacher. I am a permanent resident here. I know your name and a lot about you from your father and, of course, from the Creator.”
I feel myself tense again. Great, I’m talking to a crazy person. This is just what I need, right when I’m already questioning my sanity. “Excuse me for being rude, but there’s no way you know my father—he’s dead—and has been for twenty-six years. As far as talking about me with the Creator, I’ll just ask if I can call you an Uber to take you back to the asylum.”
Seneca does not respond to my attempt at humor. Instead, he leans over and plucks a small flower growing near his feet. He smells it and begins to twirl it between the fingers of his right hand. His gaze moves from the twirling flower back to me. He seems to be waiting for me to say something… maybe something that isn’t sarcastic.
“Look, I apologize. I use humor when I’m uneasy. Things are… a little confusing right now. I just woke up from a very intense dream—or a vision. I’m not sure which. I only want to get back to wherever I’m supposed to be right now.” I know as soon as I say it: I am the one sounding crazy—and a little whiny.
The man crosses both his arms and legs. He leans further back on the boulder. His island shirt and beach pants are neatly pressed and made of the whitest cotton I’ve ever seen. His wardrobe and grooming don’t support my theory that he’s crazy—or homeless. He looks confident and a bit smug. I feel as if he is reading my thoughts, and I don’t like it.
“Can we start over? My name is Grayson Cunningham—which you seem to know already. I can’t remember how I got here. I was on a military mission in Yemen. That’s the last thing I can remember before waking up.” The man remains silent and continues to twirl the flower between his big fingers. “Did you really know my father?”
“Correction—do. I do know your father.” He drops the flower and locks his eyes on mine. “You can address me as Seneca. Are you up for a walk on the beach? I’ll answer all of your questions in time.” Seneca begins walking towards the water. He assumes I will follow him—which I do.
The man who calls himself a guide heads north on the beach. We walk close to the water, which allows the occasional far-reaching wave to rush over our bare feet. He says nothing. My military training tells me to wait for the enemy to speak first. I have not classified Seneca as an enemy at this point, but I am keeping him under surveillance. Before I render a verdict, I need to sort fact from fiction. I’m unsure if I’m in a dream—or just woken up from one. The greater question is, where am I? This place seems to be deserted. Seneca and I are leaving the only footprints in the sand.