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THE QUEST OF NICHOLAS MARSH - I. M. MERCKEL


The papers were signed; the check delivered. Nicholas sighed, relieved his journey was about to end. All the sacrifice and risk, worry and angst, years of long hours and sleepless nights, had been worth it. The vow he’d made, the goal he’d sought, that had fueled his drive in his most difficult days and secured for him what he’d earned, not been given, was at hand. No doubter could diminish his accomplishments. That unease caused from last night’s harrowing dream over a payment problem gone awry was just that — a dream.

A knock at the door. The title officer held the check, requesting Nicholas and the closer step outside. Nicholas started to shake. Sweat broke out. He gasped for breath. “It was a dream,” he mumbled.

“Mr. Marsh, are you all right?”

“What is it?”

“Do you need to sit down, sir?”

“What is it?” his voice louder, trembling.

“Sir….”

“WHAT IS IT? WHAT’S THIS ABOUT?”

“It’s about the check, sir. There’s an issue.”

Nicholas collapsed. The closer screamed. An ambulance was called. He would not be revived.

xxx

Nicholas Marsh looked down a long hallway that disappeared into a soft mellow haze. He didn’t recall his arrival. It was as if he’d awakened from a slumber and found himself transported to a place never seen. Yet, the final words of the title officer were imprinted in his mind, resounding over and over, echoing, echoing, echoing.

Have I passed on? Nicholas had read stories about those pronounced dead, who had visited the afterlife yet somehow returned. But he’d encountered no loving light, no presence of deceased relatives to greet him. Instead he faced a corridor disappearing into that cloudy mist with barely discernible arrows on the floor pointing in the direction he inherently knew he was to follow. Is this a test? Am I being judged.

The quick assessment of new situations was his forte; a sixth sense he’d relied upon time and again. His favored response was to act expeditiously when confronted with the unknown rather than to delay, for to him fleet action trumped procrastination. Those giants of industry, successful politicians, and heroes he’d studied all assessed quickly and acted. They forced solutions, not awaited outcomes. Thus he commenced proceeding down the path following the direction of the arrows. Why be brought here if only danger awaits?

Progressing down the hallway he noticed the absence of landmarks; nothing to his travel by. No time, no distance, no direction He was lost to the fullest extent; a visitor in a foreign world. The light remained diffused, a consistent glow with no shadings, so he could not determine if he was heading towards or away from its source. There was no scent, not even a sound from his own tread. No heat or cold. It was if his senses had been exhumed. I am the star of my own silent film, a thought that amused him for its irony. I always wanted to be cast in the major role. I just never imagined it to be like this.

Yet he sensed he was being observed; that he was the lead in a carnival sideshow providing entertainment to whomever or whatever had placed him on this stage. He therefore maintained a steady pace, not fast enough to suggest hurrying from what he feared, nor too slow to suggest confusion. Balance was the key. Those whose qualities I wanted never seemed overwhelmed, lost, or out of control.

Onward through the brume he strode. Then, a sharp curve to his left and he found the passageway blocked by three distinct yet colorless doors. Each was emblazoned with bright red lettering, the first color he’d seen. Upon the left one was written “Return,” on the middle, “Remain,” and on the right, “Relocate.”

So this is what it comes down to for the “non-living.” He preferred that term for it sounded less final than “Dead,” although even a dunce would recognize a synonym wouldn’t change his circumstance.

He’d adopted Pascal’s Wager Theory for the afterlife, that the belief in a Deity was a bet. If one existed then the believer would win the pot, a result not available for the denier. But if there was no such Supreme Being then one was dead anyway, so wouldn’t care. Thus, while he shunned casinos or gambling, he’d pledged his stake on the hereafter by refusing to dismiss the concept of a Higher Power. It was a calculation he was now glad he’d made.

Nicholas did reject the complexities of what awaited the sinner as portrayed in Dante’s Divine Comedy, and other similar allegories of Purgatory. Their depictions were too harsh, their punishment too grave. He’d concluded that reading about them in his high school literature class was enough Hell. However he’d never encountered anyone suggesting that a soul would become an entrant in a “You Bet Your Afterlife” game show and be given three options. He now understood the upside to procrastination. What to do?

The left door sounded most appealing, for a return to the familiar would restore him to the life he’d come from, or so he surmised. Afterall, he wasn’t here because he wanted to be. Maybe there was more living to do. Grasping that handle his applied pressure produced no result. It would not turn.

The folly of this initial selection became obvious when he attempted a sigh but none issued. If he couldn’t breathe, how could he return? Considering his mysterious yet non-threatening surroundings, wishing to avoid the chance that the literature he hated accurately described Hades, he selected the middle door for his second choice, it being preferable to remain in this confusing but seemingly benign situation than to face a harsher alternative. That door was locked as well.

In life, Nicholas’ inner resolve forged from many struggles asserted itself and he oftentimes triumphed by the strength of his sheer will. His mantra was “powerlessness is a state of mind, not a condition.” Now faced with defeat he reapplied his will with more zeal. Ignoring the untouched door, he returned to his first two selections with greater force, but achieved the same result. Thus he understood he’d been given no control over the choices and would have to face the remaining option. Accepting the situation, but always seeking for an out, he placed his salvation in the frenetic hope of a ”fox-hole prayer” imploring the Power who created those doors relent and reset them. To test his entreaty, he slowly reached to his right wishing the door would be locked. It opened easily.

“Noooooo,” was the sound that reverberated in his head in the silent passageway.

xxx

Nicholas found himself standing at a wooden bench facing three elevated thrones which, although lacking the ostentatiousness of high office, emitted power and control by their size and condition. They were stout, solid and massive. No doubt they seated those who controlled. He felt like a medieval peasant first viewing a mammoth cathedral, recognizing his own insignificance. The scene played out in the center of an oasis of clarity amidst the swirling fog-like backdrop which limited his further view. He harbored no doubt of the importance of what awaited

From his right out of the mist came three tall glowing apparitions with shimmering faces and limbs draped in what seemed to be luminous vestments. The elongated figures glided to the cathedrals, each selecting their own, their essence dimming as if settling in. The middle figure then brightened and Nicholas sensed more than heard sounds in a slow, deep, oscillating tone, similar to a soundtrack played at slightly slower speed.

“Mr. Marsh, you question our decision you relocate from Eden.”

Nicholas, startled by the address, quickly responded having concluded that hesitancy reflected weakness. He had to assert confidence though he had little. “With all respect, I do,” surprised that he now had the ability to communicate, at least transmit his thoughts, in the same manner as the Official who’d questioned him.

“Prior to one’s advent their life is reviewed. Our admission standards are quite specific. Some object to our findings, claiming unusual factors, and request a reassessment.”

“I don’t recall requesting anything.”

“Not in the traditional sense, but your response at the doorways communicated your disagreement.”

“I guess it did.”

“Past behavior provides insight to the soul and it is the soul that we judge. We recognize your path was unique, as are most. We’re confident in our approach. There are very few incidents where our process caused us to err, but to insure fairness we’ve granted you the opportunity to point out our mistake.”

Nicholas’ confidence rose. This hearing is a blessing, a good thing. His earthly skills had been sharpened by a lifetime of affronts, uphill battles, and challenges overcome. He considered himself a survivor, scarred but victorious, a modern Dow Quixote without the mental fantasies. He had overcome the odds time and again and was now provided the opportunity to joust, albeit on what was a higher plane.

“Thank you,” he said respectfully, believing tribute vital in combat with a more elevated foe. “While you have reviewed my history, I ask Your indulgence in allowing me to present my story as completely as possible. May I have the time to do so?”

“Here time is plentiful,” said the middle apparition. “Take what you need.”

And so, Nicholas began.

“You are aware I was an only child. My parents couldn’t afford more, and probably decided after me not to have another. I possessed what others found physically unappealing. I grew to five feet four inches tall, nearly as wide, with facial features suggesting amphibian ancestry. I was christened Harry, in honor of a deceased relative. Not a problem except when added to my surname, ‘Slease.’ I was Harry Slease.

“Schoolmates jeered me. I was constantly targeted with slights and insults. My parents tried to console me, feeding me slogans like ‘sticks and stones,’ and fables about ugly ducklings turning into swans. Nice stories but providing no solace in my daily battles.

“Yet, whenever You close a door, a window opens. I discovered I possessed intelligence, insight, perception — qualities I applied to my defense. Yet, such traits are best applied if detractors look beyond the physical. Few did.”

The Presences remained silent so Nicholas continued.

“I responded to insults with sophisticated retorts. I was the Winston Churchill of the quip, the John F. Kennedy of rhetoric, responding with eloquence and depth far exceeding what issued from my attackers. The problem was my life wasn’t a debating competition before impartial Judges, but arguing with my jailers. Who changes positions when there’s no need to do so? While I believed my tormentors ‘knew not what they were doing,’ to borrow a scriptural phrase, there was no recognition that their conduct inflicted hurt. Theirs was collective action without self-assessment, conscience. My role was to provide their amusement. We played by the rules they enforced.”

The Essence on the right brightened. “We know it is common for humans to harm others? We consider the harm caused as a factor in our admittance standards.”

“Yes, but the evidence of the harm can vary. Physical harm is obvious. You notice bruises. Emotional harm is often hidden, festering below the surface. Thus the victim may respond without showing the cause that generated it. That action is witnessed, and the injured is held responsible while the real perpetrator may not be. I lacked bruises. ”

“Provide us examples you believe important.”

“The Swensons were the wealthiest family in our town. They lived in a mansion atop a hill overlooking the rest of us. Brian, my classmate, was their only child. While not close, during our junior year he invited me to his home. What a golden moment for me. I’d finally been noticed by a member of the top echelon of our community. But when his parents met me I was asked to leave for Brian had ‘other appointments.’ I knew that meant that while I was happy to be seen with him, they were not happy he be seen with me. When I later asked for an explanation all I was told was ‘there are some things I wouldn’t understand.’ I was humiliated by that dismissal. We never spoke at length again.

“For my senior prom, I had no date. What girl would be interested in me? Other partner-less classmates attended as a group. My request to join them was denied. I was the only one of my class who didn’t attend.

“As a joke my name was nominated for Class President. I finished last in the election but first in the sarcastic remarks of condolences I received.”

The Augur on Nicholas’ left glowed. “We find no one free from another’s rudeness. Why the special importance here?”

“Those acts provided the motivation in my life.”

“In what way?”

“I stopped waiting for my detractors to change and decided to take control. I envied so much of what they had: the camaraderie, the collectiveness, the friendship, the ability to look down on others. Since I knew my prospects of being voluntarily accepted were slight, I decided to change the tables and make them covet my achievements”

“How?”

“By becoming famous. Success couldn’t alter my appearance, but it could change how people looked at me.”

The Judges went silent. Nicholas went on.

“Fame breeds jealousy — envy for what someone else has. One seeks the opportunity to associate with the successful . They would want that, but it would be too late. An opportunity was lost when they selected me to be their victim. What creates the most envy? Not looks, not intelligence, not personality. Wealth . Wealth means power, something we all want. A poor person may die from poverty, but no wealthy person dies from too much money.

“To do this I needed to find a monument that would signal my status; a symbol proclaiming my achievements. In our community nothing conveyed success like the Swenson mansion. If I could acquire it, it would advertise my success whenever they looked towards that hill. The tables would be turned. They would now envy what I had accomplished, replacing my envy of what they were given. ”

Nicholas paused, allowing his words to settle.

xxx

The changing brightness amongst the Judges divulged they were conferring. Then they assumed that uniform glow and Nicholas continued.

“I sought commercial victories, not diplomas, so additional schooling was not required. I needed a new image. My name became Nicholas Marsh. It radiated professionalism, breeding, and sophistication — perhaps British aristocracy in my ancestry. No one would do business with a Harry Slease.

“Next, a calling. Most openings for someone like me were subordinate placements, offering too low a trajectory and required too much time to succeed. But one industry beckoned — debt collection. With no face-to-face meetings, looks were irrelevant — you were a voice, not a face. If you secured collections, ignored sad stories, you did well, for compensation was based on the revenues recovered. And since turnover was high one could proceed up the ladder quickly.”

“Weren’t you planning to profit from the disadvantaged?” asked the Spirit on the right.

“My job was collecting debts, not social work. I didn’t create their situation. They were offered the opportunity to solve their problem. I didn’t lie to them, offering elaborate remedies doomed to fail. You owe money, you pay it. Work out a schedule and follow it. Others created unworkable schemes appealing to fantasies, not realities. Not me. Besides, creating elaborate arrangements took time, and I wanted to direct my time towards fulfilling my vow.”

Silence.

“I became manager of my section; then my district. My income, while ample, still remained insufficient for my goal. Then, my idea. In the collection business the debtor owes, and the creditor seeks payment, so the debtor controls the unpaid funds. I used that concept differently. Once a customer pays for services or products the merchant has the money the customer seeks be returned. If that process is made difficult the customers must factor in their time and aggravation in pursuing the claim. I developed algorithms determining what the smallest settlement should be. I created scripts for my employees to follow which tried the patience of claimants. No lying, just dragging out the process. My system worked like magic. I created the Merchant Payment Retention industry. My call centers handled the entire process. Then, my best achievement. I moved those centers overseas. Dealing with a representative half-way round the world increased communication problems and added to

the claimant’s frustration. Today many companies use my services. I became a wealthy man.

“Then, the news. The Swensons had suffered reverses. Brian put the mansion up for sale. and accepted my offer. My moment had arrived. Yet, as the day of closing approached I became fearful things might go astray. The evening before closing I had a nightmare, a premonition, about last minute payment problems. .It’s silly to presume dreams are harbingers of reality, but at the closing that’s what happened. Thus I’m here.”

xxx

Nicholas stood quietly as the three Apparitions conferred, their auras brightening and dimming in random sequence like flashing Christmas lights. A quick decision he thought would be favorable, so his concern mounted as the deliberation dragged on, a continuing light show upon which his fate hung. Then he thought of an additional argument. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? My intellect let me down. Was it now too late?

The glowing eventually normalized. Had Nicholas been breathing he would have held his breath as the verdict awaited.

The middle Spirit spoke.

“Mr. Marsh, the context of your presentation we often hear. Yet, there are differences. No doubt your early life was difficult, fostering your covetousness which led to your commitment to rise above. That suggests strength of character. Your achievements are undeniable. That shows dedication. But in your pursuit you undoubtedly hurt others. Your motivation was revenge, your weapon the creation of envy in your attackers. In doing so many innocents were hurt, and apparently continue to be by your means. Are you a lost soul so blinded that you didn’t sense the collateral damage you caused? Or, are you a committed sinner intentionally hurting others to fight your enemies? You present a close case. We normally don’t keep them. Is there anything else you wish to offer as to why we should alter our decision?”

Nicholas grasped the proffered opportunity; confident his new argument would provide victory.

“I do. Having just arrived I’m familiar with current attitudes of mankind. Things aren’t going well for you. Scientific discoveries, fiction packaged as fact, scandal among your leaders and followers, efforts to change the history of your accomplishments, all cause many to turn away, seek alternatives, treat your existence as legend. Each day more conclude you don’t exist. Eternal judgment has become old fashioned.

“I’ve dealt with problems that overwhelmed others. I’ve out-thought and out-worked my opponents. Look at my results. If permitted to stay I pledge my soul to Your cause, to work on new ways to present Your message. I don’t suggest You can’t run Your realm. You are most powerful. But perhaps I could help re-package Your message — remarket it. Your presence comes from ancient texts. Together we could create a more modern epistle, reformulate its

presentation, update its teachings. We could emphasize the warmer understanding of envy. Instead of it meaning ‘evil jealousy’ of what others have it can mean ‘appreciation’ of the benefits You offer. For example, “I envy the peace and tranquility of Eden.’ It’s warmer, friendlier, more inviting. I’ve developed projects before. I’m ready to try again.”

The lights resumed deliberation. Nicholas had given his all. If past results meant anything he felt he had won the day.

The flashing became uniform, brighter than before.

“You’re very persuasive, Mr. Marsh,” said the middle Glow. “Confident too. We believe our initial decision remains correct, but you offer a different emphasis to support your argument, one we might have overlooked. Changing the self-will of others is difficult even for us. We aren’t so entrenched as to ignore innovation. We’ve decided to grant your wish. You may stay. If you turn around you may now join your fellows.”

“Thank you God,” Nicolas mumbled.

The scene behind him slowly formed. At first he saw indistinct images that gradually became brighter — clearer. Then he felt heat and saw flames. FLAMES. The scene before him was engulfed in fire, slow-moving apparitions in its midst.

Nicholas turned to the Judges. “What is this? Why did you send me … there?”

“We didn’t,” said the main Spirit. He pointed upward. “You were assigned here by Them. We decided to send you back. There are only two places to go and we thought, despite some unresolved questions, you didn’t meet our standards. But your presentation, your offer, your confidence in your talents persuaded us to look at you differently. We can use someone with your abilities.”

“But what’s here isn’t what you described.”

“We described nothing.”

“You said this was Eden. Eden housed Adam and Eve in Paradise. You mislead me.”

“Not true. Eden is a word. Paradise is what you choose to make it. We believe this to be Paradise.”

“You tricked me.”

“No trick. We reassign at times. And They do as well. Neither of us can exist without the other, so we cooperate, deal in good faith. Souls are our business. Selection is our job. We thought you’d fit better up there. You don’t need to be a saint, although They may think so. We concluded your actions, although at times harsh, were compelled by others. We aren’t devils. We’re opportunists. Like you. We seek the committed sinner, the ones who habitually demonstrate they belong here,. Except for the most heinous we aren’t interested in those

who seek justice for their worldly treatment, even if their course isn’t as moral as Those above would like. But you convinced us to make an exception.”

“But, but, but… I thought I was being relocated … to you.”

“You thought wrong. But don’t despair. You’ll receive a prominent position, superior to most arrivals. Some won’t be strangers. Many of your classmates, if not here now, will be joining you and located on levels far beneath you. Your elevated assignment will signal your success. You’ll be envied. Your lifelong quest will be complete.”

“I made a mistake.’

“Not your first. If you now believe requesting this hearing was a mistake then it’s the third recent one you’ve made. Your second mistake was to confuse where you were headed.”

“What was my first mistake?”

A scene formed in front of Nicholas. His earthly body lay lifeless on the ground. The title company officer was talking with a policeman.

“I told him there was a problem with his check. He collapsed.”

“What was the problem?

“The check was for too much money. I needed to know what to do with the excess.”

“Your intellect failed you Mr. Marsh. You died because of too much money. Creating envy sometimes engulfs its creator. Now you‘re here.”

Nicholas changed tactics, again seeking an escape. Once more his fate hung in the balance. He softly responded with as much contriteness as he could manage. “Since I’m here due to my mistakes, for how long must I remain?”

“There are no exceptions to one’s stay here. It is as it has always been. For eternity.”


I. M. Merckel is a retired attorney, living in San Antonio, Texas. He has three sons, two of whom are published authors. During his career he wrote legal documents and briefs. He is now writing short story fiction and memoir pieces of which eight have been published. His work, the Locked Door, was short-listed in the 2021 Hammond House Survival International competition. His pen name is in honor of his father whose nickname for him was Merckel.

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