I woke up feeling the best I had felt in… years. Maybe decades. There was a pleasant breeze and natural summer scents wafting through the open window, and the soft morning light outside could only be described as peaceful. There were only two problems. I had no idea where I was, or how I had gotten there.
I thought I was alone in the room, but I was wrong. Sitting by the window, on what looked like a hand-hewn log chair, was a man. I had no clue who he was, but I was sure he was familiar. I thought for a moment that I should be afraid, or at least startled, but couldn't drum up the necessary adrenaline. I was just too bemused and felt too safe. He smiled gently at me, saying nothing, clearly as comfortable sitting there in silence as I was content to be silent.
I vaguely remember feeling almost exactly the same way once as a very young child. Safe at home in bed, on a perfect summer morning filled with country fresh air and lazy summer sounds audible from just outside, with the distinct assurance that all was well, and that a satisfying day lay ahead. No worries. No obligations. Just a sweet and calm anticipation of what the next few hours would bring my way.
But that was very long ago, and while I recall the memory, I didn't recall recalling that particular memory for a very long time indeed. Where did it come from, and why now?
I cleared my throat.
"Hello," I said, surprised at the strength of my own voice. Why did that surprise me?
The stranger's smile widened. Perfect teeth, like polished ivory. Not fake looking like he'd been bleaching; just natural, like teeth were always meant to be.
"Hello yourself," he replied amiably. The voice, like the face, was comfortingly familiar. I focused on his appearance more closely, wondering why I didn't feel the need to grope for my eyeglasses on the night stand. I shifted my gaze for a split second. Hmmm. No night stand. No glass case. Problem? Apparently not.
"Questions?" he asked.
"Well… yeah," I said. "Now that you mention it. Where am I, and who are you?"
"What is the last thing you remember?"
Him just voicing the inquiry invoked some kind of 3-D cinematic, surround-sound virtual reality in my head. Sight, sound, smells, and tactile sensations poured into my awareness through an open floodgate, so that I was both perfectly aware of myself lying in bed, and simultaneously off somewhere into a distinctly different reality. I liked it. Well, most of it. The unsettling part was an image of a man (more than an image, really), collapsing on the ground, clutching his chest and trying his best to breathe. I didn't recognize him from the back, but the coat and build were familiar. Then he managed to turn himself over and I saw his face as if floating above him. The vivid scene vanished instantly as my heart leapt into my throat. It was me!
My eyes snapped open (I didn't realize I had closed them), and standing next to the bed was the stranger, a look of compassion and understanding on his face. And there was something else, like a gentle and loving sense of humor percolating warmly just underneath the surface. Who was he?
"Are you OK?" he asked.
I really noticed his eyes then. They were a piercing grayish-green. Comforting. Knowledgeable. I studied his face more closely. He looked both ancient and young at the same time. Child-like and full-grown. If I stared for any length of time at all, he seemed to shift in appearance; the emphasis changing. For one nanosecond, I saw him as he must have looked as an infant, innocently self-absorbed. In the next, a series of flowing mental pictures (more than pictures) of him as a toddler, adolescent, young adult, middle-aged, and finally an elderly and wisdom-filled old man, ramrod straight and full of vigor. All these perceptions hitting me at faster than the speed of light it seemed, a universe of impressions in the blink of an eye.
"I think so," I managed to reply.
"Good," he said, and smiled wider still. "You are taking it well."
"Thanks," I responded automatically. Then, "What am I taking well, exactly?"
"Your death," he said.