She was making her way across a crowded, high-ceilinged lobby when she saw him. There was a flicker of recognition, followed closely by confusion. How could he be here? Was she dreaming?
Then he saw her and his face lit with recognition, and she knew she was dreaming.
He stood calmly, waiting for her as she approached. She couldn't understand it, this compulsion to speak to him, but it felt right.
A female voice from behind called, "River!"
He raised his hand in greeting and said, "Hi, Laura," but he didn't move.
In no time at all he was close enough to touch.
"Hello, Jane," he said. "I've been waiting for you."
"I'm dreaming, aren't I?" She studied his untroubled face, young and untouched by time. His blue eyes were piercing this close. She was having a remarkably vivid dream.
He smiled. That bad-boy, half smile like she remembered from The Thing Called Love.
"No, you're not dreaming."
"How are you here?"
"Where is here?"
She looked around. They were no longer in the lobby full of people rushing to work. She remembered it now, the last place she'd worked before getting married and having three kids. But now a wide corridor stretched out behind her, its stark-whiteness giving the impression it went on forever.
She looked back at River, who was miraculously still there. "I don't know where we are."
"What do you remember last?"
She stumbled around her memories for a moment. Why couldn't she remember? And then his face popped into her head. "My husband."
But that wasn't it. Will died three years ago. Their children were grown. One of them lived in Colorado. She'd been on her way there. Some of it was coming back, but it hurt her head. When she brought her hands up to her face to brush away her swirling thoughts, she realized her hands were not her own. She looked down at her body. She was young again.
"This has to be a dream. I haven't been this young in decades."
"You're not dreaming," he repeated.
"How else do you explain this conversation? You've been dead for decades and I never knew you."
He smiled, so calm and steady. "You always knew me, just not on earth."
"On earth?" What was he saying?
"Do you remember driving, Jane?"
She nodded. "Driving to Penny." Her daughter. Colorado. The snow. She'd never driven in the snow. A sudden realization hit her. "I died, didn't I?"
He watched her, waiting for her to have a break down or explode.
Finally, when she did neither, he said, "Your body died, Jane, but you're here."
"But I remember." Her hands went to her head again. She remembered the impact. She felt it. "I hit my head."
A mirror appeared on the wall behind River, and her face reflected back at her, only it wasn't her face. She was twenty-five again. There was no blood to be seen, and instantly the pain vanished.
"Anything you're feeling now is a phantom. You're still tethered to your body, but that will fade."
"But I'm dead." She felt the truth of the words the moment she said them, but also the lack of emotion associated with them. Shouldn't she feel something? Panic? Fear? Loss? There was a strange lightness in their place she'd never felt before.
"Your body was mortal, but your soul isn't. You're not dead, Jane."
The mirror dissolved from the wall.
"Let's walk for a while," he said.
She followed him down more white, dizzying corridor, though doors appeared periodically along the right wall. Even though she'd never been there, the space felt familiar somehow.
"So if we're not on earth, where are we?"
"I never said we're not on earth."
She stopped walking. "Is my husband here?"
He hesitated before he turned to face her. "There are some things I can't tell you, but you'll understand soon enough."
"Why you? Why did you meet me?"
"But I don't remember you."
He smiled again. "You will. We've known each other a very long time."
She stared at him, unable to comprehend any world in which she might have known River Phoenix. "Where are you taking me?"
"I'm here to guide you to your door."
"You'll remember everything when you go through your door."
"You had a door?"
"We all do."
She turned to face the door behind her. "Is this my door?"
"No. You'll know when it's your door."
"Have you done this before?"
He shook his head. "You can only guide someone once."
"So how do you know what to do?"
"I had a guide too."
"You'll remember her too." He smiled serenely at her.
"So this isn't your job, guiding people?"
"We don't have jobs. Each of us has a purpose, a specialty."
"I told you, I volunteered."
"Why did you volunteer?"
"Because I wanted to."
She made an exasperated sound. "How do I know you're not lying, making all of this up? How can I trust you if I don't know you?"
He flashed that sly grin again and said, "What does it matter if you're dead or dreaming?" He watched her for a moment before he started walking again. "Besides," he said over his shoulder, "I can't lie, and neither can you."
She caught up with him. "You can't lie," she repeated skeptically. "How does that work?"
"People still tell half-truths, only part of the information, but they can't lie."
"Did you believe your guide?"
"Not at first."
"But it didn't take much convincing for you," she guessed.
He shrugged. "I wasn't occupying a body as long as you were. Everyone's different. Sometimes the stronger the mind and body, the stronger the hold it has."
It was her turn to smirk. "Are you trying to tell me I'm stubborn?"
"That's one way of putting it."
As they were walking, their surroundings had changed again. She was struck with a memory so powerful it was like she really was twenty-five again. "This corridor reminds me of Versailles." Just as she spoke the words, the whole corridor transformed into her favorite part of Versailles: the high decorative ceiling, the gilded walls, the windows on their left, and one pair of double doors on their right.
She knew they were hers. They pulled at her like a magnet.
River's smile spoke volumes. He was radiant.
"You said a door," she said, laughing.
"Like I said, everyone's different. I know someone who told me their door was actually a pair of French doors that were just like the ones that led out to the balcony in their favorite apartment."
A faraway look crossed his face. "It was a large wood door, very ornate, lots of carvings like something you'd see in Morocco. It was beautiful."
"And the room?"
He gazed upward. "It was not like this." He laughed. "This is all you."
"You made that mirror appear earlier." She hadn't realized until now that it might not have appeared on its own.
He smiled and nodded once. She saw then his true depth; how much older and wiser he was than he first appeared. "Is everyone this young here?"
"Young is subjective."
She looked back at the doors. She thought she could hear the faint sound of bells or glasses clinking together on the other side. "What will I find on the other side? Am I going to heaven?"
He looked almost mischievous at this. "There is no heaven and hell, only choice."
She let his words sink in before an alarming thought occurred to her. "Does anyone choose to not go through their door?"
"Yes," he said, sadly.
"And what happens to them?"
"They stay here, able to visit their old life, the people they love, but they are no longer a part of it."
"That does sound like hell."
His silence sounded like agreement.
"Can they never go through their door then? Will it disappear?"
"No, they can come back. It's always here, waiting for them."
She took a step toward the doors. "What will happen to you, where will you go when I go through?"
"Home." As though he could sense her next question, he added with a smile, "You'll see."
"So I'll see you again?"
His smile was radiant again. "Oh, yes."
She turned back to her doors almost reluctantly. No matter their pull, she suddenly realized his pull. She hesitated with her hand outstretched toward the ornate golden doorknob, and turned back.
"Why do you think you were so unhappy when you had a body?"
He hardly paused before he said, "Because I remembered too much."
Her hand touched the doorknob when River said, "No matter what you see, just know this is how it was supposed to be."
She didn't know what he meant, but his encouraging smile and nod seemed to tell her that she would know soon enough.