Celia opened her eyes on a world of impossible contrasts. Behind her, a featureless black plain receded into the distance, where it met a sky that hung overhead with a texture like it had seen clouds and wanted to copy them. Ahead of her, a chasm, the other side shrouded in a blue mist, bridged by what looked like nothing so much as a razor.
"I'm dead, aren't I?" Her tone was more sarcastic that disappointed, and she didn't expect to hear someone say "Yes" in a breathy, hollow tone. She looked behind her, but only when she brought her eyes back to the front did she see the tall, thin figure. With skin a color of clouded ruby and shaped like a rushed clay replica of a person, it continued speaking.
"This is the afterlife, Celia. You may cross the bridge and see what's next, or you may stay here for all eternity."
She peered at the other side. "What's on the other side?"
"I may not know."
She peered at the bridge. "That looks like it's sharp."
"I'm told it's excruciatingly painful."
"Redundant," muttered Celia. She walked to the lip of the chasm and bent down to inspect the bridge. "Excruciating already means pain." It was more reflex than anything. Looking down into the chasms, she could see humans, writhing as though in anguish.
"Those are the souls of people in your life. On one side, all the people you have failed to help. On the other, all those you have harmed. You see, crossing this bridge, you must carry all your acts of kindness in this hand," it raised her left hand to a waiter's tray-holding position. "And all your selfish acts on this one." It raised her right. "Lose your balance and you fall into the hands of the souls on that side." It looked over the edge. "Neither group looks particularly happy with you. I'm told they're... unkind."
"All this while walking across a bridge that looks thin enough to cut my feet?" The figure only stared at her. "Yeah, I'm not going." She sat down and started thinking, but got nowhere. She tried to take a nap. When that failed, she paced, and then sat cross-legged and tried to meditate, and finally she started writing in the dust. After an hour, she threw up her hands. "Fine, I'm going. What do I do?"
"You walk." So she shrugged, gathered her courage and, after a few false starts, stepped out onto the bridge. Her first step was almost her last. The pain made her gasp like she'd been thrown into ice-cold water. Her vision tightened from shock, narrowed, filled with black until she thought she'd collapse and stumble into the right-hand chasm. Which group was that, again? But blood returned to her head, even as more of it ran from her foot down the sheer sides of the bridge.
She'd hoped the next step wouldn't be as bad, that it might be like jumping into a cold lake. It was worse. Biting off a scream, she took long, deep breaths and prepared for her third step.
"Don't forget this." The whispering, echoing voice was right beside her. A hand pressed a string into her right hand. Wobbling, Celia looked at it. At the bottom hung something she couldn't describe. She thought it might be spherical, but the closer she looked the more it grew to encompass her entire vision and...
...she looked up at a book on her shelf, the Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury, with a small label on the spine marking its place in the library. She looked it as she packed into a box, and again when she unpacked it, and every time she noticed it and felt a twinge for never returning it.
The memory released her without warning. Celia almost lost her balance again, ending up bent at the waist, arms splayed out, one bloody foot barely on the bridge. Several agonizing seconds passed before she righted herself. Gasping with effort, she took another step.
It hurt just as much as the first time, but the shock wasn't as great. She was about to take her fourth step when someone pressed a string into her left hand. She wobbled, kept her balance, and made the mistake of looking.
She stood outside a shelter for the homeless. She hadn't meant to come here, but walking between appointments put it directly in her path. She felt sad and uncomfortable as she passed disadvantaged of all sorts. Now she'd stopped outside the door, and couldn't just walk on. Pushing inside, she found the manager and pressed sixty dollars into the manager's hands. "A donation." She'd given a smile that she hoped looked more kind than nervous, and walked out.
"Oh god." She gasped, coming back to herself. "How much more of this is there?"
"All of it," came the hollow breeze.
With each step came another burden. Some were light, such as buying a friend's child a soda, and some were heavy, like when she'd used a friend—who had a crush on her—to pretend to be dating and deflect a third party's attentions. Each step cut another line deep into her foot and bent her back a bit more. She slipped in her blood more often. It took her longer to straighten after each memory, each time bending more to the left or right depending on what had just burdened her. She stopped looking at the memories. There were so many now that looking at a new one might suck her into a half-dozen others in sequence.
It felt like it had been days, but she thought it must've actually been hours, and it had actually been forty-five minutes, and time doesn't mean anything in the afterlife anyway. Catching her breath, Celia looked over her shoulder. She was two steps from the precipice she'd left, the thing standing at the end of the bridge, holding her next memory. She looked ahead and back again, whipping her head so fast she almost lost her balance again. "Why haven't I gotten anywhere? How much longer?" Her voice teetered on the edge of a wail.
"You can always return and try again later. The fog will wait."
She growled through gritted teeth. "Hell if I'm doing this twice." She took another step. Straightened her back, stood as tall as she could, took another. And another. And another. Each sent fresh waves of pain through her, even as each of the old wounds throbbed. The selfish and selfless acts grew heavier on her arms until even her determination couldn't keep her back shoulders unbowed. How long had it been? Another forty-five minute-hour-day? Did any form of measurement matter beyond her own pain? Over her shoulder, she was still two steps from the end of the bridge. "When will this end?" Her scream echoed across the chasm.
"You can end it by stepping back here," said the thing. "Or by falling, but I don't recommend that."
Celia trembled on the bridge. She'd been keeping her balance so long, far longer than she'd thought possible, and her muscles quivered, on the verge of giving out. She felt like she might fall directly forward, the razor bridge dividing her in two to drop half in each hell waiting below. Tears ran down her cheeks and fell into the crowds that clamored to grab her. She watched them fall long after perspective stole them from her sight.
"I'm done," she said.
"Take my hand," said the thing. "I will help you back." Its soft-ruby hand reached out into her peripheral vision.
"I'm not going back. I'm done carrying these... things." She opened her hands and sighed in relief as the burdens lifted. Released, the memories plummeted into the chasm. Celia took another step and found the blue mist directly in front of her. She looked over her shoulder. The thing was far away, all the way across the chasm. Laughing and crying at once, she raised a hand in farewell and stepped into the mist.
The thing smiled, a grotesque, empty parody of a human grin as the world began to dissolve into featureless grey. "I love it when they figure it out."