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Five Minutes Early
Suddenly, John Greer found that he was at the entrance to Heaven.
Before him stretched the white and azure cloud-lands of the hereafter, and in the far distance he could see a fabulous city gleaming gold under an eternal sun. Standing in front of him was the tall, benign presence of the Recording Angel. Strangely, Greer felt no sense of shock. He had always believed that Heaven was for everyone, not just for the members of one religion or sect. Despite this, he had been tortured all his life by doubts. Now he could only smile at his lack of faith in the divine scheme.
"Welcome to Heaven," the Recording Angel said, and opened a great brass-bound ledger. Squinting through thick bifocals, the angel ran his finger down the dense rows of names. He found Greer's entry and hesitated, his wing tips fluttering momentarily in agitation.
"Is something wrong?" Greer asked.
"I'm afraid so," the Recording Angel said. "It seems that the Angel of Death came for you before your appointed time. He has been badly overworked of late, but it's still inexcusable. Luckily, it's quite a minor error."
"Taking me away before my time?" Greer said. "I don't consider that minor."
"But you see, it's only a matter of five minutes. Nothing to concern yourself over. Shall we just overlook the discrepancy and send you on to the Eternal City?"
The Recording Angel was right, no doubt. What difference could five more minutes on Earth make to him? Yet Greer felt they might be important, even though he couldn't say why.
"I'd like those five minutes," Greer said.
The Recording Angel looked at him with compassion. "You have the right, of course. But I would advise against it. Do you remember how you died?"
Greer thought, then shook his head. "How?" he asked.
"I am not allowed to say. But death is never pleasant. You're here now. Why not stay with us?"
That was only reasonable. But Greer was nagged by a sense of something unfinished. "If it's allowed," he said, "I really would like to have those last minutes."
"Go, then," said the Angel, "and I will wait for you here."
And suddenly Greer was back on Earth. He was in a cylindrical metal room lit by dim flickering lights. The air was stale and smelled of steam and machine oil. The steel walls were heaving and creaking, and water was pouring through the seams.
Then Greer remembered where he was. He was a gunnery officer aboard the U. S. submarine Invictus. There had been a sonar failure; they had just rammed an underwater cliff that should have been a mile away, and now were dropping helplessly through the black water. Already the Invictus was far below her maximum depth. It could only be a matter of minutes before the rapidly mounting pressure collapsed the ship's hull. Greer knew it would happen in exactly five minutes.
There was no panic on the ship. The seamen braced themselves against the bulging walls, waiting, frightened, but in tight control of themselves. The technicians stayed at their posts, steadily reading the instruments that told them they had no chance at all. Greer knew that the Recording Angel had wanted to spare him this, the bitter end of life, the brief sharp agony of death in the icy dark.
And yet, Greer was glad to be here, though he didn't expect the Recording Angel to understand. How could a creature of Heaven understand the feelings of a man of Earth? Greer knew that he had been given a rare opportunity of saying goodbye to his home, and to do so without fear of what lay ahead. As the walls collapsed he was thinking of the beauties of the Earth, trying to remember as many as he could, like a man packing provisions for a long trip into a strange land.
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