By C. M. Costa
I watched as a lady with a large, serrated kitchen knife sticking out of her right eye filled out some kind of form. Across from her, a man in a brown suit supervised through gold-rimmed spectacles. When she finished, the man behind the counter said something and pointed past the back of the line. She nodded and walked off in the direction he had pointed.
I hurried toward the long reception counter, attempting to explain my predicament. “There must be some misunderstanding,” I said. “I don’t belong here. I wasn’t a bad person. I’m no monster.” At this, the bespectacled man rolled his eyes and motioned for me to come closer. A pair of identical twins moved forward in the line to my left. They took white cards held out to them by a grotesque, vaporous entity before proceeding to the next station.
“That’s what they all say,” the dark skinned receptionist replied.
“But this has to be a mistake!”
“They don’t make mistakes around here Mr. Richards. And even if they did, it would be too late to correct now.” His voice sounded funny to me. Something about it was off in a way I couldn’t pinpoint. “Your name is on the books. See right here,” he said, “Geoffrey Richards. Now let’s just get this done with. I’ve got a thousand souls to process before my break, and your cooperation would be greatly appreciated.”
I stepped closer to the counter to support myself on its cold, black surface; it felt like an electric current under my hands. The man put a document on the counter between them and spun it around to face me. “Just sign on the bottom line, and initial here, here and here,” he said, marking little x-es in the appropriate places. “After that, go over there, to line seven, for occupational assignment.”
He stood there fiddling with his checkered tie and picking imaginary lint from his slumped shoulders. I could tell from the way he vacantly stared past me that it would be a waste of time to try arguing with him; I signed the paper before protesting. “There must be someone else I can talk to about this. I’m sure I’m not supposed to be here.”
“Well,” he said, “you could put in a 40Q7-B. Go to the Complaints Department at the end of the blue hallway, and they’ll give you the form. Won’t do you any good though, it’s a mountain of paperwork, and so many people are in the queue that eternity could be over before they get to you. Also, the higher-ups are pretty strict about who they grant an audience.” The man yawned, and I understood why his voice seemed so strange. Through his mouth I could see the dim yellow light of his desk lamp reflected on the marble wall behind him. Some of the sound escaped through the gaping hole in the back of his head when he spoke.
The day I died had begun like any other day. I woke up. I drank coffee. I showered and put on my scrubs and got into my little car, and sang along with the radio on my way to work. When I arrived, Dr. Gloucester was in his office, humming some old classical tune and going over the appointments for the day. There was a 9a.m. cleaning, a crown at 10a.m., and a drill and fill at 11:30a.m. The Doctor was excited about his afternoon appointment. At two o’clock he would get to try a new experimental procedure which he and a colleague had devised. The procedure would allow them to replace over eighty percent of a patient’s teeth in just one relatively short visit.
Being a dental assistant wasn’t glamorous. I hated looking into cavity filled mouths—and the bad breath, so close that the little hygienic paper mask couldn’t shield me from the smell. What’s worse is that the majority of Dr. Gloucester’s patients were children. I hate children. One time, one of the little bastards bit me as I tried to see how well his molars were growing in. He drew blood and I ended up having to get stitches. Gloucester did the suturing himself, all the while smiling and joking about juvenile rabies. The sight of blood and torn flesh made me queasy, so I couldn’t really appreciate his humor.
After lunch the doctor and I sat in his office discussing the ensuing procedure. The patient—a teenager with a mouth full of rotten teeth—would go under light anesthesia. I would be in charge of administering the correct dosage of Nitrous-oxide. Once the patient was fully sedated, the Doctor would begin removing the gross, brown permanent teeth. In their place, the doctor’s colleague, a skilled orthodontist named Bartholomew Jacobs, would insert a series of metal anchors. Those anchors, which screw into the jawbone, would be the foundation for a shiny new set of false teeth, molded from the originals. That was how it was supposed to go anyways.
I held the mask over the boy’s face as he counted down from ten. His eyes fluttered shut and I pulled the mask away so the doctors could begin their work. Gloucester dove right in, knocking out teeth with a shiny little mallet, pulling the broken remains with a pair of pliers. The sound of it was terrible, a sharp cracking like someone smashing tiny ceramic dishes, followed by a liquidy squishing noise. Meanwhile, Bart said things like “ah yes, now the bicuspids, good work getting the incisors out intact.” It wasn’t a very clean operation. The gums were bleeding from all the holes where the teeth had been removed. Unsettled by the sight of the dark red fluid, I tried to focus on other things around the room. I was staring at a poster of a dinosaur flossing his giant white teeth when the doctor demanded my attention. There was so much blood that Gloucester had to call for suction. I began trying to clean it up with the tiny vacuum and blotting with gauze where it drooled down the patient’s chin. The boy began to moan. He wasn’t fully anesthetized. I turned up the gas and put the mask back over the gory mess that had just moments ago been a mouth. The kid snorted and coughed, spraying blood and saliva everywhere. I felt its warm spray on my face, and some of it got in my eyes. It was too much; I felt my knees weaken. My vision went dark and I crumpled to the floor. On the way down I reached out, searching for something to brace myself. My hand caught hold of something, but it gave under my weight. I heard a snap and a loud hissing noise.
When I came to, I was lying on a gurney. I sat up and looked around the room. It was dim but I could see that several other people were also laid out. Row upon row of gurneys and hospital beds extended out into the darkness. I couldn’t see any walls, and wondered if I was still unconscious or if the room was really as big as it seemed. Most of the people were wearing hospital gowns but some wore street clothes. Quite a few looked severely injured. Others were also in varying states of awakening.
“Well it’s about time, Geoffrey,” said a familiar voice.
I turned around and saw Doctor Gloucester standing behind me. He looked different though. His teeth were larger, whiter, than I thought they should be. And his eyes, they were entirely black. Even the whites were gone so there was no distinguishing between iris and pupil. Their dark surfaces reflected the dim room, and I could see myself in them, looking rather pale and confused. “Um, Doc, what’s going on?” I asked.
“Geez you’re a slow one,” Gloucester said, shaking his head at me. “You’ve died boy. We all have. It was the gas,” he chuckled. “When you fainted you broke the valve off the canister. Bart and I just couldn’t stop laughing. You dropped like a virgin’s panties on prom night. We forgot all about the gas and in a few minutes we were all lying on the floor, dead from asphyxiation. What a way to go.”
“You’re shitting me Doc,” I said. “I’m in not really feeling good enough for jokes. How did we get to the hospital?”
“An ambulance took us, of course. But we aren’t in any hospital now.” The doctor fixed his black eyes on me, his smile momentarily gone. “You really are dead. Everybody here is dead.”
“Give me a break—” I started, but was cut short by a man shuffling past carrying his head under his arm. My mouth suddenly felt very dry.
“As I was saying,” Gloucester continued, “you’re dead. You stayed in purgatory longer than I did. I guess they couldn’t figure out which way you were going for a while, but they made their decision. They made it my job to be your welcoming committee. So here I am. And here you are.”
“But where is here?” I asked. “If this is the afterlife shouldn’t it be brighter than this? Shouldn’t everyone be whole and happy? Shouldn’t I have all the answers already?”
“No my lad, I’m afraid that only happens in Heaven. I’m afraid we’ve gone to the other place. This is Hell.”
“Hell? I don’t belong in Hell!”
“It seems,” said the doctor, “that the authorities thought otherwise. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a party to attend. You need to find your way down to Admissions. Look for an elevator and go to the first floor.”
After what felt like decades in the Complaints Department, I was sent back to Admissions. I’d filled out all the forms and was told that someone would get back to me eventually. In the meantime, I had to finish getting processed; this entailed occupational assignment. The line was shorter than the Arrivals line and moved pretty swiftly. Before long I was facing a small, red demon covered in jagged, barbed thorns. He handed me a card with my new job description printed on it.
“Are you serious?” I asked, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. “Sales associate at Hot Topic?”
The demon laughed, producing an unsettling noise that made me think of breaking glass and nails on a chalkboard. “What’s the matter then? Did you think you’d be in the slag heaps? We’ve got imps for that. Much more efficient. This is more suited to your ilk.”
“There’s shopping in Hell?”
“Yeah, a few hundred years ago management did a full overhaul of the place. We’ve taken the worst parts of life and incorporated them into our infrastructure.” With this the demon smiled, revealing several rows of tiny needlelike teeth. “Fire and brimstone was nice, but an eternity in retail, that’s some real hell for you.”
“So you’re telling me that I’m to spend the rest of—forever selling eyeliner and black T-shirts to a bunch of wrist cutting goth-tards?” I asked.
“Afraid so,” the demon replied, obviously amused. “People do get promoted once in a while, or demoted depending on their work ethic. It’s not anything you can count on though. Most people down here miss the point of the occupational assignment and spend eternity in one soul sucking job or another.”
Working at Hot Topic was, in a word, hell. I’d never worked in retail before and had no idea how terrible customers could be. I was right about the wrist cutters too—I must have helped a few hundred of the self-centered crybabies stuff themselves into dark jeans made for skeletal models. Shelves needed constant restocking, and I had to go around refolding every garment that the suicidals had picked up to inspect, looking for the right shade of black I suppose. They never put things back in the right place so a lot of my time was spent moving things from one shelf, or one side of the store, to another. It was no use trying to help anyone find something, and at the register there was always some complaint about something not being what they wanted or being out of stock or being too perfect or too whatever. You’d think dying and going to Hell would give someone a sense of humility or something, but these people were more dissatisfied and ornery than they ever could have been in life.
It was the same thing every day, if you can call it day—it never got much brighter than an eerie torchlight, which was maddening in itself; I never realized how much I’d enjoyed the sun. The only good thing about the job was my co-worker, Lucy. She was a cute girl with thick framed glasses and curly red hair. She seemed different than all the other tormented souls, somehow more thoughtful and less angry about her fate. She joked with me about how terrible I must have been when I was alive, to end up in such an abysmal place. I told her I guess she was worse because she was given charge of training me. We both smiled, and I couldn’t help thinking how beautiful she was when her freckled cheeks dimpled. I was glad she wasn’t a shower, one of the people whose cause of death was obvious.
Once or twice, people I knew in life came in to shop. There was something sad about people I’d known being in Hell. A girl named Patty that I’d gone to school with was trying on clothes, and was twirling and frowning at herself in a mirror when I came across her.
“Those Jeggings look pretty good on you,” I said. It was a lie. She was so skinny that they hung loose on her, making her look like a poorly stuffed scarecrow.
“Oh,” Patty said, clearly startled, “thanks. But don’t you think they make my butt look too big?”
“Not at all,” I replied honestly. She didn’t seem to recognize me. I remembered how chubby she’d been when I’d known her. I had teased her pretty harshly for it. I tried to tell myself that I had just wanted to help her out. She’d have been really pretty if she lost just a little weight. I wanted to apologize but knew how insignificant the gesture would be considering the situation. Instead I decided to try to leave in a good mood. “You look like a model in those. You should definitely get them.”
“You’re right,” she said with a slight blush. A smile spread across her lips as she eyed her bottom in the mirror. She looked at me and her smile widened with recognition. “Thanks, Geoff.”
“No problem,” I said. “I meant it. Hey, you should come back soon. Maybe we could, I don’t know, catch up or something.”
We said goodbye and she went over to the counter where Lucy rang up her purchases. After Patty left the store Lucy and I started folding a stack of shirts. I noticed she was watching me work with a funny grin.
“What?” I sighed.
“What was that all about?” asked Lucy. “Fraternizing with the customers?”
“Nothing like that,” I said. “She was a girl I was mean to when I was a kid. I was just trying to make it up to her.”
“Sure,” Lucy teased, “you have the hots for her. Just what Hell needs—another dead romantic.”
After that Lucy and I began talking more often. We joked about how tragic everything was and how silly our customers were, coming in searching for the right outfit to highlight their miseries. A friendship formed. It was good having someone to talk to, and for a while Hell didn’t quite seem like it was living up to its name.
One day, perhaps centuries after I began working in retail, Lucy asked me to go to an Unamusement park with her.
“What’s an Unamusement park?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, “it’s kind of like an amusement park. There are rides and games and stuff, but since it’s in Hell most of it is torturous, and none of it is really any fun.”
“Oh, sounds great. Shall we call it a date?”
She just glowered at me for a minute, seeming to make up her mind about something. Finally she cocked her head a little, making her curls bounce a little, and said “sure.”
She led me through Hell, making a brief stop along the way to watch the flames of the sulphur pits. I never noticed before but they were actually kind of pretty, the way they danced and flickered and cast long shadows everywhere. I turned to Lucy and was surprised to see how sad she looked. She seemed to be in contemplation of something while the fires cast a red glow upon her face. It hurt me to see her like this and I wondered if it was part of my punishment.
“Let’s get a move on,” I said. “It’s not like we have an eternity to waste.”
She perked up a little at my lame joke and took my hand to lead me to our destination. When we entered the Unamusement Park, Lucy was explaining that the park was designed by Walt Disney, who was in Hell for some of his more violent acts of anti-Semitism. We made our way towards the Line to Nowhere.
“Thanks for getting me away from work,” I said. “It feels like I haven’t had a day off in forever,”
“No problem,” said Lucy. “We all need a break now and then. It’s nice to get out and do something different sometimes.”
“Yeah. I never would have imagined that Hell would be so—well diverse. There are so many different things to do down here. I mean, all the jobs and everything. I never really gave any thought to the afterlife, but I just kind of figured it would either be pitchforks and burning or fluffy clouds and harp playing.”
“Yeah, that’s what they teach in Sunday school. Most new arrivals experience quite a shock when they realize they that have responsibilities down here. It hits suicides hardest, you know, since they thought they were taking an easy way out from that kind of thing.”
I nodded, considering what she had said. The line inched forward a little and a couple of annoyingly loud teenagers lit up cigarettes and boasted about what bad-asses they were before dying. They seemed lost on the fact that they weren’t impressing anyone with their little show. I looked ahead for the end of the line, but couldn’t see any beyond the crowd.
“We talk a lot at work, but you never told me how you ended up here,” Lucy said.
“Laughing gas,” I replied. “I was a dental assistant, and something happened during an operation. I messed up, and me and three other people died as the result.”
“Oh, that’s interesting, but I meant what did you do that landed you in Hell? Sins and whatnot.”
“Right,” I said, shrugging uncomfortably. “When I first got here I didn’t really know. I asked myself the same question and couldn’t come up with an answer. I filed a complaint, biggest waste of time ever. Part of the form I had to fill out asked what sins I wanted to contest. I left that part blank because I couldn’t think of any. I’ve been thinking a lot since then, and well, I don’t think I broke any major biblical rule, but I was a pretty big jerk when I was alive. Maybe there’s some unwritten commandment that goes something like thou shalt not be an asshole.”
“Could be,” Lucy replied. The line moved and we took a few steps forward.
“What about you?” I asked. “What brings a nice girl like you to a place like this?”
“I had a job once,” she said, “one that I was really good at. I guess I got too ambitious and some things happened and I ended up here. I really don’t want to talk about it. Okay?”
“That’s fine,” I answered. We stood there in silence for a while, till eventually I decided I’d have to say something to get Lucy talking again. “This is taking forever. What kind of ride are we waiting for anyway?”
She smiled and pointed back toward the entrance. “Didn’t you read the sign? ‘Line to Nowhere’ this is the ride. The line is kind of like a Mobius strip. You just stand and wait while surrounded by obnoxious people. It never really ends. You just leave when you get tired of waiting. Pretty awesome, huh?”
“Hah, I should have figured it would be something like that. Amusement Parks in hell—humph. How often do you do this?”
“Not very often,” she said. “I really only come here when I’ve got heavy thinking to do. I like to watch the people.”
“I guess that makes sense. So what’s bugging you?”
“It’s you,” she said, “I really like working with you. Hell is different with you here. More fun, you know, the way we joke around at work. I don’t know if you even notice but that’s rare. Everyone here is so serious. They just take their punishment as it comes, like they’re waiting for something. It’s like they don’t realize that they’re never leaving this place. The demons have a good time, sure, they take nourishment from the torment of human souls. But you’re not like everyone else. You managed to bring something with you when you died. Or maybe you found it here.”
“Really?” I asked. “Like what?”
“I’m not sure,” Lucy replied. “I guess it might be hope. Did you know that you’re like the twelve-quadrillionth person this millennium to fill out a form to appeal being here? I don’t know why, but after a while they all forget and give up on trying leave. The damned are just naturally resigned to their fate. You though, are always telling me about how you’re getting out of here. And you always go asking about your status at the complaints department. Anyways I brought you here because I wanted to be the one to tell you that you’re getting your chance. You’re going to have a hearing and if things go well you might be getting out of here.”
“What?” I asked a bit too loud. The people in line around us stopped their chatter for a second and stared at us. “That’s incredible! But how do you know all this? How did you hear about it before me?”
“I’ve got friends in high places,” Lucy said. She looked at her feet for a moment, that same sad look of contemplation I’d seen earlier. “Let’s get out of here,” she said. “I should get back to work.”
I walked quickly down the black marble corridor until I arrived at His door. I stood there hesitantly, afraid to knock. I’d seen several kinds of apparitions since my arrival—mutilated corpses, imps, demons of varying shape, size, and material form—but I didn’t know what to expect on the other side of the massive double door. I realized how calmly I had taken everything up till now. The sight of blood had caused me to faint resulting in my death, but since then nothing had really had much of an effect on me. Hell sucked, it was boring, and tedious, and generally torturous, but somehow not as bad as it should have been. Maybe there was something to what Lucy had told me. Maybe I was different. I nerved myself and knocked. A booming voice told me to enter, the sound seeming to originate inside my skull. I pushed hard on the doors expecting it to take some effort, but they swung easily on their hinges and I stumbled into the devil’s office. I heard laughter from two different voices before I had a chance to steady myself and survey the room. I stood up straight brushing at my clothes while I regained my composure and the doors swung closed behind me with a faint whoosh.
Sitting behind and ornate gold-leaf desk, I saw the devil for the first time. It wasn’t the giant monstrosity that I imagined it might be. It was androgynous, but rather human looking with dark eyes and porcelain white skin. It wore close cropped hair that would have suited either gender, the color of which seemed to constantly change as if iridescent. It smiled at me in a not unfriendly manner. Across from it in a wingback chair, with his back to me, but smiling at me over his shoulder was Doctor Gloucester.
“See, I told you he was a funny one,” Gloucester said. “Come on over here boy and have a seat with us. Allow me to introduce you. Geoffrey, Lucifer. Lucifer, Geoffrey.”
“Uh, what are you doing here Doc,” I asked. “And, well, nice to meet you, I think, Mr. Lucifer.”
Gloucester spoke first. “I’m here as a character reference,” he said. “They were reviewing your appeal and since we arrived somewhat together, they thought I might have pertinent information to your case. I was just telling our friend here that, despite your occasional lackluster attitude, you really don’t seem to belong here.”
“Please,” said the other, holding his hand out to shake mine. It resumed in a soft voice, “just call me Lucifer. No need to be so formal now.”
I shook the cool, smooth-skinned hand before me, and sat down in a chair beside the doctor’s. The devil and the doctor chatted some more. Some of it was about me. The rest seemed to be obscure jokes about devilry and dentistry that I didn’t understand. Finally, Lucifer excused the doctor, saying that it would be up to me to secure my fate. Once alone, we sat facing each other in silence. I wasn’t sure if I was expected to speak, so just waited for it to begin. He picked up a paper, which I recognized as my appeal form and looked it over.
“Well, most of this looks pretty good, but there’s a major problem here,” it said, and pointed to the blank section about contesting sins. “How is it that you think you don’t belong here if you can’t even come up with a few sins that you think should be forgiven?”
“Well, I’m not a murderer or a thief, but I see now that I’ve been a pretty terrible person in the past.”
“Indeed you have. Did you know that you caused the death of one of your classmates in high school? Probably not, I suppose. A boy named Charlie Wilson. You and your friends teased him relentlessly. You called him such terrible things. He never got over it and eventually killed himself.”
“Oh my God,” I said. “I had no idea.” I remembered Charlie. I’d read about his death in the papers. He’d shot himself in his parent’s basement the summer after graduation. I knew that I had been mean to him, but it had never occurred to me that it might have been me that drove him to do it. Feeling ashamed and disgusted with myself, I lowered my gaze to the marble floor.
“And perhaps you remember a Patricia Lancaster?”
“Yeah, Patty, I actually ran into her here.”
“You used to call her Fatty Patty. The name stuck with her for several years. She developed an eating disorder. She outlived you, but eventually died from malnutrition.”
“I did that to her? Jesus!”
“No Geoffrey, He isn’t here. Just you, me, and the terrible things you’ve done in your lifetime.”
“But, I didn’t know. If I could take it all back I would. Ever since I got here and filled out that stupid form I’ve been thinking about what a jerk I was.”
“I know,” Lucifer said. “You told me that already.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t follow. We’ve never spoken before.”
“I knew you wouldn’t recognize me. Let me fix that for you.” Its skin began to move and it glimmered dimly. After a moment I was sitting face to face with a familiar girl with long red curls.
“Lucy!” I almost shrieked. “But, how did—why are—what the hell is this?”
“Yup,” she replied. “That’s one of my nicknames. After you filed your appeal I started watching you. I’m not confined to a human existence so I took advantage of the ability to be in more than one place at a time. I take my job very seriously, and let me tell you, it is not easy being Lord of the Underworld.”
“But I was told that there was never any mistake,” I said. “I thought that when a person ended up here, this is where they were meant to be.”
“That’s true,” said Lucy, “I don’t make mistakes. I do however give people the benefit of the doubt when they don’t seem to belong here. You see, most people think of Hell as a prison, a torture chamber where you will be eternally punished for the atrocities committed in life. In reality though, Hell is an institute for reform. Not many people make the changes necessary to get out of here, but it happens from time to time.”
“And I might be one of them?”
“There’s no maybe about it. It started with the way you treated Patty when you met her again, but I made up my mind at the park, that you were honestly sorry for the kind of person you’d been, and that given the chance you would make atonement.”
“But what about the people you said I killed?” I asked.
“Free will,” she sighed with a shrug. “You can’t really be held accountable for what they did to themselves. Everyone is responsible for their own fate. I just wanted to see how you would react knowing how you had affected their lives. You can tell them you are sorry though, they both ended up here. Patty seemed like she’d probably even forgive you.”
“I’d like that,” I said. “So what happens now? If I’m reformed and can leave why did you seem so sad at the park? Why do you seem upset now?”
“You picked up on that, huh? It has to do with what I was telling you, about hope and all that. Also, it gets kind of lonely here. I’m an angel, the only one in Hell. Everybody forgets that part of my story and they think of me as this evil demon. No one ever considers that I’m just doing my job the best I can. In some way you made me feel angelic again. You were just nice to be around. I mean seriously, nice to meet you Mr. Lucifer,” she said in a mocking voice. “Who would say something like that?”
“Wow. I’m sorry. Is there something I can do?”
Lucy smiled. “Humans never cease to amaze me, but you truly are one of a kind,” she said. “No I don’t think there’s anything left for you to do here. You have a choice to make now. Reincarnation or Heaven. I’ll warn you though, if you choose reincarnation and screw up the next life you could end up right back here. What’ll it be?”
I looked at Lucy and smiled. An angel. No wonder she was so beautiful. “If I were to go to Heaven now I’d be there for eternity?”
“That’s right,” she said.
I thought about leaving, and how poor Lucy would be once again friendless, doomed to perform a duty that would make her job in Hell just as much of a punishment as it was for the souls being tortured here. Even if she was the devil, or an angel, or whatever, I’d become her friend and the idea of her being alone and surrounded by hate was one that I couldn’t accept. “Everyone I knew who didn’t end up here, my family and all, they’re in Heaven, right. And there’s no suffering or wanting for anything there. My being here only punishes me. That must mean that nobody up there is missing me. So, how about a third option. Maybe I could work with you for another millennium or so, but maybe with a promotion. Something better than retail.”
“I could find something for you to do,” she said with a gleam in her eye, “but I warn you, you’d be working very closely with me.”
“I think I could handle that,” I replied. “Have you ever thought about putting in a dentist’s office down here? Some of your demons have a tendency to walk around with little bits of flesh in their teeth. Also, the sound of the drill alone might be enough to put a few lost souls on the path to repentance.”
Lucy shook her head in bewildered amusement and smiled at me.