By: Pedro Cerda and Daniel Stiles
It’s crowded, of course. Purgatory’s supposed to be crowded. Do you have any idea how many people die every day? Every hour? Every second? I thought I did. I mean, I think I’ve seen the numbers some places, like on billboards. You know those giant pictures of a cigarette burned down to the filter proclaiming something like six million people die every day from cigarette smoke, or something like that. If that many people die from cigarette smoke you have to figure a whole lot more people die from all the other causes. It’s a lot, but it’s still a number you can understand because it’s a number. No matter how big a number might be, anyone can nod in comprehension because it’s entirely recognizable. Now I know it’s impossible to understand something until it has been experienced.
I’m not sure how large purgatory might be exactly, but it’s full. From the looks of things, it’s been full for a few decades. There are people everywhere, crammed together with no space to move, no way to wave at someone you might recognize, or scratch your nose. Apparently, the noses of souls don’t itch. At least, mine hasn’t yet. If it starts to, I’m going to be in trouble.
No scenery. Just a dull gray sky and people everywhere you look. If you’re lucky enough to be able to turn your head at all, the only thing you get to see are heads, a hairy, fleshy ocean trying to drown you, except you can’t drown because you’re already dead. Luckily, souls don’t stink, or this place would be unbearable.
Every time there’s a new arrival, the voice speaks with the mellow tone of some person who must be sitting in a rocking chair with a mug of tea. It always says the same thing. Everyone has to be patient. It takes a long time to go over a person’s life, review it from start to finish, judge whether Heaven or Hell proves appropriate. Over and over, it implores us to please be patient. The same thing gets said every time there’s a new arrival, so the voice always talks. We stand here, held together by the pressure of all the other souls squeezing in. I guess the advantage of being a soul comes from the fact my legs don’t become tired from standing here all this time. I still get bored. I’m not saying this is the most boring thing I’ve ever done, but it’s definitely in the top five.
Sometimes, I’ll notice someone nearby disappear. They’re there, then a small puff of gray smoke, and they’re gone. I’m not sure what happens to them, yet I have my theories. I have nothing else to do except stand here and think up theories.
There’s the obvious. They became assigned to Heaven or Hell. That’s not an interesting conclusion though. I need something interesting. How about their souls got squeezed so tightly that they popped, and now they’re lost in the void of oblivion? Maybe a new section of purgatory opened and they’re organizing higher priority cases into it. This new level of purgatory could be far more spacious, with fancy food, drinks, and chairs. There’s the most horrible of possibilities too. It could be purgatory’s so backed up, they’ve decided to send souls through life again.
Imagine how horrible that would be. Getting reincarnated would be like having to give a presentation all about yourself in the nude to a stadium full of strangers over and over again. The worst part would be that you can’t even get used to it the more you do it, can’t build on the experience, because every time feels just like the first time all over again. Once through life happens to be quite enough for me.
I’m trying to think of another possibility for the disappearing souls when it happens. I’m cramped together with everyone else, beginning to believe my nose itches, and then I’m not. Instead, I’m sitting on a chair that could be made of gray marble, but probably isn’t. There’s a desk in front of me made of the same stuff, and some person I can only describe as a gray skinned angel in a gray robe with gray wings sits across from me. Staring at me, he scratches at his beard. It’s a gray beard, of course. He possesses the barely hidden, anxious expression of someone who knows he still has six or seven hours left in a shift, yet already wants to go home. It’s the distracted gaze of a person who wants to do his best to deal with the task in front of him, and already has his mind wandering to his next duty, or even the one after that.
He tells me hello in a weary voice, trying to smile. It shows more as a grimace. I ask if he figured out whether I’m going to Heaven or Hell. He tiredly shakes his head.
“No, not exactly,” he responds. “We’re still extremely backed up with the high volume of new souls coming in. Right now, we’re merely trying to thin purgatory out a bit by way of some temporary relocations.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, cringing at the prospect of the reincarnation theory coming true.
“You were a security guard, weren’t you?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I admit, hoping it won’t be held against me.
“Excellent,” he says. “We’ve decided to institute a sort of… work release program. It’s designed to get you out of purgatory until your life comes up for review. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
“I suppose so,” I respond, not knowing what else to say.
“Glad you feel that way,” he responds. “There are a lot of jobs in both Heaven and Hell that need taken care of. There aren’t enough angels and demons to deal with everything. So, congratulations. You’ve been selected.”
“For what?” I tentatively ask.
It’s funny how you think your days punching a time clock end once you die. Then, you find yourself preparing for a new orientation, and a new set of training… post mortem. Yeah, life can be funny that way. Well, actually death is funny that way. Not that I’m saying death is funny, but it is, if you have a really bad sense of humor.
So, here I am after being dead for however long, having to go to work again. Standing in a dim cavern of black, charcoal-like rock, I notice it’s kind of hot and stuffy. The only light comes from streams of magma crisscrossing on the ground. It gives a nice, orange glow to the face of my new boss.
He stands about eight feet tall, skin pure black with glowing red eyes and bright red horns sprouting from his skull. His body holds nothing but muscle, a red loincloth his only clothing. With me watching, he’s shouting at a smaller, portlier demon who I take to be one of my fellow guards.
“How could you let this happen?” my boss demands in a booming, deep voice. “This is Hell, God damn it!”
“What do you expect?” the smaller demon counters with fear in his tone. “I can’t be in two places at once.”
In response to the comment, my boss lifts the smaller demon from the ground and rips him in half. Setting the separated torsos down, he allows the legs to wander away. “Both of you get back to work!” he commands.
They vanish in a cloudy haze of red. My boss shifts his attention to me. “You the new guy they sent over from purgatory?” I nod. “Why the Hell aren’t you working yet?”
“Don’t I need to do some training?”
“Hell, this ain’t rocket science,” the demon informs me. “It ain’t any kind of science. It’s security work. You’ve done it before, and if you’ve done it once, you’ve done it a million times.”
A million tedious times, over and over. “I suppose so,” I admit. “Still, since this is Hell, I kind of expected it to be… different.”
“It’s not much different than working security at some place like a shopping mall,” my new boss advises. “All you need is this to keep in contact with everyone.”
Reaching to the charcoal wall, he grabs a shrunken head hanging there by its hair. He tosses it to me, and I manage to catch it. Even though I have no reason to doubt such a relic’s authenticity in Hell, it still looks like a cheap souvenir you’d pick up at an amusement park. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“You’ve used a radio before, haven’t you?” he demands. I nod. “Good. It works the same way.”
“Oh,” I respond, not certain how he believes that possible, but not about to challenge him. I’d prefer not to be in two places at once.
“You’ll be deployed to certain areas of Hell for different lengths of time,” he provides. “Just handle the problems in your area, and everyone will be happy… everyone but the people being punished.”
“How do I handle the problems and… how exactly do I… identify problems in Hell?”
“Just handle it all like you did when you worked security before,” he tells me. “Now get to work. You’re not getting paid to stand around like an idiot.”
“I thought you said this was a security job,” I put forth before realizing I probably shouldn’t let my new employer discover my work ethic. I change the subject. “So… I’m getting paid, you say?”
“Well… with infernal inflation being what it is… no,” he answers. “Don’t think it means I can’t fire you though. We take firing very literally here.”
“Of course you do.” I’ll make up for my lack of pay with very long breaks. I should take one right now.
“What did you say?” the demon asks.
“I said animals aren’t allowed in hell,” I repeat myself. “You need to get your pet out of here.”
“But… this isn’t my pet,” the demon protests. “This is Cerberus.”
I look up at the towering form of the three headed dog, fur black, eyes red, and fang-filled mouth salivating. “I don’t care if you’re calling him Donald Duck. He’s still an animal. Get him out of here.”
“But…” the demon starts before one of the big dog’s heads lunges down, snapping him up. The dog chews on the shrieking creature before swallowing.
“I guess that makes you a stray now,” I comment. “Get out of here before I call animal control to come pick you up.”
Gnashing his jaws a few times, the dog bounds away. I don’t particularly care if he leaves Hell entirely, as long as he keeps out of whatever area I’m deployed in at the time. Watching until he’s gone from sight over a jagged slope of stone, I sigh, resuming my patrol.
It’s kind of surprising how easy a person can get used to Hell. Honestly, nothing exciting ever happens here. Sure, it doesn’t smell great. It’s kind of like rotten meat and eggs on fire. Still, you get used to it. You become used to the grotesque ugliness of the demons, and the constant feeling of being in a sulfur desert, or in some places, a freon wilderness. The worst thing I ever have to deal with comes from demon fights, and those usually end up being brief hit and run affairs. Victims and suspects take off quick and then I don’t have to do anything except make certain they’re both gone. Demons don’t like to get in trouble, even if it’s only with an underworld rent-a-cop they could snap in half with their clawed hands. They know what happens to people who misbehave. They know because they witness the ones they torture every day. Nobody wants to be on the other side of the pitchfork, so for the most part, everyone behaves in Hell. At least the demons do. It’s the new arrivals who cause me the most hassle.
At the moment, I’m deployed at the outskirts of Hell, walking beside the bubbling dark red water of the River Styx. Up ahead, I spot some of those new arrivals clumped together. They’re loitering. With a sigh, I speed my pace slightly, heading directly to them. The bastards always get so arrogant, standing around like they own the spot. It’s time they learn they aren’t gonna have it like they did up top. That’s Hell slang for the realm of the living.
The gazes of a few of the souls go to me, but they don’t move along. Damn jerks. No wonder they’re in Hell. “What are you guys up to?” I ask once I arrive, bringing more attention to myself.
“We’re waiting for our ride,” one of them speaks up.
“No, what you’re doing is called loitering. Get your ethereal asses moving.”
“But… we’re waiting… for our ride,” another protests.
“I heard you the first time. Your ride can just pick you up somewhere else, and you can explain to them how your attitudes got you in trouble.”
“But… we’re supposed to wait,” still another complains.
I roll my eyes. “And where exactly is this ride supposed to take you?”
“Across the river,” someone responds.
“Well now, since you guys have such horrible attitudes, you can walk across the river without any ride.”
“Why are you so mean?” someone demands.
“Hey, I’m the nicest one here,” I counter. “Anyone else would have ripped off your heads and tossed them across. Now go.”
They walk into the river, screaming and howling the entire time. I don’t know what flows in the River Styx. I guess it’s not water. Only when the last one disappears from view do I nod my head in satisfaction. About to walk away, I notice a thin boat approach, a skeletal figure steering it. He waves at me.
“Hey!” he calls out. “Have you seen the souls I’m supposed to pick up?”
Yeah, I tell him. I’ve seen them. They’re not here anymore. They left. With a shrug, he starts towards the other side again, shrouded in waves of heat. This has about filled my excitement quota for the shift. It’s too bad I can never quite tell when my shift ends and starts over again. I’ve been told I should be able to notice, a slight renewed vigor, or something like that. I’m pretty sure they say such things to trick you. It’s something they want you to imagine so you feel better. I guess a continuous stream of shifts starting and ending must be better for morale than a never-ending shift stretching to infinity. That’s a number, but still hard to consider real because it has the strange sideways symbol like someone tipped over a drunken number eight.
I only look forward to deployment change. There have been a few times I’ve ended up somewhere I’ve already been. Hell happens to be a big place though, and usually I’m able to see someplace different. I’m hoping it will take a long time to visit it all. As long as it’s different, it will break up the boredom for a little while. Being dead and still having to work isn’t so difficult. It’s only boring. Oh well. It can’t be that much longer before my life comes up for review. As long as there’s the small glimmer of interest in something new to discover every once in a while, I can wait. There’s still a lot of Hell left to experience.
500 years later…
Yeah, I’ve seen it all probably at least three times. I know the names of every demon, and there are a lot of them. I usually don’t even bother to say anything anymore when they’re acting up. I use hand gestures. It’s easier that way, and they understand what I mean. A wave one way means stop playing catch with Hitler’s head and return to work, a flick of my wrist up means stop riding the tormented tornado of doomed souls, a motion down means drop off that harpy.
Some soul runs up to me, screaming because he’s on fire. I hold up my hand to stop him, advise him smoking isn’t allowed in this part of Hell. Staring at me with dark sockets, his eyeballs having melted and drained down his face, he challenges, “What are you gonna do about it, tell me to leave?”
With a sigh, I give him a shove. He falls backwards into a boiling tar pit. Flopping around in the thick, black goo, he becomes snagged by a demon throwing a large hook. The demon yanks, tearing off an arm. He reels it in and throws the hook out again. Shaking my head, I walk on.
A demon I had to talk to once about being too nice waves at me from the top of a hill. I wave back with a kind of lazy flop of my arm. Must have been ten years ago since I’ve had to talk to him last. I remember making contact and saying there had been reports of him being too kind with the souls he had been charged with torturing.
“I ripped this guy’s toenails off,” came as his defense.
“Yeah, but you apologized afterward,” I had responded.
I guess he’s been doing better, because I haven’t had to speak with him lately. Even if he hasn’t been doing better, as long as I don’t have to deal with him, I don’t care.
I hope they haven’t forgotten about me in purgatory. It’s been a while. I’m starting to wonder when I’m gonna get out of here. I suppose I have to be patient. It’s not like Heaven’s going anywhere.
Another hundred years won’t be too bad. At least I’m not alive.