CW: Hell, death, demons, alcohol.
When we entered Hell, we got these little printouts that justified our damnation. The demon handing them out told us not to look at them until we got to the debriefing room. The people who looked at them anyway were set on fire, which was a great incentive for the rest of us to do as we were told. To stop myself from looking, I did deep breathing exercises and tried to imagine the pattern of a peacock's plumage.
This proved to be a rancid choice of imagery. My girlfriend, Penelope Chiu, loved peacocks. On our last date before I died, we’d spent hours trailing peacocks at the Prospect Park Zoo. We gave them names and elaborate backstories, then went home and made out under her peacock-print blanket.
I was never going to see Penelope again.
I bit my lip and tried not to think about it as we were herded into the debriefing room. It looked like the kind of conference room where you have meetings that could have been emails, except that the board was oozing cyan slime, and the boss leading the meeting was an 11-foot demon with blood-red skin and goat horns.
Part of me was still in shock - it's not like I was expecting a drunk driver to send my body flying across 5th Avenue. I didn't remember dying. Part of me still felt like I was late to meet Penelope for coffee. If you'd asked me before I died whether I'd be going to Hell, I might have jokingly told you that I was, but I wouldn't have meant it.
I didn't even believe in Hell; if I had believed, I would never have thought I'd led a life deserving of eternal torment. Was it because I didn't believe?
Everyone looked equally ill at ease. Some people were looking at their papers, while others pwere just staring at the ground or straight ahead with haunted expressions. A few people were whispering, but I couldn't hear what they were saying.
Finally, someone spoke out loud. A freckled woman with curly red hair shouted, "There's got to be a mistake. I've lived a good life! I haven't done anything to deserve going to Hell!"
"Check your paper," the goat-horned demon said.
"Check your paper!"
I'd also lived what I thought was a decent life. But I drank Coca-Cola even though I knew that Nestle's shady business practices had starved thousands of babies to death in South America. I only gave money to homeless people sometimes, not because I didn't have it or didn't think they deserved it, but because I was too lazy to pull out my wallet. I'd been to fourteen different countries knowing full well how bad air travel was for the environment.
I thought about those things when I was alive, but I never thought enough to change. Any one of those things could have bought my ticket to Hell. Was that fair? I didn't know.
I wanted to hear why the red-haired woman had been condemned before thinking about my own reason.
After a few seconds of sputtering, the woman finally checked her paper. She read it out loud.
"God attempted to hit you with lightning on 12/13/2007. You went inside a Starbucks and spent seven extra minutes telling the barista about the cat you were going to adopt from the local shelter. God thought you would only take three minutes doing this, so They released the lightning early."
She bit her lip and furrowed her brow. "That can't be right," she said. "Are you serious?"
"Everything on your paper is absolute," said the goat-horned person.
"God tried to kill me and failed, so I have to go to Hell for it? That’s totally unfair.”
A man with a greying handlebar mustache waved his paper in the air and shouted, “I killed someone while driving drunk, but my paper says I’m in because my son downloaded a Hoobastank album on Limewire. This must be a mistake.” My stomach twisted. Was this man the one who killed me? I couldn't remember. Whoever it was, I knew I didn’t want them to burn in Hell. I wanted them to get home safely to their family. I wanted them to get help with their drinking. To live a good life. Why, if I was the victim, couldn’t I have that?
“No mistake,” said the demon. I wanted to punch them.
A woman wearing a Sailor Moon T-shirt and horn-rimmed glasses squinted at her paper and wondered how she could be getting sent to Hell for not going to Iceland.
“God didn’t tell me to go to Iceland,” she said. “If I’d known God wanted me to go to Iceland I would have gone.”
The demon shrugged, their many wings lifting with their shoulder. “In 1988, you heard an advertisement for trips to Iceland. That was a message from God.” “I was born in 1989!”
“Yes - your mother was listening to the radio. You had ears by then, you could have heard it.”
Someone got in because they killed a mosquito that was supposed to give their brother Lyme Disease. Someone else got in because his mother was supposed to go to Hell, but she was accidentally sent to Heaven so he has to take her place. The noise level was rising, so I decided to take a look at my own paper before I couldn’t process it anymore. Sweat collected in the dip of my collarbone, and my heart sank like a wrecked ship. I didn’t want to see my entire existence boiled down to a stupid technicality.
My paper, which was folded and wrinkled with nervous energy reads:
“Caroline Romero, DOB: 1/14/1994, DOD: 6/20/2018
On 5/9/2015, you began dating Penelope Chiu. Two weeks prior to this event, God sent Joel Ploskett to your workplace at Uniqlo. He asked you out while you were folding clothes. You rejected him. God intended for you to marry Joel, and give birth to five of his children. Each of those children would have had a different type of deadly tumor. God wished to observe the development of these tumors. This defiance of God’s plan has earned you an eternity of torture in Hell.”
My vision was replaced by electric fuzz. If God wanted me to marry a guy who spent 45 minutes sexually harassing me while I was
working and couldn’t leave… If God wanted to use my body to gawk at human suffering… If God didn't want me to feel the awesome power of my infinite love for Penelope… If God was punishing us for defying a plan we weren’t informed of… if God didn’t care about the things we’d actually done wrong… then God deserved to be here, not us!
The demon pressed a folder into my hands.
“This is your torture assignment and schedule,” they said. “Please look through all the provided information, and then let me know if you have questions.”
Before I had the chance to stop myself, I slapped the folder onto the ground. Everybody quieted down and stared at me.
“I’m not staying here. Nothing about why we’re here has anything to do with our moral quality. None of us have done anything to deserve eternal suffering.” I thumped my chest, wincing at how hollow it sounded. “There’s got to be an exit somewhere. If we work together, we can find it. Who’s with me?”
Sweat waterfalled down the small of my back. Who did I think I was, spouting nonsense like that? I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know where the exit was. And what was I going to do, overpower all the demons? In life, I was lucky if I could drag myself to the gym once a week.
But no one seemed to think it was nonsense. They shouted in agreement. They started throwing around ideas. “I think I saw an exit earlier!” said the woman in the Sailor Moon shirt. “It was on fire, but if we can find some water we might be able to use it.” The demon insisted that there was no way to escape Hell, but nobody listened. Instead, they rushed out of the room. I tried to join them, but there were too many moving bodies. I was almost knocked over before a man with a wiry beard and a lavender down vest yelled, “No stampeding! We might be dead, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be orderly!” “That’s right!” shouted a person with pink cornrows and spiderweb earrings. “We don’t want to risk dying again and ending up in Super Hell!”
Everyone started to walk slower, with purpose. The demon sprouted leathery wings and tried to fly in front of us, but we just plowed past them. They shot fire at us from a forked spear, and we started running, but this time we were paying attention to where everybody else ran, too. Nobody got trampled. A few people got burned, so the larger members of the group stayed behind to pick them up. I found myself carrying a baby, who clung to my hair and howled into my ear.
More demons swarmed the entrance to the conference room, trying to stop us as we marched forward. A teenage girl with ice-cream printed overalls and massive muscles doled out roundhouse kicks, while an equally powerful old man picked up demons and spun them over his head.
No matter how many demons appeared, somebody fought them off. Sometimes, it took five people to deal with a single demon - they were two or three times our size, and they had weapons and fire. But we kept fighting and we kept running, and when someone couldn’t run anymore someone else picked them up.
We had surrendered our individuality to become an invincible collective. One that could find the exit. One that could sweep through enemies and make sure no one got left behind.
After what felt like hours, we got to the exit. Unconscious demons littered the landscape. Half of us were limping and some of us were being carried, but none of us were on the ground. The exit was a wreath of flaming rock, and we had nothing to put it out with.
We started talking about where to find water, but before we could come to any conclusions, the burning rocks began to collapse. I leaped backward, arms crossed over the baby’s head.
The rocks blocked the exit completely. It sizzled, then disappeared.
The baby was sobbing and I felt like sobbing too. I had just been transformed into a single cell in a powerful, purposeful animal, and now our purpose had been thwarted. New waves of demons would be coming soon, and we’d have to submit to fiery torment. I didn’t want that for me, or for any of the souls that I suddenly loved like family. I knew that escaping didn’t mean seeing Penelope again, but oh, part of me had hoped… “You,” said the man in the lavender vest. “What’s your name?” “Caroline,” I croaked. “Caroline, you inspired us to escape. Can you inspire us to take the next step?” “Come on, that’s too much pressure to put her!” said the woman God couldn’t kill with a lightning bolt.
I wasn’t sure why this was my job, but I’d been trusted with it. I needed a minute - to wipe away my tears and rub the baby’s back until they quieted down. I needed a minute, but I would speak.
“We’ll look for another exit,” I said. “And if we can’t find one, we’ll find a way to survive Hell together. We’ll fight off any demons who try to mess with us. We’ll protect each other. We’ll find food together, or figure out how to grow it. We won’t let anyone be tortured. If we have to stay here, we’ll make an afterlife worth spending eternity in — one where our loved ones will be happy to meet us. Are you with me?”
Everyone’s fists flew into the air except for one person’s - the man with the handlebar mustache.
“Caroline, I think I killed you,” he said in a tear-stained voice. “It was an accident, but you shouldn’t be here. I deserve to be punished. I’m so sorry.” I didn’t care. He was sorry, he was forgiven, and now he had work to do.
“What good will torturing you do?” I said. “We need your help to build the future. We need all of us.”