“Good god, you scared me,” I muttered, looking up from my docket to see a sheepish young man sat across from my desk. A terrible first impression, to be sure, but as of late, the workload had begun to interfere with my nerves. Not a moment later, the pneumatic tube whirred, and deposited his file with a pronounced and sudden thud that caused us both to temporarily jump in our seats.
“If you’d just give me a minute,” I said, taking a moment to review his files. “Let’s see here. It says your name is Walter Flaherty?”
“Yeah, that’s me,” He said.
“Good. Thirty five years old, cause of death is suicide. Interesting. I wouldn’t have taken you for a mortal sin kind of guy, but the paperwork appears to be in order. Now there’s just some routine paperwork, the A9, C-T8, and because suicide is technically classified as an eternal refutation of God’s holy and unwavering mercy, the DM4-5 and attached addendum. It’s all standard boilerplate. I’ll just need your initials in the areas highlighted in pink and a signature in the boxes highlighted in yellow.”
“I have my insurance card here,” he said, reaching for his wallet. “It’s an HMO, but they should be able to sort everything out. Has my wife come?”
“Your wife,” I asked, “I certainly hope not. This wasn’t a murder-suicide was it? If so, I’ll also need you to fill out a DM4-5a as well as a DM4-5b if your wife had consented to the murder. Technically that would also be considered a suicide, but you can append a DM4-5c if you believe there were exonerating factors. Naturally, that would be for her exoneration and not yours, unless you were the victim or unwitting accomplice.”
“My wife’s dead?” He said in disbelief.
“What? How would I know that?”
“But you just said -”
“I didn’t say that. Nothing of the sort. Releasing that kind of information would be seen as a major violation of protocol. They like to keep the residents in the dark about the outside world. They think it adds to the misery. No, sir, they’d bust my chops real good for a violation like that. So, you’re saying you didn’t kill your wife?”
“Of course, I’d never do anything to hurt her.”
“Really?” I said, raising an eyebrow. I have strong, slavic eyebrows, and learned long ago that they could be used to great effect when needed.
“Yes, now, I am leaving,” he said, rising to his feet.
“Suit yourself,” I answered, you can show yourself to the door. Walter made a dramatic turn to find himself face to face with the wall. It was a drab wall, with a graying white-wash finish. If you looked at it long enough, you could start to make out pictures, like cloud gazing; a mural to the starved mind.
“Where’s the door? I demand to be let out.”
“Walter, I think the time for making demands has long since passed. Now why don’t you take a breath and have a seat,” I said, briefly waving to the chair.
“I must apologize, but you caught me off guard. Now why don’t we start over. Your name is Walter Flaherty, age 35. Walter, it’s good to meet you. My name is Zobelius the Ravisher, and I am your intake coordinator.”
Walter shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“Oh, relax, I’m not here to ravish you. No, I haven’t ravished anyone in years. Though, I could see how you could get that impression because I am large and more than capable, and I’ve been told that my eyebrows betray a hungry desire. Come to think of it, you hear ravisher and Intake Coordinator in the same sentence- well, there’s a joke in there somewhere.”
I let out a hearty laugh in hopes that it would help break the ice, but Walter’s worried stare told me that it was for naught.
“But seriously, I’m just here to help you with your intake paperwork. You look confused?” I said with subdued eyebrows.
“This isn’t the hospital?” Walter asked with a sincerity that was almost touching.
“Hospital? No, quite the opposite, actually.”
“Then where am I?”
“You really don’t know?”
Walter shook his head.
“At 10:17am, local time, that’s your time, not our time. You took a 9mm pistol and blew a hole through your temple. Walter, you’re in hell.”
“There must be some mistake,” he said. Not a second later, he buried his head in his hands and began to sob violently
“There, we are,” I said, extending a tissue with as much comfort as I could muster. During sensitivity training, they told us that the best way to ensure a successful transition for new decedents was with a firm, but gentle hand. State the facts, but no need to sling insults. It seemed to work well enough, though I found that a well-timed joke also went a long way to building rapport, plus it gave my work a personal touch.
“Now if you’re quite done, there is the matter of completing this DM4-5. Walter, I have a full docket today, so your cooperation would really help me out.”
“This can’t be hell, I’ve lived a good life.”
“First, like I said earlier, suicide is a mortal sin. Second, this isn’t actually hell. This is ante-room 5488 to the Seventh Circle. The door is just behind me here.”
Walter peered over my shoulder.
“I wouldn’t focus too much on that, it only opens from the outside. But if you’re not convinced, I can patch it through on the intercom.”
Walter shook his head. But then his curiosity got the better of him. “Maybe just for a quick second?”
“Just to test the waters? Suit yourself,” I said. I pushed the button on the intercom and the room was flooded with the cries of millions of lost-souls all screaming out in a symphony of unspeakable agony. Not a second later, I released my finger and the room fell silent, even quieter than before.
Walter’s eyes widened in horror.
“Convinced? Or would you like me to turn it on again?”
“But I’ve lived a good life. I never hurt anyone. I have a wife and a daughter, she’s only five. She adores me.”
That’s the worst part of the job. The pleading. That’s why I always state my title up front: Intake Coordinator. Assistant Intake Coordinator, if we’re being specific. I don’t even have permission to turn off the lights, much less issue a pardon. My hands are tied as tautly as that courtesan’s I ravished in St. Joseph’s all those years ago. Or the mayor’s wife’s. But I dissemble.
My dissembling was abruptly interrupted by the all too familiar whir of the pneumatic tube and inevitable thud. I swiveled in my chair to retrieve the contents.
“This is interesting,” I said to Walter, producing a hand written parchment and hour glass. It turns out, you’re not completely dead yet.”
Walter perked up at the news.
I placed the hour glass on the table. The grains of sand began to run through the neck at an alarming speed.
“Well, that’s not exactly encouraging,” I said.
“The rate at which the sand is moving. I suspect it’s not long before you rid yourself of this mortal coil. Might as well get started on the DM4-5.”
“But I’m not dead yet,” Walter protested. “What if some of that information were to change between now and then? Wouldn’t we have to do it all over?”
“Walter, I’ve tried being funny. I’ve tried being sympathetic. You can appreciate that,” I said with some ire. “But you’ve got to realize, I’ve got a job to do. There’s a lifelong politician due here in a matter of hours and if you knew what he’d been up to- God, the paperwork on that one is going to be a nightmare. I mean, we’re not talking garden-variety graft and murder here. This guy was into some seriously messed up stuff. You might as well accept that. In a matter of moments, you’re going to be declared dead, then this door behind me will open and you’ll join the cacophony of eternal torment.”
Walter began to sob again.
“Walter?” I said, regretting the tone I had just taken. They had cautioned us against yelling in sensitivity class. “Walter, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. It’s just that this job really gets to me sometimes. I’m sure you can understand. I bet your job up above was seriously awful. You’re probably glad to be rid of it.
“I – I actually liked my job.” He said.
“Really? I don’t hear that much down here, what did you do?”
“I designed and 3D printed prosthetics for at-risk children. It was really fulfilling actually.”
“Really, because I grew up a peasant and spent my entire adult life in conscription, fighting barbarian hordes and bearing witness to unspeakable cruelty and hardship. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the ravishing, I don’t know how I would have survived it,” I blurted before catching my breath. “I’m sorry, I did it again, didn’t I? That was the work stress talking, Walter. AND THE FACT THAT THEY REMOVED THE DIMMER SWITCH TO THIS GODDAMNED INCANDESCENT LIGHT.”
Walter jumped in his seat.
“Oh, relax, you can blaspheme all you want down here. Again, I apologize, that’s the job talking, not me. In fact, I think you’re a good enough guy. But you’ve got to help me out here. If I get behind on this paperwork, they’re going to notice and I’m at risk of incurring a third strike here. They’re awful sticklers for the rules. If I don’t get this DM4-5 filled out in a timely fashion I’ll face discipline. Ivor the Defiler said one more infraction and he’d install a second, brighter incandescent lamp. Can you imagine the discomfort?”
Walter nodded. “I’m sorry, I’ll try to be more cooperative.”
“I’d appreciate that. Now, let’s see here, name: check; age: check; religion: blank. Would you care to state a religion? That’s entirely voluntary, of course.”
“Catholic, born and raised,” he replied.
“Were you baptized?”
“Yes,” he answered.
“Yes, I attend mass at least twice a week and regularly see to confession.”
“That’s interesting, don’t see too many Catholic suicides.”
“Why is that?” he inquired.
“Weren’t you taught that suicide is a one-way ticket to, well, here?”
“Sure,” he replied, but isn’t hell just some concept? A separation from God? A state found on Earth?”
“What?” I said. “No, it’s a place and you’re in it. Well, I guess you could say that you’re just outside of it. I assure you it’s quite real.”
“But there’s no lake of fire or anything like that?” He asked with mortal optimism.
“Oh there is and it’s magnificent. When they add fresh pitch it burns in hues of pink and lavender, it’s heartbreaking in its beauty, like a Los Angeles Sunset.”
I glanced to the hourglass to find that the sand was nearly spent. He’d had less time than I expected.
“Walter, I’m sorry, but we’re nearly out of time here.”
Walter drew his attention to the hourglass with a morbid fascination. “But I’m technically still alive, why am I here?”
“Heartbeat, breathing. Machinations of a broken body. It won’t be long.”
He sighed heavily, his eyes fixed on the few remaining grains. Just then the pneumatic tube whirred. I swiveled my chair expectantly. But nothing.
“As I was saying, you may be breathing, but you’ve quite literally lost your mind. I bet they’ll still be finding bits and pieces from the odd corner of your bedroom months from” – KA-THUD! – “Oh for Christ’s sake!”
I retrieved the contents from the tube to find another hourglass; larger this time, and an accompanying parchment.
“Walter, it looks like you’ve been granted a reprieve of sorts, albeit temporary. You’ve been placed on life support. Someone must have found you.”
“Oh God, Alice!” he blurted. “No.”
“Surely this must have crossed your mind. You did expire yourself in your bedroom. Someone close to you was bound to have the grisly task of seeing what you had done. But, no, the parchment says some guy called Dale found you and heroically performed CPR until the medics could arrive. Well, that’s a plus one in his ledger, to be sure. From the looks of this hour glass, I’d say our appointment has been extended.”
I placed the new hourglass on the table. It was much larger than the previous one and the sand fell at a much slower pace. I despaired at the thought of how far behind Walter’s newfound fortune would set me back in my work. I could picture the look of wicked glee on Ivor’s face as he watched the maintenance crew install the new lamp. Despite all of his misgivings, you’d never accuse him of not enjoying his work.
“Now about the DM4-5, just a few more questions, if you don’t mind.”
“But if I’m in the hospital, I might survive. I’m not dead yet.”
“No, not technically, but your body’s just an empty vessel at this point, a burned out castle. If I hadn’t told you of the recent events, you’d never be the wiser. Why some salacious orderly might be ravishing you as we speak and you’d have no way of knowing.”
“Is hell really as old fashioned as you said, fire and all?”
“It’s downright byzantine. Fire, torture, hot irons, it’s relentless and you never learn to tolerate it. You’re Catholic, this shouldn’t surprise you.”
“I just really didn’t believe it existed,” he said incredulously.
“Well, don’t get too hard on yourself for that. Lots of people of faith are surprised to find themselves here. But as Grimor the Butcher likes to say, ‘There’s no postmodernism in hell, only postmodernists.’”
Walter slumped in his chair and massaged his temples.
“It’s okay,” I said, “nobody really laughs at that joke. But don’t tell that to Grimor if you ever cross his path. He has rage issues.”
“Fucking Hell!” Walter exclaimed.
“Now you’re getting it!” I said, encouragingly.
“Fucking Dale. Fuck.”
“Dale, what? Did you know him?”
“He was my business partner. The whole venture was his idea.”
“I’m sorry a loved one had to find you like that.”
“He was fucking my wife.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’d had my suspicions, then I found the texts on Alice’s phone. There was no doubt. They were in love. Even my daughter adores him.”
“Well, did you at least try communicating with Alice about it? I once took this class and they stressed that communication is the foundation of any successful relationship.”
“I tried. I suggested counseling, but things had been on a steady decline for so long, it was too little too late.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I truly am. I remember, I once ravished this Silesian woman. Nothing special, just a typical ravishing for the time. We were marauding, so it was sort of expected that you’d ravish the women. I had just finished when her husband found us. The look on his face. He was much older than she was, geriatric almost, but upon seeing us, his face contorted and I realized at that moment that I had taken something from him that could never be repaid.”
“What did you do?”
“I was in shock. I’d never felt guilt over ravishing before. I tried to stand to apologize, but my trousers were about my ankles and I immediately fell back to the ground, giving him ample view of the equipment I had just used to ravish his handsome wife. The whole scene was pathetic. Not my equipment- no I could ravish like a loose bull in those days- but the sight of a naked man trying to apologize to the husband of the woman he had just ravished.”
“And then?” Walter asked with genuine interest.
“I righted my trousers and was about to stand, when my compatriot Earold happened upon the scene and put his sword through the man’s heart. Earold was a true marauder, always spilling blood the first chance he got. Got us both into a lot of unnecessary trouble, but when your back was to the wall, there was no one you’d rather have by your side.”
“I thought I had a friend like that, someone who had my back,” Walter mused.
“Well, I wouldn’t really consider Earold a friend. He was an unmitigated psychopath, hence all the bloodletting. When he was in camp, you’d always sleep with one eye open and a firm grip on your sword.”
And then something peculiar happened. The sand in Walter’s hourglass began to run faster and faster. It was the sound that first alerted us that something had changed.
“I thought you said I’d be here for some time.”
“So did I.” I turned to the pneumatic tube, awaiting another parchment, but nothing.
“Oh God,” Walter said.
“What is it?” I asked, cautiously raising both eyebrows just above the bridge of my nose.
“Alice,” he said, “After my mother passed, I told her that if I ever ended up vegetative like she did, to pull the plug and do it straight away. It was just too painful for the rest of us who had to watch her waste away like that.”
“You think she obeyed your wishes?” I asked.
“She must have, the sand is running even faster now,” he answered. “It’s kind of funny, you know, but I’m not really afraid anymore. She made the choice in the end.”
“The choice?” I asked. He was onto something. “In the end, she made it. That’s terrific!”
“I wouldn’t say that, it’s a terrible thing to have to do.”
“Walter, you’re a good guy, I get that, but you’re not very smart. This could be viewed as exculpatory evidence if you were to file an EC-66.”
“What’s that?” Walter asked.
“It accompanies the DM4-5. It’s an appeal of sorts, but since Alice made the final decision, your death may not technically be a suicide.”
“So I get to leave?”
“No, of course not. Nobody ever leaves here. But it could help your case. Look, I never do this, but you have evidence that you were a good man, right? You went to mass, you were a family man. Were you faithful in your marriage?”
“Always,” Walter answered.
“And in the end, she was the one who drove you to suicide and ultimately made the decision to kill you. Why you might still technically be alive right now if it wasn’t for her.” Despite my good news, Walter’s mood remained intractable.
“But, if I don’t get to leave, why would I implicate someone else? I mean, it’s not like it will change my fate, right?”
“You won’t get to leave, but you might qualify for light duty due to the extenuating circumstances. That’s what I’m doing. You see, I marauded, sure, and I ravished to my heart’s content. But despite all the battles and ransacking, I never once spilled a drop of blood. My heart was never in it. That was my saving grace, it’s why I’m here talking with you and not strung up on a rack out there with a blazing hot iron being pressed into my genitals.”
“They burn genitals?”
“You heard the chorus of agony.”
“And if I agree, I get to sit in an office like you?”
“For the rest of eternity. But it isn’t so bad. They let us send messages through the pneumatic tubes. On my free time, when I get any, I like to draw erotic illustrations commemorating my many ravishings. I’ve been told that they’re truly something to behold. I could send some your way, if you’re interested.”
“But I don’t want to implicate Alice.”
“Alice’s ledger is her own.”
“He did save you. So there’s a plus one for him there. But then again, he seduced a married woman and betrayed a friend. I really couldn’t say. But I could feature his name prominently in the EC-66, might even make for an easier time for Alice.”
“You could do that?” he asked with a tone of skepticisim.
“How does Dale the Dickless sound?”
“But how can you call a man dickless when he was obviously screwing another man’s wife?”
“Grimor the Butcher owes me a favor, I’m sure it could be arranged.”
“Fucking Christ, you’d do that for me?”
“That’s the spirit.”