A man wakes up in hell.

No smoke without fire. I regain consciousness, my eyes feel heavy and the echoes of the night before thud around my skull like pebbles being catapulted into glass bottles by small brats on council estate streets. I always regretted my binges, fuzzy memories and stale smoke on my worn suit turn my stomach sour. I feel around clumsily for the box of aspirin on the bedside table, but instead of a smooth wood finish my fist clenches reams of fax paper. With my other hand I examine the adjacent side of my body, more paper. Rolling over, rubbing my eyes I hear the crumple of the same paper underneath me; the panic sets in. Don’t tell me I fell asleep in the copy room, if Mr. Hedges finds out I’m fucked. I shared a strange relationship with my workplace, as well as a hellhole I found my stability there, so it wasn’t odd that after a heavy night I’d find myself curled up on the backseat of my fiesta in the car park, or if I’m real lucky, kicked awake by the receptionists tatty heel when she finds me under the desk, smelling like cheap hookers and snoring profusely. God I’m a mess. It’s so dark that I can’t see a thing, but the second that I sit up lights fixed in the ceiling come on, one by one leading down a long corridor, until finally illuminating a small desk. A tiny, harmless old woman sat on one side, an empty chair on the other. The woman is licking her thumb, flicking through the reams of paperwork neatly filed on the desk, this isn’t the copy room. “my dear, I thought you’d never come round, please, sit.” I hear her, but it doesn’t register. All I can muster is a mumbled, automatic reply “yeah, sure.” Flashing behind distracts me, a familiar sound synchronizes perfectly with the light, I don’t even have to turn to know it’s a scanner: click, hum, click. Adding more copies of paper to the pile I sit bewildered in, I pick one up and squint in the dim light to read its content. “To a Mr. J. Harrow. We Regret to inform you that your time spent with us has been drawn to an unfortunate and sudden termination, please read the enclosed documents regarding the circumstances to your..” the last word chokes the air from my lungs, I refuse to believe it’s right, a misprint, a sick joke. I scramble for other copies around me; they all say exactly the same thing, not one change to the lettering, font, type size “please read the enclosed documents regarding the circumstances to your death?” I read out loud, before mouthing the word death 8 or 9 times just to make sure I’m not crazy. “I’m dreaming right?” I suddenly remember the pensioner at the desk “If I had a penny” she sighs, and tips her chin down to look at me past her glasses “not that it matters here, now please son come sit and I’ll explain your little problem. Oh, and be a dear and bring one of those letters here will you?” she pushes her reading glasses back up her nose and continues going through the files on her desk. I stand up, but my feet refuse to move from where they are, I feel like my legs were sinking into the ground, rooting me to the floor. “chop chop, it’s not like we’ve got the rest of eternity” she throws her head back into a cackle of laughter, I begin to question who’s more crazy, me or her. Tentatively I make my way down the corridor, my eyes fixated on the old woman. I rub my eyes hoping to either wake up or watch her fade like a mirage, but she stays there, solid like stone. “the document? Thank you. Please take a seat” reaching for the plastic chair I desperately will my hand to go straight through it, my fuzzy memories and headache to pull me out of this nightmare. The chair is as real as the woman opposite it, I sit down, rest my hands on my legs, and wait for her to speak. “So, Mr. John Edward Harrow. Born in east London 1972, wife, 2 kids. Academic history; mediocre. Childhood; satisfactory. 9 to 5 office job working for a Mr. Oliver Hedges at Hedges and Hedges Solicitors’.” She laughs again at the mention of my boss “I can tell you now, I’ll be looking forward to seeing him john. Do you mind if I call you john, Mr. Harrow?” her calm collectiveness is eerie to me. I nod like a child in trouble as school, to scared to speak. “John, do you know where you are?” “No.” “Well I’m not going to sugar coat it, you’re in hell.” “Hell, as in brimstone, fire, eternal damnation? All that?” She raises one eyebrow, and looks at me like I don’t know a single thing “oh no dear, those are simply fairy tales to stop children talking back at their parents. You won’t find any red scaled, angry looking demons with horns coming out of their skulls round here, not unless you experienced that in your first life” The reality of what she’s saying hits me like running at a brick wall. I feel myself start to sweat, my cold palms tease at the pleats of my trousers. I quietly ask, a tremble in my voice; “so to be in hell I must be..?” “dead, yes dear.” “how did I..?” “it’s a bit early for that don’t you think? Let’s start with why you think you’re here.” I rack my brain, with the sudden introduction to the devil not actually existing my entire understanding of good and evil is thrown into a tangent. Was it my drinking? Smoking? Fucking? Surely if these were immortal sins the vacancy sign up in heaven would be shining brighter than ever before, its neon lettering shimmering desperately inviting do-gooders in. Thinking back I try to imagine the worst thing I ever did to someone else, was it cheating on my devoted wife? I treated her well enough, she had a good life and what she didn’t know couldn’t hurt her. Suddenly a shiver roars down my spine, I see my wedding flashback in my mind like I am stood at the altar all over again, staring my fiancé in the eyes, she looked so beautiful. Back then I was so deeply in love with her I meant every word I said that day. “I offer you my solemn vow to be your faithful partner in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad...” a wide grin stretches across the woman’s face “Bingo.” Her reaction shocks me back into the room “You can hear what I’m thinking?” I snap at her. I’ve just lost everything and now even my own conscience is laid out to bear? “There’s no need for secrets here, the damage is already done, and realisation will not redeem that.” “But surely if there is no devil then there is no saviour?” Again she sighs, then tuts a few times under her breath. Im beginning to find her a little tedious, what does she expect of a man told 3 minutes ago that not only is he dead, but condemned to hell to react? “they are simply metaphorical, because the living cannot comprehend the reality of heaven and hell, it is the physical embodiment of everything you despised in your previous life, you are forced to repeat the same experience over and over until the end of time” her eyes sadden, I lean over the desk to get closer to her face, suddenly she seems much less threatening, and much more human. “and this, this receptionist shit is your hell?” she looks at me, with empty eyes and replies quietly “yes, it was this job alone that put me here, and now obviously to make me do it for eternity only seems right in hell’s eyes.” “what did you do?” She closes up, crossing her arms and leaning back to her formal position. We share an awkward silence, but just as I open my mouth to apologise she says “I was a secretary for parliament about 75 years ago, it’s been so long I can’t tell you exactly when, but these men were vile, chauvinistic pigs. They treated me like I was dirt simply because I was a woman, and one day I just, snapped.” “you snapped?” “yeah, shot every single one of them, it was the best moment of my life.” “what happened?” I felt myself hanging on every word she said “simple, I was hung, no trial, just dragged out of my house one day and strung up on a tree” she leans forwards, and lowers her tone “obviously hell was either friends with these guys, or just as chauvinistic himself, but he put me here for their deaths, to do exactly the same job.” We shared a quiet snigger, before just as quickly as she opened up, she clears her throat, pushes together and staples my files, and directs me towards the door behind her. Standing up I quietly accept defeat, knowing hell would want me to blame her for its decision. I place my hand on the doorknob, it’s freezing cold. Regardless of what I just learnt the irony of something cold in hell makes me smile. Turning back to look at the old woman a final time, I can’t help but ask her; “one last thing, you said I’m here until the end of time..” “yes?” “how long is that exactly?” “never.” “sounds like hell.” A gentle smile cracks her face, “exactly.”

Submitted: November 23, 2009

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