When I finally reached the front of the long line, I stepped up to the absurdly tall podium, tilting my head back to gaze up at the shadowy figure standing behind it and staring down at me.
The creature leaned forward, its head sliding down on a long neck to stare down at me. I felt like a guilty schoolboy, pinned in place by a forbidding mistress.
Most schoolmarms, however, don’t have eyes filled with flames, giant venom-dripping spikes sticking out in a ruff around their heads, or scaly grasping fingers that end in terrifyingly long and sticky claws…
“AND WHAT HEINOUS CRIME HAVE YOU-“
The monstrous figure paused, turned its head, and let out several hacking coughs. “Sorry about that, feather in my throat,” it went on in a much more normal tone of voice. “Anyway, what did you do to end up here?”
I glanced around. I’d been vaguely hoping that this was just a test, that I wasn’t actually in Hell, but my hopes were rapidly fading. “Um, I guess I stole a bunch of money,” I fessed up. It didn’t feel like nearly as big of a deal as it had when I was still alive, but I supposed that it had stuck me here.
The figure nodded. “Oh, sure. Times are tough, need to feed the family, all of that, yes?”
“Well, no. I was a lawyer and I embezzled a few million.”
“To buy a bigger boat than my boss.”
The figure shook its nightmare-inducing head, making a tutting noise. “Shameful.” Its face brightened somewhat, if that can happen with a mouthful of razor sharp fangs. “I do, however, know just who to pair you with!”
Pair me with? Before I could ask, however, the figure raised its scaly fingers and somehow managed to snap them without taking off any digits.
There was a clink at my feet. A long iron chain had appeared, clamped onto my ankle and trailing off into the darkness.
I glanced up at the devil. “Go on, follow it,” the creature encouraged me.
Well, what could I do? I set off after the chain, trying to gather up the length in my arms as I followed it back towards its source.
The other end, I discovered several caverns later, turned out to be attached to a large, blue-collar angry worker by the name of Charlie. He was probably six inches and fifty pounds heavier than me, and he had the beefy arms and body of a dock worker.
“Er, hi,” I greeted him, once it was clear that our legs were attached by chain. “I’m David, and I guess we’re linked together or something.”
The man nodded, not looking especially enthusiastic about this. “Hi,” he returned. “So what are you in for?”
The man shrugged. “A guy ripped me off, so I killed him,” he confessed without much concern. “Ran him off the road. Unfortunately, I didn’t really think about what would happen to me after, so I went down with him. Woke up here.”
I nodded, wondering if I should be showing some sort of commiseration. “Small world, actually,” I said, more to fill the silence than any other reason. “I actually died from some asshole running into me with his car. We tumbled right off the edge.”
“Really? The guy I killed, he was an embezzler!” Charlie said, looking a little interested. “Some nose in the air lawyer, totally ripped off my company so he could buy himself a boat or some shit.”
It took another minute for realization to dawn, but it clicked for both of us. “You!” I gasped out in shock and anger, glaring at the man.
“You!” he returned, and I saw his big, meaty hands starting to tighten into fists.
For the next indeterminate period of time, there was a lot of fighting.
It turns out that in Hell, there are a lot of weapons sitting around! And some of them really don’t seem to fit in. I mean, I can understand why a devil would need a pitchfork (presumably for prodding at sinners, I feel), but I’m still not certain who decided that it was a good idea to leave a fully loaded stack of assault rifles over behind a stalagmite.
However, as the battle against Charlie waged on, it finally started to sink in to me that I wasn’t doing any actual damage. Sure, we were batting each other around a lot, and it was great to see his body shudder from getting hit with bullets, but there was no wounding, no killing going on. And as soon as I stopped shooting, Charlie popped right back up to come lunging at me with a battleaxe he’d found somewhere.
So once I ran out of bullets, I let the gun drop from my hands, and slipped down to take a seat on the cavern floor. Charlie, still red-faced and puffing, took a few more swings at me with the axe, but he eventually gave up on the futile effort. He dropped the weapon to the ground with a clatter and sagged down beside me.
“Well, I feel a bit better,” he commented at length, as we gazed out. There wasn’t much of a view, but it was at least better than running around grabbing weapons.
“Yeah, me too.” I looked at the man, noting that he did look much calmer. “Good shot with that axe, though. You ever play any ball?”
“Minor league, yeah,” he responded, looking surprised that I’d caught the shape of his stance. “Busted my knee up, though, so I couldn’t go pro. I wasn’t that good anyway, to tell the truth.”
“Looked like you kept the form, at least,” I offered. I received a nod of thanks for the compliment.
For a few more minutes, we sat there. “So, now what?” Charlie finally asked. “Aren’t we supposed to be getting tortured, or something?”
I looked around. The other man was right – there was definitely a noticeable absence of grinning demons with pitchforks, or pools of boiling lava filled with screaming souls. “Maybe it will start at some point,” I guessed. “I mean, I feel pretty bad about what I did, that’s for certain.”
“Yeah, me too,” Charlie agreed, although he didn’t meet my eye.
I thought about just lapsing back into silence, but there was still a chain around our legs, connecting us, and I really did feel bad. “Hey, man, look,” I said, getting the other fellow’s attention. “I really am sorry about the whole embezzlement thing. I didn’t ever stop to think about who I’d be hurting.”
For a second, Charlie glared angrily at me, but he couldn’t keep it up, and the angry expression dropped. “Aw, hell,” he finally said. “I’m sorry, too. I was just so angry that I decided I had to kill the sunovabitch – no offense,” he added.
“But now, I mean, I could probably have gotten the money back, and I still had a good business and all that. It wasn’t like you really took anything from me I couldn’t get back.” Charlie grimaced, but then his face cleared. “And I’m sorry too.”
I held out my smaller, office worker hand, and Charlie shook it with his big meaty mitt.
Feeling much better about ourselves, we sat on the ground of the cavern a bit longer. But then, as I glanced up and stretched, I noticed something I’d missed before.
“Hey Charlie, look over there!”
I shrugged. “It looks like a door,” I said, climbing up to my feet to go approach it. But after a few steps, I noticed a jerk at my leg. I glanced down, and saw that the chain attaching our legs had grown noticeably shorter. “Dude, come on. Let’s go see it.”
Charlie looked less than thrilled at having to get up, but he climbed to his feet and we ambled over. The door looked like a typical wooden interior door, but set into the wall of the cavern. I reached out for the handle, but paused, glancing at the man I’d been forcibly assigned.
“We could always just stay here,” I said, checking with him.
Charlie shook his head. When he glanced back at me, I was emboldened to see that there was no more anger in those eyes, just determination. “Nah, let’s see what’s next.”
So I opened the door, and we stepped through.