Your mother probably warned you to wear clean underwear every day. Mine didn’t, but my mother liked to eat pineapple on pizza, so she was obviously not normal. But if your mother was normal, and she told you to wear clean underwear every day, it probably wasn’t because she knew you would be wearing those same clothes for all eternity if you happened to die. Or maybe she did, and your mother was also not normal, but in a much more sophisticated way than a mother who eats pineapple on pizza. Violet Maria Shaw had worn clean underwear the day she had died, but if she had known she was going to die that day, she might have at least decided to forego the corset and crinoline. She adjusted her Victorian skirts and swept another pile of soot into the bucket before her.
Keeping the brimstone scrubbed clean was monotonous, as Violet would tell you if she could. Hell is hot. Like the flames that burned the town’s abandoned mansion to the ground because the creepy kid up the street had dabbled in arson for a few years. Only hotter. Hell is also deplorably filthy. Like those walk-in fireplaces you see in the kitchens of medieval castles that could roast three little pigs on a spit in one go. Only filthier. However, the most lower levels of Hell are so hot, anything resembling a liquid instantly evaporates, leaving its residents eternally parched.
So, as Violet scrubbed the brimstone in the Welcome Wing with a dry brush, she did not bother speaking to the newest souls that appeared sprawled on the stone floor. She completely ignored The Herders, as they were called, who stood from their benches in the shadows of the room and slowly crept toward the terrified soul.
As everyone who is anyone knows, when you die, you are either accepted into Heaven, where you are welcomed by a chorus of angels and given a set of white robes before being ushered to a cookie-cutter home and scheduled for your first flying lesson. Or, if you are like Violet, your soul ends up in the Welcome Wing of Hell. With each new arriving soul, the pillars of brimstone erupt into flame, and several masked demons surround you with pitchforks and herd you toward the receptionist on duty.
Seven Hundred Ninety-Four souls came through the Welcome Wing during Violet’s shift on the day of her departure. The largest haul had been well over a hundred at one time. She assumed it had been from the subway bombing the department head of Intentional and Irrational Mayhem had orchestrated last week. As the population had boomed over the last century, Satan’s quotas were becoming increasingly unrealistic – mostly thanks to the bleeding-heart Millennials who thought things like Unschooling and Buddhism were trendy and cool– and drastic measures within all departments were being taken.
A blood curdling scream echoed off the stone of the Welcome Wing. Violet tossed her brush into the bucket and stood. She joined the que of other souls milling toward the entrance to the Maintenance Department.
“Good luck, Violet!”
“Au revoir, Violet!”
She smiled as each of her friends and as-soul-ciates bid her farewell. The soul before her, a Greek in a dingy toga, held the door opened as he left and patted her shoulder before chugging down a carafe of water. She entered the room, hung her bucket and brush in the locker one last time and accepted a water jug from one of the workers. She downed it quickly before it had a chance to disappear. The Department Wing was still only a center level, which meant water and sweat were possible, but disappeared as quickly as an infidel’s boyfriend out the bathroom window before being caught.
“You think you can leave without saying goodbye,” someone said from behind her. Violet turned and saw her husband – well, late-husband. He was dead after all. And their marriage had been voided when his heart had exploded. This is meant in the literal sense, not figurative. Poor Violet had woken to find Ethan stone cold, dead as a doornail in bed beside her. Of course she had cried. It’s what the newspapers had wanted, and sure enough, her grieving, tear stained face had been plastered across the front page of the local newspaper.
Former New York Senator Dead at 78
Former actress and New York’s “Duchess of Diamonds” cries behind her veil at her husband’s funeral yesterday morning. The former Senator and New York resident, Ethan Shaw, was found dead in his home by his wife. The coroner’s office reports the cause of death as a heart attack. His fortune has been willed to his wife and three children, Rose, Margaret and William.
“Ethan,” Violet breathed. The shock wasn’t in seeing him naked and covered in repulsive sores and lesions, it was the shock of seeing him at all. Violet had been glad to be rid of him when Ethan had died. He was the last soul she expected to see on her day of departure. She finished the last of her water and her eyes darted about the room, looking at the stone gargoyles in the corner. The new comers called them cameras or Big Brother. It didn’t matter. Violet knew they were watching. “How in Dante’s name did you get here?”
Ethan’s contract had clearly stated he was to spend six hundred years in the fourth level of Hell before he would be considered for departure. Those residing in the seven lower levels were never allowed access to any other part of Hell without written consent from their Gatekeeper, which was nearly impossible. The forms were usually burned to ash by the time they reached the inner circles.
“I agreed to an extra two years. My departure location is still unknown, however, I hear you’re going places. Figure I might never see you again, so…” The man shrugged and began digging molten gold from beneath his finger nails. Violet said nothing. She wouldn’t be caught dead intentionally cavorting with a prime sinner. Violet had worked for her sin, had made deals and brought people together so the works of Satan could be carried out. She earned the luxuries bestowed to her, and today was her final day of payment. She wasn’t about to let the man who had greed written on his tombstone before his fifth birthday ruin her chances of getting the hell out of Hell. She shoved the empty water jug at the worker behind her and hurried toward the door.
“Will you… will you tell the children I love them?” Ethan asked quietly.
Violet stopped with her hand poised above the door knob. Of course. The children. Rose, William and Margaret had all earned passage to Heaven. Violet couldn’t have been prouder, and she was eager to tell them so face to face.
“I am quite sure they already know, but yes, I will relay your message,” she said and held the door open. Ethan nodded, and after a few moments of swinging his arms at his side like an awkward ape-man, he headed for the hall outside, pushing past the throng of people coming for their buckets and brushes.
“Perhaps you will learn of this forgiveness we hear speak of beyond the gates. I have never stopped loving you.” Ethan stepped into the elevator just beyond the line of souls and pressed the button for the fourth level. Violet waited for the elevator doors to close before continuing toward the Departure Department.
The deeper she moved down the spiral of Department doors, the fewer souls Violet encountered. Watching such a thing in the cinema with a bag of popcorn on your lap might lead you to believe someone was about to pop from the shadows, or a menacing force would meet Violet before she reached her destination to offer her another deal. There would be suspenseful music – probably something from John Williams, I imagine, or the guy who did the music for those Batman movies in the 2000’s. I am sorry to say that no such thing occurred. No rogue demons stepped from the darkness. Certainly Satan himself wouldn’t have been bothered with such a lowly soul as Violet’s. No, the walk from the Maintenance Department to the door to the Departure Department was uneventful to say the least. The most interesting thing to occur were Violet’s thoughts as she walked. She found it quite interesting how her soul seemed partially corporeal, which is to say physical even though it would become ethereal or ghost-like during its transition across the Earthly plane to Heaven. The laws of physics were odd in Hell, and completely dependent on which Hell you occupied.
Oh, yes. There is more than one Hell, I am afraid. You see, humans possess an extraordinary power to manifest into being that which they whole-heartily believe. You didn’t believe Satan ruled Hell for everyone, did you? Even for a non-human, such a feat would be impossible, or at least improbable. There is the Islamic Hell and the Hindu Hell to name a few. Violet had ended up in the Christian Hell, ruled by Satan. It was argued to be one of the worst and best Hells, depending on which level you worked in. The lower levels, where Ethan worked, were, of course, the worst. Full of disgusting tasks, smells and simulated screaming that could lead to a century long migraine before you were used to it. The upper levels were, of course, where upper management resided. Violet had once had the opportunity to sell her soul as a call-girl for the lavish parties in constant circulation by the head demons. She was glad she had not, as she learned much later that there was very little opportunity for departure from such a profession. Some of the souls in residence there still bore their Egyptian tunics.
And so Violet’s mind continued to muse, to which she passed the Departure Department door, and had to back track several paces. She stepped inside and nearly fell. The ground beneath her feet was a spongey carpet-like material, and it felt to Violet like walking on a ship. She had spent hundreds of years traipsing only hard stone, and the change was rather unexpected. She hobbled to the receptionist window and leaned against the counter.
Behind the glass, a female demon pushed aside the panel. She had highlighted her cheeks with a lime-green blush that reflected in the torch light. Her lips and eyeshadow were black, and the tips of her horns had recently been manicured with gold.
“Do you have an appointment?” she asked in a rather chipper voice.
“Date of Death?” the demon-woman interrupted.
“March 27th, 1888.”
The receptionist turned in her chair and pulled a large tome from the shelf behind her. She opened it, and flicked a tiny salamander from the pages. “Name?”
“Violet Maria Shaw.”
The demon sucked her pointed teeth until they squeaked and ran a golden fingernail down the page. When she stopped, she plucked a black quill from an ink pot before her and turned the book to face Violet.
“In blood please,” she said kindly and handed the quill and a white handled knife to Violet.
Violet accepted the quill and knife with trembling hands. She made a small slice in her palm, and dipped the quill into the fresh blood. She found her name on the page and signed on the designated line. She crossed her T and dotted her I’s, and the letters began to smoke, burning the still wet blood to a strange brown color. The demon-woman took the book back, stamped something in the margins and smiled brightly at Violet.
“Second door on your left, darling. Hell thanks you for your service. Enjoy your after-afterlife.”
A door to Violet’s right swung open. The receptionist demon closed the glass panel, and Violet tentatively stepped through the door. The corridor was long and lined with the same torches that lit the rest of Hell. The relationship between Satan and Osiris, the God of Death and ruler of the Egyptian Hell, had gone south after the death of Queen Elizabeth I. The cause? Most simply replied, “reasons.” However, as Osiris had been the main influencer of an architect in Egypt who created the first batteries, Osiris had been more than happy to share the creation of his priest with several of the Hell rulers. But, due to said “reasons,” Violet now walked past flaming torches in iron brackets on the walls instead of dimly lit lamps.
Even in Hell, politics were abound, she thought and reached a hand to open the second door on her left.
“Hey! Watch it!” a muffled voice cried.
Violet jumped and took a step back before realizing the voice and come from the floor. She glanced down and saw a rather red and watering eye ball.
“By George!” Violet cried and took another step back before realizing her head dress was in danger of catching fire. One would think physics in regards to fire and burns might have been manipulated in a place like Hell, but it didn’t seem of great importance to upper management.
“You damned women and your heels!” A slit just below the eyeball moved slightly.
“Another boot in yer ball there, Laz?” a voice down the hall called and several snickers could be heard, though there was no one in sight.
“Oy! I’d like to see you – ”
“Well, you won’t!”
The chorus of voices cackled even louder and abruptly stopped when the door before Violet opened.
“Ms. Shaw?” An incredibly muscular demon stood before her. “Do not mind the carpet. Please, come in.”
Violet stepped through the door, careful to avoid the eye this time and waited for the demon to close the door behind her.
“Please, sit,” he said politely and sat behind his desk. “My name is Vanabuhl, and I will be conducting your Departure Interview today. We’ll coordinate your transition and try to make your departure as smooth as possible.” He smiled as politely as the receptionist had.
Violet adjusted her skirts again and sat in the plush red chair. Vanabuhl pulled a file from his desk drawer and lifted a pair of wire rimmed glasses to his face.
“Alright, Ms. Shaw. You were damned to three-hundred years in the Maintenance Department. Can you tell me how you came by this damnation?”
“Luxury, sir. It began with Luxury.”
The demon nodded. “I see. And it says here you coordinated several meetings with United States officials and a few celebrities?”
“Correct. I agreed to plant thoughts so demonic manipulation was more easily received in exchange for Fame. I worked off my debt for Fame before my death, however, due to the Fame, I was never able to work off any of the Luxury debt.”
Vanabuhl nodded again. “And, it appears you only had… let’s see, seventeen infractions against you, to which you served your extra shifts.” He glanced up and smiled approvingly at Violet. “Well, I see this as a rather open and shut case, Ms. Shaw. Let us discuss your transition. Did you have a particular department in mind?”
It is quite a normal response to stare in silence or blink quickly when someone says something to you that has confused you or thrown you off your guard. And while incredibly rude, it is also normal to shout, especially when you are in shock of what you have seen or heard. Violet was somewhere in between this state of shouting and staring in silence. She did blink profusely, which might have put any of the eyeballs in the hall to shame. She spluttered and stumbled over her words in a seemingly incoherent manner. The demon Molzhor would have been able to understand, however, as he was quite familiar with the Shockian language. Molzhor would have been able to interpret Violet’s words as meaning, “What do you mean, department? I am supposed to be going to Heaven. I am incredibly confused and I want a blueberry muffin.” Vanabuhl, however, could not speak Shockian, and waited for Violet to catch her breath and wipe the spittle from her chin.
“I do not have a white transfer form in your file. You must have left your transfer intent open,” he said.
“Transfer form?” Violet asked in a language Vanabuhl could understand.
The demon removed his glasses and folded his hands on the desk in front of him. “When you were first processed from the Welcome Wing, you should have been given the option to transfer to Heaven after your damnation period had ended, or leave your transition open and take up an open position within Hell. We don’t see many souls wishing to remain and work here – ”
“I don’t want to remain here. I had no intention of such,” Violet snapped.
Vanabuhl furrowed his brow and began shuffling through the papers in Violet’s folder. After looking at each paper, he closed the file and pressed a button on the corner of his desk.
“Vexa?” he called, released the button and waited.
“Hey, Vana-boo-boo,” the front receptionist’s voice cooed back over the speaker.
“Not now, Vexa. I need Xenzor from the Transition team.”
“Of course, Vana-boo. Give your Hexie-Vexie just a moment.”
Vanabuhl leaned back in his chair and rubbed his forehead. Moments later, Violet heard a loud ‘pop’ from the hallway outside, and the voice of the eyeball shouting again.
“Oy! Twinkle toes!” the eyeball cried.
There was a knock on the door, and another demon entered the office. He was just as tall as Vanabuhl, but much narrower in frame. His suit was too big, and his black hair had been slicked back into the smallest nub of a ponytail.
“Vanabuhl,” Xenzor greeted his colleague in a rather annoyed tone.
“Xenzor, how quickly can we push through a transition form to Heaven?” Vanabuhl asked.
Xenzor sneered. “You called me down here for this? Do you realize what time it is? The second strike to Benghazi just occurred two hours ago! I am horns deep in souls right now! I don’t have time to fix your mistakes -”
Vanabuhl stood, as one usually does when they are opting for an intimidation factor, which is exactly what Vanabuhl was doing. Xenzor squared up his shoulders, but the pupils of his eyes dilated, and his frown deepened slightly. Violet had never seen a fight between demons before, but she had heard rumors there were parts of Hell where there were no restrictions against the demon’s black magic. Judging by the popping sound in the hallway, and how quickly Xenzor had arrived from the Welcome Wing to the Departure Department, she thought it safe to assume there were no magical restrictions here. And, if the rumors were to be believed, things could turn rather violent, which left Violet trapped in a plush red chair, between a large desk and another torch on the wall behind her. Her heart began to race at the realization this might not end well.
“My mistake? Transition forms are the responsibility of the Welcome Department, Xenzor. I suppose I should contact the head of the Department of International Political Chaos to launch an investigation.”
Xenzor began to splutter in Shockian language, but Vanabuhl ignored him. His voice deepened as it rose in volume. “Do you know how this person died? Kidney failure, Xenzor. Kidney. Failure. She was not part of a mass murder orchestrated by any of the departments. She came in as a single soul. And your department missed her transition form. Now, tell me, what I am to do when I hear the head of the Transition team cannot do his job for a single soul? I’m sure many department heads would be interested in launching an investigation. Better yet, as Violet’s paperwork was not processed by you specifically, the Department of Internal Affairs should be notified. Yes, an entire investigation into the lax protocols of the entire Transition team, and perhaps the entire Welcoming Department. I’m sure none of your subordinates would mind. Or would they? Certainly your superiors would be furious at the interruption.”
By now, Xenzor’s jaw was clenched, and he was grinding his teeth. Violet had slowly pushed her chair back to more easily duck behind the desk. She watched as Xenzor fidgeted with the cuffs of his oversized jacket. He finally dropped Vanabuhl’s gaze and sighed.
“Three years,” he said.
“Three years!” Violet couldn’t help herself. She clapped a hand over her mouth as Xenzor glared at her.
“Surely you can have a someone down here to do the form now, Xenzor,” said Vanabuhl more gently now.
Xenzor shook his head. “With all these mass arrivals, it’s taking us a full day or more to process the lot. There’s at least one every other day, and we need time to catch up. I had a soul sitting in the waiting room this morning that had been waiting to be processed since yesterday. I’m sorry Vanabuhl. My horns are tied.”
When you receive disappointing news, there is usually a brief moment of silence while the news is processed. It can be an awkward tension or something melancholy, like the news of your uncle’s death, or learning you did not, in fact, get the job you moved across the country for and are left staring at the phone in your hand while your wife decides whether to cry or divorce you. Of course, Violet would have loved to divorce the entire lot of her situation. She had served her time. Her slate was to be wiped clean, but the bloody attorney had screwed everything up.
“What do I do while I wait?” Violet asked.
“You’ll have to be between like everyone else,” said Xenzor. He adjusted his jacket and stepped out of the room. The chatter of the voices in the hall picked up again. Xenzor twisted a golden ring on his finger and disappeared with another loud pop.