It was about one o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon when it all went to hell. Literally. Sitting at my desk, reading over the quarterly profit/loss statement, I felt a familiar burning in my chest. Heartburn again. I really need to cut down on carbs and rich foods like doc says, but I like the taste. And I don’t have time for anything but fast food. I stood to get my water bottle across the office but had to grab the desk to steady myself as a wave of vertigo washed over me. Damn, the burning is getting worse. That’s when I fell. My legs just gave away. I saw the floor rushing toward my face. I couldn’t move my arms to break my fall. My last coherent thought was Man, this is gonna hurt.
But it didn’t. Instead of slamming face first into the floor, I found myself…nowhere. I couldn’t see or hear anything. I couldn’t move. Well, not exactly that, just no sensation of arms or legs. Crap, am I dead? Damn, I shoulda listened to doc.
The light rose, as if dawn were approaching. I somehow was floating in a vast nothingness. I looked down at myself but saw only a gritty floor. But I wasn’t actually looking. I had no eyes. I was sensing. Well, this is weird.
Suddenly an arch of fire flared before me. It was probably five yards high and the same across. And there was a man standing under the arch.
“Welcome, Peter. We’ve been expecting you,” he said. He fairly glowed with youthful vigor and exuded charm. The last time I saw a face like that I was looking at an Abercrombie and Fitch ad. Yeah, he was well put together.
“Peter, don’t be afraid,” he said. “You are incorporeal. Think about coming toward me and it will happen.”
I thought to myself that I wanted to approach the young man, and it happened. I stopped just short of him, still floating about. I could tell that he was beyond the fiery arch. It was strange, but the arch gave off no heat or sound. Fire like that should be hot and loud.
“Peter, just come through the arch and we will get you situated,” he said in a calm, persuasive voice. I found myself wanting to do what he requested. But I hesitated.
What is this place? I directed my thought at the young man. I figured since everything else worked on brain power, he could probably hear my thoughts. Who are you?
“My name is Tamiel. My task is to help you acclimate to your new home. This is Hell. Welcome.”
HELL? Hell no, I ain’t going in there. Where’s Saint Peter? I want to file an appeal or whatever it is you have to do. I was a good guy. Why do y’all want to send me to Hell? It’s a good thing I didn’t have a body, or I’d be hyperventilating like crazy. I used my thought legs and backed away. This must be some crazy dream. I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell. I gave up all that religious mumbo jumbo years ago.
“Peter, you don’t understand. God decided at the moment you died where you would spend eternity. He wants you here. So do we. Come on in and let me explain.”
You can’t come outside that flaming gate, can you? That’s why you want me to come in. And once I’m in I can’t get out. Right?
“You are correct. This is the Gateway to Hell. All residents must enter here. Come on in. It’s not what you think.”
You don’t know what I think.
“Actually, I do. I can read your mind. Remember?”
I decided there was no way he was making me walk, or float, into Hell. Nope. Not no way, not no how. I began floating toward the gate.
What? No! I don’t want to go.
“Calm down, Peter. It’s your destiny. You’ll be okay.”
Totally against my will, I floated under the fiery gate. As soon as I had passed it, the gate vanished. I was in Hell. A place I never really believed in. Shit!
Tamiel stood there in his expensive business suit, perfectly groomed and looking smug. If I’d had limbs, I would have smacked him.
“Now it’s time to get to work. I’ll process you and provide basic orientation and then we will assign you a mentor. But first, come over here.” He walked away, and I followed along like a balloon on a string. I seemed to have no will of my own. We came upon another handsome young man, dressed in casual clothes, khakis and a Hawaiian shirt. Nice shirt. The guy didn’t acknowledge us. He just stood there like a department store mannequin.
“This is your intake drone. You can choose a permanent body later. This will make the process easier.” I suddenly felt myself moving toward the new guy. As I passed into his body, I felt a tingle. That was the first thing I’d felt since getting here. Then I realized I was inside the new guy. Not just inside him; I was him. What the…? I hated to admit it, but I really liked the body. I hadn’t been able to see my belt buckle in years. And no hair to speak of. I felt the spring and vigor of youth. A tight six pack. I ran my new hand through the thick hair on my new head. I could get used to this. Must be some catch. After all, this IS Hell. At least according to Mr. GQ here.
Tamiel continued. “Like I said, it will help speed up the intake process if you have a body. Some of our residents like being incorporeal, but most don’t. Now, come with me.”
The massive nothingness resolved into a comfortable office with a large desk and several chairs. Tamiel walked over to his desk and picked up a file folder.
“Let’s sit and get the ball rolling, shall we?” he said with a friendly smile. I guessed he was buttering me up before they brought out the whips and chains and hot irons. My drone body reacted just like my old body would have. I started sweating bullets. This was too real to be a dream, but too fantastical to be real. Crap. I’m really in Hell. I felt my drone balls try to crawl back up into my body. Tamiel sat in a large leather chair and motioned me to a similar chair facing him. Lacking other options, I sat.
He flipped open the file.
“Okay, you’re Peter Alan Jones, age fifty-seven, right?”
“You know that.”
“Well, let’s review why you’re here.” He scanned over the pages. “You were kind of boring as a kid. But you blossomed in college. Overindulgence in alcohol and drugs, good. And promiscuous. You liked the ladies.” He raised his eyebrows and gave me an approving wink.
I was sure my new face was blazing red. Yeah, I went wild once I got away from home.
“But you were responsible. You used protection every time. Good for you. Then after college you found a wife, remained faithful to her, and were a good husband until you divorced.”
“So why am I here? Is God really so pissed that I slept around in college?”
“Well, He is a bit of a Puritan, but you haven’t been sent here for that. Peter, you are an atheist. I’m frankly surprised that you’re accepting all this so well.”
“Well, it has crossed my mind that I’m having a stroke, and this is all fantasy.”
“No, it’s real. You had a massive coronary. Dead before you hit the floor.”
“Well, so I was an atheist. God hides himself. How does he expect us to believe? And like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry say, he’s got a lot to answer for.”
“You’ll get no argument from me or anyone else here. Yahweh’s not exactly anyone’s favorite deity around this place. Peter, relax. You’re going to like it here.” He laid my file aside.
“But Hell is all about fire and brimstone and punishing and crap.” That’s what I’d been told all my life.
“Yes, we do punish those who deserve it. Do you think you deserve punishment?” He spread his hands.
“Hell no. I mean no. Sorry about that.”
“No offense taken. It’s just a figure of speech. We’re used to it. But no, you haven’t earned any punishment. But you rejected God so you can’t go to Heaven. And you dodged a bullet, in my opinion,” he added with a cryptic smile. “Here’s what we will do. Once we finish here, I’ll assign you a mentor. The mentor will show you to your apartment, make sure it suits you. We can customize pretty much whatever you want, but we know you intimately. Hence, your Hawaiian shirt.” I looked down at the cool shirt I was wearing. “I think you’ll be surprised at how well it suits you. You’ll go to the body shop and pick out the body you want to wear. Anything you want. You can even change genders if you like. The transgender people who end up here love that perk.”
“I can look like anyone I want?”
“Within limits. Some famous people want to continue looking like they did as mortals and want to be the only ones. Abe Lincoln gets pissy if anyone else wants to look like him, although I can’t imagine why anyone would. So we reserve some faces. Your mentor will guide you. He will also show you how to access the daily agenda to attend activities you like.”
“Sounds like a cruise ship,” I said.
“Less cheesy and no viruses.”
There was a light tap on the door, and then a distinguished-looking man walked in. He looked like he was in his upper thirties, a light touch of silver at his temples. But the charisma was almost tangible. He would immediately dominate any room. It was hard to take my eyes off him. His suit must have cost more than I’d make in a year. He gave it casual charm by going open collar.
“Good evening, Tamiel,” he said in a honeyed baritone. “Everything all right?”
“Good evening, sir. Nice to see you. We’re doing fine.”
“Excellent,” he said, and then focused on me. “Peter, right? It’s nice to meet you.” He reached out his hand, and we shook. I could feel his power surge through me. I was transfixed. The thrill of his touch was almost orgasmic. “You can call me Lucifer. We really don’t stand on titles around here. We’re all in Hell together.”
“Lu…Lu…Lucifer? As in the Devil?” I forgot to breathe for a moment and then gasped.
“The same. Satan, Beelzebub, Old Scratch. I have a million names, but Lucifer is my preference. I think it has an air of class. Don’t you?” He looked at me expectantly.
“Absolutely.” What else could I say?
He turned back to Tamiel. “Tell you what. I think Peter would like to have Rafaella as his mentor. Don’t you?”
“I’m sure he would, sir.”
“Splendid. See to it.” He turned to me. “Peter. I think you’ll enjoy our seminar tonight. Newton and Turing will debate free will. Newton’s a terror at debating. Last week he eviscerated Einstein. You’ll love it. Well, I must be off, so much to do. But it was a pleasure meeting you. I’ll pop in to see you in the next couple of days. Just to make sure everything is to your liking. You’re in excellent hands with Tamiel. I rely on him, and you can too. See you at the orgy this weekend,” he said to Tamiel with a wink. He shook my hand again and swept out.
“Wow, I met the Devil. Imagine that. I didn’t even believe he exists.”
Tamiel moved over to his desk and pressed a button. “Azazel? Send up Rafaella. Boss’ orders.” He looked up at me, maintaining his charming smile. “The Boss really took a shine to you. Rafaella is our most requested mentor. And Boss hardly ever shows up for an intake. I would say it’s a lucky coincidence for you, but there are no coincidences in Hell.”
“Yeah. I guess it’s a big job, bringing in the newbies.”
“Remember the old Blue Oyster Cult song Don’t Fear the Reaper? ‘Forty thousand men and women every day’. We have to log them all in. God only takes a few. We get the rest.”
“Good and bad?” I asked.
“Mostly. A very few go straight to Heaven, but not many.”
“What about the truly bad people? Like Hitler.” I was hoping I wouldn’t be meeting him walking down a street in Hell. Or Jack the Ripper.
“Oh, he’s downstairs in Seventh Hell. That’s for mortals who deserve punishment for what they have done. Boss likes to oversee that personally. Believe me when I say you wouldn’t want to be in their shoes. Boss hates senseless evil. As a dark angel I’ve seen a lot, but what he does to them makes even me shudder. He’s got Hitler, Stalin, Dahmer, Gacy, you can probably figure out the cast. The Ripper you’re thinking of also. Lucifer will torture them for a few millennia and then incinerate their souls.”
“That’s not gonna happen to me, is it?” I was suddenly nervous again.
“Relax Peter. We like you. No worries. You’re in First Hell. Think of it as Club Hell, Deluxe edition.”
“There are degrees?” This seemed mystifying.
“Of course. There are bad people who can be rehabilitated, who don’t need to be incinerated. After appropriate punishing in other levels, they can work their way up. People like Bakker, Swaggart, Falwell, most of the popes. The Big Guy Upstairs really hates religious bilkers. Boss works them over good.”
“Glad to hear that. So who gets to Heaven?”
“Your Grandma is there. Your mom, too.”
“Grandma? Oh, I so wish I could talk to her once more.” I had loved Grandma more than anyone else in the world growing up. She was my touchstone of all that was good and true.
“Well, if we can get Yahweh to let her out of Hosanna service, I’ll set up a Skype session for you.” Tamiel’s smile was not professional, but seemingly real, sympathetic. Like that of a friend who wants to help you.
“I hate to ask, but what’s the catch? What’s the downside to all this?” No one would set all this up for free. There had to be a catch.
“No catch. The Creator gave Lucifer dominion over all the dead who weren’t in Heaven. Boss figured if you were his for eternity, why not make it fun? I know he has a bad rep with mortals, but that’s mainly the theists slandering him. Goes back to that issue with Job. Boss showed up Yahweh for the shallow bastard he is. He never got over it. He trashes our name every chance he gets.”
“And the Garden too, I guess,” I added.
“Yeah, and that wasn’t officially us. Samael, a supposedly good angel was the serpent. Although Lucifer did talk him into it. Yahweh never knew about that.”
Once again there was a soft tap on the door and an angel walked in. Let me rephrase that. The sexiest, most angelic woman I have ever seen strutted in. Form fitting black tights and a halter top stressed all her assets, which were many. Silky brown hair slithered across her shoulders, almost a living creature. My drone body was definitely not a neuter Ken doll as it reacted in typical male fashion. I hadn’t been this sexually aroused in years and tried to surreptitiously rearrange awakening parts of my body suddenly demanding attention.
“You sent for me, Tam?” she said, propping one hip on the edge of his desk. She turned her green eyes on me and gave me a sly wink. My drone heart almost popped out of my chest.
“Yes, Fae. The Boss specifically asked me to assign you to Peter here as his mentor. You know the routine. I’ve downloaded his file to your device.”
“Really?” she looked me up and down. “You must be pretty special to get the Boss’ attention. I’ll take good care of you.” And she licked her top lip. I could swear my heart was beating double time. She rose off the desk as graceful as a lioness who has located her next victim. I gulped, still not sure if I should be overjoyed or fearful.
“So, Peter, is it? Well, nice to meet you. I’m Rafaella.” She took my hand, and I could feel a warmth flow into me, calming me. “We are going to be great friends. I love showing new residents all the joys of Hell. And I do mean all the joys. Come with me.” She pulled me to my feet. At this point, I would have followed her anywhere.
We left Tamiel’s office and followed several winding corridors, finally exiting onto a large plaza. There were people everywhere, strolling about, sitting, eating, there was even a volleyball game going on.
“I just can’t get over this,” I said to Rafaella.
“It takes some getting used to. You will love it here. You can eat and drink as much as you want. No weight gain, no hangovers, no pain of any kind. And the sex. You haven’t lived till you’ve had sex with a demon.”
“You’re a demon?” I didn’t know any of the hierarchy of the place.
“Yes, I’m a succubus, a kind of demon. There’s dark angels like Tamiel, Azazel and the others who handle the administration and the punishment division. Demons usually handle orientation, mentoring and other duties, but sometimes us succubi lend a hand.” She looked at her hand-held device, pushing buttons. “We need to get a move on, there’s a lot going on tonight that I’m sure you want to see. After the debate, we’re going over to Elysian Fields for a bonfire. There’ll be wieners and marshmallows for roasting. Lennon told me he and Janis were going to have a jam session. Maybe get Hendrix or Morrison to join in. Our impromptu jam sessions are the best.”
“Did I hear Lucifer say something about an orgy?” Her comment about sex had reminded me of his parting remark.
“Oh yeah. This weekend. Nero only recently got out of Second Hell and asked for an old-fashioned Roman orgy. I’ll make sure they deliver a toga to your apartment. Now let’s go get you that new body and get back to your place. My favorite part of orientation is showing you how thoroughly a demon can blow your mind with Hell shattering sex. After me, baby, you won’t ever be the same.” I couldn’t tell if the next sound she made was a purr or a growl. Either way, every hair on my borrowed body stood on end and my khakis suddenly seemed two sizes too small. She slithered up close to me and ran a long nail up my neck in a way that made every nerve ending in my body fire at once. Her other arm kept me from collapsing. “Yeah, baby. You’re gonna love Hell.”
“This sounds too good to be true. If Hell has all this, what’s Heaven like?” I couldn’t imagine how it could be much better, but then I was coming at this from a secular, and admittedly sensualist viewpoint. Maybe my moral compass was skewed. Rafaella released me and was businesslike again.
“Mostly hosannas. Everybody on their knees around God’s throne, licking his feet and singing his praises. Really seems to give him a woody.”
“I thought Heaven was supposed to be the ultimate,” I said. What she was saying didn’t appeal at all.
“He shoots them all with this ‘bliss’ thing. It drugs them into thinking everything is beautiful. Makes them fine with fawning over his nasty old feet and singing the same tired hosannas. They’re in a continual fog, rolling on the floor licking him and petting him. Remember that party in ’79 when everyone did the acid?” I’m sure my borrowed body blushed. That had been one wild party. “Yeah, it’s like that. Only without the sex. No sex in Heaven.”
“What’s he got against sex?” I wondered.
“Are you for real? God hates sex. St. Michael told me it’s because he has a tiny dick. Just saying. Me and Micky and Gabriel have this little thing on the side. Light angels have needs, too.”
I heard a beeping come from her device.
“Hold on a sec,” she said, holding it to her ear. She listened for a few moments. “You’re kidding me.” There was incredulity in her voice. “Are you sure?” A pause. “Ok. I’ll tell him. That sucks. Yeah. Later.”
“What?” Sweat broke out on my brow as she looked at me with a sorrowful frown.
“Seems there’s a change in plans, Peter. Your secretary found you as soon as you collapsed. They’ve been working on your body and got your heart started again. You have to go back.”
“But I don’t want to go. I’m thinking I could like Hell.” It was cruel to show me all this and then yank it away.
“I’m sorry. But don’t worry. We aren’t going anywhere. We’ll be right here, waiting for you. But be careful. Now that you know God is real you won’t be able to go on being an atheist. You’ll have to do a little work to make sure God sends you back to us when you die next time. You’re a good person. Your only black mark was your atheism. Go out and sin some. Lie, cheat, fornicate. Blaspheme every day. Yahweh really hates that. Have a little fun. I’ll tell the Boss I want you when you get back here.” She kissed me on the cheek, and everything faded.
“I think he’s coming to,” I heard a voice say.
“Rafaella?” I moaned. I opened my eyes and found myself on an uncomfortable bed in a room with industrial green walls. “No, I want to go back.”
“Easy, Peter,” said a man in a smock; a doctor or nurse, I guessed. “You’re still in serious condition. You need to rest now. Just relax and everything will be all right.”
No, it was not all right. I hated it. I didn’t want to be here. I wanted Hell. I considered what Rafaella had said and made a vow right then. As soon as I was out of the hospital, I would find and join the nearest Satanic Temple. I might even become a high priest. I’d be a natural. How many others could say they have shaken hands with the Devil?
Curtis A. Bass (CurtisStories.blog) from the American south, writes short stories in a variety of genres including science fiction, horror, mystery and young adult. He’s had stories published in online and print journals such as Youth Imagination, Fabula Argentea, Page & Spine, and the anthologies 2020 in a Flash, Best of 2020, The Protest Diaries, and Screaming in the Night. When not writing he prefers to stay active ballroom dancing or downhill skiing. He is currently working on his second novel while his first remains hidden in a drawer.