JW Stumble knew that money ruled this world, but he did not know that it controlled the other one too—until he went there.
The last thing he remembered, as his lungs wheezed and sputtered, was the thin shadow of his night nurse slashing across his chest like a black zipper. Then, feeling a strange tug from beneath his mattress, he sank into a turbulent blackness as if caught in the whirlpool of a dark river.
… Yes, it was THAT river, the river that divides Hell from our everyday scaled-down version of the same model. Shamelessly, JW was charged for crossing even though he was there as part of his mortal destiny. A ferry pilot with thin, scrawny arms, a drooling, toothless mouth, and a maniacal grin stuck out one twisted, diseased hand and demanded 20 dollars. In reply to JW’s plea that the hospital’s patient security unit was holding all of his cash, the ferryman agreed to invoice him later, after JW “had settled in.” However, he did not ask JW to sign an IOU.
This impresario bore a passing resemblance to a famous quiz show host who, some years ago, had been convicted of stalking his former contestants. When JW Stumble remarked on this, the ferryman said, “I am indeed that former celebrity. I was sent here not because of my bad TV ratings,” he joked, “but because of that predatory behavior. However, I came to Hell under the old rules that made predatory behavior a cosmic transgression. Now that the law is more flexible and predators are increasingly accepted into important political, corporate, and professional positions, I have petitioned to leave. Excuse the terrible pun”, he said with a slobbering smile, “but I am in a kind of limbo.”
JW could not see the horizon. Both the river and the sky’s edge had slipped into one murky, foggy smudge. Nor could he hear the slapping of water, even though the old boatman vigorously plunged his oars. It was more like silently skimming on dark clouds than being rowed across a river. However, JW did catch a whiff of a wet stench, like rotten eggs.
“What’s happened to the sky and river? Why is there no sound when you row?” JW asked the river pilot.
“That was part of your old life, but all that is fading,” the boatman said, his toothless face morphing into a vanishing, pockmarked blob like a disappearing sponge, “as is my face, which, as you can see, is also slipping away. Your old ways of experiencing things are leaving you. The world is just not interested in you anymore, JW. That stuff is only for the living. Trust me; you will not miss it, I can assure you. Forgetting is a blessing.”
There was a sudden thunk as the ferry bumped up against a rickety wooden wharf. A thin man in a rumpled devil’s costume, with sweat patches under each arm, stood holding a cardboard sign that read:
“Welcome to The Dark Experience: a truly unforgettable adventure.”
The ferry pilot, despite his feeble-looking arms, grabbed JW firmly by the waist, hoisted him up with one powerful, swooping arc out of the boat, and planted him on the wharf, where JW almost butted heads with the thin man in the devil’s costume, who, however, was not wearing a devil’s mask. His face was a thick, swirling, pasty mound of strawberry-red flesh with a ragged slit for a nose, peeping little black eyes, and purple, blistered lips, from which roared an intense heat as if JW were face-to-face with an open furnace.
“He used to be,” the ferryman smirked,” a top-of-the-line fashion model back in his earthly days—the toast of the British fashion scene—but I guess his ‘sex symbol’ life is behind him now. The only gig he could get now is a minor part in a cheesy horror film or in some two-bit carnival sideshow.”
Indignant, the devil-costumed, red-pasty-faced man tried to reply to these insults, but he could only violently mumble, his head shaking, as sporadic heat bursts, not words, flared from his lips.
The ferryman, obviously enjoying himself, continued in the same insolent vein. “He also had the reputation in his storied career of actually being a good conversationalist, unlike his brainless colleagues, but now all his mouth is good for is as a portable heater, and we don’t need those here.”
“What did he do to end up in this place?” asked JW.
The boatman frowned only inside his voice, as his face had wasted away into just a mouthless smear. “Sorry, but our privacy regulations forbid staff from discussing questions about detainees’ personal histories, which reminds me that you are probably late for your meet and greet and orientation.”
He waved dismissively at the ex-fashion model turned portable heater, who then led JW to a pale-red convertible sports car—top down—riddled with rusty bullet holes. JW pretended to ignore the dried bloodstains on the dashboard and upholstery as he slipped into the passenger side’s bucket seat while his companion—whose aggressive mumbling had quieted to a low grumble—started the engine. They drove away.
The road leading away from the pier was a wide, I-95-style highway, cracked and riddled with shattered concrete and large potholes, from which clouds of steam gushed. However, the car raced smoothly over the broken pavement without making a sound. On either side of the highway were vast patches of scorched ground and the shambles of city ruins, where JW could glimpse packs of thin, mangy dogs sniffing about in the rubble. The city’s walls, pockmarked with what appeared to be bullet holes, were smeared with graffiti that read:
ABANDON ALL HOPE YOU WHO ENTER HERE.
HOPE YOU LOSERS BROUGHT A FRESH CHANGE OF UNDERWEAR.
A blue-black mountain range humped on the horizon like a distant parade of paralyzed dinosaurs, the cadaverous twilight sky curdling into the pallor of a sick face. Above, flocks of pale vultures drifted slowly about in swooping, languid waves as if they were lost ghosts.
On the highway up ahead, gangs of dead men in sweat-stained red work clothes, with slack jaws and blank eyes, fumbled about, trying to fill in the potholes with slugs of burning tar. Seeing JW’s driver, now snarling more loudly than the engine, hurtling directly toward them, they confusedly milled about. Moving in a frenetic, herky-jerky fashion like broken wind-up toys, the zombie road gang did not, however, panic and run.
As the car raced madly forward in the steamy wind, JW’s head, too, now felt like a portable heater. Then, turning slightly to see his driver’s squirmy strawberry-fudge face and his beady eyes manically focused on running down the zombies, it suddenly dawned on JW why the former “toast of the British fashion scene” was in Hell: mass vehicular homicide.
However, despite the terrorist driver’s earnest effort to ram the zombies, there was no body-on-metal collision. Its wheels on the broken pavement barely hummed as the vehicle noiselessly, in slow motion, sliced gracefully through the road gang, their bodies melting into ghostly, shifting clouds of leering, toothy faces and taunting, obscene gestures that circled and curled mockingly around the driver’s head like smoke, and then, after a few minutes, vanishing.
Exploding briefly into a fresh confusion of violent mumbling, the former star of the British modeling world then lapsed into a frustrated silence, where he remained as he quietly piloted the car for the duration of their journey. As it had been a long day, an exhausted JW, thankful for the peace, nodded off.
Arriving at a gray-functional office building, a silvery box with darkened windows set out in a flat wasteland of junked, rusting cars the driver parked in the empty lot, littered with bones, old newspapers, and tin cans. Near the building’s revolving door, hordes of large, plump rats, the size of hamsters, skulked about; they vanished as JW and the driver jumped out and cautiously approached them.
JW turned to his driver as if this man could speak real words, not exhale heat bursts, with a quizzical look, but he, still silent, lunged and violently pushed JW into the blades of the door that spun crazily like a berserk merry-go-round.
Slightly dizzy, JW popped quickly out of the whirl but found himself, unbruised, not in a lobby but in a small cubicle-style office: shuttered windows, minimalist furniture—a table and two chairs—and sitting before a man. With a prematurely aging, wrinkled brow, clad in Nike running shoes, designer jeans, and a black sequin shirt, he sported a rich, mahogany tan, a pointed nose, and a lumpy, grizzled chin that jutted out like a plough.
His hearty, slap-on-the-back-style greeting boomed in the close confines like an auctioneer’s voice. “Welcome to the next exciting chapter in your new life, JW Stumble! I am Virgo, but just call me Verge.” He smiled a well-oiled, carefully engineered smile, no doubt cultivated by a thousand sales training workshops, which yet weirdly contradicted his otherwise misshapen, unshaven face.
Then, shifting to a more intimate mood of camaraderie, Verge said in a softer tone, “I have good news for you. You have been selected to interview for a professional position on our staff.” A slight rustle as Verge disturbed a document on his desk. “I have read your resume…”
“My resume? Your ferryman told me my old, everyday life was behind me,” JW replied.
Verge sniffed dismissively: “Quizling is not to be trusted for a moment. He has lied repeatedly under oath about his serial stalking during his earthly days. Imagine! A famous TV quiz host whose job it was to get his guests to answer his questions truthfully was and is, ironically, a pathological liar. I am frankly tired of him. I made a bad hiring decision. We expect all of our employees here to tell the truth, whatever their past history of lying is.”
“Excuse me! Employees? I mean, I thought that in this place…”
“… that we were all lying, corrupt bastards who are not gainfully employed but just lazy layabouts waiting for our daily dose of pain to redeem any lingering guilt leftover from our bad old earth days. No, Mr. Stumble, this place is not some kind of freebie boot camp-style, tough love wellness resort where we harden people to face the struggles, challenges, and punishments that life—sorry, the afterlife, I mean—brings. For starters, as there is no ‘experience’ of past, present, and future here, there is no awareness of past regret or any desire to be better in the future, at least as you know such feelings from your earth-bound days; secondly, our Dear Boss…” Verge pointed a wavering finger at the ceiling, “…demands that our detainees here at The Dark Experience pull their own weight. This organization is run on sound business principles. We don’t tolerate slackers.”
JW wanted to ask an insolent, joking question about how one could have “weight” in a world reserved for dead spirits who no longer had bodies measured in kilos and pounds, but he thought better of it as Verge’s smile vanished and his teeth suddenly and ominously slipped forward like expelled stained dentures looking for something to bite and eat. Even if there was, strictly speaking, no “life” here, JW, staring at Verge’s threatening mouth, did not want to know what The Dark Experience considered the new version of “death.”
“So, what about my resume?” asked JW.
Verge cleared his throat as his threatening teeth popped back between his lips with a sucking sound. His salesman’s mechanical smile returned. He then began to read aloud sections from JW’s work history:
“A Customer Service Representative, assigned to various attitude adjustment camps maintained during encounters with terrorists, whose role was to liaison with the detainees. In this role, he interviewed them regarding their personal data, including financial information, as well as their life histories: acts, motives, interests, goals, and fears. A highly skilled interrogator, he received numerous letters of commendation from his supervisors.”
“…umm…” Verge continued, “I see you have degrees in Banking and an MBA.”
“I did what is known in Intel Ops as ‘Threat Finance,’ following the money—tracking terrorists’ bank accounts used to fund their plots and schemes—which brings me to a question that just occurred to me: why am I here with obvious terrorists, such as my driver who tried to run over harmless road gangs? I mean, I fought terrorists, so why should I be sent here to live with them?”
Verge clucked his tongue—which rattled his dangerous teeth at the same time—like an indulgent parent mildly scolding a child who would not eat his spinach. “Shame on you, JW. Do not try to distract us with hollow pleas regarding your innocence. There is a saying here: ‘The Dark Experience may be dark, but it is secretly lit by the brightness of truth.’ We know the story of your life. You did what your management used to call ‘extreme interviews’—I won’t dwell on the gruesome details, but you know what I am talking about.”
“I did valuable work. I exposed the plans of terrorists,” replied JW irritably, annoyed by Verge’s patronizing tone.
Angry, Verge suddenly thrust his palm up like a cop halting traffic: “Stop. It is pointless to defend yourself, Mr. Stumble. When you were admitted to The Dark Experience, your time of being ‘judged’ was behind you. This place is not a court of law. If you still breathed like a living human, you would be wasting your breath arguing your case. As I have told you already, the past is irrelevant. The fact that you previously physically abused detainees to force them to reveal information is insignificant to me. Others have long ago assessed your case with more authority than I have. They, not I, made the decision to send you here. And that decision is final.”
In a slightly exhausted, milder tone, Verge continued: “Now speaking of people making decisions, let us, shall we, return to the business at hand. Your skills at interviewing detainees can come in handy here. To get straight to the point, I am interested in replacing Quizling or at least adding additional skilled staff to his Point of Entry station that interviews new incoming detainees being transitioned across. We are losing some vital cash flow at the POE because of Quizling’s sloppy financial transaction skills. For example, despite existing protocols, he did not even require that you sign an IOU for the money you left at the hospital’s patient property unit. We get a lot of new Dark Experience detainees coming in with plenty of cash hidden back on earth; a true professional with solid interview skills and savvy at tracing accounts is urgently needed, not a has-been quizmaster who can ask witty questions but is otherwise clueless. In any event, poor performance aside, he probably told you that he has petitioned to leave, so we may have a vacancy in that position soon.
Noticing the questioning look on JW’s face, Verge said, almost apologetically, “Right. I agree. People used to think that ‘Hell’ actually meant a fiery point of no return. ‘Eternal damnation’ is, however, overly dramatic and somewhat antiquated verbiage left over from another, more judgmental age. It is indeed quite possible to leave The Dark Experience now, ah…depending, of course, on a host of factors. In fact, why do you think there are so many ruthless bastards living out their disgusting, exploitative lives on earth today while making others miserable…? Many of those bad actors are, in fact, proud graduates of The Dark Experience, having learned, or at least honed, their craft here…”
Stunned by the seeming absurdity of this assertion but not speechless, JW replied, “How can that be? I thought people were sent to Hell as eternal punishment for their previous evil deeds, not to learn—or ‘hone,’ as you put it—nefarious acts to inflict on others in the future.”
Verge shook his head. “Mr. Stumble, you have much to learn. Like all misguided earthlings who come here, your beliefs about The Dark Experience have been grievously twisted by those old superstitions about ‘forever damnation’ being inflicted on people who have been quaintly called ‘sinners’ as retribution for their past, corrupt lives.”
“You are saying, for example, that terrorists are actually being released from Hell, even after our assassination teams spent so much time and money ensuring that they got here?”
“Brighten up. Mr. Stumble,” urged Verge, cheerily observing the despondent look on JW’s face, “nothing lasts forever—not even Hell.”
Just then, Verge reached across the table and waved his hand in JW’s face. In a brisk ‘the-interview-is-over’ tone of voice, Verge said, “Okay, enough of this idle chit-chat: congratulations, JW, you have passed the first stage of the interview process. You are entering the next phase, which is about to begin now!“
Verge, like a hypnotist, snapped his fingers in JW’s face, awakening him from the 10-second nap he had slipped into when Verge had originally flashed his palm across JW’s eyes—except that this time Verge was no longer ‘Verge.’ Across the desk from JW, Quizling’s face, now fully restored from its earlier vanishing act, grimaced its toothless grin.
JW was actually pleased that Verge was gone, as he was getting to be an insufferable bore. With his precision crafted smile and cliché HR jargon, Verge was what JW, in his sarcastic earthly days, used to call a Generic Rep.
Whether customer service representatives in corporations or bureaucratic functionaries in the government, identical, annoying Verge-types were, in his past, not only everywhere but always crawling into one’s life. Despite what Quizling had originally said—and Verge had reiterated—the past and its memories were obviously not dead in Hell. In fact, if The Dark Experience’s purpose was to punish its detainees, then Generic Reps were actually a good fit here—always the mindless functionaries whose very presence tended to infuriate and frustrate—a kind of softcore psychic torture. However, then what purpose was served by the sudden appearance of Quizling in a professional office, strangely removed from his normal river navigation duties? He certainly was the very opposite of white-collar, bureaucratic Verge-types, who were not usually hired for dirty jobs such as hauling criminals and degenerates across smelly rivers to meet their ultimate fate. Moreover, why was he here conducting JW’s second interview?
“How is your petition to leave going…?” asked JW.
“Don’t try to small-talk me, Mr. Stumble,” interrupted Quizling. “I know you were angling for my job, but I don’t care about keeping it anymore. In fact, I have been promoted…promoted to be your mentor and guide to help you adjust—so to speak—to your new ‘life’ (he chuckled slightly) here in The Dark Experience. Gone are the days when I was everybody’s lowly slave, when I was the good old sweaty ferryman rowing a bunch of new, scared detainees across that stinking river while trying to calm them down, answering their dumb questions, and hustling them for their money.”
“So that means you are not leaving Hell…?”
Yes, that is true…sorry to disappoint you, but you will not be replacing me as the ferryman. You have not passed this second interview. However, I am telling you, you are lucky. You will not be sweating bullets out there on that god-forsaken river in that hot stench while grilling a bunch of incoming terrorists or gangsters about where they have hidden their filthy cash. Trust me: it is not a job that you would ever want—or would ever miss. “
“So what happens to me now?”
“As The Dark Experience and Verge have promised, you are about to enter into an exciting new and adventurous chapter of your afterlife,” Quizling replied thickly as his hitherto toothless mouth suddenly filled with fangs while his words gurgled slightly as he mumbled some gibberish, utterly incomprehensible to JW. Obviously, the interview was over.
The TV news presenter’s purplish-red mottled mouth and lips, slightly oozing a pinkish-bloody foam, almost filled the entire wall screen as the creature—JW could swear that the face was magnified or maybe bloated—droned on in a flat, unemotional voice. “The Dark Experience is happy to announce today that it is expanding its Point of Entry facilities to receive an eventual upsurge in detainees due to the latest reports by our onsite earth surveillance teams of fresh corruption in the earth’s political systems. If you are interested in a career opportunity as an Intake Facilitation Specialist, please contact Verge Dirge in HR by dialing extension 666 on your room phone. Moreover, the first 20 callers will be entered into our Special Leave program contest, allowing the lucky winners, upon management review and approval, to return to earth as Surveillance Operatives, locating the money owed to The Dark Experience by future detainees that Verge and his team have so graciously agreed to receive and shelter. For more details, switch to channel 5 on your wall screen.”
JW sat on the edge of his uncomfortable bed, watching the newscaster. After Quizling had mumbled his particular bit of gibberish—a curse, perhaps? — JW had found himself in a shabby motel room—dark brown, flyspecked walls, frayed grayish-red carpets, and a double bed with a lumpy mattress. On a small bedside table sat a red rotary dial phone, and next to it was a thick, black book, on whose cover were embossed the words, “CURRENT JOB OPENINGS”.
JW opened it and flipped through the pages. They were blank. He leaned back on the bed and winced as he felt its lumps knife into his back. Yeah, he thought, sighing, I am starting to get it. Verge Dirge and this goon Quizling are playing twisted mind games on me. It must be all part of my punishment protocol. One minute I pass a job interview; the next minute I fail a job interview. One minute, their in-house TV channel is advertising jobs; the next minute, there are no jobs. Quizling tells me that there is no past, present, or future here, yet Verge Dirge interviews me about my past career and talks about the future—all obviously psychic torture.
A bell jangled outside the door of his room. JW strode across the floor, his nose inhaling a sudden stink from the tattered carpet, which had had a rather pleasant smell like mildly perfumed wet fur but now suddenly reeked of that awful rotten egg stench from the river, and pulled the knob. It was Quizling dressed in a wrinkled devil’s costume, his (now) toothy, pockmarked face painted neon orange. Speaking in low, gurgling tones like a man muttering underwater, his voice, without its previous sarcastic energy, was emotionally flat and robotic.
“Greetings JW. Happy Halloween,” he mechanically intoned. “I am here to give you some treats, not tricks; management, in its infinite compassion and wisdom, has decided to give you a nice surprise, another big chance. You are the lucky winner in our special leave contest, which you just saw detailed on your wall screen. As advertised, your prize is one of our surveillance specialist positions for tracking illegal financial transactions and collecting information on the identities of various incoming criminals, which, as you know, we will use to, ah, collect their POE entrance fees and calculate their punishment when they finally get here. You will get a full meet-and-greet plus a detailed orientation when you get back to earth. Congratulations! You are now a member of the Dark Experience team.”
JW started to ask Quizling if there was going to be a formal exit interview before he left Hell when a fresh gust of the watery, rotten egg smell from the carpet burst into JW’s nostrils. Woozy, head spinning, and feeling vaguely nauseous, JW fumbled into the bed and fell flat on his face as the mattress’s lumps slammed his jaw; the stinking odor faded, then darkness, then forgetting.
JW was in a different and larger hospital room than before, this one filled with elaborate, shiny medical devices that were humming and blinking. He wore an oxygen facemask; his body was festooned with tubes and wires.
“Welcome back to the land of the living, Mr. Stumble,” a gentle, professional voice lightly rumbled as its owner stepped into JW’s range of vision. With a thin face and pale skin almost cadaverous underneath a fading tan, a man in a white jacket introduced himself:
“I am Doctor Abbot; however, I won’t be your attending physician.” He turned sideways, motioned toward a shadowy corner, and gently backed away. JW heard his room’s door hiss softly as it shut.
A figure in a pinstriped gray business suit slinked out of the corner. A nametag on his lapel read, “Verge Dirge, Customer Accounts Department/Medical Intern.”
“Hello, Mr. Stumble, I second the good doctor’s greeting.”
He bowed slightly and then bucked his head and body forward as if he were going to grab JW and drag him out of the bed. Instead, he thrust a document in JW’s face and purred viciously. “Here is your IOU invoice for services rendered. This is debt collection time, JW. Since you were once in the business of hustling people for money, you can especially appreciate the urgency of this matter. You owe the hospital money—you have been in a coma the last few days, assigned to the intensive care unit—but further, you also owe The Dark Experience for your counseling, as well as for your transportation costs, your job search, and the apartment we graciously allotted you during your visit with us. However, because Quizling failed to collect an entrance fee from you at the POE, we have generously waived that. Incidentally, I have checked the money you deposited in the patients’ property accounts, and there is not enough to pay us back.”
“I thought I was being offered a new job back on earth. I mean, Quizling said…”
Verge Dirge scoffed, snorting heatedly through his nose. “I told you Quizling is a serial liar. His Halloween visit to you was all tricks and no treats, I am afraid, despite what he claimed. His job offer was a scam, and moreover, remember what Quizling said to you when you first came over: your old life is behind you now.”
JW frowned at the invoice he gripped in his sweaty hand. “I mean, there is no way I can pay all this back!”
“I have a simple solution for you, JW.” Verge burbled cheerfully as he pulled a small syringe from his jacket pocket. “Dead men have no debts…one jab from this, and all of your financial worries are over. Moreover, the good news is that, whereas you came to The Dark Experience before only in an involuntarily temporary near-death state, you can go back now in a voluntary permanent ‘whole-death’ status. If you willingly accept my offer, we will waive all costs for you, as you will be a full, self-guided enrollee—not merely a detainee—in The Dark Experience’s VIP personal improvement program, which features the Special Fire Massage Therapy. Imagine, Mr. Stumble! All those services at no cost, plus free rent for an eternity!
“Don’t worry. It won’t hurt,” Verge, murmured seductively as he edged closer to JW’s bed. Sighing wearily but without regrets, JW slowly extended his upraised arm. The needle entered. Verge Dirge had closed the deal.
Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. He blends horror, noir, and sci-fi with philosophical and theological themes. A Belgium-based magazine, the Sci-Phi Journal, honored by the European Science Fiction Society with its Hall of Fame Award for Best SF Magazine, recently accepted one of Mr. White’s stories.
His other poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. In addition, he has presented his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio.
If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.