Contest #197 shortlist ⭐️

12 comments

Fantasy Funny LGBTQ+

This story contains sensitive content

Trigger Warnings: Reference to domestic violence (not explicit), reference to eating disorder (not explicit)

Ane is disappointed to open her eyes again. People who have lived a more morally righteous life are probably ecstatic to find that the promised afterlife does indeed exist. Ane, however, has spent many of her later years holding onto the hope that there might be nothing much at all after the big end and that she might be able to skip out on her share of divine judgement.

That hope came in extremely handy when murdering her first as well as her second husband. Really, killing hadn’t affected her as much as the poets claimed it would. But now the wide black river stretches in front of her, snaking into an ever-darkening cave whose ceiling fills the skies overhead. Horned, red-skinned devils occupy processing stations with dull glass pane windows, small clipboards, and short, orderly queues while old, bearded men admit unhappy souls onto small barques on which they are carried further into the cave.

Well, Ane thinks with a delirious giggle rising in her throat, my last husband did tell me to ‘go to hell’. I suppose I am nothing if not obliging.

She takes her place in the shortest-looking queue, behind a seven-foot-tall barbarian who carries a still-bloody meat cleaver over his shoulder. She looks down at herself and finds that she is still wearing the lacy white nightgown in which she’d been strangled. Some kind soul has let her keep her pink fluffy dressing gown, which Ane is fairly sure was close to but not on her corpse. It’s the small things.

Just in case it matters, she thinks a quick ‘thank you’ prayer, then uses cold, clam fingers to comb through her hair. Her looks have permitted her a lot of special treatment in life, and there is no reason to believe that things would change in the afterlife.

The barbarian in front of her is processed quickly enough. Apparently pillaging your way through seven tribes in the Far East gains you a one-way ticket to the eighteenth circle of hell. He is obviously from another time than Ane as he’s befuddled and intimidated by the Plexiglas that separates him from the devil and keeps poking it with his index finger to make sure it knows not to attack him.

The eighteenth circle is far enough down the cavern that the devils summon a speed boat from somewhere, which is operated by a surly-looking teenage girl, who is apparently one of the only ferry people who have a licence for the thing. The barbarian steps on it with shaking legs and wide eyes, then they rush off into the blackness that looms in the depths of the cave. The other boats move out of the way.

Apparently, things are very orderly in hell.

Ane is next in line. The devil takes a short while before acknowledging her, busy downing an iced coffee adorned with an extravagant layer of sugary whipped cream. He wipes his bright red lips with an embroidered napkin, clears his throat, and looks up at her with stark black eyes.

“In case you didn’t already guess, you’re dead”, he starts. His voice is as thin as the echoing cave air, and he sounds like he is in sore need of a break.

“Wait, what?”, Ane replies, then tears fill her eyes. Her hands start shaking and her lip quivers.

“Oh dear god”, the devil mutters, horrified, “Honey, what’s the last thing –?”

Ane starts laughing.

“I’m just kidding.”

“Oh. Oh! How very droll”, the devil replies tight-lipped, then returns to the clipboard that lies in front of him. Ane notices that new ones keep appearing out of thin air. 

 “So, you are Ane Brooke-Hitching?”

“Yes.”

“And you know why you’re here?”

“Because my husband murdered me?”

The devil glares up at her.

“After you tried to poison him, yes?”

“Details.”

“Yes. Details. We took note of all the details.”

The devil adds a line to her file. Ane sighs internally and puts on her best shaky voice.

“I was scared for my life”, she pleads, “I didn’t know what else to do. My husband was very powerful, and I knew that even if I left him –”

“Listen, we don’t make the judgements here. In fact, this is an observation-free zone, both from upstairs and downstairs busybodies. You can save yourself the melodramatics.”

“Oh”, Ane said, returning to her regular voice, “Very well then. His parents made me sign a prenup, so I tried to kill him. Worked twice before.”

“Why risk it a third time? Did you not have enough savings from the first two husbands?”

Ane shrugs impatiently.

“Who exactly are you? My financial advisor?”

“I’m just curious. I don’t get out much.”

Ane sighs, then leans across the narrow counter.

“Okay, listen. You don’t go for the super-rich guys. There’s far too much suspicion if any of that lot die prematurely. That, and they tend to have weird expectations.”

“Like what?”

“Use your imagination.”

“Processing devils aren’t given too much of that. We leave the imagining to the folks doling out the punishments below.”

Ane blows some air out of her cheeks. She leans in closer and gives him some examples. The devil’s skin somehow manages to become even redder. 

“Right”, he replies.

“Oh, and another one –” 

“I get the picture.”

Ane shrugs.

“So, you go for the millionaires and not the billionaires. Far less faff, far less attention, far less security. But the funds dry up quickly after you’ve been on a few fancy holidays.”

“Hmm. Makes sense, I suppose.”

The devil scans the lower part of her file. He whistles.

“Even the doctors thought that your second husband died of cancer.”

“It’s amazing what you can achieve with a basic knowledge of biology. That, and a surprising number of people on the internet are more than happy to help you murder your spouse as long as you claim that they didn’t do their share of the dishes.”

The devil looks a little wistful.  

“Ah yes, the internet. That was a good shout from downstairs.”

He scans the rest of her file, then looks up at her.

“So, I’ve got good news and bad news. Which do you want first?”

Ane considers this in earnest. Deep down, she’s always been an optimist. You don’t try to grab so much of life if you aren’t delusional enough to think that you can handle it.

“The good news.”

 “Okay. You aren’t going to hell.”

Ane stares at the devil, then blinks.

“Seriously?”

The devil nods seriously.

“Yes. You are benefitting from a recently implemented effectual karma system.”

“That being?”

“That being that it’s no longer only the consequences and moral impact of your actions that are counted at the end-of-life tally. It’s also the consequences and moral impact of actions that you facilitated or prevented.”

“All right…?”

“And it just so happens that your first husband would have gone on to start up a series of sweatshops in Indonesia if you hadn’t prevented him from doing so, and your second husband would have funded a massive military initiative in the Middle East. Thousands and thousands of people dead, wounded, and displaced. All prevented thanks to your insatiable greed.”

Ane takes a mock bow.

“Always happy to please.”

“I bet.”

The devil clears his throat.

“Now, for the bad news. We can’t admit you upstairs.”

“Why not?”

“Erm… because you’re a murderer? A murderer who didn’t even repent during the last millisecond of her life but who instead thought, and I quote, ‘Oh well, it was worth a try’.”

“Repentance is overrated. If you did it, you obviously wanted to do it.”

“The people upstairs would disagree.”

Ane realises that it’s pointless to argue.

“All right then. Well, if I’m neither going downstairs nor upstairs, where am I going?”

“You’re staying here.”

“Here?”

Ane scrunches her nose.

“What, am I supposed to help with the paperwork?”

“You can do if you’re bored”, the devil says, then points behind Ane.

“Turn around.”

Ane does. There is a sea of tents behind the processing station that look like a tapestry of small mountain tops, the fabrics all white and fluttering in a barely felt breeze. She can see people sitting on upturned barrels, having slow conversations over steaming hot beverages or suckling on half-empty bottles of beer. There is little movement and even less sound. Only a pale, half-realised existence underneath a dark cavern sky.

Ane looks down at herself again. Still in the flimsy nightgown with legs thin from anorexia and with few lines on her hands. She feels the skin on her face. Still at the dying cusp of youth.

“Will I age? While I’m here?”

The devil stares at her.

“That’s not the question most people ask.”

“What is?”

“Ahem. I quote. ‘Oh my god, is there anything I can do to leave? Who do I speak to? Where do I go?’”

Ane snorts.

“Why would I ask that? This is a much better deal than I deserve.”

The devil smiles a thin-lipped smile.

“I quite agree. It’s always nice to meet a mortal who isn’t delusional.”

Ane had been accused of many things during her ultimately short lifetime. To her benefit and often simultaneous detriment, she has always known exactly where she stands. And for a long time now she’s been okay with who she is.

“So? Will I age?”

“No. You stay in whichever form you died in. Except they get rid of the wounds and such.”

“Why? I mean, I’m not complaining, but –”

“Oh, they didn’t always. But we requested it at the latest work reform conference. A lack of blood, body horror, and general gore really does a lot to brighten up a workplace.”   

“You’d think you devils would like that sort of thing.”

“Why?”

“Hm. I don’t really know.”

“Well then.”

Ane glances at the rows and rows of tents again.

“How will I know which one’s mine?”, she asks.

“Oh, you’ll know. A mystical pull in your chest will guide you there.”

Ane narrows her eyes.

“Seriously?”

“No, of course not. What is this, Disneyland?”

The devil snorts good-naturedly, then points at another queue to the side of the cavern. A large neon sign above it reads ‘Limbo Processing’.

“You get a ticket there which will correspond to your tent. Not that it matters much. They’re all basically the same and all come with basic facilities. Don’t worry, they’re a bit bigger on the inside.”

“Right.”

Ane hesitates.

“Hate to be a cliché, but is there any way to go outside for, say, a vacation? Just out of interest.”

The devil taps his finger against his chin.

“Well, we used to do the whole reincarnation rigmarole, but overpopulation has forced us to put a stop to that for now. Too many new people are being born, so the old ones can’t sneak in anymore. You could come back as a ghost and haunt some skittish Americans but I’m warning you now – that’s a temporary gig and the waiting list’s currently about 780 years.”

“Hm. Okay.”

Ane clicks her tongue slowly.

“So, this being a non-observation zone… does that mean that nothing I do here ‘counts’?”

The devil sighs.

“You can’t kill people here if that’s what you mean. You can hurt folk’s feelings but that’s about it. The cleaners didn’t like it back when you lot could still bleed down here. That was another work conference reform.”

He wags his red, pointed fingers.

“If you cause too much trouble, though, we might decide that you’re worth transferring downstairs just so we’re rid of you. So, like… don’t?”

“Cool. That’s fine.”

The devil clears his throat and points at the line that’s formed behind Ane.

“So, if you don’t have any more questions, honey…?”

“Hm. Just one. Would I get something if I assisted you with your paperwork?”

“The pleasure of my company?”

“Ew. Pass.”

Ane glances at the people in the line behind her. Mostly everyday men and women, in various states of anger and confusion, some of them clutching onto makeshift weapons. They probably all came in together from some battle fought out somewhere in space and time. But there is one face that stands out to her. It belongs to a giant woman, standing far above six feet tall, with long, frizzy black hair, blazing dark eyes, a scowl that could melt the stone from the cavern walls, and a bejewelled axe that dangles precariously over her shoulder.

There is something imperious about the way she looks at everyone in the room, as though they are insects she might deign to crush underneath her heel.

Her thighs are thick. Her muscles look strong enough to lift Ane with a single finger. And she is wearing some kind of leather armour that shows all of this off magnificently.

Hers and Ane’s gazes meet for a moment, and Ane feels a sharp sting between her legs.

There’s another reason she ended up murdering her husbands. She could never stay away from women. And this is perhaps the most magnificent woman she’s ever seen.

She leans forward on the counter and lowers her voice to a hush.

“Hey. Who’s the babe back there?”, she asks, trying to subtly point out the woman.

“What, Irina? Military commander, twenty-third century; bit ahead of your time. Northern Sibiria but that won’t matter. You lot all speak some amalgamated nonsense language while you’re here.”

“Right, right”, Ane says, barely listening, “Erm, is she by any chance staying in Limbo, too?”

The devil snorts out a laugh.

“What, her? No way. She killed, like, so many people. You can’t even fathom the amount of suffering –”

Ane feels the pulsation between her legs intensify. She sighs a long, mournful sigh, then gives the devil her best smile.

“Okay, then. What do I have to do to keep her here for at least a night?”

The devil laughs again, but when he realises that she’s being serious, a thought creeps across his features.

“You know, there might actually be something. There’s this thing I could use a human’s help with, and processing is notoriously slow sometimes…”

“What do you need?”

“One of the other devils has been annoying the living shit out of me for the past four thousand years. Sending birthday cards on the wrong date, buying snacks he knows I’m allergic to, eating tuna and onion sandwiches in the break room, that sort of thing.”

“Right. An unofficial and unauthorised form of torture.”

“Exactly! You get it.”

“What do you want me to do about it?”

“What do you think? I want you to drown him in the river of the dead.”

May 10, 2023 08:44

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12 comments

JJM Gudde
11:07 May 18, 2023

Such a nice story with a very imaginative depiction of the afterlife. I like your writing style - quite engaging, and the dialogue with the devil was very funny hah. I think my only criticism would be regarding the reincarnation and on how it ended due to overpopulation. I mean, if people from different times are brought together to the processing line, theoretically, people from ancient times should still be reincarnated as in their time human population would be quite small (I like the idea of reincarnation, so perhaps it’s my personal b...

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22:11 Jun 08, 2023

Very clever, well executed and with a magnetic antihero. Very nice

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Jody S
20:58 May 26, 2023

I enjoy stories of the after-life and the other side and this is a fabulous take on it all!! What I really liked is how you took what should be an unlikable person and made her have a light and fun side. Congratulations on being short listed!! I am new to the sit also and hope I can eventually have a short list read too!! Will look forward to more of your works! Thank you for sharing!!

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Graham Kinross
00:06 May 26, 2023

Your humour in this is great. Congratulations on being shortlisted. Clearly we can look forward to your future work.

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Peter Wyatt
18:47 May 23, 2023

Very cool story. It kind of stands to reason there would still be bureaucracy even in hell. Your characters have excellent dialogue and the story flowed well from start to finish. An enjoyable read!

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Sophia Rios
19:28 May 22, 2023

Really well done! From the first line I felt transported to another world.

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Philip Ebuluofor
14:12 May 22, 2023

Fine work here and descriptive ability at its best. Congrats.

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C. A. Janke
21:25 May 20, 2023

This is brilliant! So many laugh-out-loud lines but one of my favourites was, "A murderer who didn’t even repent during the last millisecond of her life but who instead thought, and I quote, ‘Oh well, it was worth a try’." So good! Ane really does have such a likable personality despite all the murdering and greed. Amazing work and congrats on the shortlist!

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Steve Uppendahl
16:47 May 20, 2023

I enjoyed the dialogue in your story. Dialogue is my favorite part of writing and you nailed the playfulness between Ane and the devil perfectly, though it seemed a bit awkward or wordy at times. I also liked how there isn't a redeemable character in your story. Of course, when the setting is hell, you wouldn't expect there to be. But, it's still enjoyable nonetheless. I found the mix of characters from various generations being intermixed in the same queue interesting. No real complaint at all - it was just interesting. This is a great...

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Mary Bendickson
02:18 May 20, 2023

Welcome to Reedsy. A he-double-l of a way to come in!

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Tommy Goround
18:53 May 15, 2023

"That hope came in extremely handy when murdering her first as well as her second husband." hahah Her looks have permitted her a lot of special treatment in life, and there is no reason to believe that things would change in the afterlife. ::clapping (Gee, I cant even read your story without stopping to quote the zingers)

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Tricia Shulist
01:57 May 15, 2023

Ha! Great story. And a great perspective on the afterlife. The Ane character is great. The conversation between her and the devil is a lot of fun. Thanks for this.

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