Danny V. Luce sits back in his sleek, leather chair and kicks his feet up on his desk like the world is a pea-sized speck in the middle of it and he’s here for its reckoning.
“Look, Darlene. I know this is how you’re used to doing things, but you’ve just gotta let it go.”
He’s actually here for my reckoning. I keep forgetting — that’s what happens when you come out from a minor car accident with major head trauma.
“Luce.” He corrects me quickly, as though he expects the slip.
“Mr. Luce.” I blink, wondering how I forgot that already. He just told me when I came out of the elevator. He was waiting for me, handshake and everything. “I understand what you mean. But…”
I smooth down the front of my too-thin white blouse and hook my thumbs in the belt loops of my black slacks. Then I set my palms on the arms of the cold, metal chair — the only thing in his office not ornate or expensive, like the solid oak desk or his buttery leather chair.
Is he really going to make me say it?
“It’s just such high expectations!” I finally gush. “You have to understand—”
“Apparently, you don’t understand what I mean at all. Darlene.”
He says my name with the weight of a wrecking ball behind it and picks a piece of lint off the fitted sleeve of his tailored navy suit. He’d look better in pinstripes. I’m not sure why I know that, but I do. Everything else about him is perfect, though, from his slicked-back dark hair to his olive-toned skin.
“You work for me now. You follow my orders, you obey my rules. The moment you stepped into this building, you entered my jurisdiction. I don’t let that kind of thing go. You knew that before you got here. Didn’t you?”
I quiver under his black glare. Somewhere deep inside of me is a small shred of courage, and I tug on it with the ventricles of my heart and find the strength to speak. “I know, but … my head. You know my memory’s not so good. Can’t you make an exception…?”
His long, curling eyelashes give every girl in the office a dose of heady envy every time he blinks. When they brush the sharp lines of his high cheekbones now, I don’t feel envy. Just condemnation. I was stupid to even ask.
“If you don’t do your tasks to the letter, it’s not a question of more paperwork. I don’t submit some form to undo what you didn’t do properly in the first place. You were hired for your meticulous attention to detail. If you don’t use that meticulousness to do this job, then I’m afraid we don’t have a position for you.”
I shudder a little. Not having a position isn’t an option for me. It just … isn’t.
“It was just a couple milliseconds,” I say. “I really don’t see what the big … deal … is.” Even as the words trip and stumble out from my lips, I can feel his gaze darkening. Somehow, the more stormy his eyes get, the more I feel like I’m on fire.
Am I just blushing, or is he condemning me to burn with nothing but his gaze?
He pulls his feet off his desk with quick, precise movements and sets them on the floor out of sight. He tips forward in his chair, leans his elbows on the desk, and pulls three pieces of paper out from a plain file folder on his desk. The file folder isn’t marked with a label or even sharpie. It’s just blank.
The papers that he lines up in front of me are covered in words. They’re marked up from top to bottom, point-five inch margin to point-five inch margin. I know, because I formatted them that way. The only way. There are no indents, there are no line breaks, and each word is error-free.
The first line of each page is the same. John Mark McMillan in bold and the rest of the information follows. While there are some technical differences to the information, the story written about each John in monospaced, twelve-point font is basically the same. The three Johns led quiet lives. They liked to watch sports — rugby — and they all cheered for the same team. Played when they were in high school. Got into college on a scholarship. Graduated. Got married. Had kids. Everything, down to the last breath of their life, was the exact same except for the timestamp at the very bottom of the page. The end of the last line.
John Mark McMillan #1 passed away on 03.09.1987 at 00:00:26.013. John Mark McMillan #2 on the same day, 00:00:27.013. And John Mark McMillan #3: same day … and the same time as John #2.
I scratch my head. The jagged edge of my fingernail catches on a strand of my frizzy, short brown hair. I’ve been biting my nails again. I’m a mess. I pull my hand away and the hair comes with it. I wince.
“I guess that’s not great, then, is it?” I say.
“You understand,” Mr. Luce agrees in his smooth, low voice.
I click my tongue and tap my finger on the desktop, three times on each piece of paper. John #1 went to college upcountry while #2 and #3 went to the same school two years apart in the same city. If John #1 had the same expiry timestamp as one of the other Johns, it wouldn’t be an issue because of the different school: a noticeable difference. But John #2 and John #3 are the problem. They died at the same time, on the same day, and their lives were mostly the same from the moment they reached the age of conscious morality until the day of their expiry.
I clutch my head between my hands and stare down at the papers of Johns 2 and 3.
“How are you supposed to tell them apart?” I think I'm going to cry.
Mr. Luce leans back in his chair and crosses his arms, nodding. “Exactly. We keep no record of anyone’s birth. We don’t care about them until they enter conscious morality and that doesn’t happen until at least a few years into their childhood — and even that’s debatable.”
He pauses long enough to draw my gaze up. I haven’t dropped my hands. I must look a complete mess, and yet Mr. Luce manages to weather this disaster without so much as a piece of lint on his jacket.
“If the millisecond of their death isn’t recorded precisely … how am I supposed to make sure the right John ends up in the right place?” He shuffles the three pages on the desk until they’re out of order. I can figure out which one was John #1 at a glance, but looking over the other two, I can’t tell: which one had been second and which one had been third? They may as well be the same person. Two John Mark McMillans with lives that are mostly the same, just written down with a few different verbs and adjectives.
“Aw, hell,” I say under my breath.
Mr. Luce grins — at least he has a sense of humour.
“Indeed, Darlene,” he says. “How do I know where to put these sinners? My job is to help them move from their old life to their new one. To the afterlife. But one of them is supposed to fall under the Minor Jump Scares and Childlike Torments for all eternity, while the other one has to relive the trauma of spilling cherry juice all over his mother’s wedding dress for only a few millennia before we transfer him to the department of Children Lost in Supermarkets. I can’t afford to get these two mixed up. As manager of the First Circle of Hell, I must display the same meticulousness as a Life & Expiry Accountant. So..."
He takes a long breath. It feels as though an eternity creeps by in that moment. This is it. I'm done.
“What do you propose we do?”
I hold my breath. He’s asking me? I thought I was here to get fired. What do I know? This is insanity. But I give it some thought anyway because I can’t afford to lose this job. I should have been thinking about it all the way up the elevator until the moment I shook his hand, except I forgot what I was supposed to be thinking about, just like I forgot to put the right number for the millisecond at the end of John #3’s expiry timestamp. Or was it John #2 that I got wrong?
Mr. Luce spins in his chair and gets up. My heart is pounding in my chest three times too fast and I know that when I get anxious I forget important things. What is important to remember here? I need to remember the mixed up Johns, the mismarked expiry date … something about cherry juice.
“Oh!” I say.
Mr. Luce pauses on his way around the desk. He plants both palms on the edge and leans in.
“Yes?” he says, when I don’t immediately speak.
“Just give them each a glass of cherry juice.”
His eyes are dark and fiery at the same time. Heat creeps up my cheeks. Is he going to fire me now? I won’t get another chance to work off my sins without this job, but it's starting to look hopeless. We are in Hell after all. Why should I expect hope?
I give a quick shrug, feigning nonchalance in a last-ditch effort to impress him. “If one of them is tormented by it, that’s sure to come up right away. Isn’t it?”
I'll say anything to keep this job.
A smile creeps across Mr. Luce's face, starting on his left cheek and crawling to his right, until his lips split his face like a dark crevice.
“My, my…” His voice is a husky, charming timbre that makes all the ladies in the office swoon. It makes my heart flutter a little, but I think that’s mostly the anxiety. “This is why we keep you around, Darlene.”
He presses a red button on his shiny black desk phone. He doesn’t wait for Cindy, the receptionist, to say a word in greeting.
“Get me two cups of cherry juice for the next interviews, Cinders. And make sure the glasses are clear."
He lifts the tip of his long, elegant finger off the button and flashes another cavernous grin before stuffing the John Mark McMillans back into their file folder.
“Alright, Darlene. Back to work.”
I shoot up out of the cold metal chair and don’t question it. There’s no room for questions. I still have a job and that’s the only thing that matters to me as I dart out the door of his office and past the cubicles of the other employees working off their sins in the First Circle of Hell. On my way past Joyce’s desk, I hear the usual rattle of her rapid-fire words into her telephone:
“Thanks, Jerry. And when you’re done inspecting the Pits of Vermin and Carrion, you need to make a trip up to Third Circle for the Arachnophobia chambers — the webs have gotten out of control again. It’s making the sinners in the Snake Pits think they’re getting one thing when they’re really getting something else.”
I keep my head down and count my steps — all 57 of them — from Mr. Luce’s office to my cubicle at the other end to make sure that I don’t forget where I am and go into the wrong workspace by mistake. I sink into the worn fabric seat of my desk chair, take a deep breath, and wait for my heart rate to slow down.
Just another day in the office.