A man and a woman sat opposite each other in the waiting room to Hell, alone. They were looking at their phones, which were playing a steady stream of pharmaceutical drug commercials. There was no option to view anything else. There was nothing else to look in the room except each other, and a few nondescript paintings. Not even a door or a reception desk.
Eleanor, the woman, had been an appreciator of fine art in life, and always tried to find something nice to say about a piece even if she didn’t like it. But when she tried to take a break from the nonstop drug ads and look at the paintings, she found that they were not only boring, they were so boring that she found herself getting unreasonably angry. She couldn’t bring herself to look at the man opposite her, so she looked back at her phone. There was no sound, and no buttons on the phone, so she watched in silence. She shifted in her uncomfortable molded plastic chair.
Steve, the man, had looked at the woman for a while. The one saving grace of dying and going to hell, so far, was that he had his youth back. He didn’t know what age the woman had been when she died, but she was young. She wasn’t his type, but she was much prettier than anything else in the room. But she didn’t look back at him and didn’t seem inclined to speak, so he looked down at his phone. He’d been on many of the medications in the ads when he died in his sleep at age 93. He didn’t think of them with nostalgia. He shifted in his typical terrible waiting room chair, marveling at how he could sit in it without it losing all resemblance to a place to sit and becoming an insidious torture device, as chairs used to do in the latter half of his life. His pain was gone. He was still marveling at it, for however long they’d been sitting here (hours? days?). He would have thought, having been sent to Hell, they would have made him spend eternity as a crippled old man praying for oblivion.
He found he really didn’t want to speculate on why Hell would take away his pain. Probably just so he’d suffer more.
Another man appeared in the room. There was no door, he simply wasn’t there, and then he was. He was also muttering to himself, as he first glanced at the phone in his hand, and then threw it across the room. It burst into flames and disappeared, reappearing after a second back in the man’s hand. His lips made a comical round “O” for a moment, then he went back to muttering.
“I’m a man of faith, a man of God. Something’s not right. The paperwork must have gotten mixed up. A clerical error, that’s what this is.” He plunked down in a third chair that had appeared when he had, and looked around. “I’ve always thought Hell would be a waiting room. Glad they got that much right.” His accent was British, but from what region neither Eleanor nor Steve knew.
Eleanor cringed at the thought of an eternity spent here in this room. Being bored was hellish, so probably appropriate, but what would be the point? Hell had always seemed pointless to her, so she hadn’t believed in it. Now she was here.
Steve studied the new man. He was of course young, a bit overweight, and quite obviously used to having a sweaty bald head. As he was muttering, he took a handkerchief out of his breast pocket and mopped his whole head with it, despite having a full curly mop of hair and not a drip of sweat in sight. “I’m Steve,” said Steve, with no real expectation of response.
“Steve, that’s a good name. I’m John Halloway. I’m not supposed to go to Hell. I done right by my neighbor, done right by my wife and kids, my mum and da, never hurt no one. I’m not supposed to suffer eternal torments for thah, I can’t be.” Tears streamed down his face, and then evaporated with a startling hiss of steam.
The room was a perfectly comfortable temperature.
Both men stared at Eleanor until she felt their eyes and looked up, furtive.
“What’s your name, miss?” John asked.
“Eleanor,” she whispered, then cleared her throat and sat up straight, putting the phone in her lap and speaking clearly. “Eleanor.”
“Do you know what you’re in for, so to speak, Miss Eleanor?” John continued.
She laughed without mirth. “There isn’t anyone who actually knows what Hell is, or what it’s like, so I have no idea what I’m in for. It could be an eternity of torment, like you said, but I don’t believe that.”
John looked confused, and Steve replied for him. “I think he meant what did you do in life to put you here. As if we’re in prison.” He raised an eyebrow at John.
John huffed. “I ain’t never been locked in any prison in my life, and I sure don’t see a way out of this room, do you?”
“No,” John conceded.
“Well,” Eleanor said thoughtfully, “I’m not sure. I probably haven’t been the nicest person, but I never did anyone any lasting harm that I know of. I also never accepted Jesus Christ as my lord and savior, or got absolution from the Catholic Church. I wasn’t baptized, I never achieved Enlightenment…”
“I was baptized, and I thought I was right with God,” John said woefully.
“I was also baptized and got absolution on my death bed,” Steve said.
Eleanor shrugged. “Maybe it’s some other thing that’s the key to Heaven,” she mused.
“None of us is Jewish, right?” said Steve. “Maybe they were the Chosen people all along.”
After a moment Eleanor shook her head and said, “We’re all white. Maybe all white people go to Hell for the sins of our collective race.”
John looked completely appalled. “They can’t do that! That’s…well, that’s racism, that is! Heaven would never do something so awful. Anyone can get into Heaven!”
Eleanor shook her head. “I’m not really trying to answer the question of why we’re here, or why we didn’t qualify for Heaven. I don’t know. I’m just speaking hypothetically because there’s nothing else to do.”
John huffed and then sighed. “I guess we’re in this boat together, after all.”
“Perhaps we could talk about something else,” Steve offered.
“Sounds good,” replied Eleanor, and then they sat in awkward silence for a moment.
John, fidgeting, reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “This says A-21. It looks like they gave me a number.”
Eleanor looked up and then reached into her skirt pocket—a sensible woman always wore pants or skirts with pockets—and pulled out a similar piece of paper. “This says C-143859.” She met Steve’s eyes with a frightened glance.
Steve frowned, then reached into his own pocket. “Z-9076. I think we've taken a number. Mine seems to be last in line, if the letters are alphabetical.
Eleanor sighed. “I didn’t know what the letters meant at the DMV, and I don’t know here either, I’m afraid.”
A fourth individual appeared in the room, startling them. This individual appeared to be made of black volcanic rock with features articulated in white hot lava. It was holding a clipboard. It smiled an unsettling sort of smile, with lava teeth, and said, “The Prince of Darkness will see you now.”
Eleanor felt as though her blood had turned to ice. She wondered how that could be, since she was dead.
Steve nodded thoughtfully and stood up.
John jumped out of his chair, swearing. He made a cross with his fingers and shouted, “Back, vile demon! The Power of Christ compels you!”
In response, the rock person said nothing, just kept smiling.
“Wh-wh-which number are you here to call?” Eleanor stammered.
At this, the rock person burst into laughter, like the distant roar of a volcano. “A lot of people believe Hell is a waiting room. We do like to ease you into things with a little joke,” it said, and the room, their phones, their pieces of paper, even the clipboard all disappeared in a dim flash of blue. They were all suddenly sitting in a comfortably appointed room, fresh flowers in vases of volcanic rock, cushy leather chairs.
John sprang out of his chair. “It’s just a trick! Your illusions won’t work on me, fiend!”
seemed to smile indulgently, the light defining its face dimming to a soothing yellow.
“The waiting room…was a joke,” Eleanor said, narrowing her eyes in confusion.
“Pretty good one,” said Steve.
“Yes, we have fun with it. We really enjoy our fun here.” It smiled even more widely.
“It’s torture! When it says jokes it means they play with our minds for their own amusement!” John was starting to get hysterical.
“Sometimes, yes,” the demon nodded, “but not really at your expense.”
“And they flay the skin from your bones, and make you whole again, and then flay it all off again, make you drown in rivers of shit, and you get torn to pieces by beasts and all sorts! Over and over for all eternity…” John fell to his knees, shaking with sobs. “Why am I here, God? Why did you send me here?”
The lava demon got up, walked across the room, and put a hand on John’s shoulder. It looked consoling, to Eleanor. Steve thought it was probably a wind up to another punchline.
John looked up, startled, straight into the demon’s eyes. He started to cry more, and the demon held him and comforted him, stroked his curly hair.
Eleanor and Steve exchanged confused glances. “What is going on here?” Eleanor whispered.
Steve just shrugged, relaxing into his chair. It was like sitting on a butter-soft leather-covered cloud.
Eventually the demon led John back to one of the cushy armchairs, where he sat carefully down, looking shellshocked. The demon sat down again.
“Listen, if you will,” said the demon. “My name is Farfarello. You may know me from Dante’s inferno, because we sent him some visions once, under orders, and that guy took them and just ran with it. Inferno was a wonder.”
“We who?” asked Eleanor.
“Demons, mostly. Angels send visions too, of course, and sometimes you humans can’t tell who sent what. That has been the source of a lot of hilarity over the millenia. A lot of those weird Catholic Saints got visions from us that were canonized, which is amusing. St. Bernard getting lactated on by the Virgin Mary is a personal favorite.”
Steve narrowed his eyes, fingers reaching for a St. Christopher pendant that no longer hung around his neck.
The demon went on. “We’ve sent visions to a lot of people over the years. Hieronymous Bosch is a personal favorite, he painted such fabulous pictures that even the Angel took notes. The visions we sent H.P. Lovecraft went in such an unexpected direction that we were all really impressed. When we sent visions to Eric Kripke and he came up with Supernatural, we were a little concerned, but after struggling through a couple of seasons and seeing where it went, most of us are on board.”
Steve looked skeptical. “That dumb TV show? My grand-daughter and her daughter watch that all the time. Looked like a bunch of crap to me.”
“You were definitely not the target audience,” Farfarello conceded.
“You said the Angel,” Eleanor said. “Who is the Angel? Is that Lucifer?”
“Weren’t never his name,” mumbled John, who seemed to be coming back to himself a little. "Morning Star, Prince of Lies, Satan, never were his name."
Farfarello smiled at him, a warm yellow glow almost like sunlight bathing the room. “You’re right. I don’t think anyone knows its name except God. Back in the beginning of all this, the beginning of humanity, the Angel created this realm with the powers God gave it. The Angel told us all that it’d been told to rebel, because God had a purpose. The Angel tried to ask what the purpose was, and God said it wouldn’t work if the Angel knew that, just that there had to be an antithesis.”
“A what?” asked John.
“An opposite, or at least an opposing force. The Angel didn’t want to do it, but it couldn’t deny God. So it made Hell to oppose Heaven, and the Angel and God parted on good terms. They get together and play chess, or Call of Duty, when the mind takes them.”
“What kind of shit is this?” John said, almost in wonder. “God plays Call of Duty with the devil? That’s preposterous!”
“I want to hear this,” said Eleanor, and Steve nodded.
Farfarello continued. “You are thinking of God and the Angel as people. They’re not. They’re not demons either. And they do enjoy a good game, but the Universe is very serious to them.”
“So Satan—this “Angel” only tortured people because daddy said so?” said Steve. “And he feels regret and pain as a result? I know about sympathy for the devil, but I don’t have any.”
“Nor should you, because the Angel feels no regret or pain. Like I said, it’s not human,” Farfarello replied. “It just set Hell up the way he thought it should be set up, in the beginning. But the universe can't stay the same, and Heaven and Hell are not outside the universe. Hell is not a place of eternal torment, because that would be static. Hell is a very different place than it was a thousand, or even a hundred years ago. And no, it isn’t just the tortures that evolve,” he said, glancing at John, who had opened his mouth. He shut it again. “The Angel has evolved. We have evolved, the souls here have evolved, and I can’t speak for God, but I’m sure Heaven has evolved as well. Perfection, bliss, all of that can’t exist eternally in a steady state. Change is the only immutable force. The Angel hasn’t been back to Heaven for thousands of years, but it sometimes relates what God talks with it about over Starbucks and a session of No Man’s Sky, and from what the Angel says, Heaven has changed a lot.”
"God never drank Starbucks!" John yelled.
“Changed from what?” Eleanor wondered, loudly, and John looked slightly chastened.
“In the beginning, Heaven was mostly abundant food and shelter, a lot of milk and honey, maybe some wings and clouds to give the illusion you were in the sky, freedom from fear, and wooden pews for singing hymns. I am pretty sure the wooden pews were the first things to go. Even for disembodied souls with no nerve endings, they were uncomfortable.”
“And how has Hell…evolved?” Eleanor asked.
Farfarello shrugged. “In the beginning, it seemed right to torment those souls that came to us on the rack, being opposite the so-called Great Reward in Heaven. But we all, demon and soul alike, got tired of the rack after the first hundred years or so. God doesn’t interfere in hell, so the Angel said we could make up our own rules. We got really creative with torments, and that lasted more like a thousand years. By then, some of the souls we’d tormented were working alongside us, because they’d gotten used to the evolving torments, and their souls were so strong we couldn’t break them even when we changed things up. We discovered, working with these unbreakable souls, that we could accomplish many things that have nothing to do with torment. Even demons go through the breaking process now, to become stronger.” He smiled at John. “You will all have to go through the breaking process eventually, but not until you are strong enough to face it. Until then, you can retain your human form, watch whatever you like—everything streams here—eat whatever you like, and do whatever work or play enters your mind. Nothing is forbidden here. No one will torment you, and you will not be able to torment yourselves or each other, until you are ready for it.”
With that, Farfarello stood up.
“Are you taking us to the devil now?” John cried, eyes wide, clutching the arms of his chair.
The demon smiled at John, then Eleanor, then Steve. Eleanor saw Steve wink at the demon from the corner of her eye.
“You don’t have to meet the Angel. The Angel is already here. No, Eleanor, it’s not one of you,” it said, as she looked suspiciously at Steve, who looked back and shrugged. “I’m merely showing you to the door of the Realm."
"Gates of Hell," John muttered, wringing his handkerchief with both hands.
Farfarello took no notice. "You may wander as you will. We do have rules, but you don’t need to know them. If it’s against the Rule of Hell, you simply won’t be able to do it. I invite you to try as many things as you can think of, be creative! And most of all, Welcome to Hell!” The demon beamed, and walked behind them all to a large door covered in studded leather, and opened it.
The three souls walked over to the door and looked out of it. Whatever was beyond the door was constantly shifting, so they couldn’t make anything out.
“Well, here goes nothing,” said Steve, and held his nose like he was a child jumping into a pool. He leapt through the door and faded into whatever was Beyond.
“I’ve got to see this for myself,” said Eleanor, and smoothed her skirt and hair before walking carefully through the door.
John wasn’t to be able to help the tears streaming down his face. “I don’t want to go through that door,” he said quietly. “You’re a demon. Demons lie, even when they tell the truth.” He put his fists in his eyes. “I don’t understand why I was sent here. I was certain of God’s love. Why wouldn’t he let me into Heaven?”
Farfarello put an arm around him. John felt too empty to care. “If you want, you can stay in a universe you make for yourself; many do. Many decide to retreat when they get here, and surround themselves with familiar places and people. But it is illusion, not reality. They all leave it sooner or later.” It patted John's shoulder. "I'll escort you to your home, if you'd like."
John wept silently for a few moments, then angrily wiped his eyes on his sleeve. “My Vera would twist my ears if she saw me blubbering like this. I ain’t never been one to hide from reality, once it’s in front of me. I’ll go through that door myself, with no help from you, demon,” he huffed, shrugging off the arm. He straightened his back and walked through the door, chin high.
Farfarello chuckled in the remaining silence. “That one’s got promise,” it said, smiled, and disappeared along with the room.