“Alright,” Elsa sighed as she accepted the punch card. It was dark black with six small golden squares along the bottom. Five of the six squares were marked out with a red ‘X’. “Last bonus life, Mr. Wyle. What do you want to be and where do you want to be it?” The frail old man in a hospital gown smiled at Elsa the reaper.
“There are so many choices,” he said. “Too many, I think.”
“Do you need to see the list again?” Elsa offered but Mr. Wyle shook his head.
“I remember the first time I saw the list. I kept thinking, ‘six tries isn’t enough to find the perfect combination. I’ve tried being a superhero,” he chuckled. “I’ve tried being a dragon, a vampire. I’ve spent so much time being alive and yet…,” Mr. Wyle paused. A weak mean catching his breath as if he were still alive. “…I didn’t realize until now how much living I missed.”
“As a superhero, A supervillain killed me. A knight slew me as a dragon and a hunter staked me in my coffin as a vampire. But as Malcolm Wyle, I died in a hospital surrounded by family and loved ones. I liked that life,” he said, then finally reached his question. “Can I live it again?”
“Uh, yeah!” Elsa perked up. It had been a long shift. She wasn’t done yet, but re-lifing Mr. Wyle would have been her most demanding case of the night. And it just became her easiest case. “That’s super easy. Do you want it exactly the same? Any changes?” she asked. Mr. Wyle shook his head.
“It was perfect,” he said.
“Do you want to remember anything from your first time around?” Again, he shook his head.
“It was perfect the way it happened. I don’t want to change a thing, or even risk changing anything by knowing.”
“SUuuuper easy!” Elsa chirped. “Too easy, in fact.” She stretched her hand out and offered Mr. Wyle the incomplete black punch card. “I can’t speak for other reapers you might get next time; but, as far as I’m concerned you’re still on your fifth bonus life.”
“Mandy Salinas?” Mandy heard her name called a split second before she opened her eyes. She didn’t know where she was nor how she got there. She found herself in what she could only guess was Hell’s waiting room. Obsidian, uncomfortable-looking chairs lined three of the four brimstone walls. They surrounded a small ebony coffee table loaded with Hell-related literature.
The woman that called her name stood by an open door; she wore dark red scrubs that complimented her dry, red skin. Two tiny dark horns poked out of her blonde head.
“Yes?” Mandy responded; she was still trying to get her bearings. She had no idea how long she’d been there, but when she opened her eyes she was standing up.
“This way, please,” the demon woman gestured through the door. Mandy walked through the door and found a narrow brimstone hallway lined with closed doors.
“Straight ahead, 12th door on the left. It should be the only one open, but count just in case,” the woman said with a pleasant smile. “Trust me, you don’t want to end up in the wrong room.”
“Oh, okay,” Mandy nodded, not sure what else to do; then, she walked forward. The hall seemed to go on further than Mandy could see and she was glad she only needed to reach the 12th door. As far as she could tell there were hundreds in the hall. The unbelievable architecture only proved to her that she was in fact in Hell. The first three doors were fairly close together, but the fourth door was further down than Mandy expected. And the fifth even further. It felt like an hour passed by the time she reached the 12th door; it was at least three football fields from the 11th door.
Once she reached the open door, she looked up and down the hall. She still couldn’t tell where it ended. Looking back, she couldn’t see her starting point anymore.
“Mandy! Welcome to Hell!” a woman’s voice called from inside the door. Mandy walked in and greeted another red-skinned woman. This one had brown hair and wore a dark red suit instead of scrubs, with a black bow tie.
“I’m Barbara and I’ll be your supervisor while you’re down here,” the demon-woman said as they shook hands. Barbara gestured at a comfortable looking rolling chair in front of her obsidian desk. “Have a seat and let’s get you sorted.”
“While I’m here?” Mandy asked with faint hope. “I’m not damned forever?” While she didn’t know how she got there, Mandy wasn’t surprised. She lived a rough life on the streets and did many, many things she wasn’t proud of. She felt an enormous wave of relief when Barbara shook her head with a smile.
“Technically, you’re not damned at all,” she replied. “You’re here solely on luck,” Barbara chuckled. “Though, looking back over your life, it’s obvious you were due some major good luck.”
“GOOD!? I’m in HELL! I don’t even know what luck has to do with anything.”
“That’s what we’re here to talk about,” Barbara replied. “Orientation before you start work tomorrow. Or in a couple of days, if you need more time to get settled,” Barbara gave her head a quick shake to dismiss the thought. Her brown bangs landed in front of her eyes and she brushed them out of the way again. “We’ll get to that. For now, let’s start at the beginning.” Barbara sat up straighter in her chair and took in a solid breath as if preparing for a spiel.
“You ARE in Hell,” she said. “Though, things are more complicated than you think. Hell’s original purpose is record keeping; point tallying to be specific. But, it only takes a few religious nuts to ruin people’s lives. Hell has had to branch out into things like torture and deal making to meet demand,” Barbara gave a light chuckle. “The customer is always right.”
“No one wants to be tortured forever…,” Mandy interrupted, but Barbara nodded.
“You’d think so; but, we’re a customer service industry. We wouldn’t invest in a torture division if it wasn’t wanted. Anyway, you weren’t particularly religious so you aren’t assigned to a religious Hell. You’re not here to be tortured, you’re here to work.”
“I don’t want to torture anyone either,” Mandy replied. She wasn’t sure she had a choice, but she at least wanted to make her stance known.
“Oh, no no,” Barbara shook her head. “You’re here to tally points.”
“Points? What kind of points?”
“Life points, you’ll be keeping score of people’s lives. You’ll get a breakdown in your welcome packet, and you’ll be in training for the first week, so don’t worry about the details too much yet.”
“You make it sound so… normal. Is it a sweatshop or something? Working myself to the bone overheating in miserable conditions?”
“Oh God, I’m sorry,” Barbara apologized suddenly. She reached below her desk, then placed a frigid bottle of water on it. “I didn’t even offer you a drink. Are you warm?” She asked. Mandy shook her head, and actually couldn’t help but laugh a bit.
“Are you serious?” she asked Barbara. In thinking about it, Mandy realized she wasn’t uncomfortable at all. She accepted the water bottle anyway and immediately took a drink; it was as cold as she hoped. Barbara sighed and shook her head.
“It’s always a battle breaking through those preconceived notions,” she said. “You are obligated to work for us for at least a year. After that, based on your performance, we can discuss you staying longer if you like. We maintain a positive, professional environment here.”
“What’s the pay like?” Mandy joked. She still wasn’t sure she believed Barbara. She held a bottle of cold water in Hell, but a part of her still considered that it might be a trick.
“No pay, as such. We don’t have much use for money down here. But, you’ve already been assigned a lovely home and a car to get around in. And even though, strictly speaking, you don’t need to eat; we know how enjoyable it is. Your neighborhood has a nearby grocery store, as well as other shops for hobbies, electronics, and so on. You don’t need to pay for a thing. As long as you’re in good standing with us and doing your work, just wander in, grab what you want, and leave again. Most of our employees treat this as a second shot at a better, more enjoyable life and make a career out of it.”
“You’re.. serious?” Mandy asked. Barbara nodded and smiled.
“Like I said, you were due some good luck. Let’s get started on your paperwork and you can tell me when you’re comfortable starting.”
“Have a good shift!” Betty stood by the sink putting the finishing touches on two cups of hot chocolate. She waved from the kitchen as Elsa stepped out the door, black cloak and scythe in hand.
“Thanks, see you in a bit,” Elsa replied and shut the door behind her. Betty blinked. Then, the apartment door opened again to admit a noticeably wearier Elsa. The ponytail she left with was gone; her hair was down to just past her shoulders. She wore the cloak and the long handle of the scythe dragged on the ground as she gripped it high on the hilt close to the obsidian blade.
“How long?” Betty asked and walked out of the kitchen holding both mugs. Elsa dropped the scythe. It sliced a thin, pitch-black gash in the air as it fell, then disappeared into its own portal. She collapsed on their couch and eagerly accepted the mug from Betty.
“I don’t even know,” Elsa blew on the chocolate to cool it down while she replied. “It could have been a month,” she shrugged. “It could’ve been a century.” She blew on the drink again. Betty giggled to herself as she sat down next to Elsa.
“Must’ve been a hell of a shift, you’re not even cooling it down with time,” she said, then took a big gulp of steaming hot chocolate. Elsa sighed and nodded.
“Chase said it gets easier to keep track; I hope he’s right,” Elsa blew on the mug one last time, then took a soft, slurpy sip. She closed her eyes and breathed a warmer, happier sigh. “Why is mine never this good?” Elsa asked, then slurped another sip.
“Secret ingredient,” Betty winked. Elsa rolled her eyes.
“You already know I’m Death, no fair keeping secrets,” she said.
“You didn’t have to tell me,” Betty playfully stuck her tongue out at Elsa. “I never would’ve noticed if you didn’t.”
“That’s why I told you,” Elsa sighed. She used her thumb to point at the front door behind them. “In and out just now; but that first week was miserable. I had to hide out in the library for eight hours to convince you I was at work,” she blew on the mug again.
“I don’t have the energy to cool down a cup of chocolate by a few minutes, much less fast forward another eight hours on top of my shift. Although…,” Elsa nodded. “…it was easier to tell you once I saw your tattoo.” Elsa held her left hand up showing the number 14 scarred into it to clarify which tattoo she meant.
Betty’s body was decorated with several tattoos that were all hidden under her clothes. Elsa asked her about it once and Betty explained that she liked to surprise anyone that got to see them. The specific tattoo that Elsa referred to was a spiny orbweaver spider inked on the outside of Betty’s right breast. It had the number 33 in black on its back.
“I hoped that after a whole year rooming together, you could trust me enough to give me your chocolatey secret,” Elsa sighed. Then, she stuck her tongue out at Betty to hint that it was a joke. Luckily, Betty laughed.
“If I tell you, you’re going to stop drinking it. Do you really want to give up something this delicious?” Betty took another gulp.
“Why would I stop drinking it?” Elsa asked. “It’s not like you’re putting spiders in it, or something,” she giggled. After a moment she realized she was giggling alone. Betty held an amused, “I’m not telling” look on her face.
“Right?” she asked for confirmation, then lowered the mug down to her lap when the answer didn’t come right away.
“Well…,” Betty said. “…kind of?” she asked her answer.
“What do you mean, ‘kind of’? Are there spider bits in this hot chocolate or not?” Elsa wasn’t all that upset; she liked the drink enough to accept some unexpected extras. A as long as they were minimal.Fortunately, Betty noticed that Elsa wasn’t upset.
“When I learned I could summon spiders from other universes, I spent a lot of time trying to find different types. One day I was really hungry when I was practicing, and I kept thinking about snacks instead of spiders. Then,… this happened.” As she spoke a small, glossy, chocolate brown spider crawled out of her ear. It crawled onto her face, then toward her lips, and into her mouth. She started chewing on it with a smile.
“I found chocolate spiders.”
Elsa narrowed her eyes at Betty while she processed the situation. She glanced down at the mug in her lap, then back to Betty.
“How much?’ Elsa asked. Betty shrugged.
“Not counting the milk and cinnamon… all of it.” Elsa sighed.
“Yeah, okay,” she lifted the mug up and blew on it some more.
“Huh,” Wilbur tilted his head at the black-robed figure. Her hood was down, exposing her lean, tan face and light brown ponytail. The obsidian scythe affixed to her back gave her the vibe of a soccer mom that hadn’t grown out of her “goth phase” yet. Wilbur had been staring at his truck that was currently wrapped around a thick oak tree. The moment he noticed himself still in the truck, also wrapped around the tree, she appeared. “I didn’t expect Death to be a woman.”
“You also expected to get home safely after all that drinking,” she smirked. “Obviously you need to work on managing your expectations in your next life,” she turned and walked away from the crash. After several steps, she paused, then looked at Wilbur. “C’mon, dummy,” she said.
“Where?” he asked, but didn’t move. Death sighed, then shrugged.
“It’s not like you’re the only person that just died. Stay if you want, I’ll get you later,” she resumed walking away.
“I… I can stay!?”
“Until I’m done collecting the others, sure,” she gave a dismissive wave over her shoulder.
“TAKE YOUR TIME!” Wilbur yelled as his mind raced to come up with a plan to stay alive. Then, he blinked.
When he opened his eyes again, Death was standing before him with a young, dark-haired girl and a silver-haired old man by her side. The strangers looked surprisingly happy for being dead. Despite coming out of nowhere, the trio seemed to be chatting jovially between them. The old man held a chocolate ice cream cone that he licked between conversations; the young girl was snacking on popcorn.
“Ready to go?” Death asked.
“Whoa,” Wilbur chuckled. “Carnival accident?” Death tilted her head for a moment, then old man laughed. Death noticed their snacks, then smiled, but shook her head.
“Nah, he came along for the ride to collect her.”
“You didn’t want to enjoy things one last time?” the girl asked with a sad, almost pitying tone.
“I can do that!?” Wilbur asked with wide eyes.
“You could’ve. But you wanted to wait here until the end, and now it’s time to go.”
“You didn’t say anything about that!” he whined. Death shrugged.
“You didn’t ask. You asked me if you could stay and I said, ‘until I’m done collecting the others’. I meant to come back for you before the party, but you told me to take my time. So, I did.”
“You weren’t even gone for two seconds!” Wilbur whined. The old man laughed harder, then took a long lick of ice cream.
“It took me a few days to get both of them. The party lasted about a week after that,” Death smiled. “Ready to go?” she asked.
“No, I want what they got. I want to enjoy things one last time.” Death shook her head subtly, she was about to deny him until the girl spoke up.
“Please, Elsa?” the girl asked. “He looks so sad.”
“He is,” Death replied. She turned her attention to her, but tilted her head at the tree and truck fusion. “That tree almost died the same way you did, because of Wilbur. Do you think he deserves to enjoy life any more?”
The girl narrowed her eyes at Wilbur. He was surprised to learn he could still feel his cheeks grow hot, despite being dead.
“Yes,” she said. “Everyone deserves to get one last taste of life before the next one.” Death looked at her in surprise.
“Really?” she asked the girl.
“Yes!” the girl gave a firm nod and walked toward Wilbur with the popcorn box extended.
“You see?” Wilbur chuckled. “Out of the mouths of babes,” he said. He stood up straighter and puffed his chest confidently at Death. The girl stopped in front of him and held up the box of popcorn. “Popcorn’s a good start, how ’bout some pizza?” he reached down to grab some kernels.
Before he reached the popcorn he felt a sharp, agonizing thwack on his shin. He yelped and hunched over while lifting his leg to try and ease the ache.
“Pain is a pretty major part of life,” the girl giggled. Wilbur hopped on one leg while anger coursed through him. His mind was spinning to give her his best insults, but a cold, chocolatey plop landed on his forehead. The sudden cold on his head was accompanied by the old man’s wheezing laugh. The surprise derailed his train of thought, and he sighed.
“So, ready?” Death asked again. Wilbur nodded; the movement was enough for the chocolate ball to plop to the ground.
“Yeah,” he grumbled. “I hope I’m better at managing my expectations in my next life.”
“You think this is the gateway?” Carl asked. The small team of four stood in a warehouse-sized lab. It took a few hours to get the power running; when the lights came on a low, heavy hum filled the room. Then, the team noticed a black hole hovering vertically in the center. It was surrounded by an array of 6-foot tall rumbling speakers, assorted electronics, and several computers. As Carl asked his question Commander Johnson and the team’s tech, Lucy, approached the computers that came on with the power.
“Why don’t you go ask someone?” Micky, a portly soldier, chuckled behind him. Micky kept his eyes on the doors, he and Carl were the only actual soldiers on the team that entered the warehouse. The city and most of Ireland seemed to be abandoned and no one knew where everyone disappeared to. Before Carl could think up an equally smart-ass response, Lucy spoke up.
“Commander, there’s a video on the desktop labeled, ‘Watch This’.
“Then let’s watch it,” Commander Johnson said. The rugged man in his 60s was technically no longer a soldier, but a long military career earned him enough respect to be called in. Lucy nodded and double-clicked the video. All screens were immediately filled with a frazzled looking old man with white hair; Commander Johnson recognized him. He sent the message claiming they discovered a gateway to Hell.
“If anyone is watching this, you’ve probably come looking for us,” the man said. Behind him, workmen could be seen carrying boxes and equipment into the black hole. “We’re all fine, you can stop. Moving to Hell is in fact better than staying here,” the man said with an odd grin. “You’ll find a list of everyone that moved with us to account for the missing people. Thank you for coming. Goodbye,” he said. Then, the video ended.
“Moving to Hell?” Lucy asked no one. “Sounds like a demon talking.” Commander Johnson nodded. He suspected the same thing. He’d seen the horrors of war, and it dinged his faith in humanity. But he couldn’t imagine any scenario in which Hell was preferable.
“Let’s go take a look,” he said.
“But, we’re waiting for the other teams, right?” Carl asked. Commander Johnson’s team headed straight to the lab, but he also assigned teams to explore the rest of the nearby towns.
“Carl,” Commander Johnson said. “This is an order. Go to Hell,” he smiled at the joke, but Carl understood he meant it.
“Yes, Sir,” Carl nodded with a glum look.
“I’ll take point,” Micky said. “You stay at the back and keep an eye on Lucy.”
“Okay!” Carl was quick to accept the plan. The four gathered in a loose single-file in front of the black hole, then Micky walked forward with his rifle ready.
After Lucy walked through, Carl stepped up to the portal, took a deep breath, then stepped through. He expected to feel a tingle at the very least, as he walked into the inky darkness; instead, he felt nothing. One short step through the portal and he was in another world; it was as uneventful as walking into another room in the same house.
He noticed the orange-red sky first, but after that he became aware of an overpowering odor. It wasn’t unpleasant in itself, but it was strong enough to to be uncomfortable. Carl surveyed the area. The team stood in the center of a wide, green peppermint field; the source of the all-encompassing scent.
“This can’t be Hell,” Carl said.
“This way,” Commander Johnson said; then, he started walking. Carl turned and looked ahead. He spotted houses, seemingly a subdivision, at the edge of the green field.
“I’ve never seen so much peppermint,” Lucy said as they walked. They moved gingerly around the plants; the peppermint wasn’t growing in rows like on a farm. The plants grew wild and disorganized.
After a deceptively long walk they reached the edge of the subdivsion. The neighborhood looked surprisingly normal. A variety of one and two story houses lined paved streets. Picket fences separated each vibrant green yard, and a car was parked in every driveway.
“This can’t be Hell,” Micky said. “Where are we?”
“Let’s ask him,” Lucy pointed out a lean white-haired man watering his lawn; the scientist from the video.
“Morning!” he waved at the team as they reached his fence. “Welcome to Hell,” he smiled.
“Hello, Dr. White,” Commander Johnson replied. Dr. White’s smile disappeared. He dropped the hose and ran to the fence.
“You’re from my Earth?!” he asked nervously. “How many more of you are there!?”
“Just us for now,” Commander Johnson answered. Dr. White sighed in relief. “What’s the situation?”
“No situation. We’re fine. Go home and destroy the portal on your way out.”
“We’re here to rescue you!” Carl added; it sounded better in his head. Dr. White sighed.
“We don’t need rescuing. We left Earth because it’s better here. There are fewer people and more resources. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell the whole world about this place and ruin that.”
“I’m confused,” Carl said. The rest of his team chuckled at that but he kept speaking. “Is this Hell or not?”
“It is,” Dr. White said.
“So where are all the demons and brimstone?”
“At work, probably,” Dr. White shrugged. “Hell” he used air quotes. “Is just the name of an Earth, several actually, but you get the idea. It’s a generalized term, not an all-encompassing truth. Are there demons in Hell? Yes,” Dr. White noded. “But there are also country clubs, neighborhoods and an amazing shopping district. All the stories you’ve heard about Hell are just religious embellishments to scare you into behaving.”
“Hey doc, came to check on you,” a woman’s voice made Carl jump; he was the only one startled. The team turned around to see a short red-skinned woman in a black suit with tall, angled, obsidian horns.
“Would I do it all again?” Pierce wondered. The translucent, holographic man sat on a holographic chair; they were the only light left. The chair floated in the center of an endless, inky abyss. He traveled the stars with the human race. Humanity explored countless new worlds and never found any trace of alien life. Pierce knew when the last of his power ran out, he’d be the last human, the last being in the universe to die. “We’re alone. What was it all for?”
Pierce floated in dark silence for several more minutes until something changed. Brilliant white light consumed the darkness around Pierce in an instant; at the same time he heard the *THUNK* of a heavy switch. Instead of the vast, dark cosmos, Pierce was suddenly in the center of glowing white room: 12′ x 12′. Another noise caught his attention and he turned in time to watch a door opening.
A rectangular section of the white wall opened inward and revealed a man. He walked in wearing a black suit with a bright yellow tie; then, stopped in his tracks when he noticed pierce.
“Awwww Hell,” the stranger mumbled to himself, then he turned around and walked out without another word. He closed the door behind himself. Pierce was puzzled, but more than that he felt excited. He had a million questions collecting in his data banks and couldn’t wait to see what happened next. He stood and paced around his holographic chair while he waited. Scanning the room didn’t show him a way out and waiting was the only thing he could do.
After fifteen minutes the door opened again. An older man in a navy blue suit with a chestnut crew cut walked in. He walked straight to Pierce and offered a handshake.
“Pierce Henderson,” he shook Pierce’s hand with a firm grip and a broad smile. “I’m glad we get a chance to meet. What you’ve done here is amazing.”
“Thank you,” Pierce said sincerely.But, he didn’t waste any time. “Who are you? Where am I?”
“I’m someone that likes to make my own fun, Mr. Henderson,” the stranger said. “How about a little game? I can answer all your questions, but you’ll forget the answers in your next life. Or, I let the process continue as normal and let you keep what you know. See if you can guess how things work.” Pierce did not need to spend time debating; he knew his answer.
“Yes! I want to solve it myself,” he said.
“I thought so, good man,” the stranger said “Wait here.” He patted Pierce on his translucent back, waved, then walked away. He stepped out of the room and closed the door behind him. The moment the door closed the room disappeared into darkness again. Then, several things happened at once.
Pierce felt an intense rumbling beneath his feet. By the time he looked down, he found a pair of tan legs. He was standing on rocky ground with an orange glow in the darkening purple sky. He checked his hands and found flesh instead of light. In the distance, a giant volcano erupted.
“Alright humanity,” Pierce grinned to himself. “Let’s do it again.”
“I’ve had better ideas,” Robert thought to himself. The 29-year-old English teacher started to worry a bit too late. The situation started to sink in as he looked around the office waiting for Satan. ‘Office’ was a loose term; it looked like the interior of a black cave. The impossibly dark floors made him feel like he was walking on shadows. A few tasteful portraits hung on the dark walls. One was of a giant, imposing red man in a dark suit. Thick, obsidian steer horns jutted out of each side of his head. The same demon was also in another portrait with a trio of humans. “That’s definitely Satan,” Robert’s nerves started to flutter in his stomach.
Robert jumped in his seat when the office door opened. He expected to see the devil coming through the door towering over him. Instead, a short red-skinned woman with a bright orange faux-hawk walked in. She wore a dark suit with a short skirt instead of slacks. A pair of thin twisting, onyx horns sprouted out of her head; they reminded Robert of impala horns.
“You’re a brave one,” she said with a smile as she crossed the room. “I like that,” she stopped by his chair to extend a hand. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Guzman. I’m Satan.”
“You!?” Robert stood to greet her. He was not a tall man at 5’7″, but he couldn’t help but notice how short she was as he shook her child-like hand. The tips of her horns were taller than him, but her head-height only reached to about his chin. “I thought.., I mean,” Robert disengaged the handshake and pointed at the portrait. “Who’s he?” Satan smiled and walked around the obsidian slab that resembled a desk.
“He’s retired. ‘Satan’ is a title for the ruler of Hell, currently, me. Now that I’m in charge, I’ve got some changes planned. Which is why I’m in search of an assistant. Why are you here, Robert?” she asked.
“Uh, I found a portal, and curiosity got the best of me. Once I was on the other side some random demon ran up to me asking me if I was here to apply. Then-,” Satan shook her head.
“Robert,” she interrupted him. “I’m Satan, I know how you got here. I want to know why you let yourself end up sitting in my office.” Robert shrugged but remained silent for several seconds.
“It seemed like an adventure, I guess,” he finally answered.
“Perfect,” Satan grinned. “The bad news is, you aren’t remotely qualified for the job. A) You’re not a demon and B) You don’t know enough about how the universe works. The good news is, I do have a job you are qualified for, if you want to take it.”
“Uhuh,” Satan’s petite size made it easier for Robert to feel at ease enough to get sarcastic with her. “What job is that? Being tortured?” he asked. Satan burst out laughing, and somehow it made Robert more comfortable. It sounded like genuine laughter. It wasn’t obnoxious or sarcastic. Despite himself, he was starting to like Satan.
“I suppose you could say that; but, it’s torture you’re already familiar with. I happen to know of a high school desperate to fill its staff. Robert narrowed his eyes.
“You want me to teach for you?” he asked. Satan shook her head. “What, like telling them that Hell is a great place and so on?” Satan shook her head.
“Of course not, we don’t need you to do propaganda for us. It’s a special school for Unique Souls; think of it as a school for heroes. It was founded with my predecessor’s permission. If you accept the job, you’ll keep an eye on things and report directly to me.”
“So you want me to spy?” Robert asked. Satan surprised him with an eyeroll.
“Why are you pushing to make everything so negative?” she asked. “It’s not spying as much as we have the right to know what’s going on. You’re not doing anything covert. Just teach; and, if you think something needs my attention, tell me.”
“What’s the pay look like?” Satan smiled and winked at him.
“You’d be working for Hell. Anything you need or want is yours. Interested?” she asked. Robert thought quietly for a moment, then nodded.
The sharp scent of too much fresh peppermint woke Jared. He sat up in a panic; his last memory was struggling against his friends. He thought Mundo and Eric were his friends up until the moment they stabbed his heart with an obsidian dagger. As he took his last breaths, Jared felt them using the blade on his arm. He hurriedly turned his arm to check and found a number two scarred over.
“What the hell?” he asked as he checked his surroundings. Jared sat on a soft mound in an emerald field of peppermint plants under a red sky.
“Correct on the first try!” a man said behind him. Jared hopped to his feet and whirled around in one motion to see who was behind him. It was a tall man with perfectly parted white hair and a well-groomed white beard. He wore a green suit that blended in well with the peppermint field, with a white vest and white bow tie. The number 37 was tattooed on his right cheek under a rotating glass eye painted like a globe.
“This is Hell?” Jared asked. “Are you the devil? I thought you’d be more…,” he gestured with his hands over his head alluding to horns. “…devilish.”
“Indeed he is. I am not him. My name is Peppermint and I am able to function as his representation. That being said, how exactly did you get here?”
“I chose my friends poorly,” Jared sighed.
“Well, that’s hardly enough to get you here,” the man smiled. “Let’s try to be more specific, what are your last memories?”
“My so-called buddies sacrificed me.” he turned enough to show the stranger the number two on his arm. “I don’t even think I’m the first guy they did it to, and they must have thought it was hilarious to do it on my birthday.”
“They gave you that as part of the sacrifice?” Peppermint asked with sudden interest.
“Yeah,” Jared nodded.
“Before or after?”
“What does it matter? I’m in hell while they’re getting their laughs,” Jared looked around. It surprised him that Hell was so pleasant. There was actually a cool breeze blowing across his skin. His nose got used to the peppermint smell enough that he was thankful it wasn’t brimstone and sulfur.
“It’s quite important. Did they scar you with the number before or after they killed you? And for that matter, was one of your friends named Eric?”
“I wasn’t dead yet I guess, but they definitely stabbed me first. And yeah,” Jared nodded. “How’d you know about Eric?” Peppermint smiled but shook his head.
“I wish that boy would stop abusing his knowledge,” he said under his breath. “Anyway, that explains everything. Congratulations, you’re on our team.”
“What do you mean? I still don’t know what’s going on. I’m working for Hell now? I don’t want that!” Jared whined.
“Working for is a bit strong. As I said, you’re on our team. You’ll be going back to Earth to live your life as you see fit. We don’t tell you what to do, but all your actions are considered to be performed by a member of Hell. Before you return, I need to explain your powers to you.”
“I get to go back?!” Jared grinned. “With powers? Yes!” Jared took a moment to pop his knuckles. “I can’t wait to teach those ex-friends of mine a lesson. Can I shoot fireballs at them?” Peppermint shook his head.
“You are Unique Soul #02, El Diablito. You can infect people with a microbe just by touching their bare skin. Anyone else they touch also becomes infected. The microbe gives you control of their minds. You cannot innately throw fireballs, but El Diablito does have a certain affinity for magic. If you’re not in a hurry to get back, I can arrange a magic tutor for you.”
“Yeah!” Jared growled. “Give me all the magic you can, my revenge is going to hurt.”
“Revenge? For what?” Peppermint asked.
“They KILLED me on my BIRTHDAY!”
“It seems to me that they did you a favor. You’re going back to Earth any time you want. You’ve got powers now, and you’re going to learn magic. Don’t you think that brief stabbing pain in your chest is worth the powers you’ve been given?”
“Bullcrap, they didn’t know what was going to happen. They’re just a bunch of crazy Satanists; I’m the one that lucked out. They wanted to send me to burn in Hell forever, I can’t forgive that.”
“Don’t let Eric hear you say that, he’s surprisingly sentimental. You’ll hurt his feelings. Sometimes people do favors for us without us realizing it.”
“So, what? They did know?” Peppermint nodded.”No matter how long you stay here to master your magic, you’ll never be able to…,” Peppermint added air quotes. “…teach Eric a lesson. That boy is the literal son of the Devil. He knew exactly what he was doing and what would happen. Knowing him, he probably meant it as a birthday gift.”
“Wait, so you want me to become the next Death?” Miller asked Isla with wide eyes. The two of them sat on a sunny beach; Isla’s sea-green curls moved with the gentle breeze.
“I want you to become Death for me,” Isla said. “There is no next Death. It’s a job like any other; there are far too many universes for it to be a one-person job. How do you think Death works?” Miller turned and pulled his legs off the wicker chaise to plant them in the sand facing Isla.
“When somebody dies, Death reaps their soul and delivers it to Heaven or Hell,” Miller replied.
“Not quite,” Isla half-nodded. “When someone dies, Death delivers the soul to their caseworker…,” Isla pressed her hand against her navy blue blazer. “…what I am. Due to the logistics involved, it’s encouraged for caseworkers to have their own Death on staff.”
“Why me?” Miller asked.
“I’m sure you can imagine there are specific requirements to fill the position. As a matter of fact, only Unique Soul #14, La Muerte is qualified,” she nodded at Miller. “You’re the first one I’ve met that I like.”
“Why?” Miller asked, then he quickly shook his head. “I mean, why only La Muerte? From what you told me about Unique Souls, they’re unbelievably powerful.” Isla nodded.
“They are. But, La Muerte is the only one that can control time. It’s funny, most people don’t realize how Death actually works. When someone dies, they’re trapped in the body until their soul is collected,” Isla smiled.
“They’re not alive exactly, but the soul can still control the body. Of course, without a living brain, a soul is limited to its primal instincts. And all souls want a brain to give it direction. This is where the idea of zombies comes from; it happens a lot. Sometimes weeks and months go by before they’re reaped. Death is woefully understaffed for infinite universes. But, when Death finally gets around to it; time is rewound for everyone back to the point of death. It seems instant, but almost never is.”
“Okay,” Miller nodded. He’d already decided to join, but still had another question. “You said something about a tattoo; that’ll make me Death for you?”
“The tattoo allows you to control your powers. It doesn’t make you Death exactly, but you can’t do the job if you can’t control your powers.”
“I’m guessing there’s not really any pay?” Miller asked. Isla shook her head.
“For what?” she asked. “Not only do you have access to food, water, and shelter; none of which you need really. But, you also get to explore the multiverse; any alternate reality you can think of is out there.” Miller nodded again.