“How are we doing today, Bob?”
The short, stocky man looked up from his desk and shook his ruddy, almost completely bald head in frustration. “How do you think I am?” he demanded angrily. “You keep me chained here, all the time, and make me work my fingers to the bone—how would you feel?”
“Now, now, Mr. Collins, there’s no reason to get upset,” Torval replied with a sardonic smile. “That does nothing to foster a productive work environment.”
Bob winced visibly at the mocking phrase, which he had used all too often back when he—well, when he still worked for real. Before he came to this awful place. A place he knew the nature of, though he still steadfastly refused to admit it to himself.
“Screw you,” he muttered under his breath.
“There is no need to foster an attitude,” sniffed Torval, lifting up and inspecting the thick metal links that connected Bob’s ankle to the heavy wooden desk. He let them go and they fell to the hard floor with a loud clank, as if to punctuate Torval’s words. “At least you are accomplishing something productive, Mr. Collins. These reports do, after all, need to be processed. In triplicate, of course. You are indeed quite well suited for the job.”
“No, I’m not,” Bob complained, shoving the stack of papers roughly away from him. “I’m a manager, damn you! I’m not some administrative flunky! And this typewriter is a manual one! Are you people still in the fifties around here?”
Torval chuckled reflexively and repeated another of Bob’s favorite excuses. “We are upgrading as fast as we can,” he said piercingly. “Oh, and here, as soon as you complete those, I have some more forms for you.” With that, he dropped a two-foot-high stack of papers in Bob Collins’s already overflowing inbox.
The look on the ex-executive’s face was one of thunderstruck horror. Torval forced a smile as he turned and tromped off down the hallway. He didn’t look back at Bob’s tiny office, and didn’t need to know that the unfortunate man would begin to feel the pain soon…the terrible, burning sensation in his skin that lessened only with each report he completed satisfactorily and placed in his outbox.
An outbox that would flare immediately, burning the page to ash.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Torval would’ve appreciated the bitter irony of the punishment being heaped on poor Mr. Collins. Not that the man didn’t deserve it, of course. While alive, the career executive had been a cruel taskmaster without the slightest bit of remorse for the misery he caused. And wasn’t that what Hell was all about? Making people suffer for their crimes in life?
Of course it was, and Torval, Demon Third Class, Layer Four Hundred Twelve of the Eighth Circle of Hell, had been in the business of punishing sinners for hundreds of years. Or was it thousands? He couldn’t be sure anymore. He’d been at it so long, in fact, he couldn’t even remember when and how it all started.
Idly, Torval thought back to what he could recall of those earlier times. He remembered something about an argument between the Creator’s top servants about what to do with that troublesome new animal they called “Man.” Had he actually been there for that, or simply heard about it later? He couldn’t recall for sure. The more he thought about it, the more his memories all seemed to blur together. All he knew for certain was the result of that long and bitter fight—humans were allowed to make their own destinies, and those that chose poorly wound up in Hell, where demons like Torval oversaw their punishment.
For as long as Torval could remember, he’d been a Punisher. That’s all he ever wanted to do, all the way back through all those endless blurry centuries. His job defined his existence—it was his purpose, his reason for being. Something seemed different now, though. Something didn’t feel quite right. What it might be, he didn’t know, so he tried to put it out of his mind as best he could. The uncomfortable feeling remained, though, nagging at the edges of his consciousness, distracting him ever so slightly as he went about his daily business.
It’ll go away eventually, Torval told himself as he strode alone down the long, twisting hall. He turned a corner and stepped into sunlight. No distinct gateway or door separated Bob Collins’s environment from the next, and the demon felt no change upon moving into the cell. He also didn’t feel any heat from the swollen orange sun hanging high in the sky above, for it was but an illusion. Nothing in this place was truly real, except in the minds of its occupants. Torval could see and experience everything the victims did, of course, in order to move through the zone without disrupting the effect, but he sensed nothing he didn’t choose to feel.
This particular cell’s occupant was one Michael Rubin, a victim of that deadly sin known as “greed.” In life, the wealthy businessman had surrounded himself with expensive things and coveted possessions above all else, even the love of his wife and family. For his punishment, he now occupied a tiny desert island with only the barest minimum of water and food, and no hope of rescue. Sometimes tantalizing visions of ships would appear on the horizon, but Michael long ago gave up chasing those mirages. Nowadays, he simply sat motionless on his narrow strip of beach, staring into the distance and brooding.
Torval approached him from behind, stepping up onto the low dunes from the surface of the water, leaving no footprints in the sand. While in Bob Collins’s cell, he had appeared clad in a trim business suit, with a neatly cropped head of black hair and the look of an executive. Now, transitioned into the island illusion, the demon appeared as a surfer bum, with bleached blond hair, richly bronzed skin, and a thin, wiry frame.
He forced another smile as he stepped up next to Michael. “And how was the sunrise today?” Torval asked automatically, his voice assuming a degrading tone without any thought on his part.
Michael Rubin didn’t respond for a long while. Normally, Torval would prod the poor man at his feet, either verbally or physically, with automatic taunts drawn from the sinner’s memories and life experiences. Today, though, the demon held back and waited. He had no idea why, but he seemed to sense something was different now. Something…
Gradually, with deliberate slowness, Michael stood and turned to face Torval. The unfortunate man looked impossibly thin and emaciated, almost literally a walking skeleton, but he always retained enough strength to get around in his prison of the mind. His skin was scorched and burned red from the terrible sun that never set, but only circled and climbed across the sky in an endless meandering oval.
“You know,” said Michael after a protracted pause, “for the longest time I thought you were just a hallucination.”
“No,” replied Torval, still a little bit baffled by the unmistakable, yet equally indefinable, change in the prisoner. “I am as real as you are.”
“Yeah,” the scrawny man replied with a sigh. “I know. That’s what finally made me understand.”
The demon cocked his head and gave Michael a sideways look. The cell illusion hadn’t provided him with the usual taunting reply. Torval found himself treading on uncharted ground, with no idea what to say.
“Understand what?” he asked, clearly at a loss.
“Who you are, and who I am,” said the tortured soul. “And why I’m here. You know,” he said with an air of unseemly confidence, “for a long time, I just couldn’t figure it out. What did I do to deserve this? Why were you making me suffer? And then you came in yesterday. Or was it a month ago? I can’t really tell. Anyway, you said something that made it all clear.”
“And what was that?” wondered Torval, trying to figure out where this conversation could possibly be going.
“You said I was in a prison of my own making,” Michael told him.
“I said that?”
“Yes. Don’t you remember?”
“No, I do not.” Of course, with so many souls to visit, how could Torval remember everything he said? He might’ve, once…but now, it all seemed like a blur. Always a blur.
“Well,” Michael went on, taking a few steps and slowly circling around the surfer-demon before him, “that’s what got me thinking. Not about how this was a prison, though. Or even that it was of my own making. I think I knew that all along. I just—I just never accepted it before, you know? I never really, truly understood.”
Torval just stared at him for a long moment. “Understood what?” he asked at last, in an uncomfortably low voice.
“That I deserve this!” said Michael resignedly. “All of this! I really do, don’t I? I’m in Hell, and this is my penance for a wasted, selfish life! And you know what? There’s nothing I can ever do to make up for it, to repay those I hurt, or pay back those I stole from or ruined to earn this fate for myself. I just wish there was something I could do.”
His head hung low, and his eyes glistened in the bright sunlight. Torval realized those eyes were actually rimmed with tears, and not from suffering or pain this time. These were different. They were tears of genuine regret.
“I wish there was some way I could just say I’m sorry,” Michael concluded miserably.
This would’ve been a wonderful opportunity to rub it in, as the cell’s programming usually insisted, but Torval could only stand there, a befuddled expression on his face, as he found he had no words to say. And then a strange thing happened, something he’d never witnessed in all his centuries of service in the Lower Realm. Something he didn’t even know was possible.
Before the surprised demon’s eyes, Michael Rubin began to disappear. He became transparent, and as he did, the edges of his sunburned flesh began to glow brightly. After a moment, all that remained was a shining white silhouette, and then this congealed into a single star-like shimmer that winked out as if it had never been.
Torval blinked. Around him, the beach environment gradually faded into a blank nothingness, leaving him standing within a featureless white cube. His illusory surfer attire melted away, leaving him naked and unadorned with anything save his natural, scaly, humanoid form. His snakelike tail twitched with uncertainty, and stubby, slate-gray horns glistened weakly in the pale, ambient light.
He stood there for a long while, trying to understand what just had happened. He could think of only one explanation at first—Michael somehow found a way to escape. Yet that simply wasn’t possible. The damned couldn’t escape a place like Hell! This is where the souls of the wicked belonged—where they’d been consigned upon their death ever since the passing of the very first deserving sinner—what was his name? Oh, yes. Cain. That’s what the legends said, anyway. Didn’t he even now languish in the original cell on Level One of the First Circle? If he couldn’t find a way out, how could someone like Michael Rubin do it?
Torval shook his head and tried to put that out of his mind. It doesn’t really matter, he told himself. He still had his rounds to make, after all. He’d just have to notify Landri that this cell was now unoccupied. Surely the foreman would know what to do about that, or if he didn’t, he’d contact the baron and let him know.
Perhaps this sort of thing happens from time to time, Torval mused, and I just haven’t encountered it before. Yes, that must be it, he convinced himself. My superiors will know how to proceed from here.
With that in mind he turned and strode in the direction of the next cell, trying to forget the strange disappearance of Michael Rubin. And, for a while, he did.
But only for a while.
* * *
“Come in and have a seat, would you?”
The bloated form of Foreman Landri scarcely moved from within the depths of his colossal, overstuffed chair. Whether or not he even had the ability to stand was a mystery. “Well, come on, I don’t have all day,” he insisted brusquely.
Torval half walked, half crept into the spacious office, sinuous tail firmly planted between his legs. He could only think of one reason anyone of his rank would be called into the foreman’s office—punishment for some transgression. The phenomenon of reward for good work was completely unknown to either demon.
The trip to the small chair in front of the massive ebony desk seemed to take forever. Upon reaching his destination, Torval kneeled quickly, not waiting to be told again to be seated. The chair bent forward at an unnatural angle, for he couldn’t sit properly thanks to his tail, and had to struggle to balance himself.
“Yes, Foreman Landri?” he asked weakly, wondering just what form his discipline would take this time. After all, in a place like Hell, the possibilities were endless.
“Torval,” pronounced the immense figure seated before him. Fat seemed to roll around on his body in little waves. Landri’s voice, deep with authority, came from within a rippled mountain of brick-red flesh. “How long has it been since I’ve had to speak to you? At least a decade, I think.”
“I do not know, sir,” Torval muttered. “About my performance lately, sir…I know I have been slow making my rounds. It’s just that—”
“Yes?” asked Landri curiously. “Go on. Don’t let me stop you.”
“Well, you see, I—well, it’s hard to explain, sir. I just do not feel quite right somehow.”
The corpulent mass in front of Torval made a motion that looked very much like a nod. The scarlet ribbons of blubber encircling his neck jiggled about repeatedly.
“Might this have anything to do with that prisoner’s disappearance the other day?”
“No!” Torval blurted, but immediately regretted his hasty response. Shifting uncomfortably in the hard metal chair, he spoke again before the foreman could put in another word. “What I mean to say, sir, is that I felt like this before he—before he vanished. I’ve been trying to figure out the reason, but I cannot.”
“And you’ve never had these feelings before?” wondered Landri aloud.
“I might have,” sighed Torval. “In fact, I am certain I have, but they always go away. Just…just not this time.”
“Because of Michael Rubin.” The massive tower of fat shifted and jiggled on its throne. “It happens, Torval. It’s called “transcendence.” Did you really think these souls are stuck here permanently, for all eternity? That Hell is the only destination they’ll ever know?”
“I, uh, well, I never thought about it much,” answered Torval weakly, not meeting his superior’s gaze.
“Of course you didn’t. That’s not your job, is it? You’re a Third Class demon because you’re not supposed to think. That’s what the foremen and managers are for. Don’t forget that!”
“I—I will not, sir. I meant no disrespect.” Torval hung his head, fearing the punishment he knew would soon come. Perhaps it would be best, he thought, if I just shut up now and don’t try to explain any more. Anything I say will only make things worse.
“All right,” said Landri after a moment, his voice taking on a lecturing tone. “Let me explain something for you, just on the off chance it might help you with your little problem. Punishment is of no use unless it teaches something. Surely even you can understand that! Haven’t I punished you before? And don’t you learn something from it?”
“Y-yes, sir,” mumbled Torval, his voice barely audible.
“Good.” The foreman continued as if giving instruction to a schoolchild. “For souls, you see, it’s not just about lessons, it’s about preparation. Hell isn’t a final destination, Torval, it’s just another path in the journey they all take. Where they go from here, I don’t really know, nor do I care. It’s not important to me, or to you either, only that sooner or later, they all go. It might take them hundreds or even thousands of years—but that’s what eternity’s for, right?”
“Y-yes, sir,” uttered Toval weakly.
Landri acted as though he didn’t hear those words at all, but continued his lecture unabated. “Presumably, Heaven —if it truly exists—has its own method of preparation for a different kind of person,” he explained. His vast bulk shuffled slightly, as if he might be uncomfortable with this particular subject. “Anyway, I always thought the place would be incredibly boring, if the stories I hear are accurate, but that might well be an obstacle in its own right. Are you getting all this?”
Torval nodded and tried not to look directly into those sunken black eyes. He said nothing, but absorbed every word. The foreman’s statements only led to more questions, but he didn’t have the courage to ask them.
“Good, I see that you are.” Landri coughed. “Do you understand now, Torval? Does comprehending why you do your job help you in any way at all?”
“I-I do not know, sir,” Torval heard himself saying. The questions in his head were just too strong to ignore, and some of them clawed their way out despite his attempt to hold them inside. “But why, sir? Why do we torture those people? Why put them through such misery? Surely there must be a better way!”
Silence reigned for a long moment, until Landri shifted in his huge chair once again. For an instant Torval thought the massive demon might pull himself forth, presumably to crush him under that colossal bulk, but instead Landri merely clasped his beefy hands together under his multitude of chins.
“Very well,” he seemed to sigh, “I can see there’s only one solution to this problem, if you are to be salvaged. I’ve seen this before, you know. After decades of the same old thing, year in and year out, you’re bound to get a little stir crazy. It happens from time to time, and it’s nothing I can’t deal with. After all, I’m the foreman here for a reason! I’ll just need to shuffle the work schedules a bit, but it can be done.”
This left Torval a bit befuddled. What was his boss talking about now? “I—I am sorry, sir, but I do not understand,” he heard himself mutter.
“Of course you don’t!” barked Landri gruffly. “How could you? Let me explain it to you, then. You see, you’ve forgotten what kind of people these humans are. Or maybe you just never knew in the first place. Either way, I can’t just tell you. You have to see them in action for yourself. That’s why I’m authorizing some time off for you.”
“Some…time off?” Torval stared at the foreman in disbelief.
“That’s right,” Landri chuckled, and his massive form quivered as if from an earthquake. “That’s right, Torval. You’re going on vacation!”