The hostel Lizard-face sent us to was a modest building containing a series of surprisingly cozy rooms for rent. The demonic clerk gave Garnf and I our key and toured us through the common areas of the establishment.
“Everything is so ordinary in here.” I said. “Not very hellacious at all, if you ask me.”
“Sir, this establishment is what you would consider ordinary because it does not belong to the natural residency of Hell.”
“What do you mean?” I asked as a let my eyes wander, causing my head to bob around like a broken pez-dispenser.
“This hostel is strictly for visitors to Hell. Not the clientele, nor the labor department are allowed to touch this building. It is outside the jurisdiction of Lucifer himself.”
“How come you can work here? Are you not a…you know…a…”
“A demon? Is that what you mean? For your information, James, I am a banshee AND I am a candidate for a transfer program between several eternities and in order to complete my prerequisites I must attain a certain amount of work-hours in each eternity. Also, for your information, James, angels are terrifying too. So before you assume every scary looking being you run into in the afterlife is a demon, maybe read one of the books, okay?”
I looked down in a shame that I barely understood. All of this was so foreign and confusing. Then I recalled Lizard-face’s assumption of my character and my head sank still further. I was confused in perpetuity. But how could all of this be so different? How did all these demons have a progressive mind-set? I figured discrimination was invented by demons. Given confidence by angry confusion, I voiced my comment.
“I thought discrimination was invented by demons.” I said offhandedly.
The clerk stopped, her body rigid with focus. She then turned around. What appeared to be her human features blurred slightly as she tried to contain herself.
“Oh and I bet you believe Frosty the snowman invented ice cream don’t you? You mortals, and especially you humans, seem to think you made up everything good and demons invented everything evil. What kind of irresponsible thinking is that? How could a group of beings consider themselves the center of the universe and maintain that they are innocent? Is that how you think? God created Good and Evil just showed up? You’re a hapless mass of virtuousness that accidentally causes a bit of collateral damage here and there? I’ll tell you what you are: You and your species are a bunch of degenerate flesh-bags with limitless ignorance and weak instincts. You should all be ashamed that you exist and apologize to whatever Gods you follow for being such a burden on even the most insignificant portions of creation. Though it is my job to welcome you to this place, I wish I could bar your entry into anything decent for the rest of eternity. I hate you, Jim. I hate you and everyone that looks like you. Even baboons, Jim. Fuck baboons, and fuck you. – And over here is the communal kitchen, complete with all types of cooking implements and ingredients for whatever atrocious meal you develop a craving for.”
“Your segues are seamless, ma’am but why did you show me the kitchen? If I’m dead why do I need to eat?” I asked, trying to get myself back in decent standing with the clerk.
“Jim wait.” Garnf tried to catch me before I prompted the following response:
“Okay, Jim. Here’s how it works.” She paused to relieve some of the pressure building inside her. “You’re dead and you are in the Eternities, this is true. Dead people don’t need to eat, sleep, breathe, cry, pee, sweat, blink, read, or diddle their desires – but they try because that is what they are used to. Now, let me ask you this: would you rather be fucked with a crowbar covered in flames and barbed wire or would you rather live a hollow existence composed of even less satisfying moments while you foam hideously as you fill with desire for something better?” She said this as she leaned forward, beginning to tower over me.
“Those both sound awful. I really don’t like the idea of having sex with a crowbar, let alone a crowbar covered in flames and barbed wire.”
“Exactly. You feel that way because you were mortal. You were mortal and you are weak. Too weak to accept the full punishment for your misdeeds so you have something like a payment plan to pay off your transgressions on Earth in the Hellish Lands. You can’t even be dead without being on a lay-away plan. It works the same for aliens, only I don’t say ‘on Earth’ to them…and I speak their language, not this phonetic garbage that comes from your confounded tongue. – And this is the game room…for games…that you play…in a room. Do you get it yet? Here are your keys, go away. See you around G.” She nodded to Garnf.
Her discontent was aimed at me, doubtlessly, but her friendly goodbye to Garnf struck me as odd.
“Do you two know each other?” I turned and asked him somewhat embarrassed.
“Yeah we went to Dis Community College together. I never learned her public name so I called her Ma’am because she scared me too.”
“I wasn’t scared of her, Garnf, I was startled.”
“Yeah and Janis Joplin is sharing a milkshake with John F. Kennedy on the moon.”
“Are you making fun of me?”
“It’s the only fun a demon can make. See, Jim, demons are like girls – they just wanna have fun!”
I looked at Garnf with incredible curiosity as to what forces could create such a preposterous creature. Then we laughed.
We laughed about that for a few minutes. Real belly laughter. It was the first time I felt okay with being dead. It was the closest to home I’d felt in a long time. Then my environment crept back into my psyche and I leaned against the wall, savoring the moment. Even though the hostel looked like a haunted house rented by a murderous grandmother with fantastic taste in macabre home decor, it felt like any place in the world with a decent friend. It was warm, it was loving and it was full. If only for a moment.
We took ourselves and our stuff to our rooms. My room had the odd air of any guest room. More like the archetype of a room then a room itself. There were neutral colors, non-threatening furniture items, safe patterns, generic light fixtures and no chance of ever being stimulated by the aesthetics before me.
I noticed just how lacking in vibrancy things were in Hell. How things were so similar to Earth but somehow lessened. The blankets weren’t as soft, the lights weren’t as bright, nothing worked at full strength. This whole plane was like a hollow shadow of life.
“Perfect. I’ve been thinking too much anyway. That sort of thing will kill me one day, I swear.” I laughed after I realized how absurd that thought was now. I thought about it for a moment, over-thought it for a few more, then laughed again. Maybe being dead wasn’t so bad after all. I was laughing in Hell.
How bad could it be?
Consoled, I drifted into a shallow, restless, fake sleep but it was close enough. I knew tomorrow would be a day I would need whatever kind of rest I could get. Tomorrow, Garnf and I would explore the City of Dis. I was almost excited.
I got up the next morning and noticed some things immediately. I didn’t feel rested and I did not have to pee. The other things I noticed were that I had an erupting caffeine headache and my mouth tasted like a hot rodent died in it. I ran to the bathroom to wash my mouth out but there was a line, so I ran to Garnf’s room to see if he had a glass of water.
“Hey, hey G, do you have a glass of water?”
“I AM A DEMON. I DO NOT REQUIRE WATER but I do have a canteen that was left on the train by a person who was dreaming about being dead. ”
“I have no idea what that means but you are the owner of an amount of potable water?”
“Certainly, Jim.” Garnf reached into his satchel to reveal a canteen that did indeed have potable water in it. I drank it.
“Garnf, this doesn’t taste very good. It sits in my mouth kind of like a loogie.”
“Jim, I don’t know how long it’s going to take you to grasp the fact that you and I, us, we are in Hell. Things suck down here, pal. Hate to break it to ya but nobody besides the residency finds their dreams in Hell. It’s Hell.”
“The water from another plane of existence isn’t even good here?” I asked legitimately confused.
“You were from another plane of existence and Hell is already messing with you. Why would a far less complicated compound be able to withstand infernal forces? In fact, wouldn’t Hell be the antithesis of an ocean? Unless you’re afraid of oceans that is…there’s this aquarium down here that’s pretty cool actually. It’s got sea creatures from all kinds of stuff in it. I have met leviathan!” Garnf said proudly, completely digressing.
“I never read that part but he seems like a real jerk.” I said as I rubbed my head and decided to prepare for the day in some way or another.
I stood up, scratched my head authoritatively and searched my thoughts for something to focus on. My first thought was coffee.
“Garnf! There’s coffee in Hell right? We can at least make coffee can’t we? Sweet Mary Mother of a tax evasion scheme, there has to be some decent coffee down here.”
Garnf looked up from his memories of the hellacious aquarium and a strange ripple crawled across the place a normal person’s pectoral muscles would be. His faceless head was bobbling wildly. It was gross.
“Actually, my dear friend, I stole some of the train station’s coffee on my shift yesterday. Lucky for us, the Golden Train Station exists outside of all eternities. Time doesn’t even enter that place. It’s awesome. It’s going to taste bad though. All the water here is less than desirable BUT I have a plan. See, there are parts of Hell that use…counter-intuitive methods.”
“Oh good! A statement without any conclusion! The wonders I shall do with this!” I barked back at him. Somehow, his faceless head turned toward me and I was quite aware it would have had a serious look on if it could have.
“Allow me to elaborate: What do you think happens to a masochist when they go to Hell? They surely can’t be tortured by the general methods. Someone who revels in pain must be made to feel the utmost comfort – the submissive be made to dominate. Hell is just a place to force square pegs in round holes. Which means, if we get all the way to Masochist’s Plaza we’ll surely find something supernaturally delicious in the way of water!”
I was almost shaking with joy. “We can find coffee down here? We’re going to have a decent cup of Joe!? Holy snot, I haven’t been this happy since I was alive!”
I dressed myself for the day in a grey shirt that used to say “Jim’s Construction” but now said “Pantheon Contracting” and a pair of jeans. After all, I wasn’t here to impress anybody. Then we locked our rooms and left the hostel. Garnf took to a rhythmic gait and I followed suit, feeling grateful to be prowling Hell with the likes of the streetwise Garnf. More than that, I was grateful to be heading toward something so reminiscent of Earth. What’s more human than coffee? Babies? Poop? Corrupt politicians? All of them sit below the mighty roasted bean on the hierarchy of human endeavors I say.
“That’s what I think too. Only not so anthropocentric.” Garnf said in a tone that sounded like we were speaking out loud the whole time.
“Hey, how did you – you can read minds?”
“To be fair, I didn’t know either and it looks like I can only read your mind. Maybe it’s because we’re such good pals!”
“I am sure that’s it.” I said through a stout frown. Now he could read my mind? Things were just feeling less invasive and weird. Now my faceless but headed demon companion can read my mind? This was about to be a long job.
“Coffee first.” I kept telling myself over and over again under my breath.
“How far until we reach the Masochist’s Plaza?” I asked Garnf, noticeably disheartened.
“Not much further now. I’m not sure exactly though. Everything in Hell is a little further than you think it is but you show up a half hour early so you can wait for it. A big part of being here is having your desires remain unfulfilled.”
“No problem! I am a walking testament to a half-assed pursuance of desires. I’m basically the human equivalent to a bucket with a hole in it.”
“Why would that put color back into your voice, Jim? You’re a weird guy, you know that?” Garnf’s left peck eyed me suspiciously.
“Yeah I suppose I might be.”
“No time for that! We’re here, err, the plaza is just over there.” He pointed to an expanse set between a 24/7 gym, ten liquor stores stacked on top of one another, a harpie taco cart and Build-a-Fear workshop. There were lines of what looked like street vendors on either side of the plaza with beings running back and forth and dispersed among them were creatures writhing in self-inflicted pain on the ground. “See those things that look like street vendors on either side of this depressing relay race? One of those has the water we need to make our timeless brew.”
“You should sell that stuff. You’ve made me want ten cups of it already. What do we do? just go up and grab it? Can you steal in Hell? Is it the same thing?”
“Sort of. Stealing is definitely stealing but no one really cares. The whole economy of Hell is run off slave-labor so all the value is compulsory and fake. Besides, if you steal enough you just ensure you have a place to stay down here. If you steal too much they’ll plop you in Tartarus and we don’t want to go there.”
“Why not? We’re in Hell. Does it get worse?”
Garnf paused and turned toward me. His voice became low and grave, his eyes squinted and he put a powerful hand on my chest.
“It gets so much worse, Jim. Tartarus is where the Titans and Rakshasas and Nephilim and all manner of horrible creatures, too uncivil to be with the damned were placed during the merging of the One Hundred Hells. If you go to Tartarus, you stay there. Waiting endlessly for eternity to stop being forever. You have any idea of how long that would take?”
“Forever?” I chanced a guess.
“Bingo, kid. Get yourself together, we’re gonna grab some water but be subtle about it okay?” Garnf’s cautionary hand on my chest became a friendly arm around my shoulder.
“Who? Me? Why do I have to? I’m new here.” I protested.
“That’s why you’ve got to do it. I’ve got seniority.” Garnf was smug.
“No. You have to show me how to do it.” I played dumb.
“In Hell, I’m Chris Tucker and you’re Jackie Chan. Got it?”
“What? No! Rush Hour!? Garnf!” At the sound of his name, Garnf stiffened like a frozen green bean. “Go and get us some water for coffee! I command you!” I was almost shouting.
Garnf walked to the plaza in a fixed path aiming for the far left side of the line of street vendors. I was diabolically enthused to be the master of a demon. Though my guilt began to take root somewhere in the back of my mind, I focused my attention on Garnf as he walked mechanically to the vendor with water.
The minutes drug into eons as I watched. Feelings of youthful tomfoolery rooted in my stomach. I felt like we could be caught at any moment. A bead of sweat appeared on my brow and my posture became stiff. I was openly staring at Garnf the whole time. A mix of anxiousness and glee shot through me every time I looked around…was I…having fun? No, not yet. Couldn’t be. Back to business:
Garnf walked directly to the cart, blocking a few masochists on the way, and he grabbed the container of water directly from the gaze of the vendor. The vendor, who was a small imp smoking a big cigar, yelled something unintelligible and shook his fist at Garnf. Garnf perceived this action as a threat and capsized the water-cart, spilling the water that wasn’t stolen all over the imp vendor and the surrounding area.
“Oh shit.” I said with my hopes juxtaposed. I assumed the vendors would rise in a coalition to maul Garnf while simultaneously believing that nothing would happen at all. I bit my lip attempting to mentally prepare for both outcomes.
One of the vendors, a harpie, yelled from across the plaza.
“You bumbling doofus! You grandmother diddling, swine licking ass-cap! Get outta here!”
Garnf turned his faceless head around so it was facing toward the harpie. I’m unsure about what happened exactly but the empty countenance of Garnf’s peculiar noggin must have frightened the harpie enough to have the creature move its cart several yards away. Garnf kept walking with the same pacing as a corpse with cybernetic implants. His slow, methodic gait eventually brought him face to face to face with me. His eyes lost their dutiful glaze and he looked somewhat perturbed by his damp condition but he handed me the water.
“Great work G, let’s get outta here before that harpie gets gutsy.”
Garnf looked confused though his mind was working to fill the gaps in his memory with deductions.
“Did you have me acquire this water for us?” He asked like a parent who knew every answer to the questions they were asking.
“Sure did, bud.” I said, pleased with how the situation turned out.
“Did you tell me to flip the cart over and piss off the harpie across the way?”
“Nope. That was your individuality seeping through your gravely scale skin.” I said trying to fill the words with as much pride as I could.
“We’ll talk about this when we get the Hell outta here. Cheese it!”
We looked at each other, looked over each other’s shoulder, looked behind ourselves and took off in completely opposite directions. After an awkward shuffle we agreed on a path of escape and took off. After running a few blocks, we found an alleyway to catch our breath in.
The neighborhood we found ourselves in seemed like Harlem the day after a rain storm. Everything had a touch of grey. The faces of the damned looked passive, like what was bothering them happened a decade ago but they couldn’t get out from under the specter haunting them. There were plenty of people who looked like the attendees of the Lyceum. Bearded, robed characters speaking half-heartedly about virtue and paninis. This part of Hell seemed to be without nefarious characters or demons. In fact, I think I saw Copernicus and Carl Sagan having scones at a cafe.
“What borough of Hell is this?” I asked with the confidence of someone who had the potential answers narrowed down to three.
“This looks like Limbo.” He said, somehow avoiding all three of my guesses. “Yeah that’s Carl Sagan. This is totally Limbo. You will probably find this borough the easiest to relate to. ”
“How do you figure? I’m not a scientist or a philosopher.”
“Yeah but you are infected with a pessimism that pervades every iota of your essence which should align you comfortably with all these educated, virtuous, hair-splitters.”
I pursed my lips and stared at Garnf with all the disappointment I could muster. My face could have made a puppy frown.
“See? You’re already wearing the popular expression of the neighborhood. Let’s go to the cafe and make some coffee, huh?”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get the hang of this place.” I said as we started off to the cafe.
The atmosphere inside the cafe was an amalgamation of 1950’s American interior decoration. Red stools, long counters and shiny tiles under fluorescent lighting. The back was an open area with exposed 2×4’s and other building materials with a sign that said “Under Construction”. We walked up to the counter to ask for use of the stove but there was no one behind the counter. Garnf rang the bell on the counter to no avail. The space was without employment and therefore, without rules. Garnf walked around the counter and began the process of warming the water. Basking in our victory, I lounged on one of the red stools.
Suddenly, a shadow enveloped me.
“Can I help you?” My confidence was renewed by our slight victory and I was so overwhelmed with it, I didn’t think to look up.
“Yeah, you could get your compatriot out from behind the counter where, I’m sure you could assume, only employees are allowed.” The voice belonging to the shadow was terse but patient.
Feeling like busting a couple of chops, I asked “If you’re so worried about that why did you leave your post wide open like you did?”
A little less patiently the shadow said “Because this is a widely known establishment in this neighborhood, only a demented demon infected with syphilis would think to mess with the House of Lies. Since you two haven’t caused harm, merely overstepped a boundary, I would consider having you desist and be done with it.”
“What’s the big idea, man? Can’t you let this -” I turned my head to look the shadow in the face. Once I accurately perceived exactly who’s face it was, I fell out of my chair. “Oh my God! You’re…you…the…beard….ummm….you’re…sorry…I didn’t realize you were…”
From the stove behind the counter Garnf hollered “Who are you talking to, Jim?”