by S. S. Wilson
The odd thing was, he was quite sure he was dead. It was odd because he was still in his body, breathing, refreshed and relaxed. He felt a bracing breeze on his face and hands, smelled salt in the air, heard the crash of waves, and was standing — wait, where was this?
He looked around. He was on a rocky coastline. No buildings visible. The day was cloudy, but not really gloomy, for everything was tinged with energy and magnificence. Thundering surf misted black boulders that rose from the blue-grey sea and marched gracefully up to steep sand banks tufted with grass that glowed bright green even in the diffuse light. It all reminded him of Ireland. God, Ireland had been beautiful.
From out of nowhere an impossibly huge shadow fell across him. Something was hurtling toward him from above. Before he could even look up, he was slammed to the ground by the unseen thing’s infinite weight. And crushed. Crushed so utterly! Unthinkable pain shrieked from every part of his body as he was ground into the rocks. His flesh split and smeared, his bones snapped in a thousand places. As his skull distended and cracked, he smelled leather, wet leather. He was dying! Dying!
The odd thing was, he was quite sure he was dead. It was odd because he was still in his body, breathing, refreshed and relaxed. He felt a bracing breeze on his face and hands, smelled salt in the air, heard the crash of waves, and was standing —
He flinched violently, clammy sweat bursting from his pores. His heart pounded in terror as he scanned the turbulent gray sky.
But nothing happened. And that allowed him to realize something. When he had flinched, it should have sent a knife of pain through his severely arthritic back. Yet he’d felt nothing.
He gingerly raised his elbows to shoulder height and twisted tentatively from side to side. No pain! It was as inexplicable as the ghastly violence he’d just endured.
He flinched again, this time at the sound of the voice, and whirled to see who had spoken.
A young man was sitting on one of the rounded, spray-slicked boulders. He was dressed quite oddly, flamboyantly. What was that get-up, anyway? Like something out of a Shakespeare play. The man had long brown hair and a dark brown beard, the narrow, close-cropped kind that follow the line of the jaw and come to a point at the chin. Despite his hair being white-capped with grey, he looked to be in his late twenties.
The stranger shrugged in an apologetic way, “I’d like to say the first time’s the worst, but I fear that’s not so.” He had a slight, almost musical accent. Irish maybe?
His eyes, set under brooding brows, were a rich coffee brown. They were sad and tired. It was unnerving, how sad and tired were his eyes.
“Let’s have your name,” he said.
The newcomer fought to find his voice, all the while wondering, “Why should I have to say anything? I’m dead! I know I’m dead!”
But at last he said, “Jones.”
“First name only. We all go by first names. Mine is Alberto.
“Uh — uh — Fred,” stammered Fred Jones.
“That’s the spirit,” said Alberto, with a wan smile. “Important to remember who we were. Helps with the lesson.”
Before Fred could formulate a question, it came again — the vast leather-smelling shadow, whooshing down on him like some planet-destroying meteor. He instinctively leapt to one side, but was hit in mid leap, legs and pelvis smeared to bloody nothingness.
He knew he could not survive the drastic injuries. He could already feel life draining, Death’s irresistible coldness spreading cruelly up through the what was left of him. Yet he lived! Lived still! So, fighting against unspeakable pain, he clawed at the slippery black beach pebbles, pulling his ruined half-body forward in hopeless desperation. But the great leather-smelling crusher would not be denied its triumph. It shot skyward, fragments of his legs clinging to it, and came down again. This time he could feel his eyes spurt from their sockets.
The odd thing was, he was quite sure he was dead. It was odd because he was still in his body, breathing, refreshed and relaxed. He felt a —
The voice came again from behind him, “So, Fred, we’ll be getting into the meat of it now, if you’ll pardon the expression.” Fred whirled. The man on the glistening boulder was looking at him with those sad, tired eyes.
Fred — for he was still Fred. He was! — trembling with despair, sank down into a fetal ball before Alberto of the rock. And he cried out, “I don’t unders — I mean — what’s happening?”
“I’m sad to say, Fred, we’re starting Lesson One. And it’s not easy. Trust me, I know.”
From his huddled position, Fred dared a peek up at the gray sky. God, don’t let the thing come again! The sky was vacant — for the moment. In the respite, his mind raced. How could he be experiencing such pain and horror when he was already —
He looked up at Alberto, feeling a need to explain, “I’m — I’m dead, you know! You do know that?”
“Right you are. Me as well, for a very long time.”
Fred wanted so desperately to understand, but he had barely heard the words when —
The shadow came. He yelped piteously, but reacted even more quickly this time, instantly up and running. He was astonished at how he was able to speed across the stony beach. His body seemed in the best shape he could ever remember. He ran and, timing it carefully, he dodged just as the massive thing crashed down. It missed him by inches, slamming into the earth with a shuddering shockwave. Even as he was blasted sideways in a storm of stones, Fred spotted a tiny cave further up the shoreline. It was barely a hollow, but was perhaps big enough to hide in — if he could only run fast enough. Run! RUN!
He glanced back at the sky. The shadow-thing had drawn up seemingly as high as the clouds, but it now shot downward again, able to alter its impact point by a hundred yards at a time. Dodge as he might, this second blow caught him square. Body parts screamed once more in a symphony of new excruciations. But just before Death took him again, one detail was different. The smell. Rubber.
The odd thing was, he was quite sure he was dead. It was odd because he was still in his body, breathing, refreshed and —
With a guttural grunt, he physically shook off the spurious state of well-being. It was a lie! This was pure Hell!
The thought seemed to explode in his mind. He gasped — a wretched, pitiful, childish little peep, for he suddenly felt a new fear, like nothing he’d known in life. Fear even greater than he had of the shadow thing.
Oh — my — God!
He looked around wildly, relieved to find that Alberto was again perched placidly on a rock behind him.
Fred said, “I am dead, right?”
“You know you are, Fred.”
“But — but then, does that mean this is —? I mean it can’t be. It wouldn’t be right —!”
“I know what you’re thinking, but —”
Fred interrupted, rushing on, “I led a good life! I didn’t cheat people! I loved my wife! I supported my kids into their late twenties! I contributed to charity. I gave decent tips! I recycled. I volunteered at all the Moose fund raisers! Well, I missed two because we were —”
Alberto silenced him with a wave of the hand. And It angered Fred that the man seemed a little bored, no, impatient, as he said, “I’m sure you did all those things, Fred. But I’m afraid you missed the point.”
“Missed the —!” Fred tried to imagine what that meant as he nervously scanned the terror-sky. “What, was it church? I didn’t go to church enough? Really?”
“Nothing to do with it, lad.”
“Then what in the goddamn hell is going on?!” Then he added quickly, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to —”
This time Alberto interrupted, “Swear all you like, lad. Sure I don’t give a damn. I was about to say, you’re not in the other place. There is no other place. Up or down. That’s the one thing I know. There’s only this place, where we learn Lesson One."
“Lesson One? Lesson One? Look, this is some sort of mistake. Please believe me, there is no reason to do this to me! I’ve done nothing wrong!”
Alberto eyes flashed slightly, as if he had mentally clapped his hands, thinking, “Now we’re getting somewhere.” But all he said was, “Haven’t you now? Well, we’ll see. Strange as it seems, it will make sense, Fred. Just takes a while. We haven’t gotten to anything you remember.”
“Anything I remember? Please, please, I don’t understa—”
The shadow thing came.
It came again and again. Each death was altogether unique. The horror and pain were fresh and worst-imaginable every single time. Only the smell of the crushing thing changed — rubber, leather, plastic, and once, oddly, like a smelly foot.
After each death, Alberto always seemed to be sitting behind him when he “returned.” Time and again he scrambled to Alberto’s rock and pleaded and cursed and cried and screamed and begged. Time and again, Alberto said only more inane things like, “Well, this bit takes a while.” And, “You don’t remember anything yet, but you will.” And, “Believe me, you don’t have it as bad as some.”
More deaths. There was no end! Fred wanted to die. But he was dead. He wanted to go mad, to be released by mindless, blissful insanity, but he couldn’t do that either. Alberto must be lying. This was Hell. It had to be. Those annoying, forced-smile, starry-eyed, rigid-thinking evangelists had been right! Bastards!
On his next “return” he flopped before Alberto’s rock, blubbering, “Please! Make it stop! Just tell me what I’m supposed to do! I’ll confess! I’ll pray! I’ll atone! Anything!”
“Sadly not the point, lad,” said Alberto.
Fred flew into a rage exceeding anything he’d experienced in life. He was sure this smug, probable demon was lying, and was in fact responsible for what was happening. He snatched up a rock and charged Alberto, fully intending to cave in his double-dealing face.
Up to that instant, this new world had felt entirely real to Fred — the sea, the sky, the beach, the dunes, the air. But as he launched himself at Alberto, he found his attempted blows and kicks and choke-holds slowed and muted and pathetic, as though he were in fact in a nightmare. Alberto did not seem to notice them.
Fred recoiled from Alberto’s rock, but he had only an instant to ponder this new experience before Death came again. However, this time (and, given the dire state of things, it seemed something of a miracle) Death was very different.
First, the sun broke through the clouds. Instead of the dreaded shadow thing, an enormous disk appeared in the sky — vast, yet mysteriously clear, like some science fiction flying saucer made of crystal. It was so large it distorted the sun itself.
The disk centered itself high above him — and he felt heat. With sudden panic, he realized it was focusing the sun on him.
The heat quickly grew unbearable. Again he ran, knowing it was useless, yet knowing he had to. Knowing he would try anything, no matter how desperate, to save himself. He had to live! Steam hissed off the beach rocks. He wailed as his hair caught fire, as his clothes erupted in flame and seared deep into his flesh. Super heated air burned his throat and rushed into his heaving lungs. His eyes clouded as they boiled. He was dying! Dying! But as the blackness closed over, he also had a revelation.
The odd thing was —
He shook it off, gasping for breath as though he’d run a marathon, and spun around to confront Alberto.
“Hah! You can’t say this isn’t Hell!”
“Of course I can, because it’s true.”
“I was just burned alive!”
“That is so!”
“Yes! But I know what that was!”
“Do you now?”
“A magnifying glass! Some giant ass-fart demon of Hell burned me with a giant magnifying glass!”
“Half right, lad.” Alberto seemed genuinely interested now. Fred’s heart leapt at that, and it momentarily angered him to realize his heart wasn’t beating at all, not really. But he focused, feeling certain that this was a key moment. There was something he was supposed to figure out.
As he thought hard, he prayed, God, don’t let Death come! Please let me think — just for a minute!
At last he said timidly, fervently hoping he was on to something, “I did that! I did that as kid! To bugs!”
Alberto looked relieved, “Now you’re starting to remember. Fairly early you are, too. I had the feeling you’d be quick.”
Fred was thrilled! He’d figured it out! Then he was instantly baffled, “But why do I have to remember that? Why torture me to make me remember that?”
Alberto eyed him meaningfully, but said nothing. Fred desperately thought harder. Then, “I’m — I’m being punished? Because I burned bugs as a kid?”
Alberto tilted his head in a way that said, “Maybe.”
Fred went on, “Wait, wait, everything before that — that was because I squashed bugs? Stepped on bugs?”
Fred’s mind now reeled. The victory of revelation had only led to new madness. “I’m being punished for — I’m in Hell for killing bugs?!”
“I assure you you’re not in Hell, lad, though I’m afraid you’ll have to take that on faith.”
“Oh, very funny! I am in Hell, obviously! Otherwise none of this makes sense!”
“Well, actually it does, in that it’s part of Lesson One.”
The giant magnifying glass came again. Fred ran and screamed pathetically. This time he fell on his face before dying, and the stench of his burning flesh choked his lungs much more noticeably.
The odd thing —
He spun around and marched purposefully toward Alberto, “Look, this is totally wrong, okay? Each time I die, I’m dying as me! It’s unbearable! And stupid! And — and absurd! I’m not a freakin’ bug that doesn’t really feel anything!”
Alberto looked thoughtful, but pointedly said nothing. Fred knew the onus of discovery was again on him.
“Okay, maybe they feel something, but —”
“But it’s not the same! A bug is not the same as a human being!”
Alberto kept silent, even more pointedly.
Fred paled, “Oh come on, an ant or a spider does not experience Death the same as a human!”
“Actually, it does. A fundamental part of Lesson One, lad.”
“Jesus, Lesson One! Lesson One is ‘Don’t kill bugs?’”
“Well, you’re on the right road, lad, though it’s still a bit of a long one, I’m afraid.”
Fred nervously watched the sky for the great lens as he said, “Okay, okay I get it. I f’d up. I squashed bugs. I cooked a few of’em with a magnifying glass. Can I move on?”
Alberto said nothing. He’s eyes got that disconcerting sad and tired look again.
Fred pressed, “I said I get it, okay? I am so sorry that I killed bugs. Problem solved!”
Alberto sighed heavily, “But you don’t get it, do you? You know you don’t. You’re saying it, but you don’t believe it. In your heart you’re thinking, ‘That’s bloody ridiculous!’”
“I’m not!” Fred shouted, his voice cracking. But of course, he was.
A shadow came, but it was yet a different shadow. Fred was snatched skyward, a dizzying hundreds of feet, held by gargantuan fleshy surfaces. By now he could guess what they were. Fingers. His sweaty, unwashed, childhood fingers.
The fingers crushed him. Not hard enough to kill him. Only enough to break his back and snap some ribs. Then he was carried some incredible distance, whooshed this way and that through the skies — and finally dropped.
He prayed the fall would kill him, but of course it did not. He landed on sandy earth, in blinding pain, paralyzed from the waist down, every breath torturing his crushed chest cavity. A new smell overwhelmed him, acrid, pungent. Then he heard it.
Scuttling, chattering, clacking, it came.
At least one quarter his size, the creature rose over a rise to his right, frenetically lurching this way and that, its antennae making bizarre bongo drum sounds as they tap-tap-tapped the sand.
Since he couldn’t move, inevitably, tap-tap-tap, the antennae brushed over him. The huge insect did an instant about face and clamped its drooling pincers into one of his legs. He cried out and punched weakly at its armored head, but that was all he could do.
The ant tried to pull him, but it was not strong enough. Almost immediately it left. He lay wheezing, his lacerated leg bleeding profusely. God, let me die! Have mercy! End this quickly, please!
But he did not die. 30 seconds passed. Then more ants, dozens of them, alerted by their scout, came for him. They swarmed over him, pincers slicing into him in a dozen places. They hunched up and pivoted their bulbous abdomens forward, plunging in their stingers. He felt their acidic venom dissolving his flesh from within. They stretched him as though on a rack, trying to pull him apart. Failing that, they worked together to drag him.
His vision was blurring, but he could still make out the entrance to their nest. As he was carried down into the odiferous dark, he was grateful that the ant venom seemed to be numbing some of the pain. He hoped it would not take too long to die.
When he was back on the beach, gasping, sobbing, it was, for the first time, Alberto who spoke first, “You were a creative little devil weren’t you? Feeding bugs to ants?”
“I was a little kid, for goddsake!” Fred rasped.
“But you knew the grasshopper didn’t want to die.” By now Alberto was confident that Fred remembered most of the deaths.
“I was curious, goddamn it! I just wanted to see what the ants would do, you know, if they found something.”
“Well, now you know.”
Barely had Fred time to contemplate that when the stony beach opened under his feet. He was in a stomach churning free-fall, hurtling down, down into a vast white crater, its walls smooth as porcelain. Walls he realized were, in fact, porcelain.
He landed in water. With a great roar, the water began to spin. He was whirled helplessly round and round the crater, drawn irresistibly toward the center. A whirlpool was forming there, sucking everything down. Sucking the whole world down! He fought wildly, knowing he fought in vain, against the ever-faster current, spinning ever deeper into the whirlpool’s maw. Sensing the moment he would be pulled under, he drew in a frantic last breath. Blackness swallowed him, but it was not the blackness of Death. He was in a lightless, watery void, careening along some soulless tunnel, brushing along its walls. His breath gave out. He coughed and sucked in choking water. He gagged and spasmed and retched, only to suck in more. Let me die! Let me die!
But he suddenly erupted from the water’s surface, gasping for air as he rode the still rushing torrent, arcing violently up the walls as the tunnel turned sharply right and left. Next he sailed over an unseen cataract, fell endlessly amid tons of water, and at last splashed to a landing.
The waterfall subsided. Silence came. Yet still, everything was pitch black dark. In addition, he was overwhelmed by a staggering stench of decay and excrement. He began to swim, searching, hoping to find an exit or, failing that, at least a dry spot.
He clambered over hunks of rotted things, over filth beyond imagining. At last he bumped blindly into a concrete wall and began to feel his way along it. Several times he came to corners, but in the unyielding dark he had no way of knowing how far he had gone, or if he was going in circles.
It would take him many days to die of wracking starvation in this abominably foul, sightless nightmare place. But die he finally did.
The odd —
Shaken, exhausted, Fred turned slowly this time. Alberto was there, on a rock. That was actually reassuring. He was the only consistent thing in this hellish place he insisted was not Hell.
Fred had trouble finding his voice at first, so fresh in his mind was the latest, and by far longest, Death. Eventually he was able to grate, “That was — flushing bugs down the toilet?”
Alberto nodded, “Thankfully not something we had in my time.”
“But I don’t remember that one.”
“You mean you don’t remember it specifically. But you know it was something you did.”
“Of course it was something I did. Everybody dose it!”
He looked up at Alberto, “I’m going to live through anything I ever killed? Everything I ever killed?
In answer, Alberto’s eyes were sad again, “I’m not sure it’s every single one. It’s just until you’ve learned the Lesson.”
“But how could you — how could anyone possibly know everything I ever killed?”
“They make no mistakes here, at least as far as I’ve been able to tell.”
Despite his weakness and the numbing terror, Fred’s mind leapt at the reference, “’They?’ Who is ‘they?’ I want to talk to ‘them!’”
“Sorry, I was speaking metaphorically. In truth, I have no idea who or what rules this place.”
“What do you mean, you have no idea?! We’re dead, you idiot! Now is when we finally get the answers! I get to find out who was really in charge. Maybe to see my parents again, and my dog, Doozer. To find out what life was all about.”
“It was all about Lesson One.”
Fred grew suspicious. He’d been lulled into acceptance by the suffering and by this character’s calm manner. Now he thought, why should I accept this bullshit from some guy less than half my age? “Wait a minute, how do I know you’re even telling the truth? That you’re not some whack-job, low-level devil who’s been lying to me all along?”
“It’s normal for you to be mistrustful. In time you’ll see that I never lie.”
“You may not be lying, but you could still be a whack-job. You’re here, telling me all this shit like it’s gospel, and yet you’ve never met your Maker — our Maker?”
Alberto smiled, but it was an eerily nasty, ironic smile. Fred was instantly chilled by it. Then Alberto said softly, “There’s a little joke I tell myself from time to time. ‘I went to meet my maker, but he wasn’t home.’”
So disturbing was Alberto’s shift in demeanor, Fred waited quite some time before asking quietly, “Come on, man. Seriously? No ruler, angels, boss man, devils?”
“I’ve never met any one except the kind lady who helped me with Lesson One; and of course now you newcomers.”
“And the only thing that ever happens is getting punished for what you killed.”
“They were literally making a list? Checking it twice.”
Fred suddenly shouted, “But don’t you see that’s bull? It has to be. It’s so unfair! So wrong! So — so misleading!”
“You’ll see in the end it isn’t. Very, very simple really.”
Fred remained unconvinced, “Look, that toilet thing, that’s bullshit, too. Lorraine, my wife, she had me do that! We had these damn white carpets. She hated when I squashed a bug on the goddamn white carpets.”
“Ah, now we come to the blaming of others.”
“I’m not blaming her!”
“No! It was just — I’m explaining why, all right?! It was the — the logical solution. Pragmatic, okay? And anyway, I didn’t mean for the stupid bugs to suffer. I thought they just drowned quickly.”
“Unfortunately, they don’t.”
“But, it’s not fair!” Fred sobbed. “I didn’t know!”
“Fair don’t enter into it, you see? You wanted them to die.”
“Each time you tossed a bug into a toilet, you were thinking, ‘I want you to die.’ You meant to kill each one.”
Somehow, in this place, Fred could not deny it, even to himself. “I – I suppose.”
“Trust me, you did.”
Fred sagged. It was a bottomless nightmare. His head was spinning, and as it spun, yet another random thought popped into it.
“Hang on, you mean the wimp ass shits who run around the house catching spiders in glass jars and putting them outside because ‘spiders are good for the environment’ are right?”
“In a way. They’re doing the right thing for the wrong reason. But they’re closer to the essence of Lesson One, if you will.”
“But that’s not through any intelligence of their own. They’re just, you know, squeamish pussies!”
“Sorry, lad. Not true. They are very close to getting the main point.”
Fred had been an avid and eclectic reader. Because of that, still another thought appeared, “Wait a second, wait a second. Those guys — those religious guys —” He strained to remember.
“Yes?” said Alberto patiently.
“What are they? I read about them. Priests. No, monks or something. Religious guys who wear like masks or scarves over their mouths so they won’t accidentally inhale bugs!”
“Oh, yes, the Jains. I had one here. He breezed right through.”
Fred was horrified, “Oh, no way! They’re the only ones who got it right? Those guys?!”
“Let’s not overstate, lad. But, in that they revere life, yes, they arrive here quite ready to embrace Lesson One.”
“But all the other religions. All the other beliefs. They’re all wrong?”
The scary smile came back to Alberto’s face, “Come now, didn’t you ever ask yourself how so much blood could be shed in the name of various gods? We asked it even in my time, though very privately of course.
Fred was silent. Of course he had asked. “Sometimes I thought religion was just invented as a way of saying ‘we’re the chosen ones and everyone else deserves to die.’”
“On the money, lad.”
Fred brooded. “Okay, so Lesson One is just ‘Don’t kill anything. Killing is wrong.’ Now do I get it?”
“You understand. But you still don’t believe.”
Fred panicked, “No! No! Oh God, I do! I do get it now! Please!”
“You don’t feel it in your soul.”
“Oh great, now I suddenly have a soul?”
“Sorry. Speaking metaphorically again. Old habits. I should say something like ‘feel it in the core of your being.’”
Before Fred could respond sarcastically, he found himself racing across an endless expanse of brown glazed tile. A huge knife pinned him, then dismembered him, one limb at a time, its gargantuan blade screeching with each scrape across the tile. Next it severed his torso, then finally, mercifully, sliced off his head.
He remembered this death, and when he was back, he came back angry again, “That was a scorpion, okay? A goddamn scorpion in the shower in our hotel in Cabo. I can’t kill a scorpion?”
“Can I kill a rattlesnake?” Fred felt safe asking this because he knew he had never done so.
“But a rattlesnake could kill me!”
“Can I kill it after it bites me?”
“No. The snake is only defending itself. Killing it serves no purpose and is still in violation of Lesson One.”
“Wait, wait, okay, a bear attacks me. It is totally like biting my face. Can I kill it?”
Fred was taken aback, the answer unexpected.
“You can kill in defense of your own life. All life on Earth has that right.”
“Does the bear get punished for eating my face?”
“No. Animals are just on Earth to provide clues. They’re the staff of the University of Lesson One, you might say. They show us over and over, day in and out, that nothing wants to die.”
“But — but, okay, I’m sorry, that’s bullshit. Why fight back against the bear at all? I’m only going to end up here anyway. Why not just die?”
“Fred, Fred, don’t be negative. You are given life for the opportunity to learn the Lesson. The longer you live on Earth, the greater chance you have, in theory, of learning it.”
Fred came right back, in the fight again! “Here’s different one, okay? I’m a woman. My ex-husband has sworn to kill me. I have a court injunction against him and everything. He breaks into my house. Can I shoot him?”
“If, in that instant, you truly believe he is trying to kill you, yes. But the guidelines are very strict. In that moment you must feel in your heart you are in mortal danger, and you must cease fighting the moment your attacker, be it human or animal, surrenders or runs. You cannot take revenge.”
“But the guy already swore he was going to kill me. He’s on record. He’s going to ignore Lesson One.”
“You cannot make preemptive strikes. Now, I know that seems rather strict —”
“Really? You think?” snapped Fred.
“ — but it is consistent.”
“It’s effed, Alberto, is what it is! It’s —”
Fred was suddenly overcome with a chilling dread. Those were awfully strict parameters. He desperately tried to remember anything, everything he’d killed. He moaned at a distant memory.
“We lived in this old apartment in Billings. And these little brown ants would come in by the thousands. I sprayed them with gallons of poison. I swamped them with soapy water. I even tried that stupid white powder stuff! Which did not work, by the way. It did not kill any ants!”
They were interrupted as Fred was drenched in a tidal wave of neurotoxin. It caused him to go into shatteringly painful paralysis. He then lay in helpless, wretched, twisted, twitching agony, waiting, longing to die.
It took two full days.
He was weak, trembling, gasping when he reappeared. He turned shakily to see find Alberto, and cried out in sheer hysteria, “I must’ve killed hundreds, thousands of bugs with poison! Oh, God help me!”
Alberto held up a hand, “Slow down, lad. Believe it or not, you get a pass on some of them.”
“I do?” squeaked Fred. It was the first good news he’d heard since waking up dead.
“You do. Lesson One only applies when you single out a living creature and deliberately kill it.”
“But I wanted all of them to die.”
“Let’s ponder on that one. When you sprayed poison on individuals thinking, ‘Die, you little bastard,’ or words to that effect, those deaths you have to re-live. But when you were just spraying a whole nest of them, thinking ‘I hope this keeps them from coming back,’ you get a pass. It’s a bit of a fine point, I’ll grant, but you only re-live the deaths of the ones you singled out. What’s that term I’ve heard lately? Oh yes, when you ‘targeted’ them.”
Fred’s rasping breaths slowed a bit. A thought came to him, “Oh man, what if you’re a slaughter house guy? I mean like, killing cows or chickens or something all day long, year after year? That would be targeted, wouldn’t it?”
Alberto nodded solemnly, “Those unfortunates remain here for a very, very long time.”
Even though Fred then had to endure a host of ant, spider, and wasp poisonings, he was, between deaths, grateful he hadn’t been a slaughter house guy — or a hangman; or guillotine operator, whatever that would be called.
He began to lose track of the deaths. It took a while to recover from the most gruesome ones, but he got better at it. And he did not let go of his determination to convince Alberto that this was all a mistake, that it could not be the sole reason for Earth’s existence. That the very idea was flawed. That Alberto had been duped somehow into believing something which couldn’t be true.
“I will show you your lack of logic,” said Fred.
Alberto’s eyes flashed with interest, “Have at it, lad.” Rather annoyingly, he almost seemed to be enjoying this.
For quite some time, they were having was essentially a normal conversation, albeit one constantly interrupted by horrid deaths.
“I squash a bug, I have to re-live that death here.”
“Surely we have established that much.”
Okay, yeah, but I spray poison on a bunch of ants, I only get punished for the ones I ‘targeted.’”
“But the slaughter house guy has to do every freakin’ cow because he ‘targeted’ each cow.”
“Stop right there. Let’s say I’m a bombardier in World War 2. A guy who like dropped tons and tons of bombs on cities full of civilians.”
Alberto held up a tentative hand, “You mean from a flying machine?”
“Of course, what else?”
“Just checking. I’ve only heard of them from newcomers. Like toilets, we did not have them in my time.”
“What was your time, anyway?”
“I passed in 1576.”
“What?! You’ve been here four hundred something years!?”
“Yes, but I’m fairly sure a lot of that time was spent learning Lesson One,”
Fred’s non-beating heart skipped a beat, “How long does it take, for goddsake?”
“Well, it’s hard to tell since, you’ve perhaps noticed, we have no day or night. And anyway, it varies greatly from newcomer to newcomer. But don’t distract yourself, lad. Stay on your point. These are good questions that I think will speed you along.”
Fred tried to set aside the whole hundreds-of-years-in-Oblivion thing and pushed on , “Right, uh, so I drop all those bombs on innocent people. What happens to me here?”
“You mostly get a pass, as far as the bombings.”
“That’s ridiculous! I said I was the bombardier, okay? I knew for a fact that when I dropped those bombs, people were going to die.”
“You still get a pass.”
“I’ve already explained it. Because you didn’t target individual living things. You couldn’t even see them from your flying machine. The Lesson is very specific. Very simple. You are not punished for bugs accidentally stepped on, for moths accidentally flying into your candle flame, or for squirrels run over in your driving machine.”
“Those are accidents! The bombing was not an accident!”
“Contextually, in terms of Lesson One, it was.”
“Wait, wait, let’s try this. I set a mouse trap. It kills a mouse. I don’t get punished?”
“No, because you personally didn’t kill the mouse.”
“But I did!”
“No, you knew the trap might kill a mouse. You probably even hoped it would kill a mouse, but you didn’t go after a specific mouse, one that clearly, by its actions, was showing you it didn’t want to die, and kill it.”
Fred immediately experienced the death of a mouse he had found caught in a sticky trap, still alive, then taken outside and killed with a rock.
When he was back and had caught his breath he shouted, “That mouse was going to die anyway! They can’t ever get out of the sticky stuff! I killed it to end its suffering!”
“It did not ask you to, nor did it want you to end its ‘suffering.’ It wanted to go on living. You should simply have walked away and left it to die on its own. Then you would not have been punished.”
“And — the cowboy who shoots his horse with a broken leg?”
“Pays the price here.”
“I’m telling you this is effed! It does not make sense, Alberto! Okay okay, look, here’s another one. I’m in a war, okay, and I set out a bunch of land mines, right?”
Alberto winced with impatience, “Please, Fred, it’s the same example as the mouse trap and the bombs.”
“No, no, let me finish! Later, see, years later, the war is over. The land mines blow up innocent people. Kids. Children!”
“It doesn’t matter. The man who set the mines did not actively wish them die.”
“You’re missing the point, Alberto! I just said innocent children got killed by my land mines.”
“You’re assuming the death of a child is somehow worse than the death of an adult, or mouse, or housefly. Part of learning Lesson One is letting go of that misconception.”
The concept was dumbfounding. Fred was appropriately speechless. Then he endured the death of a rat he had surprised in his garage and beheaded with a shovel. When he was back, he still couldn’t think of anything to say.
Alberto waited, with a rather hopeful look.
At last Fred mumbled, “So the guys who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”
“Newcomers bring that up a lot. It must have been quite impressive, but no, they get a pass.” Then he added, more gently, “You mustn’t cling to Earthly ideas of morality and justice. They are overly complex, invented by humans who did not understand Lesson One. It is much simpler.”
Fred anemically rallied once more, “But — but if it’s as simple as you say, it completely ignores everything mankind has done! What about art? Science? Going to the moon? Wiping out smallpox? Feeding the poor? Great books? Movies? Epicyclic gearing?” (Prior to dying, Fred had been an engineer).
Alberto was nodding his head, clearly disinterested, “All window dressing.”
“Window dressing? All progress and invention and creativity is window dressing?”
“As far as Lesson One is concerned, lad. And I’ll go a bit out on a limb to add here that I’ve often wondered, since learning the Lesson meself, if the creator didn’t overdo it a bit in giving us the power to think for ourselves.”
“Wait, wait, you’re saying there’s a creator?”
“Don’t be childish, Fred. You know I’m speaking metaphorically. I can’t help it. It’s how we humans communicate. For the purpose of making my point, let’s say there is a creator, but I’m making no promises. I’m simply theorizing.”
“You really don’t know who is running this not-hell? You’re really still as much in the dark as we were on earth?”
“Sorry to say.”
Fred nodded resignedly, “Go on.”
“Right then. He puts us on Earth to learn the Lesson. Now of course He has to make us smart enough to recognize the clues He’s giving us, the clues from the animals, eh? But maybe He didn’t foresee we’d go to dreaming up all that other stuff, the window dressing. End result: it distracts us something terrible, and almost no one ever learns the Lesson.”
“You’re saying we could have completely skipped a minor thing like civilization and learned Lesson One as cave men?”
“Aye, and saved ourselves a lot of grief, both on Earth and here.”
It was staggering. After a staggered moment, Fred declared, “Please, Alberto, you cannot say everything humankind has achieved is meaningless!”
“That’s why I’ve come up with the term, ‘is window dressing.’ Doesn’t sound as heartless.”
Fred sank to his knees. Then instantly struggled up again, refusing to make such a pitiful “religious” gesture.
There was another Death or two.
Fred was growing tired. But questions still struggled forth in his mind. “What about all the millions and millions of years before there were even people on Earth? What was the point of all that?”
“My, you are a thinker, Fred, I must say. So many newcomers just stand here screaming and moaning and feeling put-upon. Takes’em bloody forever to learn the Lesson.”
“Thank you, I’m sure. What about my question?”
“Ah well, there you’re right out of my area, aren’t you. Perhaps that pre-history was needed to create a suitable world for putting people on to learn the Lesson. Or, perhaps the powers-that-be just happened along later and plunked us down here because the place was handy.”
“Oh, so Adam and Eve is true?”
“You know better than to ask me that.”
Weaker and weaker, Fred continued to relive deaths. His qustions became less about trying to prove that Lesson One was logically flawed and more about simply satisfying curiosity. Sometimes they were even asked just to pass the time. Despite the monstrous originality of each Death, Fred was actually becoming bored.
Once he asked, “Okay what about this? What about suicide?”
Alberto smiled, “As I’ve said, you’re a thinker. If only other newcomers could be allowed to hear you. You’re quite the star pupil, Fred.”
“Wonderful. What about it? Don’t you get points off for that? An extra death?”
“No, it is your right to take your own life.”
“Get out of town.”
“The clues are all there. Many animals sacrifice themselves for many reasons. To provide food for their young, even food for their mates. Humans also sacrifice themselves to save others, but then we call it bravery instead of suicide. We fear Death so we think it is bad. If Death is bad, it must be wrong to kill yourself. But that’s just an arbitrary invention.”
“I hate this place. You hear me?”
“We nearly all do in the beginning, believe me. You can well imagine how these discoveries affected me, what with being Catholic.”
“It is hell.”
“It is not.”
“As you wish.”
But of course Fred did not wish. Talking to Alberto was quite literally all he had to cling to in this bleak new universe. After a long silence he said, “Priests must have a hard time here. Or, I mean anybody who really believed in one religion.”
“Oh yes, they take it very hard, at least the ones who weren’t dishonest. The liars, the users, the abusers — they rather quickly come to the conclusion they belong here.”
“Hard to convince them they’re not in hell?
“Very. They take a very, very long time on the Lesson.”
“What happened with Hitler?”
“Some time ago everyone started asking about him. I’m afraid I don’t know. He was not one of my newcomers.”
Fred moved on, “What about babies?”
“What about them?”
“When a baby dies, does it come here?”
“Of course not. It hasn’t transgressed Lesson One.”
“So where does it go?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps they are reincarnated so they can start over. Perhaps they go to some other place. I don’t know.”
Fred died a few times. He did not have much to say in between. But finally it occurred to him to ask, “Where did you live, Alberto?”
“That explains the Renaissance Faire outfit. But, you sound Irish.”
“It seems I speak whatever tongue is most pleasing to each newcomer.”
“But, Irish? I was only in Ireland once.”
“You must have liked it. Newcomers usually arrive in the places they liked best in life.”
“But I liked lots of places. We went to Hawaii every chance we got. Kauai, you know? And San Diego.”
“Ireland must have been best.”
“Because ‘they’ make no mistakes here?”
“Where did you like best?”
“My uncle’s farm north of Mestre, where my father took us summers. It seemed so vast and open, compared to our little cramped streets and canals. His farm is what I see even now.”
“Now? You don’t see this Irish beach I’m on?”
Fred shivered. That was distressingly surreal to hear in this otherwise very realistic setting. But after all, he was dead. New rules.
He thought more about favorite places. “If anyone had asked me, I’d have said Canada. I absolutely loved fishing in Canada.”
The cold, razor-sharp hook ripped into the roof of his mouth and lodged in his nasal cavity. He was yanked off his feet, hung by his mouth in searing agony as he wrenched his head from side to side, vainly trying to dislodge the unyielding spike. Next he was slammed down on a wet, cold aluminum surface. The hook was torn from his jaws, taking gobs of flesh with it. But that mattered not nearly as much as the fact that he could not breathe. His chest heaved in desperate, hopeless attempts to pull in oxygen, but there was none to be had. He gagged and retched and contorted in horrible spasms as Death by asphyxiation slowly, so slowly, took him.
When he returned and again saw Alberto, he bellowed, “No! Oh, shit no! I have to do all the fishing trips?”
“I’ve said it’s a long road, lad,” said Alberto, with a tinge of genuine empathy.
“But I get it! I get it. I’ve gotten it!”
But he still didn’t, not really. Not quite yet.
A more memorable fish death came as he was dropped, still barely alive, into a layer of sizzling bacon grease in the frying pan on the camp stove. The crackling was deafening. The scorching heat eclipsed being baked by magnifying glass. But at least he died quickly. He remembered that trout. It had been damn good.
Fred would have said he’d that he’d never gotten to go fishing as much as he’d have liked, and that he’d killed way more ants, flies and spiders. But it didn’t seem so now. There were a shocking, number and variety of fish deaths.
But somehow Fred couldn’t maintain his defiance. What was the point? Lesson One was Lesson One — the only reason we were put on Earth.
He found himself, between indescribable agonies, wondering more what Alberto’s “life” was like.
“Is that really true what you said earlier, that you never see anyone except newcomers?”
“There’s no co-workers or anything? You never go on a coffee break, hit the john, take a nap, get a day off?”
“But that’s insane. You’d go insane.”
“As you’ve probably noticed, lad, you can’t do that here.”
“How do you stand it?”
“You’ve no choice. It is all there is.”
“But don’t you ever wonder what comes next?”
Alberto’s eyes sparkled ever so faintly in that way they did when Fred made progress. Fred felt proud.
“Ah,” Alberto said, “that’s the big question, isn’t it? The next big question. Here you are worried about learning Lesson One, but in truth you’re lucky, because you have me to tell you that you will learn it. You can trust in that. Now consider my place: I don’t know what comes next, or if anything comes next.”
“But — but that’s the same as it was when we were alive.”
“Aye, but for one thing. I now know there is a Lesson One. It could well be, therefore, that there is a Lesson Two. After all, I can still think for meself. I can still learn. Newcomers give me glimpses of the wonders that came after my time. And I take some small pride in feeling I’ve gotten better at helping them learn the Lesson. At least I hope I have. But what does it mean? As I sit here dealing with them for God only knows how long — and I mean to say, of course, for whoever or whatever knows how long — am I failing Lesson Two? Am I doing something wrong over and over, dooming myself to some new and infinite misery in the next life? And I mean to say, of course, if there is a next life.”
“Jesus, Alberto — that’s awful!”
“Aye. Yet, I can do nothing. I can’t ask anyone. I can’t leave. I can’t kill myself. I can’t go crazy. I can only wait.”
Fred was dropped alive into a pot of boiling water. Oh, shit! The lobsters! Cooking their own lobsters was something he and Lorraine had come to late in life. He didn’t think they’d done it too many times. At least he hoped not. Lorraine loved lobster but couldn’t stomach the cooking part. He could see her even now, ducking into den, keeping her back to him as he opened the lid on the lobster pot.
He realized with repentant shock that this was the first time he'd really thought about Lorraine. My God! Poor Puppins! She doesn’t know about Lesson One! If only I could tell her, warn her!
He calmed himself. Well, at least she’ll do way better than me. Hated fishing. Wouldn’t kill a bug. Wouldn’t cook the lobsters. Got me to do it! He smiled in spite the price he was paying now. Oh, Lorraine, how long before your time here comes?
Quite unexpectedly, that thought sparked another, one so obvious he was astonished it only came to him now. He turned quickly to face his sole companion.
“Alberto, I don’t remember my own death. The real one, I mean.”
Fred detected an entirely new look in Alberto’s eyes. In reminded him of the look of radiant joy on his tenth grade math teacher’s face when he’d finally grasped solving algebra equations with more than one variable.
But Alberto, as so often in such key moments, said nothing. So Fred went on, “I remember getting chest pains, and Lorraine insisting I go to the doctor. Getting in the car, feeling tired —”
Alberto nodded, “Damn anti-climactic isn’t it? Your death, the thing you fear most throughout life, is the only one that doesn’t matter. It is irrelevant to Lesson One.”
Fred nodded slowly. That made a perverse kind of sense. Then it occurred to him to ask, “How did you die?”
Alberto smiled, a nice warm smile, this time. “So few newcomers ever ask me that. It was the plague. My wife and daughters died first. I hid their bodies, so they would not be taken — taken to be thrown into the great rotting heaps beyond the city. I could not bear the thought of that. I stayed with them for days. But soon I was ill, too. I remember the fever, and the boils starting. Nothing else.”
“You stayed with their bodies? You must have known that was dangerous, even if you didn’t know about germs and all that.”
“I didn’t care. I didn’t want to go on without them. And, you see, I firmly believed that if I died I would join them in a better world.” His face now twisted into the unsettling, angry smile, and he added bitterly, “Imagine my disappointment.”
Fred felt an overwhelming wave of sadness for Alberto. Tears rushed to his eyes. He was shocked at the intensity of the emotion, and wanted very much to say something comforting, or at least sensitive. All he could think of was, “Well, maybe that stuff — that other afterlife stuff, I mean — comes after we learn Lesson One. We could still join our loved ones after this, couldn’t we?”
Clearly Alberto had thought about it, but he said only, “I’m not pinning any grand hopes on it.”
Fred was picked up. As he fell toward the pot of boiling water, he was not afraid of the coming pain. He found himself thinking, I wonder if a lobster was the very last thing I ever killed.
The beach was different when he was back. The sun was peeking below the roiling clouds, lighting them like magnificent coals in some sky-huge fireplace. The sea and surf were spectacular; the air somehow even more invigorating. These differences gave Fred a sudden uneasiness. He spun around.
Alberto was not there.
At first he felt sheer panic akin to his first deaths. No Alberto! He was alone! Abandoned!
He calmed himself. No, Alberto wouldn’t abandon him. Somehow Fred knew that. Yet, why was he gone?
Had he learned Lesson One? He must have. Yet, if so, how frustrating; what a let-down. There’d been no moment of triumph, of discovery, of elation. Then he thought, I guess it’s like your death. It simply happens. Hardly noticed.
Still, he didn’t like not knowing for sure. Why be vague about it? Somebody ought at least to give him a diploma or something.
A rush of new questions. How long would be alone? Had Alberto been allowed to move on? Was he with his wife daughters? Or was he still on that farm, now helping another newcomer? Was there another afterlife after this afterlife? If so, what about after that one?
He heard a terrified scream. Then an earth shaking thud. Though quite nearby, the sounds were, curiously, not in the least disturbing, and he knew at once what they meant. A God-foot had just stomped a newcomer like a bug. He realized that Alberto must not have had to watch each of his deaths, but in fact was only aware of them peripherally. That was a relief.
But who had died? Where was the newcomer?
She sort of rippled into existence before him, standing on his lovely Irish beach on this stormy-yet-magnificent evening. She was turned partly away, trembling, half paralyzed with fear.
It was a young girl, no more than ten or twelve years old. Fred’s stomach, the useless thing that would never again know food, leapt within him. She was his first newcomer! But — a little girl? A child? How dare “they” give him a child? Were “they” out of their minds? How could he, his first time out, be expected to explain Lesson One to a child? It was too much responsibility!
He sat motionless. She stood motionless. Poor frightened little thing. So much to learn. He noticed that her shoes and short pleated skirt were of some shimmering material he’d never seen. Ah, of course — she was from some later time than his. Perhaps much later. God, how long had he been here? No way to know.
He knew one thing. He had to act. He forced himself to calm down, to analyze. He realized he had automatically lapsed into feeling Earthly grief at the death of a child, anguishing over the unfairness of a life cut short. Wrong. He had to let go of the old ways of thinking. There was only Lesson One.
That allowed a relief of revelation. Dying at her tender age meant only one thing: that she would not have a long lifetime of killings to atone for. She would face only those relative few committed, mostly out of curiosity, in her short time on Earth. Now he understood. “They” had given him a child because a child has an easier time here, not a harder one. His more challenging newcomers would come later.
Now he ached to reach out to her, to ease her terror. But Alberto’s opening word, “Welcome,” seemed much too formal for this frightened little thing.
So, in as cheery a tone as he could muster, Fred said, “Hey there!”
copyright 2011 – S.S. Wilson
I’m posting short stories for free. Feel free to link to them, but please do not copy/paste them.