Where There's Smoke
Mark looked around the bright white cathedral in disbelief. Where walls should have been, great curtains of white smoke billowed up, restricting his view. It was empty, save for a tall, winged man who stood at a white podium next to a large iron gate; he was dressed in white robes, and was holding a clipboard and a pen. Mark thought it all looked just as he had imagined it would while on Earth. He practically galloped towards the angel, giddy for eternity to start as soon as possible.
“Hi!” Mark said. “I’d tell you my name, but I have a feeling you already know it.” Excitement emanated from his voice.
Papers rustled. “Let’s see...Mark Simons...35 years old...cause of death: car accident...1523 good deeds, 1240 bad ones; 2 great deeds, 3 wicked...” The angel scratched his forehead with his pen. “...56% church attendance rate but with only a 23 focus score during the sermon...Worshiped 6.3 decibels above congregation average...Hmm, only one conversion. Right religion, wrong sect.” The angel clicked his tongue three times. “I'll have to put you on the waitlist.”
Mark couldn’t believe it. “Are you sure there hasn't been some kind of mistake? I've been a Christian my whole life; I’ve been going to church since before I could walk; I read my Bible 3 times a week!” His breathing quickened.
The angel flipped to the back of the stack of papers on his clipboard. “Looks like the best I can do is send you to Purgatory 3a. You do a few weeks of community service, and if you do well enough, I'll send you through.”
Mark was furious. “If I do well enough? My whole life, I've been living for this moment. Do you know how much more I could have done if I wasn't so hellbent—” The angel raised an eyebrow. “—on going to heaven?”
“What sorts of things might you have done?” The angel began scribbling something down.
“Well, you know. I could have gone to strip clubs, I could have thieved, I could have disrespected my parents.”
More scribbling. “Go on...”
Mark's face turned red. “I'm starting to think that's not a great idea.” He paused. “Okay. I'll do the Purgatory.”
“I'm afraid at this point I’d only be comfortable with putting you in 434g.” The angel placed his hand on a large blue lever that Mark hadn’t noticed before.
Mark craned his neck around the angel, trying to get a glimpse of heaven, but the smoke seemed even thicker than before, curling around the charcoal gray gate to obscure what lay beyond.
“Let’s go half,” Mark bargained. “217? What’s half of g?” Mark had no idea what any of it meant.
The angel said nothing, but moved his hand from the blue lever to a smaller red one that was nestled behind the podium.
“Okay, okay,” said Mark. “I’ll do 434g.”
Mark thought he could see the beginnings of a smile at the corners of the angel’s mouth.
“Alright now, off you go.” The Angel pulled the blue lever.
Mark felt his body jerk suddenly. The pillars of white smoke puffed into the distance as if there was somebody blowing them away. He blinked and the afterlife fell away.
When Mark awoke, he was lying in a bed. The room itself was windowless, and the ceiling slanted such that it was only a few feet higher than the bed itself at its head. The walls were off-white and it smelled vaguely of cigarette smoke. The thought occurred to him that he must have just awoken from a dream, but the fact remained that he was still in an unknown place. Was it another dream? Mark pinched his cheek and felt a sharp prick. Huh. He had a dull ache in his bladder, and he decided to look for a bathroom. He stepped off the bed and opened the door, which was a standard white wooden door with a thin metal chain lock, and was surprised to see that he was not in a house, but some kind of a hotel. Looking around, he could see a door every few yards stretching as far as he could see.
Mark wasn’t the only one in the hallway. As he trekked further and further down the endless corridor, he saw several people. Curiously, every one of them looked to be about in their twenties. He saw a blonde boy wearing an aviator's cap, who smiled and gave him a wave as he passed by. He saw a girl with a shawl muttering to herself. Mark thought he heard the words “my baby” as he skirted past. Finally, after what felt like hours passed (there were no clocks or other timekeeping devices anywhere), he decided to ask for directions. It wasn’t that the thought hadn’t occurred to him before that moment, but to be frank he was embarrassed at the whole situation, and tried his best to avoid the unscrupulous types that one would expect to find in a place like Purgatory.
Unfortunately, Mark was so desperate for a bathroom by the time he thought to ask that the person he asked ended up looking exactly like one of the aforementioned unscrupulous types. He was a hulking thing—a veritable brute. A graying black ponytail sat atop his head, and he donned a black leather Harley Davidson jacket. His gait somehow told onlookers “stay away from me” and “I’m looking for trouble” simultaneously. Mark felt his body recoil as he approached.
“Ex-excuse me, sir. Mind telling me where the bathroom is? I’m new here.” The man raised one gray eyebrow. “You’re looking in the wrong place,” he said. Mark’s heart sank. “Bathroom’s that way, though,” he said, pointing back the way Mark had come. “Room 40,056.”
“Th-thank you,” Mark said. He started off toward the way the man had pointed when he felt a powerful hand on his back.
“My name is Hudson by the way. What are you in for anyways? You don’t seem the type.”
“Wrong sect, I think,” Mark muttered. “And I think the angel said something about my conversion count being a bit low, too.” He could feel his blood pooling in his chest with anger as he thought about it. “And my name is Mark.”
“You got an angel?! Well shoot, Mark, everyone I’ve talked to on this floor had a meeting with a demon, or even the Devil himself. Apparently Hell’s getting full, and he’s not letting just any old troublemaker in. Even Stalin got waitlisted.” Hudson smirked.
“Stalin’s in purgatory?!” Mark was incredulous.
“Nah, I’m just kidding. Stalin’s in Hell. Lucky bastard.”
Mark looked back down the hallway longingly, but he couldn’t help his curiosity. “Why would you want to be in Hell?” Mark asked.
“Tell you the truth, so I don’t have to hang out with guys like you.” Hudson chuckled. “Rumor is, the Devil tired himself out with all the eternal punishment. He’s more or less retired now. God, too. Heaven and Hell is just a means of separating the dweebs from the true men at this point.”
“Sorry, I really need to go.” Mark pointed the way to the bathroom. “Thank you, Hudson.”
“Keep your head up kid, you’ll be alright.” But Mark had already gone.
On the journey back down the hallway, Mark couldn’t stop thinking about what Hudson had said. Heaven and Hell, not real? How can that be? I was practically at God’s doorstep just yesterday! But the more he thought about it, the more doubt started to creep into his mind. It could explain why they sent me here, despite me being obviously qualified. His thoughts were interrupted as he finally reached the door marked 40,056. At once he knew why he hadn’t seen it on the first pass—it was exactly the same as every other door. There were no markings aside from the room number. He pushed the door open and walked in. The bathroom itself was standard fare, and Mark rushed to the urinal to relieve himself. Mark heard the door swing open again and a few seconds later he felt something brush his right shoulder roughly. He looked to his right and saw an angel with a ‘staff’ shirt next to him. His shaggy wings poked out of two shoddily-torn holes in the shirt, and fanned out to completely envelop the surrounding two urinals. Mark thought about saying something but decided not to in case it was some sort of test. Instead, he finished his business and awkwardly moved the wing out of way like a low-hanging tree limb.
Mark went to wash his hands, but when he looked in the mirror, he was shocked. His wrinkles were gone, his hairline had moved up, gray had turned to black; he looked at least 10 years younger than he was the day that he died. He stood there admiring his new youth until he heard another flush, at which time he quickly left before having to face the angel. While Mark was walking back to his room, a door opened suddenly and spat out a man in an all-black suit and top hat. He looked to be in a hurry, taking a second to orient himself, then quickly pacing to escape a few doors down.
Mark noticed the first door was still slightly ajar, and a bright yellow light very much unlike the light in Mark’s room blazed a stripe in the murky hallway. He was curious and walked over to the door, feeling a tinge of jealousy–did this man have a window? He slid his finger into the gap and flung the door all the way open. The light was so bright, that at first Mark wondered if he was back in the heaven waiting room. However, as his eyes adjusted he saw cars—cars!— whizzing silently by on what appeared to be a bustling urban street. Mark took a step through the door onto the sidewalk, and immediately the city soundscape erupted all around him. Just to be sure, Mark took a few turns stepping through the door each way—every time he made the switch, his ears pulsated with the difference in pressure. I bet there is a bar or someplace I could take my new youth for a test drive. However, just as he was about to step all the way through and close the door behind him, he heard a soft female voice behind him.
“Excuse me, are you Mark Simons? I’m supposed to come tell you about the 434G meeting.”
Mark whipped around. “Who are you? And how did you…” Mark trailed off as he locked eyes with the girl; the dingy lighting would have done anyone a disservice, but it was easy to tell she was beautiful. He considered asking her to step through the door into the sunlight but decided against it.
“Well, we got a letter from heaven this morning that we got a new group member. When I went to your room to come get you, you weren’t there, so I asked an angel in the hallway, and he mentioned seeing you.”
“Well, where do we go?” Mark asked. He hadn’t seen any stairs.
“You can just follow me.” She turned back towards the hallway.
“Wait!” Mark called. “At least tell me your name!”
“I’m Nevaeh. Now come on, we’re going to be late!” She started off towards the hallway again. Just like with the bathroom, when she finally opened the door to the stairs, it looked like any other hotel room door. Mark wondered just how many other rooms and services there were in the hotel.
It took 20 minutes for the pair to make the journey to the ground-floor lobby, and another 15 to the meeting room for group 434g. The meeting room was square, and not particularly big. There were about 10 people in total, and most were sitting on couches or on one of the two gray armchairs that sat around the perimeter.
“Mark? Shoot, if I had known you were in our group, I could have saved Nevaeh the trouble and brought you down myself.” It was Hudson, and he was wearing the same Harley Davidson jacket as he had before. When Mark thought about it, he realized he was wearing the same thing that he was wearing when he died.
“Motorcycle accident?” he asked. “I mean, is that how you died? I noticed the jacket.” Hudson leaned back in his armchair and laughed. “Kid, I wore this jacket pretty much every day, even on Earth.” He paused and looked around the room. The other members were looking at him expectantly. “I was 93 when I died. Heart attack.”
Mark felt his jaw drop open.
“See, guys? It gets the newbies every time.” He chuckled. The thought crossed Mark’s mind that most of these people were probably older than him–a lot older. His eyes drifted to Neveah and he considered asking. However, he realized he didn’t really want to know. There was, however, a question he did need answered.
“What exactly do we do here? What is our community service?”
The man in the other armchair, a young black-haired gentleman of Asian descent, sat up a little straighter in his chair. “Our community service is over there in that binder. It is supposed to take two weeks, but most of us have been here for at least a year.”
A large man in a red baseball cap and broken glasses who took up half of the couch he was sitting on spoke next: “Our real mission? Eat doughnuts, play board games, drink; if you have any other ideas, I’m open to suggestions.” He passed a pink frosted doughnut to Mark. “Thanks.” He took a bite.
“Can we get hotpot?” another voice chimed in.
Mark finished chewing and cleared his throat. “Can we go to a bar? I think I know a spot.”
“Oh, should we let the newbie show us around?” Hudson asked.
“I’m game,” the hatted man, rising from the couch.
Mark was still savoring the taste of the doughnut. It was better than anything he had experienced since he died.
“I think it was around here,” Mark told the group.
“What exactly are we looking for?” Hudson asked, arms folded.
“I’m not exactly sure. A city was behind one of these doors. She saw.” He pointed to Nevaeh.
Nevaeh sighed. “He’s talking about the New York City door.”
“Seriously? You should have told me! I know a great bar we can go to there.” Hudson began leading the way, leading the group to the door, and not skipping a beat while stepping through it.
As the group continued walking down the city street, Mark saw an elderly woman waiting to cross the street with a bag of groceries in one hand and a walker in the other. A test? Mark rushed over, eager to perform a good deed.
“Do you need any hel–” Before he could finish, the woman had been hit by some dark figure, and lay sprawling across the pavement. He could see bone poking out her skin at the elbow, and blood was spurting out. Flecks of asphalt were caked into the side of her face.
“Oh my goodness, we need to get help now.” He turned to the shadowy figure, scared that he might be its next victim. Instead it grabbed his hand and pulled.
“We are soooo going to Hell for this!” It was Hudson. “Come on, Mark, we gotta get out of here.” Mark yanked his hand away.
“What was that? You’re not actually trying to go to Hell are you?” Onlookers had begun to rush over and surround the old woman.
“Yes, I am. Like I told you, Hell isn’t what you think it is. Neither is Heaven. Now, if you want to go to either one, I suggest you follow us right now before we get stuck here on Earth.”
Mark had no choice but to follow. The group zigzagged through alleys and across roads for about a mile until they stopped in the middle of a dark alley in front of a nondescript metal door. Hudson pushed it open and revealed a pub. The bartender, a heavily-tattooed woman in her mid-thirties wearing black eyeliner, noticed the group immediately.
“The usual, Hudson?” She gave him a wink.
“The usual, as usual.” He winked back.
The woman pulled down a few glasses and reached for a bottle of whiskey. “So, what mischief have you been getting into lately? Can’t be too good if you’re still here.” “Nothing you haven’t heard before,” Hudson replied. “Oh, and can you whip Mark up something extra special on me? He’s new here.”
“Don’t bother,” said Mark. He was appalled at Hudson.
A few minutes later, the drink arrived anyway.
“Give it a try, kid.”
“I’m not touching that drink, Hudson.”
“Why don’t you try it, Mark.” He looked up to see Nevaeh smiling at him. “It really is wonderful. Nina makes the best drinks in the world.”
“Okay, okay, fine. I’ll try it.” Mark put the cup to his lips. It was amazing. He could hardly taste the alcohol, and there was a strong taste of blueberry and mint. It had been so long since he had had anything but water to drink that he finished it in three large gulps. “C-could I have another one of those?” he asked.
Hudson looked Mark dead in the eyes. “If you stay here with us, you can have as many of those as you like. And, if we ever make it into Hell, it only gets better from there. What do you say, kid?” He held out an empty beer bottle to Mark.
“What do I have to do?”
“Why don’t you start by smashing this beer bottle into that man’s head? Just think of it as your initiation.”
Mark thought about it. He had never done anything like this before. But if Heaven and Hell were just a construct, it means he’d been duped. His whole life, he had been believing in and working towards a lie. God did exist, but he didn’t care about Mark. Maybe it was something in the drink, but when he thought about it, with a God like that, there was no reason Hudson shouldn’t have done what he did. What did it matter if you are good or evil, dead or alive, injured or well? In the end, where you end up is as inconsequential as which baseball team you root for. He wrenched the beer bottle from Hudson’s hand.
“Thank you, Hudson. For showing me the truth.” He walked over behind the man, a balding old man in a trench coat, and raised the beer bottle.
“Hey, what are you—”
Mark brought the bottle down with a thud.
Mark blinked open his eyes, and white light attacked his eyes from every direction. As his eyes focused, a form began to materialize. It had majestic wings and was adorned with a spotless white robe. His face looked incredibly stern, and when Mark looked him in the eye he shook his head mournfully. Suddenly, Mark realized.
“Wait! I didn’t m—” But the trap door had already opened beneath his feet.
Travis Erb is a second year student studying chemistry. Travis has always enjoyed writing and the art of storytelling, but has only recently started taking their writing outside of the classroom. Travis’ work is a look at what happens when a man who has devoted his life to his religion comes face to face with the fact that his stats weren’t quite good enough to get into heaven the first time. They enjoy the absurd and often add absurd elements to their stories. Travis is currently writing a fantasy/sci-fi book with his brother, and really enjoys the creativity that writing enables.