Everyone applauded when the bell rang like a terrified bird flapping around in a cage. They cheered and laughed and patted Mr. Kovach on the back. And they hated every second of it.
Work is Hell. I can attest to it. I didn't even bother raising a voice of praise. I know what this is. So does everyone else, but like fools they try to pretend this afterlife is not much different than the world we once knew on Earth.
Now Earth is the playing field. We are the masters, each fighting for higher status and horrified at the thought of getting canned.
"Congratulations, Mr. Kovach," I said as the old bugger passed my desk.
He grit his teeth at me. It was supposed to be a smile, I guess. He didn't say anything, but went toward the super's office with the file report in his hands. The super liked to see the details. Generally, they gave him reason to demean us. In this case, Mr. Kovach would receive another promise for a vacation that would never arrive.
That's hell for you: all work and no play-ever. One goes from bad to worse, hoping to stay with bad and make the best of it.
I am pretty sure I experienced the same thing while in the mortal body. Corporate America makes a lot of promises. Organizational skills are prime meat for discussion. And everyone holds a knife behind their back to stab their neighbors in the chest when the lie or the cheat or outright theft seems most profitable.
I hated Kovach, and that was okay. We all hated each other. No one loved this job or found pleasure in being here. If anyone even pretended to love anything-their success, their daily tasks, their routine-we hated that person. It was an active hate, real hate, and it was acceptable to hate in this tower of offices because this was hell and love flat out didn't belong.
Mr. Kovach hated me right back. He sneered over his shoulder before pounding the door of the super's office with his file.
The door opened and the super yelled as Kovach entered. Kovach let the door slam behind him. I didn't need to see what was happening in there. We all knew.
Kovach slammed his file on the super's desk. He smacked his hand down on top of it and said, "I got you another one. He's a dog-top dog, to be exact. And though he may start on the bottom floor doing the grunt work, keeping the machine alive, he'll rise quickly, this one. He'll make supervisor on one floor, then the next, then the one above that. He'll be here before you know it. Don't look sad-poor baby-after a few more of these cases, I'll displace you before this man will."
The super screamed every curse in the book as he shoved Mr. Kovach out of his office. We heard that clear enough when the door opened and thundered shut again.
He smiled at us-I knew it-but we were all working hard at our desks again. We shouted to the board masters handling the monitors lighting the far wall. We waved our pages in the air, made our calls, pointed fingers, gave hi-fives or crude hand gestures, each of us pretending to love the work, when we knew it was hell.
In other words, everything was normal ... until a new devil was promoted to our floor.
"Call me Mr. Big-I'm the new dog in town!"
We hated him from the moment he stood there introducing himself with arms widespread. Truth was, we learned later, his name on Earth actually had been Eugene Anatoli Big, or Mr. Big for short.
"I'm a killer," he said with pride seeping. "If any of you don't like me, you are free to go downstairs. And I got that piece of wisdom from the Black Prince himself."
"Oh goodie." I turned to see Mr. Kovach standing behind me with a new file already held in his twitching hands.
An alarm blared from the far side of the office. The board masters huddled fast in a circle over handwritten notes. Then with hell's equivalent of cell phones to their ears-squid-like organic machines that clung to one's face without ever letting go, despite the peeling skin and obnoxious pain-the board masters spoke and began a cascade of numbers, which few of us could ignore.
"Let's do this people!" The super had appeared with fists on his hips as he stood before the door to his office. "Look alive! We have a full-scale war in effect, and you know what that means. Brotherhood! Bonding together! Shifting economies! A rising number of church attendants! Even the people who get splattered won't be any good to us if they die in the act of noble sacrifice."
I put my hands in my desk. It was a disgusting act when I had first arrived from the previous floor. The desk looked normal: flat, scattered with papers and notebooks, a monitor fixed into the wall. Crunch time in this office, I learned, was really that. Two mouths opened in the desktop, each filled with jagged teeth, which were dull from overuse and made it all the more painful. Thrusting my hands inside each mouth activated the squid phone stinging the side of my face. I heard a buzz, felt the shock, and the crunch over my hands and the lapping tongues inside the desk all in the same instant.
I could expect to be there, scrambling over figures and calculations, plotting, reporting, shouting commands, laughing and cursing for a good 84 hours. There were no breaks in hell, and while we no longer had bodies, we constantly felt the need to relieve our bladders and our bowels. The excrement built up in our pants, oozed down our legs, and built up around the floor where the constantly roving janitors who managed the entire building would get to it eventually.
I couldn't stand it. But there were no options, no vacation days, no sick days, no mealtime free from my desk. I ate a pencil once-that wasn't a pleasant experience. Yet when have I ever had a pleasant experience in hell?
Today, however, proved different.
Secretly, I have always enjoyed a show. And in a place like this, entertainment only comes when employees decided not to go along with the rules.
"We are at war, here!" the super shouted at Mr. Big.
Mr. Big stood with hands in his pockets, a queer peace in his smile, like he owned the place or something. I only noticed with a glance at first, then did a double take. Was I really seeing this? I wanted to laugh, but that would only prompt a smack in the back of the head. The super liked hitting people.
"My name is Mr. Big. You must be the super."
"Your name is Stupid and Canned if I say so!" said the super, stalking forward.
Mr. Big was about to get a beating, the sort that lasted a good three hours.
But the new guy didn't look the least bit afraid. I even saw him sigh as if this was boring him, as if he expected this to happen, as if he had experienced the same encounter before and come out on top.
"What a nitwit," Kovach said. Nitwit-there's a word I hadn't heard in a while. Kovach had come to hell long before I showed up, and he still carried with him the vocabulary of earlier Earth years.
"You get back to work!"
"I already handed you a win today," Kovach said, trying to keep his head up like Mr. Big.
The super whacked him in the head. With his hands stuck in his desk, Kovach couldn't protect himself. It was unwise to do so anyway. In hell, we take the beating and keep on working. There are worse things than corporate life.
Waiting patiently, his arms crossed now, Mr. Big sat on the edge of a desk. The desk's current occupant pretended not to see him. This was Mr. Plien. Plien kept his eyes glued to his view screen. He nodded to the voice on the other side of the phone as he gathered information and transferred it into his desk via the sticky tongues we were all feeling now. "Mmm. Right. Three of them? Is there a woman? Good, good. What? Well that's not what I want to hear! Get her over there! These men are married!"
The super stuffed his face right into Mr. Big's. They were close enough to kiss, but of course kissing is punishable by one year of flogging. He sneered at Big and spat when the word came out. "You know, I actually gain pleasure from having arrogant fools like you on my staff."
Mr. Big didn't lose his smile. Instead, he almost laughed out loud. His body jerked with joyous emotion.
The super glanced left and right. Everyone but a very sweaty Mr. Plien had stopped to watch, even the board masters with their squid phones buzzing. "Work!!!"
We returned to work. Still, I watched with one eye and listened with my free ear.
The super squinted at Mr. Big. "Did you hear me?"
Mr. Big lifted an object between their faces. I had to turn my face a little to see more clearly. It was a small sheet of paper folded into thirds and sealed with black wax.
The super pulled back in shock. I guess he saw the stamp in the wax. He literally ripped the paper out of Mr. Big's grasp. I watched Mr. Big start to laugh again.
The super broke the seal and held the page under Mr. Plien's desk lamp. It was no secret that the super's sight had left him for the most part, which was another of those peculiar abnormalities with these bodies we didn't call bodies. Everyone had a serious physical ailment of some sort. Mine was a debilitating neck pain. It only went away enough to make me really suffer when it started again. Mr. Plien had no teeth. He was hungry all the time, and the super-who managed our meals, among other things-only let him eat granola bars with bits of sand mixed in (some people claimed it was their favorite, just to make us hate them, I suppose).
That was the first time I ever saw the super's face turn white. He stood for a while looking at nothing, holding the small sheet before him. Then his face turned red and filled with twisted rage. I thought he would blow up and swear to can us all. He didn't say a thing. He stared into Mr. Big's eyes for a few minutes-ten or twenty, to be exact, which you can't really do here in hell; time doesn't run in the same directions or with any consistency comparable to Earth time. It seems linear to us, but as everything by law must be grueling, we never have enough time to accomplish our tasks and anything tied to real suffering lasts much longer than it ever would on our home world.
Mr. Big smiled through every second of the silence.
Kovach growled at me, fearful he would be blamed for the outburst.
The super ignored us both. He let the paper drop from his fingers, turned around, and didn't look at anyone on this floor. Tears of rage hung in his eyes. To his door, he marched with his head jutting forward from his body. He slammed the door behind him, and the cheers began.
A few minutes later, Mr. Sanders from operations ran full speed into the super's office. He was saying, "Yes, yes," and holding a hand to his wiggling earpiece as if the volume drilled a hole into the side of his head.
Almost as soon as he shut the door, the portal opened again. Mr. Sanders walked straight to Mr. Plien's desk, where Mr. Big still sat with a grin and his arms folded. He spoke words I couldn't quite hear, then pointed at me.
I held my breath and concentrated on the figures glowing before me. "What's the word on that girl?" I said. "Are there drugs at the party? No drugs? Do I have to do this all by myself? Not all people lose control when a pretty girl enters the room. Get drugs in that room, and I mean right now, Sod Head!"
"Hello there," said a voice by my right arm. I looked up, but already knew what I was going to see. "I'm Mr. Big."
"Buenos dias," I said, a little terrified to be honest. Beyond the arrogance and the note we had already seen, it was obvious there was something very odd about this new man in the department. I never could have guessed how odd.
"The super wants me sitting right here next to you." Mr. Big tapped the desk touching mine.
Mr. Kovach, who also sat too close to me for comfort, grumbled. "Isn't that just the icing on the cake." He swore for three minutes or more, every expletive he could think of, every creative way of saying them, and then he said them all over again, maybe three or four times. I didn't bother to pay attention.
Big sat down. The chair creaked under his weight. It wasn't that his size matched his name, but he was tall and all muscle, I think. He shoved a hand at me. "Pleased to meet you. I'm going to rock this joint. I love this work."
I don't know if he was trying to make me miserable-that was usually the reason we spoke that way, to show we were on top and loving this while the rest of the peons suffered-or if he was testing me. I have come to decide the latter, based on what ended up happening.
Our conversations remained cordial for the most part. He boasted a lot. I boasted some, only to follow hell's unwritten protocols of misery. Just before the war ended on Earth, which was actually about ninety hours for us-we would face this war again someday; hell is repetition-Mr. Big said something I couldn't believe.
"I like you." He nodded as he spoke.
Mr. Kovach said he was going to vomit, so Mr. Big leaned closer to me.
I tried to pretend I wasn't there.
When next Mr. Big spoke, the whispered words were for my ears alone. "Hey. I'm ... getting out of here."
In attempting to pretend that I didn't hear what he said, I failed. My head jerked. My eyes met his.
Mr. Kovach also heard, but I didn't know that until later. He always was a dangerous, secretive backstabber. Anything to get ahead; it was a rule some people in hell lived by. Choose your place: predator or prey, either you hunt and starve at the same time like a thin wolf in frozen mountain passes, or you run for your life-your eternal life, in this case.
I never quite knew where I stood.
"What did you say?" I didn't mean to speak. It was more foolish than anything I had done in ... well, I don't know how long I've been in hell. As I said, time doesn't have the same meaning here. Years, decades, centuries? Oh, I hope it hasn't been centuries.
"I'm getting out of here." Mr. Big glanced at Kovach and lowered his voice more. He spoke slowly. "Do you want to come with me?"
"You're kidding, right?" I chuckled, but whispered all the same. Of course I wanted out. That's why I was in this conversation. Otherwise, I'd keep my trap shut, keep running my fingertips over the tongues in these horrible mouths in my desktop, and keep talking to the demon on the other side of my squid phone. Yet my heart spoke for me. A way out? To where? Did he mean a way off this floor ... or a way out of hell? Was it possible? Or was the hope itself just another never-ending nightmare?
He yanked against the dull splinters making up the teeth in the desk-mouth holding his right wrist. The mouth bit down harder. He grimaced, then yanked again. A few teeth shattered and like wet pebbles ticked over the edge of the desk. The mouth opened, actually spitting out Mr. Big's hand. A few red tongues lapped at the nubs where the teeth had broken away, then the mouth shut and the desk grew flat and normal again where that portal had been.
I could see Mr. Big's hand was torn and bleeding, but one got used to that sort of pain down here. He reached into his jacket pocket, removed an object hidden in his fist, and held the closed hand before me. The knuckles turned white as he clenched. His eyes shot to Mr. Kovach to keep the man minding his own business.
Kovach growled, and began working at a more feverish pace.
"I'm getting out," Big said again, then opened his hand. "You can come with me if you want."
I tried to swallow when I saw the treasure. My throat was too dry. Instead, I felt my face grow warm and then intensely frigid. "Oh my gosh."
In the hand was a ring. It didn't belong to Mr. Big. I recognized the symbol in the black metal. This ring belonged on the hand of the Black Prince. It never came off.
"How did you get it?" I said.
"Does it really matter?"
"Of course it does!" I lowered my head to wipe the sweat into the sleeve of my right arm. "Shut up," I told the demon on the other side of my squid, then gave the command for my phone to mute my conversation until I was ready to continue. "Wait a minute," I told Mr. Big. I commanded the squid to reactivate. "Are you still there," I asked the demon. What ever happened at that party? Drugs? Fine, fine. What about the girl?" I waited for the answer. "That is excellent news," I said, but for the first time in a long time, I felt a pang of guilt for the cascade of negative events I had just accomplished on Earth. "Go back to the two brothers. Let's see if we can get them to kill each other over war issues before it's too late."
"Only three minutes left!" the super bellowed from where he paced around the board masters. He didn't pay Mr. Big or myself any attention. His eyes were drawn to the figures and names on the board. Time was short, and this war would mean promotion for some of us, demotion for others, and worse things for anyone lazy enough or sad enough to fail completely at their responsibilities.
"Either you stole the ring," I said, "or the Black Prince gave it to you to pull some kind of trap. You could be White Ops, setting me up."
He smiled at me. "You then need only ask the question, why you? Why not Kovach or the super or Mr. Plien or someone else in this department? Why anyone in this department at all?"
A thought passed through my mind: The Black Prince is dead.
That couldn't be right. It couldn't be. Of course, who here had seen him recently? Who had ever seen him? We saw his seal, but what did that mean. Mr. Big currently owned the thing ... and no one had announced the theft of the ring.
"How did you get this?" I asked again, a little louder now that the hand had closed over it, and a little more nervous and skeptical and hopeful at the same time.
Mr. Big leaned back and smiled at me again. He placed the ring in his pocket, his hand back in the biting desk, and then whispered, "After the war ends, I'm moving on. You don't have to come."
We had a party after the war, the sort of party one can only have in hell. No one wanted to be there. No one liked the company. Everyone bragged, waved their files, rang the winner's bell, laughed, and shouted false praise to their neighbors as if they didn't mind the success of others minimizing all their hard work. Even the super gave a smile.
No one was happy. But I had never felt this way before.
Through all the hoots and hollers, Mr. Big gave me a look. Are you coming.
I stood still for a few seconds-a few seconds only, like a mortal, like a man who didn't want his confidante to suffer-and then I nodded.
Mr. Big wrote up six small letters, poured black wax, and sealed them all with his stolen ring. When the party came to an end, Mr. Big spread his arms wide as he had on the day he arrived. "I have terrible news everyone." He laughed as everyone looked at him. "I have received word that I am moving on."
"Wait just a minute," the super said. "Your work was good." He shook his head. "Not that good."
Mr. Big walked right up to him and handed him the first note he had written during the party.
The super just stared at it. "You've got to be kidding me."
Mr. Kovach, I noticed, was giving me a dirty look. I had no idea why. Mr. Big was once again the show of the hour, not me ... not yet anyway. Had Kovach been watching us all along?
Minutes later, after Mr. Big yawned three or four times, the super snatched the letter, popped the seal and read the letter.
Then he looked through the crowd at me.
Mr. Big's face suddenly went numb, a loss-of-control countenance I had never seen on him before. He followed the super's gaze to me and stared until the super spoke.
The super shouted my name. "Pack up your desk!"
Mr. Big snatched the letter back and read the words as if he had not written them. His face, intense at first, returned to normal by the time he was halfway through the words.
"You too, Mr. Big," the super said with disdain. He slammed his office door again once on the other side.
Without winking, Mr. Big looked at me. I got the message anyway.
While we packed our things, Mr. Big bragged about standing in the limelight of the Black Prince's favor. I simply congratulated all those who had ranked higher than I where it came to work done in the war. They all hated us, I knew, but would go back to work and remember the adage was very true: Work is Hell.
Before we made it out the door and into the elevator, I caught sight of Mr. Kovach running into the super's office. He was looking at me with a face that said, I know what you two have! I know what you did! I know you plan to get out of hell! And I won't let you!
"Are you going to tell me how you got that ring?" I said as the floors blew by us. At varied points, the doors opened and White Guards stepped in to examine our papers. Mr. Big handed them two of the letters he had written. They let us continue climbing.
"Nope," said Mr. Big. "What you don't know can't hurt you." He kept his eyes on the ceiling or on the numbers above the elevator door as they climbed and climbed and climbed.
"In hell? I beg to differ."
He smiled at me. "Tell me this," he said. "What do you think is out there?"
"Come on, man. We're dead! We have shuffled off the mortal coil, as the old bard said. We can't go back. And what is heaven anyway? Singing every day? Sitting next to the same people every year? Or is it kneeling? And singing? And singing? And singing? Forever? If they don't have an infinite number of hymns up there, it's going to get old fast."
"Got to be better than this," I said, words hardly perceptible as my lips didn't move.
"Compare heaven to hell then." He folded his arms, but kept his eyes on the numbers. "Here we can't enjoy what we are doing, we have to lie all the time, pretending that we love work just to tick off our neighbor, get one up on him, that sort of thing. In heaven you probably have to think peaceful thoughts all the time. You have to love singing forever, kneeling forever, sunlight-or brighter!-forever. You have to get along with everyone. You have to tell the truth. You have to sincerely love it there. You get no challenges whatsoever. You get no adventure at all. You don't even have a bit of entertainment other than the sound of the person who has been singing on either side of you for the last billion billion billion years."
"That might not be true," I said. "There are hundreds of religions on Earth and throughout the planet's history. Most of them disagree one way or another about what it's like in the afterlife. Not a single one I ever heard of said hell would be a corporate environment."
Mr. Big nodded, his eyebrows upraised. "If that's where we end up, I just don't want to have my bubble burst is all. Why do you suppose there aren't any women in hell? Have you thought of that?"
I hadn't. I hadn't even realized I hadn't thought of it until now. Then I laughed. "Maybe hell for a woman is becoming a man. Becoming a man and living that way with unfinished appetites and constipated emotion for all eternity."
He chuckled again. It felt good-warm-to laugh so honestly. It felt like breaking a law.
"Maybe," I went on, "some of us were women on Earth, and we just don't remember anymore. Maybe the departments couldn't function if romance had even the slightest possibility of blooming. Maybe one ugly woman plus one stupid man still-too easily-adds up to true love."
"There's a dire thing," Mr. Big said looking at me. "At any rate, these passes won't get us far, I imagine."
"What do you mean?"
"They bear the mark of the Black Prince. How much authority will they measure up to at the gates of heaven? Besides, do you think they would let us in anyway? We left Earth as hell-bound souls. No one wants a muddy dog roving, however politely, in an all white house. We wouldn't fit in. Do you know any hymns anymore?"
Slowly, I shook my head. "Then where are we headed?"
Mr. Big looked up at the racing numbers. His eyes rose and stared at the ceiling. His eyes shut.
When the last White Guard stopped us, he looked at the papers for a long time. Then he stared for six or seven minutes at Mr. Big.
Mr. Big did as he always had. He sighed. He yawned. He leaned against the elevator door and smiled at the White Guard as if the reaper held no authority at all.
I could barely take the eyes of the White Guard on me. He stared for twelve minutes at least, possibly fifteen minutes, possibly even twenty. I pretended to be Mr. Big. I didn't know how else to act. I yawned, but the yawns were completely fake as I couldn't get the muscles in my chest and stomach to relax. I sighed, and that was fake too-it no doubt looked fake. I smiled for as long as I could, then gave in to the misery and just sat against the wall with my face as depressed and unfeeling and cold as stone. Eat me, I thought. Devour me if you will and spit me out on the bottom floor. I don't care anymore.
But he handed the sheet back to Mr. Big and waved us on up. The elevator doors closed. I stared at Mr. Big in shock.
"Good work," he said to me with a grin.
The doors opened a few hours later.
Outside ... we were outside!
It wasn't heaven, but it wasn't corporate hell either. In every direction, a desert land stretched. Small scraggly bramble bushes looked dead on the ground. The dirt was cracked in places, which meant rain had once soaked it. I don't know how long ago. I didn't have any idea what the passage of time would be like here. In the distance, I saw mirages, though there was no sun in the sky. I saw rolling dunes blowing in the wind. I saw the curve of the world, but was sure we were not on Earth.
"Have we ... left hell?"
Mr. Big nodded as if he had been here before. "We are outside, all right. This is existence, I guess we might suppose, above hell and under heaven." He looked back at the elevator behind him. It stood, a black rectangular box, like a monolith with one giant open mouth. The red velvet walls of the interior looked warm and inviting compared to the dusty landscape in which we now stood. "This is as far as the elevator goes."
"Do you think there is an elevator to heaven?" I said. I hadn't quite decided if they would let me in, or if I would feel comfortable there at all. Maybe this was as good as it gets.
"Angels fly, don't they? I'd be looking for a plane, if I were you. Or something along those lines. We're the ones from the sinkhole, remember."
"So which way do we go?" I turned to him, hoping he still had the answers but fearing he had exhausted them all in getting us out.
Instead of speaking, he handed me the fourth and final letter. I took it, feeling the hard wax of the stamp. I looked at the curves and cuts of the impression made by the Black Prince's ring. "I figured you might want this someday."
"What's this one for?"
He turned around and stared at some distant mirage or water on dunes-an impossibility, of course. "I'll go this way. You go any other direction you want.
"Wait!" He was walking and meant to leave me behind. "I thought we'd ... stay together."
He stopped and turned. I saw him fiddling with the black ring in his hand. "Two hellions like us? Forever? We would drive each other insane. We'd destroy each other. No. It's best we take separate paths."
I didn't say anything. For-how long?-a very very long time, I had known my place. I hated it, but I knew exactly where I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to do, how I was supposed to act, and how I was going to get along. I despised hell and every single individual in it, especially my super on any floor. Mr. Big only confused me. I felt so thankful to know him, though I had only known him for a short while, especially by hell's standards. And he was the closest thing to a friend that I can even remember.
"All right?" he said.
When I didn't reply, he turned and started hiking, and a warm east wind lifted the back of his jacket, making it flutter like a hand waving goodbye.
I felt tears on my cheek. Instinctively, I blamed him for my pain. This was the lesson I learned in hell: blame others for anything that happens to me, even if it was a blessing of one kind or another.
The elevator doors closed behind me and I heard a small bell chime before the pull of the car dragged it back into the depths of hell. I saw a glowing call button, red and beckoning to me.
Then I froze. Someone had called the elevator.
It wasn't that no one used the elevator. It was used all the time, relatively speaking. But I remembered Mr. Kovach eavesdropping on us when Mr. Big produced the ring and talked of escape. I recalled how Mr. Kovach had looked at me as he ran into the super's office while the elevator doors closed. Why hadn't the White Guard stopped us on the way up? Had they not received a call in time? Was this just another hellish trick? Was I about to be hunted through the desert by the White Ops? Would my hope only add to my eternal suffering? Was this all a set up?
Mr. Big was a small spot in the distance now and growing smaller fast.
I turned and ran in the opposite direction.
I don't know how many months or years passed. The white guard never came, or they never found me. If I really was outside of hell, maybe the limbo environment limited their powers and I had finally escaped.
Nights came and went here, and the temperature dulled to winter degrees necessitating a shelter at one point. I built it and drank the rain when it fell. Without a mortal body, I found myself hungry and thirsty at times, but never physically weakened or mentally deprived by my exertions and suffering. When the night grew darkest, a pale circle of light crossed the sky like moon behind a thick haze. All of this fascinated me, amused me, and inspired me to travel. I built new shelters and continued on and on and on.
I spent my own eternity in that place. As I said, it may have only been months or years. I will never know. One thing I learned about time and the afterlife is that memory is affected. I suppose one might go mad if one remembered everything and lived forever. Either that or one would gain all knowledge inevitably and become a god or a black prince.
One morning, I found myself holding a letter in my hand. The seal was black, the mark of the Big Man himself pressed into the wax. I no longer remembered how I had come by this note at first, then recalled my escape from hell.
Carefully, I peeled the wax away from the paper just enough to allow the letter to open for me. I read the words:
By order of the Highest Command, All who see this paper shall allow this man free passage to the office of the Black Prince
It was signed by the Black Prince.
I warmed the wax back of the seal on a hot stone and pressed the wax back against the paper until it stuck. No one would ever know I opened it.
I remembered Mr. Big. He had written this. He had given it to me before he left me. Why?
To tell the truth, I grew weary of this desert waste. There was nothing out here. In time, I lost the feeling of peace I had in solitude. I looked long and hard for Mr. Big. I never found him or any sign of him.
Perhaps this was a suicide note. If I was brought into the presence of the Black Prince, he would can me-that's permanent, and worse than death.
I thought again of hell, how I knew my place, how I knew the people, how I was entertained by the new fools who came into the department. I feared so much. I hurt so much.
In some way, I felt I suffered more now.
It did not take me long to find the elevator back to hell.
I pushed the call button, and waited.
When I met the first White Guard, I handed him the letter. He popped the seal and looked at me for very long time.
I could not help but smile. It was so good to see another living-if one can call it that-entity, someone who spoke with a voice different from my own, someone who moved with unpredictability. I grinned as he took me by the arm and commanded in a steel voice: "You will come this way."
He led me through high-rise corridors I had never seen. All the walls were black. There were no windows, but I knew I had come so very high in the building. Dim blue and green ambient light appeared as we entered each new hall. And at last we came to black doors lined with intricate gold illustrations and symbols.
The doors parted.
The White Guard lifted an arm, indicating I should enter. He did not follow me into the room, but shut the doors by staring at them.
The room, also all black, glowed with blue and yellow lights as if from giant aquariums set in the walls, though I saw none. A wide, half-moon desk curved across the room and a high-backed chair spun around as the Black Prince stood.
"Mr. Big," I said, the words catching in my throat. Some part of me knew it would be Mr. Big. But it wasn't Mr. Big at all. It was the Black Prince. I was about to be canned.
"Wrong!" said Mr. Big in the same jovial and arrogant tone he had on that first day I saw him. "You are up for promotion!"
"I ... don't understand."
He laughed-same laugh, but this time it boomed with power and shook the room. There was no lie in the laugh. It was perfectly sincere. "Why did you come back to hell?"
"What?" I said. I think I couldn't get past the fear that I was about to be destroyed.
"You were out! You were out there! You were out there a long time! Man, do you have to make me suffer so much?! But you came back!" He inched around the desk as he spoke and laughed until he stood before me. "Tell me why."
"I ... I don't know." Truth was, I couldn't speak. I counted each breath, fearful they would be my last in this sphere of existence. I worried about death after death-spiritual death, as Mr. Kovach called it with a snicker of glee.
"Sure you do."
He was putting his arm around me. His arrogance was all-mighty. The sense that he was in control of the situation was as constant as it ever had been in the department I once thought of as home. I wanted so badly to be there now. It was what I knew, what I knew how to handle. It was a place where I was never alone. It was horrible, but only in the same way that life on Earth had been horrible too. It was terrible, stressful, painful, but I had seen another side. I wouldn't make it to heaven. I didn't even know how. I just wanted things to be the way they once were.
"Exactly," said the Big Man. "But you can never go back, right?"
He was reading my mind, I realized. Oh-my-gosh, he's reading my mind.
"That's what I always liked about you. You were meant for bigger things. You put up with what you have to, and you're ready to take those terrifying steps to improve your situation." He pulled away, leaving a hand on my shoulder. He squinted at me. "I gave you a letter that would send you straight into the office of the Black Prince from a world where he had no power at all. You were free. And instead of staying gone, you turned and walked straight into the president's office! Think about that! That's bravado, man! That's serious stuff! You didn't do it for promotion in the business. You didn't do it for benefits, really. You didn't do it to outdo your coworkers. You did it because you were meant to be the big dog."
"You're not going to eat me?" I said.
He laughed. When he stopped, he said, "I don't eat people. I leave that for crackpots and men-who-aren't-men-anymore. No, I'm promoting you. Congratulations."
As he walked back to his chair, I noticed the black ring on his hand. He wore the ring on his middle finger, and as he sat, he twirled the ring around that finger with the fingers of his other hand. The ring twisted easily. Too easily.
The ring was far too large for Mr. Big.
He smiled at me. He was reading my mind again. I knew it.
"Don't ask how I got it," he said. "You don't want to know."
That's how I made Senior Chief.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Work is Hell. It really is. But you have got to love it.
Unless ... of course ... you have a stamped ticket into heaven.