Friday, June 27, 2008

Work is Hell

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

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.Work is Hell

"Congratulations, Mr. Kovach," I said as the old bugger passed my desk.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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."Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

In other words, everything was normal ... until a new devil was promoted to our floor.Work is Hell


"Call me Mr. Big-I'm the new dog in town!"Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

"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."Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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?Work is Hell

Today, however, proved different.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

"We are at war, here!" the super shouted at Mr. Big.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

"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.Work is Hell

"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.Work is Hell

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!"Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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?"Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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).Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

Mr. Big smiled through every second of the silence.Work is Hell

I laughed.

Kovach growled at me, fearful he would be blamed for the outburst.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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!"Work is Hell

"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."Work is Hell

"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.Work is Hell


"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.Work is Hell

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."Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

"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.Work is Hell

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. Work is 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. Work is HellA 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.Work is Hell 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. Work is HellThe 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. Work is HellBig. 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. Work is HellHis 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."Work is Hell

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, Work is HellI'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.Work is Hell

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."Work is Hell

"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."

Work is Hell 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.Work is Hell

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!"Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

Without winking, Mr. Big looked at me. I got the message anyway.Work is Hell

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.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!Work is Hell


"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.Work is Hell

"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?"

"Out where?"

"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."Work is Hell

"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."Work is Hell

"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."Work is Hell

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."Work is Hell

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."Work is Hell

"There's a dire thing," Mr. Big said looking at me. "At any rate, these passes won't get us far, I imagine."Work is Hell

"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?"Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

"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.Work is Hell

"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."Work is Hell

"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.Work is Hell

"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."Work is Hell

"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.Work is Hell

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."Work is Hell

"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.Work is Hell

"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."Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

"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.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

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.Work is Hell

I spent my own eternity in that place. As I said, it may have only been months or years. I will never know. Work is HellOne 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. Work is HellI 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.

Work is Hell 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. Work is HellI looked long and hard for Mr. Big. I never found him or any sign of him.

Perhaps this was a suicide note. Work is HellIf 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.Work is Hell 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. Work is HellDim 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. Work is HellA 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. Work is HellI 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. Work is Hell"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!"Work is Hell 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. Work is HellI 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. Work is HellIt 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. Work is Hell"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. Work is HellHe 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,Work is Hell "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,Work is Hell 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.Work is Hell

The ring was far too large for Mr. Big.

He smiled at me. He was reading my mind again. I knew it.Work is Hell

"Don't ask how I got it," he said. Work is Hell"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.Work is Hell It really is. But you have got to love it.Work is Hell

Unless ... of course ... you have a stamped ticket into heaven.

Work is Hell
by James Steimle

Tar Heel Dead

I'm a Tar Heel born and a Tar Heel bred,
And when I die, I'll be Tar Heel dead.
- William Starr Meyers, Hark the Soun
Up until last week there were two things he'd never done.
He'd never killed anyone, no matter how hungry he was.
He'd never missed a home game, not one in all of ninety-six years. Not even if they were during the day, no matter how difficult it was to get there.

Now there was only one thing he'd never done and Nat was darned if he was going to leave in the middle of the final regular season game just because some vampire hunter was on his case.

The crowd roared and all around him people jumped to their feet as the leading freshman player, Mark Guntry, slammed a one-handed dunk into the basket. Or so the coliseum announcer on the loud speakers informed him. Nat had been too busy looking over his shoulder for the hunter and he'd missed it. Darn it all to heck. He looked back at the court, but it was a media time-out and the cheerleaders and dance team had swarmed the floor. "Give me a 'C'" they yelled and the crowd responded.

He'd known better than to lose his temper. He'd kept it tight for all ninety-six years of his current existence. But man, oh man, to dress in rival colors, to paint your face that particular hated shade of red, and then to sit in the very middle of the home team's bleachers and talk trash. Now that was asking for it, Nat figured. He'd kept his cool through the talking. He'd kept it even when the State fan had booed during Cathedral Mount's foul shots. But when the asshole had applauded as one of Cathedral's injured player was carried off the field, yelling, "Good job! Hope it's broken! Hope you're through playing for the rest of the season," well, that was when he'd flipped. And Cathedral lost, which only made the guy even more unbearable.

Following the guy outside had been easy. Watching him run from the crowd threatening to beat him up had been fun. He'd stalked him straight down Franklin Street in the middle of the post-basketball crowd, through the main quad of campus, and waited until the gates of the Arboretum. The Carolina night tasted like disappointment and the early blooms of dogwood trees.

State fan tasted delicious! If he'd thought about it clearly, which Nat hadn't, he'd have just done him like usual. Take a taste, let the magic cloud his mind, and leave him in the woods with his pants down, wondering what he'd drunk the night before. But even when the guy was down with a skinny, gawky, former-basketball playing vampire on his chest, he'd still had to get his word in. "I bet you're a faggot just like your team," he'd said. The world had flared blood red around Nat and that had been it. There wasn't even time for him to hide the body for later disposal--traveling party of coeds still gleeful from the game and looking for a place to party had caught up to him.

Coach had always told him his temper would get the best of him, and look, Coach was finally right. Well, now he was right twice.
The first time he'd lost his temper, he'd ended up a vampire. Now he was going to end up dead if he wasn't fast.

"Thou shalt not kill." The hoarse whisper came right from behind him and Nat immediately fled to the other side of the coliseum in a blur of motion.

Where was he? Whoa, stop making gender-based assumptions, Nat sternly told himself. This is a different era, and you can't let how you were raised blind you to new dangers. He mentally corrected and reset. Where was she? Or maybe there were many hunters. He let his eyes drift over the crowd in the cheap seats with him, high up at the top of the giant curve of the stadium, with the multitude of winning banners hanging just above them. From here, the basketball players were tiny toy figures scrambling up and down the court in their uniforms of light blue and dark blue.

"Get it, get it, get it!" Nat yelled, finding himself on his feet screaming with the rest of the crowd as a loose basketball hit the floor.

The man behind him shrieked at the top of his lungs, "Are you blind, ref? Do you need glasses?" The crowd booed at the ref as a Cathedral player shrugged and jogged back to the bench where a weary coach started lecturing him. Even from way up here Nat could see Coach's red face.

Ah man, the score was tied. The other team was evil incarnate, Nat thought. Even though he'd met some evil things, when anyone played against his team they might as well play for Hell itself. Of course, some of the kids down there might very well one day. One opposing player in particular looked like he'd sold his soul for a good three-point shot. Nat could see the grimy aura coming off him even at his distance. It was one of the things he'd gained when he'd become a vampire. The ability to see auras, the ability to move swiftly. Those were nice advantages, but it still didn't make up for never seeing blue sky again.

How had they found him? And why now, with only one minute, 37 seconds left of regular play in the biggest game of the year, were they coming for him? He knew the answer to the question. He'd killed, for the first time in either of his lives, and boy, did he regret it.

He knew at least one of them was here by the trickle of sweat forming at the back of his neck, the constant urge to look over his shoulder. He wouldn't leave the game, that was for sure. Not that he could - it would still be daylight for another half an hour. As usual, he'd snuck in the coliseum the night before, easily scaling the walls and coming in through a roof vent, like he usually did when there was a day game.

It had been harder at the old cramped gym. The smell of socks and sweat embedded in the floorboards, the way the place bounced with the students hopping up and down, the shivering the old building made when the home team won. The way his teammates, short things all of them compared to the players of today, worked together. He missed the scramble for the ball and the coach yelling and the drills and sneaking cigarettes and beer into the Forest Grove parking lot.

He liked this new coliseum, though it was more palace than basketball court, but he still missed the old one. He missed playing basketball. He missed a lot of things, though it was easier to feed these days. Frat parties and bonfires on the quad provided perfect feasting opportunities. And there were girls on campus now!

He switched seats again, moving as fast as lightening through the crowd to the other side, directly above his team's basket. He held his breath while Lucas Ford made both his foul shots. Well, he would have held his breath, if he'd had any to hold. Back when he was playing on the first Cathedral Mount team of 1910 he'd done that and the ritual had stuck through all these years.

Of course, he'd only added more layers of rituals as the years progressed. Crossing his fingers. Tapping five times on his thigh every opposing free throw.

Up by two now. He jumped to his feet again as a Cathedral player intercepted a poorly thrown pass and raced down the court and dropped the basketball off to his following teammate. Slam! "Yes! Whoooo!" he yelled at the top of his lungs.

Ah shoot, there was the tingle again. Couldn't they leave him alone? Jeez, he made one little mistake in all this time. Course, those were the rules. He snorted. Rules, just like basketball rules. Wasn't there some cosmic referee who could make the hunters look the other way, just this once? Just like the zebra down below had looked the other way for a flagrant push? Still, he'd killed someone. He hadn't really meant to--hadn't been thinking clearly through the red of his temper, but dead was dead. At least until that guy rose again sometime tonight.

"Ten, nine, eight," the crowd chanted as a Cathedral player dribbled the ball way outside the three-point arc. "What the hell are you waiting for!" Nat shouted. Variations of what he said came from all sides. Darn it. Shot clock violation. The ball switched possession and evil incarnate took it rapidly down court.
"Guard him, you moron!"
Unfortunately, his player didn't listen. The grimy aura player stopped just past the half point, looked, dribbled, and tossed the basket up.

Darn it. They were up by one.

The tingle grew into an electric shock running down his back, just like the vampire who'd made him warned him it would.
"Don't kill," he'd said, before he walked into the sunlight. "They'll come after you if you do."
"Who will?" Nat had asked, still shocked from the events of the night.

"You'll feel them," the vamp had said, ignoring his question like he had every other that dark night, the beginning of only dark nights.
Well, he'd been right. Nat could feel them, him, or her now.

Nat still regretted having lost his temper that night long ago, but it had just about devastated him when Cathedral lost the game. And then a vampire had gone and killed him for talking trash about the opposing team.

"No, no, no!" The Cathedral player missed his second free throw. "You gotta make those! Free points!" The player shook his head. Nat knew how he felt. He himself had missed a couple of important baskets in his time and it always had left him feeling furious with himself.

Dag nab it, the score was tied again with only thirty seconds left in regular time. As the buzzing increased he made to move again. He could see an empty seat down in the lower level. Criminal that someone had not only not shown up for this game against their arch rival, but hadn't even given the ticket to someone who could appreciate it.

"Don't move," the voice behind him said, just as he started up from his seat.

Nat could feel the point of the sharp wooden stake at the center of his back and he stiffened.

"You broke the rules," she said.

He risked a glance over his shoulder. The hunter looked just like a student--perhaps she was. Dressed in team colors with a foot painted on her face, hair pulled back in a ponytail, she was the epitome of the Cathedral Mount University girl.

He shrugged. Thank goodness it was a time-out, and a full media one. He had a couple of minutes before the game resumed. "I know," he said. "I don't suppose it will help if I say I didn't really mean to." Of course he hadn't meant to--the last thing he wanted was an immortal State fan. Any more than he supposed the vampire who made him had wanted an immortal Cathedral fan.

"You broke the rules and the punishment is death," she continued as if she hadn't heard him at all. He risked another glance at her. The hunter's face was set. "We can't have vampires killing people. Every person you take rises from the dead. If we didn't keep you in check you'd spread across the earth like a virus on humanity. But still, you were human, and for that we let you live as long as you obey the rule. Thou shalt not kill."

He groaned to himself. It didn't sound like there was any way she was going to let him go, but he had to try.

"Look. I don't suppose there's any way you can forgive me." He twisted around to look her in the eyes and the stake pressed harder into his back, the thick muscles of her arm flexing underneath her sleeve. She was certainly built, he thought. Women in his time had never looked like that. "I didn't think so," he said as her expression remained flat. Well, he couldn't forgive himself either. "Look then, at least let me finish the game," he begged. "I haven't missed one. Ever. Not one home game. I used to be on the team, did you know that?"

She shook her head.

"Yeah, I was on the first team. 1910. Woody Cartmell was our coach. Man, he had a temper." He shook his head with recollections of Coach's snits. And a gambling problem too, he thought, but didn't say. There was no need for him to bring up old dirt.

"Really," she said and for a moment he saw her face light up. "That's pretty cool." The pressure in his back eased slightly. "So you went to school here?

"Yes ma'am," he said. He couldn't help it, he was raised to be polite and in times of stress he still was.

"I haven't missed a game this year," she said. "Did you get to see...?" She stopped herself. "Of course you did. The 1987 season finale. Wow, it must have been something to be here. When the students swarmed the court. I watched it on TV."

"It was," he said. He gave her a smile. Enemies they might be, but at least she was a fan. It counted for a lot in his book. He wished he could kill her, but knew he couldn't. She didn't deserve to die, he did.

Goodness, he wanted them to win this game. He said it every game, but it was always true. "It'd sure be something if we win today, wouldn't it? Can you believe this team?"

She shook her head. "I know, I know. No one expected them to win this season, all these freshman."

The game had restarted while they talked and they both turned their attention back to the court.

"Aw, come on ref! Call the charge!" He screamed. He'd leapt to his feet without realizing it and was glad to see she'd done the same, although the spike was still firmly against his back. Was there time for him to do his fast move to the other side again? He must have tensed in anticipation, because the stake pressed harder.

"No way," she said. "Try it again and I'll do you here and to hell with the crowd. I'm sick of following you all over this place. I want to watch the end of the game. If you stay still I'll let you live to the end."

Nat thought about it for only a moment. He'd never heard of a hunter not succeeding eventually. And he really wanted to watch this game, so he nodded agreement.

Another time-out--this one taken by the opposing team. Again, it was going to be a full one. As Nat reckoned, his team still had one full time-out and one thirty second one left. It still amazed him how long thirty seconds of basketball time were translated into real time.

Game play resumed, the Cathedral players tossing in the inbounds pass and streaking down towards their basket. The point guard, another freshman, expertly dropped the ball behind him to the one senior on the team, David Carol. David stopped and without dribbling threw up the three-point shot.

Swish. A perfect basket if ever there was one. The coliseum vibrated with the happy roar of the crowd. Up by three with twenty-five seconds to go. Shot clock was off.

Twenty-five seconds of life, such as it was, left for Nat to live. He'd resigned himself to the fact of his death. Didn't see any way he could really escape, not without killing her, and he couldn't, just couldn't do that. She didn't deserve it. And he was over it all, anyways. He was sick of drinking blood, he was sick of night. The only thing he had left was basketball--the only time he felt himself was during the season. The rest of the time he was one with the darkness, skulking in the corners, exiled from human contact and life.
The ref's whistle blew.

"Oh my god," Nat groaned, along with the other twenty thousand people at the game, and countless others watching it on televisions across the nation. A stupid freshman foul and on a three-point attempt. Coach was shaking his head by the bench and the freshman in question looked like he'd been hit over the head.

"Maybe he won't make them," the hunter said behind him. Prayer and hope rang in her voice and Nat crossed his fingers.

The crowd shouted in an attempt to distract the player. Swish. It hadn't worked.
They tried again. This time the ball bounced off the backboard and rattled around the rim, the sound clearly audible in the quiet as everyone tried to will the basketball out.

"Oh, I can't stand this," she groaned behind him. The stake was still firmly jabbed at his back and it made his shoulder blades itch.
Swish. Game tied once again.

Time-out Cathedral. The players regrouped around Coach and he could feel the hunter take a deep breath.
"You hold your breath too?" he asked.
"I don't know why," she said. "It's like maybe I can influence them. Change events."
"I know the feeling," Nat said.
The thirty second time-out was quickly up and the team re-entered the court, inbounding swiftly and dribbling past the half-court. Nat knew the other team would want to foul them and he found himself crossing his fingers.

The ref didn't call the first foul and the seconds ticked away. The crowd chanted in time with the clock, "Ten, nine, eight."

"Oh, I can't watch," she said. "This is killing me."
"Seven, six."
Mark Guntry grabbed a sloppy pass out of the air and looked for some help from his teammates. Finding none, he tried to dribble his way out of the trap, backing away even further from the basket. Somehow, he twisted free, dribbled three steps and let the ball fly with two seconds left. The buzzer sounded while it was in the air and the coliseum was deathly quiet as the ball flew through the air.

Swish. A perfect three-pointer. Game over, Cathedral had won!
The crowd roared its approval and Nat relaxed for a second. He knew now what he wanted to do, how to atone for his guilt.

He let out a yell with the rest of the crowd, startling the hunter behind him with the volume so she stepped back. Not much, but enough. He flew through the air, not caring if anyone saw him, figuring no one would be looking up at this point, but looking down at the students swarmed the court. Cathedral had won the last regular game of the season, at home, and on senior day, against their arch-rival. As far as perfect days go, it didn't get much better than this, but there was one more thing he wanted.

Nat's last glimpse before he hit the air vent was one of ecstatic faces, his last sound the roar of the crowd's victory. Then he was out into the light for the first time in ninety-six years. His last thought before he exploded into the brilliance and let go of his guilt, was "Thank god, the sky is still Carolina blue."

Tar Heel Dead
by Calie Voorhis