Shaken, but Not Deterred
It seemed like an unusually uncomfortable day in Hell. Like one of those San Diego days when the Santa Ana winds would pick up just enough strength to bring the heat in off the Mojave Desert, but not enough to provide a cooling breeze. A blast-furnace day. One of those days when, if you were alive, you were sure you’d rather be dead. Of course, Steve didn’t have to face that dilemma.
As the reddish glow that permeated Hell seemed to penetrate his very skin, Steve reflected on his situation. Dead for around three years now, he was becoming increasingly pissed off. Every day, for twenty hours straight, he shoveled near-molten brimstone from this pile over onto that pile, then when the first pile was gone, he had to move it all back again. There was the constant erection of temples in Lucifer’s honor, Romanesque edifices that boiled over with self-indulgence. The daily whippings at the hands of imps, and the beatings doled out by the demons, were always a steady source of amusement. Yet at the same time, something unholy about the place made it unceasingly dull and unbearable in its own special, boring way.
Not to say that it was always mind-numbingly boring, however. The Lord of Darkness saw to that with his daily rounds. Accompanied by an entourage of bodyguard-demons, Satan would prance through the scorching maelstrom of absurdly inactive activity, doling out punishment on a purely random basis. Steve himself had been poked in the ass with that damned pitchfork at least a dozen times, and was growing tired of it.
He still couldn’t figure out exactly what he was doing down here in Hell, anyway. After all, he thought that he had been a good person for practically his entire life. He had always been kind and courteous to other people, respectful of both their needs and their space. He’d been self-sufficient and responsible, resourceful and respectful. He gave money to the homeless, respected women at all times, and loved children. Sure, he had told a lie or two, and he cheated on a test once in college, and yeah, he had gotten caught looking at porn when he was a sophomore in high school, but he’d gotten past all of that. Once he’d even been given an award that read, “Nicest Guy I Ever Met.” Oh, and he hated God, but that was something personal. God deserved his mortal wrath.
At one time, Steve had been a concert musician, a bassoonist, specifically. He had been scheduled to marry his college sweetheart, which would have been fantastic if she hadn’t cheated on him three months before the wedding. He left her, left music, and never forgave God for what He’d put him through. For taking away music. Then Steve had become a trained and very successful geologist. He designed foundations and septic systems, supervised construction of an aqueduct that supplied drinking water to 30,000 homes, and loved every minute of it. Then God struck again.
In His divine moral superiority, He apparently decided that too much good was happening to Steve, so He yanked everything out from under him again – but this time, with a catch. He didn’t just take it away, He took it away and gave him a mental illness: “Schizo-affective disorder with bi-polar subtype,” said his psychiatrist. Which wouldn’t really have been so bad except that it meant that Steve was barred from driving an automobile. Which meant that he couldn’t get to work. Which meant that he could no longer afford to feed himself. Which meant that he had to move back in with his parents at the age of 26. Steve had accomplished an amazing amount in such a short period of time, and God had apparently decided that enough was enough. Steve would never forgive Him for it. Yet he still couldn’t figure out what he was doing Down Here. He’d been a good guy, hadn’t he?
Apparently, Steve had decided, “hating God” was crime enough to get you sent to Hell, a lovely paradise for the masochistic. Steve, not being a masochist, felt that for many reasons that he didn’t belong. Nevertheless, on this hot, blistering day, he found himself shoveling brimstone from one pile to another, sweating like a pig and grunting like an ox, working alongside some of history’s greatest criminals amid the overwhelming stench of sulfur. Brutus. Judas. Lee Harvey Oswald. That guy whose name he could never remember but who had shot Archduke Ferdinand to start World War I. Adolph Hitler. Genghis Khan. The Olson Twins. It just wasn’t fair; he didn’t belong here. Hating God should have fallen under the “free will” category, shouldn’t it?
And his death, oh God, his death… why couldn’t it have been with some dignity? There he’d been, thirty years old, sitting on the toilet when his neighbor decided to clean his handgun. It went off and a 9mm slug penetrated two walls just to blow Steve’s head off. On the toilet. When Steve found himself in Purgatory, waiting to be processed, he fully expected to be elevated to Heaven, at which time he would give God a piece of his mind. A task, he thought, which would be a lot easier now that pieces of his mind were scattered across the bathroom floor. But when he got to the front of the line, the angel with the big accounting ledger simply took one look at him and said, “Hates God, Hell.” No wonder the line had been moving so quickly.
He instantly found himself standing in the scorching expanse of the Underworld. He wasn’t there for a full minute before a demon came by, thrust a wooden-handled shovel into his hands, and grunted, “Start movin’ slag, peon.” Surprised by his sudden change in status, Steve immediately got to work alongside the other inmates – the ones, he thought, who actually deserved to be there.
But on this particular day, this boiling, blistering day in Hell, three years after his arrival (at least, according to the tick-marks on the wall by his bunk), Steve had had enough. God had been unjust. God had been unfair. God had been a dick, and he wasn’t going to put up with it anymore. Steve had been a good person and hadn’t deserved all the shit that God had put him through – no, was still putting him through. With a downward motion and a mighty crack, he broke his shovel’s handle over his knee, threw the shovel-head to the ground, and gripped the remaining, splintered end of the handle like a club. He turned to Lee Harvey and shouted at the top of his lungs, “I’m not putting up with this crap anymore! C’mon, universe, I’ve seen it all, now, give it your best shot!”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” warned Oswald, “Satan’s going to be pissed. You know how he hates dissent.”
“Yeah, well he’s never even tasted ‘dissent’ until now. This is a whole new level of ‘dissent.’ This is rebellion!”
Judas drew in a hasty breath and muttered, “Be quiet, you fool, or you’re just going to make things worse for everybody. What’s your problem, anyway?”
“It’s not fair.”
“Oh, boo-hoo! ‘It’s not fair,’ he says. I put a hit out on the Son of God and got walloped for it, does that sound fair?”
Brutus chimed in, “Guys, guys, come on, we have to stick together in this place. Steve, shut up and get back to work. Use your hands now that you’ve busted your shovel.”
“Never!” shouted Steve. “I’m not going back to that afterlife. I’m going to reclaim what’s rightfully mine!”
In the distance, Satan took notice of the ruckus and began a determined climb over the piles of brimstone, ash, and sulfur, heading straight for Steve.
“He’s coming, man!” warned the guy whose name Steve could never remember.
“Let him come,” Steve snarled. He planted his feet apart and rearranged his grip on the handle, pointing the splintered end up toward the stalactite-covered ceiling. He felt strength enter his blood, knew that adrenaline was kicking in, and briefly wondered if that meant that he should be running. He quashed the urge.
It’s not everyday in Hell that someone challenges the status quo. Oh, sure, 90% of the newbies try to resist, but that’s to be expected. Steve’s stand was something rare. In fact, Steve’s stand was something that had never been done before, and Satan was thoroughly pleased. As much as he enjoyed providing the overwhelming, painful sense of boredom that permeated his domain, he enjoyed something new as much as the next fallen angel. It was with great anticipation that he strode across the smoldering fields of brimstone and ash to see what all the excitement was about. He was accompanied, of course, by his retinue of bodyguard-demons. (It was a little known fact that the Prince of Darkness could be killed. As this was Hell, and populated by the worst of the worst (or so one assumed), you could never be too careful, hence the bodyguards, big hulking brutes who looked more like the Greek Minotaur than anything else.) He also had an entourage of imps, smallish squid-like demons who walked upright on their tentacles and specialized in annoying humans. The whole group, Steve would have guessed, numbered somewhere around twenty in all, but he didn’t really take the time to count, having bigger issues on his mind. The cluster of demons and deity lumbered over the final brimstone pile and stopped a few short feet from him.
Satan walked to the front and confronted Steve. “So, do you have a problem with the way I’m running things down here?”
Steve looked back at his master tormentor. He was a tall man, human looking, but somehow better, more serenely beautiful than any man should be. Steve figured that this was what a fallen angel looked like, which only made him more curious about what a regular angel looked like.
Steve found his tenor voice and said, calmly, “Well, no, not exactly, it’s really more of a problem with God than you. You’re just doing your job, I guess. Way to go with the tormenting.”
Satan was intrigued. His voice dripping with sarcasm, he said, “A problem with God? Why? Do you think it was unfair that you were sent down here to the Pit of Eternal Suffering? Were you a good person who deserved to go to Heaven?”
“Well, yes. But I also deserved not to have my life screwed with in the first place.”
“Well la-di-da, someone who feels wronged by God. Do you think that’s original or something?”
“It’s original to me.”
“Well it’s not original to me. So get back to work or I’ll set the demons on you.”
“No,” Steve said forcefully.
Satan was taken aback. “I’m sorry, did you just tell me ‘No’?”
“Yes. I said ‘No.’ I’m not going back to work until I get to see God.”
“Well you’re not going to be seeing God anytime soon, so get over it and get back to work!”
“Why you little –“ Satan lunged at Steve.
Steve sank the splintered handle into Satan’s chest where a human heart would be, and hoped that angels were built the same. He hit paydirt. Satan began to bleed. Profusely.
“What have you done!” Satan cried. “I’m dying!”
“Self-defense,” said Steve. He then pulled the stake out of Satan’s chest, which only made it bleed more, as if a plug had been removed from a barrel of wine. Then, before his eyes, Satan began to fold in upon himself. He kept crying out, sending various epithets about Steve’s ancestry floating across the plains of Hell, as he continued to implode into his wound. The demon retinue looked on in horror, unmoving, unsure as to what to do. After a brief minute, Satan was gone, having been sucked into the hole created by the shovel handle. The demons looked at the spot where Satan had lain, then up at Steve, then back at the spot, then back at Steve again. They then fell to their knees and pressed their foreheads to the hot ash and shouted, “Hail, Steve! Lord of the Underworld!”
Steve found himself in one of those rare instances in an afterlife in which you’re truly puzzled and baffled by the situation. He had expected the demons to rend him limb from limb, yet instead, here they were, apparently swearing fealty to him. It didn’t make any sense. Then again, he figured, this is the underworld. Most things didn’t make sense here. He looked at the demons and cleared his throat.
“Rise. Or stand up. Or something. Just get up.”
They jumped to obey his commands.
“Okay, good. Now, am I getting this straight, I’m the leader down here now?”
They nodded as one.
“Cool. No, not cool. I don’t want to be Lord of the Underworld!”
One of the minotaur-demons spoke, “Respectfully, sir, you don’t have a choice. You are Lord of the Underworld. Issue your commands.”
Steve sighed and laughed briefly. “Very well. My first command is: everybody, stop what you’re doing and go take a break. My second command is, well, actually it’s a question. Did Satan have an office?”
The denizens of Hell broke out in cheers and dropped their digging implements, heading for the barracks to cool off slightly and catch some much needed rest. The lead demon (or at least, the one Steve assumed was the lead demon) pointed toward a far corner of Hell, and said, “Hell’s offices are way over there.”
“Great. Take me to them.”
“As you command.”
Steve suddenly found himself being yanked off of the ground by supernaturally powerful arms. He only barely managed to keep a hold on his bloodied shovel handle as the demons carried him toward the Underworld Offices at a flat-out run. They made it in under twenty minutes. A sign on the door read: “Satan. Keep out. Deliveries in rear.”
Steve thanked the demons as they set him gently back on the ground. He drew in a breath and held it, grabbed the doorknob, and opened the door. He was greeted by a blast of cool air. After a brief celebratory dance, he ran inside and shut the door behind himself. It was actually cool inside. A balmy 74 degrees or so, and with just the right humidity. A Culligan water cooler stood in one corner of the waiting room. He quickly went over, filled a glass and drank, then filled it again, and again, and again. Ah. That was the stuff. Only after he had made a complete mess of himself by pouring water over top of his head did he notice the demon(ette?) sitting behind the front desk. She smiled a fanged smile at him and said, “Good afternoon, your Lordship, what can I do for you?”
For a moment, Steve was frozen, staring at the lady demon and her full rack of horns. Finally, he composed himself and said, “Ah, yes, as the new Lord of the Underworld, I would like you to show me how to adjust the temperature out there.” She acquiesced to his request, ushering him over to a large thermostat in another room. It was set at 140 degrees. He turned it down to 76.
Taking his leave of the she-demon, he set about exploring the office. It was spacious, with a new computer sitting on one large desk decorated with a brass nameplate that read, “Satan.” Steve sat down at the computer and looked at it. Naturally, Hell ran Windows XP. He had known Bill Gates had to have made a deal with the Devil, but he hadn’t thought it was this literal! Well, it didn’t matter now, being dead and all, but it was comforting to know. He put his shovel handle down on the desk beside the monitor and began to work. The computer contained an infinite database of Hell’s inhabitants. Steve pulled up his own file. There was his picture, a whole dossier of his life in minute detail. Down in the bottom right corner was a field that read, “Reason for admittance to Hell.” In blinking red letters followed the words, “Hates God.” Steve slammed his fist down on the edge of the desk. I knew it.
I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. “I knew it!” he shouted.
The demonette stuck her head through the door. “Sir?”
“Oh, ah, nothing. Hey, I don’t suppose I can place a call to God or anything, can I?”
“Well, certainly, sir. Just pick up the red phone. It’s a direct line.”
Steve blinked. A direct line from Hell to Heaven? Okay. Whatever worked.
“Thank you… ah… miss.”
“Of course, sir. Will there be anything else?”
Steve considered the question for a moment, and then answered, “Yes, stop all forms of punishment until I’ve reviewed these files.”
“All forms, sir?”
“Yes, all forms.”
The demonette disappeared around the corner. He stared at the red phone. He’d never actually thought that he’d get to speak with God. It was really just a lot of bluster and anger. But now here was his chance. A one-on-one with God Himself. It was too good to pass up. He picked up the phone.
A woman’s voice came on the line. “Heaven, how may I direct your call?”
Steve put on his best gruff tenor voice and said, “This is the Lord of the Underworld, and I want to speak to God immediately.”
“Yes sir, one moment while I patch you through.”
Steve waited while a Muzak version of Handel’s Messiah played in his ear.
There was a click, and then a voice, “Hello, this is God.”
“This is Steve. I really hate you.”
“I know, and that hurts me.”
“That hurts you? You sent me to Hell!”
“Yes, well, we can’t have people running around up here, potentially destroying the peace, now can we?”
“But I was a good person! I didn’t deserve to go to Hell with Hitler and Judas and Yoko Ono! And why did you screw with my life like that? Schizo-affective disorder with bi-polar subtype? I’ve had professionals explain it to me, and I still don’t know what it means!”
“Well, I for one thought it was rather clever. It was all very complex, and I enjoyed watching you squirm. You were supposed to be creative and get your life back together, you know. I was quite disappointed. In fact, I think that –“
Steve hung up the phone. This was bullshit. Where was the fair and just God that he’d been told about by his parents and grandparents? He picked up his shovel handle and walked into the waiting room, where, appropriately, the demonette was waiting.
“Something else, sir?”
“Yes, can I actually get up to Heaven?”
“Why certainly, sir, just use the elevator. It’s in the nook behind your desk.”
Steve blinked again. An elevator. He absently wondered if it was an Otis. “Thank you… miss. I’ll be back.”
Steve walked back into his personal office and noticed, for the first time, a small alcove behind the desk. He stepped into it and looked around. It had three buttons. Heaven, Hell, and Emergency Stop. He wondered what the hell “Emergency Stop” was used for when traveling between Heaven and Hell, and decided that he was probably better off not knowing. He pressed, “Heaven.”
The bell chimed and the doors closed before him. He felt an acceleration upward, and glanced at his watch. It only took two minutes to get to Heaven. He was impressed. Either Heaven and Hell were much closer together than he had thought, or that was one damned fast elevator. The bell chimed again, the doors opened, and he stepped out into Heaven.
It was a sunny day in Heaven. Of course, it was probably always a sunny day in Heaven, but still, he appreciated it. Cool green fields stretched to infinity before him, and overhead, a beautiful blue sky smiled down. Birds and butterflies flitted to and fro, and he just had a feeling that these birds never crapped on anyone caught out in the open. A babbling brook ran by at his feet, and he could see that it was populated with frogs and fish and salamanders and all manner of small creature. The temperature was perfect, not too hot, not too cold, and there was a pleasant breeze bringing with it the fragrance of wildflowers. Heaven, he decided, was a nice place.
A man shimmered into existence before him. He had a long beard and wore white robes (of course). He looked at Steve with a puzzled expression.
“You’re the Lord of the Underworld?”
“That’s right, apparently. I’m Steve.”
More puzzled expression, then, “Very well, Steve. I am Saint Peter. God is waiting for you in the palace.”
“Which is where?”
“That way.” He pointed.
Steve took off at a leisurely pace, leaving Saint Peter behind, still wearing a puzzled expression. He walked on and on, past breathtakingly beautiful angels, past the blessed people who had made it to Heaven, right on past his cheating ex-fiancée (who he was surprised to find out was dead – and in Heaven, to boot) and up to the gates of the castle. It was a shining golden edifice, with turrets and minarets adorning its walls. He was greeted by a tall man with long, light brown – almost blond – hair and blue eyes. “Hello, friend, I am the Savior of Mankind, Jesus.”
Steve looked at him for a moment, then, grasping the shovel handle like a club, he clocked Jesus over the head, dropping him instantly to the floor.
“What was that for?” whined Jesus.
“That was for not doing a damn thing to help me. ‘God helps those who help themselves,’ that’s just cheap code for ‘God gets the credit when people help themselves.’”
Steve walked on, not even bothering to pay attention to whatever it was that Jesus was babbling on about. He passed frescos and incredibly detailed marble sculptures, priceless works of art that had no place in a “humble” God’s palace – and, come to think of it, a “humble” God probably shouldn’t be living in a palace at all. He walked on, his face set in a determined expression: he was going to get some answers, and nobody was going to stop him. Someone tried to stop him.
“I am the Archangel Gabriel, and thou shalt go no further,” came a beautiful baritone. The Archangel shimmered into existence before him, and Steve actually ran into him before he could stop.
“Why can’t I pass?”
“Because the Prince of Darkness has no place with the King of Light.”
“Well, I’m not the Prince of Darkness, I’m just Steve, so may I go?”
“No, you may explain yourself to me.”
Steve glared at him, and said, “Fine, it’s just that –“ and he thumped him on the head with the shovel handle. The Archangel dropped like a bag of bricks. “Sorry.”
Steve walked on.
Steve finally made it to two massive golden doors, beyond which, he assumed, sat God. Taking hold of his trusty shovel handle, he smacked the door three times in rapid succession and yelled, “Hey, this is Steve, we talked on the phone not too long ago. Can I come in?”
There was a pause. Silence filled the halls.
The pause extended itself into a full-blown moment. Still, silence reigned.
The moment became a lull.
Finally, just as Steve was raising his handle to knock again, the doors opened, and a brilliant white light spilled out. It was the most beautiful thing Steve had ever seen. It was also the most blinding thing that Steve had ever seen, and he had stared into the blinding rays of the sun a lot when he was a kid, because he thought that negative image that you got afterward was cool. “Could you turn down the stadium lights?” he shouted, as he held a hand up to shield his eyes.
“Of course, my son,” came the rumbling voice of God.
The light died down, and Steve entered the chamber.
Much to his surprise and amusement, Steve thought that God looked like the Mayor of Munchkinland.
“I get that a lot,” said God.
“The ‘Mayor of Munchkinland’ thing.”
“You were reading my mind? Stop that!”
“Very well. But I already know why you’re here. You don’t think that I was a fair God, a just God, a kind and benevolent God, do you?” The sarcasm was palpable.
“No, actually, I don’t, and I want some answers. Why did you screw with my life so much?” He took a step toward God.
“Giving you challenges makes you grow as a person. Every challenge I presented you with, you passed with flying colors, so I finally had to give you a really, really hard challenge.”
“The schizo-affective disorder?” He took another step forward.
“Yes. I must say, you failed miserably at that one. I gave you a mental illness and you tried to be a writer. Do you have any idea what a cliché that is? I thought that having you take a bullet while on the toilet was an especially nice touch. But really, you know that you can’t blame me for much of anything because of ‘free will’ and all.” God looked back at him smugly. “That’s my most famous cop-out invention.”
“Free will? Free will! I’ll show you free will!” Steve charged forward and raised the shattered wooden handle. As God began to protest, his hands waving wildly and comically in front of himself, Steve sank the makeshift dagger into His chest, just as he had with Satan. God also began to bleed. Profusely.
Steve removed the bloody shard and once more was reminded of someone taking the plug out of a wine barrel. Once more, he began to watch his foe implode into his wound.
“No! You can’t do this! I’m God! People need me!”
“When I needed you, you weren’t there,” said Steve. “So go to hell. Or wherever it is that people like you go. Don’t come back.”
He watched as God faded away, his body being sucked into the hole in his chest until nothing remained but a hole, then that too disappeared.
A hand thumped on his shoulder, and he turned around, raising the handle as he did so. The Archangel Gabriel said, “Whoa, whoa, it’s just me… God.”
Steve looked at him blankly for a moment. “What do you mean, ‘God’?”
“I mean, you’re God. You killed God, so you inherited all of his powers. You’re God. You’re the Divine. Just don’t let it get out that it works that way.”
“But that can’t be. The folks downstairs just told me that I’m the Devil.”
“Well, then I guess you’re going to be pulling double duty, because those are the rules. Go ahead, try doing something God-like.”
Steve thought for a second, and then tightly shut his eyes and thought of pardoning all the people who had been wrongly sent to Hell just for hating God.
“It is done,” said the Archangel. “Look out there. Tens of thousands of them, just arrived. I have a feeling that you’re going to be keeping us angels very busy.”
“I might,” said Steve, “I just might.”
All in all, he decided, it had been a pretty good day in both Heaven and Hell. He would see to it that things only got better.
Daniel H. Blazejewski was educated as a concert musician and a geologist. After successfully working in these careers, he has set them aside in order to pursue his writing. He is currently working on his first novel. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, he lives in the small southwestern coastal town of Encinitas, California.
Copyright 2003-2006 AntiMuse