by Dakota Jackson
The Office of Eternal Collections—better referred to as purgatory, both literally and figuratively, especially to Luci—is becoming quite hectic these days. As the head of the Decisions Department, Luci, (known in his past first as Lucian and later as Lucifer), is in charge of the recently deceased. The line today is so long he can’t see the end of it; just bobbing heads in a crowd of desperate humans. Most are crying, others are screaming, and some are laughing hysterically. Luci’s intern, Maebe, picked an awful day to begin in the Life Collections field.
At the Decisions desk, the recently deceased receive two very simple choices: life or death. Luci asks that question, “Shall I give you life or will you accept your death?” and the option then lies within their hands. They may return to life and try again, at the cost of ‘the taint,’ which Maebe is in charge of explaining today, or they may accept their rightful death, as who they were born and developed into, and rest as spirits in the heavens.
The question has not finished coming out of Luci’s mouth before the answer rings out.
“Back again, Thomas?” Luci asks, marking yet another tally on his file. “That was even shorter a life than last time. Surely you’ll accept fate soon, won’t you?”
“Three thousand and third time’s the charm.” Thomas smiles, the chipped front tooth from his fortieth life sticking out like a sore thumb—which he gained chronically in his six hundred and twenty-seventh life. “Give me life, Luci. I choose life.”
Luci sighs and waves a hand dismissively. He doesn’t have time to argue with Thomas today. Death rates are skyrocketing down on Earth. He’s swamped. Besides, it’s hardly his right to sway the decisions of the deceased. That was stated quite clearly in the worker’s contract he signed five thousand years ago. His job is to simply process the people as they come, the way an overworked, over-tired DMV worker does: calling number after number, reciting line after line in a dull script, shooing person after person off, most with a vague sense of annoyance or exhaustion.
With the wave of his hand, the door to his left, the Doorway Back as they so cleverly call it, lights up red. Thomas knows the drill. He steps up to it, feet on the large welcome mat, and waits for the final question.
But it doesn’t come. Maebe is standing there, quivering in her boots, staring at Thomas with her mouth clamped shut.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Luci thinks, dropping his forehead onto the table with a resounding thud. Must they hire newbie spirits to work the Office of Eternal Collections? They always do this. Life and death are both still so real to them, like any of it actually matters. Stupid lowly emotions. Their interference causes Luci’s temples to throb and he doesn’t even have a pulse anymore. He’ll never get through this line if Maebe keeps an attitude like this. Seriously. Today of all days?
When Luci clears his throat loudly, Maebe jolts back to herself. Her eyes find his, narrowed, and the scripted spiel tumbles from her lips in a high-pitched squeak at once. The sound reverberates against the walls and down the endless hallway, sending an unpleasant tremor through the crowd.
“So you have chosen life, you have chosen the taint. The taint will cause your being to deteriorate with each new life you begin. Do you accept this risk and desire to be reborn regardless?”
Her eyes are anywhere but on Thomas as she asks, and in response a gaggle of those waiting in line pipe in with their responses. Maebe curls further and further into herself with each jeer and mock, all affirmative to receiving the taint.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever, don’t care. Let me back already.”
“As you choose,” Maebe says stiffly. She steps away from the door and Thomas immediately fills her place.
Above the door, which continues to glow a dull red now, as if tired of waiting—just as Luci himself—a black gourd vase hangs by invisible string. With all the proper questions asked, and the tallies made, the vase turns over on itself. Gold flecks like make-believe fairy dust pour out, raining down on Thomas and drenching him in the breath of life alongside the promise of death. Such is a human’s existence. Maebe watches, soundless, as the door creaks open, light breaks through, and Thomas disappears within it. The door slams shut after him and all is exactly as it was before.
“That’s it?” Maebe asks, eyeing the door as if it’ll pop back open and demand some more lives be lived.
One eyebrow raised, Luci nods. What else is there supposed to be? The Office of Eternal Collections spends eternity collecting the recently deceased on their path between life and death. If it was any more complicated, the dull throb in his temples would be a full-blown headache… For eternity.
The next human steps forward. Another familiar face: Nyla Holmes, formerly Nia Hutchens, and formerly-formerly Noah Higgins. Noah was a straight-A honors student, Nia was a delinquent who smoked over lunch breaks, and Nyla has been in and out of prison almost as often as she’s been through these halls. This is the sequence of states of being that Luci watches the humans walk through with their eyes wide open. Even the devil himself was once an angel.
“Shall I give you life or will you accept your death?”
A new tally marks the page. Best not to think about who might end up in line come next week when Nyla is back to her murderous tendencies on earth. A flick of Luci’s hand. Best not to think of anything, really. The door lights up red. Maebe stutters. Nyla accepts the taint. Gold flecks tumble down. The door opens. The door closes. On to the next.
Life after life after life. No one chooses to accept their death nowadays. Luci used to do at least a dozen of those cases a shift, which was great because it was one step simpler, but the world has changed now. Millions die on Earth at all times, but as for real deaths, there’s hardly ever one anymore. Everyone either wants to go back and do better, or, increasingly, go back and do worse, and so the heavens are light and the planets are heavy. The cycle does not stop.
It’s almost becoming pointless to ask the question, “Shall I give you life or will you accept your death?”
“C’mon, Luce, you know the answer.”
No. Not possible. The passage of time between Earth and the Office of Collections is vastly different, yes, but Luci has never known it to be by this much. To see the same person twice within one shift is unheard of.
“Thomas, what are you doing here?”
“That’s not your line,” Thomas replies, frowning. There is a speck of blood on the collar of his white button-down.
And that’s another thing not right. The recently deceased are supposed to show up here looking the same as their first self—their original form, as they call it around here—but with all of their lives’ memories intact. Thomas clearly has his memory, but not his proper appearance. He should be in a clean blue polo and slacks. That is his look.
“What are you wearing?”
Thomas looks irritated rather than amused now. “I choose life.”
For the first time in thousands upon thousands of years of work, Luci does not mark a tally and raise his hand to signal the door. He does not move at all.
Behind Thomas, others are becoming restless, as they so often do. Loading hordes of people waiting to live when they all know they’ve died in a thin hallway is a rather precarious situation, after all. The occasional fight breaks out more often than not—typically Thomas or Nyla or one of their many lackeys growing in number as of recent—but that’s not what this is.
This is everyone. A domino effect of violence waves across the line from back to front. It’s like they’re playing tag in a single file line. Donovan hits Lucas and Lucas pushes Yelena and Yelena knocks her head into Una and Una rakes her nails down Justin’s back. It keeps going until it gets so close that Luci can see every intricate movement in clear focus despite the cloud of gray dust swirling and rising along the floor at their feet. The gray dust swallows up the bottom halves of most bodies in the distance, leaving nothing to be seen there.
The next two in line behind Thomas fumble to get their hands on each other. Monica swipes out at Lucy but the movement is liquidy and slow. The hit doesn’t land and she stares at her arm as if seeing it for the first time. Then she drops to her knees and disappears within the gray. Lucy’s mouth parts open on a question that never vibrates any eardrums because she goes down to the floor, as well.
“What–” Maebe begins, shaky and squeaky and still so goddamn unfit for this job.
“Thomas,” Luci says to cut her off—though whether this is a warning or a threat, he isn’t sure himself.
His voice doesn’t reach Thomas’s ears before Kurt—life four thousand and two—from way back in the line comes flying forward like a popping log out of fire and knocks his head sideways. Together they tumble to the floor right in front of Luci’s feet, sending clouds of dust in every direction. The ground quakes as if a fissure has opened up.
“Thomas!” Luci shouts now, finally understanding what the dust is: it’s the humans. They’re disintegrating. “Kurt!”
Their bodies won’t make it. With each punch from Thomas, a little less of Kurt’s face remains. With each kick from Kurt, a little less of Thomas’s side stays intact. In no time they crumble into nothingness right there in front of Luci and Maebe, leaving behind only piles of ash that were once people who could’ve chosen to rest the first time around.
A long stretch of silence follows. The Office of Eternal Collections, even in the early days when the human race was a tiny, tiny thing, has never been empty. Not before this very moment.
“Uhm, excuse me? Luci, sir,” Maebe says, trying her damnedest not to look at the unsettled sandstorm of humans filling the hall. Not that she succeeds, if the reflection in her pupils and the tremble in her bottom lip are anything to go by. “Can I clock out?”
Scanning the otherwise empty corridors, Luci tells her, “By all means.” It would appear that their work here is done.
She runs like Hell has opened fire underneath her bottom.
When only Luci remains, he flicks a hand to his right. He half expects nothing to happen, for his existence to forevermore be this empty room. Then the door lights up bluish-white. Warmth fills him like an old friend before he even moves to it. Never once has Luci been asked the question, never once has he been given the choice. But now he makes it. He takes it for himself. Luci will choose death; Luci will choose rest.
With no one left to stop him, Luci steps through the open door.
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU Student