Tom didn’t know how he got here. He remembered stalking the woman through the parking lot, waiting for the right moment to make the grab. Her Coach handbag dangled from her elbow as he tagged behind her, pretending to text on his phone to lessen suspicion. He waited until she exited the parking lot onto the busy sidewalk of Broad Street before making his move. He walked up, bumping into her as he slipped the purse off her arm and ran. He remembered hearing her yell as he stepped out onto the street, and then the sound of a horn. Was that a bus? Sounded like a bus. Then everything was quiet, everything was dark.
And now this.
Tom was wearing a grey jumpsuit, standing outside of a gray building with no windows on a street lined with buildings of the same design. The street stretched on for miles into the haze in both directions. Above him the sky was a lighter color gray filtering the light shining through.
Am I dead? Tom thought. He took a deep breath, feeling his lungs expand. Could I be breathing if I was dead? Is this really air?
Tom walked toward the building. There were no signs, only a revolving door leading to a lobby. He considered walking to one of the other buildings but they all looked the identical. What if this one was “his building”, and after checking the other buildings he didn’t remember which one was his? If he was dead, he didn’t want to end up an aimless spirit lost in purgatory because he lost his building.
Tom stepped through the revolving door and entered a small lobby leading to a receptionist’s window. The walls were bare except for a single painting of a dog, hanging askew. There was a small alcove with a table that had a few magazines on it, all 1970s issues of Sports Illustrated. Tom walked up to the receptionist’s window and pressed the buzzer. When the window opened, a small red creature with black horns greeted him.
“Jesus!” Tom yelled, stepping back.
The creature cocked an eyebrow as it spoke. “I get that a lot. Honestly, we don’t look a thing like each other.”
“Where am I? Is… is this Hell?” Tom stuttered, staring at the creature. Besides the red skin and horns, its eyes were all black with no pupils. It was dressed in a forest green blazer that had a nametag clipped to the lapel. Whatever it was, it’s name was Nybbas.
The creature was standing on the receptionist’s chair in order to reach the window. Tom could see its little cloven hooves digging into the fabric trying to steady itself as the chair tried to swivel under him.
“Didn’t the dog tell you?” Nybbas said.
Tom looked around behind him. “Dog?”
Nybbas snorted. “Dammit, that dog… always running about, he’s supposed to guard this place! We put one of those Invisible Fence collars on him, but does he care? No! Just runs right through it. I told them he needed a collar for each head, but procurement wouldn’t authorize buying more than one. Just give me a sec, okay?”
Nybbas plopped back down in his chair and picked up his desk phone and dialed. “Lydia? Nybbas. Cerberus is loose again, you need to call Thade down in… you need to call, Lydia. No, you do. Because you’re in charge of him. Yes… no… Lydia, he won’t listen to me. No… Lyd… Lydia… when the big guy finds out… Uh huh. Yeah. What’s that? Are you serious? How far can he run? Is that really your response right now? We’re floating on a lake of fire, Lydia! Just call Thade. Call Thade, Lydia. That’s your job. Thank you.”
Nybbas set the phone back on the cradle and stroked one of his horns between his fingertips. “I can’t deal with this shit today.”
Nybbas sat like that for a few minutes before Tom coughed, reminding him of his presence.
Nybbas looked up and spoke. “Oh, new guy. Yeah this is Hell. Let me pull your file up. Name?”
Tom cleared his throat, his voice shaking a little. “Tom Northrup.”
Nybbas typed his name into the computer. “Let’s see, new arrivals, ah! There you are! Theft, Lord’s name in vain, general dickish behavior. Wow! Got popped by a bus after lifting some old broad’s purse! This isn’t your day, bub.”
“So that’s it, I’m dead? And in Hell? Nothing I can do about it now?” Tom felt a lump in his throat as his eyes watered. “I’m still just a kid! I’m too young to be dead already. I have so much still to do, and mom, oh shit my poor mother…”
“Oh boy, we’ve got a crier,” Nybbas said. “Listen, Hell isn’t so bad. You ever hear the expression that history is written by the victors?”
Tom nodded, sniffing as he dabbed his eyes with his shirt collar.
“In a nutshell, that’s Hell,” Nybbas continued. “The Bible talked this place up like a real shithole, but what else was the big G supposed to do? Had to keep you humeys in line, didn’t he?”
Tom took a deep breath and straightened his shirt, his collar damp from wiping his tears. “Doesn’t matter much now anyways, does it? I’m here.”
“There’s the spirit!” Nybbas said. “And look, since it’s such a slow intake day, you’re going straight up to meet with Satan.”
“I’m meeting Satan?” Tom asked, his voice shaking.
Nybbas nodded. “You should be honored! Most humeys have to wait a week before they get to meet him.”
Tom stepped away from the desk, looking back at the revolving door.
“Don’t get any ideas kid,” Nybbas said. “Outside that door? Still Hell. Run for a hundred miles in any direction? Still Hell. And on the off chance you do make it to the edge, there’s the whole lake of fire you’ve got to deal with. Runners never make it, and it just pisses everyone off. Don’t make me have to call Lydia again. You’d really be busting my balls if you did.”
Tom gave the door another glance before stepping back to the window.
“Good call, new guy.” Nybbas stood back up on his chair and leaned out the window. He handed Tom an envelop. “Before you go up, this is your new resident packet. It has your badge in it, that’s what you use to get back to your quarters after you meet with Satan. Just put it in the slot in the elevator and it will do the rest. After he gives you your punishment, the key will update with that information and take you to your punishment site when the time comes. Got it?”
Tom opened his packet, pulling out his badge that was attached to a lanyard made of braided horse hair.
“The lanyard is a bit itchy, but this is Hell.”Nybbas said. “Just put it in your pocket, no one really cares. This isn’t the other place, we’re not big on rules. Just don’t lose it.”
Tom stuffed the badge and lanyard in his pocket. The rest of the packet were typical welcome literature, phone lists, and a FAQ page.
“Big guy is ready for you,” Nybbas said. “Step on the elevator and insert your card in the reader.”
“Elevator?” Tom asked. “But there’s no…”
When he turned to look, one of the walls of the lobby had opened up, revealing an open elevator door. Tom stepped into the elevator, which was all black and had no controls other than the card reader. Tom slid his card through it; the door dinged and closed behind him. Just before the door closed, Nybbas called out to him.
“New guy! When you meet Satan, be sure to…”
The door closed.
Be sure to what? Tom thought, as the elevator started moving. Up or down, he couldn’t tell.
The elevator played an instrumental version of We Built This City by Starship. As the elevator moved, the thought occurred to Tom that maybe the elevator was to be his torment. He was claustrophobic, perhaps he would spend an eternity trapped in an elevator? His breathing quickened and his heart thudded against his ribcage (or was that just in his mind?) as the elevator continued its journey.
Just as he was about to break, Tom heard a ding as the door opened. A great red serpent pushed its head into the opening of the elevator. Its fangs dripped with venom as it looked into Tom’s eyes, its tongue darting between the gap of its front teeth. It let out a horrible hiss, causing Tom to cup his hands over his ears and curl into a ball on the floor of the elevator.
It spoke in a deep, raspy voice that rattled in Tom’s chest and felt like his ears were going to pop.
“Welcome to Hell!” it boomed, followed by maniacal laughter. And then poof, it was gone.
Tom looked up from his fetal position to see a humanoid demon with red skin and long black horns pointing at him and laughing. The demon was dressed in a business suit with his hair pulled back in a ponytail. The well dressed demon almost fell over and was holding himself up against the wall of the elevator, pointing and laughing.
“Your face right now,” he said in between laughing fits, “oh my God that’s priceless! You didn’t piss your pants did you? No shame in that, no shame at all.”
Tom wasn’t sure. He looked down and didn’t see any wetness, so he shook his head no.
“That’s good then, save you a bit of embarrassment wetting yourself the first time you meet Satan. Which is me, hello.” Satan did a half bow. “Then it would be all awkward the next time you saw me, you’d be wondering if I’d be telling everyone that you pissed yourself when you left the room. Which I would if you did, but since you didn’t I won’t. Alright, come on now, up with you.”
Satan reached out for Tom to take his hand.
“It was just a joke, rather funny one I might add” Satan said with a beaming grin on his face. Tom reached out and Satan pulled him up onto his feet.
“In case you were wondering about the snake thing, Revelation 12:9 ‘The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world’, so it’s kinda required. His orders.” Satan pointed up, rolling his eyes. “Well, not really. My idea. I get a kick out of it, it’s a good icebreaker.”
Satan led Tom to a seat in front of a giant desk in the middle of the room. Satan sat in the chair on the other side of the desk, leaning forward, his elbows on the desk as he rested his chin on his fists.
“Well here we are, I’m Satan, this is Hell,” Satan said.” And you’re…?”
“Tom Northrup,” Tom replied.
Satan gasped. “Did you say Tom Northrup?”
“THE Tom Northrup?”
“I, I guess so?” Tom stuttered.
“Oh wow, this is big. Real big. We’ve been waiting for you.”
“Really?” Tom asked.
Satan nodded. “Oh yeah! Biggest new arrival since Hitler.”
Tom’s jaw dropped. “Me? Really? I wasn’t that bad, was I?”
“Oh yeah, we’ve got a huge file on you, Tom,” Satan said, as he leaned down and lifted a hefty file from the bottom drawer of his desk. “Everything in here says you’re a bad dude.”
Tom was stunned. Sure he, stole a few things and wasn’t the nicest person, but was he really that bad?
The devil leaned forward, talking just above a whisper. “Wanna know what it says about you?”
Tom nodded. The devil opened the file, shaking his head and clicking his tongue as he turned the pages. His face shifted from disgust to shock with every turn of the page.
“I can’t tell you everything in there, for reasons of security, but can I ask you something?”
“What was it like diddling all those puppies?”
Tom furrowed his brow. “Does it say I did that?”
“Yeah! Right here,” Satan said, pointing to no page in particular.
“There must be some sort of mistake, I never…” Tom said, but was interrupted by Satan laughing and smacking his hand against the desk.
“I got you again!” Satan said. He wiped tears of laughter from his cheek, one sizzled as it landed on the desk. “You’re easy, Tom. If that IS your real name. And it is, I know because I’m Satan and all that.”
Tom exhaled. Or at least he thought he did; he still wasn’t sure about the whole breathing thing.
They sat in silence, the devil staring at Tom, smiling. It was an awkward silence, Tom unsure if he should say something or if Satan was just looking him over. Tom glanced around the room, avoiding Satan’s gaze. The walls of the office were bare, except for a giant window along the side. Outside, gray buildings stretched for miles in every direction. Off in the distance, the glow of fire rimmed the edge of the buildings.
“Do you like boats?” Satan asked.
“Boats?” Tom repeated, puzzled by the question.
“Yeah, boats. Were you much of a boater in life?”
“No, I can’t say that I was,” Tom answered.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Satan said.
“Oh, no reason,” Satan said.
More silence. Satan picked up a pen and began drawing on the cover of the folder.
Tom grew up in a Southern Baptist household, and even though he hadn’t been to church since he was eleven he recalled the fiery sermons his pastor gave describing Satan as this great deceiver, liar, and tormenter. Satan was a monster. He devoured souls and tormented them for eternity in a lake of fire. At no point in his Sunday school studies did the devil scribble crude drawings of cats with gigantic dicks on a folder.
This reminded Tom of what Nybbas had told him about Hell: history is written by the victors. Maybe Satan was kicked out of Heaven because he was annoying, and he was sent to work in the warehouse like he was the retarded son of a wealthy business owner.
Then again, maybe none of this was real and what Tom was experiencing was the last gasp of firing neurons in a dying brain.
“So, what happens next?” Tom asked, breaking the silence.
“Huh? Oh,” Satan said, like he almost forgot Tom was sitting in front of him. “Tell me about your life.”
Tom cleared his throat. “Well, it was pretty normal, I guess. I was born, went to a small school out in the country, graduated high school and went to Duke University…”
“Blue Devils!” Satan exclaimed. “That’s like me, but you know,” Satan gestured to his face, “Blue.”
Tom nodded. “Yeah, that’s the one. My dad went there so he got me in. I didn’t really have the grades or demeanor to succeed. I got mixed up with drugs and flunked out, ended up disowned by my parents and living on the streets. Then the last thing I did when I was alive was steal a lady’s purse, ran out into the street in front of a bus and now I’m here.”
The devil shook his head. “You were only 23, right?”
Tom nodded. “Yes.”
“Quite the wasted life, wasn’t it, Tom?”
Tom’s eyes welled up with tears again. Whether this was real or not didn’t matter, he did get hit by the bus and was either dead or dying. “It’s not how I wanted things to go. I just got mixed up in the wrong crowd, one thing led to another and I ended up where I was. That’s not how I wanted my life to be, and now… it’s too late to change anything.”
Tom was sobbing, burying his head in his hands.
“Oh, this is awkward,” Satan said, he walked around his desk and stood in front of Tom with his arms outstretched. “Come on, bring it in for a hug.”
Tom shook his head. “I’ll be okay.”
“You sure? Might be the last one you get. This is Hell, after all.”
Satan was smiling, his eyebrows raised as he bounced on his knees, enticing Tom to accept his hug. Tom got the feeling that Satan wasn’t going to move until he agreed, so he stood up and leaned in for a hug. Satan squeezed him tight in his arms, stroking Tom’s hair.
“There you go, buddy,” Satan said.
This is too fucking weird, Tom thought as he felt Satan pat his back. Then he heard humming. Tom recognized the song, but he had to be mistaken; there was no way Satan would be humming that song. Tom’s certainty of the song was confirmed when Satan began singing the chorus in a soft falsetto, stroking Tom’s hair.
Hold me closer tiny dancer.
Count the headlights on the highway.
Lay me down in sheets of linen.
You had a busy day today.
Satan released Tom from the hug and looked down at him. “How’s that? Doing better now?”
Tom nodded, still a bit dumbfounded by what just happened.
After releasing Tom from the hug Satan returned to his chair.
This has to be a dream Tom thought as he sat back down in his seat. There’s no way Satan is this…
Weird? Incompetent? Lonely? All of the above?
“So now,” Satan began, “your assignment. Your eternal damnation for a lifetime of sin. Are you ready for it?”
Tom took a deep, possibly imaginary breath, then nodded.
“You can’t just nod, you have to say, ‘I’m ready’.”
“I’m ready,” Tom replied.
Satan cleared his throat.
“Your punishment,” Satan began, pausing for dramatic effect after each clause. “For all of eternity, which is until the end of time, and then after that, and then even after that, will be… pitchfork cleaner!”
Satan was trying not to giggle. He shoved his fist against his mouth as he looked at Tom.
“Pitchfork cleaner?” Tom replied.
“Yep,” Satan said, stifling his giggling as he spoke. “Your job is to clean all the pitchforks of all the lesser imps and demons.”
Satan was shaking, biting his lip.
“All of ‘em.”
A small giggle broke through.
“All the pitchforks.”
Tom sighed, then nodded. “Alright then, when do I start?”
“You start…” Satan let out a burst of laughter. “You start… never! Because that’s a joke! I got you again!”
Tom shrugged. “Yeah, you got me good that time.”
“You were all, ‘pitchforks? I don’t know!’” Satan crossed his eyes and threw up his hands. “That’s you, that’s what you looked like.” He crossed his eyes and shrugged again. “’Pitchforks? I don’t know!’ Priceless!”
Satan slapped his hand on the desk and laughed. Tom just sat and waited for him to finish.
“You’re a good sport Tom,” Satan said. “Hey, tell you what, you wanna help me prank the next guy?”
“What, really? Can I?”
“Sure! Let’s do it!”
Satan hit the intercom button on his phone. He looked up at Tom, putting a finger to his lips to shush him as he tried containing his laughter.“Nybbas, is that you?”
Satan cut him off. “Are you there, Nybbas? I can’t hear you.”
“Nybbas? Can you hear me? It’s Satan.”
“Nybbas! Nybbas! Can you hear me Nybbas?”
A heavy sigh came over the intercom as Satan chuckled. “You can hear me, can’t you sir?”
“Got you!” Satan said, laughing. “That never gets old, does it?”
Another heavy sigh came over the intercom before Nybbas spoke. “Nope. Never.”
“Nybbas you can send the next one up.”
Satan stood up from behind his desk and ran over to the elevator, motioning for Tom to join him. “This is going to be good!”
“So what about my assignment?” Tom asked.
“Oh yes, about that,” Satan said. “I’ll be honest with you Tom. Hell is a pretty boring place for me. You wanna just hang out? Help me welcome new humeys?”
Tom shrugged. “Sure, why not?”
“Great! Let’s get ready for the new guy. Where is your pitchfork?” Satan asked.
Tom shook his head. “I didn’t get a pitchfork.”
“Did you already lose your pitchfork? That’s pretty serious Tom, you need your pitchfork.”
“But I didn’t get one downstairs, they just,” Tom began, then noticed that Satan’s eyes were bulging as he bit his lower lip to contain his laughter.
“Is this another joke?”
Satan laughed, smacking Tom on the back. “You catch on quick.”