The Narrowest Ring
by Rae Bryant
Stepping through the gate, Michael wiped the phlegm from his pant leg. “Damn monster dog. What do they feed that thing anyway?”
The woman walking beside Michael had no mouth, and so she just looked at him with empty eyes.
“Quiet?” He smiled. It was a cruel jest, but he could hardly help himself.
A guard scowled then poked him with a stick. “Move!”
The guard was more of a beast, really, but Michael had expected worse. Hell wasn’t four-star, but still nothing too Dante about it, save the beast guards and their sticks. Hell wasn’t even particularly hot. In fact, as they turned the corner of a gray building, a slight breeze drifted through the air.
“Here!” was all the guard said then pushed Michael through the gray door.
Michael turned back to the guard. “What do I do?”
“Turn right, down the hall.”
The hall was long, doors on either side with small brass plaques below translucent windows, no knobs. Michael stopped at the first door. Gluttons and Sloths. Through the milky glass, he saw blobbish, slow-moving masses. It might have been a Sumo match, but for the moaning and sound of projectile vomiting.
Apparently, Hell was an anti-utopia. Pretty halls, but behind the pretty doors, sinners busted their pretty guts, or at least the gluttons did. Michael tried to imagine the lustful.
“Mr. Anton?” A finger tapped him on the shoulder.
Michael jumped then straightened himself before turning around to face a redhead, attractive, tight skirt. She looked a little like Lydia at the office, the no-good tease who had turned him down last month. Perhaps this one might like to ride the Anton bull. She was, after all, a heathen.
“Yes, I’m Michael Anton.”
“Welcome to the Inner Rings, Mr. Anton. Will you follow me, please?”
Red turned and walked down the hallway. Michael followed, watching the sway of her hips. “And what may I call you, Miss...?”
“Hall. Jessie Hall.”
“Hello, Jessie Hall.” He let the l’s roll off his tongue, slow like.
She smiled, and he gave her his ‘I know what you like’ grin.
“So, Jessie, what am I in for?”
“Oh, you’re not staying. There’s been a mistake.”
“Mistake?” Michael chuckled. He wasn’t all that surprised. Life had been a golden practice in opportunity. Death should be no different. “So, where are you taking me?”
“It’s to heaven, then. Well, I must say, your service is really quite remarkable. I’ll give rave reviews.” He grinned. “Am I leaving right away, or do you get a coffee break soon?”
Jessie turned on her heels with an ineffectual, icy blue stare. “No, Mr. Anton. You’re not going to heaven. You’re being returned, immediately.”
“It’s easy, really. We’ve done it plenty of times.”
“But my car exploded. How are you going to send me back after that?”
“You’ll go back as a birth. It’s common.” Jessie bent over and whispered as if she were telling a stock secret. “Sometimes, the big guy gets a little button-happy, you know, and boom, we have too many incoming to fill the space.”
“Any idea where you’re sending me?” Michael started to imagine some poor, infested area of Columbia.
“Oh, you’ll go back to the general location as your life before. Unless the States are full. But don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’re set somewhere nice.” Jessie looked at him now with a strange twist of her brow. Michael couldn’t tell if it was concern or amusement.
“There’s something you should know, though, Mr. Anton, something you should be prepared for. You’ll experience birth differently than you did before, the first time, I mean.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You’ll be aware of it. Until you can say your first words, you’ll experience everything as you would now, as a grown adult.” Jessie continued on her way, leaving him standing, staring at her.
It took a moment for the words to sink in before he chased after her then grabbed her shoulder. She turned to him, her stare burning a hole in his hand. He took it away.
“You’re telling me that when I’m born, I’ll feel it. I’ll know it?”
“Yes, I’m afraid you will, and everything else till you say your first word. It’s all part of the soul-rehabilitation program.”
“But I thought you said this was all a mistake. I’m not supposed to be here.”
“Oh, you’re in the right place, it just wasn’t your time yet, and since you were taken early, according to Section 6, Line 2c, you are now the property of Heaven until such time as they release you. You’re on parole, Mr. Anton. You’re lucky. Not many souls get a second chance. In fact, the program is under fire. Some on the Board want to cut it altogether.”
“More of a coalition, really. They see to all distributions, allocations, and disputes. They handle mediations between Heaven and Hell. With their help, things have gotten much better around here. Believe me.”
Jessie opened a door, and a scream let out. She shut it quickly. “Sorry, not your stop.”
Michael’s hands started to shake.
“Okay, here we are.” Jessie opened a door and gestured to the tiny room, dark, no bigger than a closet. “There you go. You can sit in the chair, if you like.”
Michael took the seat and looked up at her, speechless.
“Have a good trip, Mr. Anton.” And with that, she shut the door.
Within seconds, a fwooping sound grew then a sucking pressure pulled at him from every angle. The room spun out like a cyclone.
* * *
“Come on, there we go.” Something or someone grabbed at his head, pulling him through an excruciatingly small hole. Bright light glared at him, and strange voices, too loud, laughing and crying. A hand took hold of his ankles and someone smacked his butt. It hurt, and he cried. He cried all the way into some strange lady’s arms, and for an instant, he thought, perhaps he might have taken his chances in Hell.
He looked up to see a blurry nose. When his vision adjusted, he saw a woman, her hair disheveled, covered in sweat, but she was smiling at him.
She turned to the smiling man who stood close to her, both of them touching and crying. The man held up a pink bunny and bounced it around in an idiotic fashion. These people had obviously lost their minds.
The woman laughed. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
“Yes, she is. She’s the most beautiful baby girl I’ve ever seen.”
Copyright © 2009 by Rae Bryant