That Great Big Ladder in the Sky
by Z. T. Burian
part 1 of 2
The stamps met paper at a phenomenal rate. Hank thought about it now and then as he stopped to listen to the man-made thunder. It was the only thunder to be heard in that place.
Hank had heard about a bridge collapsing in a place called Minnesota, because of a thing called natural resonance. A man across the way from Hank was a civil engineer for some army and he went on and on about that bridge, if you got him going. He said the bridge was like a string and the wind played it at just the right note, and it kept swinging and twisting and shaking in the wind till it shook itself apart. Hank wished sometimes that the stamps would find the right note and shake his building to bits.
“Hank!” said the boss. The boss was Thurgood Hess. He was a hulking man with unusually square shoulders that curled inward and made his arms stick out. He had died in a suit, which seemed to help his quick promotion.
“You’re not stamping, Hank!”
“Je suis — I mean, I’m sorry, sir,”
Hess put his fists to his hips, which meant his arms had to bend back a bit. “You’re damn right you are. I need three hundred files from you before the day ends, Hank. You’ll find there’s just enough slack left to make your noose.”
“I comprehend, sir.”
Hess stormed off.
Hank stared at the little rubber stamp. Next to it on the desk was a little pad of deep red ink. There was no lid because the ink never went dry.
He was supposed to be opening each folder and checking for seven sheets of paper. Each sheet had to have the same name, birth date, home town, all of that stuff, at the top. Then he had to find the blue sheet, which had the Act on it. If the Act was correct, he stamped the blue sheet and the cover sheet. If it had been misdirected, he was to put it in a bin on his desk and take that bin to Veronica by the stairwell to be redirected.
But Hank hated doing this. The monotony would shrivel most souls, as it invariably did for the blue-collar stampers. It was the same routine, hundreds of times a day, and the days here were long. But lately the job had nettled and festered in Hank, an angry thorn that kept biting and bringing back the same questions till they became the chorus to match the drumming stamps.
Why him? Why this job? Why not the Department for Sneezes, or the Department of Contraceptive Failure? That one at least was considered a blessing sometimes.
No, for the last nine hundred years every time Hank stamped a file, an infant contracted pneumonia.
* * *
Hank had not been born Hank. He was born Henri Cholmondeley in 12th-century France. After the strikes about a hundred years ago, everyone’s name got anglicized, and English became standard, even though most of the dead didn’t speak it while alive. It took some getting used to.
Hank had been a carpenter. He still wore the rags he had died in on a cold rainy day in France from, of all things, pneumonia. He didn’t know what it was then, but he knew now. He thought he had led a decent life: he went to mass and took communion like everyone else. He had a wife and an honest trade. And then he caught a cold while working on a neighbor’s roof and ended up in Purgatory. The Company had come a long way since then.
“Ah, the good old 5-3-5. How ya doin’ Hank, old buddy?” said a familiar voice. It belonged to a man in a 20th-century military uniform, American, with an eagle on the arm. It was Dave Simmons, who had died in an airplane over France.
“Been better, Dave,” said Hank. Dave had been his cube neighbor for twenty short years till he got promoted and moved upstairs. He had Hess’s job of Act Closer for the Department of Telephone Pole Lightning Strikes. It was a big gig, or so Dave said. Hank didn’t see what the fuss was about wooden poles and funny black ropes.
“Come on, let’s get out of here, it’ll be like old times.”
“I can’t, I’m behind as it is...” said Hank feebly.
“Ah come on, so you’ll stamp a little faster. The kids could use the break, right?” That made Hank feel even more miserable. He got out of his groaning chair and peaked above the cubicle. Hess was across the room with his back to them. Dave grinned and slapped him on the back. He practically dragged Hank down the thumping rows of cubes to the far wall.
“Heya sweet cheeks,” he said to Veronica, who was chomping on nine-year old gum. She glared at him over the top of a pair of shattered glasses. Veronica had been hit by a car. Hank had once asked her how exactly a car moved without horses or oxen. She gave him the same look she was giving Dave now.
“Ah, don’t be like that, doll. We just need to zip upstairs real quick. I won’t tell anyone it was you, honest.” She narrowed her eyes at Hank, but relented upon seeing Dave’s pitiful face.
“You better not, buddy. If I go down, I’ll take you with me.” Dave grinned broadly as she pressed a button on her desk.
“Thanks, doll. I owe ya one.” He pulled Hank through the elevator door that had just appeared.
Hank had never been inside the elevator before. It was to be used by management only, since there wasn’t much need for anyone else to leave their floors. Above the door on the inside was a set of numbers embossed in gold that read 535.
“Where are we going?” he asked Dave, who seemed to be thinking it over.
“I don’t know. Some place swanky. Every floor I been to has been all gray and lifeless, you know what I mean?” Hank did know.
“How do you work it?” The walls were paneled in oak. The only thing that stood out was a large gold lever next to the door. Dave yanked it down and the numbers began to spin rapidly. Hank felt as if hands were pressing him down into the ground, then letting up without warning. The numbers now read 1123. Hank didn’t really know what that meant — orientation had included how to read and how to stamp and not much else.
The door slid open and Dave whistled. Inside was a golden spectacle. Hank had only seen gold inside the church while he was alive, and this view was overloading his immaterial brain. The ceiling was tiled in polished gold sheets. The red carpet had an intricate gold inlay that glimmered from the heatless torches that lit everything in a solemn, warm light. There were rows of desks built like kings’ chariots, extending to an infinite distance before them.
Dave strolled out gawking. Hank followed, looking at the people going about their work. They were all dressed oddly, in robes cut to look like Hess’s suit. The men wore ties.
“Look, that’s a Dominion, Zeke I think they call him. He’s the VP of Random Acts!”
Hank looked and saw a balding man dressed like the others chatting with a small group. Hank thought he was imagining it, but there was a faint circle of light above his head, and another shape of hazy white behind him, like wings.
Dave and Hank had not gone unnoticed, Dave in his faded green uniform and Hank in his soiled rags. From down the infinite corridor came marching a gargantuan man in a functional, plain blue robe. Dave froze.
“I’ve seen that guy! He’s one of Michael’s security goons. They pick ’em up from deathbed repents, usually murderers and such.” Hank looked again. He was still far away, but there was a wave of wrathful intent in his gait. Hank panicked.
The elevator door opened as he ran madly for it. The doors closed as Dave was turning, looking flabbergasted. Down, down! thought Hank as he heaved himself on the lever. And down he went, with terrifying suddenness.
* * *
There was a ding, and the door opened to cold and darkness. Hank uncurled himself from his fetal position and walked out, shivering. It wasn’t total darkness. He stared out at a narrow lane between two brick buildings. The ground was a strange, hard material, completely black and rough under his naked feet. It was damp and cold.
“Got a light?” asked a shadow. A young man stepped into the yellowish, unnatural light, which shone like a lantern from the end of the lane, only it was more intense and unfriendly. The man wore a long, black coat, and underneath was a well-tailored suit. He was quite agreeable to look upon, but made Hank nervous nonetheless.
“Never mind, I found it.” He drew out a little box and made a flame with it, lighting a thin stick which he sucked on. “Je m’appelle Lou.”
“Where am I?”
Lou inhaled and the end of the stick glowed. The ember reflected red in his eyes. “Behind 233 West 23rd Street, Chicago. But that won’t mean much to you, Henri.”
Hank took a step backwards. “How’d you know my name?”
Lou took the stick from his mouth and laughed congenially. “I know a lot of things, Henri. I know what it is you do all day, every day, for decades on end. All those sick kids.”
Hank shook his head. It’s what they told him to do. He could stop doing it, but if he did... No. It wasn’t his fault.
“I didn’t choose that department...” he said weakly.
“I know. It’s okay, I’m not here to judge you. It must be tough. You must think of little Jacques and René every time you stamp a sheet of paper.” Hank winced. He thought of a frozen day in the French countryside, and two tiny, freshly dug graves. He did think of his sons with every red mark he made.
“How cruel can they be?” continued Lou. “You’re a good sport about it, I’ve been told, which shocks me. If it were me... well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be so penitent.”
“What do you want?”
Lou took a long breath and flicked away some ash. “I’d like to offer you a job, something different. Something far nobler. I promise you’ll like it a lot more than what you do now.” He passed a card to Hank. “Think about it. If you’re interested, come down and see me.”
Lou stepped out of the light and dissolved into the shadows. Hank read the card. It said ‘Lucifer, CEO, UnderWorld Inc.’
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by Z. T. Burian