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That Great Big Ladder in the Sky

by Z. T. Burian

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

The numbers clicked into place: 535. The door slid open and Hank spilled out as though shoved. It closed with finality, leaving him to once again face his eternity. The constant roll of the stamps met his ears with a new note, filling Hank with a more intense dread than the one he was familiar with.

He walked as quickly as he could to his cube, ducking about oddly and peering about for any sign of Hess. Hank reached his cube unnoticed and couldn’t believe his luck. He breathed a sigh of relief as Hess cleared his throat behind him.

“Might I ask where you’ve been?” he growled.

Hank was trembling. Surely this was the end, right? He would be terminated for poor job performance and unauthorized absence. “N-nowhere, sir, just getting a new stamp.”

“Liar. The stamps never wear out. I’ve about had it with you, Hank. I have no other recourse but to—”

His words were interrupted by a commotion near the elevator. The doors lay splayed open and a gaggle of sharply dressed men stood surveying the room. All of them wore dark blue suits and had long hair combed and tied neatly in a ponytail.

One man with auburn hair in the center dominated the group, though there was nothing outward to differentiate him from the others. It was he who spoke up. “May I have your attention please,” he called out in a voice that sang, reverberating with quiet intensity, both reassuring and commanding.

“I have an announcement,” he continued. “For the newcomers I have yet to meet, I am the CEO, but you may call me JC. It has been brought to my attention that there has been a steady rise in inefficiency in the Random Acts division, stemming mostly from a lack of organization. So, in an effort to centralize and speed things up, we will be merging a number of departments together and... shuffling around some personnel.”

Nervousness rippled through the floor.

“I’ll let your supervisors give you the specific details about transfers and such. Remember, you’re working for the greater good.”

Hank could almost smell the anxiety in the air. The people all looked eager to discuss these developments but none dared while the big boss was around. With a stab of animal fear, Hank noticed JC was looking right at him. He ducked down and grabbed the stamp, telling himself he had to work as though his afterlife depended on it, but his thoughts would not coalesce into anything useful.

“It’s Hank, right?” said that same rock-steady voice. Hank’s mind suddenly went blank. He turned and stood to meet his addressor.

“Yes sir.”

“Take a walk with me, Hank.”

He obeyed without even knowing it.

“I’ve heard you’ve been having some difficulties lately. I took the liberty of reviewing your file and noticed you’ve been with us a long time. I wanted to run something by you, a chance to perhaps redeem yourself. Part of the changes we are making include merging your department with the Department for West Virginia Weather Anomalies. Your supervisor, Thurgood, is being transferred to an underperforming department, leaving a vacancy at Lead Act Closer.”

There was a flicker of hope from deep within Hank. “Are you offering me the position?”

“Well, yes and no,” came the diplomatic reply. “You can be Act Closer for Infant Pneumonia, but you’d still be expected to process cases. In fact, you’d be processing all of them; we are downsizing your group considerably.”

“Oh,” mumbled Hank. He knew he should be upset, but it sounded so right coming from JC.

“You understand that we can’t offer you anything more at this time. Our pension figures are inflated as it is.”

They walked on in silence for a moment while Hank tried to process the offer. The men that had come in with JC were following them from a polite distance.

“You don’t have to give an answer right now, Hank. We would sure like to see you stick around, but be aware, we have no other place for you here at the Company. If you decline, it’ll mean termination.” They had circled back to his cube and Hank was left alone.

He sat at his desk and stared at the stamp and the stacks of folders. He’d be expected now to infect hundreds, maybe thousands of children a day. On the other hand he faced what everyone here tried to ignore, what loomed for them in the underworld of unemployment. The little rectangle of paper felt warm in his trouser pocket. All at once the nagging dread erupted to full-fledged panic. He clutched the stamp as though he could crush it into oblivion.

With no second thought he bolted towards Veronica, flinging himself across her desk to slap wildly at the button. She protested in a shrill string of profanities, but he ignored her and threw himself into the elevator. He heaved his whole meager weight on the lever, with no idea where he might end up.

With the door closed, he leaned against the wall, his chest heaving with the excitement. During the long journey he realized how silly it was for him to be feeling so nauseous and weak: he was dead. He never ate, slept, relieved himself or anything else but give kids pneumonia. He was a tool for the universe, the hammer pointed firmly at the nail.

When the door at last opened, it was to a room Hank would have never expected. He had seen a drawing some years ago of an airplane. It was Dave who showed it to him; he called it a B-24 bomber. It was strangely beautiful to Hank, like a hybrid of a bird and a fish. This small dark room he now entered was full of them, of a much reduced size.

There were wooden racks in front of him that went to the ceiling, each cubby containing a different kind of plane. Some were long and white and had many tiny portholes for windows, while others were tiny, streamlined things that brimmed with menace. To the left was a corner from which a dim golden light poured, beckoning Hank in.

He found a man within, his broad back to Hank. He was hunched over a desk that was littered with pieces of planes in the midst of construction. The man’s voice was deep and labored.

“You’re not supposed to be here, are you, Henri?”

“No.” He walked around and saw the man was peering into a circle of glass, painting one of the planes. His hair was white and wild, his face sprouting a patchy beard of silver and gray.

“My son judges slackers harshly, you know. But I won’t tell anyone.”

“You’re Him, aren’t you?”

He paused briefly. The heatless lamp on his table made his face golden and his white hair look blonde. “I’m the owner in name only. I have no control over your job.” Hank stared at the ceiling, seeing for the first time planes flying silently above. Some flew in perfect circles, tailing each other or flying side-by-side, while others dove and spun in the shadows.

“I used to build ships. Spanish Galleons, Japanese Atakebune, graceful sloops. One of my favorites was Le Napoléon, a French ship of the line. But I got bored with ships. Airplanes are so much more... refined.”

“Why are you here?”

The old man snorted. “Quite a bold question, Henri, especially from you. I got tired of meetings, reports, quotas, it’s all stifling. My son and his little friends, they’re all about efficiency. I wanted to be creative.” He grabbed and twisted open a little jar of red paint and proceeded to apply a red stripe to the plane’s fin.

Henri leaned against the table, his back to the man. “Nine hundred years and I’m still stuck in a dead end. I’m not sure I can do it anymore. The stress is killing me.”

The man shrugged. “Then go to Hell.”

Hank whirled and took a faltering step backwards.

“Just like that?”

“If you want. It’s in your control.” That settled Hank’s nerves a bit but puzzled him more.

“I’ve done nothing but what they’ve asked. I’ve seen thousands get their severance in a fraction of the time I’ve put in. Merde! I’m an ant under their boots!”

“A bit frustrated, monsieur? Think about it this way. When the roof is still leaking, the boards are splitting with every nail, the ox is being stubborn, and it won’t stop raining, what makes you keep working?”

Hank shook his head in annoyance. His constant anxiety had given way to indignation. The man shrugged again and started painting a provocative woman on the side of the little green plane.

“It doesn’t really matter. If you quit or take the job in Hell, someone else will deal out the disease. The job’s got to get done. Who they’d get to replace you would be interesting, though. You were so uniquely qualified for that position. One of the last I recruited myself, in fact. Now stop pestering me, I’m almost done with the 1939 RAF fleet.”

Hank stood for a while watching, but he knew the man would say nothing else. Uniquely qualified? For giving children pneumonia? He wandered in the dark maze of planes trying to piece it together. Was it because he had died of the same disease? The thought hit him, as it so often did, of his two young sons.

The elevator appeared just as he thought of it. He stepped inside, steeled himself, and pulled the lever.

Copyright © 2010 by Z. T. Burian

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