Things Could Be Worse
by John Wright
Long corridors of trees framed the highway, channelling wind that carried a sour smoke off into the countryside. On one side of the road, the woods gave way to a small clearing, the pines and scrub oaks thinning to tall wild grasses, brown and yellow, and a sandy patch surrounded by a couple of large rocks where, nearby, two vague, shimmering shapes stood wavering in the sun, the air around them icy cold in spite of the day’s awakening heat.
At the top of the hill was a little orchard, dense with a variety of fruit trees and possessed of a soft, glowing radiance. Glorious birds soared above the trees, singing for the sheer joy of singing. There was a path to the top, but it was long and difficult, broken in places, ruts filled with loose rock and slippery mud, overgrown with ankle-grabbing fescue and thick gorse.
The two looked up and gave up. They would never make it. “Down there. looks like some sort of town. Come on, Helen, we’re going down there. Look, I know what I’m talking about, so come on.”
“It’s a town, yeah, but look at all of that smoke coming out of that tower. Must be the main business. That smoke stinks. I don’t want to go there, Alan. Now stop for just a damn minute. I refuse to go anywhere else until I know exactly what’s going on.”
Furious, Alan began screaming, “Going on? Haven’t you figured that out yet. Why, we are dead. Don’t look at me that way. We are dead, deceased, muerte. We have kicked the bucket, shuffled off that mortal coil. Put it any way you want; it comes out the same: DEAD.”
Alan was now sobbing, hysterical. Finally, he put on the cold mask that was the face he usually showed the world. “Now, my dear wife, let me remind you of something. That vow we took said till death do us part, so don’t think you have to hang around me anymore. If you have better prospects, well, go for it. I am headed down there.”
“No, Alan, no, wait, wait, no don’t go without me. Just give me a minute. Why do you always have to act like this? Please, honey, just a minute.”
“Sure. Why not? I don’t think time is really too important anymore. Look, I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me sometimes. Okay, a lot of the time. All right, tell you what: let’s sit over there on that rock and sort things out. Come on, you know I don’t mean half of what I say.”
“That’s the closest I’ve ever heard you come to a sincere apology. Are you really sure we’re dead? I mean, I still see things. I am aware. Damn, I thought dead just meant the end. How did we end up this way? What happened? I don’t remember.”
“Hmm. Not surprising, you were knocked cold right away. Blessing, really. You didn’t suffer. Me? I was awake through it all. You didn’t miss much, a bit of pain, some confusion, then, Poof. Everything went black, no thought, no nothing. Dead. Then a second poof, and here we are, wherever or whatever ‘here’ is.”
“That’s what I want to know. Where are we? It kind of looks familiar, but not quite. Maybe we passed through here once before on our way home. Oh, I know. It looks like that shortcut we took on the way back from Karen’s birthday party. That’s it, but what is that mess over there?”
“What’s left of our car. You’re right. This, or that, is that shortcut. Uh, those kind of blurry spots used to be us. Don’t look, Helen. No point. We’re not there any more. Not really.”
“I feel stuck between worlds. The world we were in looks so blurry. I can tell what’s around: trees, rocks, stuff like that, but nothing is clear. It’s like I’m seeing everything through some sort of thin screen. That orchard looks real, and that city definitely looks real. Right here, it’s some of both.
“I don’t want to stay around here anymore. Something’s wrong. Or maybe things are just not quite right. I don’t know. Where are we going?”
Down below the tower was belching a horrible, black smoke that smelled of graves and slaughterhouses, of sewers and cremation, and the breath of carrion eaters and fetid swamp water. Underneath the smoke there did lay a city, of sorts, a vast city, an endless city of toil and despair, run by pitiless figures who demanded work and pain and offered no respite.
“Alan, is that what I think it is?”
“Hell? Oh, yeah. I believe Milton called that little town Pandemodium. Maybe I was a bit hasty before. Let’s not go there.”
“Then where? The road seems to lead to that pretty little stand of woods up there.”
“Look how high it is. I can’t climb like that, I feel so heavy. I don’t know what to do, Helen. Neither one of us thought we would be anywhere after we, uh, died. Listen, I’m sorry I was so snappy with you before. It’s just that I don’t know what to do.
“Oh God, it’s my fault. I remember drinking and arguing, but then, just driving. Until we crashed.” He chuckled bitterly and then buried his face in his hands. “Oh hell, everything is my fault. I am a complete ass sometimes. Or I was, God, I don’t even know how to talk about this. I’m still somewhere, I am still somehow looking at the world, but, I’m not quite there. “
Helen finally snapped and began screaming at him. Never in their years of marriage had she dared to yell at him, to challenge him, to tell him that yes, indeed, he could be a total jerk and that the only reason she stayed with him was the fat paycheck he brought home each week.
“Drunk! So that’s what happened. Damn you, Alan, damn you.”
“Don’t put all of this on me. I probably wouldn’t have gotten so drunk if you hadn’t been flirting with Gerald. Don’t deny it, I saw you two. Figures, you’d set your eye on my boss. What’s the matter, Helen? I didn’t make enough money for you?”
They glared at each other for what seemed like an eternity, then they both broke out laughing. Barely able to control her laughter and tears, Helen said, “What a fine pair we are. Or were. What are we, Alan? What are we supposed to do?”
“Maybe,” said Alan, “if we get out of here, we’ll find something.”
They began walking, down toward the highway. Before they had gone ten yards, the surrounding woods and highway faded from sight. All that remained was the terrible city, the lovely orchard with the torturous path leading to it, and their little clearing.
Helen stopped abruptly and broke into a wide grin. “I know where we are. One of my friends when I was a little girl was Catholic. I believe this is what she called Purgatory.”
“All right, makes sense, but what are we supposed to do, just sit here? Shouldn’t there be angels to help us or devils to prod us or something?”
“Beats me. Cheer up, Alan. We don’t have a lot of say in this, you know. It’s not too bad here. A little warm, maybe, but things could be worse.”
Copyright © 2015 by John Wright