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Escaping Ever After

  • Berwyn Powell
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I have always dreaded my quarterly reviews. It is no easy thing to go willingly to your judgement when your heart hangs heavy around your neck, the weight of all your sins dragging it down. To walk that long corridor, as its sentries follow your every move, seems worse than the most inventive tortures of the medieval mind. But I was raised in the affluent west, and whatever confused images my sceptic's mind conjured of the afterlife could never have prepared me for this.

Now I stand upon the threshold once more, the gates of Maat towering above me, and I dare not turn back; for no matter how bad it gets, to miss this appointment would only make things far worse.

So I take a moment to breathe, to try and straighten up against the weight of the locket. Then I push the doors and they swing wide open on silent hinges. Inside the scribe is waiting for me, his quill scratching across parchment as he writes words hidden from my sight. He does not look up, but motions for me to take a seat across from him and I meekly obey.

"Ah, Mr Smith. Be a good fellow and put your heart on the scales."

My hands are slick with sweat as I pull the chain from my neck, and it almost slips from my fingers as the heart's pulse increases. Tentatively, I reach out and place it on the pan, the relief of its weight lifting from my shoulders almost forgotten as I notice the size of the feather it must be weighed against.

The scribe finally looks up and frowns as he sees the fulcrum dip. Reaching into a box beside him he starts to pull out feathers, stacking them one atop another until the balance is restored to equilibrium. Out comes the quill again and he scrawls another note before looking me in the eye.

"My my, you have slipped, haven't you?"

"This must be some kind of mistake" even as the words spill out I realise I should have kept my lips sealed, for the sound of my voice betrays me. But I am committed now, and to leave the protest unaired would be a greater embarrassment than to continue. "My record is spotless. Last week alone I catalogued the names of over five hundred fallen angels for the judiciary."

He shakes his head, disappointed in my questioning. "Your heart is as heavy as it is. As to why it has grown in weight? That is not for me to say, but remember that actions alone will not redemption earn if the motive behind them is not pure."

At that he stands and pulls a cord. Behind him the door opens and he gestures for me to leave.

"You have been assigned an additional twelve months labour. Unless you would rather the alternative?"

I quickly grab my locket from the scales and shuffle out, careful not to look in the corner as I do. Of course I will accept the additional work, for anything is preferable to the thing that lurks there in the shadows.

Styx central station is little less imposing than the halls of judgement; a crumbling, gothic edifice hunched over the dry bed of the river from which it takes its name. Long gone are the fields of asphodels and I climbed my way up to the station's doors through a choking smog; a journey interrupted at regular intervals by checkpoints where my papers were read and heart examined.

The hour was late, my review taking longer than I had anticipated, and the platform was almost deserted when I entered. The only other travellers a pair of suited Valkyries, who somehow seemed unaffected by the death-smelling wind that howled out of the subway tunnel.

As I walked down the platform my eyes followed the journey of the souls painted on the crumbling frieze opposite. From their admittance into purgatory, through the toil of their contracts I walked with them, until I gazed up as St Peter ushered them through the golden gates and into the spires of Elysium. Once inspiring, the journey today left me feeling hollow; for the gulf between us had never felt greater. The bench at the end of the platform was hard and worn, but a welcome relief to legs which could no longer hold me.

I must have fallen asleep, for when I again became aware of my surroundings the Valkyries had gone.

I glanced at my watch and saw that I had missed my train. There was not another for over an hour, and by the time I reached my apartment it would be long past curfew. There was no other option than to wait, but an hour can seem like an eternity when you dread its conclusion, and I set to pacing to keep my mind from darker thoughts.

The far side of the platform was lit only by a faulty light strip stuttering overhead, and I had to keep my eyes on the floor to avoid tripping on the broken slabs. Head down, I was almost passed the executive lounge when I saw the slimmest beam of light escaping from the gap between door and frame. Turning, I saw that the key had been turned in the lock, but the door not properly closed and it now stood slightly ajar.

For a moment I hesitated, unsure whether I should report it or just move on and pretend I had seen nothing, but the longer I stood there thinking, the greater my curiosity grew to see what might lie within. A voice in my head seemed to whisper that, whatever happened this night, I had already added months to my contract and awaiting my train in comfort would be only a minor infraction in comparison to being caught out after curfew. There seemed not another soul around and, if I came back out as I heard my next train approaching, no one need be any the wiser.

My decision was made. I stepped closer and, hearing no noises from within, headed inside.

I had expected rows of plush leather chairs, but instead found myself standing in the entrance to another platform; just one devoid of the graffiti and rubbish that collected where I normally waited. The entire place felt sterile, the only sign of use an engine and two cars at the far end of the rails. No lights were on in the train, and it looked like it was parked up for the night.

As I closed the door behind me a thought popped unbidden into my mind, but one which offered a faint glimmer of hope after this long day of disappointments. I could only be penalised for avoiding the curfew if I was found on the streets after dark. Instead, were I to spend the night in the station and slip out in the first light of dawn, I might avoid adding time to my contract.

Careful to make as little noise as possible, I dashed over to the train, finalising my plan as I did so. I could not sleep on the platform as the cleaners would see me when they came to unlock in the morning, but inside a carriage I might stay hidden for long enough to sneak out unobserved.

I tried the closest handle to find it locked. Cursing, I quickly moved round the others with the same result. The windows were likewise closed, and triumph was quickly replaced by panic that someone might have heard my attempts.

I cast about to try and find some other hiding place, then realised that they might not bother locking the doors that opened onto the line. Gingerly I dropped down onto the tracks, then had to stifle a woop of excitement as the driver's door opened beneath my hand. Inside I moved down the corridors in wonder, mouth agape at this parallel world of luxury that existed adjacent to my own.

As I was crossing into the final carriage I heard the voices. Instinctively I ducked down and crawled across to the window. Peeping above the rim I saw the two Valkyries leading a party of businessmen towards the train. My shelter for the night was clearly not as secure as I had hoped, and in a panic I fled into one of the toilets and closed the door behind me.

Within moments I heard the doors being opened and laughing voices climbing onto the train.

"... make yourselves comfortable. Drinks are ..." "... an actual train? I wouldn't miss this for ..." "... and she said, 'How much whisky?' ..." "... don't risk it. I'd sell just as soon as ..." "... understood. We're just leaving now."

This last voice was that of the final Valkyrie, but unlike the others she did not pass by my hiding place. Instead pausing right outside the door. The sound of my heart rattling on its chain became suddenly deafening in the silence and it seemed impossible that she would not hear it.

For several long seconds she paused there... motionless, as if in thought, while my skin crawled and breathe caught in my throat. Then she turned towards me, and reached her hand out towards the door.

I bit down on my tongue and screwed my eyes tight closed; knowing that it was too late, but still not wanting the scream that threatened to burst out to betray me. The sound of my heartbeat now seemed to rattle the walls around me, the death knell of some great beast of the deep ocean. I could not breathe. I could not think. And the blood flowing through my head felt like the torrent released from a bursting dam. All I found strength to do was curl up tighter into the corner, afraid, and expecting each moment to feel the touch of a cold hand upon my shoulders.

But the touch never came and, after an eternity huddling there in the dark, my panicked breaths were suddenly drowned out by the sound of the engine starting. I opened my eyes, and all around me was still the comforting dark; only the light spilling through the crack in the door was now the green of emergency exit signs.

We did not remain under the ground for long. Soon after leaving we emerged back out onto the surface. Above us the lights of Elysium shined bright in the darkness, while below my own suburb of purgatory sprawled like a cancerous growth on the dead landscape. Past it snaked the great river Styx and, for a moment, light reflecting from the smog pooling in its dried bed made it look like black water once more flowed through it.

The train seemed to quicken, the tracks rising up to take us away from the hell-scape of the land towards the gleaming spires. A great gateway opened in the nearest tower and we raced towards it to be swallowed up.

I heard the doors open and the footsteps file out. For a long time afterwards I still did not dare to leave the safety of my hiding place, but when it seemed clear that the train would be staying here for the night I got up and followed them.

The station I emerged into had but a single exit leading upwards. It soon gave way to the cool of an air-conditioned corridor and I had to duck as I passed each windowed door to avoid being seen. Most of the rooms seemed dark and empty, but I eventually came to one from which I heard the familiar sound of laughter.

Peering in, I saw the same party of businessmen drinking at a mahogany panelled bar. The Valkyries were gone, but a new man was present; one painfully tall, with a long goatee and skin pale like the ice beneath the winter snow. For a moment, as his head turned, I caught sight of eyes black as coals which set my skin to crawling. The whole group seemed to be laughing about something, but I had to place my ear almost to the keyhole to be able to make out the words.

"But this is just an appetiser, gentlemen. The average soul has to work for their place, but as you paid your fares in advance, you get to experience the very best that the afterlife has to offer."

"And the previous management have raised no objections?"

"Of a sort. They did like to do things a little differently, it is true, but I think you'll all agree the new system is far more agreeable."

At this they all burst once more into laughter and I had to pull my ear from the door to avoid being deafened. I sat there slumped on the floor, wondering what I was missing. The whole discussion about tickets and management did not sound like any afterlife I had heard about, but my knowledge did not feel deep enough to find any clues as to what had gone wrong.

Lost in thought as I was, I did not hear the footsteps approaching until they were almost at the top of the stairs. Scrambling to my feet I dashed away, but the corridor ended without a way of turning out of their line of sight. In desperation I entered a room at random and closed the door softly behind me. The footsteps continued for a while, then were replaced by the sound of a door opening and voices bursting out to be quickly cut-off.

The immediate panic over, I cast an eye across my surroundings, and immediately regretted it. The room was like no other that I had seen before. Candles flickered from scones in the walls, and what could only be symbols of witchcraft were inscribed all over the floor. In front of the circles stood a lectern, on it rested a sheef of pages that seemed heart-wrenchingly familiar. Shaking, I walked over and picked the sheets up. As I had dreaded, the names listed in a spider's script were well known to me: Abdiel, Amaymon, Balaam; for I had been compiling them ever since I had arrived.

Suddenly everything clicked into place. I was being used, and no matter how hard I worked, my contract would never come to an end. I thought of running, but the heart around my neck bound me to this place better than any chains.

So I made my decision. Walking over to the door I locked it, then began methodically searching the shelves; for if there was one thing my work in the afterlife had taught me, it was that if you can summon a demon into heaven, you can always send him back to hell again.