When I was killed back in 1973, my first thought was Aw, shit. I’m going straight to hell.
I was right. I tumbled into darkness and fell for what seemed like forever. The landing wasn’t much fun, either. I slammed into a squishy mess that was littered with old bones and stunk to high heaven.
Heaven … yeah. I was pretty sure I’d hit the complete opposite. All around me were miserable, shuffling people in tattered clothes. They were squelching across the filthy landscape with no intent in their eyes, just a cold numbness that told me everything I needed to know—I couldn’t stay here. I’d always been independent, a free spirit and a maverick. That was probably why I’d landed myself in so much trouble over the years. Every cop knew my name and they always found a reason to haul me to the station, even if they had nothing current to book me for.
My ‘illicit’ activities with guys, both younger and older was still classed as illegal in those dark days, giving me extra cause to be careful. Whenever cops caught two guys together, and there was proof they were anything other than buddies, a serious beating, followed by a long stretch in the slammer was guaranteed.
I’d been beaten many times, simply because cops suspected I might be a homo—as we were called back then. But I’d learned to present a tough masculine face to the world, and with the care I took, they couldn’t pin anything on me.
But my thieving and violent robberies were a different matter. I did time for those misdemeanors—and I deserved every second.
I was a badass.
No surprise, then, that I’d landed in Hell. I turned a full three-sixty, looking for some way out of this apocalyptic nightmare, but there were no buildings, no caves that might have housed offices or even anyone who looked official. Even a guy in chains and leather who cracked a whip might have been a place to start, but there was nothing, only a sea of miserable, forlorn faces on an endless amble to Nowhere, Arizona. In frustration, I threw out my arms and yelled at the coal-black sky.
“How the hell do I get out of here?” My words bounced around for a while as if they were trying to find a way out. Only when they’d completely faded away did anything happen.
And it happened suddenly.
Something grabbed my collar and yanked me upward. The sea of senseless souls dwindled to invisibility as I hurtled up towards, but never any closer to the blackness that covered this place.
“Enough showing off!” I yelled. “So this place is big—who cares?”
Instantly I was slammed into a seat—a cheap plywood and metal affair that had been polished by a thousand sitters. A wooden table, a complete contrast to the chair, sat before me. Inlaid with different colors of wood, the surface was littered with intricate patterns that never seemed to repeat. I glanced left to see the table had no end. It stretched to the horizon—which was still inside the austere room. Impossible, I thought. I glanced right to see exactly the same thing. The table seemed infinitely long, as did the room.
A clever trick, I guessed. Obviously, the room was mirrored at both ends, creating the illusion. I stood, expecting to see my own reflection, but I was completely alone. Confused, I turned to my left and walked away from the chair, heading along the table. I peered ahead, expecting the room to end in reflective glass, but no wall appeared. My fingers trailed along its surface as I walked, giving me a reassuring sense of movement. The pattern on the surface changed with every step, but aside from that, I seemed to be going exactly nowhere. The room seemed endless. I began to count my steps, just to give me something to think about. When I reached two hundred, something appeared in the distance. I squinted, but it was too far away to see. I continued to walk and the object drew reassuringly closer. At four hundred steps, I thought I could make it out. It looked like a chair.
It took me exactly five hundred steps to reach it. The chair was identical to the one I’d left behind me. I turned to look back along the table, but any detail was lost in the faint haze that obscured the far end. Okay, I thought, let’s see what’s ahead.
I walked another five hundred steps and stared down at the cheap chair in dismay. Was this just another identical chair, or was I walking in circles? But … the table was straight as far as the eye could see. How could I be circling? To be sure, I flipped the chair upside down and set off once again.
Five hundred steps later, I frowned at the upright chair. Okay, how long was this damn table? How long was the room?? Growling under my breath, I inverted the chair again and rubbed my thumbnail across the plywood until I made a faint impression. I added another line to complete a thumb-sized ‘X.’ Satisfied I’d personalized it adequately, I set off once again.
The next chair—or was it the same one—was upright, like all the others. I flipped it over and peered at the underside. Sure enough, a faint cross was visible on the surface of the wood. I threw the chair down and yelled to no-one in particular.
“Very funny! Can we quit the fucking around and just get on with it?” I stared around me, but no-one appeared. “Please?” I added.
I blinked. A man was standing opposite me, on the other side of the infinite table. As far as I could tell, he was my age, but wearing a three-piece suit. The guy looked like a butler—right down to the impassive face.
“Can I help you, sir?” he asked me in a clipped, English accent.
“Can you get me the hell out of this place?” I snapped.
“If sir would care to take a seat, I will ascertain whether or not the availability for an appointment might be imminent.”
I stared at him. He stared back, but with a bored expression. After a long moment, I decided he wasn’t simply fucking around with me and bent to retrieve the wooden chair. But it was already upright, ready for me to use. I released a long, steady breath past my lips, then sat down to wait. I’d intended to throw the butler-esque guy a sarcastic ‘satisfied?’ expression, but he’d vanished. I didn’t bother to glance along the never-ending—or was it circular?—table. Too many freaky things were happening here and I settled down to wait for the next one.