March 14, 2012 by The Citron Review
by Libby Cudmore
Walt is convinced that he’s in a coma. “This is all just a dream,” he keeps telling us in his soft southern accent. “It’ll be just like The Wizard of Oz, one day I’ll wake up and my wife and my kids will be standing over my bedside.” He pauses. “It’s almost too bad,” he says. “I like you two a lot.”
Jay isn’t sure how he wound up here, like a prisoner who couldn’t make bail and has to wait out his trial in the county jail. He tells me that I look a lot like the wife who shot him, only prettier and not a screaming bitch. “It’s not fair,” he’s only recently stopped saying. “You’d think a homicide would be an instant slate-cleaner.” Then again, he used to add after a few moments thought, lust was a sin, and his wife had caught him in bed with one of his paralegals. “Maybe they cancelled each other out,” he’d say. “And I’m just stuck here forever.”
Each night I dream of my death a little differently. Sometimes the cop’s bullet bounces off the gunman’s chest like a superball and skitters into the crowd to strike me. Sometimes I take the cop’s stray round, other times the gunman shoots directly at me. Sometimes I’m right there, other times I’m on the edge of the crowd, watching in slow motion. But every time I wake up, I’m still dead.
Purgatory’s running out of room. Before I showed up, it was just Walt and Jay in the barely-furnished beige and pine suites to which they’d been assigned as roommates when they’d arrived. I’d like to think they were happy to have a girl move in with them, even if Jay did lose the coin toss and moved out onto the couch. There’s a kitchen, but nothing to cook. “In Heaven, you never go hungry,” Walt says in a voice like a preacher. “And in Hell, you’re always starving. Here, you don’t feel anything-no hunger, no thirst, but no satisfaction either.” Jay’s been here so long he’s forgotten what food tastes like. Walt just barely remembers strawberry pie and char-grilled cheeseburgers. I still constantly crave everything I can imagine-Ranch Doritos. Peaches. Beef stew and buttered rolls, I can taste it all on the back of my tongue. Dreams and tastes are all I can remember from my life on Earth.
Everyone has work to do in Purgatory. Walt works with the construction crews building more apartments, but they’re getting closer and closer to the sulfur mines. He comes in with tired muscles and I rub his shoulders. He’s forgotten what a massage feels like.
Jay has an office in the headquarters and gets me a filing job downstairs. He tells me to work well and lay low; those who don’t end up being assigned to hard labor on the boarder of Hell. Walt says it’s sulfur and brimstone mining. Jay heard that it’s ferrying the damned across the lake of fire. No one knows for sure, but they know that it’s the last stop before Hell in all senses of the word.
I work with Jane, a temp sent over from the Hell branch. She wears a nametag with a blue stamp. “Brain dead,” she explains. “The stamp lets my employers know I could clock out at any minute.” I ask how long she’s been there and she tells me thirteen years. Her family won’t take her off life support. “They always were a bunch of selfish twats,” she says. “Their money can buy a lot of things, but it can’t buy my life back. It’s the illusion of love, just like I’m the illusion of life.”
I ask her about Walt. She shakes her head. “Dead and buried,” she says. “Three years.” That night when I’m rubbing his shoulders over the wooden edge of the couch, I don’t have the heart to tell him.
Jay’s file comes across my desk in a pile and I can’t help but peek inside. He’s got the same blue stamp in the corner that Jane had on her nametag. I scan further down for more information. Coma. I flip a few more pages and find a post-it note. Reassigned: Brimstone Mines. The jury had come back with the verdict-guilty. All that’s left now is the official sentence.
I tear up the post-it note. I cram the pieces in my mouth and taste ink and ash, sawdust and paint, sweat and fingerprints. I choke them down without water. I lick the blue smears off my teeth and tear off a new post-it. Wake Up. I write. Effective Immediately. Maybe it’s my own ticket to the sulfur mines. Maybe Walt is already gone. But Jay I could save. Jay didn’t have to die like this.
Jay is gone when I get back. Walt is waiting alone on the couch, staring at the blank wall. “He just vanished,” he says, leaving his mouth open. “Do you think he’s in-”
“Nah,” I say, sitting on the edge of the couch closest to him. “I think he just woke up.” I wonder if he will remember us as a fond dream or a nightmare, if it will be like The Wizard of Oz or if he’ll forget it completely.
“Maybe I’ll wake up soon too,” he says, his brown eyes wide and beautiful.
“Yeah.” I squeeze his hand. “There’s always hope.”
Libby Cudmore’s work has appeared in recent issues of Pank, The Postcard Press, Independent Ink, The MacGuffin, The Yalobusha Review, Kneejerk, Umbrella Factory and Connotation Press. Her work is forthcoming from Big Pulp, Criminal Class Press, Emprise Review and The Writer (both with Matthew Quinn Martin).