THE LAST TRAIN OUT
By Julie Carpenter
The train station was on the very outskirts of Hell. There was only one train coming in, Old Number 13, always coming in, never leaving. It was pulled by an ancient steam engine, and it was no match for most of the Hellscape, so it heaved and dragged itself to the outer edges of Hell and belched out its payload of souls onto the dilapidated platform. The train tracks ran into Hell Station through two steep, red, rocky banks, bubbling with blood red lava that seemed to come from nowhere and go nowhere, upon which small swarms of crimson demons clambered and scurried, switching their forked tails and brandishing pitchforks. They spat out small clouds of green poison, though it was mostly for show. It was their razor sharp teeth that kept the hillsides littered with bones. Their job was to keep the tracks clear to make sure the train could bring its payload of souls in from the Upper World and to make sure that no soul ever escaped back through the banks and tunnels that led back. None ever did.
The train station was located in Metaphorical Hell, Expected Hell, the one marketed in the Upper World. True Hell, the Indescribable Hell, was further in and deeper down. True Hell is hard to describe because, in the end, there’s not much to it.
If you looked at all of Hell from the top, the very center was a sink hole, a huge black cavity with diameter enough for millions and millions of souls to fling themselves from the edges at once. Eventually, so we were told, the huge hole became smaller and smaller like a funnel. It was supposed that if you could make it to the very, very bottom you would find…nothing. Perhaps become nothing.
A soul standing on the edge would see rocks shaped like teeth and sharp edges and carved out pools of sliding acid that eventually caved in and rushed to the bottom. From one side a gushing crimson Lava Fall from the Lake of Fire tumbled down into the gaping hole until it could no longer be seen and on the other side the invisible, chill waters of the River Nepenthe rushed to their doom. As a soul traveled to the bottom it was chewed up and burned and then doused with the waters of forgetfulness. Even the nastiest of the demons avoided True Hell. No one knew what, if anything, was left of a soul after it had made it to the bottom or if that was even possible. Perversely, trying to reach the bottom of Hell was an act of Faith. Sometimes at the edge of this gaping hole, soul fragments drifted past, moaning and carrying on. These were the remains of souls that had been torn apart on their way down and spit back out by the whirlwinds that emanated from the center. These fragments of souls managed to convey only gibberish.
There were a few souls whose goal had always been the annihilation of True Hell. Their need to become nothing was pressing. They got off the train, felt the magnetic pull of the center and flung themselves off the cliff edge with no hesitation. Most of the newcomers didn’t get very far from the train station at first. When they eventually did move on, it was to some form of torture they found attractive. People wanted something familiar, even in Hell (or maybe especially in Hell). Those who were loners in the Upper World found themselves in the Craggy Mountains of the west battling for food and territory with only demonic rams for company and the great birds of prey that picked over the limbs and bones of lost souls. The type of people who always got into fights in bars or the kind of people who always demanded to see a manager jumped into the Lake of Fire and were tormented by great red demons who constantly pushed their heads under the flaming waves. Those who were cynical and hopeless in the Upper World ended up in the Pits of Despair, fighting for eternity to avoid being sucked down into the tar or giving up and being sucked down only to bubble back to the top of the pits to start the process again.
Close to the station, the least onerous part of Hell to my way of thinking, were a few dank, ragged trees and aging and dilapidated apartment buildings, sulfurous, smoky, and unpleasantly appointed. (The apartment I ended up in had a hideous green couch covered with large orange flowers and it was inhabited by a small cat-like demon that barfed everywhere constantly. The cat demon, named Dennis, came with the place. I assume it was part of the punishment. Most apartments were inhabited by small animal demons of some sort.) The gray buildings were sooty and edged in black because smoke storms rolled in from the Lake of Fire quite frequently. Tattered, smoke-ruined curtains fluttered like bats from the windows.
Hell was managed by a guy named Brian, who always wore a cardigan with patches on the elbows and a matching bow tie. One of his jobs was to supervise the influx of souls. He occasionally walked around the station, introducing himself and greeting the newcomers, making sure they understood the nature of True Hell, giving directions to those who preferred annihilation, and explaining the dangers to those of us who were uncertain. (There were demons that ordinarily did this job, but, of course, being demons they required extraordinary amounts of supervision. Brian liked to show up at the station for surprise inspections.)
I have to say, for the record, that I never understood exactly how I ended up in Hell in the first place. According to Brian, you have to buy a ticket to get on the train and everyone who goes there goes because they want to. He says you’d be surprised, but most people prefer Hell to Heaven because of how familiar it seems. Not all that the soul does is conscious, even down to buying the ticket for that final destination. I guess I’m not the first person to think it was a screw up though. The biggest group in the complaint lines was religious people who just knew it had been a mistake. (There was even a small group of them living in the garbage dump behind the city who insisted that this was Heaven and we were all mistaken.) But Brian could always pull up the paperwork and it was always there in black and white.
“No mistakes in Hell, that’s our goal,” he always said. Then he always laughed his dry sad little laugh and added, “Only satisfied customers. The best service.”
When I first got there, I was pretty confused, like I said. Everybody’s getting off the train. No one knows what to do, there’s really no one there to tell you anything. The demons that are supposed to be doing this job are usually busy harassing people and stealing luggage when Brian isn’t looking. You have luggage, of course. Everybody brings loads of crap to Hell. The joke is there’s no use for it and no place for it. But everybody’s there on the first day, lugging things off the train, howling because someone stole their useless crap or because they don’t think they belong there in the first place. Fights break out on the platform. It’s just insane. As luck would have it, my stuff was stolen immediately, but I could see that there was no use trying to get it back. A large poisonous looking blue demon and a guy in a suit (who looked like a banker to me) were fighting over it when I turned around, and it had already been pulled open. A pair of my underpants was fluttering down the track and the demon had one of my shoes in its mouth. The banker seemed to be fighting him for a floral skirt and a Michael Kors evening bag.
Fortunately, I happened to arrive while Brian was there on a surprise inspection. He was standing on the platform, shaking hands with the newcomers, assuring people that there was nothing wrong with just hanging out close to the station until they’d decided on their ultimate destination. Plenty of misery right here, he assured everyone. He also told us to pay attention to the entrance questionnaires the ghoul conductors had given us on the train.
In a friendly and efficient tone Brian reminded everyone that, “These forms have to be turned in today or,” here he cleared his throat and pushed up his tortoiseshell glasses, “a demon will be by to…errrr….help you out. True Hell will seem like nothing compared to these blue guys here.”
He pointed at the demon who’d been fighting with the banker over my suitcase. The demon, now with a suited arm hanging from his teeth, took a moment to give a little nod of acknowledgement and a small wave. The banker was loudly wailing that he could no longer hold the clipboard and the pen to fill out his form because his arm was missing. Brian sighed and shook his head.
I followed him along the platform holding the form, since he seemed to be the only person who knew what we were supposed to do. I’ve always been a rules follower and even Hell wasn’t going to change that.
“Uh, please, sir?” I said, “Could you help me? Do we have to declare anything that’s already been eaten by a demon?”
Brian waved me along behind him. “Follow me,” he said. “I have to get back to the office. I’ll explain when I get there. Try and keep up. There are very few signs. The demons who are supposed to be responsible for making them tend to burn them or eat them in the process.” He sighed. “It’s so hard to get good help in this place.”
I trailed along behind him. It was hard to keep up. Throngs of incoming souls pushed against variously colored demons, fallen angels, small dragons and creatures I only later identified as incubi and succubae. I narrowly escaped a demon bite by darting behind an overflowing garbage can filled with human bones and several dead bats and a steaming acidic liquid (demon vomit, I later discovered, they tended to spend the Hellish nights partying) that was burning a hole through the thick, black metal. By the time I reached the office, I’d been spit on by three ghouls, had a burn hole in my skirt and I was missing a shoe. A tiny monkey with a skull head had darted out from under a dilapidated bench and snatched it just as we reached the huge concrete box of a building with the words Administrative Offices, Main Division, Hell in black block letters on the top. But I kept sight of Brian’s gray sweater with the navy elbow patches and somehow managed to stay in the high speed revolving doors for some time until they spit me out in the reception area, all my limbs miraculously (if one can use that word in relation to Hell) intact.
I was so intent on following Brian that I didn’t really notice that I was bypassing the long lines of souls waiting to make complaints. Ignoring the catcalls and globs of spit as something to be expected in Hell, I somehow managed to follow him straight into his gray cube-like office past the window.
“Oh dear!” he said. “There’s a line.” He gave me a nervous smile. He raised a dirty and broken plastic shade and flipped over an OPEN sign.
There, next to the door I had followed him through, was the office window. As far back as the eye could see there were souls. There were souls with missing limbs. One man had his ears and eyes in the wrong spots. There was a woman from whom a fine green smoke was rising. She was weeping. Further from the office there were couples fighting. There was a man in the back swinging an ax in an attempt to move up in line. It stretched back through the huge lobby and out into the street.
“Oh Brian,” I said, for one instant more full of pity for him than myself. I looked around and saw that no one else seemed to be manning the window. “Do you handle this line by yourself? Can’t they get you any help?”
He turned and looked at me, mouth opened in surprise. “I…well…no one’s ever asked me that before.” He looked stunned.
The man in front of the line was holding his head in his hands and his empty neck was spewing blood toward the ceiling. His head now realized that he was being delayed.
“Throw her out here!” his head hissed. Blood leaked from the corners of its lips. “She’s cut line! I’ve been here for three years!”
The sentiment spread quickly throughout the line. There was a shriek and souls pushed against the glass. Howls of despair and anger reached me. Brian and I looked at each other. I had realized what a grave mistake I had made. I would have to return to the back of the line with my paperwork and I would surely be torn into bits before I could make it back to the front to ask questions.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. I moved back towards the door. This day was not improving. But before I could get out of the door, Brian grabbed my arm.
“How would you like a job?” he whispered. He turned to look at the souls pressed against the window. “I have to make all the decisions concerning the complaints, but you could help I think by just making sure the forms are filled out properly in the first place. Most of them haven’t got a clue how to fill out the form and goodness do they get angry when they have to go back to the end of the line. Just make sure that all the sections are filled out in ink. Make sure they check here, here and here, and initial here. Stand here.” He pushed me to one side of the window.
“She’s here to help,” he said to the angry decapitated man in his friendly and efficient tone. “And you’re in no shape to fill out that form yourself sir. Unless you would like to risk putting your head down. The last gentleman who tried that found his head quite famously used as the flaming ball in the Demon’s Cup Fire Ball Tournament. And you will go to the back of the line, I can assure you.”
The man saw the sense in this. “Whatever,” his head said, frowning. His hand tossed the form onto the counter and then wiped blood from the head’s chin. I handed him a Kleenex from the box beside the window and took his form.
Brian turned to me. “There’s a stack of forms on the top of the file cabinet. Most of them will need a new one; they’ve already screwed up the old ones beyond repair.”
And that’s how I managed to get a job at the complaint window in Hell.
It was…Hell really. But at least I knew it was Hell and from the moment I stepped off the train, I’d found that it was best to keep expectations low. So I dealt with it. To be honest, it wasn’t quite as far removed from my former life as I would have thought Hell would be. Perhaps I’d found the punishment that I felt comfortable with.
All day long Brian and I lugged boxes of files and forms around. I filled out form after form, I was cursed and spit on and otherwise abused. There were never enough of the cheap ball point pens. They were stolen, broken, and even eaten. Every two weeks there was a new database to be learned, each worse than the last. Hell’s corporate system was designed more for affliction than efficiency. Even though Brian had been promoted to manager because he was Satan’s cousin, he wasn’t immune from the labyrinthine and torturous corporate rules.
“It’s just the way he works,” he told me. “He sort of can’t help making things worse all the time. We just have to work with what we have.”
Of course, that didn’t keep us from trying to make things more efficient. Brian once attempted to requisition some iPads so that the information the souls were required to provide would be automatically entered into the system. But, of course, the request was denied. Reasonably so, really. The demons would have made short work of them and the souls couldn’t be depended on to be responsible for their own limbs, much less something as fragile as a tablet. Still, Brian was depressed.
At the end of every day, he would glance back at the mountainous stacks of paperwork and say, “Well, it’s a good thing we have eternity to process that stuff.” Then he would wipe his glasses and sigh.
I always patted him on the shoulder. “You’re right Brian. We have eternity. And it will all still be here tomorrow.”
I continually tried to convince him to lock up and come have a cup of cold, lousy coffee at the coffee shop by the station with me before I went home, but I always left him hunched over the keyboard entering data. And I always ended up just going home to feed Dennis, the demon cat, and then clean up after he barfed. And I always drank a warm, lousy beer and then tried to sleep with Dennis curled up on my head and slapping my nose at random times or suddenly running to the end of the bed and biting my feet.
Every morning, if you could call it that, I rose to the howls of Dennis fifteen minutes before I’d set the alarm (no matter what time I had set it.)
“Feed me, oh feed me, oh I am hungry, woe is me! I’m dying! Help me!” he shrieked and howled. This was accompanied by slaps to my head and face. And normally after his meal, he made every effort to barf on my shoe before I headed back to the office in the gloomy morning.
The scarlet darkness of Hell’s night simply morphed into a dense gray day that was almost worse than the nightmare that preceded it. The lurking horrors that hid in the darkness simply became visible, banal and commonplace in the flabby daylight of Hell. The night brought on a primal fear that resulted in a feeling of terrified existential awareness; the morning revelation simply bred a suffocating repulsion. More souls flung themselves into the center pit of Hell in this dreary morning unveiling than at any other time.
Of course, there was a certain dull rhythm to the whole thing. I got up every day with the weight of eternal misery hanging over me, fed the demon cat and trudged down the stairs (the elevator was always broken). I trudged into work, avoiding the vampire bats, the holes full of bubbling mud that had opened up on the streets at night, and the demons sleeping off last night’s revelry in the alleys and on the sidewalks. After a while, it started to feel familiar. The stress of never being able to finish, the constantly angry “customers” at the desk, the perpetually unhappy (though mostly not with me) boss. Sometimes I thought about the pit in the center of Hell, but there was something about the soul that demanded to be kept intact. Sure the job chipped at it around the edges and maybe after an eternity I would slowly become nothing. But in spite of the heavy weight of carrying my soul through this eternity, I could never consider the pit seriously, even though the thought of dissolution sometimes presented itself unbidden in the dull gray morning walk through Hell.
When I got to work, Brian was always there sitting at his desk, efficient and friendly, sorting papers, supervising the demons to the best of his ability and somehow coaxing the nasty tempered database to tell us what we needed to know. I could always predict when he was going to push up his glasses and ruffle his hair because a soul was being particularly unreasonable and I became used to the sighs of despair whenever he was working with new software. His anxiety became mine and I stressed with him over the eternal mountain of work, often staying late and coming in early.
One day, when I came into work, it could have been 10 years or 100 since I’d arrived in Hell, it was hard to tell, Brian was sitting on the old orange vinyl couch in the corner of the office, arms folded across his chest, staring into space. He was holding an envelope in one hand. The linen of the envelope was a beautiful ivory color and it had a broken red seal on it. The lettering on the envelope was in gold. The thing actually smelled like lilies. I could smell it before I even reached him. It looked completely out of place in the drab, musty office.
“Brian?” I asked. “Are you okay? What’s that?”
Brian pointed at the complaint window which had not been opened yet. A woman was standing outside of it, frantically banging a hand against it, a very large hand with a man’s watch. The arm was covered in hair. It was not hers.
“Want me to open up?” I asked.
“Guess you’d better,” he said. “Can we talk about this at lunch?”
“Sure,” I said. “I brought us some sandwiches.”
“We’ll go to the café by the station,” he said. “I guess I can close up for a few.”
I was completely stunned now and curious. “Okay.”
He said nothing else. He carefully checked the envelope to make sure the contents were inside and folded down the seal again and placed it in the office safe. For the first time ever, I caught him occasionally staring into the middle distance instead of typing in data and every time I brought him a complaint, he simply stamped it and said, “Fine.”
He took two phone calls on the red phone in the back office and came out staring into space, mussing his hair with his fingers, and wiping his glasses after each one.
The crowd went wild when he pulled down the shade at lunchtime. The souls were never pleased to see the window closed and Brian hadn’t closed up since I had started working for him. We walked past the line outside and the lost souls began to howl with indignation. Someone threw a dismembered foot at us and someone else belched out a cloud of nasty smelling smoke in our direction. In her frustration, a rather nicely dressed middle aged woman stabbed the man behind her in the eye with a ballpoint pen. One man was busily trying to remove the head of another, presumably to use it as a weapon, and one soul was actually so angry it caught fire. Brian had called in some demons to deal with the inevitable crowd control and they started giving the crowd back what it was giving us.
“Well, at least the line will be a little shorter when we get back,” Brian said with a wry smile as we watched a demon launch a screaming woman through a tall window two stories above us in the open lobby.
At the café, we sat at a table in the corner and he ordered omelets and fries for both of us – these were typically the least noxious thing on the menu, the eggs usually dry, rubbery and burnt and the fries cold and clammy. Really not bad for Hell.
“Hold the ants this time,” he joked to the waiter, a mirthless gray fellow with a long face and a missing right thumb. Of course, there were inevitably a few insects in the food.
“I’ll do what I can,” sniffed the waiter. He removed himself with a long drawn out sigh.
We sat for a moment, the cracked vinyl of the booth cutting into our skin. Brian stared down and picked at food that had been stuck on the table for eternity.
Finally, I reached across the table and touched his hand.
“Brian,” I asked. “What is going on?”
“We got a letter from the higher ups. Things are going to change,” he said quietly. “They’re going to change a lot.”
He looked out the window into the congealed gray of the day. Sulfurous steam simmered out of the man holes in the street and a flabby, greasy rain was falling.
“You mean from…him? You know, your cousin?” I asked. Brian was the only one who said his name.
“Satan?” he said. “No. From higher up.” He pointed at the ceiling.
“You mean…you can’t mean…Heaven?” I asked in a whisper. “Do they have jurisdiction here?”
“Of course,” said Brian. “What they say goes. Everywhere and all the time.”
“So what’s up?” I asked. “More punishments?”
This was disturbing. I mean, after all, no one in Hell could quite believe that we’d chosen to come here and clean up demon cat barf and fight with ghouls and eat clammy fries for eternity. After being in Hell for a while, you have to start believing that you would never have made this decision on your own. Somehow, some way you had to have been tricked into it, or someone changed the rules on you, or you never understood them in the first place. It’s the last rationalization that holds your soul together. Heaven becomes…quite frankly…hard to trust. You begin to ask uncomfortable questions about those people “up there.”
“No,” said Brian. He was very quiet. “The truth is I’m not sure exactly, but it looks like they may be closing us down.”
“Closing us down,” I choked on my coffee. “How can they? Why would they? That doesn’t even make sense. This is supposed to be eternity here.”
“Shhh…” Brian said. “Look, I don’t know the details and I don’t want to cause a panic. We won’t know the details for a couple of weeks at the very least. It may be longer than that.”
“Are they moving us?” I asked. “What’s going to happen to all of the souls?”
“Haven’t been told yet,” Brian said. “We’re waiting on orders.”
We finished in silence and returned to the office, wading through the melee in front of the complaint window, crunching over lost limbs, and sloshing through pools of blood and demon slobber and we quietly finished out the day.
The white envelope in the safe burned a hole in the back of my brain with its existential implications. The only thing I could think of was that we would all be dissolved along with Hell. Obviously we had been rejected for Heaven in the first place so…what else could it be? The thought formed a permanent undercurrent of anxiety.
Fortunately, the complaint window was a constant source of diversion. Helping souls fill out forms, trying to keep the lines moving and typing information into the database took up most of my brain. I only had time to think about things in the evenings, which Dennis and I spent watching the bad reality television shows that were blaring through the tiny apartment. (One of the most insidious punishments of Hell was the terrible cable programming that could not be turned off.) Dennis always chose the most obnoxious program he could find and guarded the remote carefully with his claws. Still, all in all, I started to think that things were simply going back to normal. Eternity ground on with no visible change. Sometimes, when I was feeling reflective, I thought that ceasing to exist was the best option. Mostly though, I was afraid.
Then one evening after work, while one of the eternal reruns of “The Apprentice” was blasting through the apartment, brawling it out with the howls of Dennis, who’d barfed up all his dinner and was angrily demanding more, I heard a knock at the door. I was terrified. Sometimes demons showed up the apartment doors and demanded entry and then robbed, tortured, raped or otherwise terrorized the inhabitants. I had been somewhat safer than the other inhabitants of my building up until now, probably because I worked for Brian. I grabbed Dennis and prepared to throw him at intruder.
“Hey! Ow!” shrieked Dennis. “I’m watching TV! Help! Help me! You’re fired!”
A few seconds more and he would have had my hand off but then I heard a familiar voice outside the door. I dropped Dennis.
“Open up would you, c’mon,” the voice said. “It’s me, Brian.”
I put down the demon cat with only minor damage taken to my arms and legs and opened the door. He flung himself on the couch and I handed him a flat, warm beer.
“Tomorrow,” he said. “He was out of breath from puffing up the stairs. “It starts tomorrow.”
“What does?” I asked him.
“The end,” he puffed, “of Hell.”
I sat down.
He took a huge gulp of beer. “We have to start processing people out of here.”
“Processing them out?” I asked. “What does that mean?”
“The train is heading only outbound now and we’ve got to start putting souls on it. And demons. And collect all the soul fragments and demon cats,” he pointed at Dennis, “and the monkeys with skulls for heads and every last washed up piece of existential scum we can find in this place.”
“What if they don’t want to go?” I asked.
“Doesn’t matter. Everyone that we can find goes on the train. They’ll have to work hard to get left behind. Of course, some of them will manage. I suppose there will be no way to prevent them from fading out with Hell if they want to. But our orders are to do the absolute best we can.”
“How?” I asked. “Is it even possible?”
Brian shrugged, “I don’t write policy. I implement it.”
“What about your cousin?” I asked.
“What about him?” Brian said. “Haven’t even heard from him in a while now. He’s probably hiding. Who knows?”
“Where are we going?” I asked. “What’s going to happen to all of us?”
He snorted. “I was told something about how it will be better for all of us…blah, blah, blah. And you wouldn’t understand the technicalities… blah, blah, blah.”
We were both silent. “Do you think annihilation will better than this?” I asked. I had suspected for some time that would be Heaven’s “answer” for this place. From my own vantage point, there wasn’t much worth saving here, including myself. I could only imagine how the place looked from Heaven.
“Don’t know that it is annihilation,” Brian said. “I don’t have any idea where we’re sending everyone. Or why they would put everyone on the train if they just want to get rid of us. But if you want even a chance to continue existing, there’s only one choice. Because I do know that when it’s over this place will disappear. It’s to be destroyed. Everything. The Lake of Fire, The Craggy Mountains, the office. The database. The files. The forms. My whole…eternity. Gone.”
“It is Hell Brian,” I said as I considered the implications of his words. “Do you think there’s a possibility that we could be going somewhere better?”
“I don’t know. I guess, for me, it’s not even about better or worse,” he said. He paced to the window and looked out into the dark night of Hell. A scream pierced the night and then raucous laughter. “It’s just about who I am. And who am I supposed to be when I leave here? I’m not like you. I haven’t had a life before this. Not that I can remember.”
“You’ll be you,” I said. “No matter where you are. C’mon. The demons are in the same boat as you and they’re going. Maybe it won’t be so bad.” I was worried too. The whole thing smelled suspicious, but someone had to look on the bright side of Hell closing. There really was no other side to look on.
“Maybe,” he said. He shrugged his shoulders. He turned and gave me a sad smile.
“Come in early tomorrow?” Brian asked.
“Of course,” I said.
And that was it. The database allowed us to organize the exodus, at least to a certain extent. We began to evacuate Hell neighborhood by neighborhood and things went in somewhat a more orderly fashion than I would have thought possible. Of course, that’s because I expected complete pandemonium and almost 100% noncompliance. My bar was pretty low. But apparently some souls wanted to take the chance to get out of Hell. The demons collected souls and returned them to us and within the first few weeks we sent out train car after train car stuffed with souls. We had no idea where they were going or what was going to happen to them. We just put them on the train and hoped for the best. I felt somewhat ill at ease because there was no sign of the destruction we’d been promised. What if it was all some sort of horrible trick?
Of course, it wasn’t easy. The orders we received had said that the inhabitants of Hell were to bring absolutely nothing with them. They wouldn’t need anything. Before putting them on the train, the demons shook souls whose pockets were filled with Hell Coin or some takeout from the diner. Some souls tried carrying on suitcases full of shoes and clothing, bags of dirty laundry. One strange little man with bug eyes had a collection of bone and limbs he’d picked up on the street. He sobbed when the demons found the last small detached and gangrenous toe in his pocket, but they stuffed him on the train anyway, toeless. Souls tried to take books and desk lamps, rolled up string, used tape or old stained rugs. Loading up each car left a huge pile of garbage on the platform which the demons then had to move before we could load another.
And we didn’t know how long we had. The bubble of eternity which had encased Hell seemed to be wearing thin, and we all felt the pressure. As eternity grew thinner, all of us began to feel incredible exhaustion. I was so tired that the thought eternal nonexistence started to sound like a vacation.
We had started with the neighborhoods closest to the train station as a matter of practicality, although we sent demons out to the farthest reaches of Hell to begin to collect souls and bring them closer for the transfer. One day, the band of demons that had been sent to one of the border areas returned with a huge group of souls and some bad news. Hell was crumbling. The outer edges were simply falling apart. The rocky, mountainous area where they had been was nothing but rolling rock and avalanche. There were already mountains that had crumbled into dust and the dust? They had seen it fading into nothing. The nothing was rolling inwards. Heaven’s invitation was to board a train to “something better.” The alternative to leaving Hell was literally nothing. The souls who showed up for the ride became more and more resigned and less difficult to put on the train.
We didn’t have much time, and eternity was no longer on our side, if it ever had been. We worked as far into the night as possible. Demons had no time to torment the souls or to argue with them; they were actually working with Brian for once instead of against him. There was a strange camaraderie in Hell. Souls began wandering in from every edge of Hell on their own, wondering what was going on and telling stories of the ground crumbling under them, of lava pits going cold, and then an encroaching nothing. It was impossible to know how many of the souls were accounted for or how many of them had been sucked into the nothing. But there wasn’t much we could do. We worked on. Every soul or fragment, every demon or winged rat that we could find was put on the train.
We began to tick off souls from the database, more with every movement of the great clock of bone that hung over the station house. But one day, just when we thought we might be making headway, Alister, formerly chief tormentor of souls in the Lake of Fire, now leading the brigade to pluck burning souls out of it and bring them to the train, came back with a load of souls and an extraordinary announcement.
“The lake of fire went out,” he said matter of factly. He dumped out some souls whose charred skin was not even smoking. “Feel this guy.” He thumbed at a large man with the remains of a charred suit standing near Brian.
Brian reached out and touched the man’s sleeve. “Cold,” he said.
At about that time, Arabask, the fallen angel whose job it was to collect soul fragments from the edge of the pit of True Hell returned as well.
“There is no more Lava Fall into the pit,” she said. “The River Nepenthe has dried up. The inside of the pit is crumbling sand and the pit has ceased releasing soul fragments.”
She held in her long thin fingers a squirming black bag. “This seems to be the last of them.”
Brian checked his list. “We’ve still got a lot of souls to get on the train,” he said. “But who knows…maybe we can do it. I’d like to at least accomplish my last task.”
We worked even harder. Brian whirred with energy. I stood by the doors of the train cars and checked people off the list. Brian sent out demon after demon to gather souls and report. He personally put souls on the train. He made phone calls and checked the data base. He ran back and forth to the office and even checked the bathrooms in Hell station to make sure no fearful souls had tried to take refuge there. The nothing was moving in, but we were moving souls out.
The demons reported that the far side of the pit had crumbled. We kept stuffing souls onto train cars. The demons reported that the forest of dead trees on this side of the pit was nothing but dust. We kept loading train cars.
Finally, we could hear the noise of destruction from the train station. A roaring, rumbling sound filled the distance in the morning, and by lunchtime the ground beneath the platform had begun to quiver just a little. I looked up and saw a black swirling cloud gathering behind the city.
I kept loading train cars. All souls who had come or been brought to the station had at last been loaded. Now we were down to workers. We started to load the last of the demons, incubi and succubae, vampire bats, small rat shaped demons, and the monkey with the skull head who at last had to be deprived of my shoe.
One train left and we started to load another. A huge black bird of prey swooped in and landed on a broken light post.
“It has reached the city,” he intoned wearily. “If there are any other souls, I cannot find them. They have surely become one with the nothing.”
The platform beneath my feet shivered and the bird flew up to the train and hopped in the car. A groaning creaking sound came from the station and we looked up to see a window cracking.
The last of Hell’s citizens now stood on the platform.
“This is it. The last train out of Hell,” Brian said. We looked up and across the great city and we watched as a tall black tower fell with a great crash. The ground shook again.
“Do you think we have everyone?” I asked.
“Everyone that wanted to take the chance, surely,” said Brian.
The train sat trembling on the tracks, puffing steam and the last of Hell’s citizens began to clamber aboard.
“It’s time to go Brian,” I said. There was nothing left for us now but faith in the slim possibility of Heaven’s largesse.
“Time to get on the train,” he agreed.
“You too,” he pointed at Alistair, and Arabask, and a couple of the blue demons who were left standing on the tracks. “Let’s go people! Get on this train!”
He called to the clusters of demons huddled on the red banks that led the train tracks out of Hell. The hillside was beginning to tremble. “Get on top of the train!” he called out. “Ride this one out! It’s time!”
In some confusion, they began to cluster on the top of the overstuffed train cars and cling to the windows on the side.
A red rock rolled from the top of one of the banks and landed next to the train. I scurried up the steps of the caboose. Brian climbed up on the back of the caboose next to me and handed me the carrier with Dennis inside. He held my hand for just a brief second and to my eternal surprise, he leaned forward and gave me a little kiss.
“Thanks!” he whispered.
The ground quivered under the train and I heard the whistle start to blow. I put my hand on Brian’s and he smiled, but then to my surprise he pulled it away and stepped off the edge of the caboose and back onto the platform.
“Brian get on the train! Brian, take my hand!” I reached out for him and he leaned forward and touched my hand. He shook his head.
“There’s nothing for me out there. I don’t like this but I can’t want anything else. You go and I’ll be…” his words were drowned out by the train whistle and the reverberating sound of falling buildings on the far side of the city.
The train started to huff and tremble forward and I reached back again. Rocks rained down on the top and bounced up to the caboose platform.
I heard Dennis wailing, “Ow! Go inside the train you idiot! Ow! Help! Why didn’t they let you bring any food! Help I’m being pelted with rocks! Help! I’m starving!”
I ignored him and called out. “Brian, give me your hand.” I managed lean forward far enough to catch his fingers in mine, only to feel them slip away as Arabask looped her strong claw around my waist. The train began to move in earnest.
“Brian!” I screamed but my voice fell flat into the swirling dust and was drowned out by the noise of Hell’s destruction.
I saw Brian moving away from me, standing alone on the swaying platform. I watched as the main office swayed back and forth, almost gracefully for something so squat and ugly, and then collapse in on itself. Brian still stood there waving while Hell collapsed around him, looking calm and efficient in his bow tie. I saw him wipe his glasses on his button down shirt and then the thick dust of Hell’s collapse obscured him from my view.
Somewhere a small train is puffing along the tracks on just this side of eternity. No one knows for certain exactly where it’s going. Now it moves through a dark tunnel and the riders sleep. Now it stops in a sleepy village and the passengers disembark and eat at one of the inns on the way... Most of them get back on the train at the stops, some stay... Sometimes new passengers join the train.
Now the train stops in a sleepy golden meadow. A tall ebony woman with hair the color of moonbeams and a beautiful giant of a man with dark red skin get off the train. Between them they carry a basket. A young woman follows them with a black and white cat. Together they make their way to the center of the field. The man and woman bend down and open the lid of the basket together. Small, dark, bat like creatures flutter out of the basket and into the air. At first, it seems that the heavy golden air pushes them to the ground and they flail and jerk, but after a few moments in the sun the tattered creatures rise and the sky is filled with colored butterflies and birds. The young woman laughs as the cat chases a beautiful gold and green bird until it settles on his head and gently pecks at his nose. The girl picks up the cat and they watch the birds and butterflies rise and fly until the last one is a speck in the distance. After a moment of silence, they hear the whistle blow and they return to the train. It moves off into the distance. Toward a mountain town, so they’ve heard.