The Hereafter wasn’t quite what Antoine expected. No fire, no army of demons. Merely an ambling desert, uncertain footing atop shifting sands for as far as the eye could see. There was no sun, but heat bore down on him regardless. His feet burned black on sand hotter than a furnace fire. The young, yet damned soul trudged beneath an empty sky, bereft of any color. Not blue, not red, no matte arrangement of stars, just emptiness, as if the land he tread was all that mattered. This must be Hell, Antoine knew, there was nowhere else it could be. This perdition was not nearly as horrible as he expected.
And yet… yet…
How he longed to have someone else to talk to. Alone on the plain, no wind, no noise except for the smacking of chapped, bleeding lips—he thirsted, he hungered, but did not die. He felt himself slipping into madness. Isolation, the most effective torture Satan could develop for mankind’s social soul. Antoine would have tipped his hat to the fallen angel, were he wearing one. This was a subtle Hell indeed.
How he craved a drink. His throat coated with sand. Every swallow brought more abrasions along his esophagus. Antoine bled internally from a thousand tiny cuts. Each breath flushed his insides with desert air, drying him out a little more. He took a step, and then another, less sure with each one why he bothered moving at all. Perhaps it was time to lie down, maybe he needed sleep. Just for a while… or for good. What difference did it make, after all, to the dead?
“It gets better.”
Antoine blinked in shock. Time passed him by with indifference, and he did not know how many forevers had come and gone since last he heard another voice. Here one was hanging in the air. The young man looked around trying to find its source, hands shaking with… fear? Yes, and excitement and hope. Something had changed in a static world.
“Hello?” He asked, and his own voice shocked him, a loud baritone that cut through the quiet and quickly disappeared among absorbent dunes. “Who’s there?”
“Well, first it gets worse… but it does eventually get better.” The voice again came from all around Antoine. He could not place it. The air itself comforted him, or so it seemed. Was this a trick? Another means to propel him down the path of madness? He tried to weep, but no more moisture availed itself. He was a husk dragging through nowhere to get to nowhere, forgotten by all but Death’s faceless jester who taunted him from the abyss.
“You aren’t mad. Hopelessness is normal, given these circumstances. We’re about as far down as a man can fall.” The man spoke again, for it was a man’s voice, and this time it did have a direction. Antoine lifted his head and in the distance he saw a speck, a moving shadow, another life in the wilderness. He did not wonder then how it was he heard this man speaking like he was already in his midst, running gladly to him like the stranger brought with him an oasis of the coolest water. Sooner than he thought possible, they met, touching calloused fingertip to calloused fingertip.
Wheezing with exertion, the young soul spoke first. “An-Antoine.”
“My-my… oh God, my name. It’s Antoine. Who are you? Where did you come from? W-why why are you-” Antoine stopped to catch his breath.
“-am I here?” The other man smiled, just another crease on a face well-traveled with lines and folds, greyed with impossible age. He scratched his scalp, cracked and bare. “I suppose that will be apparent soon enough. All in Lou’s time.”
“My pet name for our jailer. You know, Lucifer?” The old stranger smiled through every word, unnerving Antoine.
“Where I’m from…” The man continued, taking the questions in reverse order. “A place, much like this, empty. A void suited best for limitless pain. My time there was done, so I was brought here. Now, as for my name-” He paused a while, chapped, pale lips pursed in thought. “You know, I don’t remember. It’s been so long since it was any use.”
Antoine shifted uneasily from burnt foot to burnt foot. Suddenly, with a visitor to his hollow realm, he was conscious of his near nakedness in the thin rags that draped his emaciated body. He was a skeleton coat hanger for fabric bleached colorless by the heat. That the other man dressed similarly brought little comfort.
“So, uh,” Antoine spoke, uncertain how to proceed, “Uh… what happens now?”
“Suppose, in lieu of my name, I tell you a story. You’ll learn more about me that way than any name’d teach.”
The young, dead man nodded in assent.
“When I was, oh, just about your age I’d guess, I killed a man. I can’t now remember why. Maybe it was over something foolish like lust or love, but reasons matter less than consequences. The man died all the same, by my hands, in my arms.” As he spoke, the old soul traced a pattern in the sand with his toe—a spiral growing slowly outward.
“I didn’t confess. The crime was never solved. I remember… forcing myself to cry at his funeral, being comforted by gathered friends and family. I suppose I must have known him rather well. Anyway, years passed. I married, had children, lived what many might consider a ‘good life’, and died at a ripe old age. And yet still, despite all that good papered over the sin I-”
“You ended up here.” Antoine interrupted in spite of himself, quietly cursing his rudeness.
The old man smiled, not minding the disruption. What was a little time lost to the dead?
“That’s right, I ended up here. For the longest time I was alone in a desert, like you. Unlike yours, mine was a tundra. So cold I could feel my blood freezing in my veins. With every breath I swallowed hundreds of sharp icicles. Each moment birthed unendurable pain. I shuffled along for God knows, well… maybe not, how long. Days, months, millennia. Until I heard a voice.”
“‘It gets better.’” Antoine intoned, unconsciously mimicking the old man’s voice.
The nameless one continued as if he had not heard.
“At first it was impossible to tell where it came from. But then I saw her, in the distance, no more than a mite on the horizon. Faster than I thought possible, there I was in her arms. She told me her story. Her sin is not important, but it was vile. A rough in a vale of diamonds. I asked her the same question you asked me: Why are you here?
“‘To make you see.’”
See what? Antoine wanted to ask, but he waited. The answers came in due course.
“And that’s also why I am here, Antoine. To make you see.”
Then Antoine did ask. “See what?”
The old man shook his head, instead saying. “Tell me about your life.”
And so Antoine did, or so he thought. He spoke of his childhood, a hard drinking mother and father both passing in an out of prison, never really a presence in his life. The aunts and uncles whose hands he passed through, whose hands often found themselves on him in places they shouldn’t. The grandfather who taught him how to shoot a gun, then placed him on a street corner at the young age of 12, pockets full of ‘dust’. He spoke of the life he took a year later, and how he regretted the violence each time. He spoke of his dreams, the poetry he wrote in secret and told only to the boys and girls who frequented his bed. He spoke of his too young death, and stopped, looking at the old man expectantly.
The old soul frowned and again shook his head. “No, tell me the truth.”
Again Antoine recounted his life, not sure what the old man wanted. This time he discussed more detail about the darkness that brought him here. How his hands shook after each kill, though less and less each time. About getting high in back alleys, selling to kids even younger than himself. He confessed to killing his grandfather, then his parents, once he realized he could sustain himself without their interference. He admitted that sometimes, after reading his lovers his secret poetry, his knife would dance across their flesh so that they could tell no one else, and how he’d find someone new to play with. Tears in his eyes each time. He told of his death, shot in the back by someone he never saw. He remembered fading as their hands went through his pockets, and then the dull pain as they stabbed his dying flesh, once, twice, three times for good measure. And then he was here. Again he finished and looked back up at the old man.
He pursed his lips and sighed. “I said the truth, boy.”
This time, Antoine recounted his tale without emotion. There was no justification. No weeping. No humanizing his actions. Just a list of sins, a long and varied catalogue of transgressions. There was so much wrong. So much hurt wrought by his hands and his alone. Confronting it again and again, the young man rubbed off the scabs over his guilt and finally saw all the pain he caused others. He saw this pain was all that mattered. No one saw how you suffered inside. No one cared about the motivations for your evil. All people see is what you do. The ‘why’ of anything is pointless before the weight of the ‘what’.
The old man finally nodded. And the young soul found that, despite how low he felt delving into his past again and again, the telling lightened him somewhat. He fell to the ground and might have died of gratitude then and there were his heart still beating. It was over. He could hurt no one else now, not even himself.
“Like I told you, it gets worse at first, but then…” The voice echoed from all around him again and when the young soul looked up, he was not surprised to find the old man gone. Nor was he worried that he no longer remembered his own name. His sins, all he needed, all he was, stood tall in his memory.
“It gets better,” He finished the sentence that trailed into the distance, then sat down to wait, no longer burned by the sand.
Smiling, he knew it would not be long before he too was transported.