I was a perfumer in Purgatory, peddling aromatic wares; the sandwich board placard I wore over of my crimson robe advertised travel size atomizers. The hottest sellers were spicy florals— best at snuffing the stench of death. The priciest fragrance, a blend of frankincense, patchouli, ambergris, cloves, and coyote secretions, was extolled for its powers of repelling cloven hooves. Not demons, certainly not the Dark Lord, just goats, gazelles, and sheep. Customers never read the fine print.
Ding, ding, ringing my bicycle bell, I reported to work, skidding to a stop beside the dock where pontoon boats were tied, along the shore of the river of fire. Since I’d been toiling as the Purgatorial Perfumer from 1949 to 2043, you’d think I would’ve gotten numb to their desperation, but my customers’ bloodshot eyes and pleas for mercy made my stomach churn. I donned the placard and took up my post beside the perfumer’s stall, unlocking its tall metal case.
“Single file, single file, no pushing, hold the handrail when you disembark,” uniformed ushers shouted, directing the colorfully robed passengers with jabs from their taser prods. Demonic ushers were the only purgatorial employees authorized to inflict corporal punishment. Clerks, like me, were lackeys, working off our sins.
The neon sign on the closest boat flashed a warning, reminding me of The Rules:
1) Greet customers with a smile.
2) No name-calling
3) No spitting
4) Leave the Maiming to the Demons
Most of the moral infractions that I’d committed when I was alive were typical for a thirteen-year-old— cheating in social studies, temper tantrums when I got my period, and my bedroom was usually a pigsty, but I’d never tortured animals or hurt people, except for the accident.
It was nearly midnight when I arrived at Wesley Anderson’s house.
Sandy was hiding behind the shrubberies. I switched off my flashlight and crouched beside her.
Wesley Anderson’s three-story colonial was the nicest house on the block. He didn’t need that much space, since he was divorced, and his kids had grown up and moved away, but he was the kind of jerk who liked to show off his wealth. If he wasn’t so rich, and the mayor’s brother, he would’ve been arrested for molesting Sandy.
Sandy said, “Maybe this isn’t a good idea?”
I said, “We can’t let him get away with it. He deserves to be punished!” I opened my satchel and pulled out a bottle. The cap was on, but I could smell the gasoline. I’d brought a strip of fabric to make a wick.
Sandy started sobbing, digging her hands deep into her frizzy hair.
I patted her shoulder. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
“No it’s not!” she said. “My father talked to the police again. They said there’s no evidence— his word against mine.”
Seeing how miserable she was made me want to cry. I blinked back tears and said, “You want to go home? I can do it.” Sandy lived at the other end of the block, in a smaller ranch house.
She sniffed and wiped her eyes. “I’ll do it.” She pulled a box of matches from her pocket.
“You’re sure he’s alone?” I said. Mr. Anderson usually drove a fancy Tucker convertible, but there was a Jeep parked in the driveway.
Sandy nodded. “The Jeep’s his.”
My hands were shaking when I shoved the rag inside the bottle. When the Molotov was ready, I handed the bottle to Sandy.
Wind blew out the first match. I lit another match, and the wick ignited. Sandy hurled the bottle on the ground, next to the Jeep.
The bottle shattered. Whoosh, flames shot into the air, enveloping the front of the Jeep. I smelled rubber burning.
I said, “Let’s go!” and ran to the sidewalk. The heat from the fire was intense, and I was afraid of getting caught. When I looked back, Sandy had stopped at the end of the driveway. She was watching the Jeep burning.
“Come on!” I said, but Sandy didn’t move.
I thought of running back to get her, but Mr. Anderson walked out of his house. He was holding a shotgun!
Boom! The blast tore into Sandy’s chest, knocking her down. She landed on her back, with her arms spread out like an angel’s wings.
“Sandy!” I shouted, but she didn’t answer. I was too far away to see whether she was breathing.
Mr. Anderson squeezed the trigger and shot Sandy again.
The porch lights on a house partway up the block turned on.
With tears streaming down my face, I ran into the dark.
If I hadn’t escaped, Mr. Anderson probably would have killed me too, but I haven’t forgiven myself for abandoning Sandy.
At least Mr. Anderson was arrested, but I never got to see his trial.
I didn’t pick my penance because I liked selling sweet-smelling perfumes. Most of the purgatorial perfumes reeked, but it was easier to get promoted from deck swabber to perfume sales than it was to become one of the artists who painted murals on the cavern ceilings. And only those who spoke Greek and Latin became confessors.
A clove-studded sachet bought fifty-three minutes of talk therapy. My confessor said, “Fretting about the past is as productive as trying to mop a never-ending stream of offal.” Good advice, but encouraging platitudes didn’t improve my mood. Time was the best healer.
As decades flew by, fashions changed, but human behavior didn’t— newcomers arrived in spandex instead of suits and fedoras, but envy, greed, and lust were still the most popular sins. Penalties for moral transgressions, and the resulting screams, were timeless. After a while, you got used to coexisting with monsters.
The borders between Purgatory and Hell were more fluid than people think. Demons inflicted punishments in the land of limbo, as well as in Hell. Howls, wails, gnashing teeth, thrashing tentacles— it all became background noise, almost as easy to tune out as a boring social studies class.
Penitent souls who wanted to observe what was happening in the living world, as well as in Heaven and Hell, could bathe in the Oracle Pool. It wasn’t as exciting as impersonating a ghost and haunting people who were still breathing— only angels and demons got to do that. And the Oracle Pool was infested with flesh-eating eels, and bats roosting on stalactites would crap on your head, but when you’re lonely and depressed, you’ll do just about anything to connect with someone who’s not doomed.
The deeper I swam, the more I’d learn. Flashes of light illuminated the murky water, revealing images that were projected like a movie. If I held my breath until my lungs were about to burst, I’d hear snatches of conversation.
When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, I watched him say, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Watching astronauts was surreal, but it was hard to watch Sandy getting along so well in Heaven, walking through a meadow with other angels. That should have been me; I was the one who stood up for her.
Two-and-a-half percent of Earth’s population bypasses Purgatory and goes straight to Heaven when they quit breathing. Their names were displayed on daily dispatches, as inspiration for lost souls like me to behave.
Names of the sinners who were sent to Hell weren’t announced, but the mayhem was hard to ignore.
Cato, the warden in charge of Purgatory since Julius Caesar ruled Rome, governed by carrot and stick. Not literally, you wouldn’t get whacked upside the head with a stick if you screwed up. The penalty for breaking important rules was much worse.
“Excuse me,” I said, pushing past huddled newcomers who were gawking at a man being dragged by Cerberus. The giant, three-headed hellhound chomped into the poor guy’s butt, tearing off a chunk of flesh.
I wiped sweat from my brow and averted my eyes. Gore made me queasy.
In a few moments, the copper bell that hung from the cavern ceiling would ring, announcing that the market had opened. I used the heavy key that hung from a chain wrapped around my waist to open the perfume display. Some of the bottles were dusty. I shined them with a rag, then pushed up my shirtsleeve, and scratched the inside of my left elbow, picking at a crusty, red patch. My eczema was flaring up, but I kept smiling.
Rule Number 1— Greet customers with a smile.
Steam from bubbling lava made it impossible to see the end of the queue, but from the sound of the crowd, there must’ve been at least a thousand passengers disembarking the boats. As they got closer, I smelled sweat and the pungent stench of vomit, blending with the ever-present tang of sulfur. Flu season was dreadful, not because I worried about barfing until I keeled over— you could only die once.
During viral outbreaks the number of new arrivals would triple, even quadruple, and my workday was extended, with only an extra bowl of veggie rice as compensation for the overtime. After thirteen hours of haggling, with only two pee breaks and one snack, exhaustion would make me hallucinate. It was tough to separate freakish visions from reality, since the ushers that patrolled the market were demons and other unearthly creatures.
Though it was almost the middle of the 21st Century, Cato, the Purgatorial Warden, refused to approve credit transactions, and it would’ve been too complicated to accept paper currency, so bartering was the norm. Silver, gold, platinum, and jewels rarely crossed my palm.
When I was a newbie, the pathetic trades made me cringe. A woman who hobbled on one stiletto pump, her other foot bare with the big toe missing, had nothing to trade, so she offered to confess about three times she’d lied to a friend, in return for a sample size vial of Chanel No. 5 eau de toilette. The first fib wasn’t bad, “Your haircut looks great,” but then she said, “I recommended you for the promotion,” and “It’s not my fault you got fired!”
She was crying so hard, I patted her on the back and told her everything would be okay. Providing a sympathetic ear and a sweet-smelling placebo was the least I could do for lost souls, quaking in terror at the prospect of eternal damnation.
After shilling perfumes, colognes, and incense to panic-stricken mobs for decades, it wasn’t easy to keep following the rules, but smiling when I was miserable was better than having blisters on my butt from being tased by the ushers.
Folks who approached my stall were nearly always contrite, shuffling forward with their heads bent, but it was tough not to pre-judge, when each newcomer’s attire told the story of how they’d died.
Color-coded robes spun from the softest spider silk were issued to all of the dead who boarded the boats, and passengers were eager to freshen up and don their new garments. Royal blue for cardiovascular disease. Mustard yellow for cirrhosis. Taupe for lung cancer. Neon pink for hemorrhagic fever. Eggplant for strokes. Puce for influenza. Burgundy for homicide victims. Racing green for appendicitis. Sunny yellow for leukemia. Teal for hepatitis. There were so many different hues, sometimes I had to consult my pocket chart, but I never forgot what my crimson robe meant— murderess. It was so unfair.
Sandy probably would have had a long life if I’d refused to give her the bottle with the gasoline, but I was a victim, too. When I asked if I could have burgundy stripes on my robe, the demons laughed.
Gabe wasn’t a perv, and he never hit me, or my mother. Considering the horror stories that I’d heard about other stepfathers, I thought Gabe was a nice guy, especially since he didn’t ignore me, like the previous men that Mother had dated. In fact, he seemed to adore me. He even suggested that he become my legal father, and he hired a lawyer to file adoption papers.
When Mother’s diabetes got so bad that her hands were shaking, Gabe filled the insulin syringes, and gave her the shots. He was so gentle, she hardly ever got bruises from the injections.
“I’m lucky that you’re a doctor,” Mother said.
Our neighbors thought that Mother was lucky, too. When WWII ended, there were so many war widows, and it was hard to find a good husband, especially a successful endocrinologist like Gabe. And Gabe got along with everyone— the macho sports fanatics, the nerdy accountant, the snobbish lawyer, even the crotchety old lady who lived down the block. Gabe found her lost terrier when the little dog escaped from the yard.
Twenty-three months after Mother married Gabe, she passed out while she was driving, and rammed her Packard into a tree. During Mother’s funeral, I overheard Gabe talking to Aunt Mary.
“Jane belongs at home, with me,” he said.
It was strange living in the house without Mother, but Gabe and I settled into a routine. When I forgot to take out the trash or let the pile of dirty laundry get too big, he’d scold me without yelling.
Gabe was a crappy cook, but I should’ve known that something was wrong when I started getting stomach aches.
When I woke on my fourteenth birthday, I smelled bacon wafting from the kitchen.
Gabe greeted me with a smile. “Happy birthday, honey.”
There was a platter of bacon on the table. Bran flakes for him, and a bowl of hot oatmeal for me, topped with fresh strawberries.
“Wow!” I said. By this time, I confess, I had all but forgotten about Sandy.
“A birthday’s a special day.” He patted my head. “You want OJ?”
“Thanks,” I said. I grabbed a piece of bacon. It was crispy and delicious, not even burnt on the edges.
“Try your oatmeal,” he said. “I added cinnamon.”
He’d also added poison, but I didn’t realize that until I’d collapsed, writhing on the floor. At least my death was quick.
Maybe I should’ve felt flattered that Gabe killed me for life insurance money, instead of just because he was sick of raising someone else’s kid, but when he arrived in Purgatory, I wasn’t ready to show mercy.
The life insurance company had tipped off police, and Gabe was arrested. An argument in the prison yard led to him being shanked. After he bled out, Gabe spent only a day in Purgatory before I asked Cato to banish him to the Seventh Circle of Hell. When he wasn’t gagging on poisoned oatmeal, poured into his mouth from steaming troughs, he was assigned janitorial duty, collecting used syringes.
Somehow, my act of revenge didn’t get me one step closer to Heaven.
The Lord works in mysterious ways. That saying is totally clichéd, but I think it may be true.
By the time the front of the line had reached my bike, I’d opened the stall where I set up my wares each morning. In my left hand, I gripped long-handled barbeque tongs, for plucking bottles from the top shelf. That’s where I stashed the most expensive scented oils. At least once a year, a desperate fool tried to shoplift. Thieves were always caught, and the punishment for stealing Cato’s property was to be transformed into a lizard. Down the trapdoor they would plunge, slithering through the darkest caverns of Hell. It was a cruel, solitary fate, but better than the future that awaited violent sinners.
A woman wearing a crimson robe, marking her as a murderess, gave me a saccharine smile and pointed at a rose-colored crystal atomizer on the top shelf. Her selection was potent musk oil, laced with jasmine and coyote urine, one of the luxury scents. She said, “Will you trade for hair?” Gesturing to the little girl standing beside her, she grabbed the child’s ponytail.
When neither is in a state of grace, sometimes the victims accompany their murderers into Purgatory. A murder-suicide will fit the bill.
The girl’s hair was a pretty shade of light brown and was frizzy, like Sandy’s. Suddenly the offer made me want to bludgeon the murderess with the barbeque tongs, which would’ve been a violation of Purgatorial Edict Number 4— Leave the Maiming to the Demons. I didn’t have the right to decide a killer’s fate. Yeah, I’d wanted Gabe in Hell, but that seemed so long ago now.
The girl didn’t say anything, but her eyes watered. She couldn’t have been much older than six when she took her dirt nap. She hadn’t changed into a robe, and was dressed in a muddy parka, matching pale pink mittens, jeans with a tear in the left knee, and sneakers. It must’ve been the outfit she was wearing when she was buried. Obviously, without a coffin.
A tear rolled down the girl’s face, leaving a wet trail in the dirt that coated her cheek. Something underneath the girl’s puffy jacket squirmed. The girl hugged herself, pressing her arms against the wriggling lump.
“Do we have a deal?” the murderess said.
I said, “I’ll take your hair, not the child’s.”
The woman patted her coiffure. It was an obvious dye job, the roots several shades darker than the rest of the long tresses. She pressed her lips together, as if she was pondering my offer.
My auburn ringlets were shorn close to my head. Wearing a wig wouldn't be practical, but if the murderess insisted on giving me her hair, I’d shear it, and toss the blonde mane in the flaming river.
The woman’s smile turned to a sneer. “Blonde’s not your color, honey. Platinum would make you look sallow.”
No one had called me “honey” since Gabe.
The lump underneath the girl’s parka meowed.
I said, “Is that a cat?”
The girl shrieked, “No, Mommy. Don’t hurt Princess!” She clutched her arms tighter to her chest.
The meow became a yowl.
The girl tried to hold her jacket closed, but a furry head popped up above the neckline, and butted against her chin. It was a calico kitten. Someone had burned the poor kitten’s face, singeing both ears.
Glancing to my left, I looked at the ushers. A Leviathan, one of the monstrous leech creatures, had bitten off a man’s foot. He was bleeding on the dock, flailing like a fish out of water. Another usher, a Siren with the head and chest of a woman and the body of a bird, jabbed the wounded man with a hypodermic, administering a sedative.
The little girl’s cat meowed again. Glimmering feline eyes stared at me.
I said, “I’ll take the kitty.”
More tears trickled down the girl’s face. When she unzipped her jacket, the little cat purred, the sound making a loud rumble for such a scrawny feline. There were wounds on the animal’s chest, shaped like cigarette burns.
The murderess pushed her daughter aside, preventing me from taking the cat. She laid a hand on my arm and said, “Just the tail? Two atomizers if you want the whole pelt.”
A short man in line behind the little girl stepped forward, as if he was going to intervene, but he shook his head and retreated, pushing past two elderly ladies wearing puce-colored robes.
The murderess tightened her grip on my arm, bruising my flesh. Her fingers were as cold as the icebergs that barricaded Heaven’s Gate.
The neon sign on a boat closing toward the dock flashed its warning.
2) No name-calling
3) No spitting
4) Leave the Maiming to the Demons.
I stomped on her foot with my steel-toed boot. She shrieked and let go of me.
“Stop!” I said, but she lunged at the stall where all of the perfumes were displayed. Giving the metal case a shove, she rammed it into my bike. Bottles smashed, spraying a hail of shattered glass on the rocky shoreline. One of the jagged shards pierced my right calf. I yanked out the piece of broken glass. A trail of blood trickled down my leg.
The murderess grinned at me. “Oops,” she said.
Three ushers raced towards us. A Leviathan was in the lead, leaving a trail of slime.
Grabbing the little girl, the murderess held her up like a shield. “Touch me and I’ll toss the kid in the river.”
“Mommy, don’t hurt me! I promise to be good,” the little girl cried, her face twisted in anguish.
If it had been an ordinary river, the girl might survive, but a plunge into the flames would incinerate anything, within seconds. The girl wouldn’t die again, since she was already dead, but there would be nothing left of her body but ash, floating in Purgatory for eternity, with no chance of earning a place in Heaven.
Squirming in her mother’s arms, the girl dropped the kitten. The feline landed with a yowl, and scrambled past the elderly ladies, to hide behind a boulder.
I took a step closer to the murderess. “No one’s going to hurt you,” I said.
The murderess glanced to her right, watching the ushers. Kretus, Cato’s most trusted henchman and leader of the Minotaurs, had overtaken the Leviathan. Kretus pawed at the ground and bent his head, brandishing his horns. Kretus said, “Put the girl down.”
“No,” the woman said. Backing away from Kretus, she moved closer to the river.
The crowd of gawkers parted, clearing the path to the docks.
While the murderess was distracted, I advanced. Before I could chicken out, I leapt on her back.
The blow made her stumble, but she still clutched the girl. The child’s shrieks became a wail.
The sound echoed through the cavern, feeding my fury. Clinging to the woman’s back with my thighs, I used my left hand to jab her face with the tongs. I missed her eyes, hitting a cheekbone.
Teeth dug into my wrist, making me scream. We landed in the mud with a thunk.
The murderess tried to wriggle away, but I clung on with all of my strength, and bit her shoulder.
The fall must’ve knocked the child unconscious, because she’d stopped crying. It was impossible to see whether she was bleeding, because her mother regained her feet, blocking my view. She moved toward the child.
There was nothing else to do. With a rush and tackle, I drove her —and myself— toward the river. I felt the flames right through her as our feet left the dock.
The heat was so intense, I never felt the calloused hands that grasped my back, lifting me high in the air. Windmilling my legs, I tried to run for safety, but Kretus hugged me tight, holding me against his chest. I never heard the screams of the murderess, only the sound of Kretus’s hammering heart, pounding in my ears. Portending my doom.
People who claim that finding the path to Heaven is as easy as following a white light don’t know what the Hell they’re talking about.
If I said, “Kretus carried me to a magical escalator,” that would be a lie.
If I said, “You can only earn your wings if you break a Purgatorial Edict,” that would be a lie.
If I said, “Growing wings feels like having dozens of nails hammered into your shoulders,” that would be a lie.
If I said, “Heaven is a field of buttercups where murdered girls play with a kitten,” that too would be a lie.
Or maybe all of these things are true. Maybe Heaven is an idyllic place where no one feels pain, everyone noshes on ambrosia, and all of the pretty flowers don’t cause seasonal allergies. The bottom line is— those who’ve climbed, crawled, swum, flown, or teleported to the pearly gates eventually learn what it takes to join us. Believe it or not, there are no rules governing the Upper Sphere like those in Purgatory, only eternal truths. Ethos Number 1— Love flowers in self-sacrifice.
No sweeter scent have I known.