Flash Fiction with a dose of Dante. 900 words.
Ten minutes to the end of my shift and here comes this lady. A last-minute Wanderer. I rise from my roadside chair and straighten my orange vest. Her features come into focus as she steps out of the Grey Area and approaches my post.
“Cheers,” I say, launching into the official spiel. “I’m here to facilitate your crossing. Name, please?”
A jitney speeds by, ruffling her hair, before fading into a speck on the endless ribbon of asphalt that cuts across the pallid desert. She looks baffled. “What am I crossing, exactly?”
“The Road to Hell, of course.”
“Hell?” she scoffs, her marble-wide eyes trailing the vehicle as she smooths her bobbed hair.
Ah, she’s one of those. Always asking for a manager. Meant to go straight to Heaven, naturally. She’ll insist there’s been some mistake. How could a nice lady like herself have ended up a Wanderer in the Grey Area?
I apply my most soothing voice. “Please remain calm, miss. I’m not sending you to Hell.”
Well, probably not. But I don’t add that. Instead, I say, “I’m here to get you over this road. These rust-buckets will turn a Wanderer like you into fender ketchup.”
Her brow furrows. “Wanderer?”
I sigh. Walking them through this isn’t in my job description, but I do my best. Sometimes, I explain, it’s not exactly clear. Sometimes you walk the desert for a bit before you get sent one way or the other. As if on cue, another jitney whizzes by. It kicks up silt from the road, bathing us in fine nebulous dust. Nasty stuff. Settles in every nook and cranny. Impossible to get out.
Hell was misery at first, but it’s tolerable now. Took years, but I worked up to a decent job. Crossing Guard. Who would’ve thought a crosswalk would be needed here, in this strange almost-place? But it is. Before they put in the crosswalk, Wanderers kept getting mowed down by jitneys. Not that they care about the Wanderers themselves, of course, but the messes get expensive to clean up.
“Your name?” I ask again. The lady Wanderer chews her lip, hesitant.
Perhaps she suspects an ulterior motive to my question. Well, unfortunately, she’s not wrong. I must check papers on all Wanderers to make sure they’re actually supposed to be here, in the Grey Area, and not below. Clerical errors happen more than you’d think. Management is rubbish.
An error usually means a Redirect to the place down yonder, and I hate Redirects. It’s the worst part of my job: telling someone they’re officially damned. Loading them onto the next jitney that passes, no second chance.
“Look, miss,” I say with a sigh. “It’s just a formality. We’ll get you cleared, then I’ll take you across and you’ll be on your way.”
“On my way to what?” I follow her gaze over the featureless Purgatorial plain, dotted with plumes of smoke.
It’s a good question. No one stays in the Grey Area forever. Eventually you’ll find yourself above or below, so they say. I was never a Wanderer myself. Never even passed through the Grey Area, just straight to the bottom. When I was alive, I quipped that I’d go in a hand-basket. I was a shitty husband, father, human.
I shrug. “Better than what’s down this road.”
“Name?” I ask a third time.
She tells me. I squint at my handheld’s minuscule keyboard. Rumor has it they have big fancy tablets on the Road to Heaven. But down here we get these tiny little pieces of shit. Figures. After my fat fingers mistype her name twice, I finally find her profile.
My stomach clenches.
Sixth Commandment. Shalt not kill. But the details: Murder. Premeditated. Filicide. Her own son. A flinch yanks at the corners of my mouth, unbidden.
“I had to,” she whispers.
As expected, a red alert flashes on the screen. “Miss, I’m afraid you’ve been Redirected.”
“He was planning something, I knew it. I found the stuff in his closet. We fought, then….”
Her words are swallowed by tires screeching as a passing jitney hits a pothole, blowing a tire. Our paving budget is abysmal. The Road to Hell is a hot mess, good intentions notwithstanding.
“Great,” I mutter. Two emergencies at once, and at shift’s end, for Christ’s sake! But I’ve gotta check this busted jitney. Probably gonna have to call maintenance, Lord help us, we’ll be waiting forever for those lazy bastards, so I’d better get the ball rolling. I hesitate, then say, “Please, miss, wait here.”
She nods, trembling.
I climb aboard. There’s one passenger, a teenaged boy with leathery, pimpled cheeks.
He sneers out the window at the lady. “My dear mother. The bitch who killed me.”
The driver turns, looking as if he’d relish smacking the kid upside the head. Instead he barks, “Shut up. We’ve got a special place down the road for monsters like you.”
“But I didn’t even do anything. That bitch, she stopped me.”
“That don’t matter, now, do it?” The driver shakes his head. “Maybe, down there, they’ll lock you in a classroom and blow your brains out point-blank. Like you would’ve done to those innocent kids.”
The teen remains stone-faced.
From the corner of my eye, I see the lady Wanderer shift on her feet, craning her neck. She pales at the sight of the boy. For a split-second, pain cracks across her face like an eggshell rapped on stone. Then without a glance back, she turns and sprints off, disappearing into the vague depths of the Grey Area.
Of course, it isn’t the first time a Redirect has bolted on me. Happens all the time. It’s my duty to chase her down, at least make an honest effort at catching her, or else be written up. Demoted, even.
Years, it took, to earn my cushy post up here on the road.
But I let her go.