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Homeless in Hell

Orson Scott Card

  Homeless in Hell

  Orson Scott Card

  Orson Scott Card

  Homeless in Hell

  A Christmas Story

  This is a rather dark tale in places, not meant for children. (So for heaven's sake, don't read this to your family on Christmas Eve.) For the rest of you, we hope you enjoy it, and have a merry Christmas!

  If you don't get into heaven, you go to hell, right? That's what I'd always been taught. Heaven is Harvard, and hell a county technical college. If you finished high school, they've got to take you. Except that with hell, dying is the only diploma you're supposed to need.

  I read those near-death-experience books, where they talked about how "the light" was full of warmth and love. Well, it was nice, but it sort of sets you up for disappointment, because when you're really dead and not just straying in there by accident, you get past that feel-good stage and suddenly you're at the light, and either it sucks you in or it shunts you away, like a magnet, and it all depends on how you're polarized.

  I got pushed away.

  Well, what did I expect, anyway? I used to go to church and all, but I wasn't much of a stickler on, like, telling the truth and helping my neighbor. And office supplies from work had a way of ending up at home. Not a lot, but I wasn't exactly perfect. Lots of looking upon women to lust after them. Just at the Victoria's Secret level. Quarreled with my wife a lot but I never hit her, though I did compare her to her mother way too often. Kind of the normal sins. I was sort of hoping they graded on the curve -- I figured I was bound to make the top half. But no, it's straight percentage, you get one question wrong and you're out.

  So what's the other choice? Hell, right? I start looking around, wondering if Dante was just making it all up and if not, which circle would I get into?

  The answer is, Dante didn't know squat, there are no circles. You just find yourself on a street in hell and you go up to a door (and it's always the same door, no matter what the street is) and you see people going in and out, dressed to the nines, and you think, Cool, there are good clothes in hell, which stands to reason, really, and you go up to the door and you knock and the guy looks at you like you're a worm and he says, "Name?"

  So I say my name and he makes this moue with his mouth like you sort of passed your expiration date about a month ago and he says, "Please, don't waste my time," and he starts to close the door in your face.

  "Wait a minute," you say, "this is hell, right?"

  "Hades," he says, and you can taste the contempt.

  "Well I didn't make heaven, so you've got to let me in."

  "No," he says, and then with a kind of faux patience he explains, "The place where, when you go there, they have to take you in, that's home. Not hell. We don't have to take just anybody. We're all about class here, nobody wants to look around and see you. There are real celebs inside. Stalin. Hitler. Caligula, for heaven's sake -- oops, did I say that?"

  "I'm not asking for the best seat in the house."

  "There is no table insignificant enough for you."

  I did a quick calculation -- how many people ever lived on earth, how many would likely fail the entrance exam for heaven, and how many first-rank sinners would be ahead of me in line. "But ... what do I do?"

  "You bogey off and stop blocking the door."

  "What do you think this is? Studio 54?"

  He laughs. "Oh, no, it's much worse. It's like junior high. And you ... ain't ... cool."

  And you get a big hand planted in your chest and when he pushes you don't fall, you fly across the street and smash into a building only it doesn't hurt -- you're dead, remember? -- and you're not injured and it begins to dawn on you, you're stuck in hell but you can't get in. You try a few other doors and the same guy is waiting behind every one of them to bounce you. And it's starting to rain. A thin cold drizzle, and even though you can't actually get injured, you can get cold and damp, or at least you feel like you've been left out in the cold, which in fact you have. You're not going to get sick, you're not going to starve, but you're also not going to get in.

  Not that I was alone out there. There are a lot of streets in hell, and lots of homeless people wandering around. And they seem just about as crazy as the normal mix of homeless people. A few who look like they're waiting for a drug deal to go down, only I knew it was a fake, because what is there to buy or sell, and even if they're carrying -- because you pretty much look the way you see yourself, so some people are armed -- they aren't dangerous. If they had ever been truly dangerous, they'd be inside watching the strippers, or whatever they did inside Club Styx. These guys think if they look bad enough, if they say enough rude things to passersby, maybe someday they'll get by the bouncer. Ditto with the ones who look like hookers. They've got nothing to sell. But let's face it. Not everybody in hell is bright.

  Then there are the crazies, shouting and preaching about Jesus and the end of the world, only it dawned on me pretty quickly that they aren't crazy -- I mean, after you die there's no schizophrenia because there's no brain to malfunction. They're preaching because they're trying to tip the balance the other way, to show how righteous they are, denouncing sin, calling out the name of Jesus -- or whoever, depending, but most of the shouters were, like, born again, only it apparently didn't take the way they thought.

  I stood there watching them, and walked around watching them, and sat down and watched them, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't bring myself to care. It began to dawn on me just how long eternity was going to be, stuck on the streets of hell. I tried street after street, only nothing changed except the faces. The language didn't even change, because after you're dead all the languages become the same. They speak, and they think they're speaking Arabic or Tagalog, only what you hear is English, or at least you think it is. If you speak English. Anyway, you can understand everybody, and that's the worst, because you can't even go to a place where you don't understand the words people are saying so you can tune them out. You're always tuned in and it's so boring.

  Daytime comes and goes, just like on earth, and gradually it began to dawn on me that this was earth. In fact, it was Washington DC, which is where I happened to buy the farm, hit by a car trying to cross Wisconsin in Georgetown on New Year's Eve 1999, which meant that whether the world ended that night the way everybody said it might, it definitely ended for me. I knew the streets. I could walk down the mall. Only everybody I saw was dead.

  I thought for a while that the whole world must have died or something, but then you'd think there'd be more newly dead people like me, you know, the whole government thing, if the world ended surely some significant percentage of them would go to hell, and surely they couldn't all qualify to get into Studio 666, so where were they? No, the world hadn't ended, just my little oxygen- consuming, carbon-dioxide-expelling bag of blood and bone.

  And now that I was looking for it, I began to see the signs that life was going on. Things changed position. Garbage cans were in one place and then they were in another. Cars were parked somewhere and then they weren't. But you never actually saw them move. Nothing moved. It was like when they were in motion, they disappeared. And it occurred to me that it was like long- exposure photography. You set the exposure time really long, the aperture very small, and the only things you get are the things that don't move. Pedestrians, cars, anything that moves is gone.

  It's like in hell time passes so slowly that living people are invisible to us. I had it figured out!

  "You think you've got it figured out," said a fat man.

  I looked at him, a little puzzled by why he was fat. I mean, surely when you die, you don't have to be fat anymore.

  "It's how you see yourself," said the fat man. "You know how people said, 'inside every fat person there
's a thin person struggling to get out'? Not true. It's just another fat guy in there. In fact, usually a fatter guy."

  "Can you lose weight?" I asked, because at least it was a conversation with somebody who wasn't trying to get wafted up into heaven or deeper into hell. And also it was kind of funny.

  "You can look thinner," said the fat guy, "if you start to think of yourself as thin."

  "So why can't you think of yourself as good, and get on up into heaven?"

  He shook his head. "Those street preachers, they aren't thinking of themselves as good. They're thinking of themselves as righteous. Saved. Chosen."

  "Better than everybody else."

  "Bingo. Ditto with the bad dudes and the tough girls. They're needy, all of them, and needy doesn't get you off the street. Needy is what gets you on the street."

  "If you've got it all figured out," says I, "what are you still doing here?"

  "I'm conflicted," he said. "A common problem. Whenever I start going one direction, I do something to send me back the other." He grinned. "While you, you're talented."

  Talented? "I'm not the one reading minds here. I mean, you've been answering stuff I didn't say."

  "Yeah, I've got good hearing. I don't have to wait for you to speak. Because, you know, it's not like we actually have voices. We just sort of wish our thoughts to be heard, and then people close by can hear them. But your thoughts are actually just as loud, so to speak. So yeah, I can hear stuff. But you, you can see things."

  I looked around. "No more than anybody else."

  "Nope, nope, not so. I watched you. Crossing the street. You waited for the light."

  "I did not. The lights don't change."

  "And you dodged the pedestrians."

  "There are no pedestrians."


  "I don't see them, so how can I dodge them?"

  "Oh, you philosopher, you."

  "What possible difference could it make to you?"

  "I want to see how useful you are. What you can do."

  "This is a job interview?"

  "I've got an opening for an elf."

  I looked him over, this time more carefully. No pipe clenched between his teeth, but his stomach was rather like a bowlful of jelly. "Am I supposed to laugh when I see you in spite of myself?"

  "Clement Moore didn't actually see me," he said. "I'd long since stopped doing personal appearances by then. But you see, it doesn't make much difference. I've got this image in my face every Christmas -- no, every Halloween and two months after -- and it's all I can do to keep from wearing the red suit all year long. I used to be thin, when the Dutch were in charge of the image."

  "What are you doing in hell? Aren't you supposed to be Saint Nicholas?"

  "I'm not in hell. Any more than you are."

  "Here's a clue, Nick. This ain't heaven."

  "We're hovering, my friend. Or maybe we're volleying, like the shuttlecock in badminton, back and forth, almost one thing, almost another."

  "Me, I'm just walking the streets."

  "Dodging the pedestrians."

  "I'm not a toymaker."

  "Fine with me. That toymaking, that's just part of the myth. Hasn't anybody caught on that I'm dead? They don't issue us hammers and saws and set us to work making wooden toys. There's precious few of us can even see the living, and those that can move things in the material world, those are even more rare."

  "So how do you come up with all those toys for good girls and boys?"

  "When we need toys, which isn't as often as you think, we steal them."

  "Ah," I said. "Now I'm beginning to get why you aren't in heaven. You aren't Santa Claus. You're Robin Hood."

  "Mostly we break toys," said Santa. "Or hide them. It's not like we can move anything very far. And nowadays it's a cash economy. Come to think of it, it was back when I was alive, too. They used to draw pictures of me with bags of money, because that's what I did, my famous good deed, I paid a ransom in coin, saved some kids. Money's what we mostly use now, too. And because it's paper, it's even easier. Lighter. Even my less talented elves can move it."

  I couldn't help it. He was so serious. I laughed. "Man, you had me going there. Santa Claus, stealing toys, breaking them, hiding them, dealing in cash. You got your elves out picking pockets?"

  He didn't look amused. "Yes," he said. "I fail to see the humor."

  "You're not putting me on?"

  "I want to see if you can move things. In the material world."

  "I told you, I can't even see the people, let alone pick their pockets, and even if I could, I've never been a thief." At once my conscience twinged. "At least, not deliberately. Not systematically."

  "You got a better job offer?"

  "I want a shot at heaven," I said. "As long as I'm not completely in hell, why not?"

  "Me too," said Santa. "Some years I've been so close."

  "What about getting into the devil's workshop? Been close to that, too?"

  He shrugged. "As a novelty act, they've invited me now and then. But not to stay. Strictly in the back door, you know."

  "Why should I do this? I mean, you've been at this for what, fifteen hundred years? And you're still here."

  "Got any better plans? It's not like you're running out of time."

  "Santa, excuse me for saying this, but as far as I can tell, you're as looney as a one-legged duck."

  He shook his head. "My friend, nobody's crazy here. We might be wrong about a lot of stuff, but we can't lie and we aren't crazy. Still, like I said, no hurry. Look me up if you decide Santa's gang of elves sounds more interesting than ... whatever it is you're doing."

  "How would I find you?"

  He rolled his eyes. "Just ask. In case you didn't know it, I'm famous. People keep track of where I am."

  "I was afraid I'd have to go to the north pole or something."

  He shook his head, turned his back, and walked away.

  * * *

  He was right. I could see living people. And it wasn't a matter of slowing down or speeding up, either. It was more like you had to pay attention to something else, sort of look away and then be aware of what's going on at the edges of things. Only that's the strange thing -- when you're dead, there are no edges. You have the habit, from all those years of binocular vision, of seeing only this window in front of you, with out-of-focus glimpses to the sides, and most dead people never get past that. But the fact is, when you're dead you don't have those limitations. You can see ... well, you remember how people used to say that teachers seemed to have eyes in the back of their heads? Or it's like, you could feel someone's gaze on you, even though they were behind you? Well, that's how it is when you're dead, once you get the hang of it. You're aware in every direction. It's not really vision. It's just knowledge, but your mind kind of makes sense of it like vision. I wasn't consciously seeing those moving cars or pedestrians, so I didn't "know" they were there. But I was aware of them, aware of the people in the cars, aware of the people on the street, and some old reflex made me dodge them, weave among them without knowing it.

  Thanks to the tip from Nick -- I hate calling him Santa Claus because that name's too loaded down with cultural freight, I just have to laugh whenever I think of saying, "Hi, Santa!" -- I got pretty good at seeing mortals. Got to be a habit, really, knowing where they were, knowing what they were doing. I found my range was pretty good, too, because this awareness thing, it isn't blocked by mere walls, I know who's coming around the corner before they actually come into my field of view. And I'm not a genius, either, I can imagine there's those that can see for miles, right through hills and cities and whatever else is in the way. Maybe see forever, if they've got the mind to sort through all the stuff you'd see in between.

  And it wasn't just awareness. I could move stuff.

  The thing is, touching the material world, changing it, that doesn't come the way awareness did -- it isn't just automatically happening, so you only have to notice it. Ordinarily, when you're dead you
simply don't affect the material world in any way. You don't sink through the earth or walk through walls, but only because you still have the respect for those surfaces you learned when you were alive. You can go through them, just as you can sink down into the earth, though that's extraordinarily boring, since nothing much is going on once you get past the earthworm and gopher level.

  But you can affect things, not by touching or pushing or pulling, but by -- oh, how else to say this? -- by really, really wanting things to move. Yeah, OK, by wishing. But we're not talking about some wistful little desire. "Oh, I wish I could eat a candy bar again." No, it takes a desire so intense it consumes you, at least for the moment, the way a campfire consumes an empty marshmallow bag. You feel shrunken, thin, weak. But it's funny, because you also feel amazingly powerful. Like a superhero. Just because you got a chair to move.

  Only how much can you really care about moving a chair? That's why poltergeists are so rare, and why they're usually so mean. They're angry all the time, and they move things around in order to cause fear in the living. That's the consuming desire -- to make the living afraid of them. To have power. It's a pathetic thing, and it's definitely on the evil side of the ledger. Evil, but the bouncer doesn't let poltergeists into the netherclub, because they don't need somebody inside moving the furniture or spilling the drinks, I guess.

  I'm no poltergeist. I'm not mad at anybody. OK, well, so, that's a lie. I'm pretty steamed about being stuck between heaven and hell, and I'm ticked off about getting killed before the prime of my life (at least I assume the prime was still ahead of me, seeing how nonprime the years I actually lived through seemed to be). So how was I going to move anything?

  It was Nick who showed me how. Once I realized he'd been right about my seeing the living, I looked him up and he kind of took me under his wing, he and a few of his elves -- who are not little and not cute, they're just dead people like me -- and showed me the work they do.

  It isn't just at Christmas, though Christmas is for them like tax time is for accountants. All through the year, Nick and his gang are watching out for children. They'll pick a kid -- almost at random, or so it seems to me, though maybe there's some system in it, some signs they look for -- and they just follow, watching. Most kids, their life is OK. Sure, they get yelled at, spanked, ignored, ridiculed, the normal stuff that makes life interesting, but most of them, somebody loves them, somebody's looking out for them, somebody thinks they're pretty good to have around. You can live through a lot of hard times, if you've got that.