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Homeless in Hell, Page 2

Orson Scott Card

  There are other kids, though. Two kinds. Bullies and victims. And Nick's on the look out for both. The victims, they break your heart. The ones that are getting tortured or beaten, there's not much we can do for them. The rage in the person hurting them, that's a powerful force, it matches any wish we can come up with, and then on top of that they've got bodies, which pretty much makes us helpless. What Nick's gang does in those cases is, they try their best to make it obvious to other living people what's going on. You know, cause a shirt to ride up so a bruise is visible, or get a neighbor to look in a window or hear a sound, something to make them suspicious. A lot of them call the cops or child welfare, if it's a country where the cops care, or where there is an agency whose job is to look out for kids. But a lot of them don't, and in the end, our hearts just break for those kids and we sort of just wait for them to join us. Because a lot of Nick's best recruits come from among those children. His scouts, so to speak. They've got a nose for it.

  The neglected kids, though, Nick's gang can help a lot, there. We get food to them, sometimes. We open a door now and then -- that's a lot harder and more complicated than you might think. And when they're alone, some of Nick's gang, they can't move things, but they can make sounds that the living can hear, so they sing to them or talk to them. Tell them stories. We get tagged as imaginary friends sometimes, but it's not like we're looking for credit. We just try to help the kids know they're not alone, that somebody cares what they're going through. And those singers, they do a sweet lullaby, I tell you. Songs that even the deaf can hear, cause they sing right into the mind. Sometimes I go with them, just to hear them sing. We can't save all their lives, but we can make what life they have a little better, and that's good. It's not like we think of death as all that big a deal, anyway. I mean, we are dead, and so death doesn't hold any fear for us. That's why we're generally not in the lifesaving business. When we can get a few crackers to a kid, sure, we'll do it, but ... they'll just need more tomorrow, right? While a good song can live in their memory through a lot of dark nights of fear and loneliness.

  But that's not the kind of work I do. I'm not a singer, and when I move things, I've got to be mad. It's my sense of injustice that has to get riled up. And so I'm on the bully patrol.

  You know the kids I'm talking about. Some of them are physically violent, but most bullies do their damage with their mouths. They've got this instinct for the thing that makes a weaker kid hurt the most. Sometimes it's obvious -- a kid with a big nose, you don't have to be a brain surgeon to figure out what to make fun of. But some of these bullies, it's like they can read minds. Their victim has a drunk mother, the bully goes straight to the mother jokes -- how does he know? The girl who's lonely and scared she's not good enough for anybody, the bully girls taunt her clothes or play really mean jokes where they pretend to be her friend until she commits herself, says something that shows she really believes in their faux kindness, and then they can mock her. Some of the things they do are so elaborate, it takes so much thought and effort to do them, you can hardly believe someone would go to all that trouble just to make another person unhappy.

  Well, that ticks me off. That gets me all intense, and I feel it building up, and I can move things.

  The trouble is, what do I move? It's not like the bully deserves to die or anything, so I can't make the roof cave in on them. Death may not be a big deal to us, but murder still is, and one of the rules that seem to govern the universe is that while we can do a little messing around with the material world, we're not allowed to kill. Just can't do it. Wish all we want, but if the thing we try to move might kill somebody, it just won't budge.

  So we've got to be resourceful. I mostly try for justice. A girl makes fun of another kid's big nose, I make sure the bully girl bumps into a door that wasn't quite where she thought it was. Big swollen nose, a shiner. Let her see how it feels to have other people stare at your face for a while. Or a bully boy who shoves little kids around -- I can arrange for him to twist his ankle or trip and fall headlong right as he's going after a kid, make him look bad in front of everybody or distract him with a little pain. My favorite, though, is to make it so when the bully just touches his victim, I make the victim's nose bleed like a river, make him bruise up around his eye or jaw. Doesn't really hurt the victim when I do it, but it makes it look like the bully did a full-out assault, gets him in so much trouble. A few times the bully's been so frightened by the injury he "caused" that he gets control of his hostility and stops picking on kids.

  But here's the problem. I'm working on justice, protecting kids from each other, trying to help change kids who've fallen in love with cruelty, help them start being a little more decent, learn a little compassion. But when you come right down to it, what am I actually doing? Causing pain. Hurting people. All in a good cause, right? But remember, the guy who judges you is the same one who said, "Turn the other cheek."

  I tell myself, I'd turn my own cheek. But he never said I have to turn away and not notice when somebody else is getting slapped, right? I mean, he also said that it was better to tie a millstone around your neck and jump into the sea than to hurt one of the little ones.

  But then I also have to be honest and tell myself that I'm hurting some of his little ones, too. The mean ones, the vicious ones, the ones that maybe he doesn't really think of as his. But if his capacity for forgiveness is infinite, the way some people say, then they're all his. Didn't he get ticked off at some moneychangers, though, and lash out with a scourge and knock over some tables? Surely he understands how we feel, those of us who are working on trying to stop the bullies.

  You know the real problem? There are so few of us. Few who have the ability even to see the living -- can't do much unless you can see what's going on! -- and even fewer who, seeing, care. Because most of the dead, they just disconnect from the living. So mortals are mean to each other. Big deal. Get over it. Get on with your ... well, your death. Whatever this is. You can't fix anything in the mortal world. You get no credit for it. You're already judged to be unworthy of heaven. So it's not like you've got a stake in what's going on.

  Just a few of us who care about the kids and have the ability to do anything about it. So even if we're making a difference in the lives of some kids, there are thousands, millions of others that we never see. That's not a reason to stop, though. It's a reason to try harder. It's not like we sleep. That's something, anyway. We got twenty-four hours a day.

  You do get tired, though. Not physically tired. Just tired in your soul. Seeing how many mean people there are. Seeing how eagerly the victims keep hoping that their parents will love them, that they'll find friends at school. And here we are, trying to help keep those hopes alive. It breaks your heart. It makes you want to despair sometimes, that despite all that hope, there's always a bully to dash it. Why do they hate happiness in other people so much? Especially the children -- where do they learn to take such pleasure in someone else's misery?

  Was I like that?

  Oh, man, that's the thing that comes back again and again. Every rude thing I ever said to another kid. There was this guy in junior high and high school, we were friends, you know? In plays together, in band. He was smart and talented, and I liked him. But one day, I'm sitting there with a song going through my head, and for some reason I come up with a new lyric for it that makes fun of this friend. A song about Bruce, talking about how conceited he is. And, well, he is, not so much conceited as really excited about all the cool things he can do. I think back on it and I realize, he wasn't vain, he was just thrilled to keep discovering new things he could do, and he thought he could share his excitement with his friends. Well, I cured him of that. Cause it wasn't just the one song. I sang that to my friends and they all laughed and that was it for me, the first talent I ever had -- a talent for musical meanness. I must have written twenty Brucie songs. Till Bruce stopped hanging around with us and it was no fun to sing it when he wasn't there. Made me look bad instead of clever.

  I th
ink back on that, I wonder where Nick was. Maybe Nick's gang saw me but figured, Bruce really was talented and smart, he really didn't need a loser like me for a friend. They didn't have to stop me, because I just wasn't important enough in Bruce's life for him to need rescue. I sure hope that's it. I hope I did no harm.

  That's the kind of thing that goes through your mind when you're on bully patrol. Way too much self-examination, if you ask me, but you can't help it, you keep seeing yourself in the bullies as much as in the victims. They're all kids, after all. Even if they're rotten and mean, they're kids. They might still become something worthwhile.

  * * *

  Christmas, that's the tough time. I had a whole year of learning, mostly on American streets because I knew the culture well enough to recognize what was going on with the kids and to be able to think of ways to help them. And just when I'm getting pretty deft and clever at bully-stopping, Nick comes to me and says, "It's the Christmas rush. Bully patrol is over till after the big day."

  It's obvious that it's Christmas. I mean, there's no missing it -- because Nick's in a red suit. When the decorations go up, there's all these pictures of him looking like Norman Rockwell's Coke-drinking Santa, and he just can't hold onto his civilian image, the red suit just pops right out of him and that's how he looks. And it's a good thing I can't see myself in mirrors, because I've got to tell you, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that I look really small and I'm wearing green. Sometimes you just want to yell at those advertising guys. Can't they leave us a little dignity?

  Christmas and the elves. That's when the serious thievery begins.

  Right, like you thought we actually made the toys! We're dead, and even if we were alive, most toys that kids actually want require serious machinery. Do you have any idea just how much equipment it takes to make one lousy little Lego? Let alone a whole Toy Story action figure. No, we don't make toys. We just redistribute them.

  And not in the stores. Think about it -- who goes to Toys R Us? People with no money? Hardly. So going to the parking lot and taking things out of one shopping cart and putting them in another, what good is that going to do? We can't move things far anyway -- it just wipes us out even to jostle stuff. So none of this stuff about bags of toys going down chimneys. It's pretty rare for something to show up under the tree that Mom and Dad didn't know about in advance.

  Besides, we have to be really intense in order to move things, right? So here's what we do on Christmas patrol.

  We watch for people with more than they need to be out around poor people. Or for poor kids to be in a place where there's plenty of money changing hands. I'll be teamed up with one of the singing elves, and she'll distract the rich guy while he's handling his money, while I liberate a five-dollar bill or sometimes even a twenty and cause it to drift down to the floor. Then I stand watch over it, keeping it from being noticed by anyone until the singer is able to entice some poor kid to be close enough, and then I push the five or the twenty -- or, heck, the buck or the quarter, cause sometimes that's all I can get -- out into the open, where the kid can see it.

  You know the amazing thing? The number of kids who immediately try to give it to the store owner, or take it straight to their parents. Well, once we give it to them, it's theirs to dispose of. The gift has been given. And when you think about it, maybe the best gift is for the kid with no money to give that twenty to the store owner, to prove that he doesn't really need that money, that it's more important to be a decent person than to have what money can buy. Or if he gives it to his parents, well, maybe that's food on the table. Sure, maybe it's booze, too, and that's why they're poor, but it's not the kid's fault, the kid did the right thing. He contributed to the family.

  About half the kids, though, they hang on to the money, and that's fine, that's even better, because you know what? Almost every time, they use some of it to buy themselves a treat -- ice cream or a candy bar, maybe a cooky -- but then the rest of the money goes straight into buying a gift for somebody else. A little brother or sister. Mom or Dad. Sometimes a teacher who's been good to them. I even saw one kid who had four dollars and twenty-eight cents in his fist -- change from the ice cream bar -- and he sees a kid who looks even more poor than him, and he just walks up and gives it to him and says, "Merry Christmas." Right then I loved that kid so much. Because he got it. He understood. None of that stuff goes with you when you die. Only what you did for other people, or to them, and what they did for you, and to you. That's all you have with you when you're dead. That kid, when he dies, he's going to have so much cool stuff. Because he has a good heart. He won't be walking around the streets of hell, no place to stay. He'll fit right in with the light, he'll pass that entrance exam, they'll greet him with songs, you know? And I got him the fiver that he was able to mostly share. That's something.

  That's Christmas. We just use the season to get gifts into the hands of children who don't have anything. It's about hope, just like what we do the rest of the year. That's what Nick does -- he's in the hope business.

  * * *

  So it's the day after Christmas, and we're back on the regular schedule, but Nick, he comes to me -- and the red suit hasn't faded yet, so he really looks like Santa Claus -- he comes to me and says, "Want to take the long hike with me?"

  I don't know what he's talking about, but I say, "Sure," because he wants me to and it's only thanks to him that I feel like I'm worth the space I take up, even on the streets of hell. Whatever the long hike is, it's not like I'll get tired or have to carry a pup tent on my back. So I say sure and off we go.

  Straight up to the light.

  And it's not a very long hike at all, not heading there. It's like, no matter where you are on earth, once you decide to find the light, there it is, just a little out of reach, up and over your shoulder. Nick, he goes like he knows the way, and I guess he does. Every year after Christmas, he goes back to the light and tries to get in. That's what I was along for. The other elves, I guess most of them have gone with him, some of them more than once. And I guess they were just as happy to have the new guy go along.

  Because there goes Nick, straight into the light, and you think, "Man, this time he's going to make it. This time he's getting out of hell!"

  He's in there so long. You have so much hope for him.

  And then ... pop. He's right back out. He looks at you. Shrugs his shoulders. "Better luck next time," he says.

  Only I was new at this. And I'd been working on my sense of outrage all year, you know? And it's not like I was getting into heaven any time soon. I mean, if Nick can't pass the entrance exam, you think I stand a chance?

  So I stand there and yell -- not speaking loud, because it's not actually, sound, but I'm really intense, you know? -- and I know I'm not supposed to get ticked off at the light for heaven's sake, but anyway, I yell, "Did you ever think that your stupid requirements might be too high? What've you got in there anyway, a bunch of pious martyrs? A bunch of goody-two-shoes never broke a rule in their lives? Well take a look at Nick here, he's on the front line, dead though he may be, he's trying to do something about it! I don't see you down there on the streets trying to make life better for kids! So what about that, huh? Ever think about how maybe some of the people in heaven aren't doing diddly-squat and maybe some of the people in hell are actually doing some good in the world?"

  Finally I say enough that the intensity wears off and I remember who I'm talking to and I think, Man, it's going to take, like, ten thousand years to work off the sheer blasphemy of what I just said.

  Only right then I hear something inside my mind, the way it must be when the singers do their lullabies for the suffering children. This voice, so soft, so kind, and all it says is, "Whatever you do for the least of my little ones, you've done it for me."

  And it about knocks me over. He sees. He knows. What we're doing. What our work is. He knows, and he loves us for it, and yet ...

  And yet Nick still can't get in.

  I look at him, and he shrugs
again. "Yelling doesn't solve anything," he says.

  And then he leads me on the long hike back. Yeah, that's the "long" part of the long hike. Getting to the light is quick. Getting back, that's hard and slow, because every step hurts, coming away from that beauty and going back to the plain old world with all the dead people preaching or being cool, and all the living people going about their business as if life were really long and they had all the time in the world. And you can't help but think, when you look at the living, you think: It's so easy for them, they can just do things, only they so rarely do anything that matters. So many children, all they need is a word and a smile, all they need is an act of kindness and generosity, something that any living person could give them, but so often they leave it up to the dead. But the ones who don't leave it up to us, the ones who are good to the kids, they're my friends, you know? They're my sisters and my brothers. I can't do anything to show them how I feel, but I'm glad they're alive. They're the only reason hell isn't more, well, hellish.

  Finally we got back, down on the streets of hell. And Nick says, "Another year to go."

  And I say, "Nick, thanks for letting me be part of it. Maybe it's not good enough for them, but it's good enough for me."

  And he grins and even though he doesn't move, it feels like he just clapped me on the shoulder, and he says, "Then it's good enough for me, too." And off he goes.