Hell is a place full of window shoppers. Mommies and daddies in flip-flops with visor golf caps pushing strollers and carts that pull to the left. It is a place where kids wear dog leashes and everyone shuffles past postmodern minimalist furniture made of compressed composite wood, vinyl, and rhinestones, in one direction. On the concrete floor, arrows point the way, in case you forget. Shuffling dead say little to each other. What is there to say? Flashes of what brought them here plague the mind like a cloud of locust a field of ripening grain. For Daniel Shea, better known as Danny Boy to the friends he never gets to hang out with anymore, it was an ill-fated family vacation.
It was a hydroplaning minivan and a washing machine tumble/slide full of blood and screams and viscera. It wasn’t any consolation that they had died together. After the first thousand years meandering through a painfully boring home furnishing forest, they may as well have been total strangers. He, the wife, the two up-right walking kids, and the baby. Dan had vague memories of how it had been when he arrived. An endless, snaking procession of shopping carts. A door greeter with broad, hulking shoulders and cherub wings. So cliché as to be laughable, like a lawn ornament, handing him a cart, and he, in a daze, accepting it.
The wife had been waiting with the stroller at the store entrance. She and the baby had died first. The kids followed shortly thereafter. Clean lines, harsh light, and eternity passed at a snail’s crawl in a warehouse for the damned without a dollar to spend or a house to fill with ugly furniture. Revolving, single file, through a mystical small intestine. If only they had decided to fly to Disneyworld instead of drive, he had thought on more than one occasion in those early days.
Up ahead, a man stared blankly into an empty refrigerator as if divining meaning within the void. Dan wasn’t sure what he saw within its vacant, well-lit shelves, but he was sure he didn’t want to know. Yell questions loud enough into the blackness of appliances and eventually the echo becomes an answer. Dan had seen it happen. Housewives in bathrobes in the kitchen section awaiting husbands who would never return home from work. Their empty cupboards, stainless faucets, and glassy eyes all a testament to the savage, underlying insanity. Dan made a point of avoiding eye contact with the kitchen dwellers.
Up ahead, the aisle jogged to the right. They entered a forest of fake potted plants. Here he was accosted by the stale foot odor of naked humanity who sought refuge among plastic tendrils. Like whack-a-moles they popped up around tall, phallic palm trees only to disappear again, once spotted. In death, the food courts only serve Swedish meatballs. Let that sink in for a minute. The furniture is all ready-to-assemble. The drapes are maroon, beige, fuchsia, and champagne. The sheets are white linen.
About a hundred years ago Dan had had a conversation with a Catholic priest who had been flayed with a potato peeler for daring to walk in the wrong direction. “What possible enjoyment could the Devil get out of our suffering?” “What makes you think it’s the Devil who runs this place?” The priest replied, running a line of rosary beads through his skinless fingers. The beads were so worn they looked like a melted candy necklace after a two day rave. That had been the start of a persistent theory for Daniel Shea. What if aliens were abducting the dead and bringing them here to this place of ultimate consumerism and pain?
That he was aboard a mothership, suffering the trails of Dante Alighieri in an air conditioned, classy, chic, minimalist inferno was not so farfetched when one considered the trials of lab rats. The answer was not to be found staring into the howling emptiness of a double-breasted stainless refrigerator, but in a reply to the question, what need did the dead serve here in this faux pas singularity? What function could sentient beings, kept conscious on a Mobius strip in a rudimentary plane of existence, serve the fourth dimensional Swedish overlords?
Somewhere in the mattress section a woman shrieked about the appalling lack of service. Dan shivered, focusing instead on the cool jazz piped in through an overhead intercom system. It has to be a disease, he thought. Rats in a maze hunt for cheese without ever realizing their contribution to medical science. Why should the dead be any different? Perhaps the spacecraft was powered by the perpetual motion of shuffling feet? At last, a seemingly limitless fuel source. Without a word, Dan stopped in a vast sea of oaken dressers for a breather. One of his kids, the girl, said to him the most loathsome words in the English language. “Are we there yet?”
And he fought the urge to throttle her where she stood. It wouldn’t do any good. “Almost there, sweetie,” he said instead. It was a mechanical exchange; what their relationship had been reduced to. He thought about the potato peeler and the cool jazz. He thought about Cthulhu monsters waiting on the other side of all that cold, refrigerated light. A sales rep with night-black cape and scorpion pincers approached. “Anything I can help you folks with?” Instead of shaking his head listlessly, as was customary for any who were approached by a sales rep, Dan heard himself say, “Yes, in fact, there is. I’d like to speak with your manager, please.”
The ghoul hesitated, clearly off-put. “And what should I tell him this is in regards to?” “I’d like to file a formal complaint,” Dan said. The children gasped, as did the wife. Twin curls of sulfur fumes arose from the monster’s nostrils. “Right this way,” the monster gestured. Dan followed, leaving his wife and kids in that wilderness of postmodern décor. With any luck, his days of window shopping were over. Even if management saw fit to core his eyes out. At least it would be something new.
Olin Wish is a husband, father of three young children, student and full time bread winner. He currently resides in a small, mid-western town in the United States. A place where the dust and the wind never let up and steel mills and prisons dot the landscape to the edge of the horizon. He has been published by Kleft Jaw, Deep Water Literary Journal, Tulip Tree Publishing and Sci-Phi Magazine, among others.