The Least Evil Person in Hell
Jack stood in a line that literally stretched for miles. He had no recollection of getting in the line, but he was next to be serviced. He didn’t know where he was or why he was there, but he had a nagging twinge of anxiousness, as if he were forgetting something. A ticket of admission, perhaps. Or his keys.
Mountains erupted with lava in the distance. Lighting streaked across the murky red sky at jagged angles. The ground was charred completely black, aside from the streaky cracks of lava that reminded Jack of lighting bugs when you smear them with your shoe on the pavement. Geysers of lava erupted spontaneously all around. Creatures like pterodactyls circled above, squawking their displeasure. The air was filled with the smell of smoke. To Jack, it smelled like Halloween.
On either side of Jack were what seemed to be an infinite number of lines stretching an infinite number of miles into the distance, disappearing into a dark fog over the horizon. The lines were composed of people of all shapes and sizes and colors and genders and styles and personalities. They all wore blank expressions with glossy eyes and stood completely still as they waited for their respective lines to advance.
The destination of each line was a shoddy booth, similar to what you’d find as you exit a parking garage. The scene reminded Jack of the entrance to Disney World, dread and all.
The person in front of Jack concluded their business at the booth and staggered toward the base of a great black mountain that towered just beyond. There was a large opening in the rocky wall that glowed bright red. Despite its ominous nature, Jack felt drawn toward the cave.
Jack had no desire of approaching the booth, yet his legs disobeyed him. When his legs finally stopped, he found himself face to face with a red creature with yellow eyes and a trio of horns on the front of its forehead. Beyond these obvious defects, the creature was surprisingly human. It had bushy black eyebrows with a mane of black hair to match, as well as a long flat nose that, to Jack, seemed rather phallic. The creature’s face was strikingly symmetrical and angular, with sharp cheek bones and a strong jawline. It wore a white, short sleeve button down shirt with a red and black striped tie. On the right side of its chest, just above the shirt pocket, was a laminated nametag: “Demogorgon.”
“Hello?” Jack asked.
“Hello.” The creature replied.
“Is this-,” Jack started.
“Hell, yes,” the creature labeled Demogorgon interrupted. He sounded as if he had been gargling gravel his entire life. Demogorgon continued, “Or rather, yes, this is Hell. Not ‘Hell yes!’ like the expression. You’ll find that nobody down here is quite that enthusiastic.” Demogorgon gave a smokey, lighthearted chuckle.
“Okay…so now what?”
“What do you mean ‘now what?’ Now you walk on in.” Demogorgon extended his lanky arm and pointed toward the glowing red entrance on the face of the black mountain. His red skin was wrapped tightly around his bones, making his joints protrude like doorknobs. “Did you expect a welcome basket or something? This is it, man. This is forever.”
“I just walk on in?”
“You just walk on in.”
Jack looked around at the other lines. Everyone else seemed to be having long, meaningful conversations with their booth tellers. He quickly brainstormed more questions to ask, so as not to stand out for being too quick.
“If this is Hell, are you…”
“The Devil? God, no. I’m Demogorgon.” The creature produced an ear-to-ear grin as he displayed his name tag like a gameshow host displaying a potential prize. “But you can call me Gorgo.”
“Gorgo, are you sure I just walk on in? Everyone else seems to be taking much longer than we are. I can’t help but feel like you’re forgetting to tell me something.”
Gorgo’s face sunk into a frown. “First of all, I’ve been doing this for three hundred thousand years, pal. Don’t tell me how to do my job. Second of all, they’re probably just having mental breakdowns. It’s very common.” Gorgo lifted an eyebrow and looked Jack up and down. “In fact, you seem to be an awfully cool customer, Jack. You some sort of freak or something? You don’t look like one. But then again most don’t.”
Jack was not a freak, despite what Rachel Wallace had told all the kids in third grade after she found him hissing at snakes during a school field trip to the zoo. It was a freaky moment, to be sure. But it did not define him. Jack was no freak.
He chose not to unpack this with Gorgo. Instead, he began to take in the Hellish scenery. There were screams in the distance. Jack thought it might be one of those pterodactyl creatures flying overhead, but it sounded eerily human.
He noticed his pulse was racing; he was becoming alarmed. Not because he was in Hell, but because of how indifferent he felt about it. He should be terrified. This is what his parents had warned him about every time he used the Lord’s name in vain or smothered his little brother with couch cushions. Yet, he felt calmer than he’d ever felt in all his time being alive. It was as if a boulder of expectations had been lifted off his shoulders. No more bills. No more letting people down. No more feeling inadequate compared to people he’d never met. No more caring what other people thought and did and felt. No more having to watch what he ate or wondering if he’s flossing enough or internally justifying another glass of bourbon before bed. No more filling every day with distractions before today became tomorrow and he had to do it all again. Maybe he was a freak.
Jack turned back to the booth.
“Gorgo, how exactly did I get here?”
“That seems obvious.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“Okay. How did I die?” Jack shook his head in confusion, hoping to jar something loose. “I can’t seem to remember anything.”
Gorgo gave an exaggerated sigh before pivoting his office chair fifteen degrees to the left, bringing him face to face with a computer monitor.
“Let’s look it up, shall we?” He began clacking away on the keyboard with his lanky fingers. “I hope it was something horrific.” He muttered under his breath.
Jack continued to digest his situation as he waited. He had been thirty-five years old and squeezed as much out of life as he thought was reasonable. Living much longer than thirty-five years would have been selfish, he thought. The best was already behind him — why not leave some life for everyone else to live? He would miss his wife, he supposed, and his two boys. But ultimately, he was ready for whatever was next. He was ready to move on.
“Ha — great! Just great!” Gorgo snapped, stealing back Jack’s attention. “Damn thing is always freezing up!” He smacked the side of the monitor several times. “Okay, wait. Here we go. Jack Cooper, Cooper, Cooper, Cooper. Ah, here you are, Jack Clarence Cooper.” Gorgo turned back to Jack and his eyes lit up. “Hey, I have an uncle named Clarence! Good guy.”
“Terrible taste in music, though.”
“Anyway, it says here you died by drowning.”
“In a dolphin tank.”
“In a dolphin tank?”
“Yes, you died by drowning in a dolphin tank. It says here you were trying to save a child who fell in the tank while you were visiting the aquarium with your family.”
“That sounds noble.”
“So then why am I here? Isn’t Hell for bad people?”
“There can be a lot of contributing factors,” Gorgo explained. “Let’s dive a bit deeper and see just how bad of a person you really are.” Gorgo pivoted back to the monitor. He had barely resumed clacking on the keyboard before he erupted again. “Frozen! Again! Can you believe this!? I put in a request for a new one of these things decades ago. And what? Nothing. I get that this is Hell and all but c’mon. It’s not supposed to be my personal Hell.”
Jack failed to sympathize with Gorgo’s frustrations. His mind was foggy as he desperately tried to remember his supposed encounter with a dolphin in an aquarium tank. It was unlike him to try to save a drowning child. For the most part, he was a pretty uninspired person. Even if his own child were drowning in a dolphin tank he’d have to go through some mental gymnastics before concluding that he should jump in a tank of water to try to save them. He never did like attention.
“Okay, here we go. Cool. So, yeah, helping a drowning kid. Super great. Super noble. Earned you a lot of Good Will in the system. Gaga amounts of positive points in the Big Man’s eyes upstairs. But…here’s the thing. You actually did more harm than good.”
“Well, for one, you failed. The kid still drowned.”
“I never was a good swimmer.”
“But don’t I at least get credit for trying? That has to count for something.”
“You do. You did. Like I said, wowza amounts of points for trying. But the problem is all you really managed to do was kill yourself, leaving behind a wife with no husband and two small children without a father. This ends up having long lasting effects on all of them. Lifelong effects. All three end up in therapy. Your wife ends up in a second marriage with a man who abuses her. One of the children, Charlie, it says, ends up an alcoholic. All because you just had to jump in a dolphin tank to save a drowning child.”
Jack felt a twinge of regret for his wife and eldest son, but he doubted Charlie would have ended up much better even if Jack had stuck around. He once walked in on his younger son in the bathroom staring intensely at his own reflection. His nose was nearly pressed up against the glass and his eyes seemed dead. When Jack asked the boy what he was doing, he replied that he was trying to see the man inside his head. Jack slept with the bedroom door locked that night.
“I suppose that makes sense.” Jack quietly replied.
“Right, right. And that’s not all. A lot of people saw what happened. Lot of witnesses. Lot of children. You managed to traumatize most of them in addition to your own family. Six other kids will go on to need therapy because of the image of your lifeless body floating in the tank. Three adults will refuse to go near bodies of water the rest of their lives, impacting numerous would-be vacations. One child even develops a crippling fear of Twinkies.”
“Twinkies? What do Twinkies have to do with it?”
“You were wearing a yellow sweater. When your body floated to the surface it prompted one of the adults to say, and I quote ‘Oh my God, oh my God. David look. Look David. He looks like a giant floating Twinkie out there. A big ol’ stupid floating Twinkie.”
“Okay, I added that last part. But seriously, a child nearby overheard the Twinkie comment, and the mere sight of a Twinkie will send her into a full-blown panic for the rest of her life.”
Jack knew the yellow sweater. It had been a Christmas gift from his Mother-In-Law who was notoriously bad at gift giving. The words “Cheesy Christmas Sweater” were stitched across the front in generic white font. This infuriated Jack because there was nothing “cheesy” about the sweater other than the fact that it was yellow, and there was nothing “Christmas-y” about the sweater other than the fact that it said “Christmas.” It was the stupidest sweater in the world. So, of course, this stupid sweater had lured in his stupid mother-in-law with its unseen magnetic force of stupidity. But out of a sense of guilt or obligation or shame or some combination, he refused to throw it out and made a point to wear it once a year. It was quite comfortable, after all.
“Okay. I died by drowning in a dolphin tank while trying to save a child that wasn’t my own. I can accept that I guess. Now I walk on in and then what? There’s a sign telling me where to go?”
“Let me look up your room number.” Gorgo turned back to his computer and began clacking away on the keyboard. “Most people believe Hell is a series of rings, but it’s actually much more like a hotel. Except there’s no room service. Or complimentary breakfast. And in a lot of cases, no beds.” Gorgo explained all this without breaking gaze from his computer screen. “Each person is assigned a different room based on the amount of Will they’ve accumulated during their life. Every action, thought, or belief you ever had as a living person was assigned a numerical value of Will. For example, holding a door open for someone is good. So that earns you Good Will.” Gorgo grabbed a Styrofoam cup of mysterious sludge off his desk and took a long draw as he continued to type with his free hand.
“What about the bad things?” Jack asked.
“Ahh, c’mon, Jack. You’re a smart guy. If the good things earn you Good Will then the bad things must earn you Bad Will. Littering: Bad Will. Parking in a handicap spot: Bad Will. Murder: very Bad Will.
“And then at the end of your life, as you’re slipping away into nothingness, we add up all the Will you’ve accumulated and spit you out where you belong. If you’re in the green, you go to Heaven. If you’re in the red, you come here.”
Gorgo concluded his business with the computer and turned to face Jack.
“We know you’re in the red, otherwise you wouldn’t be here with me. And we know you did a bit of damage on your way out the door. But just how bad of a person were you, Jack?”
Gorgo dramatically paused, letting the question hang between them. In that instant, Jack contemplated every decision he had ever made in his life. He had never considered himself a bad person, but if trying to save a drowning child made him bad, then he couldn’t think of many things that made him good.
“We’re about to find out.”
Gorgo dramatically pushed a button on his keyboard. Nothing happened. The enthusiasm drained from his face. He looked at the screen.
“FROZEN! AGAIN!” He wound up his arm and smacked the side of the monitor with all his might. Suddenly, the screen flashed a multitude of colors in rapid succession. Jack thought maybe Gorgo had broken the machine for good, but the flashing soon ceased and Gorgo processed what he was looking at on the screen.
“Huh.” Gorgo uttered.
“Huh?” Jack countered.
“Huh. This can’t be right.” Gorgo smacked the side of the computer a few more times. “This can’t be right,” he repeated in disbelief.
Gorgo turned the screen around so Jack could get a proper view.
“You see this number?” he said, pointing to the screen with a long, pointed nail.
Jack did see the number. It said -0.0000000083.
“That’s your total Good Will. Or Bad Will, rather, since it’s negative.”
“You don’t get it, do you? We have a really simple system. Anyone above zero goes to Heaven. Anyone below zero comes here to Hell. But you? You’re at -0. 0000000083.”
“Do you realize how close you were to spending eternity in Heaven? You were one pleasantry away from meeting Jesus instead of me. I literally can’t over emphasize how much better it is up there than down here.”
Jack blinked some more.
“In fact,” Gorgo continued, rubbing his chin, “if you hadn’t worn that yellow sweater and traumatized that kid, you probably would have been fine.”
Gorgo seemed to be talking more to himself now than to Jack. “You have to be the least evil person to ever step foot in this place. A mathematical anomaly. I don’t even know how you earn a fraction of Bad Will. Telling someone ‘thank you’ is five points alone. In fact…” Gorgo spun around in his chair and grabbed a giant book labeled ‘RULES’ off a shelf and began to leaf through the pages. “…I don’t even know where to put you.”
“I guess I don’t just walk on in after all” Jack said with a hint of mockery.
“Typically, it really is that simple. But the manual clearly states that even the first level of Hell is reserved for anyone with a Bad Will lower than -1. You technically don’t fall in that category.”
“Send me to Heaven then.”
“Ha. Good one, Jack. But rules are rules. Your life ended with you in the red, so you’re stuck here with us. It’s just a matter of where…”
Gorgo reached under his desk and pulled out a telephone.
“I have to make a call.”
Elsewhere, in the deepest canals of the underworld, a sharply dressed demon clutched a filing folder tightly to his chest. He walked briskly down a stark black hallway that was completely bare aside from the occasional unmotivational poster. “Persevere,” one read, paired with an image of raging fire improbably overtaking the Earth’s oceans.
The demon’s hooves echoed authoritatively down the featureless hallway as he approached a door marked 999. He barged through the door with an air of confidence and familiarity.
“Pederson.” Satan nonchalantly greeted the demon without looking up from the crossword puzzle on his comically large desk.
Pederson pointed over his shoulder toward the door. “What’s with the nine-nine-nine, sir?”
“Don’t get me started. Maintenance guy hung it upside down. You’d think at least one quality handy man would become a serial killer and get sent down here.”
“Er-…right.” Pederson stalled, unsure how to proceed. After a dreadful silence he hesitantly walked the folder toward Satan’s desk. He slowly pushed it forward until it invaded Satan’s vision.
Satan lifted his head and peered at Pederson down the bridge of his nose and through the lenses of his glasses. “Yes?”
“We have a bit of a situation, sir.”
“Situation? What kind of situation?” Satan took his glasses off, visually frustrated. “Is Stalin staging another coup?”
“Un, no. No, sir. Nothing like that. But it is, uh…it is messy.” Pederson nodded toward the folder on Satan’s desk, inviting him to take a peek. Satan let out a sigh and flipped the folder open.
“What do I need you for if you’re going to make me read these things anyway?” Satan looked down at the paper in front of him and shook his head incredulously.
“What I’m looking at?”
“Well, sir, it appears we’ve hit a bit of a snag.”
“Yes, sir, a snag. You see, we have a new resident. A Mr. Jack Cooper. A Mr. Jack Clarence Cooper.”
“Huh. I have an uncle named Clarence. Good guy. Awful breath, though.”
“Uh…yes. Well, it appears this Jack Cooper…well. His Bad Will is less than negative one, sir.”
“Well, sir, technically speaking, we don’t have anywhere to put him. The first level of Hell is reserved for anyone with a Bad Will lower than negative one. His is only negative zero point oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh eight three.”
“Send him to Heaven if he’s such a great guy.”
“They won’t take him, sir.
“Send him to Purgatory, then.”
“They won’t take him, either. By the book, it’s not their problem.”
“The book.” Satan let out a large sigh and leaned back in his chair, pinching his eyes. “How did this happen, anyway?”
Pederson shifted his weight in the chair. “It appears to be a uh, an administrative error, sir.”
Satan gave Pederson a blank stare. “What’s your title, Pederson?”
“The Administrator of General Services, sir,” Pederson replied reluctantly.
“So, this is your fault?”
“Well, sir, there are a lot of moving parts with these types of thing-“
“You know what, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.” Satan looked off into space, thinking to himself for a beat. “So, what? We need to create a personal Hell for this guy?”
“That seems to be the most logical course of action, sir.”
“We haven’t done that in a while.” Satan stood up with a surge of enthusiasm. He began pacing around the room. “Okay, we can figure this out. What’s this guy’s deal? This Jack? He’s just kind of a dick or something?”
“Basically, sir. Bad tipper. Rarely used a turn signal. Very few redeeming qualities to speak of.”
“Was he happy?” Satan asked.
“Well, happiness is always tricky to gauge. But no, no I wouldn’t say he was happy. He hated his wife. Feared his kids. Hated his job.”
Satan stopped pacing and turned to Pederson. He held his arms out to his sides as if the answer was obvious. “Just give him that.”
“Give him what?”
“That. What you just said. Give him his old life back.”
Pederson stopped to consider this. “Which parts?”
“All the parts.”
“Even the good ones?”
“There were good ones?”
Pederson flipped through the file quickly. He settled on a page and his finger began tracing up and down as he read. “Not really, I suppose. He got a trampoline for his seventh birthday. It’s been steadily downhill from there. According to this, the only time he’s happy is when he’s enjoying a root beer float.”
“That’s because root beer floats are delicious.”
“They are sir.”
“Well, there we have it. I hereby condemn Jack Cooper to his old life, for eternity. The wife. The scary kids. The dead end job. Problem solved.”
“Very well, sir. He’s sure to be mildly upset at that.” Pederson retrieved the file from Satan’s desk and went to leave. “I’ll make sure it gets in the system.”
As Pederson went to close the door, Satan stopped him. “Pederson.”
“Don’t ever let this happen again.”
“Of course, sir. I won’t.”
“Whatever the Hell this even is.”