Bucks County Writers Workshop
Nineteen by Alan Shils
fc. Louis Bolus, reporting. But I don't see anyone to report to. Maybe I can drop the Pfc. and other formality? I was nineteen years old and on a patrol as part of an attempt to install democracy and steal oil under the guise of fighting terrorism. We did topple a nasty dictator and kill off his two equally psycho- sons but with so many crazies in the region that was like spit on a forest fire. Regardless of the hair- brained politics, a mine took out several in my patrol. I actually saw the bomb rip my buddy to shreds and blow my legs off. The rest is a little foggy but I was carried into a doorway, heard a lot of shooting, got some first-aid and was bounced around in a vehicle missing its tailgate. I got a chopper ride to a medic unit where my comatose attempts to scream I'm alive were so futile they zipped me in a body bag and shipped me home. You can read what it's like being almost buried alive in that classic Twilight Zone story or Mr. King's Autopsy Room. Seems many writers feel the need to describe being rescued from a live burial. But I don't think I was rescued. Maybe I died of thirst. I don't think I had an autopsy but I think I got a small town funeral. Although I continually, desperately, tried to, I could not at all assert, I am ALIVE. Yes, it is terrifying.
Now, I'm looking around in a black room without walls. But it isn't a tent. Stuff is painted or projected on something. Maybe I'm seeing through walls. A lot is going on in the distance. Or, nearby because I don't have a good perception of distance. Things may be hundreds of miles away or a few yards from me. Maybe it's all pictures. Some shimmering thing, definitely not an officer, is coming toward me. I can see him and I can also see through... it. The thing is like the pictures. Maybe real; maybe not real. Maybe here; maybe there. "Welcome, Mr. Bolus. I am Assistant 2526 and I will prepare you for your Eternal Stay," it says. I'm speechless. And everything- else-less since that thing blew apart most of my platoon. "I know. It is confusing. Any questions? Is it too warm for you?"
Warm? I may as well try to speak. "Did you say... warm?" I did speak!
"The thermostat is over there. Forget flames and sulphur. We administrators like our comforts and we've had central air and heat for eons. Your tour starts now, Bolus, then you'll get your Eternal Assignment. Follow me."
What kind of dream is this? Flying home? Being buried? This must be a reaction to the anesthetic while they fix my legs. It must be, right?
"Over there is our WDZ, War-Dead-Zone. Normally, you'd be assigned there, having been killed in action but Computer Central says otherwise. Yeah, we've had computers since Moses was in diapers."
I interrupted him. "I think there is a question as to whether I was killed. I was... am, alive but so paralyzed they thought... think, I'm dead."
"Forget the nasty little details, Bolus. We don't care about them so why don't you try to relax? Look yonder," it pointed, with an arm dripping green-blue goo. "Those were promised a ticket to Heaven if they fought for some SOB's dirty, selfish plots. Fact is, heaven doesn't want warriors. Wouldn't get them if it did because we get everyone. A few hundred million of them out there do road maintenance and janitorial work. Officers, too, including the brass. And the top management of war industries. Want to stop war, Bolus? Take the profit out of it. That was a joke, Bolus. Lighten up."
In that WDZ I saw countless picture-like-things blowing up stuff including each other and shoveling the debris around. It was all accompanied by unmentionable suffering and looked pathetically hopeless. I tried to consider the bright side of war being the R&D spinoff to better all people, but I remembered dead buddies and my missing legs.
"Over this hill... Hey! Stay on the path!" 2526 had grabbed my butt and pulled me onto the road. "You don't want to fall into a Ravine, Bolus. You can't get hurt there, but it could be years before we fish you out and properly ID you. The Lost Ones Below are assigned to the Ravine and they are so screwed-up it's even confusing as to who's who. We were working on a personal bar-code ID system but that project is a mess. Stick close to me until you know your way around. Look over there."
Suddenly, a burst of colorfully glowing gas rose from the Ravine. It smelled like wild-flowers! At first. Then, it became an indescribable mixed stench of dead fish, feces and other rotted stuff. I choked.
"You got Farted, Bolus." 2526 laughed the rasp of an asthmatic burro.
"The Lost Ones Below are pranksters. They were nobodies who now have nothing to do forever. They collect gas and mindlessly switch it between different fragrances. I've gotten peppermint, chocolate, arm-pit-crud, lots of things but no sulfur. Next stop is the Paper Shuffle Court."
We came over a rise and I gazed upon endless fields of desks, file cabinets and countless millions of people-things aimlessly shuffling papers; putting papers into files; taking papers from files; shuffling them some more and constantly trading papers with others for more shuffling, filing and unfiling. I had never seen such pointless activity, even in the army. A sign over the incredibly huge, open-air office said, Arbeit Macht Frei.
"Those are the Lost Ones Above. They were bureaucrats, politicians, clerks and the like. They never did anything worthwhile and now they know they are forever busy doing nothing. We, in administration, use PC's but they aren't allowed near a computer and they don't even know they are generating the heat for this place so we don't all freeze. Friction, my friend. Over there, I'll show you what we do with criminals."
Criminals? Just convicting and jailing or executing them was always good enough for me. 2526 opened a door. If it was a door. It's also difficult to tell the difference between walls, floor and ceiling. He stepped aside so I could peek into a huge cavern jammed with innumerable body-things packed denser than sardines. People wouldn't be able to take a fraction of a breath but these wretched things were writhing around and making sounds like, "Glad I killed you," and, "Enjoy your rape," and, "I'm stealing millions from stockholders," verbalizing every crime imaginable.
"This is our CFCI: Cave of Frustrated Criminal Intent. Nothing bugs low-life more than not being able to continue their favorite crimes. Drives them nuts. Next, the Children's Section."
"Wait up," I interrupted him. "How can kids be here? They're innocent."
"Quaint, Bolus. Innocent is just another fairy-tale concept. If you were born, you stay here forever after you are Done Being Alive. DBA: Done Being Alive. Not dead. We don't do dead. The age at which one becomes DBA doesn't matter. We are working on a scheme for PBA, Pre Being Alive but that needs much more research. Now, look here."
As jammed together as the criminals were, this place is wide open. Children, if that's what those are, are playing in a field of flowers! They appear to be happy in the bright sun-like-light. Oops. It was bright. A dirt-cloud suddenly arose and the whole place went a grim brownish-grey and emitted a combination of horrid aromas. I gagged. The children-things fell to the ground and contorted through the billows of acrid, translucent gas. Then, it brightened up again. I was too stunned and Assistant had to call my name a few times until I responded.
"Hey, Bolus. Am I boring you? Pay attention. That gas is piped from the Ravine. Like your Old Faithful. It reminds kids that paradise is just a synonym for crap. This section was a disaster but it runs effortlessly since we put Mister Rogers in charge. Keep moving, Bolus."
"Yeah?" 2526 sounded bored.
"What's the population here?"
"About a billion. Everyone who ever was DBA. I can get the exact number at the office. But I'll tell you, the joint will soon be busting at the seams. Topside, the population is six billion and growing. We have to expand to have room for everyone who will soon arrive."
"And... what's the population of Heaven?"
"We don't dig 'soul.' Except the music. Just four things."
"Who... are they?" I asked with much trepidation.
"God, Pete, Einstein and MT."
"Oh." Like I understood. "Do you mean the one and only Albert Einstein?"
"Was there any other? You're going to ask why he's there. He was expelled to Heaven because he almost figured out how this place works. And, he was getting too close with that Unified Field Theory thing. We dumped him. Now, he and God can play chess all day or discuss philosophy or rent and toss a few dwarfs around or do whatever the hell they want."
Toss dwarfs? What's that? "What did Einstein almost figure out?"
"I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you." 2526 laughed like hell. It was as cheerful sounding as flushing a live cat. I ignored his merriment and when he became upright I asked, "Mother Theresa? She, I assume, went directly to Heaven."
"You weren't listening, Bolus. I told you everyone comes here. But, man-oh-man, what a pain-in- the-ass! She drove everyone daffy. So we gave her the boot. She was only the second Request to Expel. A.E. was first. Know what I heard? She has the hots for old Albert! Can you beat that? Two more stops, Bolus, and the show's over."
We walked onto a narrow bridge over a lake of red, jelly-like stuff with ugly things resembling grotesque fish jumping above the surface, skittering along the top, then vanishing beneath the frothy, stinking slop.
"Don't even get close to the rail, Bolus. Those BT&Fs can be nasty. This is the Lagoon of Bad Thoughts And Feelings. Those are the remains of the things that harbored them. They swim in jellied blood spiced with bacteria and parasites. We like to kick-it-up-a-notch, too." Assistant screeched another laugh including, "Hell-of-a-way to spend eternity, isn't it, Bolus?" and changed its squawk to a strangling rasp.
We had just stepped off the bridge over the horrid lagoon when I gazed at the biggest, fanciest, mountain hotel for the super-rich you could imagine. Many colossal complexes are each comprised of numerous immense palaces. There must be a million rooms! Each mansion sports countless swimming pools, several racetracks, untold tennis courts and all manner of other diversions. Ski-lodges and slopes cover the nearby hills. There are even three airports. Above it all is a rainbow size neon sign flashing: Benedicte sunt pauper qui vere laborant.
"That, Bolus, is our FOD, Field of Dreams. You might play baseball there. You might play any damn thing you want to. If you could. It's another special version of Paradise."
Next door to the gargantuan pleasure preserves appeared to be an exact replica of the huge territory except this one is under construction. "Is that your facilities expansion plan?"
"Nice guess, Bolus, but, no. See all the workers building that place? They just finished building the one over there. As soon as they finish building this one they will demolish the other one and rebuild it. Then, they will demolish this one that is now under construction and rebuild it. Know what the sign says? Of course not. You almost flunked Latin. It says, 'Blessed are the poor bastards that actually do the work.' Pretty cool, right?"
How did he know I almost flunked Latin?
"Well, Bolus, show's over. Your eternal assignment is... Let's see." 2526 consulted its laptop. "Says here you were a writer. Amateur. That means you didn't make your living at writing. Unpublished... Except a couple of local magazine short fiction things and a few items on a web-site for a writing group. Okay, Bolus, here's the scoop. You're not going to the WDZ, War-Dead-Zone. You are going to the WR. Writers Room."
The what? "Isn't that in a town in... Pennsylvania? Same town as that Bucks County Writers... something?"
"Hey, Bolus, do I look like a literary guide? All I know is you will write for all eternity."
"That doesn't exactly sound like..."
"Punishment? It is. Because..."
It suddenly hit me but before I could say it, 2526 did.
"Nobody will ever read anything you write. Follow me, Bolus, and stay on the path."