Eric Whitlow startled awake. It took him a long, panicked moment to register his surroundings: he was lying in bed, still in his older sister’s spare room with the unhappy pastel walls and the fuzzy wall-to-wall carpet, the bleak early-morning light streaming in through the gap in the closed curtains. The alarm clock said 5:21 am. Also, his dead seminary roommate Stephen Halethorpe was sitting at the end of his bed, wearing slightly baggy jeans and a black hoodie with the number 666 printed in red on the front.
“Um,” said the apparition. “Hi?”
Eric was momentarily too stunned to respond, to even scream. His rational mind knew that Stephen was gone, but since he had at one point seen Stephen glow blue and hover above the ground, he was disinclined to trust his mind over his eyes. He had no means to determine which of his nightmares were within the realm of the possible. Stephen could very well be an undead monstrosity for real. That said, he looked quite good. He looked well-rested, no light of fanaticism in his eyes, no burn-scars marring his skin.
“Sorry,” murmured the apparition, smoothing his hair out of his face. It was a little longer than it had been, growing out into proper curls. “I’m probably scaring you half to death.”
“No kidding,” blurted Eric, and he was surprised to hear a tinge of laughter in his own voice.
“Okay, so I died,” continued the apparition with a hurried, worried look. “I really did. I’m not really here, this is pretty much just a dream. But I died weird, they said, so I get to make some visits before I stay down there for good.”
“Hell,” said the apparition matter-of-factly.
Hell was real, then. Hell was real, and his friend was in it. The knowledge swept over Eric in a crushing wave of grief and horror, and he felt his body curl around itself to shut out the intolerable. After a few moments, someone shook his shoulder.
“Hey,” he heard. “Hey, come on. It’s not all that bad.”
“Damnation is not all that bad?” he asked, raising his head, glaring.
“It really isn’t. No worse than heaven, anyway,” he sighed, seeing Eric’s unconvinced expression. “There’s no judgement, or there is, but not the sort you expect. If you think you did good, you go to heaven. If you think you did bad, you go to hell. And once you’re there, once you’re properly on the other side of dead, you’ll see how you actually did. So heaven is full of folks who spend half of eternity contemplating the evil they did and trying to find atonement. And most people in hell figure they didn’t do all that bad, and then they get to, well, rest in peace.”
“So it’s not all pitchforks and fiery cauldrons?” asked Eric, slightly hysterical.
“No. There are hills covered in heather, and cold windy plains, and a city – I’m sure there must be more cities, but I’ve only gotten to see one so far. And sure, there are also the torture chambers, but only for the people who volunteer.”
“Sure. I mean there are some people who feel that they can only move on if they are punished, punished properly. And if it gives them peace down the line, they can ask for a taste of the suffering they inflicted. I met a man who’s been in shackles for centuries. It’s the only way he feels safe, you see, otherwise he’d have to worry about hurting someone.”
“What sort of God would create an opt-in hell?”
“A really hands-off one, I think,” Stephen mused. “I mean Hell mostly seems to run without his interference, and as far I know, so does Heaven. I think the Lord has provided for us, but he has more important things to work on than our little salvations and damnations.”
“So you all were damned,” asked Eric again. “You, John, everybody.”
“Well…” answered Stephen sheepishly. “I’m pretty sure the others are in Heaven. They died righteous, still under the influence of… that thing, convinced they were doing the work of God. Of course, now they’re probably figuring out they weren’t.”
“I got out earlier. It wasn’t on purpose, I messed up, they punished me, burned me, cast me out. And then. Then I was shown grace. Some of the people I attacked. They took me in. You’ve met them, I think.”
“It was that doctor Greta, and his friend, the vampire.”
“A vampire?” gasped Eric, a brand new kind of terrified.
“Yes, but that’s not the point,” continues Stephen. “They nursed me. Helped me. They asked me my name and I, I tore myself free.”
“From the…” lost for words, Eric indicated his own eyes.
“Yes. That thing,” nodded Stephen. ‘It was keeping me alive, and it killed me to be rid of it. It killed me really slowly, and it was… not good. Even with all the morphine. But it was worth it. At least I died knowing who I was and what I had done.”
Stephen was smiling. He seemed tired, wan, but a little proud.
“You’re glad you knew what you had done. But isn’t the knowing that damned you?”
“Well, it did,” responded Stephen. “But I’m still glad. It’s so much better to know good from evil. I’ve helped it kill people, and that is evil. I know it wasn’t all me, but I still helped it, and if I had caught on faster, I could have refused, maybe I could have stopped John from starting the whole dumb society in the first place. I can tell myself it wasn’t my fault, but it sort of was. I could have gotten out in time, like you did.”
“Much good did that do.”
“It did a lot of good!” argued Stephen, suddenly agitated. “You’re still alive. That’s a lot of good.”
Eric shook his head, but did not contradict him out loud.
“And I prefer to be down there,” continued Stephen. “Being up in heaven would be like pretending that the people who died, the people I killed don’t matter. Most of them are in heaven now, but one of them is down in Hell too. I met her, her name’s Jenny, and she’s a really lovely person. She deserved to live a long and happy life, and instead she died at age twenty-three with rosaries stuffed in her mouth, for the crime of selling sex and wearing a miniskirt in November. I mean even before I was taken over by that thing, I would have thought of her being immoral before I thought of her catching her death of cold, and that’s just unkind.”
“So what do are you going to do down there? What is there to do?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t been there for long. Time passes strange there, and I spent days just walking around, looking, thinking, talking to the people I met. I think I will explore the place, now I have all the time in the world. I might swim a lap or two in a flaming lake first, I probably deserve it.”
“You don’t-“ started Eric, but he was struck dumb by the sorrowful amusement in Stephen’s eyes. His forgiveness was not enough to undo what had been done. Whatever he said would be inadequate. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” answered Stephen, smiling that same smile again. “It’s a relief to finally know what is a sin and what isn’t. I’m damned for letting its hatred into my head, for picking up that sword and hurting people with it. But I’m not damned for other things, I’m not damned for… you.”
“Me?” asked Eric, his voice suddenly shrill. “You did absolutely nothing with me.”
“Well, no,” said Stephen, seemingly a little uncomfortable. “And I probably wouldn’t have. But I considered it.”
“What?” Stephen was looking away, and the colour in his cheeks was visible even in the cold dawnlight.
“You’re very. Um. Considerable.”
Eric found himself breaking into hiccupping, convulsive laughter: the dead and damned roommate he used to have a bit of a crush on was back from hell, sitting on his bed to tell him the bit of a crush was mutual, now, when it was too late to do anything about it.
No. It wasn’t too late to know.
“Thanks,” he said finally. “Is that why you came to visit me?”
“A little. But not really.” Stephen was visibly bracing himself for something – strange, after all the things he had already revealed with no effort. “I came to apologise. I wanted you to know I’m truly sorry. I hurt others, I hurt them worse, but you’re the one living person I did serious harm to, and I just wanted you to know. How sorry I am.”
“You did me no harm,” murmured Eric, almost embarrassed by the sincere intensity of Stephen’s words.
Stephen just looked at him, a long, searching, knowing look that took in his pallid complexion, the circles under his eyes, the untidy three-day stubble on his chin. It was sort of obvious that he didn’t sleep well or much, that hasn’t left the house in days and hasn’t seen a significant amount if daylight in an even longer time. He at least ate regularly since his sister started showing up with bacon sandwiches, tea, and a frown of determination.
“Yeah,” said Stephen. “And you dropped out of the seminary.”
Eric could only gape in response. He hardly thought of the Beazufort stret seminary anymore, except as the place where he had encountered the blue-eyed face of holy teror. He had a vague idea that he should find some sort of job as soon as he could reliably spend more than ten minutes outside his own room, but he could not bear to think of the future in any greater detail, it always seemed to slide out of his grasp. It hadn’t even occurred him to go back to the seminary.
“I mean, it’s a pity,” continued Stephen. “You would have made a good priest. Better than me, to be sure. You always seem to know what to say to people, how to talk to them. How to listen.”
“You want me to go back to the seminary?” choked Eric. “After all this?”
“You don’t have to stick with it,” protested Stephen. “You can go to a different one. Or go with the C of E, if you prefer, or the Unitarians, or whatever, really. It doesn’t have to be the priesthood at all, just… work with people.”
“How could I preach, how could I even pray, knowing what I know?” demanded Eric. “Hell is nice, heaven is boring, judgement is non-existent and god doesn’t care. That’s gonna make a nice little sermon.”
“I think he cares,” said Stephen tentatively. “I mean I still haven’t seen him in person, I might not see him for a long long time, but I think he cares. I mean, he created people who care. The doctor who treated me when I was excommunicated, she was one of the people I tried to kill. I wounded her, even. But still she found me and took me home and healed me as best she could. Her friend, he gave me water. You’ve met them, you’ve seen what they’re like, you must have seen them care. Even in hell, I met kindness after kindness. And you, you’re here listening to me, after all I did. That is divine providence right here. As long as someone cares, the Lord cares.”
“Not one sparrow shall fall?” asked Eric, and briefly saw and old expression twitch across Stephen’s face, the grimace he wore before he corrected an inaccurate quotation. But it melted into a smile of genuine relief.
“Yes, that’s exactly it. We have to keep watch ourselves, and we have to trust that someone will watch when we are the ones falling. That’s what it means to be a person in the world, and I think you’d be good at it.”
“I’ll try,” decided Eric. He felt more fearful than determined, but he could not shrug off the hope rising within him.
‘Thank you.” Seemingly on impulse, Stephen grabbed Eric’s hand, and pressed a kiss onto it. “Now I must be going. It will soon be morning, and I can’t hang around after the cock crows. Or the alarm rings, it’s the same thing.”
‘Will I see you again?’ asked Eric.
“I don’t think so,” answered Stephen. “You probably haven’t seen me now. You just had a weird dream about your old roommate.”
“Because I miss him,” said Eric, alarmed to find his voice growing tearful once again.
“Hey,” said Stephen. “You’re going to be fine. You’re going to do great. Go get some sleep now.”
“And you?” asked Eric, laying back down, suddenly on the edge of sleep.
“I, too, am going to rest,” Stephen said, tucking the blanket around Eric’s shoulder, and slowly fading into the warm darkness as Eric’s eyes closed.
In his dreams, Eric saw high hills of crawling with wind-combed heather, valleys where squat prefabricated buildings stood, red nasturtium spilling from their windowsills, and in the distance, beyond miles and miles of verdant fens, the twisting towers of the city proper. Under a sky of sunless, serene grey, he saw a young man start off on the long but well-paved path to the heart of hell, in search of a peace that passeth not understanding.