Garrett Easterly leaned heavily against the wall, pressing the entire left side of his face against the cool surface. He had bright spots flashing in the center of his eyes, making his head pound and his stomach roll. He thought that maybe his breakfast from four days ago was going to make an appearance, but he wasn’t sure if a dead person could vomit.
“If you had listened to me, none of this would have happened!” A loud, rather authoritarian voice said behind them. Some one pushed against his shoulder and he stumbled, falling down to his knees in the middle of someone’s entrains. Something’s.
“Mr. Tough Guy, Mr. Special Operations. Mr. I-Know-All-About-Hell.” The voice grumbled from above him.
Garrett kept his eyes closed. His world was still spinning and he wasn’t sure of what he feared most at this time. Maybe this was him tripping again, one really bad trip from those mushrooms he’d eaten even though he knew he could be called in at anytime. His C.O. would kill him for this one.
Or maybe it wasn’t a drug-induced hallucination at all and he was really, truly dead. Stuck in Purgatory, paying for the sins he’d committed during his thirty-four years of life.
“Get off your knees, Easterly. You’re making me look bad.” One small hand closed around the back of his neck and yanked him clear up to his feet. His eyes opened, only to focus on a blunt green stare. “We’ve got move or they’ll catch up to us. Do you understand me?”
As it had turned out, he didn’t know shit about Hell. At least not this physical Hell. He’d gotten close and personal with his inner demons before, but never before had he watched one be gutted from skull to stomach. The stench of the seven-legged creature and the slight of blood the color of puss seeping out of its flesh was more than even a hardened soldier could take.
“That’s what we call a uli. He was a human, at some point. But time in Purgatory has let his true nature show. And that motherfucker was ugly on inside, see?”
The woman—was she a woman?—kicked the dead creature as she stepped over it. Her short, straight red hair bounced as she scrapped the soles of her combat boots to the cement floor to clean it. She sheathed her sword and frowned down at the creature.
“You know, these past seventy something years, human nature has gotten uglier and uglier. Back in my day, when souls spent time in Purgatory, even the evil ones, they were still beautiful. My personal opinion is that the bad guys these days are doing it just for the money. Greed is an ugly bitch, I tell you. And for some reference, greed would have also killed you if you hadn’t overdosed first.”
Her name was Eloa.
That’s what she’d told him when he’d woken up in an alleyway, somewhere in a place that looked a lot like Atlanta but without the heat or the people. It was gray, everywhere he looked, everything was gray.
“So, as I was saying,” she said in an accent he couldn’t place, “you’re dead. Sorry.”
Not by enemy bullets in the middle of Afghanistan, not because he drove drunk every other night of the week but because the drugs finally got to him. And his drug dealer, apparently.
“This is Purgatory, a place where sinners like your self hangout while trying to make up for the shitty decisions you made while you were still kicking it,” Eloa said over her shoulder as she led the way down the gloomy street. She poked her head around the corner. “This place does weird shit to souls, man. Sure, a lot of you find salvation after doing your time, but some one you end up like puss-head over there. Like, real, really, forever dead.”
“Not hell?” It was the only few words he’d managed to actually say to her. He was too confused by all of this, too frightened of the things he’d seeing since dying to truly process the fact that he was dead.
“Hell? Nah, Hell’s for the big dogs. We’re talking like, demons of destruction and all sorts of ugliness, not these lowlifes.“
She waved him forward. Something about the way she moved reminded him of his fellow Special Ops brothers. She had training, she knew was she was doing as she walked around the corner and walked down the street.
“Where we going?”
“Well, I’m going back to HQ. That’s where we operate from.”
“I can’t tell if you’re dense or if I’m making this very hard for you,” Eloa mumbled under her breath. “You don’t think I’m the only one fighting for human kind, do you? That would be fucking idiotic of me. There’re hundreds of us.”
“What exactly are you?”
She led them across Marietta Street. “That’s a very personal question, which I’ll forgive you for asking since you are obviously distraught by the things going on around you right now. But in general, we are the ones responsible for keeping the bad guys from destroying humanity as you know it. The doors to HQ move around, which keeps the souls trapped in Purgatory from flooding our office and also because otherwise we’d be overrun by demons trying to get into the Higher Place, yeah?”
She ran down another street and then ducked into an alley. Garrett followed after her. “So I get to go to HQ?”
“Maybe. You see, when I rolled out of bed this morning, your face was the first thing I saw in my mind. And that tells me someone up there wants you on our side,” Eloa said. She looked at him and for a moment he thought she had the eyes of a cat. “You poor bastard. You die an painful death and you get picked by the assholes upstairs.”
“You mean God?”
“God?” She looked at him as if he were the dumbass fucker who’d ever walked the Earth. “God?! You think He doesn’t anything better to do than waste his time on you? Come on, man! God is busy, okay? He’s got lots going on and honestly, you and I, and people like us, we need to figure out our shit on our own.”
“So who sent you?”
“Best guess is one of the Archangels. They are the ones always trying to save people. Can’t help themselves.” She looked around. “There’s a CVS around here somewhere. The men’s bathroom door is the way out of this shit hole.”
Eloa was leading the way again, halting for a second when a ragged woman crossed their path. She didn't look like the first monster Eloa had saved him from. She still looked normal, maybe too dead tired and dirty, but at least still human.
She made eye contact with him, those sad, dead eyes staring at him as she recognized herself in his form.
Eloa shook her head at the woman, reaching out to stop the woman from coming near them. “I’m sorry, sister, but you can’t come with us.”
The woman gave her one soft, long nod and shuffled on, bent and wrapped around herself.
Garrett followed her with his eyes. “Why me? Why not her?”
Eloa stopped again, looking annoyed as she turned to look at him. After a few second, she shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t get to make the rules and I don’t get to choose. My job is to find people like you and bring you back to the fight.”
“I’ve been fighting my whole life.” Ever since he’d come out of his mother’s womb, he’d been fighting to stay alive, fighting for country, fighting to eat, to breath, to not lose himself until he had. He’d been fighting and he was tired of it.
“Yeah, but have you ever fought for your soul?” She asked softly. Pushing her red hair away from her glossy lips, Eloa waved to the gloom around them. “You’re here because you fucked up, Garrett Easterly. It wasn’t just the drugs, you know, or the prostitutes, or the drinking, or even the lives you took in war. It’s because of the whole picture, it’s because you gave up on yourself. Someone up there is trying to give you the chance to fight for a resting place for your troubled soul. It’s up to you whether you take it or not. Come on, we’re moving slower than molasses and I hate Purgatory.”
They ran several more streets before she stopped them again to listen.
“So if I fight for you against these bad guys you’re talking about, I get to do to Heaven?”
“That’s the general picture, give or take several decades, maybe hundreds, maybe even a millennia. If you don’t die, of course, cause then your soul truly seizes to exist and that’s a fate worse than any other. No reincarnation, no peaceful rest, no nothing.”
They rounded a final corner and just across the street was the CVS she’d spoken about. His dead heart skipped a beat.
"Can we take the lady too?”
"No.” She glanced at him before she took off in the direction of the pharmacy, faster than any human he’d ever seen. He didn’t keep up, couldn’t even if he tried, but she kept on him, and on their surroundings as he joined her by the doors. “Listen, rookie, this isn't my first rodeo, okay? I've tried taking others that weren't chosen through the doors and they can't. That's just how it works, alright. You got picked. You were a warrior and we need warriors. What do you think is the use of taking civilians into a battle zone, huh?"
She opened the door and went it first, pulling the sword from her waist and holding it in front of her like a person used to handling this weapon. He kept as close to her as he. He had no weapon, and although he could easily kill with his hands, he had a feeling none of these creatures were so easily taken down.
Eloa sidestepped quietly to the side, her eyes scanning the deserted aisles until they stood in the little nook that led to both bathrooms. He froze as she set her palm to the door.
“What if I don’t want to go?” He asked as he looked at that sign glued to the door.
Eloa shrugged. “You don’t have to. We’re all big on free will. But what do you have going on for you here, Garrett? You’re dead, everyone on this plane is also dead and just waiting around for Apocalypse. Is that what you thought you wanted for yourself when you joined the Navy? When you became a Special Ops? Way before your drug problem and your nightmares, you wanted to be good. Don’t you remember that? We’re just trying to give you that choice.”
She pointed at the door. “On the other side are people just like you, trying to fight for those who deserve it and who need it. Whether you come with me or not is up to you, but I’m not going to wait around for you to decide. Not with that hungry fucker standing there.”
She pointed over his shoulder and Garrett spun around to see a man, half decomposed, with fangs as long as arms. He shuffled towards him, and he would have been faster if his legs hadn’t been broken at least twice before.
“You want to be like him? Cause I assure that one hundred years from now when you've had nothing but your sins to think of, that's a pretty good idea of what you'll become. There's no Wi-Fi in Purgatory. No Netflix either.”
“I don’t even know how you are. Who do you work for? Who and what are we fighting? How do you know not existing at all is a fate worse than being here? Or with you?"
She smiled sadly at him. “My name is Eloa. That’s more than I got out anyone else.”
Garrett chose out of his free will to step through the door.