John crept up to the cell, shaking, sweating. He couldn’t take this any more. The angels faced him implacably; their serene faces with those impervious half-smiles. So incongruent amongst the screams that filled the corridor.
The corridor was infinite in length, and every day every man, woman and child was brought along it, brought immediately to a random cell, and forced to view the scene within. John didn’t know why. The angel that brought him to the cell every day, dressed in his long white robes, and shimmering halo, told him this was the rule. He had been told that he could not interact with the person within, only watch.
Though the cell appeared to be random, and contained a different person each time, John had gradually come to understand that it was not truly random, because each cell contained a person he recognised. Someone he had known from his life. And each person was being tortured, horrifically, endlessly tortured.
Sometimes the person was someone he had known only briefly, a boy from school who had bullied him, a teacher who had told him off once when he was 6, a policeman who had stopped him on the streets and searched him when he wasn’t doing anything wrong.
But however briefly he had known them in his life, he recalled them perfectly when he saw them, remembering as though it was only a few minutes ago his memories of them. They had all hurt him in some way, sometimes mildly, sometimes painfully, and each one, he remembered clearly, he had cursed in his heart. Each person had somehow, through their ignorance, or thoughtlessness, or outright cruelty, made him suffer, and he had wished they would suffer as well. He had hated them in his heart. And now, for eternity, every day, he was brought to see them, one by one, and witness their suffering.
He knew it was meant to be a pleasure, a satisfaction to see his enemies suffer so terribly. He knew some people looked forward to this every day. He heard them swapping stories afterwards in delight, describing the sufferings of the evil men and women at whose hands they had once suffered.
There were clubs of people who had known particularly evil individuals who had hurt them in their lives. They spent their days remembering in great detail the continuous suffering of their shared foe, laughing at their enemy’s misfortune, and hugging the memory of such justice to their hearts.
For John though, the memories of the suffering of his enemies did not warm him during the long hours between viewings, they tormented him. He could no longer enjoy the comfortable luxuries that surrounded him each day. The rich foods were tasteless, the entertainments were hollow and false, the laughter was tinged with cruelty, and the happy smiles that surrounded him were those of crocodiles and sharks.
When he had arrived in Heaven he had sought to distract himself from the sufferings of the people in Hell with the many comforts and pleasures that were available. And for a long time that had been enough. But He had grown to hate heaven, and rage against the god that held him here; unseen yet implacably authorising the torments of the humans in these cells. This was not victory, this was not joy.
A few weeks ago, John had opened the cell door and seen his ex-wife who had made his last years such a misery. When he looked on her it had brought back clearly to him the memories of the terrible things that woman had once done to him. Yet he had found that despite his memories of that anger, humiliation and pain, he could not summon any hatred for her. His anger could not justify the burning worms that now crawled through the woman’s eyes, or the acid leeches that crawled across her exposed skinless flesh.
Afterwards he had tried to confront the angel. He had asked it if there was any way to save the woman. But the angel had said it was against the rules. John asked who made these rules, and why they had to be this way, but the angel just looked at him, with his serene smile, and shining halo. He said nothing and walked away. John had not slept since.
Today John quailed in front of the cell door. He begged the angel by his side not to make him look upon the person who lay within. But the angel ignored him and opened the cell door anyway.
John immediately recognised the woman who lay within. She was hung upside down by her toes screaming horribly. Her belly was torn open and stuffed with barbed wire. Her head was dangling in a pit of rats which fought among themselves to nip and gnaw at her terrified, struggling face. John collapsed in horror at this final straw.
“No more,” John screamed. “No more pain.” He looked at the face of his mother who had hurt him all his life, who had tormented him and beat him. He had always known he would meet her here. He had once looked forward to it.
But now, seeing her twisted in helpless agony, scared and uncomprehending, all John’s hatred melted away, all the pain she had caused him was forgotten, and all he could see was a frightened, hurting human being.
It was then that John, without even thinking, flung himself forward, into the rat pit. The rats scrabbled and bit at his own ankles, as he knelt and lifted the woman’s head frm the pit floor, out of reach of the rats. He lifted her up, supporting her on his own back as the rats turned and attacked him in their frenzy
John looked back to the door as the angel stared at him, its face still serene, uncaring. “Come out of there, or stay for ever”, the soulless being told him. “No more.” John wept. “I can’t take it any more.” The rats were crawling all over him. He had always hated rats. They were gnawing down to the bone, and his legs were giving way, but still he held his mother out of their reach.
“Then you have chosen your place.” The angel replied. And uncaring, it slammed the door shut. The lock clicked into place, and the walls of the prison filmed over, so that there was no escape. In darkness John strained against the pain that tore without relief through his severed muscles. He screamed out in agony even as the cell itself fell away into nothingness. He kept screaming even when the woman he supported was no longer there, as though she never had been.
When John looked back on those years, he could not believe he had truly been so foolish. To follow the orders of those creatures just because they wore white robes and had shining rings over their heads. To believe he was in heaven just because he was given pleasures and distractions. How could anyone be so foolish?
John had since met his mother. She had been here for years, and knew nothing of any rat pit. And when she had been asleep, it had been her who had been brought to view the sufferings of those who had hurt her.
John learned that while he had been in the other place, his mother had often visited him, and wept over his struggling body, begging for forgiveness. And now John himself visited the others who remained asleep. His heart outpoured for them, and he wished he could help them more, as they tossed and turned in their beds, as they endlessly viewed the things that still held them there.
John wiped their brows, and plumped their pillows, and read to them and spoke to them as much as he could, not knowing if his words made any difference to them where they were. Caring only to do what he could to help them.
John was not alone when he visited the hospital, not in heaven. No one ordered the crowds to the vast hospital, they flocked of their own accord. And most days he had to wait his turn outside the hospital rooms until another person left, before he could go in to care for one of those who remained lost in their own private hells.
But John hoped that one day, they would wake, one day all would wake. And every day, more did wake up, and everyone wept with joy as they joined the swelling ranks of those who no longer hated their fellow man.