John hesitantly approached the gates of the prison cell, shaking and sweating. The angels faced him, one on either side of the metal door. Their serene faces held those distant smiles, impervious to the screams that filled the hallway. The glory of their presence here among such infinite misery was still just as incongruent to John’s mind as it had been when he had first arrived.
The hallway was endless, and every day each man, woman, and child were taken from the palaces of paradise and brought along it, brought immediately to the door of one of the cells, and then made to look within. John didn’t know why. The angels that brought him to the cell each day, dressed like a picture in a book, in their spotless white robes, and shimmering halos, simply told him this was the rule.
They had explained to John that the person within each cell was in hell, and though John was safely in paradise, he was able to observe the torments of these damned. He had been warned that he could not interact with the person within, only watch from a safe distance. The screams of the damned could not be heard from anywhere else in paradise, though the prison was large enough and central enough that it could be seen from every palace and garden. A constant reminder, though John had found over time that he no longer needed the sight of it to remind him. He struggled to get the sights and sounds out of his head, even surrounded by the choicest joys and comforts he could imagine.
Though the prison cell each person was brought before appeared to be random, and it contained a different person at each visit, John had quickly come to understand that the angels’ direction was not really random at all. For each cell contained a person he recognised. Within each was 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 in passing, or briefly. One had been a boy from school who had bullied him, another a teacher who had punished him unfairly when he was six, leaivng him in floods of angry tears. Another was a policeman who had stopped him on the streets for no reason and searched him in fron tof his girlfriedn at the time. It had been an humiliating experience as a young man trying to impress, and he had many times in later years remembered the incident with unyeilding bitterness and the still-hot embers of his frustrated anger.
However briefly John had known each person in his life, he found that he recalled them perfectly as he laid eyes on them. The memory of how he had known them, recalled so clearly as though it was only a few minutes ago. And the bitterness, resentment, anger, or fear he had felt because of them came back to him clearly also. For each had hurt him in some manner, sometimes mildly, sometimes painfully. Each person had somehow, through their ignorance, or thoughtlessness, or outright cruelty, made him suffer, and at the time he had wished they would suffer as well.
And now, for eternity, every day, he was brought to see them, one by one, and witness their suffering.
He knew it was intended to be a pleasure, a satisfaction to see his enemies suffer so terribly. And he knew other people looked forward to their vists each day. He had heard his friends and neighbours swapping stories afterwards in delight, describing the torments of the men and women at whose hands they had once suffered. Many took satisfaction in the thought of justice finally being done, after a lifetime of injustice and pain.
He knew there were even clubs, whose members had been hurt by particularly monstrous individuals. They spent their days discussing the suffering of their shared foe, laughing at their misfortune, the memory of such justice serving as a form of healing for their own traumas.
John had once been among them, and for many years he had watched the sufferings of those who had once hurt him with some measure of satisfaction. Yet his thoughts of the suffering of his enemies no longer warmed him during the hours between viewings, they tormented him. And neither could he any longer enjoy the comfortable luxuries that surrounded him each day. The rich foods had become tasteless, the joyous entertainments seemed hollow and false.
After so many years the laughter of the righteous seemed tinged with cruelty, and the happy smiles that surrounded him appeared like masks.
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 recently he had come to hate this heaven and rage against the god that held him here. A god unseen yet implacably authorising the torments he saw each day in these cells. John could no longer see this division betwen the righteous and the damned as victorious justice, or feel joy at his own salvation and comfort.
A few weeks ago, John had opened the cell door and seen his ex-wife. She had made his last years a misery. When he looked on her it had brought back clearly to him the pain that woman had once caused him. Yet he had found that despite his memories of that anger, humiliation and resentment, 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. And he couldn’t imagine ever justifying it.
Afterwards he had tried to confront the angels. He had demanded of them if there were any way to save the woman. But the angels had said it was against the rules. John asked who made these rules, and why they had to be this way, but the angels just looked at him, with their distant smile, in their picture-perfect spotless robes and shining halo. They said nothing and walked away. John had not slept properly since.
Today John finally balked before 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 and her screams were horrific. Her skin was wrapped with barbed wire and hooks which tore at her endlessly. And her head was hanging in a pit of rats which fought among themselves to nip and gnaw at her terrified, struggling face. John finally collapsed in despair at this horrific sight.
“No more,” John screamed. “No more of this pain.” He looked at the face of his mother, a cold and cruel woman who had hurt him all his life. She had beat him as a child, and tormented him with criticism as an adult. 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, broke away from the angel and flung himself forward into the rat pit. The rats scrabbled and bit at his own ankles, as he knelt and raised the woman’s head out of their reach. 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 forever”, the soulless being told him.
“No more.” John wept in uncontrolled distress. “I can’t take it any more.” The rats were crawling all over him. He had always hated rats. They were gnawing at him 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, vanished as completely as if she had never 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. While she had been asleep, she also had seen the sufferings of those who had hurt her, until she too had refused to accept it any longer and abandoned her own comfort to save one.
John learned that while he had been in the other place, his mother had often visited his comatose body, and wept over him, begging for forgiveness. And now John himself visited the others who remained asleep. His heart poured out for them, and he wished he could help them more, as they tossed and turned in their beds, as they endlessly viewed and revisited 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 attend 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 awaken, and everyone wept with joy as they joined the swelling ranks of those who no longer hated their fellow man.