This one is different from my first attempt, as it consists largely of flashbacks, exploring the origins -and motivations- of Purgatory. It also introduces another character and mentions - although only in passing - David Hopkins' characters. (Please don't sue my ass off ) As before, please post any comments, suggestions and possible improvements.
Oh, and ignore the spelling mistakes. I'm too damn tired to check for them right now .
Note: This takes place just after the short 'Never dreamed you would leave in the summer' ( http://jack.keenspace.com/d/20011003.html ).
Jack and his newest 'charge' have just left the scene.
The lovers walked away in seperate directions. One went back to his life, an empty life now, but one that he was determined to fill with as much meaning as possible, the other went into a different direction altogether...a direction found on no compass and no map. As Jack led her away to Judgement, two figures who had watched the touching scene came out from their hiding place under a nearby tree.
'Well, no work for us here, fortunately. He'll be alright. And she'll be waiting for him', one of them said. He went by the name of Wildfire. Long ago, in life, he had had a different name, but Wildfire and the others like him - quiet and charming Candle, courageous and chivalric Firestorm and the newest addition to their group, a girl full of compassion and determination calling herself Blaze - had abandoned their original names in favor of fire-themed ones, to signify both the cleansing process they had gone through and their connection to their mentor, an enigmatic being known only as Purgatory.
This being was now sitting down beside the grave, apparently deep in thought.
On the physical plane, the world of the living, he appeared to be about 30 years old, wearing a finely tailored, although somewhat old-fashioned business suit.
'Those two belong together. They were made for each other.'
Wildfire, a coyote wearing faded jeans and a leather jacket, apparently in his late teens, seemed less than impressed.
'Made for each other.' He sounded sceptical.
'Why not? After all, heaven and hell are facts of our existence. Angels exist, and so do the Sins. After that, a simple concept like true love at the first sight is quite easy to accept.'
The coyote grinned.
'Yeah, if you look at it like that...
Say, if there's nothing to do for us here, why'd we come here?'
'Because I wanted to watch this. It reminded me of something...'
He fell silent, just gazing off into the distance. After a minute or two, Wildfire, never known for his great store of patience or tranquility, tried to start another conversation.
'So those two found each other. Heh. Do you suppose there's somebody like that out there for everybody?'
'A perfect lover, a soul mate? Yes. I believe there is.'
Wildfire sighed as he sat down next to Purgatory.
'Shame I never found mine...'
'Maybe you did, and you just don't want to admit it to yourself?'
'Nah. No love in this coyote's life. Oh, I had sex like nobody's business, but love...can't say I ever came across something like that.'
'Hey. You just slipped into that 'shrink from hell' voice again. Stop that.'
The older being focused his burning blue eyes on his younger companion and seemed to stare directly into Wildfire's mind.
'Are you so sure you've never loved, never been loved? Or is it just that you are pushing away those memories, for fear of being disappointed again?'
Like all 'victims' of Purgatory's stare, the coyote felt strangely compelled to answer truthfully.
'Well...maybe there was somebody. Long time ago.'
He grimaced slightly. The memories he was dredging up were painful ones.
'I was fourteen. You know. Puberty and all. Teenage angst. The whole deal. She was in my class. My age. Never one of the popular girls...always slightly awkward around others. Never one of the fashionable dressers either. But to me...', his voice trailed off, lost in memory.
'To you, she was the most beautiful being in the entire universe.'
'Yeah. Like I said. Teenage love, the whole deal. We were together all the time, inseparable. The others were laughing at us, but we didn't care. We didn't even notice.'
'Sounds like a great time. Why would you want to forget this?'
'Because it was stupid. We swore eternal love and all that. "You'll always be my only love". Hah. If there's one thing life or death taught me it's that nothing's ever that permanent. Like I said, it was childish.
Anyway, it ended after just six months.'
'You broke up?'
Even somebody who hadn't been specifically watching out for it would have noticed Wildfire wince suddenly.
Ah, Purgatory thought. Direct hit.
'No. We were broken up. We got caught, quite literally with our pants down, in a broom closet at school. Her parents...well, they belonged to some sort of ultra-conservative church. They raised all kinds of hell because of the incident, and in the end they managed to get me suspended. That was only the start of it...half the town I lived in belonged to that church, and they all started ostracising and then openly attacking me and my family. My father lost his job. My mom was mobbed so hard at work that she became a nervous wreck. And all the neighbourhood talked about me. In the end, we had to sell the house and move out...first to another neighbourhood, then another city. I never saw her again.'
For a minute or two Wildfire was uncharacteristically silent, as he, too just looked at the distant horizon, lost in memory.
Eventually Purgatory broke the silence.
'And ever since that you've been a cynic when it came to love.'
'And you never even tried to get over it.'
'Well...at first the memories of her were still far too fresh in my memory, then I had no time for it because of the trouble I had landed my family in, then I had to start working...and then, when I started to run with the pack, I had to maintain an image. I never...well, I never had time for it. And then I died.'
'And you gave up.'
'Well, what alternative is there, in hell? I mean...well, Candle is...a good friend, but she's not my type. And Blaze...she reminds me of...my Jenny, but she keeps avoiding me. And that's it as far as girls I can actually talk to down here are concerned.'
If Wildfire had been in a less emotionally battered state after his story he would probably have noticed the short flicker in Purgatory's eyes and the slight hints of a smile on his face when he mentioned Blaze.
'Have you ever met yours?' the coyote asked after a while.
Purgatory was silent for a while. When he spoke again, his voice was heavy with memory.
'Oh yes...I did. I met her two years before I died.'
He suddenly looked tired. Old and very tired. Wildfire was starting to worry about his mentor.
'Hey, since we're around right now, we might go and check up on her.'
'No. She is dead. She died a minute after I did.'
'And I was responsible for her death.'
Wildfire bit down on his sarcastic comment. Inappropriate humor was one thing, but he stood a decent chance of learning a bit more about Purgatory here. And if he wasted that it might be decades until he got another.
'So since you say we can't visit that means she's in heaven, right?'
'Yes. And I went to hell. We're seperated for all eternity.'
'Well...you had two years together...'
'No. We didn't even have a minute. We met two years before we died. We never even managed to talk to each other.'
'Hey, wait a second. How'd you know she's your...how'd you put it...soul mate, if you never talked to her?'
'I knew it. I looked at her and I knew. And for two years, while I worked in the cubicle next to her I couldn't summon the courage to speak to her. I was quite the loser when I was alive.'
'Hey, now who's the hell-shrink, and who is the patient?'
Wildfire grinned outwardly, but his heart wasn't really in it. Something about the way Purgatory told his story made him feel entirely too serious. When his mentor failed to react to the joke, he settled down again and kept listening as Purgatory dropped into storyteller mode...
'I had lived an unremarkable life. So unremarkable that it was quite unusual, you know. I was born to a middle-class family, in a middle-class residential area. I got sent to a middle-class school, and finished with unremarkable, average grades. I got an average, everyday office job after a while. And all the time, I was scared. Scared of standing out, scared of being noticed. I only wore drab and plain grey and brown to better meld into the background. I never offered my opinion on anything, and I carefully stayed with the majority whenever I was asked. And I never, ever found the courage to ask a girl out.
At 26 years, I was still a virgin.'
That admission came as a bit of a shock to Wildfire, who hadn't even reached that age -having run into a burst of nine-millimeter bullets at 19-, but who had lost his innocence before he was fifteen.
'And then she showed up. From the first time I saw her, I just knew that she was my destiny. She got the cubicle next to mine. I vowed that this time, with her, I wouldn't let my fears keep me away...and I failed.
I tried to talk to her, but...no words would come out. All I could do was stutter a stupid excuse and run away.
Two years. Two damn years. That's how long I kept secretly watching her, all the time telling myself that tomorrow, tomorrow would be the day I would finally talk to her.
And then the company we worked for hit a profit motherlode. Celebration all around, and the bosses upstairs decided that even we lowly number-pushers in our cubicle cages should have some fun.
A weekend trip. Company paid. To some sort of holiday resort. The entire office signed on for it, of course. I didn't want to stand out, so I came along as well.
And so did she.
This was going to be my chance. I knew that. Now or never. So, in the evening, in a quiet spot, with none of our other co-workers watching, I was fully prepared to make my move.
And that's when the shooting started.
They were a terrorist group of some kind. Fanatics. I later found out they had been after some sort of dignitary in a nearby hotel...the target had been better protected than they had expected, the would-be-assassins had been forced to run and they picked our resort to run to. It hadn't even been for any tangible reason, any 'holy cause'. Just bad luck.
And they started by taking hostages. Lots of hostages. And because the police didn't immediately back off, they started shooting them.
I was there, herded with the others into a large room. I saw them pick people at random and simply gun them down. Saw them pick up the bodies and throw them out of a window.
And heard them laugh all the time.
They killed so many...complete strangers, co-workers I had known for years...they didn't care. They just killed. They were completely out of their minds by that point. I don't think they really cared about their original plans anymore. They just kept killing.
And then one of them, the leader, I guess, went for HER. The woman I secretly loved. He laughed, asked her if she had any particular last words. She couldn't respond. I could see her eyes...and I saw the fear in there. And I knew that we were all dead.
And then...something inside me snapped.
I wouldn't let them kill her, wouldn't let them kill anyone else. My life was worthless anyway. I had had so many chances and wasted them all. But some of those people...they might still have a chance. They might still do something with their lives. My life was nothing, insignificant compared to theirs.
And I rushed the bastard. I still don't know how I did it...it must have been sheer madness driving me forward. I took a bullet in the arm while running and didn't even notice it. I crashed into him, grabbed his gun, twisted, pulled the trigger.
Everything after that is just a blur, full of pain and grief. When I came to my senses again I was slumped in a corner, full of holes, and a bunch of people were standing around - the former hostages. The terrorists were all down. I knew I was dying, but that didn't bother me...I was going to die a hero. As the world went dark around me, I even managed to smile at my secret love and say "Hey, baby...shame it didn't work out...see you on the other side."
I thought that was terribly witty...but hey, I was bleeding to death at that time. It was the best I could come up with.
And then it was over. I stood up, saw the killers standing around, riddled with bullets and looking confused, saw their victims, full of relief that at least some of the others had made it and full of grim satisfaction at the terrorists' fate. And I laughed. It was going to be a beautiful afterlife. I had done the right thing, died as a true hero, just like I had always dreamed about. I had even managed some memorable last words. I had finally found some meaning to my empty existence.
And then I saw the reaper.'
'Yes. And I saw his face...so infinitely sad that the laughter instantly died in my throat. Looking past me. And then he said "One more will come with us". I turned around to see what he was looking at.
I saw her lift the gun from the ground. Saw her raise it to her head, trembling. And stunned, paralyzed by terror and grief I could only watch as she pulled the trigger.'
'What the...she killed herself? Why?
Purgatory was silent for a few moments.
'I learned later that she had been watching me, as I had watched her, for two years. The same two years. All the time, while I was trying to find the courage to talk to her, she did the same thing. And neither of us ever noticed.
Two damn years.
She had been sick. A comparatively light case of Bi-Polar disorder. She'd been taking the meds for it, and she hadn't shown any symptoms for years. Until a month before our trip.
You see, she had become convinced that it was the drugs that kept her from talking to me, that made her afraid of contact. So she stopped taking them.
When the terrorists hit the resort, she was already deep in depression. Shock plunged her even deeper into darkness. And my last words, my DAMNED WITTY FUCKING MOVIE HERO LAST WORDS were the last straw. She was way beyond anything resembling sanity then. The only coherent thought she could manage was that she wanted to be with me. And that I had told her I'd see her on the other side.'
'Ouch. And by the Rules' - Wildfire didn't even attempt to hide his contempt of the word - 'that meant she was damned. And since you were going to heaven...'
'Jack told us as much, as he led us to Judgement. He tried to comfort us, said that he'd look out for her, said that he understood our situation but that he couldn't do a thing, that noone could do anything...
I didn't listen. I was MAD. Mad at a cold, uncaring system that would cause such pain, that was so eager to condemn people to eternal damnation for just a single mistake. Mad at a world that made people play a game of chance with impossible odds and impossibly high stakes without ever telling them about the rules.
So, when we were seperated, when she was told at Judgement to go through one of the doors, I snapped. Again. I ran after her, raced past Jack who tried in vain to stop me and charged through the door that I knew would lead to hell.
And we ran. Jack in hot pursuit, we ran through hell for what seemed like an eternity. Maybe it was. Time tends to work a bit differently when you're dead.'
Wildfire's expression had turned into a disbelieving grin.
'You...RAN...from JACK? Wow. No wonder he's still got a grudge against you.'
'We ran and ran. I saw a lot of hell on the way. And as I ran past each tormented soul I somehow saw a glimpse of their lives, their deeds that had led to damnation, their pain - I guess it was because I didn't really belong there. And in each of them I saw the pattern.'
'The same pattern you pointed out to me, Blaze and all the others.'
'Yes. In my journey through hell I learned a lot about how the place works. And while we ran, I grew even more angry. There were all those souls who had just made wrong choices, who couldn't even understand what they were being punished for. And I knew that if destiny hadn't decided to throw the damn terrorists my way, to give me a chance at heroism, I would most likely have ended up as one of them. Hopeless. Without any chance of ever finding the way out, because noone would help them, because nobody even cared about them. Because noone down there would be able to see the patterns as I had done. And then...I stopped running. I turned around to face Jack. I looked into the face of the personification of Wrath and smiled as I said "Take me back to Judgement".
The expression on his face in that moment is one of the memories I'll always treasure...torn between wild rage and utter confusion, eyelids twitching...'
Even after the story he had just heard, Wildfire couldn't supress a chuckle at that mental image.
'Damn, I would have loved to see that.'
'And then, when he had finally got over his surprise, I turned to look at my love, swore that I would find a way to help her and hugged her one last time. I looked into her eyes and saw that she somehow understood what I meant to do, but also that she would manage...
I said farewell and went with Jack. That was the last time I saw her.
Well, Judgement wasn't happy about my actions. But I wasn't done yet. Before the ultimate authority on good and evil, I pleaded my case, for the sake of her soul and all the other lost souls in hell.
'You worked fast-food, didn't you?'
The sudden change of subjects caught Wildfire off balance.
'Heh. Hell, who didn't? Yes, I wore a cardboard hat in hamburger hell, for a while. While I could still get any sort of honest work.' He grimaced. Wildfire's last living years had been spent alternating between street gangs and prison sentences.
'Well, I was sort of like the big, loud, obnoxious customer who stamps around the place and loudly demands to see the manager. I was a serious embarassment.'
'And they let you get away with that?'
'I still wonder why, occasionally. Yes, I succeeded. I convinced them that the girl's actions were my fault, not hers, that if it hadn't been for my weakness and stupidity she'd be living a happy, good life. That if I had just found the strength to approach her, if I had been by her side, none of this would have happened.
I convinced them to let her have my place upstairs. I convinced them to send me to hell instead.
I had found a way to cheat. See...I knew how hell worked. It had no hold on me. I was exiled, but I had avoided torment. And I was right where I wanted to be. Because with my knowledge, and with the freedom I enjoyed in hell, I was in a position to help others find their own way out. I could have had heaven, but with the knowledge of all the pain in hell I wouldn't have been able to enjoy it. It would have been worse than hell for me. So I have started my work in hell, as Purgatory. Sure, after a while heaven must have figured it out, but by then it was probably too late to do anything about me. And I know that at least some of the angels agree with what I do, even if it does fly in the face of the Rules.'
'And your "soul mate"? You'll never see her again.'
'I will. Even eternity will one day come to an end. And good things are worth waiting for.'
'Well, I wouldn't be able to wait that long.'
Wildfire stretched and stood up.'
'And I've still got work to do today. It's been nice to be up here again...and it's been nice to work through those memories. Maybe I've needed that', he said as he turned to leave.
Another job well done, Purgatory thought, as he watched the coyote walk away. The kid had needed the story - and it had felt good to tell it to somebody, too.
And sooner or later, Wildfire would approach Blaze directly, and they'd start talking. Blaze desperately needed to talk, needed to find some way to cope with her memories, and she would find that way in Wildfire. And at some point during that conversation Blaze would probably begin to talk about her youth in a small, narrow-minded town, back when she had been Jennifer Martinez. She'd talk about her time at school, and how her life was shattered when she was 14 and the only boy she had ever truly loved had been torn away from her. And they would both understand the point of his story.
Good things, he thought, were worth waiting for.