After all the apocalyptic hype, Hell disappointed. I got there on a Tuesday, via Nigeria.
We had just rolled out of an Abuja airfield when the government forces hit it. We were noncombatants but we shouldn’t have been there and so we got lit up. A burst perforated the Jeep window at the same time that we took a heavy round through the hood. The driver and my camera operator were dead before we flipped. I died upside down. Fuel spewed onto my hands and chest, and then came the burn, and then I was gone.
And then I was here, desperate to rewind ten minutes.
“It was destined to happen.” I was telling a man my story. “That, or I was going to get kidnapped.” The place where I died was in the fits of an insurgency. We knew the zone was hot. “But, being human, I thought we’d be the lucky ones who could make a safe ride through. And now, I’m in Hell.”
“That’s not really where we are,” the man told me. He had glasses and a long coat and had been dead for a hundred years. He was interviewing me, said that’s what he’d done when he was alive. Which made two of us. “There isn’t really such a thing. ‘After’ is probably the best word for it.”
After. It was just this one place. Being here blew apart the dichotomy of afterlife I’d been expecting.
We were on some kind of terrace. In a structure that was an abstract rendering of a café. No coffee, because we didn’t want any and never would again. On the courtyard next to us a hundred billion people passed in small groups. Their feet didn’t make any noise. The sky didn’t have any color. Somehow, objects here had no details. Everything I saw was just out of focus.
He asked me, “How long were you were you a journalist?”
“Who did you speak with?”
“Revolutionaries, aspiring tyrants,” I said. “Wholesale killers who had a message.”
“A pretty talkative bunch, actually. I was en route to interview one. when I died. A general.”
I died on the road to answers, or new insights, or something.
He asked, “Why them?”
“To find out why they are that way.”
“Do you think we can?”
“I spent my time trying to. Are people born with bloodlust, or is relative? Situational?”
“I don’t think that’s the kind of question you get an answer to.”
I shrugged. “Regardless, we need to give the monsters airtime.”
“Because in the world I left, people were comfortable and forgot these guys existed. But if you let a monster talk out loud, it might provoke a reaction from the right person.”
Now he shrugged; I realized nothing I said was going to impress like it had up top.
He said, “You’ll like it here. More than most people, I expect. If you want to talk to anyone—anyone—you just wait until they die. That’s why I don’t want to leave.”
I looked at him.
“Leave. We can leave?”
“Yes. Through the gate.” He pointed into the distance behind me. “And many do. But the others get here, and they talk. They realize that everyone is honest here and how…pleasing it is to know something. And so they stay.”
How pleasing it is to know something. That I understood. Knowledge—new knowledge—was what I trafficked in. People liked getting an answer to a long-standing question. Most people down here were probably bothering Lee Harvey Oswald and Amelia Earhart.
“But if you leave, you start over as something new,” the man said. “And the answers have to stay here.”
Answers. Here, we had an eternity to get our fill of them. And I wanted them. Even if I only kept them for ten minutes.
“How do you find people here?”
“You just do. The most interesting people,” he motioned over the heads of the crowd to a long stretch of a building, “people who had power before, they tend to be in there. They like being behind tall walls.”
My heart had always broken for things I had no control over. My life was one spent stripping pain down to its core. Seeing if it could be stopped or blunted.
Being dead didn’t mean I had to stop.
I went across the courtyard to the building. It stretched out to both horizons. I went in the first door I came to and the chandeliers in the hall gave off soft light. Nothing else to be seen in there but more doors.
I checked them and found round tables inside. People, mostly pale men, were gathered around talking. Presidents, and some other guys I just knew from paintings. And a few others who I had already interviewed.
It was here that you could find your monsters.
One door, I knew it would be the right one. I opened it. I sat down across from him.
“Another writer,” the man said.
I studied him. The ultimate.
“Did you think what you did was right?” I asked.
“I know it was right,” the Austrian answered. “It made perfect sense.”
“Would you do it again?”
I left. Next room, next guy, next question.
“They all died because you couldn’t feed them. And you barely tried. Do you regret it?”
“No.” This man was Chinese. “Experimentation was necessary for progress. Not every experiment can succeed.”
Next room. I asked the Russian why his people were expendable. Why disagreement got you the firing squad.
“Revolution has to be pure,” he said, “Or else there won’t be one.”
And so on down the line. Into dozens of rooms. Into minds that had been dead for a thousand years. And then I left.
I had my answer. Ideals and skewed vision, those are the things in a monster’s head. Including the most infamous ones. I had my answer, and I had confirmation: peace is an impossible thing. And I think I’d always known that. I’d just been trying to convince myself otherwise.
So what do you do now, I asked myself. Do you choose hope anyway?
I walked to the gate. I’d been in the building for days but I wasn’t tired. It didn’t work like that here. I stood at the gate for a long time, and I thought about who I might become if I went back and what I might do.
I stood there. I thought about it all. And I stood there some more.
We’re switching it up this week here at the Crusade–we’re all posting pieces based on a one-word prompt: “Interview.” Check back every day to see where the next writer takes it.