WARNING: there is gratuitous swearing in the very beginning. Be prepared for that. Kay?
Syd the Sassy Atheist
Sydney was never much of a fan of living. Not that she didn’t like life—life was just fine and dandy. But living? That’s the tough one. You needed a job. You needed friends. You needed priorities. Syd very much liked sleeping and drawing and never, ever giving a fuck. Sure, she sort of gave a fuck at work; you couldn’t stock Zippy D’s grocery shelves without giving a fuck. But she was pretty scarce with the fucks she gave otherwise.
Overall, Syd wasn’t poised to do much living, so when she woke up dying, it was a welcome relief. Kind of. Sort of.
How welcome can walking down a stinking tunnel really be, anyway?
It smelled of rotting wood and her hamster’s cage and just a hint of mums all rolled into one. The water went up to her ankles. The walls were slimy under her trailing touch. She was blind save for the light that seemed to be shrinking away. Syd started running, dream-logic, as she perceived it, telling her she absolutely must reach that light before it was snuffed out.
Then it snuffed out and Syd was left in a desperate, reeking darkness.
“This is a pathetic nightmare,” Syd murmurs in her lazy drawl. She pats her pockets, which she doesn’t have because she’s in her pyjamas, and has to resign herself to no hope of dream-her bringing a flashlight. Syd struggles over to the wall and feels along it for anything that might hint towards a door. There is a door knob and Syd is about to pull the door open when a voice shouts.
NOPE. NOPE. I WOULD NOT DO THAT IF I WERE YOU.
Syd rolls her eyes and opens the door anyway. What greets her is a freezing gust that sends her through the dizzying stages of hypothermia instantly. Once her eyes adjust, she can see that there is canyon wrapped by icy walkways that gradually lead to the valley floor, which in turn is covered in sulphurous, slinking, burning rivers. The sky is a storm’s brew of gun metal grey and infected green. A dog, mangy and red eyes aglow, watches her from across the yawning canyon and begins a loping run over the frozen terrain to the open door.
Syd casually closes the door.
“So uh, what was that?”
THAT WOULD BE HELHEIM. Syd nods, still baffled, and leans some of her weight on the door. There’s a light thock before she feels the door gradually melt into the wall again. YOU AREN’T NORWEGIAN ARE YOU?
Syd’s mouth twists. This is the weirdest dream she has ever had. It must have to do with all the Nyquil she took to fall asleep. “I’m not Norwegian.”
GOOD, comes the voice again and Syd would swear it’s inside her head. I REALLY DIDN’T THINK SO SINCE YOUR LIGHT WAS UP AHEAD BUT IT SEEMS TO HAVE GONE OUT. IT’S BEEN HAPPENING A LOT LATELY… the voice trails off.
Syd steps away from the door and begins fumbling along the wall for another door. Maybe she’ll find one to the Bahamas or LA or Disneyworld. When the darkness turns to a hazy gray so that Syd can see the endless line of doors and old, dead languages carved above each one; she doesn’t notice. Mainly because there is a black, hooded figure towering just centimeters away from her; it’s rather distracting. “You’re death.” She states, hands shaking and current mission of finding Narnia forgotten.
The hooded figure shrugs. I’M LIFE’S JANITOR REALLY, DEATH IS MY LITTLE SISTER. SHE SENT YOU HERE.
Syd nods dumbly, trying not to cry when she can see the half-rotted face under the hood. Suddenly, she realizes the smell she has been smelling has been dea—Life’s Janitor. “Well—uh—if you could just have her send me back…”
NO CAN DO. WE HAVEN’T TALKED IN YEARS AND I AM NOT GOING TO BE THE ONE TO CHANGE THAT.
“Got into a fight, huh?” Syd asks, warming up despite her trepidation. It’s a dream after all, right?
DO YOU REMEMBER THE BLACK PLAGUE? Syd kind of does. She learned about it in school, after all. The figure continues on, becoming more animated with each syllable: IT WAS WORSE THAN THE DMV BACK HERE—PEOPLE GOING TO THE WRONG AFTERLIFE AND ALL THE PAPERWORK AND NO ONE UNDERSTOOD THE CONCEPT OF MANNERS OR CLOSING THE DOOR AFTER THEMSELVES. I ALMOST WANTED TO DIE, SUPPOSING I COULD.
Syd nods sympathetically. She can really get behind the idea that people are rude and DMVs are hell on earth. The hooded figure returns its arms to its sides after flailing them in its tirade. Then it straightens, hollow chest puffing out, self-satisfied:
BUT DO YOU REMEMBER THE INVENTION OF PENICILLIN? The figure asks and Syd swears she can hear his eyebrows waggle—or the maggots that are forming them on his bare skull waggle, either/or. THAT ONE GOT HER GOOD!
Syd laughs despite herself and Life’s Janitor’s laugh echoes through her head like the toll of a church bell.
After they both settle down, the figure asks SO OF WHAT FAITH DO YOU BELONG?
“None,” Syd says without thinking. “I’ve been an atheist since I could form my own beliefs.”
Life’s Janitor releases a huge sigh. WELL THAT EXPLAINS THE LIGHT GOING OUT. The figure’s head turns about, scanning the doors at hand. SO YOU BELIEVE IN NOTHING?
“I believe in myself,” Syd says hotly. “And Nutella.” She adds as an afterthought.
Then, they stand there staring at each other. The figure is at a loss because where do you send someone who has nowhere to go? She has no coin to pay Charon. She has no faith to buoy her against the feather. She has no weapon for Valhalla. Her name is not in the Book of Life for passage through the Pearly Gates. And—with no heaven—there is no hell to send her to either. Really, she is caught here and Life’s Janitor really hates having people underfoot. They just ask too many questions and give him headaches and it’s all just bad news.
“I don’t want to be dead.” Syd concedes. This catches the figure’s attention and he doubles over to be on the same level as she. Syd swallows thickly but plows on. “Even though I know this is a dream. I don’t want to be dead” because dead as an atheist means being gone and Syd is not at all ready to be gone. “Can’t I—I mean—can’t I like work my way out? Like work-study or something?”
Then, Life’s Janitor has an idea. LIFE MIGHT HAVE SOMETHING FOR YOU. And, with that, he sends Syd down the hall. The very long, very dark hall that grows darker with each step.
By the end of it—presuming this bit of the tunnel is the end and not the beginning—Syd is stepping so high-legged that she fears she has to swim. Not that Syd can’t swin: she can swim, but it’s just that she’s not too fond of swimming, especially in unseen waters.
Bracken and debris brush her legs. Sometimes she imagines hands grasping her calves. Or the walls closing in around her with each stuttering breath. Then she reminds herself it’s a dream. A horrible, wretched dream and that there is no such thing as an afterlife. This cannot possibly be happening.
Then she meets Life and she realizes there’s no waking up.