The Bureaucratic Afterlife: Part I by Tarale Wolffe
Karig sat in his office, sipping his tea as he glanced through the file of his next visitor. It was an interesting case, certainly more interesting than what normally passed through his office. In fact, it was the most interesting case he’d heard of since the fall of Ali Kosh and its missing soul. He took the file with him to the side of the room where his kettle sat. He poured himself another cup without looking at either the pot, or his cup, and returned to his desk, still reading.
It was a thick folder, full of every deed she’d ever done - both good and bad. One far outweighed the other, but that had little to do with his job, and would be someone else’s to deal with. When he believed he had everything he needed, he leaned to the right and pressed a small black button.
“Aralynn Rehna, please report to room 117. Aralynn Rehna, room 117.”
He rose from his seat and crossed back to the kettle where he saw the mess he’d made from his earlier pouring. With a sigh, he grabbed a dry cloth and cleaned the area. It wouldn’t do to have the woman think he kept his station a disaster. Then, he poured hot water into a mug over tea leaves and placed it on the desk before the second seat in the room. Upon returning to his seat, he re-opened the folder and was still flipping through the pages when there was a knock on the door.
He glanced up, nodding once to the escort before turning his attention to the woman beside him. She was old, with a head full of silver hair pulled up into a braided bun on top of her head. It was the only hint of her age, as her face was free of wrinkles, though Karig could guess why. Even now, as confused as she must be, she just stared at him without a trace of emotion. Her file told him why, but it didn’t make seeing it any easier. The pain she must have lived through to bury her emotions so far.
Karig rose, a smile on his lips. “Madam Rehna.” he motioned to the free seat. “Please sit.”
The woman blinked, but didn’t move. “Madam?” she asked. “And who are you to use such a respectful title for me?” she asked.
“My name is Karig, Madam Rehna,” he told her, smile gentling. “And you have more than earned respect. Would you sit?”
She stared at him a long moment before giving a single nod. When she fully entered the room, the escort closed the door behind her. Her gait was slow, as was common for those her age, but steady, which was uncommon. He’d also seen no one as comfortable in the gray, sleeveless, dresses everyone wore as she was. Most women complained about walking around in their undergarments before they’d so much as entered his office. Or, they demanded something more modest that didn’t show as much skin before they’d speak with him. Not that it mattered. There was nothing else for them to wear, and he could do his job without speaking to them. It just made it easier, and more pleasant if they could.
The dress did make the mark on her arm stand out in clear contrast against her pale skin. Her hand rose to cover it. Glancing up, he saw her eyes on him, nerves flickering through those blue eyes. She sat without uncovering the mark. Interesting that that was what bothered her about the outfit.
He offered her the steaming mug, which she took but didn’t drink from it. It sat in her lap, hand wrapped around it as she continued to stare at him without a word. The other hand remained covering the elegant tattoo-like mark etched into her upper arm.
“I’ve been looking over your file,” he told her. “You’ve quite the list of accomplishments for a woman.”
“Does it matter?” she asked, tone rough with age, though it still held the strength of character that had gotten her through her life without falling to insanity. “I’m dead, aren’t I?”
“Are you?” Karig asked before he could help himself. This was not a woman to poke fun at, nor did he want to cause her any further pain. Still, an odd sense of humor was almost a requirement for this job, not that many of his visitors ever actually got it.
Aralynn raised an eyebrow. “Yes,” she answered. “I remember the priest, and confessing, and then I was here. Is this hell?”
“No,” he answered, “though you won’t be the last to ask me that, I’m sure. This is where we sort you. You’re Christian, right? That’s what your file says.”
Aralynn nodded once.
“It also mentioned some … doubts you’ve had. Is that why you thought this was hell? Surely your stay here hasn’t been so bad.” If it had been, he’d be speaking with customer service. Their job was to keep them comfortable until they could be processed and sent to the next level.
“It’s been fine,” she said. “I know where I’m going, is all. It has nothing to do with my doubts, and everything to do with what I’ve done.” The old woman shrugged, looking tired and drained as though life had harmed her soul as well as the body.
“And where are you going, Madam Rehna?” he asked, tone gentling further as he looked at her. Here was a woman, strong through she was, who must be treated gently.
He stared into her eyes as she spoke, knowing her face would give him no clue as to her emotion. There was a brief flash of pain, present for barely a second before vanishing as though it had never been.
“You’ve been absolved,” Karig reminded her softly.
“Not of everything.”
“That’s not what your file says. You’ve been-”
“Do not lie to me,” she interrupted, hands clenching cup and arm tight enough that the fingers turned white. Her voice was hard, and Karig saw in her the woman she must have been in her youth. Passion and fire flared within her eyes. Yes, it must have been hell for such emotion to be suppressed for a lifetime. “I know my sins, and which have been confessed.”
“And which have remained unspoken?”
Aralynn held up her right wrist, lifting the mug as she did so. On it were three charm bracelets which had been joined together. They were, Karig knew from her file, 20 charms on each bracelet. Every charm represented a person she believed she’d killed. In a way, she was correct, but she was also very wrong.
“I killed these people. I do not deserve absolution for them. They were good, honest, people who did not deserve what I did. I belong in hell.” Her eyes, pale with age, stared at her wrist, the pain of old memories welling within them.
“Only if you killed them,” Karig said.
He shook his head. “No.”
He rose, crossing to the wall to pull down a damp cloth - though not the one he’d cleaned the water with only minutes before. This was a special cloth meant to wipe away the grime of life from those affected by actions not their own.
“They were not your fault,” he told her as he knelt beside her. “The sin is not yours to bear.”
“It is,” she said. “I was the one who …” she trailed off, unable to finish the statement.
“Loved,” Karig finished. “Who cared despite yourself? Were unable to stop a heart created to love.”
“I killed them.”
“No,” he told her as he pulled the mug from her slack fingers and placed it on his desk. Then, he took her arm into a gentle grip and drew it towards him. She didn’t fight him, but those wary eyes watched as he ran the cloth over the mark on her bicep. She inhaled sharply as the cloth wiped away the mark one small section at a time.
“How?” she breathed, eyes locked on her arm.
“It is not a willing part of you,” he said, concentrating on his ministrations. “It was placed there by one who does not know love. This is the curse you have carried. The sin is not yours, but the one who put it there.”
She shook her head, eyes wide with the unshed tears of a lifetime. “No. It was me.” But, she wanted to believe. A lifetime of guilt kept her from doing so, but she wanted to believe.
“I tell you it wasn’t, Madam Rehna. There isn’t a single mention of you killing any of those 60 people, only that you loved so deeply that you carried them with you.” His fingers brushed over the triple bracelet, listening to her sharp inhalations before looking up into her eyes. “There is nothing to forgive, but if you need it, you have it. None of those you loved blamed you for what transpired to them. You are forgiven.”
Tears spilled over, trailing down her cheeks in a continuous cascade, though she made no noise. She seemed to not notice them as she shook her head once more.
“You’re not a priest.”
“No, but I am an Angel, Madam Rehna,” and for her, he was. “I tell you that God has no anger at you, nor does he blame you for another’s sin.”
She inhaled sharply, the first sob sounding in the quiet room. He pulled her into his arms, holding the frail body as she loosed her pain for the first time in decades. This too was part of his job, when it was needed, though not every visitor did. He held her without a word, projecting the love and care she deserved until, finally, the tears ceased and she pulled away. Gently, ever-so-gently, he wiped the remnants of the tears away and helped her back to her seat. As he rose, he passed her back her mug, which she finally sipped from. Content with that, he circled his desk and returned to his seat.
“The burden you’ve carried has been a tough one, Madam Rehna, but it is over.”
“So what happens now?” Aralynn asked.
“You’ll go to floor 620,” he answered, writing on a form. “From there, they’ll direct you to your eternal home.”
“You don’t know?” Aralynn’s grip tightened on the cup once more, worry settling into her downturned lips.
“Not the specifics,” he told her. “I sort people to their required floors. Your file specifically said you aren’t going to hell. Someone wanted you reassured.” He smiled, though that didn’t seem to help the woman before him.
“What’s on floor 620?”
“The next step.” Healing. She had a great need for healing before she could be granted her eternal rest. Her soul was tormented, through no fault of her own, and before all the wounds could be healed, her paradise would mean nothing.
“Is it the last one?” Aralynn asked, pulling him from his thoughts.
Karig shook his head. “No.”
“Then how many more are there?”
He shrugged. “It depends on where you go, and how you’re sorted. We try to be as efficient as possible, but there’s only so much we can do.”
She sat in silence as he finished filling out the form.
“No.” She rose regardless, and he led her to the door. Her escort stood there, waiting for her. Aralynn stepped outside the room, the remnants of her tears still clinging to her cheeks despite his attempts.
“Be gentle with her,” he told the escort as he held out the form.
It was taken with a nod. “Of course.”
Karig watched until they rounded the corner. Only then did he re-enter his office, closing the door behind him. Aralynn’s file was still on his desk when he pulled another from his cabinet. It was a thick folder, though not the thickest they had.
Back at his desk, he pulled two papers from within his desk, then flipped to one page in Aralynn’s folder, and then another. He carefully transcribed every word onto the blank sheets. These were placed into the thicker folder. One was a list of 61 names, each one Aralynn blamed herself for, and her own name, for she too had been a victim. The second was the specifics of how the mark worked. Though the ink was gone, and would no longer affect her afterlife, the mental effects were still there and would take centuries to heal. That was truly the greater sin.
While he didn’t know her final stop, only that it wasn’t the hell she so desperately feared, he knew she couldn’t get there as hurt as she was. She would have to heal before continuing, and that could take centuries before she was ready to move one. Though this was only one of many incidents Aidin would have to answer for when death finally caught up to him, this was certainly the most tragic. Aralynn’s destiny had been to be known throughout history for her heart and deeds. Now, she would be forgotten.
Shaking himself, he made several notes in Aralynn’s folder, and then in Aidin’s, before putting the papers into their place. Once everything was in order, Karig returned the thicker of the two to his cabinet, while Aralynn’s was placed through a small metal door in the wall, which would send it to her next location. Best not to keep her waiting too long. Her thoughts would not lead her anywhere pleasant.
Job done, he withdrew the folder of his next soul and started looking through it. A sorter’s work was never done.