His boots kicked up dirt as he shuffled through the ridge, musket slung over his shoulder. The large boulders that lined the narrow passage on both sides were cool even when the air was thick and hot. Cannons blasted in the distance and with each crack, his heart beat faster.
It was 1865.
Wait. No, it wasn’t.
America froze in his tracks because he remembered.
He remembered dying.
He remembered his dying action, tweeting the words, “not like this.” He remembered his dying thought being how everyone would find it hilarious. Go out with a meme, he’d always told himself. And when his eyes closed for what he thought would be the last time, they opened again and suddenly he was at war.
There was a man not too far up the path so America kept walking. The dusty blue uniform together with the towering black boots was unmistakable, and if that was who America thought it was, there was absolutely no way he was in Heaven.
“Son of a bitch,” America said as he approached carefully. “Never thought I’d see you again.”
The man sitting turned away from the setting sun and smiled with the corner of his mouth. “Missed me?”
The uniform-clad soldier pulled a fat cigarette from his pocket. If smoking was one of his many vices, rolling his own cigarettes was one of this many hobbies. “That’s right, because I never really left, did I?”
“How would you know? You’ve been dead.”
The Confederate States of America lazily blew out smoke and looked his old adversary square in the eyes. “You think we can’t see you? That we don’t know what goes on up there?”
“Where is here in relation to ‘up there?'”
“You’re in Hell, son.”
“Bullshit. I call bullshit.”
“It’s not called bullshit. It’s called Hell.”
“Well, then there’s been a pretty big freakin’ mistake.” America’s voice had the quality of a pestle trying to grind bone to dust. His hand gestures became more dramatic. “Have I done some terrible things? Yeah, sure. We all have. But I’m a good person. I believe in liberalism, freedom, democracy, peace, order. I’ve killed for those things, I’ve bled for those things, and it was always for a greater good.” Then a smile broke on his lips. “But all of that aside, there is no way you and I could ever end up in the same place.”
“We aren’t so different.”
“You really don’t want to go there.”
“Whose rib was I made from?” The force behind those words startled America. “I was you, and I still am you.”
Suddenly the sky shifted from a pink and orange to an inky black that was painted red by the menacing glow of a massive blood moon. The change was so quickly and so harshly that America was left stunned. Next, statues sprung up along the ridge. They were familiar monuments that each stirred in America a new sense of unease and frustration.
Confederacy said, “You demonize me so you can pat yourself on the back and say, look at how far I’ve come! But you aren’t as righteous as you think you are. It’s been almost 300 years and you still don’t believe the words you wrote on that goddamn piece of paper.”
America had to spring back as one of the monuments broke through the crumbling ground beside him. It grew taller and taller until it towered above him–and then started to topple over. He tried to run but his legs wouldn’t work, so he threw his hands up, as if that could at all cushion the blow. Robert E. Lee was going to crush him–a revenge 150 years late.
He closed his eyes as the falling monument blocked out the red light of the moon. He heard Confederacy’s voice so close it as like the doppelganger was speaking directly into his brain:
“I’m your shadow, Yankee. I’ll always be your shadow. Oh, but there’s someone else here who’s got inner demons. Her’s is a real mean one.”
America did not feel the painful terror of a second death. In fact, he didn’t feel anything. When he opened his eyes, he found himself in a dark room lined with mirrors. It wasn’t unlike an amusement park funhouse, just with all of the creepy and none of the fun. And he wasn’t alone.
Japan was standing at the other end of the room, staring into the mirror in front of her while behind her, her shadow watched. The shadow had Japan’s face, but the skin was paler and the eyes were colder and the authoritative, imposing blackness of her uniform made America feel vulnerable.
“Hey, Japan?” His voice echoed off the cold, concrete walls.
Japan didn’t even blink, but the double turned her head sharply to capture America in an icy glare. That look was lethal.
“I know why I’m here,” Japan said to the mirror. (That must be her hell, America thought, being forced to admit that she belonged here, owning the sins she’d erase.) She turned to him. “Do you know why you are?”
“No, but I feel like you’re about to tell me.”
“Ten million people in eight years,” she said, “seventy thousand in an instant. To whoever put us here, those are the same.”
It took a moment for America to realize what she was getting at, but when it clicked, it sparked a seething blaze in his chest.
“You’re really trying to tell me that what we did was comparable? You have no excuse for what you did. It was just pure greed. What I did was justified!” Japan’s shadow looked like she wanted to pounce on him and rip the still-beating heart from his chest. He wasn’t sure she wouldn’t. But he wasn’t finished.
“It’s not the same at all. It really isn’t. Does anybody here even understand that? It’s all about the context, the motivations!” While his words may have been tame, his voice bordered on madness with its uneven tone and exaggerated inflection. “What if I hadn’t ended that war? Ten million would have turned into fifteen million–twenty million, fifty million. To say that all sin is the same is absolute insanity. If we lived in some fantasy world where a wartime decision is morally level with genocide–do you see the problem?”
Japan didn’t say anything, but her eyes had softened. He didn’t know how to read it. Guilt? No, probably not.
“Hey, if it was up to me, neither of us would be here. But this bitch?” America nodded at the shadow. “She’s the worst parts of you, huh? The things you tried to bury and kill but never could. I guess that’s why you’re here, huh?”
“What’s keeping her attached to you, even in the afterlife? See, I face my demons, either by killing them or embracing them. You deny them, you hide from them, you…”
As the shadow’s eyes turned red and a smile ripped her face from ear to ear to reveal a mouth razor-like teeth, America’s throat went dry. The monster’s arms morphed into formidable claws, and like thick tendrils, they shot across the room and wrapped around his neck. As America trashed, he just barely heard Japan talking over the snarls and the pounding of his own heart.
“I don’t think you deserve the sentence you were given.” Her voice ached with sadness. “I don’t see evil in you, but I do see something else. I see a man who will get so caught up in doing what he thinks is right that sometimes he does what is wrong. What is more dangerous, a bad person who purposefully does bad things, or a good person who does bad things but thinks they are good things?”
America was sure the demon was going to crush his windpipe–snap it like it was nothing–when he felt its grip loosen. Before he could even suck in a breath, he was thrown back and sent crashing through one of the mirrors. He tumbled down, down, down through the darkness until he fell against a hard surface–no, water. He was sinking down into water. Panic settled in, the kind you get when you don’t know how far you are from the surface. Eyes shooting open, he swam up without thinking about how far down he might have plunged.
When his head broke the surface he began gasping for air. Adrenaline wracked his body. He could still feel the demon’s hands on his neck.
It wasn’t until his head was clear and he could take stock that he realized he had dropped into a pool of warm, Windex-blue water. Except this wasn’t an ordinary pool because oridnary pools did not house highly radioactive nuclear fuel rods. Once he found the ladder he immediately made a break for it. The contrast between the warm water and the cold air outside the pool made him shiver. Then a towel was thrown in his face.
“Why were you panicking? Did you touch the bottom? You’ll be dead in minutes.”
That annoying little voice was music to America’s ears.
“Hey, sunshine,” he said, shaking his hair dry and cracking a smile. “I’m probably never going to say this again, but I’m really happy to see you down here. If I’m bad enough to deserve this, you’re bad enough, like, ten times over.”
“I don’t understand it myself,” North Korea said. “Why I’m here. It doesn’t make any sense.” His perfect smile was stretched and strained. “See, I thought it was a mistake at first, but then I met the others. And now…” The corner of his mouth twitched. “Now you’re here.”
It was then that America realized there was a shackle around North Korea’s wrist and a long chain attatched–the kind that usually had a ball at the end.
“Well, I guess your hell wouldn’t much of a hell if I wasn’t there.”
“What kind of god would put me here?” North Korea asked, almost like he’d ignored America completely. “Are they white, Western, neoliberal or capitalist? Did they colonize a weaker country, start a world war? I’ve never done anything wrong by any real set of objective moral standards, just by an arbitrary code written by priveledged pigs with too much power.”
“Dude, shut the hell up.” America tossed the towel back at the other. North Korea wasn’t in the mood to catch it.
“I have always done what I thought was right. I was the only real light in a world full of darkness. I’m a good person. I shouldn’t be here.”
“Shut up, you shitty little sociopath.”
North Korea snapped, “You think your sentence was a mistake too, don’t you? It’s not.”
“Go ahead. Tell me that I’m just like you.”
Color swam to North Korea’s face. “You are nothing like me, you fascist parasite. You were just going to end up here no matter.”
“Yeah? Why’s that?”
“Same reason Satan did.”
America’s mind was still reeling from the fact that North Korea had just tried to give him a Bible lesson when a harsh noise from the far end of the room made him jump. He jerked his head and saw that someone, or something, was violently rattling the door handle. His first fear was that Japan’s monster was back to finish the job.
North Korea grabbed America’s arm and said, “Dont go.”
It was like America was talking to a completely different person, a pale and wide-eyed, fear-drenched imitation of the indignant man he knew North Korea to be.
“Please don’t go. He’s going to kill me.”
When North Korea tightened his grip, America winced and tried to pull away. This was going to be the 9th circle of hell, the ultimate punishment–trapped forever in a nuclear reactor with North Korea.
“The traitor! The snake! He’s going to sink his teeth into my neck and fill me with poison. The paralysis will start in my head and move down to my lungs . He’ll watch with pleasure as I go limp and my organs fail. But you can stop him! You’re the only person who can, the only one strong enough to–”
The door flew open. In an instant, North Korea and the spent fuel pool vanished into a different reality. America now found himself at a table, surrounded by pink and white flower bushes. Porcelin white dishes were spread out before him, but they were just empty plates. Cruel. In his periphrial he caught someone sitting next to him.
“When I woke up here,” China said, “I didn’t question it. Who am I to question the judgement that was passed on me?” America wondered where this great humility was when China was alive. “But I did feel a profound sense of sadness. All our lives we are led to believe that there is peace in death. I was looking forward to it.”
His hand traveled up to the pocket of his suit jacket, but then he stopped himself and smiled. “What’s sadder is that I realized I don’t have any cigarettes on me, and no means to get any. There don’t seem to be any convenience stores or gas stations down here.”
“I might have some in my front pocket. You’re welcome to check.” America’s tone was less flirty than his words might suggest.
“Do you wonder about the impression you left while you were alive? If because of you the world became better off or worse off?”
“There is no doubt in my mind that I made it a better place. Absolutely no doubt.”
“So sure of yourself, are you?”
America learned into China–God, even in the afterlife he was still so stupidly hot–and said, “All that’s messed up in the world would still be messed up without me, but with me, it’s not as bad as it could be. I brought order and goodness to a world that desperately needed someone strong enough who could.”
“It’s interesting that you say that, America. I, too, believe I brought order to the world. Peace and stability were all I ever sought. You may not agree with the way in which I tried to achieve those things, but our intentions were the same.”
“Yeah? And what was the end result? Did you end up making the world a better place, too?”
“I certainly don’t think that I made it a worse place.”
China stood and beckoned for America to follow. It wasn’t until then that he saw a very familiar shackle and chain around China’s wrist. Of course.
They walked through the garden silently for a while. A small clearing came into view up ahead, in the middle of which was a white and gold elevator.
America said, “Kind’a weird, having an elevator just sitting out in the middle of a garden like that.”
“There’s someone waiting for you.”
As if on cue, the doors opened.
“For me? Is it the devil himself?”
A sudden, unseen force tore him away from China and sucked him into the elevator. The doors shut before he could reach the keypad. He fell back against the railing as the elevator dropped so quickly he could have been on a theme park ride. The digital floor indicator was going haywire, the numbers on the display dropping so quickly that America couldn’t even read them.
The stop came so suddenly that if America hadn’t been gripping the handrails for dear life, he might have shot up through the roof. When the doors open, he stumbled out and was far too dizzy and nauseated to stop himself from falling over. He caught the floor indicator right before he crashed to the ground: 666.
He whined when his face hit the ground. Cold. So, so, so cold. When his head finally stopped spinning he looked around and saw that he was in a frigid cavern covered in snow. At its center was a lake littered with frozen chunks of ice. Not as swimmable as North Korea’s pool, it seemed.
Standing on one of the blocks of ice in the center of the lake was a tall figure whose silhouette America knew well. Hopping from block to block, he made his way to her.
“I was hoping I’d see you here,” he said once he was close enough. “Hell just wouldn’t be the same without you.”
Russia smiled upon seeing him like she was seeing an old friend for the first time in years.
“You think this is hell?”
“That’s kind of what the last four people have been telling me.”
“In order for there to a bad place, there has to be a good place. For there to be a good place, there has to be good people.”
“So we finally get to the moral of the story: everyone sucks.”
“It wasn’t that everyone sucks, it’s that you think you deserve to go to heaven when in reality you’ve guilty of the same crimes as everyone else.”
“Yeah, sure, Russia. We’re all just as bad as one another. I’ve spent my whole life fighting for equality and freedom, but remember that time I invaded Iraq under ethically dubious pretenses? Might as well be Hitler!”
This was hell, so it was only a matter of time before Godwin’s Law came into effect.
“Oh, listen to you! Here I thought we would be able to have a civil conversation.” She planted her hands on her hips. “Everyone here has tried to get you to understand that you’re no better than anyone else, but you’re so completely full of it that you failed to learn anything.” He had gotten borderline hysterical, so she saw no reason why she shouldn’t.
“Is that right? Is that right?”
“How is it that everything you’ve done can be oh so conveniently justified? I must say, I’m quite jealous! How can I too attain this power of moral invulnerability?”
“Oh, piss off, Russia. You think I can’t admit that I’m wrong? I’ve done some sick things–yeah, that’s right, I said it. But do I feel remorse? Of course. Well–I mean, okay, not really.”
“Ha!” She wagged her finger at him. “And the truth comes out!”
“Piss right off.”
“I will certainly not! How do you think I ended up here, America? Do you think I woke up every morning and schemed up all the ways I could be evil that day? I did what you did–I made tough choices, I lived with the consequences, I fought for causes that I really believed in. I tried to be a good mother and friend, but it wasn’t easy–”
“Shut up. God, just shut up. Nobody likes you, okay? Everyone hates your guts because all you’ve ever done is hurt them.”
At that, she socked him so hard he saw a flash of light. He punched her back, just as hard. The force knocked her off the edge of the ice, but not before she grabbed him and pulled him down with her.
They sank into the lake, quickly becoming like frozen statues. And in that state they floated through the swirling waters, petrified together forever with fists in each other’s faces.
“They never learn,” China said to the others. “But what a beautiful Shakespearean tragedy this became. The two worst people in the world die, then meet again in the deepest depth of hell, only to kill each in one final act of mutually assured destruction.”
“They deserve each other,” Confederacy concluded as he watched them float by.
North Korea sneered and hissed, “How dare you put them on the same level.” He turned to leave.
China looked over his shoulder. “Where are you going?”
“I might as well join you.”
North Korea broke into a stride so fast that his shoes almost caught fire.
“You keep away from me, you forked-tongued bastard, you cold-blooded beast. Slither into a corner and molt your ugliness away.”
After a moment, Confederacy looked to Japan, who seemed content to stare into the icy water silently. He cleared his throat.
“So, d’you got a boyfriend?”
Japan closed her eyes, held her breath, and leaned forward. Her weight carried her down. But just before she hit the water, a dark hand grabbed her and yanked her back.
She fell onto her back, but rather than move she lied there and looked up into the seemingly endless darkness extending up from the opening in the top of the cavern. North Korea’s screeching grew fainter. The sounds of a sad harmonica assaulted her ears. A pair of eyes stared back at her from the abyss.
As above, so below.
If the message of The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom was that every life matters, the message of this is that every country is evil in its owns ways. The questions surrounding morality–good and evil–have always been terribly hard to tackle, and even harder to answer. In politics, it’s just as complicated. I know I was not able to properly explore this topic in just one short story, so I’d love to hear thoughts on the issues.