“So here you are,” the wraith said, double-checking her clipboard. She deftly crossed off two names, the movement fluid and well-practiced.
Darren and Ashley glanced down at the dead seated in a row upon the rocky ground. Five pairs of eyes studied them, some with open curiosity, and others with annoyance. The souls were bound together with heavy chains of a glowing, silvery metal.
“I’m still not sure,” Ashley said. She eyed the bleak, boiling sky of gray and crimson with apprehension. They were atop a dark, craggy cliff that overlooked an arid plain. Below, the cracked land was crowded with clusters of the dead. Their cries rose, a symphony of suffering.
“Look, I don’t have all of eternity. Others are arriving as we speak. If you have a problem, contact my manager,” the wraith said. “You are on the list. That’s all that matters to me.”
“I really think there has been some sort of mistake,” Darren said.
“And I really don’t care. Now park it,” the wraith replied.
“It’s okay. We have all gone through this,” one soul said as Darren and Ashley crouched to sit.
The row proved to be a cumbersome arrangement, the cliff too narrow to allow them to remain in a line. With some adjustments, and much bickering, the group was assembled successfully into a loose circle. Darren and Ashley acquired spots that provided the most flattering vista of the land. The wraith withdrew a flaming key from the pocket of her suit, unlocked the unoccupied manacles and clapped them around Ashley and Darren’s ankles. There the shackles burned coldly against their spectral skin.
“I’m sure you can all get acquainted on your own since I am currently behind schedule,” the wraith said, casting withering, pointed glances at Darren and Ashley. Having delivered her repartee to her own satisfaction, the wraith departed, wafting away trailing a stream of iridescent ether.
“Hello,” a female spirit said. Her face was maternal, kind and sincere. “I’m Elizabeth. And these are Peter, Catherine, Victor, and Myrtle.” The others nodded or raised a hand to acknowledge their names. Several mumbled awkward greetings. The gathered were attired in clothing from various historical periods, ranging from Renaissance to the 1970s.
“I’m Ashley, and this is my husband, Darren.”
“Welcome to Purgatory, the place of waiting,” Peter said.
“But why are we here?” Ashley inquired. Bitter, rueful laughter greeted her question.
“Why are any of us here? Some believe it is the place to be washed with holiness, to become more spiritual for the final resurrection, or purification in preparing for Heaven,” Victor said. “Me, personally, I think it’s because Hell is full at the moment and we’re on a waiting list.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Catherine said. “He’s just cranky because he’s been sitting here for the last hundred years.”
“Why did they move George, then? I’m telling you we are all just waiting here to be tossed into Hell,” Victor argued.
“Well, I can’t wait for them to come get you,” Myrtle said. “Then maybe we can have some peace for once.”
“So, no one knows why we are here instead of Heaven?” Darren frowned.
“No, sorry,” Elizabeth said, her expression amused and regretful. “It’s not too bad here, except for the burning rain and the occasional imp.” The others nodded in agreement while Darren and Ashley exchanged anxious glances.
“Burning rain?” Darren asked.
“Imp?” Ashley shivered, emitting curling, wisps of vapors.
“But we have the best view in all of Purgatory,” Catherine said.
“To the north,” said Elizabeth raising her hand and gesturing to their right. “Is Heaven.” The sky was clearer there, the clouds glowing intensely in gold and white hues. “Some days we can even hear the music of harps and trumpets.”
“But to the south is Hell,” Victor said. Eyes tore themselves from the beautiful grace of Heaven to the fiery lightening crackling clouds to the far left. The walls of Hell shimmered with a putrid blaze, burning crimson, sickly yellow-green and orange. “And some days we can hear the screams of the damned.”
“What’s to the west?” Darren asked, pointing straight ahead, where lights, dancing and multicolored, played upon the churning clouds of Purgatory.
“A city of the dead, the edge of faery, or another form of limbo? Who knows,” Peter said, shrugging. “There are secrets of the afterlife even the dead don’t know.”
“Maybe it’s the tunnel to the afterlife,” Elizabeth said. “None of those who were here with us have known. And we like to sometimes make up stories as to what’s there.”
“Who has the cards?” Catherine asked. Myrtle fished about in her pocket and, with a flourish, produced a pack of playing cards.
“How?” Ashley asked.
“Not all wraiths are like Angelica. Some are actually nice,” Elizabeth said.
The cards were shuffled, dealt and a game of Abyssinia was begun, using pebbles for currency. Not long after the first several bets were won, thunder roared, deafening ears and shaking the cliff. The sky burst open, and a heavy, piercing rain poured from the rent in the clouds. Ashley and Darren screamed, feeling the liquid coat their skin. It burned, scorching them with a glacial fire. The cards were hurriedly gathered and removed to the safety of a pocket.
“You’ll get used to this, too,” Victor said, shouting in order to be heard.
As the couple huddled together, their shrieks mingling with the furious thunder, something streaked by them and hid behind Peter. A moment later, the shade cried out, his hand flying to his bottom. Ashley yelped, feeling sharp, biting pokes on her lower back. She turned, spotting a twisted little creature no larger than a rat, its skin a mottled red and black. Tiny horns and wings sprouted from it and it grinned at her, displaying a mouth full of yellow pins.
“It’s going to be one of those of days,” Victor said. “Welcome again to Purgatory.”