"Pinnacles always get retired," he said.
"Pinnacles?" She was confused.
"Souls who have reached the upper limit of compassion," he said.
Her eyes widened. "But I'm not... that. At all, really," she said. "There must be some kind of paperwork mistake or something."
"No, definitely not," he said.
Shaking her head slowly, her voice came soft and horrified. "But surely this can't be, I can't... represent... the very best that human beings can be. I'm not..."
"Not that great? Actually, you're quite remarkable," he assured her. "In fact, you've really raised the bar. And since the quality of pinnacles seems to get better as time progresses, you're really top of the pile. Why, a hundred years ago, I said something to a pinnacle standing just there, where you are, and he disagreed. So, he squatted down and started searching the floor with his hands. It was all very theatrical. When I asked him what he was looking for, he said, 'a rock to throw at you,' and, you know, I think if there was one at hand, he would have chucked it right at my head."
He grunted, lips quirking, bemused. He hitched his shoulders in something like a shrug. His pale grey suit twitched and resettled itself as perfectly as before. He wore it with the casually predatory air of a used car salesman, the breath-stealing charm of a teenage heartthrob, and the solemn sympathy of a funeral director all rolled into one angelic being. Angelic because he was an angel, and in the face of him, former definitions of the word became irrelevant. This is what an angel is -- a seller of post-death trappings, a charmer, and a guide.
"You really are an exceptional human being," he continued. "The height of compassion. Really."
She stood facing him in the center of an enormous white room. The spotless floor stretched away through a lazy white fog that completely obscured walls and ceiling. The only way to know that the room ended at all were the huge sets of double doors at each end, standing a half football field's length away. They were 20-foot-high plain rectangles. They would have blended completely with the walls and the fog if not for a shadow of outline and a round, dully silver doorknob on each door. Looking past the angel's shoulder, she contemplated heaven's doors. Then looking back over her own shoulder, she contemplated the identical-looking doors to hell.
"You know I'm an atheist, right?" she said, shifting a bit under the angel's infinitely patient gaze.
His head tilted and something like disapproval played across his face. "Look," he said. "You have friends there. Family. Everything good and happy and peaceful." He indicated the entrance to heaven with a flip of his wrist. "You did it. You get door #1. You didn't think you had to, didn't think it mattered, but you tried to do the right things anyway. Not for anybody's approval, not for eternal reward, but just because it's what you wanted to do. Your soul is a worthy soul. That's really all we require. It's heaven, for heaven's sake. We're kind of like... the good guys, you know?" He smiled and his head tilted the other way. The used car salesman came to the forefront and she could feel him going in for the kill, closing the sale.
She pointed back at the other doors. "So, who goes there?"
Salesman disappeared and teenage heartthrob fielded the question. "Bad people." He gave her a boyish grin. "You don't have to worry about them. I won't let them get you."
She smiled, looking away, her fingers floating up to brush over her throat and settling there. "Yes, but what happens behind those doors?" she asked.
When he didn't answer right away, she looked up to find him staring intently at her. Through her. Then he straightened abruptly and his eyes softened into funeral director's sad empathy. He bent his neck, standing solemnly for a moment with his hands clasped in front of him. The smell of lilies bloomed in her mind.
She was suddenly sure that this clinically white, airy space and this kind, distracting angel was meant to stop her from thinking about what lay beyond hell's doors. But she was thinking of it now. "Pain?" she asked, taking a step backward. "Suffering?"
He lifted his chin and said nothing.
Then she was turning, walking fast, heading away from heaven. The angel moved silently behind her, dogging her footsteps. When she got to the doors, she stopped, one hand raised hesitantly as if to touch something with the potential to turn. Then she collected herself and pressed an ear to the seam between the doors. An impression rose up, shrieking, silent like something remembered.
"Are they screaming in there?" she asked, turning to face the angel. "Are they hurt?" Slow unnoticed tears passed down her face.
"Bad people," the salesman reminded her. "Bad," the heartthrob affirmed. The funeral director said nothing.
In her mind's eye she could see scenes of torture -- evisceration, degradation, starvation, mutilation, all manner of violence and evil -- and smell the phantom-scent of blood. It was a room full of bad people and they were pink and red and writhing. They were simultaneously perpetrators and victims, torturing each other and themselves, contorted with agony even as they tore into each other with savage glee. She stepped back, nauseous.
She turned and pointed across the pure white football field of emptiness, towards the barely visible heaven's doors. "What's in there?"
"Peace," said the funeral director. "Light," said the salesman. "Love," said the heartthrob.
She noticed her tears and wiped her face with the palms of her hands. "Sounds nice," she whispered. She stood thinking for a long moment, head bowed, with her hands pressed unconsciously together, fingers straight in classic prayer position. Her index fingers pressed against her lips and her chin rested on her thumbs.
Finally, she looked up at the angel. "Could I have a job in there?" she asked and pressed a palm against hell's doors.
He blinked. "A job?"
"I could try to take away their pain. A little. Um... I could help them, couldn't I? Do something?"
"You want to be an angel in hell?" He was frowning.
"No, not an angel. Just me. Anyway, I hear they've already got one," she said.
The angel snorted.
"I'm not a savior. Just a small source of comfort. Like a nurse or a therapist. I could do that."
"You don't want to go to heaven?"
"I can't just walk away from them."
"Them," he said, brushing imaginary lint from his suit-sleeve. "You don't even know them. Haven't seen them. You don't know anything about what's in there."
"But I can feel..." Despair painted her face. "I can't just... leave them like this."
The angel nodded.
"Stand back," he said. She did. As he stepped forward to grip the silver doorknobs, she closed her eyes and prepared herself. She felt a rush of air as the doors opened, smelled the corruption, felt the heat and the cold of it. The air seemed full of floating gore, bits of human body and pain, blood and bone. It invaded her lungs and drowned her in filth, splashing wet, red stains all over her body. Panicked, she opened her eyes. The doors were open, but everything was still white. The air was clear and clean. The angel stood aside, his suit unfouled. Puzzled, she stepped through the doors into a little white room full of... nothing. The screaming and the gore and the sense of revulsion weren't there, had never been there.
"It's empty," she said.
"Of course," the angel said. "This is where we keep the bad people."
"But there really are bad people," she said, "People who do horrible awful things in the world."
"Yes," he said, "But souls are not bad. Souls from bad bodies go back to find better bodies, better situations. Any soul can be good people. All souls are good people. And every soul deserves to have a good run. This was yours -- this was your good run." He grinned and took her hand. "Stop trying to turn heaven into earth, hell's nurse. There's nothing left that you have to do."
As he led her away from hell, across the whiteness to the other side, she looked back at the open doors and the empty room. Reassuring herself once again that nobody was in there, she smiled up at the angel and said, "I like heaven."
He smiled back. "I thought you would."