Purgatory

Altarpiece of the souls in purgatory. Church of the Immaculate Conception (Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain).
Altarpiece of the souls in purgatory. Church of the Immaculate Conception (Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain).

This one is a flash piece which was originally inspired by an article in the New York Times about a group of mentally challenged men who’d been in a situation that amounted to forced labor for decades. It wasn’t shut down until recently, but it got me thinking about how our brains work. How our incredible ability to imagine and rationalize can work against us. How we can create narratives for ourselves that override reality.

Something crunched under Peter’s feet. At first, he’d thought they were dirt. Thick grains of coarse sand caught between his shoe and the weathered wood. He’d made the mistake of crouching to investigate. He’d only pressed on after that because he had a job to do.

A disheveled man shuffled noiselessly into view at the end of the hall. His clothes torn, his face ragged, he looked every bit the person Peter expected to find.

“You the new overseer? The new prince?” The man smiled, immune to the filth around him.

Peter started to answer but realizing it would require him to breath in more of the pungent air, he only shook his head.

“Cat got your tongue?” A wet spasm started in his man’s chest as he cackled. Color drained from his waxy face. Through the coughing he added, “My mama used to say that.” His expression became serious. “Don’t worry. We don’t got any cat.”

The man disappeared across the hall.

Peter shuffled carefully through the empty husks littered on the floor. Down a single hallway lined with open doorways. Most were dark. One was lit by a candle next to a mattress on the floor. Another man slept restlessly on the splotched mattress. His mouth hanging open, Peter watched small shadows traverse the ceiling.

He pressed on. More darkened rooms. Dozens more on the floors above. Shallow breathing from somewhere, or everywhere.

A light shone at the end of the hall where the man had disappeared into a side room. Peter peered around the open frame. His fingers sunk into the rotted wood.

“Hungry?” The disheveled man hovered over a gas stove. An empty pan hissed and crackled.

Peter crunched into the kitchen. A time capsule. White porcelain appliances and a checkerboard floor. A chrome-rimmed table sat next to the door. Dishes in various stages of filth littered every surface.

The man cracked an egg. “Sit on down. Breakfast will be ready soon enough.”

Peter considered the invitation but knew never to accept hospitality in a place such as this. “I’m not here for breakfast. I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to live here anymore.” Peter looked at the sagging floor. “You can’t live here.”

A second egg then a third sizzled into the pan.

“Time to decide,” said Peter.

The man prodded at the eggs with a spatula. Their sulfurous smell added to the stench. He scanned the room, gazing into a timeless past. “Ain’t nothing wrong. This is home.”

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