The Department

The Event Horizon“Next. Name please.”

The man had been standing in this line for — how long? He checked his watch, but it had long since stopped, and of course there were no clocks anywhere in the office. Why would there be? That would be providing people with useful information. And this place was the exact opposite.

He had plenty of time to look over the stack of forms for what felt like the twentieth time. Yes, every box was checked this time. Yes, he had completed Table C. He was not going to get to the front of the line only to have that shrew cast her cold, dead eyes over his paperwork and tell him that these forms aren’t completed, sir, please fill out Subsection N-6, thank you, next.

Not this time. Third time’s a charm.

“Next. Name please.”

He turned to look at the fellow behind him, desperate for eye contact. He hadn’t been able to catch anyone’s eye since arriving in the waiting room. Even when he was seated next to the old couple in the waiting area, listening for his number to be called. They just looked at each other blankly.

He cleared his throat, but the man behind him just kept staring at the cracked and faded linoleum on the floor, his hat hiding most of his face. Turning to face forward, he tapped the shoulder of the man in front of him, but the man shrugged him off with a grunt and kept reading the days-old paper.

“What a lovely place to be stuck forever,” he muttered sourly.

“Next. Name please.”

More bored than he had ever been in his life, he tried to mark time by the shuffling of his feet forward with each call from the desk ahead. After a while, he got into the rhythm of it, and things seemed to move faster.

“Next. Next!

He looked up. It was actually his turn. He squared his shoulders, cleared his throat, and stepped confidently past the last brass pole at the end of the velvet rope toward the intimidating tall window, and the soulless woman beyond.

“Name please,” the nondescript gray-haired bureaucratic functionary said, in precisely the same inflection as she had for the previous hundred or thousand people in line before him.

“Ron Sellers,” he said pointedly, daring her to remember him. He slid the stack of forms through the slot in the bottom of the glass window.

She cast her bovine eyes over the form. Sellers willed her to accept them this time.

With a bored flick, she flipped the stack shut and slid it back. “You’re not claiming any mortal sins,” she said. “Venial-sin-only filers are the next window.” She flicked her pen to Sellers’ left. “Next.

Ron turned to his left; the line next to him was just as long as the one he had just survived. And so were the lines for the next five windows down.

Sellers deflated. “But you said . . . ”

“This line is for people claiming mortal sins,” she said. “Next!” She looked over Sellers’ shoulder, already ignoring him as an obstacle. The man behind him pushed brusquely past him.

“Name, please.”

Crushed, Sellers stood in the space between the two lines, looking back in despair at their insurmountable lengths.

If it’s true that the wages of sin are death, then it follows that the taxes on it are paid in purgatory. What’s surprising to Mister Ron Sellers, however, is where those accounts are settled. There are no angels, no clouds, no giant ledger. Just a dingy, unhappy waiting room located in a nondescript office building, in one of the grimmer corners . . . of The Event Horizon.

Dejected, Sellers didn’t even try for the Venial Sins Only line. Instead, he wandered to the back of the waiting room, where the endless piles of forms were stacked. He had read the instructions — all 200 pages of them — carefully, listing all his earthly transgressions. Right down to the apple he had stolen from his best friend’s lunch in third grade.

None of his transgressions had fallen under the heading of Sin Comma Mortal, according to the comprehensive list provided in Section 3-105. Sellers should know; he had read the entire thing. Twice, just to be sure. He really had led a good life. He mowed the lawn for his elderly neighbor. He coached Little League and helped pay for Tommy Trotter’s college when his father had to quit the factory because of his back injury. He was a member of all the Civic Leagues and had never spoken a bad word about anyone.

And this is what happens? Stuck in the most soul-sucking waiting room in the universe, standing in line shoulder-to-shoulder with murderers and wife beaters and people just as innocent as him, all bunched together in this impersonal, unsympathetic place to wait for some . . . . some bureaucrat to toy with my fate like it doesn’t even matter?

Sellers found an empty seat and tried to cool down. He took a few deep breaths, unwilling to look at the forms again, unable to bear the sight of so much despair around him in the form of sagging shoulders and shuffling feet.

“Hard day, huh?”

Sellers looked up. A rotund security guard was standing over him, his dark eyebrows dancing with amusement, his eyes sparkling with vitality and maybe even a sense of humor.

“I didn’t expect it would be like this,” Sellers responded, desperately grateful for the kindness of the guard’s attention.

“They never do,” the guard said, looking around. “Been working here since, oh, let’s see.” He pushed his blue policeman’s cap back and scratched his balding forehead. “First celebrity I ever saw was Julius Caesar. Standing in that very line over there,” he said, pointing.

“Why is it like this?”

The guard sighed, looking at the empty chair next to Sellers. “Mind if I sit? It’s been a long shift.”

Sellers eagerly pulled his stack of forms off the chair and gestured for the guard to sit.

“That’s better,” he said as he plopped his large frame into the plastic seat. “My dogs are killing me,” he said with a baritone chuckle. “Ah, it used to be different in those days. A lot fewer people back then. And a lot less bureaucracy. Yep.” The guard’s eyes seemed to be viewing a distant memory.

“What happened?” Sellers asked.

“Well, I’ll tell you. Now this is just my opinion, of course. I’m just the guard around here. But somewhere along the line, someone changed the definition of ‘sin.’ And that’s when the paperwork took off, and things really started backing up.”

“Changed the definition?”

“Sure,” the guard said. “Back when I was alive, a sin was a mistake. You try, you fail. Simple as that. Assuming your mistake didn’t kill you, you tried again. And if it did, well . . . ” he chuckled again, gesturing around him. “But back then, you got real personal attention. Someone to explain it all to you. They even had cookies and coffee in those days. But all those people have since retired. Or were fired. Along with the paperwork came all the efficiency experts. Streamline this process. Improve that workflow. Forms, forms, forms.”

“Wow,” Sellers said, both impressed and saddened.

“Yeah, it was different back then.” He leaned over to Sellers. “Sin is big business, you know. As soon as they discovered that it was a much more efficient way to account for a life.” He nodded sagely, as if imparting a big secret. “In the old days, it was all essay, all interviews. ‘Tell me what you accomplished. Tell me how you lived.'” He waved his hand at the stacks of forms in disgust. “Now it’s all checklists of everything you ever did wrong. What kind of a way to judge a life is that?”

Sellers shook his head mutely.

“Take you, for example,” the guard said, poking Sellers in the shoulder. “You look like a really nice fellow. Bet you never did anything to hurt a fly. Why should you have to be thinking about everything you ever did wrong at a time like this?”

Sellers was alternately shaking and nodding his head, mesmerized by the guard’s silky-smooth baritone and his impeccably logical argument.

“You’re right!” he finally said. “I don’t deserve this. I was a good man. I did good things. I made mistakes, but I tried to make up for them. People liked me.”

“Sure,” the guard said in soothing agreement. “You don’t deserve this. Nobody like you does.”

But just as quickly, Sellers sagged again as he looked around. “But what choice do I have?”

The guard looked around cautiously, then leaned in close. “There is another option,” he whispered.

Sellers leaned toward the guard. “There is?” he whispered back.

The guard nodded sagely. “There’s a resistance movement dedicated to subverting the bureaucracy. Dedicated to rescuing good folks like you and getting them on the fast track to their just rewards.”

Sellers looked into the guard’s eyes, desperate to feel hope. “Really? What . . . how?”

The guard’s jowly face broke out in a smile and he winked at Sellers. “Follow me.” The guard stood up and walked casually over to a door in an empty, neglected corner of the waiting room. Sellers followed at a discreet distance, trying to look inconspicuous.

When the guard was sure no one was looking, he opened the door a crack and gestured discreetly for Sellers to come quickly. Sellers scooted to the door and looked through. The door appeared to open on a long, dark tunnel with softly-glowing, welcomingly warm white light in the distance.

The guard winked again, and patted him on the shoulder. “There will be people at the other end to welcome you,” he said.

Sellers pumped the guard’s right hand. “Thank you!” He was almost crying in relief.

The guard shrugged. “It’s the least I can do. One good turn, and all that. If I can help a good man get his reward, then . . . ” he touched the visor of his cap.

With one more handshake and an expression of profound gratitude, Sellers turned and ran into the tunnel. The guard closed the door, then returned to his rounds, his hands behind his back, whistling nonchalantly, a smile of private satisfaction on his face.

It was Doctor Martin Luther King who told us, “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” For this humble security guard, the injustice he fights is perhaps the most insidious of all — the law that treats the innocent with indifference, that rewards kindness with apathy. In his own humble way, he is doing his part to help redress that imbalance. And the penalty he is willing to accept is that he must work the longest shift . . . in The Event Horizon.

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