The Devil has been Updated

One of the things I was working on recently is getting into a certain secret underground group of elite writers. This required my submitting of some of my previous work. Preferrably good work.

Well, damn, I just happened to have a previous short story- which fit the criteria exactly in length and genre- which was read and enjoyed by thousands of people across cyberspace!

But it needed to be perfect, before it was ready for submission to this elite group of covert writers, so I spent a month huddling over it with my good friend Valerie and my other good friend, Gmail chat.

That story is of course The Devil Still Has My Lawnmower.

It was a good story, according to many people, but it had a slow start. It began with two privileged white men talking about their lawn. Not exactly an attention-grabber. And not fit for submission for the aforementioned underground group of master writers.

So I slaved over it (probably not the same way those kids slaved over the chocolate that's in my coffee) nearly a year after its internet debut, and here it is. A revised The Devil Still Has My Lawnmower.

I didn't end up joining that group because apparently elite underground groups of writers don't actually want people who can do it well. But at least I have an updated story.

You are allowed to enjoy it now.

Go on.

I'm not stopping you.


The Devil Still Has My Lawnmower

Giando Sigurani


Alan's wife had described a building with ugly architecture, and Alan knew right away when he had found it. While the surrounding buildings were easy to look at with a pleasing desert motif, this one was painted a bright, obnoxious red. Alan walked up to the building and paused at the glass door, chuckling at the address printed on it: six sixty-sixty, Seventh Street.

He went inside. The lobby was completely and alarmingly bare. There wasn't even any furniture to sit down in while waiting to be seen: Just a single desk and a single chair, occupied by a single receptionist.

The room was red. The desk was red. The paintings hanging on the walls had red frames and held nothing but canvases painted solid red. The receptionist had red hair, and was even wearing a red dress and a pair of red glasses. No matter which direction he turned, Alan was reminded of flames. He felt like he had walked into a kiln.

He walked up to address the receptionist. “Um, hello,” he said.

The receptionist responded with burning silence.

“I'm here... um...” Alan continued. The receptionist pursed her cherry-red lips and her thin red eyebrows started to sink into a frown. “My neighbor works here. I just wanted to see if I could talk to him. He's borrowed something of mine, and I haven't seen him.”

“If he does work here,” said the receptionist rudely, “and it's doubtful, I promise, then you can't see him because he's busy.”

“Um...” said Alan, “Well, I need to see him. It's kind of urgent.”

“We're all busy,” said the receptionist. “We have a deadline we're trying to make with the firm on seven seventy-seven, Sixth Street.”

Alan could not remember anything about the office complexes on Sixth Street as he passed them by on the way over, other than the fact that the buildings were all painted blindingly white.

“His name is Lou,” said Alan.

“Definitely not someone who works here,” said the receptionist.

Alan hung his head forlornly, and reached into his pocket for his car keys. He felt something in his pocket that he was sure he hadn't put there. He pulled it out. It was a folded piece of paper: the contract that Lou, Alan's neighbor, had signed a week prior, stating that he promised to return Alan's lawnmower.

Alan handed the paper over to the receptionist. “He gave me this,” he said. “Do you recognize the signature?”

For a moment the receptionist did nothing, but then she reached out and snatched the paper from his hands impatiently. With complete disregard for the condition of the document, she unfolded it roughly and read the first few lines. Then, she screamed.

It was like the sound of a thousand damned souls crying from the very bowels of Hell in simultaneous and incalculable surprise. It was over in an instant, but in that small moment Alan's mind felt like it had been dragged across hot coals. Alan jumped two feet in the air from the sound of the sickening noise, and stared at the receptionist in sheer astonishment. She still had the document in hand, but her eyes were darting back and forth across the page in excitement. Something was bathing her face in light, and it took a few moments for Alan to realize that the light was coming from the contract itself.

The receptionist snapped her head up. Tears were building in her eyes and threatened to rain down. “Where did you get this?” she asked. Her voice was a strange cross of hopefulness and desperation. Alan thought it all so strange: it was just the written promise to return a lawnmower, yet the receptionist was treating it like it was the salvation of the damned.

“I told you,” sputtered Alan, still startled from the reaction of the secretary. “From my neighbor, Lou. I loaned him my lawnmower, and he promised to return it. In writing.”

Lou?” asked the secretary. “Why do you call him Lou?”

It occurred to Alan that while Lou had lived next door to him for nearly two years, he knew very little about him, save the fact that he was polite, handsome, and seemed far too young to own his own house. “That's his name,” said Alan with a shrug.

The secretary got up out of her seat. There was a brightness in her eyes, and it wasn't a figurative one. They burned with the intensity of exploding stars. Alan thought he might go blind. “Well, your neighbor is not named Lou,” the secretary said fiercely. “He is Lucifer, the First Fallen, the Last Saved. He is the Prince of Darkness, the Father of Lies, and the ruler of Hell! Your neighbor, sir, is the Devil!

Alan stood his ground. He thought about Lou, how he seemed so young and so successful. He remembered the tall man with the fake skin and the Hugo Boss suit, and the swarm of bees that could talk, and the fact that Lou had vanished without a trace and had taken Alan's lawnmower with him. And for these reasons, Alan thought, it made absolute, one hundred percent, perfect sense that his neighbor, Lou, was actually Lucifer, the Devil, the Prince of Darkness.

Alan put his hands on his hips. “Well,” he said authoritatively, “I'll have you know, ma'am, that the Devil still has my lawnmower.”

In response, the receptionist escorted Alan to an elevator that revealed itself when a regular-looking bit of red wall slid away. The secretary shoved him in roughly, and glowered at him. “Please hurry up,” she said. “We're almost done preparing.”

“What for?” asked Alan.

The receptionist just smiled, reached into the elevator, pressed a button, and the elevator door closed.

The elevator was also red. It had two red buttons, oriented vertically, without labels. The elevator only stopped two places, it seemed:

On the top floor.

And on the bottom one.

After the door closed, and the elevator started its descent.

It seemed to take hours. No fewer than ten times did it seem like the elevator would finally stop, only to accelerate again.Thus, he had plenty of time to ponder on how strange his week had been.

* * *

One week prior, Alan had found his usually chipper neighbor Lou in a state of distress. Lou was standing in his yard, visibly upset, inspecting his hedges critically as if demanding his shrubberies to explain their unkempt state.

“Hi Lou,” Alan said while retrieving his newspaper from the driveway. He was clad in a bathrobe and waddling in slippers, blinking at the sun.

“My yard needs work,” said Lou. “My shrubs are looking ragged, weeds are taking over and my lawn's overgrown. I thought I was a better caretaker than this.”

“Better fix that before the Homeowner's Association gets word,” said Alan.

“My thoughts exactly,” said Lou. “I tangled with them last week, and they fined me. Dealing with them is worse than hell.”

“I don't doubt it,” said Alan. “I hear our HOA's got lawyers for their lawyers. So what happened last week that they fined you?”

“Some damned kids performed a satanic ritual on my yard.”

Alan blinked a few times. “And the Home Owner's Association fined you for it?”

“They've never been lenient in the time I've known them. Didn't matter that it wasn't my fault.”

“So... what'd they do?” asked Alan with a humorous smile. “Draw a big pentagram on your yard? Cover it in trash? Sacrifice your lawn ornaments?”

“They built a stone altar and burned a lamb alive on it,” said Lou. “And to top it all off, they broke my lawnmower.”

There were a lot of answers Alan had been expecting, but that had not been one of them. “Uh,” he said. “I'm sorry, Lou. Sounds awful. I wish I would've been there to stop them. I've been working a lot of overtime lately.”

Lou sighed. “What can you do?” he said. “When kids get an idea in their heads, they just can't get 'em out. It doesn't bother me so much that they found me; the part that bothers me is that Levitcus 1:9 clearly states that burning lamb entrails creates a pleasing odor for the Lord. I guess they got the wrong Lord.”

“It says that in the Bible?” said Alan.

“It says a lot of things in the Bible,” said Lou. “It's three-quarters of a million words long. Depending on the translation.”

Alan and Lou lived in a gated community with dozens of cookie-cutter houses exactly like each other. It was extremely unlikely that any kids could break in and desecrate a lawn, but not impossible. The past few days, a doomsday cult had left its usual concrete compound and had been camping out just outside gates proclaiming the end of the world, and Alan would not put it past them to sneak in and pick on a poor guy like Lou.

“Do you think it has anything to do with those doomsday whackos?” Alan asked.

“Maybe,” said Lou.

“Bunch of crazies, the lot of 'em,” said Alan. “No reason to take it out on guys like you and me.”

“I wouldn't write them off so soon,” said Lou. “Someone's always proclaiming the end of the world, and you never know, maybe the world will end one day.”

“Do you think so?” asked Alan.

“One day the angels of demons of the world will get bored with life as we all know it,” said Lou. “And on that day, we're all in for it.”

“Umm, okay,” said Alan. He was about to go back inside, when he caught a glimpse of Lou's lawn. It was, indeed, in a pitiable state. “Your lawn does look pretty unkempt. I haven't seen it that shaggy before.”

Lou shook his head. “Those kids broke my lawnmower, and my warranty's expired. I knew I should have bought the extended coverage. A friend of mine got his tiller in 1802 and they still covered it when it broke last year.”

Alan chuckled. “Nothing's built to last these days. Tell you what. Why don't you borrow my mower?”

“That'd be awful swell of you,” said Lou.

Alan shook a warning finger at Lou. “But you better give it back. My wife doesn't want me lending out any of my garden tools. And my twelve-year-old son needs to earn his allowance somehow.”

Lou smiled. “If you want it back so bad, why don't I get in writing?”

“Oh, that's not necessary,” said Alan. “You've been my neighbor for- what is it- two years now? I know you're good for it. Besides,” he added, “I know where you live!”

The two neighbors laughed at the corny joke. Lou reached into his back pocket. He pulled out a piece of typical notebook paper and a pen. He started writing. “No, I insist,” he said. “I'd like to get it in writing. I sign a lot of contracts at my job, and I swear by them.”

“No fine print, right?” Alan joked.

“Those days are behind me,” said Lou.

Lou placed the piece of paper in Alan's hand, and Alan went out to drag his mower from the garage. He didn't even bother reading the piece of paper Lou had given to him, and simply tucked it into the belt of his robe.

Alan retired to his living room to have his morning cup of coffee and read the paper. His wife, Betsey, trotted in moments later. “Lovely day out,” she said, giving her husband a peck on the cheek. “Good way to start the weekend.”

“Can't say the same of our neighbor Lou,” said Alan as he took a sip of coffee. “Poor fellow has a lot of yard work to catch up on.”

“Poor man. I heard about the trouble he had last week with the altar. Some kids come by and wreck his lawn, and not only does he have to pay to fix it, but he had to pay the Association as well.”

“That H.O.A.,” said Alan, “I tell you, they work for the Devil. Charging a young guy like Lou for something he didn't even do.”

“Money is the root of all evil,” said Betsey. “I think it says that somewhere in the Bible.”

“I wouldn't doubt it. It's three-quarters of a million words long, you know. I loaned him our lawnmower, by the way.”

Betsey looked upset. “What have I told you about loaning our expensive tools to neighbors?”

“It's all right,” said Alan, pulling out the slip of paper from his bathrobe. “I got it in writing.”

“Oh?” said Betsey. “He actually signed a contract?”

“I insisted,” lied Alan. “Now he is required by powers far greater than myself to return my lawnmower.”

Betsey smiled. “Well, good,” she said. “I'm glad. Thomas will get to the lawn later, then. I don't want the H.O.A. fining us. Anything good in the paper?”

“Just another interview with those apocalypse nuts camped outside the gates,” said Alan.

“That's nice, darling,” said Betsey, and went out of the kitchen.

* * *

Alan watched Lou perform his yard work. He would have offered a hand, but he was tired. His joints were not like they once were.

Lou started with the hedges, pulling out a pair of sharp-looking shears. He gently trimmed each leaf with the care of an experienced botanist, sometimes measuring branches with a ruler. He took ten steps back to admire his work, and took a short break. After a few minutes, Lou emerged with a glass of lemonade in his hand. It was shortly after this time when a black car pulled out in front of Lou's yard.

The man that got out of the car to talk to Lou was... unique. He had a slick Hugo Boss fashion sense, a wide-brimmed black fedora, and a dominating swagger in his step. But there were things about that seemed off to Alan. His skin did not look right, in fact it didn't looked like skin at all, as if a talented artist had painted on a convincing mockery of flesh.

The man tapped Lou on the shoulder, and Lou almost jumped from surprise. The tall man began to speak, and Lou sipped his lemonade with one hand and put his other in his pocket, listening attentively. The two had a conversation that became progressively more heated with every moment. Lou started shaking his head violently and gesticulating so rapidly with his lemonade that he spilled most of it on his as-yet unmowed lawn. Finally the tall man quickly spun around, walked aggressively to his car, got in, and pulled away. Lou, obviously still upset about the encounter, began the process of weeding his lawn before the mowing.

“Dad. What are you looking at?” came a voice.

Alan jumped at the interruption. In his doorway stood his twelve-year-old son Thomas, leaning against the doorframe and glowering.

“Good morning, Thomas!” said Alan cheerfully, folding up his newspaper and pretending to look at a story on the back page, which was in fact a full-page grocery store spread.

“You're spying on the neighbors again,” said Thomas.

“I was just staring into space,” said Alan defensively. “I wish you would say good-morning to your father, Thomas.”

Thomas walked over to the refrigerator and violently plucked it open. “Whatever,” he said.

“Maybe you should be a little more appreciative of the people who house and clothe you,” said Alan gruffly.

Thomas withdrew an entire quart of orange juice and started drinking straight from it. He walked over to the bay window in the kitchen, through which Alan had been watching his neighbor do yard work. “What's so fascinating about Louis anyway? He's just so boring.”

“Watch how you speak about your neighbors!” snapped Alan. “And don't drink from the carton either! What's wrong with you?”

Thomas threw out his arms, almost spilling the orange juice. “Why do you have to talk to me like that, Dad? You're antagonizing me.”

Stop talking to me like that!” Alan said.

Ever the angry pre-teen, Thomas turned around and resumed watching Lou. Alan angrily resumed reading the paper. He wished the child-rearing books that Betsey had made him commit to memory had mentioned this. Thomas has a mean comeback for everything, it seemed.

Thomas giggled. “What's so funny?” asked Alan, still gruffly.

“Looks like our neighbor has a bee problem,” said Thomas. “They're all over the place.”

“You're laughing about that?” said Alan angrily, getting up from the kitchen table. “That's not funny! He could get really hurt!”

“They're not stinging him,” said Thomas. “It looks like he's talking to them.”

“Oh, don't be ridiculous-” said Alan, but he stopped. It was true. Lou was indeed talking to a swarm of bees.

The conversation seemed just as unpleasant to Lou as the one with the tall man in the Hugo Boss suit. The swarm of bees maintained a cylindrical pillar shape, instead of a shapeless cloud. It contracted and expanded in controlled ways as Lou spoke, its bees displaying a wide range of flight patterns. The bees flew in graceful spirals and drifted into lazy loop-the loops; then progressed into urgent swoops and again into angry, jagged vibrations. If Alan didn't know better, he would have thought that the swarm of bees was trying to express itself.

Lou, apparently no longer willing to be buzzed at in such a rude way, angrily strutted towards Alan's lawnmower. With a single, powerful pull on the rip-cord, it roared to life. The swarm of bees, recognizing the battle cry of its natural and hated enemy, dispersed in a state of panic.

“Dude,” said Thomas. “That swarm of bees was fucking pissed.”

Alan resolved not to discipline his son for such harsh language. “Poor Lou. First, an overgrown lawn, and now, bees.”

“Isn't that our lawnmower?” said Thomas.

“That's right,” said Alan sternly, looking over at his adolescent son. “I've loaned it to him. The only thing preventing me from sending you out there with it to do our lawn is that Lou's broke last week.”

“Wow!” said Thomas, excitedly. “Maybe he's not such a boring, white bread, goody-two-shoes after all. Thanks Louis!”

Watch it how you talk about people!” snapped Alan.

“Sorry, for being mean, Dad,” said Thomas, who turned around and started walking out of the kitchen, orange juice carton still in hand. “I'm going to go play video games!”

Alan sighed as his son left the room, and resumed watching his frustrated neighbor drag the lawnmower back and forth across his lawn.

Lou shook his head angrily, gritting his teeth as he forced the lawnmower across his lawn. The visit from the tall man and the swarm of bees seemed to make him quite angry indeed, angry enough that he was missing entire rows of grass with the lawnmower.

Alan resolved to give Lou a helping hand to cheer him up, but he wasn't about to do it in his bathrobe. He went to his bedroom and changed into a pair of ruddy jeans and a stained T-shirt. When he went to the back yard to get his straw hat, he heard the lawnmower stop. Lou must have stopped to empty the grass-catcher.

Alan walked through the house and into the front yard, whistling cheerfully as he went around the hedge and into Lou's yard. It wasn't until he was halfway down the lawn when he realized that both his neighbor and his lawnmower were nowhere to be found. He looked left, he looked right. There was simply no way that Lou could have managed to sweep up all the grass clippings from the sidewalk, put away the lawnmower, and go back inside in the time Alan had taken to change into work clothes. Furthermore, the lawn was not by any means finished, and the missed rows of grass were still untrimmed.

Alan walked up to Lou's door and knocked. There was no answer. He waited a minute or two and knocked again. Still nothing.

Alan walked back into his house and continued his day. Perhaps Lou had an urgent errand to attend, and had stashed away Alan's lawnmower in the backyard until he was finished. In either case, Alan was sure that his lawnmower was safe, and whatever was bothering his polite and unassuming neighbor would surely be resolved.

* * *

A week later, Lou was still missing, and Alan's own lawn was now starting to look like it needed attention. Alan knocked on Lou's door, and was treated with the same silence he had experienced the weekend before. Nothing seemed to have changed, except a notice from the Homeowner's Association taped to Lou's door notifying him that if he didn't mow his lawn soon, he would be faced with a fine.

Alan turned around. Lou's lawn was still unmowed, and in fact, since it had been a week, was now even worse. He went back to his house and woke up his wife.

“Dear,” he said, “have you seen our neighbor?”

“Lou?” asked Betsey. She was still groggy with sleep, and rolled over to rub her eyes in protest of the unwelcome consciousness.

“Yes,” said Alan. “I think something might have happened to him. I haven't seen him since I loaned him my lawnmower.”

Betsey frowned. “I told you not to loan out our tools. I told you. Our yard has to be done this week, or we'll get fined. You should call him.”

“I've tried. He didn't answer. He also didn't finish. His lawn is still terrible.”

“Well, that's not our fault,” said Betsey. “Get our lawnmower back. Thomas needs to do some yard work if he's going to get an allowance from us this week. Maybe Lou's at work.”

“Where does he work?” asked Alan. “Do you know?”

“Some office on... Oh, I don't know, I think it's on Seventh Street next to the behavioral therapist that we took Thomas to that one time,” she said. “The one with the ugly architecture.”

“All right,” said Alan. “I'll check it out.”

* * *

The elevator rumbled along as it made its descent. Alan worried that he’d be rocked to sleep like a baby. He wondered how many other people had gotten to ride it. He pondered the logistics and practicality of building an elevator to Hell. What did heaven have? An escalator?

The contract was still in his hand, and it occurred to Alan that he'd never even read the thing himself. What had the receptionist seen in it that had caused her to scream like the damned of Hell?

He opened up the contract.

If Alan had any doubts that his neighbor Lou was actually ruler of Hell, they vanished at that moment. When he had first been given the contract, it was scarcely larger than a typical sheet of folded notebook paper, yet when he opened it, it unfurled to the width of a tapestry and unrolled all the way down to his feet like an ancient scroll, complete with fiery, crimson tassels.

Additionally, the words inscribed on the parchment were made entirely of fire. Alan read them aloud.

I, Lucifer, Lord of the Nine Circles, the First Fallen, the Last Saved, the Abaddon, the Leviathan, the Antichrist, the Lawless One, the Serpent of Old--

--Do Solemnly Decree That I Shall Return My Neighbor Alan's Lawnmower Upon Completion of the Mowing of My Yard.” Alan read it over and over again. When he saw Lou scribble the contract out, it hadn't taken more than half a second. How he had produced such an enchanting legal document was beyond Alan's comprehension.

Alan was agnostic. He had attended church when he was young, because his parents thought it was something that families ought to do. He'd never found a reason to believe in god, as he'd had no proof. But he had proof that there was a devil, and that would do for now.

He nodded, folded up the contract, and put it back in his pocket. Once again, the document assumed the form of a regular sheet of folded notebook paper. He put it back in his pants pocket just as the elevator finally came to a rest and opened its doors into the yawning depths of suffering and misery that was the final resting place for the Souls of the Damned.

It was pleasantly warm, actually.

Alan, confused, stepped forward. The elevator closed and ascended behind him. He turned around and stared back at it. “Hey!” he shouted as it disappeared into the blackness above. “Come back here!” He accidentally bumped into something. It was a stalagmite. It had an elevator call button on it. “Oh,” he said.

Hell, it seemed, was not how most people let on. It looked like a reddish, well-lit cave. There were rocks and stalagmites everywhere. And not much else.

He was expecting lakes of fire from which legions of tortured hands protruded, their owners forever burning, screeching, reaching for the heaven they had been denied. But there were no screams, nor was there anybody to make them.

“Hello?” called Alan. Nobody answered. He walked forward. “Hello?” he called as he walked. “Is anybody there?”

For ten minutes he walked, until he finally met someone. It was a janitor. He was dressed in a blue jump suit and had a white mustache that could easily sweep the cave floor as efficiently as the broom he was holding. “Um, excuse me,” said Alan. “Do you know where everyone's gone?”

The janitor stopped his sweeping and stared at Alan alarmingly. “What're you still doin' here?” he asked. “Everyone's gone. Yer late.”

“Where've they gone?” asked Alan.

“Don't act like you don't know,” said the janitor, and resumed sweeping.

“Look,” said Alan, withdrawing the contract from his pocket. “I'm Alan. I've got a signed document here from your boss.”

“Boss ain't here,” said the janitor. “I'm just sweepin' up after everyone so when they come back it'll be nice an' clean.”

“But where have they gone?”

“You work here,” said the janitor. “You must've gotten the memos.”

“No, I don't work here,” said Alan.

The janitor paused his sweeping again. He stood up and looked Alan up and down. “No,” he said. “You don't work here.”

Alan once again offered the signed document, and this time the janitor took it. He unfurled it, and read the fiery letters. A faint smile could be seen under his enormous mustache. “Lord,” he said. “You must really want yer lawnmower.”

“Not really,” said Alan. “I'm more worried about my neighbor. He disappeared one day. He never told me he was the Devil.”

The janitor folded up the document and handed it back to Alan. “Yer a good man,” he said. “Nobody ever worries about the Devil. Who says he don't need lookin' after?”

“Well, where's he gone?” asked Alan.

“Same as everyone else here,” said the janitor. “Off to purgatory to fight the Apocalypse.”

“The Apocalypse?” asked Alan. “You mean that group of religious nuts camping outside my neighborhood was right?

“There's always someone proclaimin' the Apocalypse,” said the janitor. “One of em's gonna be right eventually. Can't beat them odds.”

“Well, then, if they're fighting the Apocalypse, what are you doing here?” Alan asked. “If it's the final battle, they aren't coming back, are they?”

“Oh, they never actually do it, y'know,” said the janitor as he swept. “Somethin' always comes up, and they get interrupted. Then, they come back and wait till the next End of Days.”

“Something always happens?” asked Alan. “What are you talking about?”

“Well, if I'm readin' that there document correctly,” said the Janitor, gesturing with his broom handle towards the folded contract in Alan's hand, “Looks like this time, that somethin' is you.”

Alan thought about this for a good long while. He nodded, and put the contract back in his pocket, knowing what he had to do. “Well, then,” he said, “Can you tell me how I get to Purgatory?”

“If I didn't,” said the janitor, “I'd be out of the job.”

* * *

The written directions from the janitor were both well-illustrated and tirelessly explicit. He had clearly drawn them much, much earlier. Either that, or he had the same time-defying hand as Lou. It wasn't that far-fetched.

As Alan walked, he passed many things that he thought didn't belong in an eternal pit of suffering at all: A courtyard with chess tables, a Squash court, even an arcade with pinball tables and a popcorn machine. But as fascinating as he found these, he had somewhere to be, and therefore didn't stop to inspect any of it. He looked down at the directions the janitor had given him:

Turn left at the stalagmite that looks like it has a big bite though it. Check. Keep walking twenty paces until you find a stalagmite that's twenty feet tall and looks like it's covered in dragon claw marks. Good. Now spin left three times, close your eyes after the second turn, and say--

Too bad for Heaven, too good for Hell;

What place can there be for a soul like me to dwell?”

As Alan said the words, he felt some kind of disturbance, somewhere between a headache and a gust of wind. And then there was a door.

It was the plainest door that Alan had ever seen in his life. It was inoffensive, unobtrusive, and unspectacular. It must have taken a group of twenty bureaucrats to design such a door, and not one of them must have been allowed to have a hobby.

Alan reached out and opened it. He couldn't see what was on the other side. It was just a blinding glare of shapeless, white light. He had to go in.

He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and entered Purgatory.

At last, he could see the denizens of Hell. He was expecting pitchforks. He was expecting forked tongues, flaming eyes, mangled flesh and burnt hair. He was expecting impossibly ugly creatures a thousand times stronger then men, he was expecting the smell of rotting flesh and the screams of mortal torment. He received none of these things. The Denizens of Hell were no more remarkable than any other random sample of the human population. Hell is where people go when they die; it never occurred to anyone that they might remain that way.

Alan pushed his way through the throngs of standing bodies. He must have been somewhere outdoors, though it couldn't possibly be anywhere on Earth. It was amazingly hard to navigate, since that there was no way whatsoever to tell where he was going. The ground was gray. The sky was gray. There were no stars in the sky or markings on the ground. There wasn't even a breeze. He tapped a demon on the shoulder.

“Can I help you?” asked the demon. He was an elderly, cheerful man with a sparkle in his eye and the blues in his voice.

“Yes,” said Alan. He held up the contract. “I need to find the Devil.”

The demon eagerly grabbed the document and read it. “My stars,” he said. “You’re him! You’re him!”

“I think... yes,” said Alan. “I'm me, last time I checked.”

The demon held up the contract for all to see. “Bless you, man! You came!”

Other demons started turning their heads. Their eyes went wide, and their mouths opened with smiles and laughter.

“It's him, man!” the demon continued, this time shouting so that everyone could hear. His voice was clear and could be heard all throughout Purgatory, as it was no longer constrained by the pesky laws of physics. “I got 'im! The Contract Holder! HE'S COME AFTER ALL!”

The demon pressed the document back into Alan's hand. “Go on, son,” he said. “Go and sing your song, man.”

Alan felt hands pushing him and shoving him, guiding him and leading him. He drifted through the crowd, awash with smiles and shouts of excitement. Whispers of things to come drifted all across Purgatory.

And finally, Alan could see something ahead. A small hill right in the middle of the crowd. The Epicenter. The start of the Apocalypse.

The last gentle hand escorted Alan to the base of the hill, and he was on his own. He looked up. The hill was tall and steep. He couldn't see the end of it. But as he started climbing, it was easier than a set of stairs.

Finally, he reached the top, and was greeted by several figures. The first was a blond man clad in white, with blue eyes and a melancholy look on his face. Standing behind him were two more white-clad figures, equally solemn.

It surprised Alan to find a pair of figures he recognized: A tall man in a wide-brimmed black fedora, and a swarm of bees in shape of a column. The last figure at the top of the hill was Alan's long time, cheerful neighbor, Lou. Lou, as it was now powerfully clear to Alan, was the Devil.

Lucifer was a powerful, imposing figure, who emanated might with every inch of his body. When he moved, his muscles danced and writhed like snakes in an earthquake. Lou turned to Alan, the ground trembling with every tiny step, and smiled.

“There you are,” said Lou. “I was wondering when you'd get here.”

“Is this him?” asked one of the men in the white robe.

Alan looked over the man in white robe's shoulder and tried to find Heaven's army, but all he could find was a small, pathetic group of people in white robes near the base of the mountain. There couldn't have been more than a hundred people, and not one of them looked happy to be there.

“Alan,” said Lou, gesturing towards the taller of the white-robed people, “I'd like for you to meet my good friend, the angel Gabriel.” He pointed to the other two white-robed figures. “And here's Ezekiel and Elijah,” and at last introduced Alan to his own cohorts. “And here's the Tall Man, and my second-in-command, Beelzebub.”

The Tall man nodded once, and Beelzebub buzzed, “Pleazzed to mzzeeet you.”

“Have you got something for us, Alan?” asked Gabriel expectantly.

Alan smiled. “Yes,” he said holding out the contract to Lou and giving Gabriel a smile. “I think I do.”

Lou opened up the document, and showed it to Gabriel. Gabriel practically wept with joy.

Lucifer turned to the denizens of Hell. “My friends!” he shouted. His voice boomed and roared loudly and clearly, thundering across the skies of Purgatory. “We have gathered here to initiate the final battle at the end of the world. We have waited century upon century to raise our swords and lay waste to the human world.”

There was a steely silence from the army of Hell. Each end every one of them was listening with all their might. Lucifer continued talking.

“And as much as I'd love to give the word and start the Apocalypse--” Lou held up the contract and unfurled it, its fiery letters shining like a beacon upon the armies of Hell. And he finished. “--But I'm afraid I have to return a lawnmower!”

And with those words, there came a hellish cheer.

* * *

Alan pulled the last bit of crab grass from the yard, surveying his work. There wasn't a weed in sight. Not even a dandelion. He dared the Homeowner's Association to find something wrong with the yard.

Lou emptied the grass-catcher into the garbage can. “It sure feels nice to get something done with my own two hands,” he said.

“What we obtain too cheap,” said Alan, “We esteem too lightly.”

“Thomas Paine,” said Lou. “He's a good man. A bit racist, but he's just as smart as everyone thinks he is.”

“Named my son after him,” said Alan. “Maybe that's why he's such a smart-ass.”

Lou laughed. “Well, if it's any consolation, the real Thomas Paine isn't the most humble human being in Hell either.”

“He's not in Heaven?” asked Alan. “He doesn't seem like a bad person.”

Lou grabbed the garbage can and shook it. The grass clippings settled at the bottom of it. “Getting into heaven is a tough gig, Alan. Hate to break it to you.”

“Why is that?”

“The rules are... well, a little outdated,” said Lou. “Not everybody's a saint. But everyone's a sinner.”

“That hardly seems fair,” said Alan. “Have you talked to God about it?”

“Would if I could,” said Lou. “But he's not been around since before the Bible was written.”

“Why not?”

“Perhaps he's grown up,” said Lou.

“You're saying God was a child when he created the world?”

“Not necessarily,” said Lou with a knowing grin, “But I like to think that our world is just sitting at the bottom of the Lord's toy box.”

Alan wiped off his dirty hands on his trousers. “So since nearly everyone goes to hell, everyone gets punished?”

“Only the bad ones,” said Lou. “We still have to follow all of God's commandments. We weren't given free will like you lucky humans. Though, as you can see, some of read between the lines.”

“Sorry about that,” said Alan.

“No need to apologize,” said Lou. “It says in the Bible that Hell is a place of fire. It's a bottomless pit. There is the gnashing of men's teeth. There is weeping and misery and sorrow.”

“Hmm,” said Alan.

“But,” continued Lou, “There is also swimming and ping pong. There is chess and Subbuteo and shuffleboard and skydiving. There is a lending library with every book in the world, and the tallest rock climbing wall you've ever seen.”

“So even the damned get to play ping-pong from time to time?” said Alan with a chuckle.

Lou looked deeply and seriously into Alan's eyes. “Eternity is a long time, Al,” he said. “Not everyone who goes to Hell deserves to suffer for that long.” He looked down and inspected his hedges. “There are kids down there, you know.”

Alan felt a tinge of discomfort and embarrassment. “Well, at least God says you can still play ping pong in Hell.”

“Not exactly,” said Lou. He smiled warmly, cheerfully, and earnestly. “He just didn't say I couldn't.”

Lou and Alan laughed. Then they both looked at Alan's lawnmower.

“So once I get this back,” said Alan, “What's to stop you from starting the Apocalypse?”

“The window's closed now,” said Lou. “The Apocalypse can only be fought when every member of each army has completed all their obligations, and there is nothing left for them to do but fight the battle at the end of the world. You and your lawnmower prevented that this time. And while we were doing yard work, the Denizens of Hell started borrowing and trading and doing favors. It won't be another thousand years or so until all of us have got no obligations left.”

“What happens then?” asked Alan. “Are you going to borrow a shovel?”

“It's not my turn,” said Lou. “It'll be up to Gabriel.”

“What do you think he'll do?” asked Alan.

“Hopefully,” said Lou, “There will still be Homeowner's Associations. And they will still be bastards.”

* * *

Alan wiped his feet on the welcome mat. He opened the door, went inside, and washed his hands.

“How's Lou?” asked Betsey, who was cooking a stew.

“Not too bad,” said Alan. “I'm glad he didn't have too much pride to let me help with his lawn.”

“Is he going to be fined?”

“We managed to avoid the end of the world,” said Alan.

“As long as we got our mower back,” said Betsey.

“Of course, dear,” said Alan, pecking his wife on the cheek.

Alan wandered into the living room, and collapsed into his favorite chair. He heaved a sigh of relief. He was exhausted.

“I wanted to help,” said Thomas. He was lying on the couch with his Game Boy. “But Mom said you didn't want me to bother you.”

“Oh?” said Alan.

“Yes... I wanted to make up for being a...” Thomas swallowed. “For being mean to you earlier.”

“Oh, it's all right,” said Alan. “Lou and I were just catching up. We had a little guy time while doing the yard.”

“I still think he's boring,” said Thomas. “I mean, not in a mean way. He just seems so normal.

“Oh, he's actually quite interesting,” said Alan with a chuckle, “Once you get to know him.”

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