User:Dr. Skullthumper/The Frogs

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The Frogs
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Part Three: Gridlock
Frogs3

As Wes’s pickup truck bounced along the highway, Mark became still more convinced that the entire thing was one of Ivan’s elaborate jokes.

Ivan and Mark had a history dating back to the days of middle school. They’d spent much of life not seeing one another, although one would get a prank e-mail or delivery from the other now and again as a reminder of school days.

Once, Mark dug through a box full of Styrofoam pellets sent from Ivan, only to find a single rubber band wrapped in plastic as reward for his effort. Over the next year and a half, Mark made it a point to collect every rubber band he came across until he had several balls’ worth of rubber. He shipped these back in an even larger box. Two years later, there was another package at his door, with rubber band balls that eclipsed the ones he had sent before. A note was attached: “Mine are bigger.”

These were the sorts of pranks that went on from time to time as both of them lived their separate lives. Harmless, simple ones. Since the fates had brought the two together to work on this television show, there hadn’t been a single funny phone call or dubious e-mail between them. Ivan had been saving up.

He didn’t recognize Wes, and would have remembered those green eyes if he’d seen them before. Nevertheless, a joke it had to be. And Mark was enjoying it a bit too much.

After a good twenty minutes or so of silence save for the autumn air rushing through the truck, Mark turned to Wes. “So! Hell. Anything I should know about it?”

“Don’t worry about it, bud,” Wes answered. “Hell is a fantastic place to live, so long as you’re not the one being tortured. Oh, the old Hell used to be fires and people stuck upside-down in flaming pits and disembowelment, but now it’s boring and green and still nice mind you, just a bit dull.”

Mark nodded in mock understanding.

“You used to be able to travel the levels,” Wes continued, as though bringing back old memories. “You’d never get bored. There was always something on fire, pal, I can tell you that much! Someone screaming or grunting or getting eaten. Alas, alas, time moves on,” he sighed in conclusion.

“You’re sick,” Mark laughed.

“Yes, I guess I am, aren’t I?” Wes chuckled back. The two of them filled the little truck with laughter, whisked away by the stale air outside. It died down with a final “Ha” from Wes and a nervous smile from Mark. Awkwardness descended as gently as a two-ton boulder.

Wes switched lanes as the pickup truck approached the toll booths ahead.

“Don’t go into that one,” Mark warned. “It’s out of order.” He knew this from embarrassing experience, as did many other drivers.

“It’s not out of order,” Wes grinned. “Nobody knows how to pay it!”

“What?”

“Bud, that’s the entrance to Hell,” Wes explained, one hand on the steering wheel and one hand pointing to the toll booth ahead. “Hell’s not going to toll people that accidentally stumble into it, no.”

“What’s the toll?”

“Your soul!”

“Catchy,” Mark shrugged.

The pickup truck whizzed through the booth. For an instant, Mark felt the back of his neck getting hot, as though someone were glaring at him from an unknown direction. He ignored the sensation.

They’d gone through the toll booth on Earth, and came out the other side of the toll booth still on Earth. “Hell looks a lot like Earth,” Mark observed.

“Oh, ha-ha, we’re not there yet.”

The world outside of Wes’s truck cracked like paint on an ancient canvas. Parts of the sky rained down in blue chips and chunks; the cars around them faded into streaks of color; the road fractured and split, huge sections of earth falling into an empty, deep blue abyss.

The truck ran out of road; the road they had been driving on was now a cliff, an island, in the midst of nowhere. It careened off the Earth and into the blue below, which faded into black as the truck fell further. Light patterns played on imaginary walls of the abyss, like the patterns you see at the bottom of a swimming pool when the sun shines just right.

Wes took his hands off the wheel and put them behind his head. Worlds in miniature rushed past, little frozen scenes and symbols from the collective memory of millions of human beings. Here was the Void, the place in-between the real and unreal, the living and the dead. Faces, voices, sounds, scenes, buildings and pyramids lay trapped in the Void, encased in bubbles. Forgotten memories. Abandoned memories. Times that history, and humankind, had left behind.

Mark could no longer take the sensation of free fall, and squeezed his eyes shut.

~~~

A friendly tap on the shoulder, and Mark reopened his eyes. Looking down, he noticed his hands were digging into his legs, and he relaxed them. The truck sounded like it was idling.

“It’s real, isn’t it,” he said, trying to shake the image of the Void from his mind. “It’s all real.”

He turned to see Wes, who was grinning toothily. “Yes,” he replied in a low voice, giving a nod.

“Damn it!” Mark burst out, smacking the dashboard and glaring at it, as though challenging it, as a part of the Universe, to make his life even more incomprehensible than it was now. He looked out of the windshield for the first time.

The truck sat on a road that extended into infinity, an eight-lane monstrosity packed with vehicles of various shapes and sizes. There were cars, vans, buses… But this was no ordinary gridlock. As Mark scanned the horizon, he spied a trackless train, several boats hovering in midair, even animals with their annoyed riders trying to motivate them to move. Though the blue sky was as sunless as it was cloudless, the air was stifling hot. Pollutants belched into the atmosphere from every mode of transportation imaginable.

“Oh, don’t worry about that, Flavian,” Wes’s cheerful voice broke in. “It’s already taken care of!”

“Wha?” Mark asked, annoyed and exasperated by all this.

“The truck. You. Me. We’re all damned already. This is Hell, bud!”

Mark couldn’t take his eyes off the horde of angry drivers. “Hell sucks,” he concluded.

“Oh, we’ve only just begun! This has got to be the least interesting part.”

“Gridlock for eternity?”

“Of course not! Only until they get driven mad and escape their bodies for the second time. Then they move on to real Hell, and believe me, that’s the fascinating stuff.”

“How do they move on? Looks like they’re pretty much stuck, if you ask me.”

“Which is why I didn’t. You see, death is like a final madness. Your mind is filled with so many conflicting signals that it eventually gives up and leaves. It’s the same thing that happens here, after death – people are forced to sit in gridlock until their minds can’t take it anymore, and leave again.” He leaned closer to Mark. “It gets easier after the first time,” he whispered, as though sharing a secret.

“Doesn’t this move?” Mark exclaimed. “Ever?”

“About an inch every half-century, last I checked. C’mon, pal. We’ve gotta get going if you wanna find your friend.”

“There’s nowhere to – ”

Mark heard a car door open and turned to see Wes climbing out of the truck. “Don’t feel stupid,” Wes said, sticking his head back in, “nobody thinks of getting out. Literally.”

Mark rolled his eyes and opened his own door. Wes kept his hands in front of him as he coasted between the idling vehicles; Mark followed, lagging behind somewhat. They reached the bushes off to the left and Mark nearly collided with of one of the signs of various shapes and sizes that littered the road on both sides. He glanced at them; they were printed in different languages. One of them had a sentence in English:

“Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here,” Wes read aloud. “If only people’d pay some attention to that…” With that, he disappeared into the bushes and trees beyond the road.

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