The clackety-clack of her long nails on the keyboard was already getting on my nerves. I sat opposite to her, a desk and a computer between us. With a slight angle, the computer allowed her to monitor me while she keyed in whatever information she was working on. Every letter typed was one more click irritating me, like a power drill punching a hole into my brain.
She stopped. Thank god.
“Do you have any preferences for your trip?”
I remembered why I was here, booking my next vacation. I needed a break, desperately. Even my drive to work this morning had been a nightmare. People on the highway were in such a rush to get to their destination, driving at 4,000 miles per hour. Changing lanes was dreadful. After nearly hitting a car, I swerved and avoided the inevitable accident. More stress added into my bank.
Needed the vacation badly.
The rest of my day had been one smooth, forgettable ride, a dull one if you asked me. Much of it all was the same repetitive counting of expenses and revenues, one entry after another. Some days the numbers just meshed together to form one blurry fresco of characters. I typically woke up from this meaningless day at 5 p.m., all excited about the glass of red wine waiting for me at home. Today was the same routine. I couldn’t remember which client of the firm I worked on, just that I woke up, drove in, numbers in and out, and then I was here.
Her office was dark in certain corners, like some secrets needed the cover. And then a bright light from the window washed the rest of the office, most of it hitting me straight in the face. I had to squint most of the time.
“Sir? Your room? Preferences?” said the woman with the long nails.
“Like what? Pillow size?” I replied.
“The usual, bed size, room with a view, etc.”
“Not really, whatever is available.” I studied her for a second, just making sure that was a convenient answer. She went back to her computer. I’d hoped she might stop typing with a vague answer.
“What destinations are we talking about?” I said. I honestly couldn’t remember what I’d asked her to look for. Hopefully, a place where speed limits were below 50.
“I’m getting to that soon, we’ll find a proper fit after a few more questions.” She turned back and met my eyes. “Which brings me to my next question; for your trip do you prefer single or with someone else?”
What kind of question was that? I was glad of the absence of her keyboard nagging, but she didn’t make sense. “You mean the seat arrangement? Like first class or coach?” I said.
“Something like that. What I mean is, do you prefer to be alone or prefer company while you travel?”
“Alone. So first class.”
She gave a chuckle while going back to her screen. What a weird reaction. It gave me a better picture of her: the kind who feeds you specific travel plans, and if you don’t eat their salad, they’ll still try to maneuver you back into a square hole. Her office gave me a similar vibe. She had a bunch of ‘employee of the month’ awards. One I could read the label on seemed to date back to two decades ago—YIKES. She’d been doing this for a while. I put on my boxing gloves, ready for a sparring of the minds. Travel agent versus accountant. Let’s rumble.
“What made you give that answer, sir?” she asked.
The question took me a bit by surprise. If the agency wanted to get to know me better, to offer better service or travel plans, she was on the right track. Was it her way to sell me whatever packages were worth more commissions for her? Otherwise, what a rude question. I decided to play along.
“I just want to be alone, you know, peace and quiet.”
“It can get boring after a while, sir. You might want to, at the very least, consider other options.”
BOOM! Sales pitch was on its way. There was a reason she possessed another trophy on her desk. But I could play the chess game all day long with sales people.
“Like what? Kayaking? I’m not into sports, like I said, someplace quiet.”
She gawked at me, like I was crazy, analyzing the answers I gave, and most likely my body language as well. I was reading her too. Give me your best shot.
“Suit yourself!” she said. The clattering was back. I’m sure it was a strategy to distract me from the sales pitch. “I’m going to ask you a few more questions, sort of building out your profile.”
“You see a hobo living in the streets asking for money—what do you do?”
What? I mean, how is this related to travel? My shock was probably telling. She still looked at me like this was a normal question despite my reaction.
“I’m not sure…”
“Like I said, your profile, Mr. Gladwill, please indulge me!”
“I’m giving him—some money?” I didn’t know at this point if this was a line of questioning where I had to be honest or answer what SHE wanted.
She leaned on her desk, staring at my file again. Her eyes met mine again, literally challenging my answer.
“I mean, er, I pass him by…now listen, can we get to the part where you sell me a trip?”
She was typing again, clearly ignoring my request. But I decided this poor customer experience was over and stood up. “Ma’am, I’m sure you’re a nice lady, but this is too much—so have a good day—but no thanks,” I told her with some pride.
“SIT DOWN, Mr. Gladwill!” she said, and my body responded to her statement. As if I had no choice but to sit down. She mumbled to herself. “Impulsive… manipulative… selfish…good—we’re getting a picture here…” She continued, “You’re having dinner with your in-laws and—”
“I’m not married!” I said to her. The questions were getting weirdly irritating by the minute. I could feel a rush of heat throughout my body.
“Oops.” She looked at the file again. ”My bad—“
“COULD YOU STOP…for a minute…please?” I had to put an end to this. She leaned back again. Her hands resting on the desk. Her nails suddenly looked longer than I remembered. I had to calm myself down before spatting another word, but she was clearly waiting for my next move. I peeked around at all the prizes and trophies decorating her office. She was evidently an expert in her field, but of exactly what, I couldn’t tell. The labels were too fuzzy from where I sat, especially with the sun blinding me from the window.
“Now I get it, you need to build a profile and all, but all I want is a quiet resort and a room with a view…can you get me something like that or do I need to go somewhere else?”
She didn’t argue; something was going on behind the old woman’s head. She leaned forward, her two hands interlocked. God, those nails were long, like they were gaining a quarter of an inch every minute.
“Let me ask you—why are you here?”
That one caught me off guard. I thought my reasons were clear.
“Book a trip…?” I answered.
“I know what you want, but my question is why are you here? What brought you here?”
“I’m not sure I follow…”
“It’s a simple question, sir!”
“I guess…the fact I’m stressed out…”
“Is this what you’re asking?”
“No, it’s not!”
“Then I don’t know what to say…”
She rested on her seat—her arms folded—she seemed like she was analyzing me like a shrink.
“Do YOU know why you’re here, Mr.…Gladwill?”
“I know why I’m here, but I don’t think you’re listening…and to be quite frank if your job is to sell me a trip you’re doing a poor job, miss…and how come my name is on a document?” I peeked at the document on the desk.
She made some noise with her mouth, like she was kissing something out of thin air. What a rude way to avoid a question. She closed the manila folder now, like she wanted to avoid my examination.
“You really DON’T know why you’re here?” She looked exasperated, like I had to have an obvious answer on that one. My curiosity at this point kept me in place. I truly wanted to see where this crazy woman was going with this. She looked at me like I needed reassuring, like I missed the big picture.
“OK, let me help you with the answer.” She stood up, and I saw how tall she was. Maybe six foot two or three. She was bigger than I was, well built too. Like a professional basketball player, but trapped in an old woman’s body. I took note; do not lose your temper again! She circled around the desk and settled right in front of me; she towered inches above from me. I had to lean back a bit to meet her eye to eye. It seemed like her nails changed colors too. I thought they were blue or aqua before. Now they shined blood red. I was losing my mind.
“How did your day start?”
“I’m trying to help you understand why you’re here…so let’s start with your morning…you woke up and then?”
She was officially insane. What did that have anything to do with my travel plans? But I remembered her imposing figure, and how close she was. Crazy and built like Bigfoot. I had to play along so I could get out sooner than later, and in one piece.
“I woke up, had my breakfast, shower, drove to the office…” Hopefully that was enough for her to go back to her seat. But no, she stared at me with interest. God, I couldn’t wait to tell this story to Bill. He’d have a blast, the travel agency from hell. Had to get out of there first.
“What about breakfast?”
“I ate scrambled eggs, some vegetables and fruits.”
“OK, healthy meal, we’re getting somewhere…what about your shower? Anything special about it?”
“Huh?” I exchanged looks with her for a second. Trying to figure out if she was joking or being serious. Would a detail on how I took my shower impact my travel choices? I wondered at this point. Play along, I kept repeating to my now buzzing brain.
“Er—Not really—Same soap, same shower…”
“Anything happened DURING the shower?”
“I know these questions may sound weird, Mr. Gladwill, but indulge me, please.”
Did she expect me to tell her I jerked off during the shower? Some privacy, please.
“Nothing happened during the shower!”
She beamed, like she knew about my shower adventures. “OK, then what?”
“I dressed up, then drove to work.” Oh yeah, right, she wanted details. “I put on my grey suit, the one I’m wearing now, oh and a blue tie, the same color your nails are.” It was my turn to challenge the status quo—checking my insanity.
“My nails are red, Mr. Gladwill.”
No, they weren’t a few minutes ago. I didn’t imagine it! Why I didn’t say it out loud seemed irrelevant at this point. She led the conversation—her way—she held the key. Score one to zero for the mischievous travel agent.
“What then?” she asked. Like I cared.
“And then I drove off with my Rav4 vehicle, taking the same highway I take every day.”
“How did that go?”
“Driving to work?”
I counted on this interview to end soon. Rage rising. For a moment, I fantasized about breaking a few of those long-nail fingers or punching her in the neck. The look on her face was priceless though, she looked down on me with such an interest it was creepy. I had to calm myself down, fast. I had no intention of purchasing from this agency anyways. Maybe playing this spooky game was my only way out.
“Well, I drove down highway i82, which is just parallel to my street so really a few minutes away from my place, then…you know, the usual lane switcheroo until I get to my exit, about four to five miles on the i82.”
“Mr. Gladwill, have you been diagnosed with amnesia or do you forget details easily?”
“What? What kind of question is that? I just told you every detail of my morning!!”
“OK, then you’re lying?”
“What do you mean? I’m—“
“Mr. Gladwill, you don’t have a Rav4. You’re driving a Honda Civic.”
“Yes. And in fact, the Rav4 is the car you crashed into, not the one you were driving!”
“Crashed into?” That was enough. I stood up, but as soon as I did, she shoved me right down with one arm. Damn, she was strong. She gave me the silent treatment again. I really didn’t know what to say next. It felt as if I had no alternative but to sit there and answer whatever else she craved.
“Ma’am, I really—would like to leave now.” That was all I could say. What I NEEDED to say.
“Not possible—Mr. Gladwill—You’re dead!” she said and paused for effect.
“You died, in the crash!”
I looked at her. What a sick joke. I remembered clearly going to work…or did I? Was I recalling a previous day? I went through the motions of my entire morning again in my head. Meal, check; shower, check; driving, check. The more I thought about it, the more it somehow made sense or else she was playing tricks in my mind. If this was legitimate, what was this place? I thought it best to let it proceed. But a fuse would pop soon.
She stood up and went back to her seat. She took the analyzing posture again, staring deep into my soul. Something was different about her. Her face changed, gradually, but enough that I could tell something odd was at play. Slow enough to be suspicious or make me think I’d gone crazy. The bone structure behind her cheeks and jaw gently grew more pronounced.
“So let’s continue, Mr. Gladwill!” She pivoted back to her computer. “You’re a doctor, and a patient is dying on your operating table—“
“Could you STOP for a second with this shit? And what kind of QUESTION IS THIS? NO—this has got to stop and you need to tell me what the hell is happening. Why—why am I here and what is this place?” It was time I turn the table on this charade. She smiled. What could be funny about all this? I was apparently dead. Smiling! Really?!
“Mr. Gladwill, I’m here to process you.”
“Process me? WHAT THE HELL DOES THAT MEAN???!!?” My patience with her broke a new height. She kept that awful grin despite my tantrum. The shape of her eyes was now the victim of whatever shape-shifting was happening to her. Still, the transformation was so drawn out it was barely noticeable.
“That means—I need to assess if you shall go to heaven…OR…hell! Mr. Gladwill!”
Second strike. My heart sank, and she probably could tell my jaw was opened wide. I was still struggling to deal with the information she gave me. ‘Employee of the month’ my ass; she was terrible at delivering bad news.
“I—I don’t know what that means,” I said to her while physically trying to push away from my chair. Sadly, it wasn’t working, as if my body wasn’t responding—or at least my legs—to any of my commands. The only evidence that shed some truth into her ridiculous story.
“Don’t even try, Mr. Gladwill. You’re not allowed to leave until I process you.”
“I’m just not going to answer your questions then!” I answered. But as soon as the words left my mouth, I regretted it. What a childish thing to say. If this was a prank, whoever recorded this would have a field day with the footage. If not, I’d be served on a platter to Satan. The grin was back; I could swear I heard a snicker after I said my silly remark.
“Be my guest, I’ve got all the time in the world…literally!” she said with a radiant smile.
I maintained the facade, decided to humor the gag if there was one. “Sorry! It’s been a long day!” That was pathetic as an answer, fuel for more amusement for her.
“That’s alright, Mr. Gladwill, everyone reacts differently to this. I’m just surprised you didn’t remember more details, as we don’t get many people like you. Typically someone dies, they get here crying—or happy that their ordeal is over. Not acting like they were just about to buy their next trip to Cuba!” she said with a little casual dance, like she was mocking me.
Keep it cool, I chanted in my head. “You really gave me—“
“What? The impression this is a travel agency?” She peeked around her desk and at her library with the trophies. “OK, I’ll give you that one. My office does give a little vibe of the tropics!”
“That’s NOT what I meant!” I took a long, slow, steady breath, trying to regain my cool. A headache was on its way, throbbing stronger by the minute.
“I know what you meant, Mr. Gladwill, just fooling around! But all I care about is processing you.” Her attention was back to her screen. I was ready for the clickety-clack to continue. “So, the question—you’re a doctor, and a patient is dying on your operating table, do you keep going, or do you declare him dead?”
The doctor question again. I wondered how this could apply to a judgment towards heaven or hell? None of it made sense. My death. Her shape-shifting. My inability to move. Nothing. But I had to play along still. I was really curious what prize I would get in the end.
“I keep operating,” I answered.
“To save him? I dunno. The chance of saving him…?”
She turned to face me again. The skin on her face stretched to the limits; her nose was now taking part in the transformation. The veins of her eyeballs were drawing red. The way things were going, she’d look completely different within the hour.
“If you won’t be honest with me, Mr. Gladwill, might just as well process you right away. And you know what happens when we rush through this?”
“Sent to hell?”
“Exactly! And I’ll know if you lie to me. So don’t waste my time with lies. What would you do if you were the doctor?”
“If you know what I’m thinking, why ask?” I had to find out.
“I didn’t say I could read minds—I said I’ll know if you lie! So—your answer?”
“OK then, I’d let the patient die.”
“No point. A question of resources. Another patient might need me.” She was reading me. Somehow it didn’t seem enough for her. “What I mean by that is, if I waste my time saving a patient that has no chance to survive, I should focus my energy on someone I won’t lose on the operating table—simple logic.”
Another creepy smirk from her.
“OK. Next question, and you’ll like this one—your boss accepted a new client and sent you the files. Upon further verification, you realize this new client is part of the Mexican drug cartel. You report it to your boss, and he answers he knew about it—and—a client is a client, completely ignoring your warning. What do you do?” She paused for effect. “Again, no lies!”
The answer was on my lips, but I knew where it was going. Straight to hell. She’d classified me into this bucket of bad people. Why waste my time. And she knew it. If she was some kind of angel or entity with superpowers, she knew who I was.
A selfish son-of-a-bitch.
I’d spent a lifetime alone, mostly because of my shenanigans towards the “me” focus. The few girlfriends I had, all left, calling me an egotistical maniac and sexist. They were all singing in the same choir. Up to a point where I went through the motions every time I met someone new at the bar, realizing it was just a question of time before a piece of kitchenware went flying through, along with yelling, usually one sided. I never matured, unlike character arcs in stories, where after a crisis a character makes a big change. I preferred the predictable path.
“Can I stop you for a second? Listen, if this is real, you might as well process me now…” She raised an eyebrow. “… I mean, you know I’m probably going to hell,” I said.
She didn’t respond; she looked into my folder—read it for a few minutes—went back to her computer. All this time I was left hanging like a moron. Either she was trying to make me feel better by inspecting my file or simply taunting me, again. Like we didn’t both know what her answer was.
“You’re right, your history isn’t worth a blue pass.”
That’s what they called it…a blue pass.
“I assume I’ve earned the red one?” I said with a chuckle.
She nodded. For what felt like an eternity, we were both staring at each other. Me, looking for any other anatomy transformations. Her, appearing as though she felt sorry for me.
“I may have a solution—more of a deal kind of thing!” she said while she glimpsed behind herself and out the window. Who was she trying to hide things from? And then she lingered on her prizes. “There IS a reason I’ve collected all these prizes. If you’re open to it—I might be able to swing it, you know, nudge it in the right direction, but I’ll need something from you in return!”
I mimicked her glance out the window and her prizes, trying to figure out why she did that. But I couldn’t quite see out there, my butt still stuck to the chair by some kind of powerful magnetism.
“You mean you’d give me a blue pass in exchange for something?” Even after I said it, it sounded absurd. I reflected on the fact a few minutes ago I assumed I was lining up a vacation, and now we were chatting about a pass to heaven or hell.
I was still suspicious, expecting office peers to jump out of a secret door and yell, “You’ve been punked!”
“What exactly can I offer you?” I added. Her head had somehow slightly stretched upwards over the past few minutes. What exactly was she transforming into? An ugly angel. And why?
“A reference with the man upstairs!” she answered as she stood up and waved at her prizes: “Whenever I turn a so-so one into a kind soul, the man upstairs is VERY appreciative!” She walked to the same spot as before and dropped in front of me. “The way it works is—if I send you as is, he’ll know you’re a bad one—so over the years I’ve accumulated millions of souls, good ones, bad ones…some who fit just in between good or bad—”
Her eyes, transfixed on me, were growing more excited. She must’ve loved getting those prizes, as she clearly described some kind of soul Ponzi scheme.
“BUT—these ones in the middle have a chance to be tipped on the good side of things, and this is when HE loves it—and when I get these prizes.”
“But I’m not a good one, right? It wouldn’t work for me, would it?”
“Normally, it wouldn’t—but you see—all you’d need to do is make a deal WITH me, an exchange where you give me your bad-evil soul and I replace it with an average one.”
“Why not just switch to a good one instead?” This discussion was growing weirder by the minute. God, I hoped it wasn’t a gag.
“Because he’ll know it, you’re not a good one. So when you’re up there—you just play the part—that’ll just go under the radar. Worst case, he sends you straight down to hell. But at least we tried. If it works, I get one more of those trophies and you avoid the depths of hell—and believe me when I say, it’s worse than you think. It doesn’t work—well, at least we tried.” She was so giddy her body shifted left to right, like she was dancing again.
Her hand somehow landed on my lap while she explained the entire plan. I could feel her nails through my pants, like they were just about to pierce through the texture.
“So, if I get this straight, I give you my soul in exchange for a better one, then you’ll be able to get me to heaven?”
“And then all I have to do to make this kosher is to play along, as if I was—a changed man?”
“EX—actly! And to make sure that part goes well, you do you, but better. Like when people talk to you, you focus on their well-being first, instead of yours.”
“OK…so how does it all work? I mean, is there a contract to sign or something?”
Her hand was still on my lap, the other arm raised to my eye level, offering her hand.
“All we have to do is shake on it!” She gave me a reassuring smile. Somehow all of her shape-shifting changes, the red eyes, her bony-structured face were all gone. Her nails were back to blue and normal length. Instead of an old Sasquatch-like deformed woman, she was young and gorgeous, sensual. If I had met her in my past life, I’d definitely asked her out on a date. Probably would’ve improved for her. She was the most attractive woman I’d ever seen in my life, and she gently caressed my lap. My pulse was speeding for different reasons now; I felt heebie-jeebies in my stomach instead of anger’s shaky tensions.
I knew shaking her hand meant trouble. But it was hard to resist her. It was like a sexual enchantment took over me, overpowering my logical brain.
“I’ll do it!!” I said and grabbed her hand and shook it. Our hands were locked for a few seconds, her smile still as beautiful as it was before my hand met hers. I expected her to go back to a monstrous half breed or worse. But nothing happened. While still smiling, she dropped my hand, walked around her desk, and sat down. She began typing at the computer, and she had to raise her seat a bit. It seemed her amazing figure was shorter than before.
“I…I…” No words found their way to my mouth. Her beauty was overbearing.
“The next part is easy, Mr. Gladwill, just open the door and off you go, on your way to heaven. I’ll finish the paperwork here, but your part is done!” She kept at her computer, somehow dismissive. It was as if nothing had happened, like she was bored with me. The feeling of being in a travel agency, instead of a situation with a woman-beast, had returned. I stood up like normal, no longer pinned to my chair, and started wandering towards the door.
“Huh—thank you?” I really didn’t know what to say at this point. She didn’t even show interest in me anymore.
“You’re welcome, Mr. Gladwill, and enjoy your trip!” she said while still typing.
I spun and paced towards the door. I could still hear her nails hitting the keyboard, a much fainter rattling than before. The question was, what would I see behind the door?
My hand was on the knob, shaking. Unfortunately, it was one of those doors with a decorative tinted design on the windowpane, a privacy sticker covering the window—so I wasn’t able to see what awaited me on the other side.
I turned the knob and swung the door open.
I expected something different: clouds—emptiness—creatures of heaven or hell. Not 5th Avenue in New York, bustling with cars and people, the sun shining down, like I remembered it this morning. It was about midday, around noon. I turned to glimpse at her; she was still typing away.
“Is this a joke?” I said. She didn’t answer. A car honked outside.
I shifted back to the street. I realized my car was parked right in front of the agency. A few steps down a stairway, a Honda Civic was there, apparently mine. Not a bump on it, no damage from an accident. Had I been played? Imagined the whole thing? What truly was happening—
And then I felt it.
A warmth filled my entire body. At first, it felt like someone had just increased the temperature, but it was quickly followed with an intoxicating burning sensation. My skin started boiling, like when you touch a hot pan, but all over my body. I tried to go outside to get some air, but my body wouldn’t budge. I was frozen again, in place. As if blown by a strong wind, the door slammed shut in front of me. I heard it lock. If it wasn’t from the fact that I couldn’t speak or move, I would have screamed and fainted. It literally felt like my soul was bursting in flames.
Something sharp entered my back, an excruciating pain electrifying my body from back to front. Or was it multiple sharp objects, as I felt several needles moving through my organs? I saw four pointy limbs coming out of my sternum, blood sprinkled all over my shirt. They were fingers of the woman’s hand, clearly, as I could see her red nails at the tip of the fingers. All senses in my body focused on calming myself, which was nearly impossible as it felt like a pounding in my chest was slowing down, and could feel like my breath was filling with liquid. Despite my inability to move, I could still spit out blood. In a swift move, the hand went back in my chest and out my back. As I regained some focus on the situation, I realized I was now resting on the floor, a puddle of blood spreading all around me. My lips and my hands were trembling.
A shriek; a high-pitched, infected laugh came out of a creature that was now above me. It was an overblown version of the shape-shifting woman who had sat in front of me minutes ago, all of her bones protruding out of her skin, obviously too tight to hold the gaunt structure below it. Her nails stretched and red, splattered with my blood, which she now licked in between her thin lips. Her face grew double the size of the height of a human head, and her eyes, my god, her eyes were filled with red nerves and a black retina, glaring at me with a devilish grin.
She cackled so loudly, I’m sure anyone would’ve overheard her by now. The transformation continued. There were no features left from the voluptuous woman. She was turning into a vile monster.
“Gullible human flesh you are, Mr. Gladwill!” she said with a gigantic smile ear to ear. Her mouth was so wide she could take a morsel out of my head. “You must wonder how can someone dead—be killed?” She added with a laugh.
I could feel my body go cold, and breathing was becoming harder, as if my lungs were flooded—most likely by my blood. Despite the chaotic experience of being impaled and bodily functions shutting off, I could still wonder…how was it possible? Death couldn’t happen twice. I had been played, tricked, but by whom or what?
Her devilish smirk answered most of my questions. I was still very much alive before, and tricked by an evil woman, to make a deal with what had now killed me. The travel agency was real—to the outside world—but inside—an evil creature misleading its clients into making fraudulent deals. But for what?
“But…why?” was all I could muster with my remaining breaths.
“So I can collect—one—more—soul!!!” she said as her tone changed into a dark, dreadful growl. Her face completely altered into a contortion that paintings and pictures of the devil didn’t do justice—two horns were coming out of her eye sockets now, her skull stretched and devoid of any features but one ear-to-ear smile full of shark teeth, spindly stretched-out arms, legs, and face covered in dark-red and striated bones and muscles—covered in my blood.
Before I locked my eyes, she laughed and whispered in my ear: “I’ll see you soon…”