Up at 5, take the hellhound walkies, then catch the Underground to Styxbridge for a bagel with sulfur spread. They say Hell is other people, but somehow I’m always alone. I trot along the hot lavawalk to the office, clutching my flaming triple espresso. Sure, we’ve got Eternity here, but I’d rather not be late.
After clocking in I push through the crowds to our office building, just beside the Gates. The foyer’s already filled with suitcases, personal papers, collections, and awards — you wouldn’t believe the things these Damned people try to sneak in with them.
Helene, the succubus from the night shift, is on her way out.
“Morning, Lila!” she says. “Looks like you’ve got a lively day ahead. Someone left a kid.”
She points with a manicured claw.
A little girl — five, maybe six — is sitting on the bench, fidgeting with one of those handheld gaming devices. She wears designer kidswear, but smears of jam on the sleeve of her brightly colored shirt suggest a less-than-optimal home environment. Someone’s pulled her brown curls back into a hasty ponytail and pinned a note to her jacket.
I peer closer. These messages usually beg us to take care of the child or to return it to Life. This one is oddly terse and a bit defensive.
“Good luck with Hope,” it reads. It’s signed, “Her Mom.”
I look up at the stream of people pouring through the Gates of Hell. Some trudge along, eyes on the burnt and barren ground. Others look around wild eyed. There are no lingering parents in sight. Our little Hope’s been dumped.
Still absorbed in the game she’s playing, the child trails after me into the office and clambers onto the waiting room sofa. I put on a Teletubbies DVD for her before sitting down at my desk and making my first call of the morning to the guys at Lost & Abandoned.
“This is Lila at the West Gates. I’m calling to book a pickup. The kid’s name is Hope.”
Over the crackling of flames, the dispatcher at L&A informs me they’ve got kids waiting at North, South and East Gates. It’s a shaping up to be a busy day, and the pickup van won’t get to West until at least mid-morning.
My tail twitches.
“Fine,” I tell him and drop the receiver back into its cradle.
That’s bureaucracy for you. In a few minutes this poor kid is going to realize that Mommy isn’t coming back and she’s stuck watching videos in the anteroom of Hell with a grouchy middle-aged succubus. It’s never pretty when they pitch a fit. If only they weren’t so afraid of me.
I sniff and push my glasses back up on my nose. The smoke today seems even worse than usual. I sniff again, cough, and turn with watering eyes to peer at my basket of Endless Paperwork. It’s on fire.
Hope is peeping over the arm of the sofa. I trot down the hall to the break room, grab a glass of unholy water, douse the flames and worry. How bad is it? I hold my breath until I hear the reassuring little “pop” and the automatic stream of Endless Paperwork resumes filling the now-damp basket.
At least the little tyke isn’t crying. In fact, she’s grinning. And she’s busy at my desk. I lunge for the computer, where Hope’s somehow managed to delete a thousand unread emails. I recover them, then whirl around just in time to see Hope push the button to erase a year’s worth of painstakingly ignored voice messages from Hell’s Customer Service Line (“your call may be recorded for the amusement of staff”).
The child shrieks with glee.
Is Lost & Abandoned going to pick up this kid before she destroys the entire office? I snatch up the phone and speed dial L&A, realizing as I do that the receiver I’m clutching is dripping with melted chocolate.
At my elbow, little Hope opens her palm, offering me a half-melted chocolate jalapeno truffle — purloined from the secret stash Helene keeps behind the file cabinet.
I can’t remember the last time someone offered me candy.
Just then L&A picks up.
“This is Lila at West Gate,” I say. “Can you —”
Little Hope clambers onto my lap and tugs hard on my goatee. My heart melts like a flame-broiled truffle.
“— just cancel that pickup?”
In 2008 Seattle technology writer and journalist K.G. Anderson began gradually disappearing into the world of fantastic fiction, much like the Cheshire cat. These days you can still see the grin, and the glasses.