by Bob Sharp
Clarence awakens in a strange office. This is just the start of his troubles
Suddenly he was there, the sound of a woman's voice shocked him as if he'd been jolted awake.
Clarence looked around uncertainly as if checking whether there was another Clarence Percival in the room. Which of course there wasn't, given that the room was empty. Empty that is apart from himself and the woman who'd called him, or wakened him? And she didn't look like a Clarence.
Of course, he didn't know her name, he couldn't know, he'd never met her before. He'd never set foot in this room before. In fact, he had no idea what he was doing here, or why. He'd been having his breakfast and then the dog started yelping at the door. He'd stood up and knocked over his coffee and then suddenly he was here.
The woman was smiling at him, it was a sweet smile and there below that smile was a nametag, the woman was called Lucy. So, she wasn't called Clarence. That only left him.
"That's me," he acknowledged hesitantly. He glanced around again, trying to get some sense of what was going on. The room looked normal, like a hundred waiting rooms that he'd been in throughout his life. A small cheap, flat-pack type table sat on a functional blue carpet. The walls were that generic cream colour, bog-standard and yuck! The room was brightly lit with a cold LED blueness. On the table sat some scuffed copies of National Geographic, which seemed to adorn every waiting room everywhere.
Everything seemed normal, he was in what looked like an average waiting room in an average building. It could have been a hospital, or he could have been waiting to be called for an interview or to see a solicitor. Only thing was, usually he could remember the purpose of his visit, or have a memory of actually travelling to the place, or even some kind of hint in a calendar that he was due to visit such a place sometime soon. But he had none of these recollections, he was just here, sitting in a cheap vinyl chair. Wearing his silk pyjamas with the coffee stain.
"If you'd just like to follow me," the woman called Lucy said, and without the smile fading, she spun and on stiletto heels swished from the room. Clarence stood up and wishing he had worn his slippers and with bare feet slapping the floor, he followed her.
"Where are we?" he asked as he trailed behind her down a long corridor. An almost overpowering scent of some exotic perfume drifted in her wake. And something else, a tinge of barbeque, or even sulphur perhaps?
The woman called Lucy turned her head, still smiling she said, "you'll find out soon enough."
"Why am I here? What the hell is going on?"
Lucy didn't turn round to answer this time. "All in good time," she said.
The corridor was bare, the walls were painted in that same sickly colour. There were no doors or windows, just the endless walls and the soulless blue light. Except for a single door at the far end, that never seemed to get any closer. The clickety click of the woman's shoes was the only sound, a noise that seemed to fill the corridor, echoing off the bare walls. To Clarence, it sounded like the ticking of some god-awful Grandfather clock.
His eyes were drawn to the source of the sound. Even he had to admit that she was an attractive woman. She held herself like a model, her skin was flawless, and her long blonde hair glistened and shone as it swept down her back. A straight seam ran down the back of the woman's black-stockinged legs. The skirt she wore came to halfway down her thighs, showing just a glimpse of stocking tops. In another life, perhaps it would have stirred something in him. But not in this life, not in Clarence.
He looked over the woman's shoulder towards the door, it seemed as far away as ever. He opened his mouth to speak.
"Here we are," said Lucy.
The words failed him; Clarence stood with his mouth hanging open. The door had been a distance away an eyeblink ago, how far he couldn't tell, but their arrival hadn't been imminent, yet now here they were. It simply wasn't possible.
Lucy held the door open for him, tentatively he stepped past her and into the room.
"Just need to complete some paperwork and we can get you settled in, isn't this exciting?" she said, rubbing her hands together happily, she followed Clarence into the room.
This time Clarence didn't even bother trying to speak. He just let his mouth hang open.
Everything up to this point could be considered, not normal as such, but familiar. The waiting room had just been a waiting room. The corridor, a bit out of the ordinary, he supposed. But, the incident with the door had left him feeling confused and a bit disorientated, and a little frightened.
This room, on the other hand, was a different ball game altogether. The light from a blood-red sky streamed through an open window. Bare granite walls reflected this light, the whole room felt - well, it felt red. It was an effect enhanced by a roaring log fire that blazed in the huge fireplace that took up almost the whole of one wall. It was a majestic-sized, grotesquely carved fireplace. There was hardly an inch of the looming structure that wasn't adorned with gothic carvings. It was covered in skulls and crossbones and gargoyles and horrific creatures that seemed to contort and dance in the strange light.
The floor was of a rough flagstone, upon which sat a large desk that looked beyond being an antique. On one side of the desk sat a massive throne-like chair, while on the other side there was a simple rickety wooden affair.
This was not a Doctor's office or a tax office, or like any office he'd ever experienced. It was like nothing he'd seen before, a surreal nightmare vision plucked straight from a horror movie. Clarence grabbed the wooden chair and with his head spinning almost collapsed onto it.
"Do sit down," said Lucy pleasantly.
Panic was setting in. Clarence had always thought he was going to wake up, or perhaps realise where he was and laugh at how stupid he'd been. But he was rapidly coming to understand that something was very wrong. His confusion and disorientation were rapidly becoming a deep-seated fear. He knew somehow that everything had changed. Everything he'd ever known was gone. He was beginning to hyperventilate, he reached for his inhaler, always in the top pocket of his pyjamas. It wasn't there.
"Are you feeling okay?" asked Lucy, who he noticed, was now adorned with a set of horns. And then there was her skin, he had noticed earlier it had been flawless. Not red and crusty. He had also noticed earlier that she had two breasts, two breasts constrained by a bra and covered by a silk blouse. Not numerous unrestrained and weeping udders that swung pendulously as she walked past him.
She still wore her stockings and suspenders though. They looked different without the stilettoes and with the cloven hooves where he'd always imagined feet.
Clarence laughed. There was no doubt about it, this was a nightmare. The worst nightmare he'd ever experienced, but that was all it was. All it could be. At some point he would wake and everything would be back to normal. He'd curse himself for eating chocolate and drinking wine so late at night. But he'd had to, hadn't he? After all, the movie had been a real weepy and he'd been feeling a bit down again.
But why couldn't he wake up? He knew it was just a nightmare. And it was at this point one usually wakened up, wasn't it? He was sobbing now, this was too real. He needed to waken, he needed to be lying in his bed with his Chihuahua Pearl tucked in beside him. He needed out of this.
"Oh dear," tutted Lucy as she sat in her throne-like seat. Her rancid breath reached over the desk, Clarence gagged. A mouth full of rotten teeth filled his vision as she leaned toward him. He noticed she was still wearing her lipstick, blood red and glistening. His fingernails dug into the arms of the chair as he cowered from the apparition. For the briefest of moments, the head distorted, swirling in his vision. Red eyes that mocked him.
And then came the voice again, that normal, pleasant everyday voice. "You are taking this badly, aren't you?" said Lucy.
Somehow the sight of the nametag struck him, it was pinned directly onto one of her udders. The tag had said Lucy, now it said Lucy Fer. Clarence sobbed, and laughed, and cried some more and screamed and gasped for breath and tried to wake up, all simultaneously.
"Let's have a look at your file, shall we?" Clarence watched through blank eyes as the creature called Lucy picked up a leather-bound folder from the desk and opened it. She placed a set of reading glasses on her scarlet nose, it was hooked, the nostrils flared like wheel-arches, he could see worms and maggots wriggling about inside them.
She was silent for a few moments as her eyes scanned the file. "Thirty- eight years old... that's unfortunate," she muttered. "Happened suddenly at home. Ah, and what's this? Hmm, this explains a lot. A massive brain aneurysm, you have no idea, have you? You poor soul, no wonder you're so upset. Most of my clients remember dying. They have at least a fair idea of what's going on. I can't say it helps the process, there are usually some nasty memories quite fresh in their minds and not much to look forward to. But at least it helps with the confusion side of things. But you have absolutely no idea, do you?"
Clarence had stopped pinching himself in his efforts to wake up. Now he'd resorted to biting his wrists. The salty metallic taste of his blood filled his mouth. Still, he didn't waken, the panic was stark. He wanted to be home in his bed, or anywhere other than here. He didn't understand, he wanted out, he wanted to run. He wanted to be back in his own life, far away from this nightmare.
"Clarence let me blunt - You're dead. Gone. Your number's up. You've shuffled off this mortal coil. Deceased. You are no more. You're worm-food mate. You're a corpse. Time's up. Your clogs are popped. You've bitten the dust. I'm sure you get the point." Lucy smiled a smile of black teeth and forked tongue. "To clarify further, the report states, and I'm sorry to break this to you, that your death happened suddenly at home. You suffered a massive brain aneurysm, and that was it. Clarence, you are no longer among the living I'm afraid."
"Where am I?" Clarence was surprised by the sound of his voice, blood from his bitten wrists foamed in his mouth.
"Well, duh!" said Lucy, stretching her arms, inviting Clarence to inspect her. "Look at me, look around you, and you still haven't even noticed the heat yet, have you?"
He noticed it now, it was like someone had opened a blast furnace door. It seared him, he could feel his skin wrinkle, almost hear it as it crisped. Then there was the smell, that faint aroma of barbeque that he'd noticed before, it was now overpowering. And somewhere below it, the faint scent of sickly perfume lingered.
"It is a bit warm, isn't it? I'll just turn it down a bit." She smiled over the desk at him. "For the moment. Now, do I really have to explain to you where you are?"
"But nothing Clarence. You're going to tell me that you shouldn't be here. You're going to say, 'I was a good boy, I was.' You're going to say 'there must be some mistake.' I'm sorry, there was no mistake, there has never been a mistake, not once. You are here, you deserve to be here, there is no right of appeal. The case is closed and you, my dear Clarence, have been found guilty and condemned to an eternity in Hell."
Clarence punched himself in the face as hard as he could muster. The nightmare didn't flinch.
"Now that's not really helping matters, is it?" said Lucy.
"But why?" sobbed Clarence.
"Why?" repeated Lucy. "Most people have some sort of inkling as to why they end up here. But once again you appear to be clueless. I'll tell you what, let's have a look through your records and see if we can clarify matters, shall we?"
Lucy placed her glasses back upon her nose, a worm started wriggling up them. "Now, let's see." She began to read.
"From a good catholic family, I see." She wavered her hand a bit and gave a slight grimace. "Can go either way that one."
She read on. "Ah but I see you were true to your faith, hardly a blemish on your attendance record. And no tampering with children either. Nothing there. Let's dig a bit further."
Clarence watched her mouthing words as she read. "No despotism, murder, rape, pillage, theft. No coveting thy neighbour's ox. And no adultery or no taking other God's before old you know who upstairs. Nope, that all seems in order too." She looked up and smiled again. "Now don't you go worrying yourself. It's in here somewhere."
She continued. "At school, you were an exemplary student. Always willing to help people and spent a lot of your spare time helping out in a homeless shelter." She looked up again. "Oh, that's lovely. Well done you. Go boy! You must just overflow with love for your fellow man."
She flicked to the next page. "Maybe it's in this one. Now, what do we have here? You excelled at the Art and Design college. You helped out at the Christian Union, organised a charity do for the local orphans." She smiled again, a grotesque mask. "There you go again; you are just such a do-gooder aren't you? What a genuinely lovely man."
She returned her attention to the sheath of papers. "Ah, here we go! Now we're getting to the crux of the matter. It mentions here that on no less than one hundred and three instances you ate fish on a Friday."
"Oh, silly me! That's not right, is it? That one was rescinded." She shook her head and laughed at herself. "These things change so often, you know. Let's plough on. What about you, any ideas yourself yet?"
Clarence shook his head.
Lucy smiled and cocked her head. "Now Clarence, I get the feeling that you're telling me little fibs, are you sure?"
"Oh dear, oh dear, you are in a state, aren't you?" She reached over and patted Clarence on the arm, Clarence screamed as his skin sizzled and blistered at the woman's touch. Instantly, maggots began streaming from the wounds. He was gasping in pain and watching in open-mouthed horror as they tumbled from his arm and onto his pyjama bottoms, the stench of rotten flesh and ammonia clung to the inside of his nose. Clarence vomited.
"Aw, poor you, you aren't cut out for this are you?" Lucy adjusted her glasses and turned her attention back to the file. "Now, where were we? Ah yes, you left college. Got a job in a fast-food outlet, and each night you bought three burgers out of your own pocket for the three young lads that lived beneath the underpass. There's that soft side of you again. You were such a star, weren't you? This is starting to sound like you should have achieved sainthood, not ended up here. But trust me, we'll find that reason."
She flicked to the last page. "Well, this is it. It must be in this one somewhere." She began to read. "After the burger joint, you got a job in a design studio. But you didn't last long there, you helped your sister decorate her new house and discovered that you had a talent for interior design. Oh, that's impressive, it says here that within a few months of setting up in business you had to begin turning down clients, so in demand were your services. And you continued to go to church and you continued to live a good god-fearing life and you continued to give to charity and help within the community. It was at this point that you finally gave in and had your first relationship with another man."
She put the papers down and smiled at Clarence. "And there it is, in black and white. The reason you are here. I really hope that it helps you to know why. You do seem such a genuinely nice person." She smiled and rubbed her hands together, warty and gnarled, the claws were painted with bright scarlet nail polish. "So, I think it's time to begin your torture. Shall we go?" And she stood up.
"But why?" cried Clarence. "I couldn't help the way I was. I couldn't help being gay!"
Lucy smiled. "Gay!" she exclaimed. "It's nothing to do with being gay. That was never really a thing. After all, I think herself upstairs has a little crush on yours truly."
"Then why? What reason can there be?" sobbed Clarence.
"You were an interior designer."