A man finds himself in a dark place. Skeletons line the walls, each bearing a name with a list of sins. The man starts to walk, confused and frightened but unsure where he is or how he got there. He soon finds a space without a corpse, just a name—his name—and with it another list: dishonesty, selfishness, theft, adultery. Stumbling back in horror, the man suddenly realizes where he is.
“No, this is a mistake!” he shouts to the empty room. “I may lie occasionally, but I’m no thief! If I’m self-focused, how is that worse than anyone else?” He turns his back to the charges as his voice grows louder, “I’m no adulterer!” But the empty room gives no response. “I don’t belong here; this is a mistake.” He repeats, and begins to run.
Racing through room after room, he sees that each is filled with the dead, and each space bears a name and a list. Other passages lead off in every direction, but he does not turn or slow. Soon the skeletons are replaced with bodies—perhaps they died more recently?—but he cannot stop to wonder. Further and further he goes until, with a start, he finds himself among the dying. Checking his pace, he notes the lists have gone, but they are hardly needed here. All around him people lie helpless, hunched up in corners, but even in their pitiful state, they are arguing, cheating, lying to one another. Some are crying in pain, others complaining, familiar words:
“I don’t belong here, I haven’t done anything wrong. Help!”
The man shudders, but offers no aid. All he wants is escape, and again he begins to run. No longer looking around, he charges on for what seems like hours, until his legs ache and his breath comes in a dry rattle. Finally taking in his surroundings, he finds himself in a dingy town filled with cold and lonely houses, their windows shut and doors barred. Hearing voices ahead, he sees a bar and hurries in. Exhausted and parched, he stumbles into a chair and begins to look around. The place is filled with people. But these are not dying like the others. Some are talking loudly, two are fighting, several are drinking, and most seem to be enjoying themselves, the couple in the corner—perhaps a bit too much. In truth, this scene confuses him more than anything else he has seen, but before he can think too long on it the bartender’s uncomfortable stare reminds him of his thirst and he hurries to the bar.
“What do ya want?” the bartender demands.
“Water, anything!” the man gasps.
“Water? How ‘bout a real drink?” comes the gruff reply.
“You don’t understand,” he responds, reddening, “I don’t have any money. I don’t even know how I got here!”
“No money, eh? Then what are ya doing in my bar?”
“Please, all I want is a glass of water!” the man begs.
But the bartender will not budge, “I don’t know you and you don’t know me, now get out of my bar before we have a real problem.” The place seems a lot less friendly now, as everyone turns to look.
Realizing nothing he says will help, the man turns to leave, but then sees someone’s mug on a table near the door. Without a thought, he grabs it and runs, diving out the door and around a corner. As he hides in the alley, a dozen angry men follow into the street, though they quickly give up the chase and return to their drinks.
Fearful and despondent, the man collapses against the wall in resignation. In all the commotion, he has spilled the drink, and the few remaining drops only mock his thirst. With a sigh, he mutters: “What kind of town is this?” and is surprised to hear an answer.
“The only kind left,” says a voice behind him.
Turning quickly, the man sees a mournful woman standing in a doorway.
“What is this place?” he asks.
“Hell, I suppose, or maybe purgatory.”
“No, that can’t be! I don’t belong here!” he shouts for what seems the hundredth time. “I’m not a bad man; I’m no… thief,” he repeats, abruptly remembering the mug in his hand. Disgusted, he throws it aside and mutters, “I was dying of thirst.”
The woman just laughs and invites him in for a drink. Happily accepting, he follows her into a small apartment and sits down at the kitchen table. She brings him a glass of water, and he drinks greedily as he tries to wrap his mind around all that has happened.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” he finally concludes, “I was a good man. Maybe not a great one, but what did I do to deserve hell?” The woman attempts no answer. “And what about you?” he asks her, “You seem nice enough, what are you doing here?”
She just shrugs, “Maybe it’s not just what you did, but what you would do?” That brings him up short. “Did you ever steal before today?” she asks.
“No, never! Well, nothing serious, anyway. A pack of gum when I was a kid, or maybe some office supplies….” but he trails off, the words feel hollow now.
“Did you ever want to steal more, and only didn’t because you feared being caught?”
Feeling uncomfortable, the man changes the subject, “So what now? Is this it? You die, show up here, and then what?”
Again, the woman shrugs, “If this is hell,” she replies, “then what does it matter?”
“What do you mean if?” he retorts.
“Maybe it’s just a test,” she suggests, “you first found yourself among the dead, right? What sins were listed by your name? Since you left there, have you tried to avoid them?”
The man shifts in his seat, thinking first of those dying whom he ran past without a care. Selfishness, he mused, then he thought of the bar, and theft. And the next item on the list? Adultery, surely I wasn’t thinking of that! But he feels himself getting warm. It wouldn’t be the first time you’d wanted such a thing, a voice inside him mocks. Looking around this little apartment nestled behind the bar, he suddenly wonders what this woman does for a living.
As if reading his thoughts, she offers: “It seems to me you have a choice: Live as though this is the end, in which case nothing you do matters.” Did she just glance at the bedroom door? “Or live as though there is something more, in which case everything you do matters.”
And with a shock, the man awoke.