The Nature of Punishment
Illustration by Eduard Jude Jamolin
I died. Everyone dies someday, but my death was particularly spectacular. I was driving a stolen police car and I had a cop duct taped in the back. My partner was sitting in the passenger seat yelling at me to go faster, so I tried a gutsy corner; when I popped the e-brake, I caught a tire on a curb and we flipped. The cop died on impact, I was hanging upside down by my seatbelt, and I could see my partner had a big piece of metal speared through his chest. I watched while lights danced, and as some muffled machinery tried to free us, I knew I was gone.
When I woke up I was in a room. It was without size, lacking a horizon or reference point. I did what anyone does when they’re disoriented and just sat quietly on the floor. There were no words. Was I dead? I felt no hunger. I felt no thirst. It seemed that basic bodily functions were no longer required here. I could only smell a faint reek in the air. There was no need to ever move again, and with nothing better to do, thoughts swirled about. A life of crime leading up to this. How did I die? I replayed that scene until each time it was the same. I knew what would happen, it always happened, and then I felt nothing. I knew that I was dead, this room was next, and I needed to explore.
But how do you explore a place with no point of reference? I held my arm straight in front of me and walked towards my outstretched finger. Miles and oceans of space flew beneath my feet as I walked straight into the abyss. The floor was ubiquitous in all directions, but eventually, I noticed a change. The solid white floor had slowly transitioned into a checkered pattern and the checkered floor was spotless. It became dirty as I went, and the light slowly limited my view, but it wasn’t until the floor was peeling and I was in darkness that I found something unexpected.
He was hunched over, probably thinking about death, and I felt compelled to introduce myself. This place dulled my senses, but I could still feel the rot in the air, and I quickly realized what smelled so bad. His entire body was a husk: his greying skin was cracked and torn, he was coated in mold, and he glistened with moisture. I felt a dull sense of panic.
“Who are you? What do you want?” I whispered hoarsely. Nothing replied.
I tried to touch the man’s shoulder and he woke up. With a dull crack, he flopped his shoulders back and rolled his rotten face upward. Then he caught me in an instant as he shifted his body faster than I could register, and his grip was iron. I knew there was no escape as his mouth spread by degrees. At the apex, he spoke:
“You know why you’re here. There will always be a body but I doubt your frail mind can withstand the punishment we have in store.”
“Can I ever escape?” I was met with laughter.
The man’s head bulged and pulsated; something was trying to escape. I watched his face strain and distort as a giant worm broke free. It plunged deep down my throat but I didn’t die. It hoisted me up high into the air, shaking me like a leaf in the breeze, then threw me far away. I had hours to contemplate what happened, and eventually I did die, but I soon woke up where I started.
The next life I was sucked into the ground and was dissolved in a digestive track. The life after that I was caught by a flying beast who skinned me alive. I was eaten from the inside out by some ravenous ooze. I was injected with a variety of poisons. Every day for what felt like centuries I died in new and exciting ways but things always change. I grew bored and became frustrated because I expected something better. I wanted more and all I got was the same so, I started to show my captors something revolutionary; I made progress. Death after death I grew stronger. I changed shape and started to survive until I grew into something indescribable. I was thriving. I lived by destroying those around me in vivid unpredictable ways and it was everything I hoped it could be. I had thought this some form of justice of the universe that I may die in cruel and unusual ways for the things that I had done but now I understood that this wasn’t a punishment; this was my reward for a life well lived.
Then I woke up.
I didn’t die. I was comatose in the hospital and the doctors revived me weeks ago. I was hooked up to machines that kept me alive and this meant all my senses were returned when I woke up. Everywhere hurt. I couldn’t eat or go to the bathroom alone and I was unable to communicate. I just wanted to die and hoped to be reborn as a god, immortal and immutable. It never happened because I was stuck living. People washed me and people fed me. Other people made sure I lived the best life I could. By their kindness my horrible bitter body was still alive, and that’s when it sunk in. My punishment was to change, to become a different person, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.