Dante Ferrero had three serious and
immediate problems. First, he was fiending for a joint something awful. He hadn’t
been high for almost two days now, and the sensation of observing the world
through sober eyes was entirely unpleasant. Second, the Bengals lost to the
Steelers, which eliminated any chance they had at the playoffs and also left
Dante owing a considerable amount of money to Mitch, his bookie. Third, he was
The realization of this last fact
dawned upon Dante gradually; sort of like an epiphany but adjusted for the
mental processing speed of a dedicated stoner. He remembered walking into Mitch’s
office—not so much walking as getting dragged by Mitch’s goons, and not so much
an office as the dark alley behind the bar where Mitch conducted his business.
He remembered Mitch being majorly displeased about the fact that Dante couldn’t
pay his gambling debt and saying something about setting an example for his
other customers. And then Mitch had pulled something metal and shiny from his
waistband and then bang…
“Whoa,” said Dante as he floated ten
feet above his corpse. Cops had cordoned off the back alley. “I’m a ghost.”
“Yah, mon. Be still and keep yeh head,
it be not so bad, yunno? Mi a speak from experience, eeh!”
Dante turned to find a
semi-transparent form of a dark-skinned man with long braided hair smiling at
“Who are you, dude, and why do you
talk like Jar Jar Binks?”
The other ghost frowned. “That be
Jamaican, mon!” He crossed his arms. “I see you have no appreciation for such
things so I’ll speak your way.” True to his word, he said that with barely a
hint of an accent. “Name’s Bob.”
Dante stared. Braids had said his name
like it was supposed to mean something.
“What, were you expecting Virgil?”
“You know, because your name is Dante?”
Dante stared some more.
“Never mind. I’m Bob Marley.” Bob
strummed a few chords on an air guitar.
Dante did the slow-epiphany thing
again. “I heard about you. You smoked a lot of weed, just like me!”
Bob’s frown deepened. “Yeah, I partook
of the herb, but there’s also the music and—”
“What are you doing here? Are you my
Bob closed his eyes and muttered
something under his breath. Dante could’ve sworn the other ghost was counting
“You’re half right,” Bob finally said.
“Welcome to the afterlife. I’m here to show you the ropes. Think of me as a
“Far out,” said Dante. “You gonna
teach me how to be a ghost?”
“Not much to teach,” said Bob. “Mostly
I’ll help you figure out whatever made you manifest as a ghost in the first
place, so you can move on to the next stage of your journey.”
“That’s easy.” Dante pointed toward his
body. Some guy was drawing a chalk outline around it. “My diagnosis is: one
bullet to the brain. Instant ghost. And speaking of that, what say you we go
find Mitch and haunt the bejeezus out of him?”
“Won’t work,” said Bob. “I tried
haunting a mean-spirited critic once and let me tell you, I tried my best. He
never even knew I was there.” Bob shook his head. “Poltergeists are a myth,
like unicorns or honest politicians.”
Dante mulled it over. “Sucks,” he
said. “But then, I was never much of a revenge guy.”
“Look, most people who die don’t
become ghosts,” said Bob. “It’s an anomaly, and the Powers That Be don’t like
it. They want such cases resolved fast, and that usually means reuniting the
newly departed with someone from their past, someone who died before they did
and the relationship wasn’t resolved. So tell me Dante, who might that be in
your case? Your parents, maybe?”
“Dude, I’m twenty-five. My parents
live in Florida.”
“Girlfriend or unrequited love?”
“Never fell head over heels for anyone,
to be honest. And the girls I’ve dated are either alive for sure, or we’ve lost
touch and there’s nothing unresolved between us.”
“Who else could you have unfinished
business with?” Bob paced back and forth through the air. “Think, man, think!”
Dante pondered his life. He realized
there were no truly meaningful relationships in it, nothing important left
unresolved with those alive or dead. This was heavy stuff and it was
beginning to seriously bum him out. As if dying wasn’t stressful enough already!
Then he had it. “Rusty!”
“Rusty?” Bob quit pacing in mid-air
and looked at him with renewed hope.
“Rusty was my first dealer, man. He
sold these dime bags of what he called his signature blend to the kids in my
high school. Best stuff I ever had.” Dante smiled, remembering the smell and
smoke of Rusty’s weed. “I could never get the recipe out of him.” The memory
would have made him salivate if he still had glands. “And then he died. Yeah,
this must be it. Let’s find Rusty!”
Bob’s expression turned gloomy again. “I’ve
been doing this a long time, and there’s no way your most important unresolved
relationship is with your drug dealer. You keep brainstorming. If you want some
herb blends I can tell you about a few this Rusty character never even dreamed
Dante was normally not a
confrontational guy, but being shot dead left him in a bit of a crabby mood.
“I’m guessing you aren’t here out of
the goodness of your heart, Marley, and I’m hoping you aren’t here because you
have some kind of ghost fetish. Your bosses sent you to do a job, and that job
is to be my guide. So you can do that job and take me to Rusty, or we can hang
out and watch the live performance of CSI: Dumpster down there. Which do you
Bob looked like he swallowed a ghost
lemon. He stared at Dante and Dante stared back. Ghosts had no need to blink,
making any sort of a staring contest as pointless as it was futile.
“Go to hell,” said Bob.
“When you told me to go to hell I
thought you were being sore about me bossing you around like that,” said Dante
as the two ghosts flew over some sketchy-looking wilderness.
“Nah, man,” said Bob. “Where else do
you expect to find a dead drug dealer?” He pointed ahead. “We’re almost there.”
They approached what looked like a
prison complex, with high walls and a large wooden gate.
“Is that really hell?”
“It’s a hell,” said Bob. “It’s
“There’s more than one hell?” asked
“Your own personal hell is more
than just an expression,” Bob explained patiently. “When a sinner dies, an
appropriate hell is selected for them to ensure maximum dissatisfaction. Also,
they have to keep building new ones to keep up with demand.”
There was writing inscribed in the
wood of the gate. Dante vaguely recalled that it was supposed to talk about
abandoning hope, or hoping with abandon, or something like that. He took a
closer look. The inscription read Full Occupancy.
Dante stopped. “Wait, am I
going to end up in a hell when we’re done here?”
“A hell, a purgatory, maybe even a heaven.”
Bob shrugged. “Way above my pay grade. Come on.”
Marley floated through the closed
gate. Being a ghost meant never having to ring a door bell!
Dante pondered his future. Did he
really want to get in there, to resolve whatever it was Bob thought needed
resolving, and to move on? Was that better than being a ghost? He thought about
leaving, but then what would he do? Float around as an observer, making no
impact on the lives of others? That sounded like his old life, which he hadn’t
been all that fond of. Plus, he wasn’t sure if ghosts could even get baked.
“Wait for me!” Dante floated after Bob
as fast as his non-corporeal legs would carry him.
The inside of Rusty’s hell looked like
a cross between a prison and a shopping mall. The cavernous structure consisted
of many subterranean levels. Stairs descended to the next floor, where Dante
and Bob had to schlep all the way to the farthest corner to find the next
“Why don’t we float right down through
the floor like we did with the gate?” asked Dante.
Bob snorted. “You don’t float through
things indoors. That’s disrespectful! Besides, the tour is part of your
journey. Observe and become educated!”
And so Dante and Bob followed the
clearly-marked path past various sinners being tortured in various ways. Dante
imagined himself as Dorothy in a nightmarish version of The Wizard of Oz.
The lyrics popped unbidden into his mind: “We’re off to see the dealer, the
wonderful dealer of drugs.” He shook his head and tried to focus on his
“These people don’t seem like hardened
sinners,” said Dante.
“So you know what a sinner looks like,
do you?” Bob retorted. “Every hell has a theme. These souls took advantage of
the innocent in various ways when they were alive.”
Dante winced. “What, like child
molesters?” He looked around to see if he might spot anyone wearing a white
“No, Dante, molesters end up in
maximum security hells.” Bob slowed down and pointed at a group of dejected
souls chained to computer desks, staring at flat screen monitors. Dante felt a
little annoyed that even in hell everyone had better computers than his
beaten-up laptop. “They used to send out fake emails that masqueraded as alerts
from the bank, then steal the accounts of people trusting enough to enter their
The net value of Dante’s bank account
was less than that of his laptop so he could only appreciate the heinousness of
their sin intellectually, which was never his strongest quality. He shrugged.
“They’re condemned to respond to those
Nigerian prince scam emails and LinkedIn requests for all eternity, using AOL
accounts on Windows 8 computers.”
Dante thought Bob was pretty
computer-savvy for a dead guy. “That doesn’t sound so terrible,” he said.
“You don’t realize how bad the wifi is
in here,” Bob said. “Everyone’s punishment is tailor-made. Imagine how you’d
feel if you could never get stoned again.”
Dante shuddered. He also thought he
detected a hint of sadness in Bob’s voice, as though Marley’s ghost was
speaking from experience. Did that mean ghosts really couldn’t get high? Dante
tried to pick up the pace, but his guide seemed set on doing more guiding.
“Over there,” Bob pointed at a bunch
of people who looked like they were shooting a scene, “are directors,
producers, and even actors who made it in Hollywood by screwing over their
fellow man. Now they’re forced to work on film adaptations of Twilight
fan fiction in exchange for nothing but royalties.”
The actors were dressed in khakis and
leather jackets, and sprinkled with generous amounts of glitter. Dante
squinted. “Samuel L. Jackson is in this movie? I thought he’s alive.”
Jackson turned and glared at him. “Motherfucker,
I’m in everything.”
They descended, level by level, past
the thieves and the adulterers, the deadbeats and the lawyers. One of the
levels was filled with rows of desks extending as far as the eye could see.
Identical goateed men hunched over typewriters.
“What did they do?” asked Dante.
“Technically, this isn’t part of hell,
just a lab that occupies a floor in the same building,” said Bob. “Powers That
Be were amused by the idea that infinite monkeys given enough time might type
out the complete works of William Shakespeare.”
“These are the infinite monkeys they
got?” Dante might have failed high school biology, but he was pretty sure he
could tell a man from a primate.
“Better,” said Bob. “They cloned
infinite Shakespeares, just to see what so many geniuses might come up with when
they put their heads together.”
“Oh, wow.” Dante was impressed. “Did
they write a sequel to Romeo and Juliet?”
“The first batch didn’t come out,”
said Bob. “They mostly flung poo at each other. This is the second batch. It’s
an improvement, but it turns out Shakespeares don’t work well as a group. For
now they’re writing new treatments for more Twilight scripts, because
only groupthink can come up with something awful enough to meet our needs.”
By the time they descended to the
ninth level, faces of all the damned started to blur together for Dante and the
amalgamation was looking suspiciously like a slack-jawed clone of William
Shakespeare. Despite Marley’s assurances to the contrary, he was beginning to
think this journey was his personal hell and that they would never find
his drug dealer. Then he saw Rusty who sat alone on a stool by a kitchen
counter, eating a sandwich.
“Rusty!” Dante rushed forward.
Rusty was a paunchy man in his
thirties who wore jean shorts and a dirty Nickelback T-shirt with cut-off
sleeves. He looked just like he had the last time Dante saw him.
“It’s me, Dante.”
Rusty stared as he took another bite
of the sandwich. “Who?” he managed to say while he chewed.
Dante felt hurt, but then realized
that while Rusty looked exactly the same, he was now much older. “Dante
Ferrero. I used to buy dime bags from you ten years ago. We hung out!”
There was no spark of recognition in
Rusty’s eyes. He kept eating. The silence was getting awkward.
“How are you doing?” Dante said lamely.
“How am I doing?” Rusty waved
the sandwich and sneered, dried crumbs peeling from the corner of his mouth. “I’m
in hell, forced to eat baloney sandwiches ‘til the end of time. There’s nothing
in the world I hate more than baloney!”
To each their own hell.
“Figures,” muttered Dante.
This was the guy he considered cool in
high school? Dante looked to Bob for help, but Marley was hanging back,
laboriously ignoring the reunion.
“You may not remember, but we were
good buddies back in the day, so I was wondering if you could do me a solid?”
Rusty took another bite, winced, and
swallowed. “What do you want?” he asked.
This was the moment of truth. The
finale of Dante’s quest. The answer to the question that bugged him for a
decade. He blurted out, “Can you tell me the recipe for your signature blend?”
Rusty stared at him for several
seconds. Then he started laughing. He coughed up bits of baloney as he laughed
maniacally, tears welling in his eyes.
Dante had no choice but to wait it
out, wait until Rusty stopped. Then he asked, “What’s so funny?”
“Special blend is what I sold to
shitheads who didn’t know any better,” said Rusty. “It was the cheapest weed I
could find, cut with oregano and orange peel, and lots of water to make it
heavier.” He chuckled again, but his mirth faded when he bit into the sandwich.
“But… but... I remember it being so
good.” Dante experienced denial and anger in rapid succession and proceeded
straight to bargaining. “Are you absolutely sure?”
“Sure I’m sure,” said Rusty. “Kids who
try pot for the first time don’t know good stuff from garbage. Don’t take it
personal. It was just business.”
Crestfallen, Dante worked through this
revelation. He wanted nothing more to do with this loser he once looked up to.
He flipped Rusty the bird, turned around, and walked away.
“It seems I was right and Rusty’s
blend was not the thing that’s keeping you from moving on,” said Bob. “I’m
Sorry. The ghost he’d only
met that day had more compassion for him than Rusty.
“What do we do now?” asked Dante.
“I don’t know,” said Bob. “Let’s get
out of here. You can hang around with me until you think of someone else you
might have unfinished business with. Then we try again.”
Dante hung his head. “Okay.” They
started toward the staircase when he paused. “Hang on. I’ve got to get some
things off my chest.” He turned around and march-floated toward Rusty.
“You screwed up my life,” he told
Rusty. The dealer tried to respond, but Dante cut him off. “I was doing fine
before I met you. I was going to graduate, maybe go to college, maybe get a
nice white-collar job at a bank somewhere. But no, I had to meet you, a loser
who sold crap weed to school kids for a living.” Dante was getting
progressively louder while Rusty shrunk back on his stool.
“I thought you were my friend. I tried
to be like you, which was really my bad. But the thing is, you never
cared about me, you didn’t even remember my name. I was worth no more to you
than the few bucks in my pocket. It may not matter, but I know you for what you
are now.” Dante put his ectoplasm arms on his ectoplasm hips. “I’d tell you to
go to hell, but…” He nodded at their surroundings. “Enjoy your baloney,
asshole.” Then he turned his back on Rusty.
Bob clapped slowly. He stood next to a
shimmering door that wasn’t there before.
“The portal will take you to the next
step of your journey,” said Bob, grinning. “It looks as though your unfinished
business was with this unsavory character after all, even if it was never about
the blend recipe.”
Before Dante could respond, Rusty spat
out a mouthful of sandwich, jumped off his stool, and raced for the portal,
leaving a trail of crumbs falling off his shorts and legs. “Freedom!” he
shouted as he dove head-first at the portal.
Rusty’s head bounced off the solid
surface with a crunch followed by a thud as he landed on the ground like the
Coyote fooled yet again by the Roadrunner.
“Get back to your meal, Rusty,” said
Bob. He flashed a smile at Dante. “Personal hells. Personal portals. Powers
That Be create everything tailor-made.”
Dante mouthed thanks to the ghost of
Bob Marley, but he was already being drawn in by the portal. It felt right; like
the smell of freshly-baked pot brownies combined with the warmth of a sunny
spring day and the merriment of a Cheech and Chong routine.
Dante entered the portal and floated
toward the light.