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Alex Shvartsman is a writer, translator, and game designer, with more than ninety short stories to his credit. He is currently editing the hilarious Unidentified Funny Objects series of anthologies. This is his sixth appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.

DANTE'S UNFINISHED BUSINESS
by
Alex Shvartsman

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 dead.

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 him.

“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?” said Bob.

“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 guardian angel?”

Bob closed his eyes and muttered something under his breath. Dante could’ve sworn the other ghost was counting to ten.

“You’re half right,” Bob finally said. “Welcome to the afterlife. I’m here to show you the ropes. Think of me as a guide.”

“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 of.”

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 prefer?”

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 Rusty’s hell.”

“There’s more than one hell?” asked Dante.

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 staircase.

“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 surroundings.

“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 collar.

“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 passwords.”

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.”

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.

Copyright © 2016 by Alex Shvartsman

 

THE LONG TOMORROW
by Leigh Bracket

One of the "10 Books You Pretend to Read (And Why You Should Really Read Them)io9

TABLE OF CONTENTS

HOME

The Editor's Word

FICTION
Bookmarked
by Martin L. Shoemaker

The Minotaur's Wife

by Thomas K. Carpenter
A Hundred Hundred Daisies
by Nancy Kress
A Human's Life
by George Nikolopoulos
In the Yucky Death Mountains
by Eric Leif Davin

Marrow Wood

by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Another True History
by Gordon Eklund

Dante's Unfinished Business

by Alex Shvartsman

Turning the Town

by John Helfers

The Bag Lady

by David Gerrold
Manbat and Robin

by Larry Hodges

Legions in Time

by Michael Swanwick

INTERVIEW
Peter S. Beagle

by Joy Ward

SERIALIZATION
The Long Tomorrow (Part 5)
by Leigh Brackett

COLUMNS
From the Heart's Basement
by Barry N. Malzberg
Science Column
by Gregory Benford

Recommended Books
by Bill Fawcett & Jody Lynn Nye

 

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Copyright © Arc Manor LLC 2016. All Rights Reserved. Galaxy's Edge is an online magazine published every two months (January, March, May, July, September, November) by Phoenix Pick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers.