“The most important thing to take away from this is that you’re dead,” Saperstein said, waving his hand towards the wall. Everything’s great! it said in curly script.
Eliza took a deep (and unnecessary) breath. “Are you saying I’m offline?”
The apartment is like something designed by Bryn after a weekend away on a sad girl retreat. There’s a definite boat theme going on, from the anchors stitched into the pillows to the bookcase in the corner, shaped like a canoe. In the closet of the bedroom she’s expected to sleep in for the rest of eternity, there are A-line Easter dresses and shapeless cardigans, boot-cut jeans and those Laura Ashley prairie dresses. “Great!” Eliza chirped. “Wore this all the time, back when I used to work to eradicate poverty.”
“And that’s not all. Do you know what our biggest and best surprise is?” Saperstein beamed as he gestured past the nautical window clings to a regular door.
A man walked in. Good looking but older, distinguished. Probably a bore.
“I’m here for Ms. Eliza Dooley,” he said. “I’m Henry. Henry Higgs.”
“It’s your soulmate!” Saperstein said. “I can’t resist a little matchmaking between souls, and your souls are perfectly matched.”
“I read in the packet about your accomplishments. Impressive.” Henry reached out and grabbed her hand. His hand was warm, even though no blood was flowing through those hands.
She let her hand linger a moment too long. “What packet?”
“I’m sure Terrance dropped off the packet.” Saperstein frowned. “We’re having a town meeting soon. In the meantime, get to know each other.”
Once she heard the door gently shut, she turned to Henry. “I have something to tell you.”
Being fake soulmates with a stick-up-the-butt type is like that lead-based makeup Elizabeth I used to wear: a real bummer.
“You’re telling me you used to peddle drugs to children?” Henry asked her one night, when he’s finished the dishes.
“I was legit. I worked as a salesperson for a pharmaceutical company that sold FDA approved products. Did you think I was standing on a street corner handing out cocaine?”
“I don’t know what you were doing on street corners.”
“Listen, buddy. Not only was I the top salesman for a company of fifteen hundred people, I won three different prestigious industry awards and I introduced the world to the concept of using baby ass cream on the delicate under-eye area. I got promoted three times in two years. That’s how I made my money.”
He blinks at her in surprise. “It was actually a reference to--”
“I know to what you were referring. And the sex I had on earth was recreational. And it was fun, and I was good at it, and if there were awards I would have won those, too.”
“I apologize for my assumptions.”
“Don’t apologize to me. Apologize to the sex workers of the world, from the Julia-Roberts-in-Pretty-Woman types to the fame-whores on insta just trying to sell diet shakes and sketchy teas. And me.”
To his eternal credit, Henry did apologize.
“I doubt you died without getting some at some point. Unless your original packaging is intact and that’s how you got into heaven!”
He completely bypassed her question, puckering his lips slightly. “I assume I made it to The Good Place due to a regimented lifestyle, a devoted mother-son relationship, and a series of decisions made with intention in pursuit of my goals.”
God, he was pretentious. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t right.
“I have an idea!” She popped up, off the couch, and crouched in front of him. “You could teach me how to be more like you, since you are supposed to be here and I’m not supposed to be here. You train me to be more like you and then I don’t have to worry that Saperstein is going to kick me out and send me to hell just because I wasn’t some self-sacrificing do-gooder virgin like you.”
“I wasn’t a-- you know what? I am not going to rise this bait.”
“Some might assume you never rose at all.”
“I thought you wanted my assistance. Making baseless insinuations about my love life hardly seems the way. Lesson number one.”
“This is good! Lemme grab a pen.” She located a pad of paper, too. Don’t insult the hand that teaches you. “This is so old-school.”
Even though she knew it wouldn’t work and won’t connect, she asked Terrance for a phone to carry around. Just to have something to sleep next to.
Being a better person was hard. Talking to other people? About their problems? And listening to their responses? It was exhausting.
“I miss my son every day, morning, noon, and night,” Charmonique told her, sitting across from her over slightly-too-hot calzones. “But I don’t miss the smell of chicken nuggets.”
“I miss chicken nuggets, too,” Eliza said, touching her hand gently.
Henry, sitting a table behind them reading a newspaper like a detective in an old movie, shook his head slightly.
“I miss your son, I mean.”
“I was going to find someone else to teach him how to skateboard,” Charmonique said. “Although given how I died, I’m hoping he just avoids wheels forever.”
Eliza sat up a little straighter. “Oh! And how did you--” Henry, still over Charmonique’s shoulder, threw down his newspaper and was making slicing motions across his neck. “How did you enjoy parenting, generally?”
A million hours later, after a long discussion about parenting to which Eliza had nothing to contribute, she sat down with Henry.
“You don’t ask a woman how she passed on!” he told her.
“You said to ask people about themselves. Besides, I think we should all be cool with talking about how we kicked it.”
“Not everyone is as fine with putting everything out there as you are.”
“Oooh, sounds like someone found my twitter.”
“I never once in my life-- I don’t even know how to work Twitter.”
“Does this mean you aren’t going to tell me the how even though we’re soulmates or whatever?”
He stood up, and she did too.
“The concept of “soulmates” is, at best, nebulous. As far as I can tell, the only reason we were assigned to spend eternity together is random chance, or perhaps timing. We aren’t close.”
“I bet you died doing something weird. Were you wearing all leather while being tickled by a feather? Or do you have some secret midlife crisis motorcycle?”
“My death is none of your concern.”
“Evading means you don’t want to tell me so I’m going to figure it out. Oh, I miss Siri. Wait! Terrance?”
Terrance popped in. “How can I help?”
“Can you tell me how Henry died?”
Henry looked astonishingly angry. “Terrance, you can leave now.” Terrance popped back out of existence.
“Is this because I didn’t do the dishes last night?”
“You have never once done the dishes. If I ever saw a clean sink, I’d assume you’d taken them outside and thrown them at birds.”
That sounded like fun, not that she’d tell him. “Saperstein says the birds are a construct.”
Henry blinked at her.
“Seriously, the birds are virtual. Making me way better prepared to understand this reality than you. You weren’t even on Facebook.”
“What do you miss most about life on earth? Your cat?” Eliza asked one day over breakfast.
Henry tapped his hard-boiled egg with a spoon. “What makes you think I had a cat?”
“You were a good person, right? I assume you had a whole barn full of adopted pets and rescue goats.”
“I lived in a major city, Eliza. Where was I to keep farm animals?”
“Maybe not goats, but kittens are small. Hamsters? Fish?”
“It seems to me that if you were seeking validation from the internet, a great place to start would be in cute animal photos.”
“Please. I didn’t need paws for likes. I had animal print mini skirts and a Kardashian following me.”
She was so surprised, she laughed too.
“Today, I had a conversation with Larry for almost twenty whole minutes!” Eliza announced, flouncing over to Henry’s table. “It was super boring but I listened the entire time.”
“I’m actually quite proud,” Henry said, pushing over his fries to her like she wasn’t already eating them. “Larry can actually be quite a chore to talk to.”
“Can you believe he was married all those years? It’s like, how? Doesn’t anyone even remember about divorce?”
Henry was silent for a few moments. “Sometimes, I think it’s hard to admit-- even to yourself-- that you’ve made a mistake.”
“I died alone. That’s the big secret. I had a health issue, and because I lived alone and didn’t have many friends, no one was there to call for help.”
“Henry,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
“I collapsed in the kitchen. The tile was cold, I remember that part. My phone was in another room.”
She reached across the table. The sun had just started to set, and they hadn’t yet turned on a lamp. It took a minute to find his hand in the waning light, but it felt good to be there for him. His skin was a little dry, and she made a mental note to get Terrance to get Henry some lotion.
She whispered. “I was on my phone and I fell into an open manhole.”
“Are you trying to make me feel better?”
“No, I’m not trying to make you feel better. I’m succeeding.”
“You’re telling me you think Saperstein, who has shown us nothing but kindness since we got here, is actually the devil?” Henry looked vexed.
“I don’t know the hierarchy but he’s definitely lying about something,” Eliza said, still pointing.
“Eliza’s right, Henry,” Saperstein said, looking weirdly proud. “Not that ‘the devil,’ as you understand it, is real. But I’m not, in fact, the architect of The Good Place. I’m more of a CEO of The Bad Place, representing the interests of some innovative and wealthy individual demons who want to shake things up.”
Henry put a hand to his temple, squinting. “I can’t believe it. There’s been a mistake.”
“There’s no mistake, Henry.” Eliza slapped her palm on the table. “You know how I told you Joan clearly didn’t belong here, since she didn’t even like me? It’s because she’s some Bad Place representative sent here to torture us.””
“Actually,” Saperstein said, stepping forward. “She’s a human. You two aren’t the only two humans in the neighborhood. You have a dozen human companions.”
That was a little comforting, really.
“And there was a plan here where all those humans were going to torture each other, socially. It was a new plan. I was very proud of it. For instance, I had predicted you and Charmonique would be cat-fighting before the first week was over.”
“But we didn’t,” Eliza said. “We became friends. In part because Henry here has been giving me secret lessons on how to be a better person.”
“That was delightful to watch,” Saperstein said. “I truly feel you two were well-matched. However, it's impossible to learn from a teacher who belongs in the Bad Place, too.”
Eliza peeked at Henry. His face was ashen, his lips slightly parted in shock. She wanted to hug him.
“Is this because I didn’t have many deep friendships?” Henry asked.
“No, don’t be silly! It’s because you focused on your work to the exclusion of connecting with anyone in your life. Do you remember your assistant’s name?”
“I remember that he was terrible at his job.”
“Eliza, for all we tricked her into believing she was here under false pretenses, at least realized she needed to improve. What were you doing?”
Henry’s shoulders sagged.
“This is easy,” Eliza said, throwing a hand protectively on Henry’s shoulder. “Now we both realize we were terrible-- I didn’t care about anything besides social media, and he was a friendless jerk-- and we can both improve our way into the Good Place! And we’ll bring everyone else, too. Not Joan.”
“Yes, Joan,” Henry said.
Saperstein rose from his seat. “Unfortunately, this experiment was predicated on the idea that you wouldn’t find out. I am going to have to erase your memories and restart this. Truly, I am disappointed.”
“Disappointed we figured out your evil plan?” Eliza asked.
“Disappointed because I really thought we’d pushed to the forefront an innovation that would blow all our archaic forms of torture out of the water. Oh sure, we have access to hornet’s nests for shoes and the demons that scrap the skin off before dunking you in maple syrup, but where’s the art in that?”
“This is a lot to take in,” Eliza said. “I’m going to need to process this, very slowly, away from maple syrup.”
“Does this mean we weren’t really soul mates?” Henry asked, quietly.
“Yes and no,” Saperstein said. “The idea was to pair off humans with their opposites for maximum discomfort. But I really do love matchmaking.” He smiled at them. “Anyway, I have to reset you. Say goodbye to all your memories.”
Henry, blindly, grabbed Eliza’s hand. She squeezed, and the world suddenly went white.
She blinked at the man, a large black man who was pretty hot for an older guy. She wasn’t sure where she was; maybe a doctor’s office? The wall, a non-threatening sandy blah mess, had words scrawled across it like some HGTV show’s final reveal living room accent wall. Everything Is Right As Rain!
He cleared his throat. “Eliza, welcome! Please make yourself at home. My name is Sam Saperstein. I have some news.”