My School Life is Rife with Strife
The two gentlemen raised their white, bony hands, silencing me before I could ask a question. Normally, I would have pushed on, but their intimidating visages were…well, intimating that this wasn’t the best time to speak.
In fact, “gentlemen” might not even be the appropriate term. They had quite the…skeletal demeanor, their bony figures dressed in ancient robes. One was clad entirely in black, while the other had chosen white. Probably some sort of old-fashioned statement, though I suspected the two brothers simply couldn’t quite agree on wardrobe coordination.
They were also twice the height of a normal man, and would probably be bulkier…if they weren’t skeletons in robes. I wondered if a change of diet would benefit them. They could definitely use more meat on those bones.
A low whistle rattled from the gentleman wearing black. He thrust his skull face at me, fires burning in his sockets, and pointed insistently at the gates behind him. I stared at the burning braziers that decorated the heavy, black iron, with massive ribs curling over the frame to give it a skeletal appearance. A gigantic skull crowned the top of the gates, its jaws hanging wide open as it to laugh at all visitors. No matter how I looked at the gates, they seemed pretty suspicious.
“My parents told me never to follow strangers,” I said, turning back to the two bony gentlemen. That only made them more agitated. My eyes darted toward the reaper scythes that they wielded, each of them holding a single, long bladed pole in one bony hand. “Especially if you look like gang bangers.”
Cool. I would love to take a photo with them, but I couldn’t find my smartphone anyway. Hell, I couldn’t find anything on me. I had an inkling why most of my belongings were missing, but I was grateful that they at least allowed me to arrive with my clothes and glasses intact.
Standing naked in front of two giant, clothed skeletons would be simultaneously embarrassing and ironic.
I glanced around one last time to ensure that I didn’t stumble upon a cosplay convention by mistake. I was sure this wasn’t Halloween either – October was at least six months away. The chilling wind that swept across the barren wasteland and endless night, as well as the gentle currents rippling across a river whose waters were yellow, confirmed my worst suspicions.
Someone must have dumped a whole load of sulfurous chemicals into the poor river and polluted it.
This time, it was the huge skeleton in white who threatened me with a wave of his scythe. Chains rankled against the pole as he pointed a bony finger at the gates once more. Sighing, I pushed my glasses up my nose, idly noting that death had not spared me my shortsightedness, and nodded.
“Geez, okay, yeah, I get it, all right? Not everything is so black and white.”
There was little point in denying that the river behind me was the Yellow Springs, and the gates led to the underworld. I have very little recollection of what had occurred right before I was brought here, but I decided that I didn’t want to remember it.
For all I knew, it could have been quite the embarrassing death. Me crying after I got rejected by the girl I had a crush on. Me running away from the streets, wailing at the top of my voice and attracting quite the stares from passers-by. Me, so distracted by my broken heart, that I didn’t realize I was running across the road.
Oh, now I remember the speeding truck. I swear I had the right of way. The red light meant that pedestrians could cross, right? I was positive vehicles were supposed to stop when the light was red.
Ah, whatever. I was dead. Blaming the truck driver wasn’t going to bring me back to life. I might as well be bighearted and forgive him for killing me.
Damn it, though. Why couldn’t the truck have sent me to another world?! Everyone got to live a new life in a fantasy world and enjoy cheat powers after they got hit by a truck. Why was I the only one left out?
What a wasted opportunity.
Hey, maybe the gate would lead me to a fantasy world instead of the underworld. And Yan Luo Wang might bestow upon me cheat powers, make me a hero and send me to defeat the demon lord!
…wait, wouldn’t Yan Luo Wang be the demon lord in this case? Why would he grant me cheat powers to defeat himself?
Ah, screw logic. I wasn’t going to complain if it worked. Striding forward confidently, I stepped past into the gates. Sadly enough, Black and White Impermanence didn’t follow me. They hovered outside the gates, guarding the exit as if they feared I might suddenly make a run for it.
Why would I run away from my destiny? I was going to become a cheat character!
Then I heard all the screams and saw all the torture that was going on inside. Crowds shrieking as they were being boiled alive in churning pools of steaming blood. Wailing prisoners strapped to thorny racks and getting their hands sawed off by cheerfully gibbering demons. Laborers who worked ceaselessly even as horned creatures sadistically lashed them with whips.
I turned around and sprinted for the gates, only to have them shut in my face.
I didn’t know what to do now. Well, actually, I did. Two new gentlemen were approaching me, but their demeanors looked weird. Oh, I see why now. One of them had a face of a horse, and the other had the head of an ox.
Clearly, they had gotten ahead of themselves.
With nowhere to run, I waited for them. With a couple of grunts, they directed me toward a long line that snaked across the fiery, hellish plains of the underworld. Hundreds of people wept and moaned as they stood in the queue, awaiting their turn in the gigantic courthouse that loomed threateningly in the distance.
Even though this was the ancient underworld, someone had cleverly sought to modernize and renovate the courthouse. Marble pillars, large stairwells, and even electric lights. Unfortunately, the line was so long that it stretched out of the expensive-looking structure and all the way to near the gates.
The guy with the horse face handed me a ticket and I blanched.
“I’m the ten thousand, two hundred and eleventh in line?!”
Was I supposed to wait an eternity until it was my turn to be judged? Maybe I should explore the place while awaiting my turn. They shouldn’t mind, right? I made to step away, but I quailed when horse-face and ox-head glared in my direction. Stingy bastards. What was wrong with wandering off and exploring the underworld while waiting for my turn? It wasn’t as if we had anything better to do while waiting. I wouldn’t be surprised if the poor souls died from boredom after an eternity of waiting in line.
This truly was hell.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long before an official in fancy clothes and a fancier hat ran over, holding an electronic tablet and gesticulating frantically at the two beast-headed guards. They exchanged a glance, and escorted him over. With nothing better to do, and because I didn’t enjoy watching people suffer – I wasn’t some asshole who reveled in seeing people’s hands get sawn off or thrashing about in boiling pools of blood – I decided to keep my attention on the more…uh, benign looking guardians instead. They might look intimidating, but at least they weren’t torturing people. Just…keeping them in line. Literally.
Then they headed right for me.
Horse-face didn’t look like he was horsing around, and ox-head seemed pretty bullish. I decided to man up to them.
…I failed after a few seconds, my knees buckling under my weight and my gaze dropping to my feet.
“Ming Cong, correct?” the official in the fancy clothes and even fancier hat said, staring hard at me. I nodded meekly.
“Yeah, that’s me, all right. No other in sight.”
“You go to Chong Hua High, right?”
“Used to,” I corrected. Now that I was dead, I was free of school. I guess that was the one bright spot in this whole mess. I get to skip classes! Those almost made waiting in line for eternity seemed fun.
“Hmm, excellent.” The official nodded. “Please follow me!”
I looked up at horse-face and ox-head, and they both nodded in unison. Without needing to be prodded, I hastily followed the bumbling official. He led me not to the courtroom, but to a more modernized part of the underworld, one filled with skyscrapers that overlooked the torture fields and boiling pools.
“Whoa, I didn’t expect you guys to build a city here. And I thought I had everything to fear.”
“Even the underworld has to keep up with current times,” the official replied without glancing back at me, continuing to consult the screen on his tablet. That explained why he had the latest iPad. Steve Jobs must be continuing to make enormous profits, even down here. The official waved at what looked like a residential building. “To house the ever-increasing population of the dead, we need to make accommodations.”
“The officials of the underworld have it hard too, huh,” I said sympathetically. The official shook his tablet at me.
“You have no idea! Now this way!”
He led me to one of the towering skyscrapers, into a lobby filled with polite receptionists, and to an elevator. Then he brought me up to an office on one of the higher floors, knocking on the door. I couldn’t help but note the contrast between the official’s ancient attire and the super modern design of the office building.
If they were going to modernize the architecture, they should at least update their fashion sense too.
“Excuse me,” the official said, knocking on the door.
The doors automatically swung open, revealing a middle-aged man in an expensive, gray suit and a luxurious cigar in his mouth. Thick clouds of smoke drifted inside the office, almost causing me to choke even though I supposedly no longer needed to breathe. I guess they didn’t have to worry about lung cancer here in the underworld.
“Ah, I see that you’ve brought him here.” The CEO-like figure leaned over and steepled his fingers, staring at me gravely. I shrank under his scrutiny, turning as pale as a…well, ghost. The CEO dude cleared his throat. “Forgive me for the sudden imposition. I’m Shu Bai Chun.”
“Hello, sir.” I didn’t bother to introduce myself. It was evident this Shu Bai Chun fella knew who I was. In fact, he was the one who summoned me in the first place. “How can I help you?”
Shu Bai Chun clasped his hand, glancing at his computer screen before looking back at me.
“If I recall, you’re from Chong Hua High, right?”
“I was from Chong Hua High,” I corrected. “But my demise was nigh.”
“Good, good.” Shu Bai Chun nodded distractedly, his eyes flickering to his computer monitor. “How about a deal? I’ll arrange for Yan Luo Wang to send you back to life, but you’ll have to do a little job for me.”
“You can do that?” I asked, astonished. Just who the hell was this guy, to have such influence that even the king of the underworld would listen to him? “It’s hard, I bet!”
“Yeah. I’ll just pay him off.”
Did the guy seriously just say he would bribe Yan Luo Wang? How…?
“In life, I was a president of the Shu Conglomerate,” Shu Bai Chun explained proudly, spreading his hands wide. “I was known as the Sun Tzu of the business world. As long as I had capital, I was able to invest and build up a multibillionaire company within a couple of decades!”
“Um, cool.” I wasn’t sure what to say, but I had a niggling suspicion that it wouldn’t be wise to piss him off. So I just nodded. But a question came to me and I raised a hand meekly. “Wait, as long as you had the capital? Where did you get the capital from?”
I remembered that I was brought here with literally nothing except the clothes on my back. No smartphone, no wallet, no money, nothing. So how did he…?
“My family burned lots of hell money for me in the living world,” Shu Bai Chun admitted, lowering his hands sheepishly.
Of course. Family and connections. Everything came down to that in the end. Life was so unfair. Turned out that death was equally unfair too.
But I wasn’t going to say no to a second chance in life.
“Okay, so what do you need me to do? If it’s too difficult, I will say no.”
“I want you to return to the living world, to Chong Hua High, and protect my granddaughter in school,” Shu Bai Chun replied, leaning over and clasping his hands. He scowled. “For reasons unknown, I have a rival here who sent a ghost to…haunt her, and I need someone to watch her back. You are the only one I can count on.”
“Huh? Why me?” I demanded, bewildered. This made no sense to me. What was he expecting me to do when I return, exorcize the ghost?
“Quite frankly, because you’re her only schoolmate who died and came to the underworld. I have no way of communicating with the world of the living. So you’re the only one I can approach and talk to.”
I guess the dead had their own troubles, didn’t they? However, I had worries of my own.
“So what do you say?” Shu Bai Chun asked eagerly. I stared at him for a moment, and then raised a hand nervously, not sure how I would put it.
“…can I refuse?”
“What?!” Shu Bai Chun stormed, slamming both hands against the table. “I’m giving you a chance to return to life, you know!? Sure, it might be dangerous fighting those ghosts to protect my granddaughter, but I’m certain the benefits outweigh the risks! Why would you refuse?”
Plenty of reasons…foremost of which was that I screwed up when I was living by being a socially awkward loser who was accused of stalking the girl whom I had a crush on, was ostracized by everybody in my class because they thought I was creepy, and had no friends. Yeah, I was better off dead.
much as your tempting offer sounds cool…” I swallowed and smiled weakly. “…I
would rather die than go back to school.”