The Foundations and Application of Ethics (a short story)
The professor droning on at the front of the class was doing very little to distract me from the rumbling of my stomach. How long had it been since I last ate? It felt like months.
The particulars of “The Foundations and Application of Ethics” were difficult to concentrate on when it felt like there was a small creature gnawing on my insides. I had to do something about this.
I really needed to pass this class. I was so close to moving on from this place, but I just couldn’t seem to get through this last class. I was in perpetual Purgatory.
Thankfully, the professor called for a 15-minute break. As the rest of the class started filing out of the room, I noticed a half-eaten doughnut on the desk to the right of mine. That was a rare treat – you definitely couldn’t get anything like that here.
I made sure no one was looking, and I snatched it. As soon as I took a bite, I heard a voice behind me.
“Ooh, a doughnut!” I turned to see a slightly plump woman with reddish hair and black rectangle glasses walking toward me. She had that goody-two-shoes look about her – a real teacher’s pet. She was going to pass this class for sure. “You’re so lucky your family sends indulgences like that for you.”
I nodded and smiled through a mouthful of doughnut. Yeah, right. The pitiful offerings from my family have been further and further apart, with a marked decline in quality. I can’t remember the last time I got anything from them.
I felt a little bad about taking the doughnut, but I could already feel the fog around my mind lifting just after a few bites. I decided to get up and stretch my legs. Maybe a little fresh air would help as well.
I made my way through the hallway to the door leading to the outside. I pushed it open, and nearly ran into someone trying to come in at the same time. Oh no. I recognized him.
His hair was grayer, and there were a lot more wrinkles on his face than I remembered, but there was no mistaking that ridiculous mustache. It had been years since I had seen my old college roommate, back when school actually mattered. Back before this facsimile of a university.
I definitely did not expect to see him here. Maybe in another ten years once his kids were college age. What could have happened for him to end up here in the place with a wretch like me? He clearly didn’t recognize me, so I called out to him as he was passing by.
“Doug?” He seemed startled that someone knew his name. He squinted his eyes trying to place the face, then gave a small gasp when he realized who he was talking to. He must have just recently got here.
“Oh my God, it’s you. I haven’t seen you since … the funeral.”
“Yeah. How are you doing? I mean, besides the obvious.”
“I’m … still trying to wrap my head around being here.” He let out a resigned sigh. “I thought my college days were behind me.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I replied. “Fortunately, I’m almost done. How’s … how’s everyone back home? Nothing’s come my way from them in the longest time. I feel like they’ve forgotten about me.”
He broke eye contact and looked down at the ground. “I haven’t really kept in touch, but from what I hear, things aren’t that great. I’m sure they haven’t forgotten about you, they’ve just been busy.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you’re right.” We just stood there in awkward silence. I could feel like there was more he wanted to say, but just couldn’t get the words out. “Anyway, we can catch up later. I’ve got to get back to class. You take care of yourself.”
He gave a little chuckle. “A little too late for that. But you take care, too, as much as you can in this place.”
I headed back to the classroom, and as I got closer to my desk, I could see the girl at the desk next to mine, and she was upset. Right, the doughnut. I suddenly felt very terrible about taking it.
It’s not something I would normally have done back home, but this place was so strange, so disconnected from reality and my old life, that I seemed to lose track of myself. Talking with Doug seemed to remind me of who I once was a lifetime ago.
I sat down and put my head between my hands with my elbows on the table in order to wallow in my own guilt and frustration at the situation I had gotten myself into. I definitely wasn’t going to get through this class at this rate.
“Oh no, did someone take your doughnut too?”
I looked to my left, and there was a young man sitting at the desk there. His pale blonde hair was shaved down to a buzz cut, and he was wearing a white t-shirt, blue jeans, and a pair of well-worn leather flip-flops.
I couldn’t recall there being anyone sitting there before we got up for break. He must have been late to class and waited to come sit down until no one would notice. I definitely would have remembered seeing him if he had been there before.
He had an earnest look of concern on his face. It stood out at a place like this. Everyone else seemed to be in their own little world of punishment, but whatever brought this guy here, it didn’t seem to concern him much.
“No. I … I did something I shouldn’t have. Something bad.”
“Well, pretty much everyone does something bad sometimes. The question is, what are you going to do about it? Can you fix it?”
“Not really. I can’t undo what I’ve done. I guess I could own up to what I did, apologize, and beg for forgiveness.” I laughed. “Yeah, right.”
He smiled. “Don’t dismiss that option so quickly. Sometimes, that’s all you can do. You’d be surprised how often just being honest and open can solve your problems.”
I smiled back. “Thanks.”
I turned to my right. The girl was sitting back with her arms crossed beneath her chest, a scowl on her face under her dark brown bangs. I hesitated a moment, but then decided to just get it over with.
“Excuse me, miss?”
“Yes?” she answered tersely without moving her head.
“I wanted to tell you. I uh, I … I ate your doughnut.”
She turned her head and glared at me.
“I’m really sorry. It was a moment of weakness, and I feel awful about it. I promise, I will figure out some way to make it up to you.”
Her expression softened just a little, and she let out a reluctant sigh. “Thank you for telling me,” she said in a very controlled tone. “I forgive you. I was stupid for just leaving it there on my desk.”
And just like that, I felt a weight lift off of me. Not just the guilt over the doughnut, but for the first time since my death, I finally felt at peace. I turned to the young man next to me.
“Thank you. I really appreciate your honest advice.”
He was still smiling. “It’s my pleasure. After all, you did come here to learn the ‘foundations and application of ethics.’”
Then it all clicked. I gasped as I realized who I was talking to.
He let out a little chuckle. “You have done well, my good and faithful servant. It’s time for you to be welcomed into Paradise.”
He reached out his hand to me, and when I took it, the drab world around me faded, replaced by a brilliant shining white light.
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