The Bowels of Hell

January 7, 2009

bowels-of-hell

Hell’s not so bad–it takes some getting used to, sure, but once you do, it’s not so bad. You’d think it’d be the worst place in the world, after all you hear, after all the stuff you read and see in movies–but really, it’s okay. That’s what I thought when we first got there, at any rate, camera slung around my shoulder and Fatboy Spiral notebook tucked firmly under my arm, prepared to take as many pictures and make as many notes as I could during the trip; I didn’t intend to be going to Hell again for quite awhile. Never again, if I had my way. But I figured I owed it to myself to go at least once, because it was a rare experience, and I was collecting experiences back then. It was like going to Europe or Disneyland or something, even if you really didn’t want to, but going anyway, just because it’s something you’d never done, and, once done, you could check it off the big list of all the things to do before you died–or so went my logic at the time. And besides, even if I didn’t want to go, I had to. Mr. Rollings was going to make us write our term paper on it.

We went in through the visitor’s entrance. It wasn’t a particularly busy day, so we didn’t have any trouble getting in, though the fact didn’t much improve my mood at the time. I had spent the entire ride sitting next to this idiot who was going to need a hell of a lot more than a term paper on Hell to pass English. His name was Rich or Rick or something; I could never remember. I always just thought of him as the asshole. And for the two hour bus ride to the gates of Hell, I got to sit right next to him. And he wouldn’t stop talking.

“Going to Hell!” he said, very loudly, right in my ear. “Going to Hell in a hand-basket! Hell-acious!”

“Yeah,” I said. “Right.”

“Fucking A man! Going straight to Hell!” The asshole threw his hands up in the air. “Man, technology and shit man–you just don’t know how fast it’s going, man–we can do fucking anything! Going straight to goddamned Hell!”

“Yeah,” I said, “Right.”

“Fucking hellacious,” he agreed, nodding. “Fucking hellacious.”

And as if he wasn’t enough–and he was probably more–I also ended up sitting in front of Veronica, who spent the whole trip crushing a King James Bible against her slight chest, eyes wide and white and terrified behind thick, round glasses. “Forgive me, Lord, forgive me, Lord,” she kept muttering the entire time–and I mean literally the whole way there–holding onto that Bible as if it were her last hold on life. “Forgive me, Lord. I really need this grade.”

Once off the bus and at the visitor’s entrance, things were a little better. At least, it wasn’t quite as close; college students don’t bathe quite as often as maybe they should. The other students quieted down and the entry process was swift. Well, the first part was, anyway.

“Okay, now remember,” Mr. Rollings said, standing beside the gate as the students walked slowly, one by one, through the turnstile and into Hell. “Keep in mind Dante and the concept of multiple Hells–or rather, the concept of multiple chambers in Hell, and the criticism you’ve read–from what I’ve heard, I think you’ll find some interesting correlations here. And just this last week–if you’ve been doing your assignments as outlined in the syllabus–you’ve completed Paradise Lost. Keep in mind Milton’s concept of Hell and the fall of Satan to his rule in the Underworld. And at different points during our venture down here, I’m going to be making a few references that will be unfamiliar to most of you at the moment, but make notes on them–we’ll be covering many of them later on.”

The gate around the entry was a large, arched iron construction, ornate and detailed in what looked to me to be medieval decoration. It was anchored deeply into the surrounding rock—the seam between iron and stone was almost non-existent—and perhaps three yards past the entrance, the cave-like passageway dropped off into blackness. It did look, I admit, a little forbidding, but it wasn’t that different from the entrances I’d seen to attractions at theme parks, and, hell, even some restaurants I’ve been to. Plus, the powder blue turnstile and the pleasant, blonde-haired woman inspecting IDs made the whole thing seem fairly innocuous.

“Thank you,” the woman said, as Peter Trent passed through the turnstile. She was perky as could be; she reminded me a little of a stewardess. “Enjoy your visit! Thank you for thinking of Hell.”

“Not quite what I’d heard about,” I said as I passed through the turnstile. “Sort of like going to the fair, huh?”

The greeter gave me a broad smile. And I think a little bit of a wink. She was very cute. “’Abandon every preconception, ye who enter here,’ we like to say. Thanks for coming, and enjoy your time in Hell.”

Veronica, predictably the last to come through, stepped hesitantly up to the turnstile, wringing her Bible in her hands. The greeter smiled at her, and Veronica shrunk back, twisting her torso away from the woman, as if she were trying to protect her Bible from the pleasant, blonde stewardess-looking woman.

“Oh, don’t worry, dear,” she said sweetly. “We’re not afraid of your little book here. You’re welcome to bring it.”

Veronica, murmuring something rapidly—I’d guess she was praying; she was always praying—hurried through the turnstile.

“There,” Mr. Rollings said, “is that everybody now? Okay, now remember, Hell is an awfully big place–let’s stick together and–come on, Veronica. We’ve only got seven hours, and as much as there is to see here, that’s not very much. Okay, good–now, lets get a move on.”

“Fucking A,” I heard beside me. “Going straight to goddamned Hell!”

It was like a business office–an old business office–for almost the first thirty minutes. Because we couldn’t go anywhere else; there was still a lot of stuff to do before they’d let us into Hell central. Mainly it was just getting papers stamped and validated a notarized and filling out forms and reviewing notices, the majority of which fell to Mr. Rollings, as he was the organizer of the trip. I could tell towards the end of dealing with all the red tape that he was getting pretty pissed.

“Like the novel-length proposal I had to write just to get our names submitted wasn’t enough,” he muttered. “Not to mention getting permission from the Bureau of Unearthly Affairs–reading all those forms was like trying to read Hebrew.” He glanced at the sheet he was filling out currently. “Not that this is any better.” He shook his head disapprovingly, looking down, and continued writing.

“I’m not signing anything,” Veronica interjected emphatically. “Nothing.”

“Don’t worry–you won’t have to. Just make sure you get your Visitor’s ID stamped at the Validation Desk.”

“I’m not signing anything,” she repeated.

“Mr. Rollings–should we be taking notes about this?” asked Peter Trent, looking around at all the old clerks—there must’ve been hundreds of them—with their clear, green-tinted visors bobbing up and down busily as they pushed a thousand different stamps down into ink pads and left their marks on a thousand different forms. I looked out over them—the old, shabby cubicles seemed to go on forever. As did the clerks. There looked to be thousands of them, and not one of them a day under seventy. Though I guessed they were probably a whole hell of a lot older than that. Every one of them was busy, too: they signed papers, typed busily at old Underwoods cleared IDs, and worked endlessly at their archaic adding machines. I didn’t take any notes, but I did take a picture. I just liked the juxtaposition: bureaucracy is Hell. Hell is eternity in a cubicle. Might be the starting point for my term paper, I thought.

“Is this going to be on the test? Should I be taking notes about this?” Peter Trent asked again, after Mr. Rollings—busy signing one form after another in a stack that must have been three hundred pages—had failed to answer him the first time.

“If you think it’s relevant,” Mr. Rollings answered impatiently, swiftly filling out yet another form—in addition to the stack of three hundred he was working on—that one of the old clerks had shoved under his nose. “If you think it might come in handy when it comes time to write your term paper, you’d better write it down.”

“Oh,” Peter said, nodding as if Mr. Rollings had just made a statement of great significance. “Right.” And he started writing vigorously.

“How much longer are we going to have to wait?” piped Suzi Richardson. “I’ve heard they’ve got some really killer shops down there and, like, I’m getting really bored.”

“Soon,” Mr. Rollings said patiently, signing the final form. “It’s not going to kill anybody to wait a little longer.”

“Mr. Rollings, do you think this would be most like purgatory?” Amanda Thomas asked. Aside from me, Amanda was probably the best student in the class. She looked down at her notebook. “In Dante’s inferno, purgatory was ‘a place where the dew of repentance washes off the stain of sin and girds the spirit with humility. Through contrition, confession, and satisfaction by works of righteousness, the sinner must make his way up the mountain.’ Is this sort of like making our way up the mountain—of paperwork?”

I have to admit, I chuckled at that. Mr. Rollings, signing another form, smirked. “That’s pretty good Amanda. If you ask me, I think this is more like limbo—Dante’s purgatory sounds a lot like daily life. For Dante, limbo—“

“Ah,” Amanda said brightly, looking in her notebook. “’A place of sorrow without torment.’”

“That’s the one,” Mr. Rollings agreed, returning a final sheaf of forms back to the man in the cubicle behind the counter. “Although I’m not sure this is entirely without torment.”

“Well, that’s it,” announced the old clerk at the final desk, smiling brightly, for all the world sounding and looking like everybody’s favorite grampa. “If everybody’s had their ID validated, you can go on through.”

“Finally,” Mr. Rollings muttered. “Okay,” he said more loudly. “Let’s go. Now, everybody, like I said, stick together and do not lose your ID tag. You’re going to need it to get back out.”

“Oh God,” Veronica whispered, suddenly standing between Mr. Rollings and myself. “Oh dear sweet Jesus. I can’t do this. I can’t do this.”

“Too late,” I whispered back, aggravated for reasons I couldn’t clearly define that she insisted on being like this. “You already have.”

“Oh God forgive me,” she whispered. “Oh God please forgive me.”

“Shut up,” I whispered back. “I can’t hear Mr. Rollings.” Mr. Rollings wasn’t speaking at the moment, but that wasn’t the point. I just wanted her to be quiet.

“Fucking A,” the asshole said from behind me, clapping both me and Veronica firmly on our backs as Mr. Rollings led us all down the last hall and to the door that led into Hell central. “Going straight to fucking Hell! Is this heavy shit or what?”

“Shut up,” I said.

◊◊◊

It was a department store. Hell central–and according the label on the otherwise nondescript door we went in through, that’s just what it was–was a department store. Not like Sears or Dillard’s precisely, but a department store all the same. Just bigger. And it looked fancier, too, like one of those really pompous stores for rich people that you can only get into by appointment. Huge chandeliers hanging from the ceiling–a ceiling that seemed to be little more than a pitch black nothingness–and thick, plush carpet all over the floor. It was a pretty posh place.

And there was a lot of stuff there. The stuff seemed to go on forever and ever, all sorts of different things–clothes of every fashion, electronics and stereo equipment of every possible type and design, CDs and DVDs, a huge selection of books with an endless amount of titles, hardware and plumbing equipment, supplies for almost every field you can think of–one section was even devoted to groceries, more complete and with a better stock of food and drink than any Kroger’s you’re ever going to go to. It was an endless array of stuff. I took a few pictures, down the aisles and of the chandeliers, and of the girls working the registers—they were very cute—and the security guards. I took one note. Chamber one, I wrote. A glorified mall. But I got bored soon, and was anxious to move on.

“Bitchin’,” said Suzi Richardson exuberantly. “Oh god, would you just look and these clothes? My god, these minis are just, like, to die for!”

“They’re very nice,” Mr. Rollings agreed unenthusiastically. “But I wouldn’t buy any–if you do, your soul is forfeit, so it’s not a real good idea.”

“Like, who cares?” Suzi shot back, pulling a mini and a tank top off the racks. “I just know I’d look so damned bitchin’ in these, ‘specially this summer when I get my tan back. Hey, don’t they have tanning salon in here somewhere? Like, instant perfect tan or something?”

“You can’t buy these,” Mr. Rollings said firmly, grabbing Suzi’s arm and wresting the tank top and skirt away from her and putting them back carefully on the rack. “If you do, your soul if forfeit–and,” he added ominously, “you fail my class.”

“Oh,” Suzi said smally. “Well, hell.”

“Exactly,” Mr. Rollings agreed.

“Mr. Rollings,” asked Peter Trent. “Should I be taking notes on this?”

“Anything of significance, you take notes on,” Mr. Rollings repeated tiredly. “Especially as it relates to the material we’ve been covering in class, like I’ve already told everybody several times. You might, for example, look around here and observe the focus on material wealth, of things and the trappings of success and contrast that to traditional Judeo-Christian values of the spiritual life that biblically puts almost no value on earthly—that is, material–treasure. The Judeo-Christian concept of virtual asceticism in this life in order to build up a treasure in the eternal kingdom is not referring to this kind of treasure. If you want to take some notes, start there.”

“Oh,” Peter said, nodding, and started taking notes. “Right. Earthly materials.”

“Is this it?” Veronica asked, looking around nervously, sweat beading up and rolling slowly down the pale, almost sickly skin of her forehead, her eyes large and white and scared. “Is this all, Mr. Rollings, can we go now? Is this enough?”

“We’ve still got six hours,” Mr. Rollings told her patiently. “Quit worrying–it’s going to be all right. Everything’s been arranged.”

“Oh God,” Veronica murmured dismally. “Oh God oh God. Please forgive me, God. Please. I really really really need this grade.”

“Put a sock in it,” I said.

“Mr. Rollings,” said Eddie Hudson, gazing over at some of the stereo equipment in the electronics section. “Are you sure we can’t buy anything? Not anything? Not even one thing?”

“Eddie,” Mr. Rollings explained patiently, “if you do, you lose your soul. And besides, taking back items obtained in Hell is a felony–a Federal offense. Not only will you forfeit your soul, you’ll spend the next five to fifteen years of your life in jail.” Mr. Rollings sighed exasperatedly. “I shouldn’t have to explain this to you–it was all on the forms I handed out last Monday. We discussed it in class all last week. I clearly stated that this was to be a research trip and nothing else. We’re not here to do our Christmas shopping. We’re here to learn. You can shop until your hearts are content when we get back to the surface, so to speak. But while we are here, you should be taking notes and getting some ideas as to what the theme of your term paper is going to be. And that’s all. Quit thinking about what you’d like to buy and concentrate on what you’re going to be writing when we get back.”

“Yeah,” Eddie said. “Right. Sorry.”

“Just get to work–and let’s move on.”

“Fucking A,” I heard the asshole saying from somewhere. “Fucking all right–the mall is Hell.”

“If the old guys and th

e cubicles and all the forms was limbo, would this be the first chamber of Hell?” Amanda Thomas asked. “Or is limbo the first and then this would be second?”

“Well, please keep in mind there’s a lot more to draw from our time here than just comparison’s to Dante’s Inferno. Paradise Lost, for example, is referenced many times. For the more contemporary soul, even H.P. Lovecraft has a crossover or two—“

“But if limbo is the first circle then this would be the second circle,” Amanda said, flipping through her notes. “Circle two is the level of Hell for the lustful. ‘In the second circle are punished those who sinned by excess of sexual passion, those souls who in life made pleasure their hope, with reason and love of God second.’” She looked around. “So why is it the mall? Wouldn’t that be better for—“ she flipped through her notes. “The fourth circle? The hoarders and spendthrifts?”

“Contradictions as well as correlations can be good inspiration for a paper,” Mr. Rollings said. “The literal Hell is not necessary the literary Hell. Although there is, obviously, some connection—“

“The lustful, huh?” Eddie Hudson asked. “Maybe Jenny and Marcus ought to just go ahead and save themselves the trouble and stay here.”

Everybody turned to look and Jenny and Marcus, who had halfway receded behind a row of sports coats. They were, predictably, busy groping fleshy parts and swapping spit. “Hey, come on guys,” Mr. Rollings said. “Break it up. Save it until after the trip is over. Okay? Okay.” He sighed as Jenny and Marcus grudgingly released each other.

With the dogs in heat parted, we proceeded through the mall toward the next chamber, taking pictures and making notes.

◊◊◊

“All right–I think you’re beginning to get the idea of what I meant by the correlation between this, the literal Hell, and Dante’s literary conception of it,” he continued once we were outside. He nodded with a smile at Amanda Thomas. “This is what I guess we’d call the third ‘chamber’, if we regard the entrance level as limbo.”

“Oh, wow,” Amanda said, voice filled with awe. “It’s Disney Land!”

“Disney Hell,” I corrected, and proceeded to make a note of that. Chamber Two, I wrote in my notebook. Disney Hell.

Amanda was flipping through her notes. “The third level in Dante’s Inferno was for gluttons,” she announced. “’The gluttons are punished here, lying in the filthy mixture of shadows and of putrid water. Because they consumed in excess’—I guess that would be in the last level—“ She jerked her thumb back at Suzi Richardson. “—‘you meet your fate beneath the cold, dirty rain, amidst the other souls that there lay unhappily in the stinking mud.’”

“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” Suzi demanded.

“I don’t see any stinking mud,” I said. “Or ‘eternal rain, maledict, cold and heavy’.” Except for Amanda, I was probably the only person in class who had paid enough attention to our reading of Inferno to actually quote it. “I just see Disney Hell.”

Mr. Rollings nodded. “But I think Amanda made a pretty good call. The idea is to look for correlations, as we discussed, and if you look just down there—to that ride, the one with the dogs—“

We looked where Mr. Rolling’s finger was pointing. About a hundred feet away was a huge, black-painted ride with carts rolling in and out, almost entirely young and beautiful riders hopping on and off, all laughing and carrying on. Above the entry way were three giant dog heads with blazing red eyes, obviously robotic in nature but still impressive in their size and movement. Each head snarled and snapped, occasional splashes of water—which I’m sure was supposed to be drool—spilling from their mouths. The entrance and exit ways went through giant hooded doors that were shaped like paws and rose in an arc. So that, no doubt, the giant three-headed canine could tear at the damned with its claws, if not its teeth.

“’The Cerebus’,” Amanda read, nodding. Mr. Rollings smiled approvingly at her. Amanda was all right, but she could be a show off.

“The who?” Peter Trent asked. “Is that important?”

“Biggest fucking amusement park I’ve ever seen in my life,” said the asshole. “Hellacious.”

“Can we ride?” asked Jenny, looking at the near endless variety of amusement centers, theatres, fun houses and rides that lined the midway. She was squeezing Marcus’s hand very hard; I don’t think it was just the attractions she was thinking about riding. “How much are tickets?”

“Nobody rides,” Mr. Rollings said firmly. “Nobody rides anything. Your soul is forfeit if you do.”

“Jesus,” Suzi said. “Hell’s no fun at all. Can’t you do anything here without, like, losing your soul and failing and stuff?”

“We’re just here to sight-see, remember?” Mr. Rollings reminded everyone gently. “The shops and the rides are all for the regular citizens of Hell. We’re just visiting.”

“Bummer,” Suzi said dismally. “That sucks. That sucks big time.”

“This is work, this isn’t play,” Mr. Rollings reminded them. “Take some notes.”

So we walked on down the midway, Mr. Rollings pointing things out at various junctures, and we all made notes. At least, most of us did. The asshole hadn’t even brought anything to write with, or write on, and Veronica just kept clutching at her Bible. For someone who “really needed” this grade, she wasn’t working very hard at it.

“Take notes,” Mr. Rollings repeated, in response to something Eddie Hudson had just asked. “There’s a lot of good stuff here. Take a look at the names of some the rides and the shops and the restaurants–I’ve seen at least ten literary references so far that you should be at least somewhat familiar with just in the titles of the places. Look at some the T-shirts these people are wearing–that woman over there, for instance.”

I looked in the general direction Mr. Rollings had gestured, where a young woman was standing, slowly nibbling at a large, luminescent tuft of orange cotton candy. She wore tight, cut-off jeans and a tight, white T-shirt that said, “The Devil Made Me Do It, and I’m Damned Glad He Did,” in glowing red letters. I chuckled briefly, and took a picture.

I saw a little girl with a T-shirt that read “Little Hellion” and took a picture of her. I saw a cut-off T-shirt tightly hugging this blond, deeply tanned girl, that said, “Well, at Least I had Good Intentions”. Though I doubted that there was much truth to that, I took a picture, and made a note. There was thin guy with a mullet, wearing an olive drab tank top with the faded image of skull and crossbones in the middle. Over the skull, it read: “Kill ‘em All, and Let God Sort ‘em Out”. Underneath the skull, in big black letters, it read: “Ooops.” Again, I took a picture. And the class moved on.

I forgot precisely where we were–I think we were near the “Hellblazer”, this glorified multi-tiered ten-story roller coaster that Mr. Rollings had to talk seven different students out of riding on–when I felt Veronica’s small, cold hand suddenly clutch desperately at my back.

“Satan is the father of lies,” she whispered to me ominously, gesturing expansively at the rides and games that surrounded us, a sudden intensity in her watery eyes that annoyed me. “You know, don’t you?”

“Sure,” I agreed, mainly in the hopes that she would shut up.

“This is all lies,” she said, hand squeezing my shoulder to the point of pain. “This isn’t Hell. The Bible says what Hell is. Hell has lava pits.”

“It doesn’t say anything about lava in the Bible,” I corrected, gently removing her hand from my shoulder. “That would be geology, not theology.”

I don’t think Veronica was listening to me. “Hell has molten pools where they throw the damned souls and they burn for eternity.” She gestured at all the people that surrounded us–millions, probably, with rides and shops and shows and games that went on out almost into infinity–that surrounded us. Most of the souls there, all official citizens of Hell, seemed to be having a good time on the rides and with the games. “This is lies. This isn’t Hell. Hell is burning for all eternity.”

“Okay, thank you for your input, that’s enough,” I said.

“This isn’t Hell,” she whispered at me urgently. “This isn’t right. We’ve got to get out of here.”

“We’ve still got plenty of time,” I said tiredly. “I need more notes for my term paper. And I’ve still got two rolls of film to shoot up.”

“This isn’t Hell!” She grabbed me by the shoulders and turned me around. “This isn’t what Hell is really like!”

“Oh would you please just stick a sock in it?” I asked, turning back around. “I don’t need this shit right now.”

“This isn’t all Hell is,” she said more quietly, her tone simple and distinct, like that of someone stating a profound, yet obvious, truth. Obvious to themselves, anyway. “There’s more.”

“Shut up,” I instructed, and took some pictures.

◊◊◊

“Fourth chamber,” Mr. Rollings announced. “I don’t suspect this is quite what Dante had in mind–or Milton, or John Donne, or even Anton LaVey for that matter. Nevertheless, there are some significant literary relations–and, by now, you should be giving those some serious thought. Not just about a few of the obvious analogies that can be drawn, but about the general relationship between Hell and man’s conception of it–specifically as it relates to his literary conception of it. By now, I’m sure you noticed Western thought has had a lot of influence on the shape of things in contemporary Hell. I’m not sure what that says about Western thought, precisely, but the fact is obvious–the mall-like department store set up in the second chamber, the amusement park environment of the third–the effects of Western thought and culture—and not just pop-culture, but European culture dating back to the middle ages and before—are present and observable. Secondly, other than the obvious and often bad puns that titled rides and covered T-shirts in the amusement park section–many of which, bad or not, I think you should’ve made note of–there were also a lot of scriptural and literary references of significance. I think by now you could safely say that man’s literary conception of Hell through the ages has had, in whatever bizarre ways, its effect. It may well be possible that man’s literary usage of Hell as a place, and as a concept, has had as much effect on the actuality of Hell itself as Hell has had on man’s literature.”

“What the fuck?” I heard the asshole asking nobody in particular. “A fucking nature trail?”

Again, Amanda piped up, looking through her notebook. “If this if the fourth chamber, it would be the one just before the river Styx. ‘Here, the prodigal and the avaricious suffer their punishment, as they roll weights back and forth against one another.’ I don’t see anybody rolling weights back and forth. This is just a nature trail.”

Mr. Rollings just nodded. I fumbled with my notebook and took a note. Chamber Three, I wrote. Pantheist Hell. I paused for a moment, thinking about the Romantics and about all their bad poetry, about Thoreau and his exuberant diatribes on his superior ability to sit under trees and look deciduous. Satan as Nature, I wrote. I thought it made sense. Nothing is one-sided, and nature is not all goodness and light. It was red in tooth and claw, after all. If God could be nature, Satan could be, too. I knew right away that this was the theme for my paper. It was one not a lot of people were likely to take a stab at. The corporate Hell theme I had thought of back and the beginning—Hell as infinite cubicles, Hell as bureaucracy—that was obvious. It wasn’t original. It had been done before and, worse, might be done by somebody else in the class. Maybe Amanda. But Hell as nature—now that seemed like an original theme to me. The fact that I had my title almost immediately decided it for me. My term paper would be titled: “The Nature of Hell”. I could smell the A+.

I had apparently found my muse; the thing seemed to practically write itself in my head. I made some more notes, took a few pictures, and, in a fit of inspiration, started to write the outline for my first draft.

“Let’s move on,” Mr. Rollings said. “Just four more hours, and there’s still a lot to see.”

“I hate nature trails, man,” said Raymond Fort, who had started hanging around with the asshole in the last chamber, which was good because it kept the asshole from bothering me. “I hate nature trails so much. Man, no wonder they call this Hell.”

“Like, are there bugs?” asked Suzi. “I just can’t handle bugs. Like, they’re like, so, you know–I could get a rash or something.”

“We’re not going to get bothered,” Mr. Rollings said. “Don’t worry. Let’s just get a move on, okay?”

“Like, what if a bird shits in my hair or something?”

“Make a note,” said Mr. Rollings. “Use it as the theme to your paper.”

“But Mr. Rollliings–” Suzi whined. I tuned her out and stumbled forward with the rest of the class, making notes on my outline.

The nature trail went on for a while. There was some hesitation by some of the students—most predictably, and most intractably, Veronica—when it came time to cross a rickety wooden suspension bridge that spanned the gap over the relatively placid, if very dark, waters of the river Styx. Which it was; there was a sign at the bridge that read: “The Original River Styx: Accept No Imitations”.

“I think we should be fine,” Mr. Rollings was saying as we crossed. “But make sure not to touch the water. Just in case.”

“God, forgive me, please, God protect me,” Veronica was murmuring. “’Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil—‘“

◊◊◊

“Fifth chamber,” Mr. Rollings said as we left the nature trail and entered the next area through an old outhouse. “If the map is right, this should be–ah, yes. The museum.”

This time, our entrance went without much comment. For once the asshole didn’t have anything to say, and Raymond, the guy that was hanging around with him now, said a little something, but kept it quiet. I thought I heard Veronica behind me, muttering a prayer. Suzi just said, “Boring,” and everybody filed in.

We we’re in a huge, marble hall, with more of those endless ceilings and branching wings that seemed to extend out into forever, all lined with sculpture and wax figures and paintings of every sort from every imaginable time period–abstract to photo-realism, graphic design to photo-surrealism, Greek sculpture and erotic photography, landscapes and still-lifes and rough bronze figures of bizarrely distorted dimensions–and that was only what I could see from the entrance. If what had gone before was any indication, there was undoubtedly much more left to see. I made a note. Chamber four, I scribbled quickly. Very big museum thing. I looked around for something else of interest, but not very hard–I had already found my thesis.

“Nice,” Mr. Rollings commented, looking around, and then checked his watch. “Okay, we’ve still got three hours, and I’d like to spend most of it here–there’s only one more chamber past this one that we can visit–according to the people up front, all the additional chambers are ‘on reserve’ now or some such nonsense–and for those of you still grasping for a good theme for your paper, I think you might find some ideas here. Art, particularly art of the Renaissance, has always had strong Judeo-Christian themes running through it. Indeed, a few Renaissance painters made a career out depicting their violent conceptions of Hell over and over again. And I’m not going to force you to confine your papers strictly to literature–the effects of Hell on art and, conversely, art on Hell, would be a valid theme, as well. As a topic for a paper, that’s obviously much too general–but you should be able to find a particular painter or a particular school of artistic thought to confine your paper to, and, as we are in Hell, how these themes are elaborated on down here would also be an excellent topic to discuss. After all, that’s why we’re visiting Hell. Many artistic movements also involved literature, poetry, and even music, and if you think you could work all that in to a relatively specific theme–”

Mr. Rollings went on, but I quit listening. I simply moved down the hall with them, making a few more notes on my swiftly expanding outline. Towards the end of the first hall I saw a sculpture of the god Pan, cloven hoofs somehow suspended well off of the floor, grotesquely ornate wooden pipes held to its marble lips, eyes malevolent slits, small, ebony horns sticking out of its skull. There were many other pieces we had passed just as striking–but this one I could work into my theme of Pantheism and the concept as Satan as Nature and vice-versa. I made a note, and then lifted my camera.

“Uh–hey, man, uh–how’s it going?” I heard someone asking beside me. “Uh, got ideas for your paper and stuff?”

It was the asshole. I frowned, looking at him briefly. “I think so–” I started, and then stopped. Something was wrong. I thought for a second, and realized I hadn’t heard anything out of him since about the middle of the nature trail. He hadn’t said anything when we had crossed the Styx. I hadn’t even heard any comments when we had passed some of the erotic photography a little while back, and the asshole not commenting on that was just downright abnormal. Almost as abnormal as his taking interest in somebody else’s academic pursuits. In fact, almost as abnormal as his taking any interest in anything academic whatsoever. I noticed, too, that even though it was cool in the museum chamber–just about sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, I thought–the asshole was sweating, his face flushed and teeth clenched tight together. Every couple of a seconds, there was a tiny twitch at his mouth.

“Go away,” I said.

“Man,” he said, and it was obvious he was scared of something. His voice was tight and thin; he sounded like he was about to faint or throw-up. “Man–look, I just wanted to ask you a question.”

“Yeah?” I asked. “That’s a new one. What?”

“Look at me,” he said. “Take a close look.”

I did as he asked. “You look like you really need to piss,” I said. “Now go away.”

“Man,” he said, grabbing my collar and pulling my face to his. He smelled really bad. When he spoke, his voice was a tight, papery whisper. “My ID,” man,” he whispered urgently. “Where’s my ID?”

I looked at him for a moment. “Rick,” I started. “Rich–Dick–what did–where’d you put your ID?”

“I don’t know, man–”

“This isn’t funny,” I said tiredly. “This isn’t anything to try and start a joke about and I haven’t got the time. Where’s your ID?”

“Where’s yours?” he whispered back urgently. “Where’s anybody’s?”

I looked down at my shirt pocket, where I had clipped my ID when we first entered. It was gone. I knocked the asshole’s hands away from my collar and glanced quickly around. At Amanda, Eddie, Suzi, Peter, Veronica, Raymond, Mr. Rollings–everybody. Nobody had on their IDs. They were all gone.

“Man, it was all a trap, man–it was all a trap,” the asshole was whispering frantically, his voice getting louder. “Just a fucking goddamned trap–just–”

“Shut up,” I said. “Want to start a panic?”

“–goddamned fucking trap–”

“Why are you telling me?” I asked. “What do you want me to do? Take some pictures for posterity?”

“Goddammit, man,” he said, grabbing my collar again, whispering mercilessly at my nose. “Don’t be such a fucking asshole–”

“Yeah?” I asked. I admit, I was worried. But the asshole grated on me, and I couldn’t help myself. “What happened to everything being so hell-acious?”

“Man–”

It was just about then, I guess, that Veronica screamed.

“My ID my ID my ID my ID–”

Consciousness of our situation was raised pretty quickly. Everybody started babbling frantically at each other. Veronica kept screaming.

“Calm down, calm down,” Mr. Rollings shouted. “I’m–I’m sure there’s some sort of reasonable, rational, explanation for this–”

“Yeah,” said Raymond Fort. “We been set up, that’s the reason–”

“Mr. Rollings,” Suzi was asking. “Mr. Rollings, we can still get out of here, can’t we? We’re still going to be able to get out of here all right?”

“Are we gonna die, Mr. Rollings?” Jenny Wilton asked, for the first time since we’d been down in Hell doing something other than groping and cooing and slobbering over Marcus Towery. “You have to be dead to live in Hell, don’t you?”

“Nobody’s going to be living in Hell–” Mr. Rollings started.

“Mr. Rollings,” Peter Trent asked, waving his hand for attention. “Should I still be taking notes?”

“Shut up, Peter,” Mr. Rollings instructed, turning around. “Look, we’ll all just go back up to the front desk and explain our situation–I’m sure they’ll understand–”

“Oh, yeah, right,” Eddie Hudson agreed. “Sure. Just as soon as Hell freezes over.” Eddie let out a sudden, nervous laugh.

“Man, that’s shit,” Raymond Fort said. “Want me to crack you one?”

“Everybody, calm down–!” Mr. Rollings began. “Fighting won’t do anybody any good–”

“No!” Veronica shouted, holding her Bible over her head. “No!” she screamed and, clutching the Bible back against her chest, suddenly took off running down the corridor, away from the direction we had come.

“Veronica!” Mr. Rollings yelled. He wiped his forehead off with the back of his hand. “Oh, great–hey, somebody stop her!”

“I ain’t going nowhere in here now,” the asshole said. “I’m not going no further–nowhere–”

“Damn straight,” concurred Raymond Fort.

“I’ll go,” I said, and took off after her. Why not? It was better than hanging around with all those babbling idiots. I raced down the long, marble hallway, away from them. Veronica, in her long, flower-print dress and clodhoppers, wasn’t difficult to catch up with. My hands grabbed at her thin waist, trying to slow her up, or stop her completely, without having to tackler her.

“Come on, Veronica,” I started, getting a firm grip, and she hit me with her Bible.

“No!” she screamed. “Gotta get out–gotta get out–”

She twisted, sliding out from between my hands. I clutched at the fringe of her dress, got it, and jerked on it. “Veronica–” I started.

She lost her footing as I pulled at her dress and toppled over with a short, high-pitched gasp of surprise and I tripped over her, impacting painfully against the marble floor as inertia carried us sliding down the hall. She tumbled over me, I slid against her, and we both stopped when we hit the treadmill.

I was the first to get my footing back, standing up quickly, lightly knocking my head against a punching bag.

“Here,” I said, offering my hand to Veronica as I looked around. There was a long line of treadmills directly in front of us, one of which had brought our slide to a stop. There were a number of punching bags hanging from the ceiling, several sets of weights and weight lifting machines anchored everywhere, and some exercise bikes. In the distance, I could just make out a track and a few Olympic sized swimming pools. Although I hadn’t been conscious of going through anything, we had apparently entered the sixth chamber.

“Here,” Veronica said as I helped her up off the floor, and she slammed her Bible into the side of my head.

It took me a second to reorient, and by that time, she was already running desperately towards the far wall, weaving around exercise machines as she went.

“Shit,” I said, and started running after her.

Veronica was almost to the wall when I caught up with her, and I was not going to let her get any further. The time for delicacy had passed. I jumped at her, grabbing her around the torso, jerking her down violently as her free hand reached out for the doorknob. I heard a sharp pop and she screamed, and I had her down.

The scream tapered off into a jerky sob. It was a moment before she found her voice. “My ankle,” she hissed through clenched teeth, sweat standing out on her forehead, black, stringy hair matted to her skull. “You broke my–uhn!– ankle.”

“It’s your own fault,” I said. “You shouldn’t’ve run off like that.”

“You broke my ankle,” she repeated.

“And I’ll break your jaw if you don’t shut up. Now come on–we’ve got to get back with the rest of the class–”

“No!” she shouted, eyes white, watery spheres behind her glasses. “Out–gotta get out–gotta get out–” She lifted her torso, reaching for the door. I grabbed her under the crook of each arm and dragged her back about ten feet.

“My ankle dear God–”

“Cut that out,” I said. “You’re being stupid. That isn’t the way out–we’ve got to go back the way we came. With the rest of the class. Now, come on–”

“–my ankle–”

“Here,” I said, lifting her. “Just rest your weight on the other leg and put your arm around my neck like this–that’s right–just like that–”

“–out–” she whispered. “Gotta get out–”

“Right,” I agreed. “That’s just what we’re doing.”

“Out.”

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s–”

And she slammed the Bible back into my face. Involuntarily, I let her go and she slid back onto the floor, and, bracing her back against it, she kicked me in the crotch.

I fell backwards, bright, shining pain making my eyes water. And Veronica was dragging herself back towards the door.

Shit, I thought. Sucker. God. And then I couldn’t think anymore. I couldn’t breath. I could hardly move at all.

But I was moving, dragging myself forward with my hands, using my legs just barely, feeling too nauseous to try standing up. She was almost to the door, and I was still several feet away. I wasn’t going to make it. Then she had her hand on the door knob, and I screamed at her to stop, to come back, but it came out like a whisper.

She turned the knob and I heard the click, and I thought about what Mr. Rollings had said, about how we wouldn’t be able to go past the sixth chamber, so I thought maybe it was locked, that it’d be closed–but the door opened easily. And Veronica screamed.

A wall of heat slammed against me–thick, burning, choking heat. Foul heat, the heat of death. I smelled the stink of sulfur and brimstone in the air immediately, the stench of boiling blood and burning flesh. And I could hear screams, endless, surging, tortured screams, overlapping a deep, toneless rumble. An unceasing, bone-shaking thunder. And Veronica–I could hear her scream, too.

And I was at the door. A door, but it wasn’t the door, anymore. It was wider and taller than the small, non-descript door it had been, maybe a dozen feet wide and twenty feet tall. But it could have been a twenty miles tall and a hundred miles wide for all the difference it made. Everything was a burning, roiling black. The last chamber receded back forever, shimmering in the indescribable heat, thousands upon thousand of figures—tortured, bald, burning and bleeding—writhing in the molten pits, nailed to the burning black rocks, vomiting up great gouts of blood-red flame.

I stood. Despite the nausea, the dizziness, and the heat, I stood, one hand holding onto the door—the small brass knob Veronica had turned to open the door was now a grotesque, iron monstrosity—one hand clutching at Veronica’s arm as her body leaned out over the pit. The pain was incredible–I felt like I should’ve been burning up. I felt like everything should’ve been burning up in the heat, that everything should’ve been choking on the foul stench in the air, but I was still alive. Somehow, I still stood. Eyes squinting against the heat, I could barely see. But I could smell the stench, I could hear the screams, I could feel the heat. Hell, I could feel the deep, pulsing rumble of moving earth and deep, burning flame—a sound so deep I could feel it in my bones. And I could see a little; I could see enough. I knew where to aim my camera. Pulling Veronica back and away, keeping the door braced with one foot, I shot up the rest of that roll.

I was almost done when I slipped. There was a boom—a huge, terrible thud, like someone had just closed a gigantic door—and the burning gale whipping through the doorway reversed, and the wind was at my back. A felt myself stumble forward, and Veronica’s clodhoppers slipped on the floor and her legs flew out from under her. My grip on her arm slipped quickly, from elbow to wrist to fingers. Her free arm flopped out and towards me, but she couldn’t reach it high enough to grab onto me. It was almost like something was pulling at her. As she screamed and, not helping me at all, kicked her feet, her body swung up horizontally, as if the gravity of the final chamber was not at the bottom but at the very end. Her feet kicking as the wind blew against us, one of her clodhoppers flew off and flew straight backwards, end over end, until it vanished in the black fire.

Stupid, stupid, I told myself. Shouldn’t have stopped to take the pictures. It’s just a damn term paper.

I swung my camera over my shoulder and reached out with my free hand to grab Veronica’s wrist. I got her wrist, and pulled her closer so that my other hand could close around her forearm. Her sweaty, oily skin was still slipping down through my fingers, but now she was close enough that she could grab my forearm with her free hand. With me pulling her up, and her other arm pulling against me, I started to back up. I could barely hear Veronica screaming now, over the deep, howling, burning noise of the pit, but I tried to talk to her, anyway. “Pull yourself forward!” I yelled. “Try to get as close to the door as you can!”

As I pulled her up, I felt my camera strap tighten around my neck. With a jerk, my camera swung around from being over my shoulder and behind my back to dangling out in front of me, the burning wind drawing it toward the pit. It loosened, and seemed to drop forward another notch, and I realized that I had not tightened my shoulder strap enough, and I was about to lose my camera.

“Watch out!” I shouted to Veronica. “My camera!”

Whether she heard me or she just misunderstood me, I don’t know, but as the strap unfastened and my camera flew from my neck, she let go of my arm and caught the strap. She lifted her arm, waving the strap at me—I guess for me to grab it, but there was no way that was going to happen, because she was already rapidly sliding through my fingers again. I knew that if I tried to keep a hold on her with just one hand at that point, she was gone.

“Let it go!” I yelled at her. “You’re slipping. Let it go!”

“But your camera!” she yelled back. And then screamed again.

“It’s just a fucking camera and it’s just a fucking paper and it’s just a fucking grade and I don’t care let the goddamned thing GO!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. “I can’t hold on to you! I need your other hand!”

Veronica slipped forward again, and even though I had both hands on her, I was down to her fingers, and she was still slipping. There wasn’t much room left to go, and if she slid any further, I didn’t think she’d be able to get her other hand up to me. “Veronica! Drop it NOW!”

With a cry of pain and despair, Veronica let go of the strap and, just barely, got her arm back up and her hand around mine. I watched my camera fly backwards into the darkness, turning end over end and then burst into a bright yellow flame. And then it was gone.

With Veronica’s chewed fingernails digging into my hands, I pulled backwards. I grabbed one forearm and then the other, and then got my hands around her upper arms. One foot sliding against the floor, but the other against the edge of the huge, trembling wood-and-iron door, I pushed back with all my strength. I screamed, and so did Veronica, and she was across the threshold. We both tumbled backwards, and there was a terrible, dark, horrendous sound—metal scraping against metal a thousand miles wide, a hundred-thousand animals howling in pain, consumed in a roaring fire and terrible winds.

Then, in an instant, it was complete and total silence. The wind, the roaring, the deep, burning, throbbing noise I could hear in the very marrow of my bones—it was all gone. There was a light snapping sound, as the small white door the non-descript brass knob closed with a click.

I inhaled deeply. The terrible stench was gone. I was breathing something that smelled like air again.

“I’m sorry,” Veronica was saying. “So sorry. Your camera. I don’t know—I don’t know why—something made me do it. Something.”

“The devil,” I supplied.

“Oh, your camera,” she said. “I didn’t mean to—“

“Oh, your ankle,” I said. “Tit for tat. Now stop talking about it.”

I stood up and looked around. It was again quiet, cool, and deserted in the chamber. I looked at my hands and then touched my face, then my hair. It had felt as if I had been fire—as if my skin had been burning off of my bones. But I was fine. The only sign of damage were Veronica’s nail-marks in my palm and up my arm. Veronica lay panting of the floor, her face flushed and slick with sweat, long, stringy hair splayed out in a halo around her head. Except for the swelling around her ankle, and her missing clodhopper, she looked all right. I even saw her Bible, a few feet from the door, no worse for wear, except being permanently bent by her constant wringing of it. I went over, picked it up, and handed it to her.

“You dropped this,” I said as she grabbed it, once again clutching it tightly against her. “Now, like I said: back this way.”

“Hell,” she whispered, face flattened against the floor. “I just looked straight into the pit of Hell.”

“Good for you,” I congratulated her. “I lost my camera in it. Should be a great theme for your paper.”

“Straight into the Pit,” she said.

“Right,” I said, picking her up. “Just so you know, if you try to kick me again, I’m going to take you back there and throw you in it, okay?”

“Pit,” she said.

I sighed. “Put a sock in it,” I advised her. “And let’s go find the rest of the class before the leave without us.”

◊◊◊

“Good,” Mr. Rollings said when we met up with them again in the museum section. “You’re back.” He wiped his forehead on the back of his hand. “For a second there I thought we were going to have to send out a search party for you.”

“No,” I said. “I just stopped to take some pictures. I don’t think they’re going to come out, though.”

“Oh. Well, anyway, here’s your ID–and yours, Veronica.” I took them both, clipping one to Veronica’s dress and the other one back on my shirt pocket. “Security showed up just after you left–apparently they caught a gang of air demons trying to use them to get outside. The air demons have been returned to their rightful chamber and Hell security apologizes for any inconvenience.” Mr. Rollings smiled sheepishly. “You know how these things are.”

“Right,” I said. “So are we leaving now?”

“I think we’d better,” he said. “It’s almost that time, anyway.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “And Veronica broke her ankle. I think she needs a doctor.”

“I looked–” she started, and I clapped my hand over her mouth.

“She delirious, too,” I added.

“Mmm,” Mr. Rollings murmured. “Broke her ankle. Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure,” I said. “See the swelling? She needs to see a doctor. Or get some ice. Or something.

“God,” Mr. Rollings swore. “Somehow I don’t think the college is going to be letting us go on another field trip very soon.”

“That’s probably not such a bad thing,” I said. “Somebody want to help me with Veronica?”

“Oh, here, let me,” offered Amanda Thomas, coming up and slipping the arm still clutching desperately at that Bible around her neck as the class began trudging slowly back the way we came.

“Up, up,” I said to Amanda. “Keep her weight off her feet.”

“Oh–okay–”

“Almost stuck in Hell,” I heard the asshole saying. “Almost stranded in the pit–fucking hell-acious.”

“Yeah,” concurred Raymond Fort. “Man–I don’t know about this Hell stuff man. I mean—I don’t know if we ought to be coming here. Just because you can, you know—I don’t know that means we should. Shit. What do you think?”

“Fucking hell-acious,” the asshole answered back.

Peter Trent was holding a notebook in front of Mr. Rollings face. “Is this enough notes, Mr. Rollings? Or should I take more on the way back?”

Mr. Rollings sighed. “It’s your report, I’m not doing it for you, Peter.”

“Like, are we going to have to go back through that stupid nature trail thing? I mean, you know, I like actually had a bird shit in my hair once–and it was like just so disgusting–”

“I hate nature trails, man,” Raymond interjected.

We did have to go back through the nature trail, the theme park, and then the mall.

“Mr. Rollings,” queried Eddie Hudson. “Mr. Rollings–are you sure we can’t buy anything? I mean, if they’d return our IDs so easy like they did–well, don’t they have to be all right, then. I mean, they couldn’t be so bad, could they? It’s just Hell–”

“Nobody buys anything,” Mr. Rollings said again. “And get that notebook out of my face, Peter. I—“

“But Mr. Rollings,” Suzi Richardson. “These are Prada! Prada! For two dollars!

Suzi was already picking up a pair of black shoes, and looking toward one of the numerous check-out desks—and they were everywhere, all staffed; there were no lines to check out in Hell. A guy who looked like he could have been a Chippendale dancer under his white Oxford shirt and black slacks was waving Suzi over, mouthing the words I’m open at her.

Mr. Rollings jerked the shoes out of her hand and put them back down on the rack. “Two dollars and your eternal soul! And you fail class. Plus five to fifteen years in a Federal prison. Or did you forget our little discussion on the ‘Supernatural Customs Act of 2015’?”

“Oh,” Suzi said, her voice small but still looking back at a pair of shoes—and I didn’t know Suzi all that well, but I could tell you one thing: she wasn’t hurting for clothes. “I forgot.”

Mr. Rollings sighed, waving the rest of the class through to the next level. “Marcus, Jenny, come on–yes, yes, I’m happy we’re getting out of this alive myself–quit kissing and get moving. Hey, is everything all right back there with Veronica? Is she okay?”

“Under the circumstances, fine,” I answered. “Not too heavy, Amanda?”

“Fine–don’t worry about me–”

“Looked into the pit–” Veronica was saying. “Saw the very bowels of Hell itself–”

I winked secretly at Amanda. “I think she’ll be better once we get her to a doctor,” I said. Amanda nodded with wise understanding. Damn straight, she mouthed at me.

“Mr. Rollings–” someone else started, but I tuned it out. There was more chatter going back than there had been coming in, and none of it was any less boring. Carefully supporting Veronica, I returned to thoughts about my term paper. I had dropped my notebook somewhere and had lost my camera, but I still remembered the general form of my outline, which mentally I began to modify, and the general shape my paper was going to take. I was going to miss that old camera, but the pictures wouldn’t be necessary. I could describe what I saw, and I was pretty sure I’d be able to tie it all together thematically, too. The A+ was still mine. This was going to be a damned good paper.

“Straight–straight into the pit,” Veronica whispered.

I sighed. “For the love of Pete,” I said. “Shut up!”

Soon we were at the exit, and, after Mr. Rollings went through another half-hour of reviewing and signing papers, we all proceeded out the gate, single file, Amanda Thomas helping me to lift Veronica, still muttering to herself, over the turnstile.

“Thanks for coming,” the pleasant, blonde woman said as we walked through. “I look forward to seeing you again real soon.”

As I passed through, she touched my shoulder. Her hand was very warm. “I especially look forward to seeing you.”

“Don’t hold your breath,” I advised, as I stepped through the turnstile. “I’m not coming back here.”

She smiled broadly. Her teeth almost sparkled. “That’s what you think. Have a nice day.”

When we finally got to the bus, I sat in the back with Amanda Thomas so we could lay Veronica across the long rear seat. Amanda went through the first aid kit, but there wasn’t much to help a busted ankle. We’d have to wait until we got back up closer to the city, and maybe get her to a doctor or at least stop for some ice.

I let Veronica lay across my lap while Amanda kept her feet up. “Burning . . . lava . . . screaming,” Veronica was muttering. “Despair and woe . . . the endless black.”

Amanda looked at me, brow furrowed. “Why does she keep talking like that?”

I shrugged. “She’s a kook?” I asked. “I don’t know.” I didn’t think Amanda was up to doing a better job than me, even if she had seen everything I had, but I wasn’t going to let her in on the theme for my paper. “She needs to see a doctor.”

Amanda gave me a knowing look, nodding.

“Well, I hope everybody enjoyed their trip,” Mr. Rollings said from the front of the bus. “I can tell you, next semester’s trip to the Georgia State Correctional Facility is probably not going to be happening, now. What a mess. You know, after the constant discussion of what you were supposed to be doing, and not doing, on this trip—I was surprised at your behavior. All of you. You were told a dozen times that you couldn’t buy anything, or ride anything, or take any souvenirs—”

The asshole—blissfully distant from me on the trip back, sitting near the front of the bus—raised his hand. “Not even a rock?”

Mr. Rollings paused. “Richie, I hope you’re not saying what I think you’re saying. What rock?”

“I picked up a rock on the nature trail. I mean, it was just a rock. And how cool is that? A Hell-rock, man!”

Mr. Rollings face was turning red. “About five to fifteen years in prison! Maybe you’ll be seeing the Georgia State Correctional Facility after all—“

“Hey, wait, man, it’s just a rock—“

“Get it out! Turn the bus around. For God’s sake, Richie, what the Hell were you thinking?”

“That it was a cool rock. Look at it!”

I suppose it’s a good thing we hadn’t gone any further. We got back to the gates of Hell in about ten minutes, and Mr. Rollings had the asshole go out and hand the rock back over. I just watched through the window like everybody else, but I could get the gist of the conversation. The professionally attired representative of Hell was saying that it was fine—that he could have all the rocks he wanted. Everyone could have a souvenir. If they wanted.

I was trying my best to read lips—the exchange looked like it was getting kind of heated, at least from Mr. Rollings side—when there was a knock on the glass at the back window. Amanda gasped, and so did Veronica, who pushed herself back up against me, almost cringing. It was the pleasant-looking greeter lady from the gate, waving at me. She smiled.

“Told you you’d be back,” she said. “Didn’t I?”

“Okay, thanks,” I said. “Great to see everybody again. But we are leaving now.”

I glanced over to where Mr. Rollings was still standing with the asshole. Two old men in green visors had brought over a table and a pile of papers, and one of them was gesturing and the pile of papers with a pen.

The woman laughed pleasantly. Even though she was talking to me through the glass, I could hear her voice almost like her lips were pressed against my ear. “Maybe not quite yet.”

“Okay, well, bye,” I said.

“We found something of yours,” she said. She tapped against the glass, and pointed down towards her other hand, where she held my camera. “Your notebook, too. We thought you’d like them back.”

Veronica’s hand was suddenly around my wrist, squeezing it like a vise. “Don’t—it’s death—it’s a trap—

I jerked my hand free. “Shut up,” I said. “I’m not stupid.” I looked at the woman through the window, and waved at her. “No, thank you, buh-bye.”

The woman held my camera up and pretended to take a picture. “You’re sure?” she asked. “All the pictures would still be yours. Not too many people get to take pictures down in Hell. Could be worth a lot of money, you know.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’ll live without it.” Yes, it was my camera, and, sure, I wouldn’t be breaking any Federal laws. But I had dropped it, irretrievably, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get it back for free. There would be strings attached. Besides, did I really want something, no matter how well it had served me before, that had fallen into the very bowels of Hell?

“What about your notebook, then?” she asked. She waved it in front the glass. “You sure?”

Better not to take chances, I thought. “I’m sure. Thanks, though.”

“Okay,” she said, and shrugged indifferently. “Maybe next time. Does your friend want her shoe back?”

“No!” Veronica shouted, twisting her Bible so hard I thought she might tear it in two.

“She’ll pass,” I said.

Amanda was looking at me curiously. “What was that all about?” She looked down at Veronica and then back up at me. “What exactly happened with you two back there?”

I smiled. I wasn’t going to fall for that trick, either. “I’ll let you read a copy of my term paper after finals.”

About forty-five minutes later, Mr. Rollings practically carried the asshole back on to the bus and threw him onto his seat. “We are leaving now,” Mr. Rollings announced. “If there is anybody else who brought something back with them from Hell, enjoy your stay in Federal prison.”

◊◊◊

The trip back was uneventful, and, eventually, Mr. Rollings stopped glaring at everybody and sat down. All of us, the asshole included, were subdued. Jenny and Marcus even managed to keep their hands to themselves. When we got back to the city, Amanda Thomas and I took Veronica to the closest minor medical where they iced her ankle down, took x-rays, then wrapped it up—she had twisted it, and badly, but it wasn’t broken. We got her home, then went out for pizza together. We talked about our mutual trip through Hell for a little while, but it wasn’t too long before we found we had a lot of other things in common, too.

Veronica’s ankle was good as new in no time, and despite being either semi-catatonic or insane during the entire field trip, she got her grade, and passed Mr. Rollings class with a C-minus. I thought my paper rocked, especially with the twisty fire-and-brimstone ending, but Mr. Rollings didn’t agree. I got a B, and, what was worse, a note: Really, I expected better from you. The Burning Pit? Who do you think you’re kidding?

I got an A for the semester, so I’m not complaining. I’ve actually kind of become friends with Veronica who, when she’s not pitching histrionic fits, isn’t that bad. I’ve started dating Amanda Thomas, which is even better, and well worth the price of a B on a term paper and a lost camera.

It was a week ago, eating Vietnamese food and playing Scrabble with Amanda and her sister, that I decided to write this. We were watching TV, and an ad came on for, of all things, Hell. In the middle of the damn family hour. It was no longer limited to government and academic visits—you could get tourist visas and even annual passes. Everyone was invited to come and see all that Hell had to offer. The commercial was filled with happy, beautiful people shopping, riding on amusement park rides, eating at restaurants, browsing in fine museums and fishing on broad, beautiful lakes. There was a bit about the nightlife, featuring pornographically beautiful women and men dancing and cavorting at the very edge of FCC regulations, but at no point did I see any bodies, flayed of skin, nailed to scalding stones with great iron spikes in the middle of molten pits of magma. But I guess most corporations always try and put their best foot forward.

“Must be above age of informed consent,” the pleasant voice narrating the commercial ended.

So, it’s up to you. I can tell you, I’ve been, and I’m not going again. Neither is Amanda. And say what you will about the Veronicas of this world, but she already had more sense than to go in the first place.

You’ve got free will. You’ll have to make your own decision. Just keep in mind, no matter how they sugarcoat the thing, it’s still Hell.

If you do go, though, don’t sign anything. Don’t buy anything, including “services”—not even a massage or a shoeshine. Don’t bring anything back, not a rock or a blade of grass, and especially not anything anybody gives you. If anybody tries to return anything to you that you’ve lost, don’t accept it. Don’t ride on any rides, or participate in any other “entertainments”. Keep your ID with you at all times.

And watch out for that seventh chamber.

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Black Apple

January 7, 2009

black_apple

The early morning air over Dreamer’s Cliff shimmered briefly with the pattern of a simple, two-dimensional hex design, and Gretchen felt a slight wave of heat pass by her. She had just thrown a hex at the grass beneath her feet-a very controlled one-to help warm the ground for her and dry up the dew drops, as she intended to sit and ground moisture always made a mess of her clothes. Making sure her cloak was drawn in tightly around her, and touching the grass a bit just to make sure it was really dry, she seated herself comfortably. Hexes were such handy things. People very often–and quite unfairly, she thought–had negative associations with the idea of being hexed but, as with most everything, hexes weren’t innately bad. They couldn’t be. Goodness or badness laid in application and use–in action, not existence. She was as good as she could manage, and hoped that what hexes she threw reflected that fact. She supposed they did; most people in Thorn didn’t seem to think anything bad about her magic. Still, there were others . . .

She felt something flick at her knee and brushed at it distractedly, thinking. She was accustomed to bold crickets, especially early in the morning, and didn’t pay much attention to them. Besides, there were more important things to think about. Good and evil, for instance. She wanted to be good, because good was right, but sometimes she wondered if she really was. That was the problem with being right–it was so very hard to tell if you actually were. No magic, no accident of birth, made a person evil, Gretchen was sure. Just because she could throw hexes, that didn’t really make her a witch; she had the talent, for the love of the Gods, she didn’t have the religion-the apostasy. She had been born of the water; she had pledged her life to the Gods. But that didn’t really guarantee her goodness, did it? She knew that it did not-knew it better than perhaps she would’ve liked. Gretchen had thought about it a great deal, and the more thought she devoted to it the less she liked some of the things she was thinking. Because though she wished very hard to be good, and always tried as hard as she could to be so, sometimes the things she thought-sometimes the things she felt-weren’t very good at all. Sometimes, she thought, they were almost evil.

Gretchen felt another cricket, or perhaps the same one, flicking at her leg, only this time it was against her thigh. That managed to catch her full attention, distracting her from her thoughts. She had her robes and the end of her cloak gathered up into her lap so the many folds and flaps of her clothing would not stray from her dried circle of grass and get wet. That meant that if she could actually feel a cricket flicking at her, it had somehow managed to get up under her robes. Gretchen was accustomed to being harassed by rude crickets, but that was getting a little too intimate. She started to stand up, bringing the warmth hex she had used earlier back into her mind, as her memory of it was still fresh, and she could easily tailor it to be a little bit hotter. She needed something to dissuade the cricket, and thought that burning it to a crisp would probably do the trick. She was hardly one to kill any sort of life wantonly, but there were limits to her tolerance, and the cricket had gotten entirely too personal.

It wasn’t until she tried to stand up that it first sunk in that whatever it was flicking at her leg, it wasn’t a cricket. It was nothing of the sort. Because it was only when she first stood up that she really felt the weight–weight around her thigh, her knee, her calf, all around her entire leg, throwing off her center of gravity and almost making her fall back down. She had naturally assumed that whatever had been bothering her had been a cricket; morning crickets were quite abundant around the cliffs and in the grasses right outside of Parker’s Meadow. And it was quite possible, she supposed, that whatever she had felt earlier had been a cricket–but this wasn’t a cricket. It was too big, too heavy, large and unpleasantly smooth against her skin, slick like the scales of a snake, about as unlike a cricket as a thing could get. It had begun tightening around her leg as she struggled for balance, hurting her and cutting off the circulation, when she realized that it actually was a snake. It had to be. Nothing else she had ever heard of would feel like this.

Gretchen had the warmth hex ready and waiting in her mind; she used it instinctively. The disparity between snakes and crickets was an appreciable one, and she had only brought the hex up with the intention frying a pesky insect, but manipulating the essential design even as it drew itself in the air was not very hard for her. It had been hot; she made it hotter. The pattern assembled, lights and darks merging into a coherent hex form, expanding into three dimensions. Completed, it executed itself automatically, and heat billowed up under her robes, and the leg with the snake-thing wrapped around it suddenly felt like it was on fire. It hurt something awful–she had know it would–but she simply ground her teeth against the pain, intent on making the damned thing let go of her. She had not asked for this intrusion on her privacy and meant to put an end to it. She just prayed to the Gods that it did not bite her in reaction.

She kept the hex going for awhile, trying to ignore the enormous amount of heat she was subjecting herself to in the process, and did meet with some luck—at least the snake didn’t bite. But it didn’t let go of her either. It simply moved a little, slithering around her leg, as if trying to get comfortable. She felt it move, and that made her certain—she was getting a snake hug. She didn’t know how it could have possibly wrapped itself around her with her hardly having noticed, where it could have come from, or how it could possibly stand heat that felt like it was burning her up, and she didn’t particularly care. She just changed tactics. Heat wasn’t working; maybe she could try freezing it. Cold spells were as common as warmth spells, and she had had plenty experience at modifying both. Doing a little instant tailoring on a cold spell would be no problem, and with the way her leg felt, she thought a little cool air couldn’t hurt. So she concentrated, working her fingers to draw the basic pattern in the air even as she cancelled the first hex, and had it done in seconds.

This time she met with more success. The cold came immediately, clenching her burning leg like a large, icy hand, and she realized that, as hot as the first hex had made her, being frozen felt just about as bad as getting burned. But at least, this time, it had the desired effect. The thing let go of her without so much as a nibble, falling down around her feet, and Gretchen jumped backwards, just in case it decided to change its mind about biting her and go for an ankle. Apparently, though, it wasn’t too intent on doing anything. It simply lay there, coiled-up and shivering on the very spot where she had been sitting earlier.

It was indeed a snake, a snake as dark and shiny as a slab of polished ebony and very, very big. The sun was a bit higher now, and the cliffs very well-lit. She could make out the black, serpentine form quite easily, and could see just how large it was. Too large. It was easily five arms long, if not longer, the thickest point in its mid-section perhaps two-and-a-half hands in diameter–it was as big a snake as Gretchen had ever heard of, almost certainly a true constrictor. A bite, then, perhaps wouldn’t have mattered so much; that wasn’t usually the way a constrictor killed. But she had to wonder how in all of the seven Hells it had managed to coil itself around her leg without even drawing her attention–it was far, far too big to have done that. If, she amended, it was a normal snake.

Somehow, she didn’t think it was.

She wondered if she should kill it. She could channel more power through her hexes than she had, and now that it was apart from her she wouldn’t hesitate to use full force. And, if she left it alive, it could come into contact with someone else, and that someone might not survive the encounter. Then their blood would be on her hands. She would be at fault. But if she did kill it on little more than her own speculation, what then? What if she were wrong? Maybe, in its own strange, snake way, it had just been trying to be friendly. And if she killed it then, that would just be like shooting and arrow through the heart of a stranger who came into town with his hand out and smile on his face. So what should she do? Gods, it was so hard to know.

It was the snake itself that decided it for her.

It rose up, lifting the upper-portion of its long body into the air, its small head orienting immediately on Gretchen. Her fingers twitched nervously, ready to work up any hex she could at a moment’s notice, in case it decided to strike. But it only looked at her for a while, its tiny red eyes blinking up at her innocently. It quivered a little, as if still very cold, then cleared its throat. “Now,” it said, evidently trying to smile. “That wasn’t very nice, was it?”

For the first few moments all Gretchen could do was blink back at it. But that as only for a few moments. Bit by bit, piece by piece, she felt herself growing angry. “A sapient?” she whispered, more to herself than to the snake. “You’re a sapient?”

Her voice was soft, but the snake apparently heard her anyway. It nodded. “Of course,” it said, its voice deep and mellow, seeming far too large for its tiny little head. It shivered again. “Not a very polite way of greeting a fellow sentient, trying to freeze him to death. You didn’t need to do that.”

“A sentient–” she said, her voice growing in volume. “And you–you can vocalize. You talk.”

It nodded again. “Of course. I’m well-versed in all pertinent forms of communication on the planet. I don’t think trying to freeze a fellow to death is considered a polite greeting in any of them.”

Gretchen glared at it, her fingers flicking a little, just itching to work up a nice, powerful hex and send the damned thing barreling down into oblivion. The fact that it could talk wasn’t making her like it any better. But she kept herself in check. “Neither is trying to squeeze off a person’s leg–”

“A friendly hug,” it dismissed, trying to smile again.

“But you can talk!” she exclaimed angrily. “You’re a sentient! You could’ve at least tried to say hello! Trying to squeeze off people’s legs without asking is not a friendly hug. You didn’t even introduce yourself! You—“

“You get angry a lot, don’t you?” the snake asked pleasantly, and smiled. “I bet you don’t make many friends like that.”

“–didn’t–even–uh,” Gretchen faltered. “Uh–now wait a minute–”

“I know you can’t make too many friends if you try to freeze them all to death–”

“Now, just hold it one second, snake,” Gretchen said, coming up closer to it and crouching down, glaring right into it’s small, glowing eyes. “Look here–you started this. Friends don’t try to squeeze people’s legs off–”

The snake chuckled pleasantly. “You’re hung up on that, aren’t you? It was just a hug. Do you usually get so defensive when people try to introduce themselves?”

Gretchen frowned, her eyes narrowing icily. She wanted very badly to hex this thing. “I don’t like you, serpent,” she said slowly, keeping her voice low. “You can talk. In circles. Around and around–”

“You’re a very suspicious person, too, aren’t you?” The snake interrupted, and laughed a little. “Distrustful as well. If you ever do make any friends, I doubt that you keep them long, with that sort of attitude. Am I right?” The snake looked at her for a moment, examining her face. “Yes, I think I am. And, what’s more, I think that you know it. I think you agree.”

Gretchen took a slow, deep breath, just looking at the thing for a long while. “What are you here for, serpent?” she asked finally. “What do you want? And why have you come to me? I mean it. Cut the double-talk,” she said, bringing her face almost nose-to-nose with the snake’s. “Tell me what you want from me, or get the Hell away.”

“I just–heard your thoughts,” it explained. “I felt the things you were feeling. You seemed so unhappy. I thought maybe you could use a hug. I’m sorry. I guess I was wrong. It seems you can do just fine without anybody.”

“Mmm,” she hummed thoughtfully, standing fully up and moving away from the snake, frowning a little. “You make me feel guilty, snake. But I suppose you know that already, as you’re apparently an empath, as well as sentient and able to verbalize eloquently. Quite an array of talents, for a snake.” She put her hands on her hips, more intrigued by the snake now than angry–but far from at ease. “This makes me curious, serpent–just how is it that such a talented creature as yourself ends up on the cliffs, listening to people’s thoughts?”

“It was–an accident. I didn’t mean to. But I live among the cliffs. This is my home. I could hardly help but feel all your depression and indecision. And, as I did, I thought that maybe I should try and help you–and console you. Is that really so strange? I did not expect a friendly hug to be considered an invasion of privacy–I haven’t much experience at dealing with people, you see–and I think that has put you off somewhat. So I won’t do it again–you have my word. But I’d still like to help you, if I may.”

Gretchen sighed. “All right, serpent,” she said. “I will hear you out. How is it, precisely, that you intend to help me?”

“You still don’t trust me, do you?” it asked, and sighed back at her. “Well, I suppose that’s understandable. You’ve trusted people before, and have had that trust betrayed, haven’t you? You’ve been deceived, you’ve been misled. There have been those, I suspect, who’ve appealed to your better nature so they could lead you into a trap. So they could kill you. I’m right, aren’t I?”

Gretchen looked down at the serpent for a long time, frowning, eyes narrow and suspicious, doing nothing more than breathing. Breathing very slowly.

The snake smiled. “I think I’m right.”

Gretchen’s frown deepened, as she took in one long, deep breath. “Yes, you’re right–demon. You know you’re right.”

The glow in its eyes seemed to brighten and then dim markedly, as if in surprise, and its smile disappeared. “Oh,” it murmured slowly. “I had really hoped you wouldn’t catch on to that.”

“A sentient, talking snake who seems to know everything about me, seems to know just what to say to get to me–whose touch, when it so chooses, can be as light as smoke? What else could you be?”

“I–an empath,” it said. “I could’ve been an empath. There are a number of truly empathetic species all over the planet, not a small number of the living right around here. I thought that maybe that would fool you–”

“Gods,” Gretchen whispered quietly, staring up into the morning sky. “My Gods, I’m I truly so far gone? For what evil I have may thought, for what wrongs I may have done, have you abandoned me? Have I–?”

“Oh, would you please cut that out?” the serpent interrupted, its face suddenly popping up in front of hers, scowling. “I don’t mean you any harm–would you get that through your thick skull? Why do you automatically assume that the world is conspiring against you? That everybody you meet means you nothing but ill?”

Gretchen scowled back at it. “I think nothing of the sort, demon. But already you have lied to me, claiming to live in the cliffs, when you cannot possibly, claiming to be a mere snake when you know damned well you’re a servant of–”

“I advise you very strongly not to speak His name aloud,” the serpent cut in quickly. “He knows all who would give it voice.”

Gretchen just continued scowling at it. “Already you have lied to me, serpent, more than once, and more of what you say may be lies that I have yet to detect. You’re a demon–demons do not help mortals. Demons have never helped mortals. Why should I trust you? You have given me no reason to.”

“And if you continue to think as you do, no one ever will.” The snake, supporting itself on nothing but the last few coils of its tail, pushed itself up a little higher, bringing its face very close to hers. “You resent not only those who have condemned you but those who have tried to befriend you as well, you distrust those who would help you, you avoid strangers, you avoid people whose powers you fear, sometimes to the point that you might as well have gone and spat in their face.” It looked at her pointedly. “Going like that, I doubt you’ll ever have any opportunities to trust people.”

“You craft your words, demon,” she answered back immediately, staring it down. “You make what you say sound good, sound convincing–but lies very often do. Your words sound nice, but that doesn’t make them true. You are a demon. You serve one master and one master alone. And He’s not very nice.”

“Mmmm, mmm, mmm, dear, dear, dear,” the snake murmured, coiling back up and dropping back to the ground. “You’re really a wonder, you know that? I’m a demon–so I’m evil. Yet you’re a witch–and you’re good. That’s lovely logic, little one. I’m certainly glad you don’t hold any double-standards. Mmm, mmm, mm. Evil lies in action, not in existence, right? In application, not in potential. But then, that’s just for pretty little witches like yourself, isn’t it? Not for dirty old demon snakes. Mmm, mmm, mmm, dear, dear, dear.”

“I’m not a witch,” Gretchen said slowly. “You–that’s wrong. I’m not a witch.”

“Yet you throw hexes,” the serpent shot back immediately.

“That doesn’t make me a witch.”

“But I’m a demon, so that makes me evil.” It sighed. “Gretchen, have you ever stopped to think that maybe that there are other creatures out there that have been victims of bad press? That perhaps maybe I would like to help you for the simple reason that I know what it feels like to always get the dirty end of the stick? That I know what it feels like to be despised because of the way I was created? I had no control–I was made the way I was made. Yet not a single entity outside of those who dwell Beneath have shown me anything more than distrust and hate. I felt your pain, and I wanted to help. Maybe I went about it the wrong way, and if I did then it was my mistake, and I’m sorry. But don’t walk around all your life with blinders on–blind hate serves no one. No one but Him.”

Gretchen sat down–the sun, by now, had dried up all the dew–and she sighed. “All right,” she said. “All right. You’re too convincing for me to be at ease with you, snake, but I guess I’ve got to give you a chance. I’d be little better than the witch hunters if I didn’t. That’s what you were trying to point out to me, right?”

The snake nodded. “It was. Almost from the beginning. I suspected it would be difficult to convince you of the truth–I just didn’t realize quite how difficult.”

“Don’t talk as if you’ve done it, demon–you haven’t yet. Blind trust is just about as bad as blind hate, wouldn’t you say?”

“Touché, Gretchen. Very good. I suppose it is. But that wasn’t really wasn’t what I was asking for–”

“Quiet, Hellspawn. This help you offer–I’ve asked you twice now and you still haven’t told me what it is.”

The snake smiled. “Just answers, love. You have questions that still can’t be answered to your satisfaction. You’re as uncertain as ever about the state of your soul. You need to know. I can help you find out.”

“And still you haven’t told me how.”

“That’s a little more difficult to explain. I could, I suppose, but it would be faster, and simpler, just to show you.”

“Try telling me first.”

The snake sighed. “It’s a magic–I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s a rare magic, and a potent one, and not but a minute’s walk into Parker’s Meadows from where you now sit. Seeing it, perhaps, would help you understand a little better.”

Gretchen leaned forward. “I don’t know about that, demon. What is it? An oracle of some sort? One of the springs? An enchanted rock? A lost book of spells? What?”

“No, no,” the serpent replied, shaking it’s head. “It’s–a repository. For magics. For ancient magics. If you want to know more, you’ll have to see it.”

Gretchen stood up. “All right, then. I’ll go see it. This is not a commitment to anything more. I’m still dubious of accepting help from a demon.”

“It’s all bad press, I’ve told you,” the snake said, and chuckled. “Come on, follow me.”

It uncoiled its long, large body and started slithering at a steady rate away from the cliffs and into the Meadows. Gretchen followed. Walking was a painful prospect, as the leg she had tried to force the demon off of earlier was still quite sore, but she followed.

“It’s relatively simple,” the snake was saying as it slithered through the grasses and around the trees. “Just rare. But you need answers–very important answers, I think–and this can provide them for you.”

“Sounds wonderful,” Gretchen murmured. “But everything you say sounds good, every argument you come up with seems irrefutable. I’m still not sure how much I believe in you good intentions. I’ve heard of–”

“I caution you girl,” the snake said quickly, coming to a stop and turning around to face her. “You dare not speak His name.”

“All right, then. I’ve heard of the Evil One’s tongue–His ability with the language, His talent of speech, how good His words are supposed to sound. But He’s the God of Dissent and the Father of Lies. Would his servants not possess a talent of a similar caliber?”

“They would,” the serpent said. “They do. It is your choice, woman. I’ve told you. Consider for yourself and choose as you will. I want to help you, and that is my intent, but the final choice as to whether or not you accept that help is yours and yours alone.”

Gretchen, for the first time that day, managed to smile a little. “That sounds good, too, Hellspawn. But I’m not sure how much of it I should believe. But you still hold my tentative trust–for the moment. Let’s pray that you don’t betray it.”

“Be my guest,” the snake said and chuckled. “Pray to your Gods. I mean you no ill.”

“So you’ve said,” Gretchen murmured, then sighed. “Well?” she asked. “I need to be back at the village by noon. I don’t have all day. Lead me to this mysterious and helpful magic of yours.”

“Oh. I thought I had said. We’re here.”

“Here?” Gretchen asked dubiously, preparing herself immediately to work up a hex on a moment’s notice, if she needed to. This didn’t seem right. “I don’t see anything,” she said, looking around her. “No rocks, no mysterious glows, nothing–just grass and trees.” She bent down, her head hovering just above the snake’s, who craned his neck to look up at her. It smiled.

“What is this, demon?” Gretchen demanded. “Is this some sort of trick?”

“Powerful magics are not always acutely obvious, love. Look at the trees.”

“Mmm-hmm,” she hummed, looking around her. “They’re trees. So what?”

“The one in front of you.”

“It’s a tree–a sweetfruit tree.” And Gretchen suddenly realized she was hungry. She hadn’t meant to stay out so long–the snake had put a slight crimp in her plans–and supper last night had been pretty sparse. It was hardly the answer to all her problems, but a little sweetfruit would probably hit the spot just then–

Not that one,” the demon instructed her. “To the right.”

“Oh. Sorry. It’s–I’m not sure. It’s not in bloom yet. An apple tree, I think.”

The snake chuckled. “Right–but you said it wasn’t in bloom yet. That’s not entirely true. There is some fruit on it, fruit already ripe and ready to be picked. Take a closer look. It’s in the shade, a bit hard to see, but it’s there.”

Gretchen did as the demon suggested, approaching the tree and inspecting the branches carefully, still ready to throw any one of several prepared hexes at a moments notice–and she saw. Deep within the tree’s lower foliage, very near the trunk, there was one single, solitary fruit, in the shape a fully-ripened apple.

“Do you see it?” the snake asked casually. “You see it. Beautiful thing, isn’t it?”

“I–uh–it’s black,” Gretchen said. “It looks like an apple–but it’s pitch black. And–wait a second. Wait one minute. Is the incredible magic you wanted to show me, Hellspawn?”

“Look, Gretchen, I really wish you’d quite calling me that–”

“Is this the magic?”

“All right, all right. Yes, it is. I know it doesn’t look like much–”

“Uh-uh, Hellspawn. It looks like plenty. Gods, demon, do you think I’ve never read the Scriptures? Do you think I have never heard of the day that the Woman of the Garden sacrificed Paradise for knowledge? Do you think I’ve never read of how she set free pestilence and poverty and oppression with a single bite into this forbidden fruit? Do you think–?”

“Gretchen–quiet. You talk of human stories as if they were the very words of the Gods. The fruit you refer to was in the minds and on the tongues of ancient peoples, used only as way to explain what the Gods had yet to see fit to explain to them–but that was all it was, then. Make-believe. There were things about creation and the conception of man that the Gods, in Their wisdom, decided that mortals shouldn’t know. Not then. So, presented with nothing else, people made things up–such as the fruit you refer to. The Father found the parallel fitting when crafting much the New Magic at the break of the covenant, and used it. It is simply one of the many gifts of magic the Gods have left their people. I am just guiding you to it. Now, it is your choice–but basing your choice on ancient superstition is not very wise. It is not evil, merely knowledge–the precise knowledge you seek.”

“That sounds very good, demon.”

It sighed. “Gretchen, why must that always be an insult with you?”

“It isn’t. Not always. But you always know just what to say to convince me of whatever you please–in fact, you’re trying to convince me. Yet you keep saying it’s my choice. Besides which, you’re trying to tell me that the Scriptures are lies. That’s blasphemy, demon.”

The snake frowned, and–it seemed–pursed its lips. “Well,” it said finally. “Whatever you say. I’m not going to argue it anymore. Eat if you like. Don’t eat if you don’t like. It’s your choice.”

“You keep saying that.”

“Well, it is. If you want your life to remain the same forever, if you want people always spitting in your face, if you want to get your fingers broken and your body bound to a stake–”

“That’s only happened once, demon. It’s a healthy distrust of anything and everything that’s kept it from ever happening again.”

“Touché. A second time. You say I sound good–you should listen to yourself. You are as good at your arguments as you say I am at mine. Perhaps there’s a little demon in you as well, hmm?”

Gretchen cocked an eyebrow. “Mmmm. Clever, Hellspawn. You’ve made your point. But I reiterate, S–”

“I caution you, girl–” the serpent began.

“–the God of Dissent,” she continued, “is the Father of Lies. If you know an untruth is an untruth right from square one, then it really isn’t a lie, is it? A lie can sound good, and it can sound true, but it would still be a lie, wouldn’t it?”

“You know it would, Gretchen. And now I know I cannot convince you to trust me. I thought–I thought that I could. I had hoped I could do–some good. Some sort of good to help atone for the evil I have been made to do by the Infernal One. But I can see that even in this I have failed.” It sighed slightly. “It is near noon,” it commented finally, after a fairly long pause. “You said you needed to return to your village shortly, and I must return the Underworld before my time is up. I’m sorry we could not have gotten a long better–and I’m sorry I couldn’t help you. Goodbye, Gretchen. We shall not meet again.” Dejectedly, it lowered its head down to the ground, and began slowly weaving itself through the grasses. “Goodbye,” it called again. “I wish you well.”

Gretchen said nothing for a moment. She just looked at the slowly disappearing serpent, back to the single fruit of the apple tree, and then back to the snake, thinking quickly. She hadn’t expected it to give up so soon. Certainly a real demon wouldn’t’ve done so, and she truly doubted that the serpent was anything but. Still–

It took her a few moments to prepare herself and find her voice, and by then the serpent almost disappeared entirely. “Demon!” she called. “Demon, get back here!”

“What?” it called, turning around and moving a few feet towards her. “What did you say?”

“Come back here,” Gretchen said slowly. “I will eat your fruit.”

“It isn’t my fruit, girl, I told you, the . . . what? You said–you said, you accept my help?”

“I think I have to,” she answered as the snake quickly made it’s way back to her. “If I don’t accept, then it’s because I’ve condemned you for what you are, isn’t it? That’s what you’ve kept saying–and I guess it’s true. Maybe I’d like it to be a lie, but it’s true. If I don’t accept the help you offer because I don’t like what you are–then I’ve done the same thing so many people have done to me. Again, because it’s not the first time. I don’t want to mistrust everybody–I just do. And if I keep doing it, then it is my choice. If I never trust anybody, even with what I know, even with what I’ve seen–then it really is my choice. My choice alone. And then–and then I can’t be good. I damn myself.”

The snake looked at her, and then to the tree with its solitary offering of fruit. “Still, it is your choice,” the serpent said. “If you feel I have pressured you, then do not do it. That was not my intent. Yet I feel that, unintentionally, I have. That was not my purpose. I know, too, what if feels like to be forced to do something against one’s own will. If I did so, it was a mistake, and I am sorry–”

“Quiet, serpent. I know it’s my choice. I am damned if I don’t. Damned by myself, damned my very own feelings, by my very own hypocrisy–I know that. But perhaps I won’t be damned if I do. I don’t think that’s much of a choice. But I accept your help. I’ll eat the apple.”

“I–am glad,” the snake said quietly, solemnly. “Never before has a mortal accepted the help of this demon. You have–you–” It sighed slowly. “I am glad.”

“Gods,” Gretchen whispered quietly, and reached in between the branches of the apple tree. “Gods, here I go.”

She brought out the fruit, her hand wrapped tightly around it. Without a moment’s hesitation, allowing herself no time for any thoughts, much less second thoughts, she clenched her eyes tightly shut and brought the fruit to her mouth, taking the largest, noisiest bite she could. She tasted the sweet, tangy flavor on her tongue, she felt it crunching between her teeth. The juices dribbled down her chin, and she felt nothing. For a moment, she didn’t know if she had been wrong or not.

But then the demon began to laugh, and she knew. Because it kept laughing–laughing long, low, and hard. “You’ve just damned yourself, slut,” it said between laughs, its voice deeper and considerably less mellow than it had been. “You’ve just damned your soul to Hell.”

Which was just what she had expected. She had been right all along. “But–I–I don’t understand–” Gretchen stammered. “I–What are trying to pull, demon?”

“You’ve damned yourself beyond redemption, whore,” the snake continued, still chortling merrily. “You’ve given in to temptation. The temptation of a Hellspawn. The Gods won’t touch you after a thing like that. You’ve consorted with one of Satan’s servants, you’ve taken the road of evil by your own free will. You’ve forsaken the Gods, and they will forsake you.”

“I–you mean, I am damned?” Gretchen asked, chin beginning to tremble. “You mean, I am lost beyond all hope of salvation?”

“That’s just what I mean, slut. You were hard–but I broke you. You gave in. And damned yourself to the third level of Hell.”

“Well, thank you, demon,” Gretchen said, taking another bite of the fruit, suddenly grinning at the demon as the juices ran down her chin. “That’s all I really wanted to know.”

The demon stopped laughing almost immediately. “You dare mock me, whore?” it demanded, after a pause. “You dare mock a servant of Satan when you yourself have been damned to Hell?”

“Jeeze,” Gretchen said through a mouthful of fruitstuff, still smiling. “I don’t believe this. You sure are one cocky son of a bitch, aren’t you? You really thought I’d fall for all that junk? Gods, what a dope.” She took another bite. “Did you really think I was that stupid?”

“You ate the fruit, woman,” the demon insisted. “You can claim what you want. But you’re still damned.”

“Read me, demon. You say your empathetic, so read me. I didn’t eat your cursed fruit.”

“You–you deceived me?” it asked almost unbelievingly, studying her, its red eyes wide and glowing. “You deceived me?”

“See for yourself, serpent,” Gretchen replied, throwing down what was left of the dark, cinnamon-colored sweetfruit she held in her hand down in front of the demon. “I’m not entirely brain-dead, you know.”

“I–but you couldn’t’ve–”

“I could’ve,” Gretchen said, smile widening. “I did. I am a ‘witch’, after all. You shouldn’t’ve looked away when you pulled your fake exit. I know parlor tricks, serpent. I palmed a sweetfruit. I never even touched your damned apple.”

“You didn’t,” it said, its red eyes wide and unbelieving. “And I didn’t even check.”

“Of course you didn’t. You got cocky. Through the entire thing, you got cocky. That snake hug was pointlessly risky–for your story, it was. But you got cocky and did it anyway. You lied several times that I managed to catch you at, and that was sloppy, and at best your explanations were half-baked. They sounded real nice, but they just didn’t wash. But you were cocky–you thought you had me under your thumb. Gods, you’re entire ruse was ludicrous. Using something as familiar, and with as many negative connotations, as the forbidden fruit of Paradise–that was so stupid. But you got cocky, and did it anyway.”

Gretchen raised her hands, and began working on another hex. One she had never done before, though she knew how. One meant especially for demons.

She she shook her head ruefully. “The simple idea that it could possibly solve all my problems–that was stupid, too. Knowledge of good, and how to be good and how to do right, is something you work for, something you strive for. It’s something you learn. Not something you eat. The Scriptures say it a thousand times–and it’s something I’ve found out through experience. There’s no easy road. Yet that was what you were offering me–and you’re a demon. Tell me, Hellspawn, would you trust an offer like that?”

“Of course not, woman, but I’m not a greedy, foolish mortal.”

“Neither am I. I knew you were up to something. With the way I was feeling when I went to cliffs this morning–I was too prime a target for just the sort of argument you used on me, demon, and I knew it. I’ve been wondering about the state of my soul for a long, long time–and then, just when I’m feeling about as low as I ever do, a demon comes up and tells me he can fix it all. No sane mortal would trust that. Besides, I’ve spent all my life trying to prove that I’m not a witch, Hellspawn–would I forsake all that on nothing more than the word of a demon? You’ve studied up on my life, that’s obvious–in fact, you made it too obvious; you knew too much about my life, making allusions to things I wasn’t even thinking of–but you did study up on it, so you should know. I haven’t got a lot of friends, and maybe I’m not sure of my own goodness–but you should’ve realized I would not forfeit what friends I have, and what goodness I have achieved, for a Hellspawn with a lot of fancy rhetoric.”

“Beaten,” the serpent whispered slowly, eyes wide and fiery. “Beaten by a mortal.”

“On all counts,” Gretchen said, nodding, as she picked another sweetfruit off of the tree and took a bite. “Don’t even bother to think I didn’t know how you framed me, demon. I knew I’d be damned if I gave into your temptation–I’m not a fool. But you’re a good talker, and you set me up. You painted a cute enough picture–if I didn’t accept your help, then it would’ve been because I was prejudiced by your demonic origins. Then I would’ve been a hypocrite, condemning you for little more reason than others have condemned me. Damned by my own experience. Because I suspected you–as others, with less reason, have suspected me–of evil. But I didn’t really know. It would’ve been very narrow of me to condemn you on nothing but suspicions, and that scores points for Satan–by the way, always warning my not to say His name was cute, but it didn’t wash either. Anyhow, I knew if I refused to accept your help because you were a demon, I’d be damned. But to accept your help, I would have had to have eaten the apple, and given in to temptation. Damned again. But now you’ve admitted your intentions, and now I know.”

“Defeated,” the snake murmured, now lying flat on ground. “Defeated by a puny human.”

Gretchen smiled, chewing her sweetfruit, and nodded. “That’s right,” she agreed, flicking her fingers and watching the fresh hex design finish assembling in the air. “You got beaten. Because you were stupid–but then, evil usually is. Goodbye, demon. Don’t bother me again.” The hex completed itself–the hex of abolishment, to send the demon straight back to Hell. And it did. The demon disappeared in an explosion of fiery black and red smoke, the scent of sulfur suddenly assaulting her nose, and the serpent was gone. She should’ve used the hex much earlier, she knew. Perhaps as soon as she had found out she was dealing with a demon, and realized that hex of abolishment would work on it. But she had been hesitant–because she had, against her better judgment, extended it some trust. And she supposed that, even though the demon had betrayed what little trust she had given it, she would do it all over again, if necessary. Because maybe, she thought, everybody at least deserved a chance. Even demons.

If only everybody believed that, she thought, picking another sweetfruit and starting on her way back towards Thorn, whistling tunelessly. Perhaps her goodness was still in question, and perhaps how she had handled her run-in with the demon had not been the best way possible–she wasn’t very sure she had done much there to prove her own goodness to herself. But, either way, she felt a little better. Because she had just beaten a demon, and in a way that was a lot like beating the Devil Himself. So maybe she wasn’t all goodness and purity–she had never really thought that she was. But she hadn’t given in to evil–she had been set up, either way she went, to do just that, but she still hadn’t given into it. So maybe she wasn’t pure goodness–but she still had hope. And, for the moment, that was enough.

Cautiously, eating up her sweetfruit and taking big bites, Gretchen made her way back to Thorn.


Crying Angel

January 7, 2009

hammarby_angel_statue

Bobby Forrestor stood in the frozen air, his breath cold, white steam. He was standing there, a few feet from his truck, back arched slightly, his head tilted-up and cocked to the side, like he was trying to smell something. He had been standing like that, just sniffing the air or whatever it was he was doing, for almost fifteen minutes now. There was no question anymore, Joel thought. Bobby was getting weird.

“Mmmmmmh,” he hummed, a long, low, pained sound–even the littlest things about him were now seeming very weird to Joel. For the first time in what seemed way too long to Joel, Bobby changed positions, letting his body relax a little as he shook a cigarette out of its pack. “It’s coming,” he said suddenly, his voice dreamy and far away, the way it had been all night. “I feel it.”

Joel sucked at a bottle of Southern Comfort he had lifted from his dad’s liquor cabinet that afternoon. He hated the stuff but enough of it got him drunk and that was what was important. Joel shook his head at the bottle, rubbing his forehead. He was sweating. It was twenty degrees outside now, and getting colder–but he was sweating. I’m getting sick, he thought. I’m gonna die. And Bobby’s getting weird.

“Bobby,” Joel said after the silence had grown too long to stand much longer. His voice sounded cracked and strained in the cold, so he started over again, trying to make his voice a little more steady. “Bobby,” he said. “I’ve had enough of this shit. Come on.”

“Hmmm?” Bobby hummed back at him–he had done that almost every time Joel had asked him something during the past two hours, and it was driving Joel nuts. Bobby never hummed when anybody asked him anything. “What the fuck you want?” That was Bobby. “You fucking talking to me?” That was Bobby, that was the way he talked to everybody, even his mom. “Hmmm?” Yhat wasn’t Bobby. That weird, dreamy voice wasn’t Bobby. Sitting out in the freezing cold for two hours for no goddamned reason wasn’t Bobby, either. It was just bullshit, and Joel was getting sick of it.

“We’ve been here two fucking hours,” Joel said. “That’s enough. Let’s get out of here.”

“No,” Bobby said, leaning back against the side of his pick-up. He pulled an old, stainless steel cigarette lighter out of his front pocket, flipping it open. “Not yet. I haven’t seen her move.”

“And you’re not gonna,” Joel said. His tone was a lot sharper than he meant it to be, but he couldn’t help it–he was getting pissed. “It’s a fucking piece of rock. Rock don’t move. It just sits there–like that goddamned piece of rock has been sittin’ there for the last two hours and will keep sitting no matter how long we look at it. Come on, man. I’m freezing my ass off. Let’s rock ‘n’ roll.”

“She cries,” Bobby said, looking seriously up at Joel. He was lighting his cigarette. “I’ve heard her.”

Joel put the bottle of Southern Comfort to his lips and took a few swallows, wiping his forehead with his hand. He didn’t know what to say. Bobby was getting weird. Deeply weird.

“She’ll move,” he said, drawing deeply on his cigarette. “For us–for me, she’ll move. You understand?”

Joel drank some more. “Let’s just go, okay?”

Bobby didn’t answer that time. Joel thought he could see everything he said going in one ear and right out the other–nothing was hitting home with Bobby now. Not the cold, not how much time they had wasted and were still wasting, not how late they had been up, not how stupid–and how weird–what Bobby was doing was in the first place–none of it was getting through. He just turned away, looking back to the angel.

“Come on, man,” Joel persisted. Lack of sleep, too much alcohol, and having wasted the best part of the weekend sitting and staring at a fucking statue–it was all really pissing him off. “Grave yards weird me out, man. I mean, it’s fun if you want to come, get drunk, spray paint some shit, lift a headstone or two, maybe bust up some junk–but sitting for two hours looking at some stupid decoration is fucking ridiculous–”

“Shut up,” Bobby said. “You don’t understand. I didn’t think you would.”

“Shit,” Joel said. “I’ll tell you what I understand. I understand that we’re in a fucking graveyard at two in the morning when we could’ve been out–out doing something. I understand that if one of our friendly state troopers happens by and sees us with a fucking truck in the middle of a private cemetery we’re gonna be spendin’ the rest of the weekend looking at the world from behind bars–”

“Joel,” Bobby said.

“–and I understand that you’re being fucking weird. A cemetery, man? Staring at a statue? What the hell’s wrong with you, man?”

“She cries,” Bobby said.

“Uh huh,” Joel said, gulping down the rest of his Southern Comfort and then climbing out of the truck bed. “Watch your fucking angel. I’m going home and getting some sleep.” Joel turned around, starting for the gate.

“Joel,” Bobby said.

“What?” Joel asked back, heading away.

“She’s moving,” he said.

“Goddammit,” Joel swore, stopping and turning around with a jerk. “Goddammit, Bobby, it’s a fucking statue!” He heard a quiver in his voice that he didn’t like–it was almost a squeak. He had been drinking too much. “Statues don’t move! I don’t know where in hell you’re getting this shit–”

“From her,” he said, looking up at the angel. “I told you.”

“Yeah,” he said, blinking back. “Shit. Statue. Piece of rock.”

“She’s crying,” Bobby said, no longer smoking his cigarette, just squeezing it between his fingers and letting it smolder away. “She always cries. She’s so sad.”

Joel continued standing where he was, almost swaying on his feet, a sudden feeling of nausea wrapping itself around his stomach and squeezing tight. He had sucked down that Southern Comfort too fast and had started moving too much too soon–he was getting sick. “Bobby,” he said. “Come on. I’m getting sick. I’m really getting sick now. And it’s so fucking cold. Let’s go. You’ve watched your goddamned statue long enough.”

“No,” Bobby said. He stabbed out his cigarette against the heel of his boot. “It’s not time.”

“Time?” Joel asked. “Shit. You want me to puke all over your fucking angel? Time? It’s past fucking time. Let’s go. I’m getting sick, man. I’ve got to get home–”

Joel was shaking his head, looking down for a moment, as if studying his boots. “She’s sad,” he said. “She’s so sad.”

“And I’m sick!” Joel began to advance on the truck, suddenly screaming that fact with a drunken, nausea-born righteousness. “I’m sick! I’m sick! I need to fucking puke! I’ve spent the whole goddamned night sitting in the back of your stupid fucking truck looking at a piece of rock for some goddamned brain game and then you start weirding out on me like some fucking psycho out of some cheap-ass movie–”

“She moved,” Joel said. “For me.” He shook his head. “I can’t leave now.”

Joel involuntarily let his gaze move to the statue and then immediately pulled it back. Rock was rock, and rock didn’t move. But Bobby did, and Joel wasn’t so sure now that Bobby wasn’t getting dangerous. “Shit,” he said, shambling forward. “What do I keep telling you? Man, this is so much fucking–”

“You don’t understand,” Joel started saying again. What was this bullshit? “You don’t understand.” What was that? What had happened to “Fuck off, dickless”? Where was “I don’t have to listen to this fucking shit, man”? What the hell was going on?

“Man,” Joel started, still ambling clumsily back towards the truck. “Would you fucking listen to yourself, man? Would you listen to what you’re saying? Do you have any idea how weird you’re being–” Joel tripped over his shoelaces, thudding hard against the packed earth. “Ow, shit,” Joel said from the ground. “I’m sick, man. My stomach’s broken. Let’s get out.”

“Not yet,” Bobby repeated. He made no move to help Joel. It seemed to Joel that Bobby hadn’t even noticed that he had fallen. “It’s not time,” he said. “But soon. But soon.”

“Aw, shit, man,” Joel said, but he couldn’t make himself say anymore. The vacuum in his gut suddenly got too strong. The burgeoning nausea returned with a vengeance, and Joel seriously thought he was about to puke all over himself. Shit, he thought. Puking up Southern Comfort in a fucking graveyard, when there’s all those cute blondes down at Ed’s Bar. He sighed, just barely, his gut aching emptily with the effort. Life’s so much fucking bullshit.

2017204934_ab4c36a7e1

“She hurts,” Bobby said after a while. “She hurts so bad. That’s why she cries. Because she hurts.”

Joel felt hard, cold ground against his back, and wondered if he was going to pass out. “Enough,” he said, but it was a whisper, and he knew Bobby hadn’t heard. Just lately, Bobby didn’t seem to be hearing even when he screamed.

“She’s so alone,” Bobby went on, apparently oblivious to the fact that Joel was lying on the ground and freezing his ass off. “She’s so, so alone. And it’s funny, because there are so many people around her. Everywhere you look, there are people. Mostly old people–but there are younger people here, too. Even babies. But still, she’s so lonely. Even with so many people all around her, she’s lonely. You know why she’s lonely, Joel, even with all these people? It’s because they’re dead. All the people are dead.” Bobby sighed, and it sounded crazy–a stage sigh, over-done, dramatic. “And so she’s lonely,” he continued solemnly after a moment. “She hurts. She cries. She’s so sad.”

“Enough,” Joel repeated, and this time it was louder. He pulled himself up. He didn’t feel any pain. He felt cold, though–he was freezing and sweat was dripping down his forehead. “Enough,” he said again, louder still. The air was coming back, and the vacuum in his gut started filling up with rage. He was really, really pissed. “I’m sick of this bullshit,” he said, and then he was standing. “I’m sick of all this.” He felt nausea tickling the back of his throat. “I’m just sick, period.”

“Joel–”

“I’m sick, I’m tired, I’m drunk, I’m freezing, and I’m really, really pissed,” Joel paused a second, looking seriously at Bobby. “We’re leaving, Bobby. Right now.”

“It’s not time.”

“‘It’s not time, it’s not time,'” Joel mimicked. “‘You don’t understand.'” He was at the truck now, holding onto the side for support. “Fuck you, man. Fuck you and your fucking ‘It’s not time, I don’t fucking understand,’ man–I’m sick of it.” He moved over to the rear of the truck, walking up to Bobby. “Keys, man,” he said, holding out his hand. “Now.”

“It’s not time,” Bobby started again. “Soon–very soon–but not–”

“Give me the fucking keys!” Joel shouted, grabbing Bobby by the collar of his jacket and swinging him against the truck. The move was clumsy and weak, but had its effect all the same. Bobby was paying attention to him now–a lot more than he had any other time over the past few hours. “I’ve explained about rocks and why they don’t move,” Joel said. He was breathing fast now and he could feel the oxygen hitting his brain. It felt good. “Now let me tell you something else–if you don’t get your fucking act together real quick and give me the goddamned keys I’m gonna break your fucking skull.”

“Joel–”

“Give me the goddamned keys!”

“Joel,” Bobby repeated forcefully, suddenly slapping Joel hard across the face with the backside of his hand. “We can’t go. It’s not time–”

Joel shook his head, feeling the sting on his cheek even through the veil of numbness the Southern Comfort had bought him. “You hit me,” Joel said, staring wide-eyed at Bobby. “You hit me.”

“It’s for your own good,” Bobby said slowly. Like a patient parent, carefully correcting an errant child. “You don’t understand–”

“You hit me,” Joel repeated, and swung his elbow up into Bobby’s face. He heard the sound it made, like a two-by-four splitting in half. The sleeve of his coat came back red. “Shit. You think I’m joking?” he asked, and then did it again, harder. “Think I’m kidding with you? I’m fucking sick of this, man.” He looked at Bobby’s suddenly scarlet-smeared face. His nose was already swelling with an ugly, discolored bruise and blood spilled down across his lips. But there was no look of pain on his face, no expression of shock. His eyes were as hard and bright as ever–clear and cold and calm, like his voice when he spoke.

“That wasn’t necessary,” Bobby said. “That really wasn’t. I’m just trying to–show you something. That’s all I’m trying to do. To help.”

Joel hefted his elbow back up into Bobby’s face again. The blow was hard and fast, and Joel had to wince–he felt it that time. But Bobby didn’t do anything–he just stood there, his back against the truck, staring at Joel. “Come on, man,” Joel said, looking back into his friend’s bloody face. “Come on–you started this. You started all of this. If you wanna have it out, then let’s have it out–if you don’t, then just give me the goddamned keys.”

Joel drew back his elbow again, more as a threat than anything else–the idea that he might actually be doing Bobby some serious–maybe permanent–damage was beginning to slowly work it’s way through the anger and the alcohol. There was a whole lot of blood now, and Bobby didn’t look so hot. Still, his voice carried over to Joel, lucid and dreamy in the darkness of the graveyard. “There’s nothing to be so upset about,” Bobby said through a mouthful of blood. It dribbled down his chin. “It’ll be okay. It’s almost time.”

“Just give me the keys,” Joel ordered again. He jammed his hand down into Bobby’s jacket pocket, and came out with an empty matchbook, some quarters, and a three-pack of generic condoms. He threw it all on the ground. “Keys,” he repeated.

“She’s moving,” Bobby said, and smiled. “I told you.”

“It’s a fucking piece of rock,” Joel said, shoving his hand down into the other jacket pocket. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes, some gum, and a broken pencil, all of which he immediately tossed aside. He looked seriously into Bobby’s face. “Keys,” he said again. “Or I’m gonna walk over there and turn your fucking angel into gravel.”

“You can’t,” Bobby said, still smiling his bloody smile. “It’s time. It’s now.”

“Shit,” Joel said, his anger suddenly peaking again. He grabbed Bobby’s head and slammed it down against the side of the truck, watching as his body went limp, sliding down the rest of the way, his face leaving a bloody smear down the side of the truck. Joel bent over him, and started going through his pants pockets. A comb–that stupid butterfly knife he had always been cutting his thumb on–some loose change and spent disposable lighter–Joel had a lot of stuff on him, but there were no keys.

“Shit,” Joel said, his gaze briefly, involuntarily, raising up to the statue. It was still as it had been for the last two-and-a-half hours. The way it would always be. Still. It was just a piece of rock, and no matter how weird Bobby wanted to get, he wasn’t going to change that. It was what it was, and that was all. Joel went through Bobby’s pockets two more times before it occurred to him to look in the truck’s ignition.

The keys were there.

Joel shoveled Bobby roughly into the back of the truck. He was feeling sore and cold and nauseous and didn’t want to worry about it–Bobby could ride in the back. He wouldn’t mind the cold.

The truck took some coaxing, but it started, crankily coming to life. Joel looked back briefly to where Bobby lay, still unconscious, and then threw the truck into reverse. He groped aimlessly beside the steering column for a moment until he found the headlights, and then turned them on. The gray marble of the angel and the ornate pedestal she was perched on suddenly turned white in the light of the truck’s highbeams. And the angel looked up.

Joel felt something cold thud in the pit of his stomach–something cold and terrible. He shook his head, looking away and then back, his mouth suddenly going dry.

The angel was holding her arm across her eyes, shielding them from the light. Joel shook his head again, blinking. The nausea was coming up again, so powerfully that he could smell it, that he could feel it filling up his nose and tickling the back of his mouth. He blinked, shaking his head, as the angel lowered her arm, looking at him. He could see the icy tears sliding down her hard, white cheeks, her sad, pupiless eyes leaking frozen drops. Her wings stretched, extending to their full span, as her arms reached out to him.

“Shit,” Joel said, slamming his foot down on the accelerator. The truck shot backwards, knocking over two headstones and sideswiping the gate. “Shit,” he repeated as he pulled out with the gas-pedal down to the floor. “No fucking way am I going nuts over a fucking piece of rock. No fucking way.”

Not even thinking about looking back, Joel turned, put the truck in forward, and pulled out onto the highway, leaving the angel alone and crying.

angel_statue


Mud

January 7, 2009

tire-swing
It was a summer like the summer before: hot and long. Benjamin Jennet sat on the front porch with a slowly sweating bottle of Coke in one hand, a cigarette burning and forgotten in the other. Cripple lay at the foot of Benjamin’s chair, his wet, red tongue lolling in and out of his mouth as he panted futilely against the summer heat. Every three or four minutes, Cripple’s tail would weakly thump a few times against the old wood of the porch, and he would lift his head and look anxiously to Ben, as if somehow petting or perhaps even food might shortly be in the future. And then, when neither made itself apparent, Cripple would settle down for a few minutes more.

It was a ritual Mud knew by heart, and it didn’t hold his interest. There was very little else for Mud to do, though, but watch them, or the birds. In the thick heat of a mid-summer Saturday afternoon, movement wasn’t wise, and he did little of it. And even if movement had been possible, Mud knew there was no where he could go, and nothing he could do. There never really had been, not that he remembered. So, mostly, he just watched. But not the lame dog or its master. No, he watched the other one. He watched Lila.

Across from the house, about thirty yards out, stood an old shade tree, a towering, ancient thing that was slowly dying from nothing but age. The worn rubber tire and the rope that suspended it from one of the thick lower branches were both now more than a decade old, but bad rot had yet to settle into either of them, and they held. It was this tire that Lila occupied now, legs slipped through the center, thin white hands holding tightly to the rope as she rocked herself slowly in the shade. She hummed to herself as she rocked, a soft, eerie melody that made Mud feel sleepy, and she glanced at him, occasionally, with a small, knowing smile on her face—or perhaps just in her eyes. Long black hair hanging down her back, soft white skin cool and blue in the shade of the old tree, thin hands clutching at the old rope as she hummed her soft, sleepy tune—it made Mud want to get up, to go over, to touch her. To take her. To make her his.

But Mud couldn’t do that. Mud couldn’t leave the pit.

◊◊◊

It was evening, and Benjamin Jennet sat out on his porch; Cripple was asleep and snoring by his chair. Lila sat on the steps, her white terrycloth dress gathered up around her knees. She was playing jacks. She was too old to be playing jacks, as she was too old to be swinging from trees in tires—she was well into her sixteenth year, Mud knew, and that was too old for jacks.

How he knew that, he couldn’t say. Mud knew a great deal about a great many things, but they were just facts, pieces of knowledge without history or context—trees without roots. He knew, but he didn’t know how he knew—and he was never very sure what the things he knew meant. But he knew Lila was too old to be playing jacks. Still, the fact that she was, and the way the warm evening winds moved her hair and rustled her white summer dress, the movement of arm and torso, of head and neck, as she grabbed up another jack and threw down the ball again, fascinated Mud in a way he couldn’t explain. She sang to herself as she played. Mud strained, but he could not hear the words.

The sun rose, and then evening came again. Mud saw Benjamin with his clipped, white beard, his white summer shirt and pants, his fat evening cigar jutting from his mouth at an angle as he drew forth and let loose great billows of smoke, colored orange by the burning ember at the cigar’s tip. His Coke exchanged for brandy, he smoked and he drank as he watched the sunset and kept an eye out for the occasional visitor or salesman, or simple passerby. No one came this evening. It was rare that anyone came. Still, Benjamin sat and watched. But he never looked at Mud—he never even looked in Mud’s direction. Something had gone wrong in Benjamin Jennet’s mind, and Mud knew he was the one who had done it to him. But what precisely he had done, or how he had done it, he could not say. Trees without roots.

◊◊◊

It was Monday, and the sun was high. The old truck was gone from the gravel drive—Benjamin had gone to the city. Lila was inside the house, playing the old piano. The instrument wasn’t very good in the first place and was out of tune besides, but Lila had a gift for it, a gift that even Mud could sense. She played it with a grace and softness that made the sour chords and off-notes of the piano eerie and strangely haunting. He couldn’t see her, but he could hear the music, and he could imagine her thin, white fingers caressing the keys. Though Mud had, in fact, never actually seen a piano, he could imagine it, and the thought, and the sounds he heard, filled him with a burning sense of desire, and futility. To Mud, they were twins—desire and futility. There was never one without the other.

Mud wanted her to play something for him.

◊◊◊

It was evening and Benjamin was back. Mud didn’t sleep, but sometimes time went by very fast. Sometimes he would just sit and think and not know what he was thinking, and the hours, sometimes days—and, on occasion, even weeks—would disappear within a blink of an eye. Mud didn’t mind so much. He had plenty of time. He had nothing but time. Mud watched as the old truck moved haltingly past the gate and down the gravel drive. One headlight was out—had been for over five years—and the remaining one burned yellow in the night. The house was dark and Lila sat out on the porch with a lantern, humming to herself as she hugged her knees against the slight chill creeping into the evening air.

“Hello, Pa,” she said as Benjamin climbed up the steps and kissed his daughter. “How was sellin’?”

“All right,” Benjamin replied. “We’re gonna make it through the month.” He wiped his brow with a shirt sleeve. “Get me my cigarettes and brandy for me, will you? That’s a sweet thing.”

“Yes, Pa,” Lila said, and stood to go into the house.

“And my evening cigar. I think I might smoke it a little later.”

“Yes, Pa,” Lila said again, and she turned easily on her heel, and disappeared through the dark doorway.

Mud lay back in the pit, thinking about Lila’s hands tight around the neck of Benjamin’s bottle of brandy. He thought about her pouring a glass for him. He thought about kissing her, the brandy lingering on her breath, the taste clinging to her lips.

He thought of her humming, of her playing the piano.

◊◊◊

lila


“Hello there, Mudboy.”

It was noon. He looked up at Lila as she leaned against the fence post. The angle of her hips as she settled her weight on one foot, the thin white ankles beneath the flutter of white cotton, the strands of glossy black that stretched themselves across her face in the hot summer wind—Mud looked at her, and she smiled, almost sadly, her thin lips dark and wonderful. Her narrow chin, high cheekbones—the soft shadow at the hollow of her neck. Mud felt the burning, the futility. The twins, again.

“Do you come to court me, Mudboy?”

Mud felt a response was appropriate, so he tried to nod. He had never done so before—and, in fact, had never really seen it done. Still, he knew what it meant and tried to do it. But all he did was slosh around a little. At night, articulation was difficult—in the noon day sun, impossible. The mud became too hot, and it made him tired.

“Do you bring me flowers? Do you bring me candy? What do you bring me?”

Mud just watched her, not even making the attempt at a reply. What could he bring her? Why did she ask him the things that she did? He knew many things, but these—these things he did not know.

“Mudboy,” she said, and shook her head sadly. “Mudboy, didn’t you bring me anything at all? Don’t you know the first thing about courting a girl proper? Haven’t you ever been in love?”

Mud just looked at Lila silently, because Mud did not know. The question was not a new one, but the answer still wouldn’t come. Mud did not know if he had ever been in love. Mud didn’t even know what love was—or what, at any rate, it was supposed to be. In fact, the only thing Mud knew of love was the one thing Lila had taught him: that it was made from flowers and candy.

“A bouquet of roses—fifty red roses, smelling like a rich woman’s soap, and with all the thorns cut off—that’s what a boy gives a girl when he loves her.”

Mud tried to nod again, for as many times as she had told him this, he knew it must be true—but again, he just mainly sloshed around. His part in these conversations was never very large, and, on Lila’s part, the content was usually the same. But he followed the conversation with the same rapt attention that he always did. Her voice was soft and hypnotic, and the words always seemed so perfect. And she knew so much, so much that Mud did not. And her—the curve of her back as she leaned against the fence post, the way her body changed when she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. How far away was she? She was close enough that he could smell her. She smelled like sweat and dirt and cheap perfume. Mud knew the smell and knew what all these things were, but again there was no context. They were trees without roots, and Mud simply knew that he liked her smell. Did she smell like roses?

Mud wondered.

“He sends her flowers every day—if he loves her. Flowers and notes and cards, and sometimes money even. If he truly loves her, he does. And big boxes of chocolates—all sorts of chocolates, chocolates from Paris and New York and maybe even Denmark. I’ve heard they make wonderfully big boxes of chocolate in Denmark.”

Mud stared quietly at Lila as she leaned across the fence. He had never heard of Denmark.

“Heart-shaped boxes of chocolates—chocolates with brandy in them, and fancy liquors—from Europe and Denmark. And sometimes they share chocolates. She takes one, and holds it in her mouth, and then he takes a bite from it, and their lips meet. And then they kiss. They kiss for a wonderfully long time—one of those kisses that is so long you start hearing music somewhere. You really do. And he whispers in her ear—whispers things that don’t sound right any way but whispered. And then, that way, they sound beautiful. And then they make love—make love in a bed of rose petals.” She looked down seriously at Mud. “A bed of rose petals, Mudboy, every one smelling like a rich woman’s perfumed bath.”

Mud sloshed.

◊◊◊

It was evening, and Cripple was making a crooked run across the yard, his old, lopsided body making a pitiful attempt at chasing a bird. Benjamin Jennet surveyed his world, looking in every direction but the one where Mud lay. Cripple made an unbalanced leap at a fat sparrow and landed off to the side, on his face. He immediately got up again and loped merrily about the lawn in crooked circles, searching for more birds. Lila was back inside, fixing her father’s brandy and getting his cigarettes and evening cigar. Mud was moving, just a little. In the night, it was cooler, and he could always move a little more.

A little more. But it was never enough.

It was coming up on midnight, and Mud could hear the soft breathing coming from Lila’s room. Benjamin had long since retired and the moon was high. Her room was dark and the night was still, and Mud could hear her begin humming softly to herself with the creaking springs of her bed. It was at these times, more than at any other, that Mud wanted to go to her. To climb out of the pit, and go to her, to touch her—to satisfy some strange and inexorable need, though if the need was hers or his, he wasn’t sure. But he couldn’t go to her. Even if he had had the strength to climb out of his pit, he’d dry, he’d crack, he’d fall apart—he could barely last five minutes before he crumbled in the dust that he had come from.

Mud could never leave the pit.

◊◊◊

“Cakes and candies and pies,” Lila was telling him. “Dinner with wine and candles. I’d be in a beautiful black dress with sequins and a string of real pearls around my neck, and diamonds. Three diamond rings—one gold, one silver, and one circled with emeralds. Emeralds are such beautiful stones, don’t you think?”

It was a little after ten in the morning, and Mud had no answers. He didn’t know what emeralds were.

“Dinner with wine and candles,” she said dreamily, twisting around and stretching, hands clasped and held out to the sky, and Mud felt something ache inside. “Filet mignon and a man with a violin beside the table, playing his music slow and soft. Baked potatoes with sour cream and butter, a diamond choker around my neck. And that night, alone on the porch, we could share chocolates. Wouldn’t that be beautiful?”

Mud stared intently at Lila. Her skin—the soft sheen of sweat that glistened across her collar bone, the soft lilt of her voice that seemed to make her dreams into songs. She brushed long black hair out of her eyes, and smiled at him.

“Do you want to court me, Mudboy? Will you be my lover?”

◊◊◊

tire-swing-2

It was evening. Lila swung from the tire she was much too old for, humming to herself a soft, sleepy tune she would sometimes play on the old piano. Benjamin Jennet patted Cripple on the head and sucked on a Coke—it was late for a Coke, but Benjamin had been late getting back from town. Mud watched Lila swing, and wondered again what it would be like to be touched by her thin hands. He wondered, too, what it would be like to swing from that tire, what it might be like to play jacks. He wondered what it would be like to pet Cripple, or to drink a Coke, or to smoke a cigar, or to play the piano. He knew many things, somehow. But there were, he knew, many more things—too many things—he knew not at all.

The taste of chocolates. He wondered about this too.

◊◊◊

It was morning—early. Lila was showering in the stall behind the house. Benjamin Jennet walked his fields as Cripple hobbled along behind him. For a moment, at the top of the stall, Mud saw Lila’s glistening hands raise into the air and then lower again. He wondered, as he often had, how it would be to bathe, or to walk along the fields as Benjamin Jennet now did—but mostly, he wondered of Lila. Where could he get her roses and chocolates? How could he get them to her? Why did he want to so badly?

Questions, but no answers—feelings, but no reasons. Trees without roots. And there was nothing Mud could do. About anything.

That was, until it started to rain.

◊◊◊

Things changed with the rain. The summer rains were sparse, but they came, and they were sometimes heavy ones. But not like this. They had never been like this, not that Mud remembered. For a week it rained, drizzling at the very least and often coming down like a waterfall from the sky. The ground softened and soon was little more than a sponge filled to overflowing. Lila never came to talk with him. The sky had become so constant that Mud no longer had a way to tell when the gaps came, and so he had no way to judge time—but he knew it had been a long time since she had come out, and he missed her. He could never hear her over the rain—not her, not the piano, not anything. And though he often saw Benjamin Jennet and his lame dog out on the porch, Lila no longer accompanied them.

Ben smoked his cigar again, drank his brandy, and disappeared back into the house, leaving Cripple outside to whine at the door. Twice Mud caught a glimpse of Lila—but just a glimpse, and then she was gone again. He thought of her telling him about roses and rainy nights. About wind and candlelight and secret words said to the sound of summer rain.

And with these thoughts, Mud came upon the most important thought of all—he could move.

The ground was soaked, the air was soaked, and rain kept coming down. The sun was hidden and the world was wet. The pit had suddenly expanded its dimensions. The rain had turned Benjamin Jennet’s land into something wet and soft and muddy, and the downpour wasn’t stopping. It didn’t look like it was ever going to stop. It was a world made for Mud.

He could leave his pit now and not crack and not dry. He had the strength to pull himself out, and he would stay wet and moist outside his constant home. His prison. The sun was gone and everything was cool and wet, and each movement he made now seemed easy and fluid. And so Mud made the one move that made all the difference.

Mud pulled himself free of the pit.

He turned as he slid over the fence that Lila had leaned against so many times, looking to the old, white house and the dark window he knew he would go to. He looked—and then moved for it. Mud was careful as he slowly ambled towards the house. Quiet. He wasn’t sure why, but he knew that he should be. His movement became more articulate once he was free of the pit and in the rain, sloshing across the ground. The water washed the excess free, leaving his compact core moist but still very solidly together, and his movements grew more articulate still—he had a freedom of movement unlike any he could remember.

Mud could walk.

The house was barely ten feet away by the time Cripple awoke. The dog stumbled clumsily down the stairs of the porch and came at Mud doing his lopsided lope, his barking the most savage the old beast could muster. Though pathetic, he was loud, and Mud knew suddenly and intuitively—the way Mud knew almost everything—that he could not have the occupants of the house aware of his freedom. Not yet. Mud had often seen Benjamin Jennet swat the dog when he barked too loudly, and tell him to hush up. So, when the dog leapt at him—falling clumsily off to the side as he did so—Mud swatted the dog and gurgled at it.

Cripple never even yelped—there wasn’t time. In a split second, Mud had driven him three feet into the watery earth, and had left what had once been an old, lame dog looking not very much like a dog at all. Mud looked at the thing at his side—his arm, as far as he could call it that—with the closest thing to dumb amazement that he could feel. He looked at the smashed remains of Cripple driven into the ground. He had done that. He was strong. Stronger than he could have imagined. But then, moving through the air was so much easier than moving through mud—perhaps it made sense. Then again, perhaps it didn’t. How could he know?

Putting the question out of his mind, Mud went on.

Scaling the wall was easy, even in the dark and the wetness of the rain. He found her window, pushed it open, and entered the room.

She sat bolt upright in her bed as the wind pushed the window shut with a slam behind him and one muddy foot-thing landed on the hardwood floor.

“Mudboy,” she said, her voice so tight it made the word a whisper. She pulled at her covers, drawing them up around her, up to her chin. “Mudboy,” she said.

Mud gurgled, advancing a step.

“Mudboy, Mudboy,” she said, her words rushed and breathless. “You must go away. Pleaseyou must! Mudboy, why’d you leave your mud?”

Mud shrugged and gurgled, advancing another step. Her pale, frightened face shining blue in the brief, occasional strike of lightning, the shape of her shivering body beneath the covers. It was like magic.

“Mudboy, now just you go away, you hear?” she said. “This isn’t at all proper. What if my poppa were to find out? No, no—this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be at all. Mudboy, Mudboy, just go away.”

He reached forward. She was so close—he could touch her, he could actually touch her. Mud felt dizzy.

She shrieked as his hand brushed her cheek, leaving a long, muddy streak down the side of her face. “Mudboy!” she cried, thrusting herself off the bed and against the furthest wall. “Don’t you dare touch me like that again—this—it’s not supposed to be like this, it just isn’t, I know—its—”

Mud gurgled, and moved forward.

“Mudboy!” she yelled. “You’re gonna dry up! You’re doing it already!”

Mud looked down and saw it was true—already, exterior pieces were balling up and falling onto the floor, drying and crumbling.

“Mudboy, Mudboy, please, you’ve got to get out of here—never was supposed to be like this—not supposed to be anything like this—”

Mud gurgled, shrugging, and picked up the desk across from her bed with one hand. He threw it at the window, and it exploded outwards in a spray of wood and glass. Wind and rain whipped through her room immediately, as if it were naturally part of the same motion, and the fresh spray of water covered Mud. Lila moved towards the door as paper and leaves blew through the room and a thin finger of lightning lit the night, but Mud was there in a movement, blocking her.

Her white night gown had grown wet in the storm of cold rain coming through her shattered window, and it clung to her body, outlining it, defining each rise, each dip, each swell, each hollow. He dark hair was shiny and matted to her skull. He could smell her wet skin; he could hear the rapidness of her breathing. Mud reached for her again.

“No no no no no—”

He embraced her, bringing her body against him in the wetness, in the wind.

“Mudboy—no—” she whispered. “Mud—”

He felt her body against his, cold and soft in the rain, he felt his arms around her back, pulling her closer and closer—the curve of her spine, her knee touching his—her lips, he thought. Her lips. He could feel her breasts pressed against him, he could feel the rapid hammering beat of her heart in her chest, he could hear her breath and feel it against his neck—rapid and cold. And he held her tighter—her lips. He had to kiss her—to hold her tighter. The desire, that burning feeling of need, was growing. He felt it, and it drove him. His hand behind her neck, he moved her face up to his, and drew her tighter still. Lila slipped against him with a sound like a whimper, her thigh sliding along the outside of his, her belly coming up against his hip as he leaned over and kissed bloody lips.

Mud slackened his grip, and Lila, her white gown and pale skin soiled with wet earth, fell limply to the floor. A fresh stream of scarlet flowed from her mouth and pooled with the mud and water on the hardwood floor. She coughed, spitting up more, and then stilled, breath stopping, eyes glazing over.

Mud shook his head, and walked out of the room, out into the hall. He hadn’t brought chocolates.

◊◊◊

Benjamin Jennet was out on the porch.

“Damn good dog, even if he was a bit lame,” Ben was saying. “Too bad. Too damned bad.” He took a drag off a cigarette and drank some from his brandy. “Killed her, I s’pose.” He looked at Mud and nodded. “Yep. I s’pected you would.”

Mud gurgled.

“Well?” he asked. “What are you waiting for? I ain’t gonna beg. And I ain’t got nothing to tell you. About anything.” He drank the rest of his brandy in a few, hard swallows. “I don’t even know what in the Hell you are.”

Mud just looked at Ben, swaying back a little on earthen legs that again felt wooden and unfamiliar.

“Nope, nope,” Ben kept on, pouring himself another generous glass of brandy as he drew on his cigar. “You just showed up and I couldn’t get rid of you. I don’t know. I don’t know.” He put down the brandy bottle, the red-orange ember of his evening cigar reflecting from the facets on its cut crystal surface. “Maybe you were here all along.”

Mud nodded, and gurgled. The dull light from Ben’s cigar, the steady wash of rain, the sky that was a blanket of gray and the rich black soil of the earth—these things made him sleepy now, and he wasn’t at all sure what he was waiting for himself.

“Killed her, yep,” Ben went on. “Knew you would. I always knew, somehow. After you got Julie—after you got her—I knew you’d get her daughter, too. And you did it.” Ben shook his head. “You did it. Just like I knew.”

Mud nodded—the movement was again growing difficult as his thoughts blurred and his body grew cold and heavy—and turned around and headed down the steps.

“Guess I’ll be next,” Ben said. “Always knew I’d be last. But I knew my day’d come. Knew it true.”

Mud simply kept heading towards the pit. He had had enough of this. No roses, no boxes of chocolates—no rose-covered beds, no brandy, no piano—and no answers.

For some reason no longer able to do anything more than think about how much he wanted to hear Lila playing the old piano again, about how badly he wanted to hear her humming softly to herself in the night, Mud went down to wallow in the pit.

◊◊◊

ball-and-jacks