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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