I’ll be honest… I’ve never had the honor of being asked to be an “author spotlight” on a website promoting writers. So when approached, I was honored beyond words. (Not necessarily a good thing for a writer, huh?)
AUTHORS ON SHOW has just posted my bio and first chapter of Misery’s Fire on their authors page. I promised Lorraine Holloway-White, the website’s founder, that I would provide a larger sample of Misery’s Fire on my blog, should anyone be interested in reading more… So here you have it – enjoy!
“Wake up, sleepy head.” The gravelly voice, thick with an accent straight out of the Bronx, sounded much harsher in tone than the greeting warranted.
I couldn’t open my eyes. My head ached. Well, shit. My whole body hurt. I smacked my mouth open a couple of times. My tongue felt swollen and it seemed like all of the moisture had been sucked out of my head.
The bed shook as something jarred it. I opened one pasty, gritty eye, just a tiny bit. Boots. I saw a pair of scarred, black Harley Davidson boots. Whoever sat there must have kicked the foot of my bed.
“Grant! Wake up, damn it!”
I sat straight up when I realized I didn’t recognize where I was. Looking back at me with sickly yellow eyes was the greasiest, nastiest dude I’d ever seen. And he smelled of piss. At least I think it was him.
I was in some kind of cell. The walls looked like they were carved out of black rock, and the air felt thick and stifling hot. My clothes were drenched in sweat. I reeked of filth and body odor.
“Where the hell am I?”
The stranger threw his head back and bellowed a throaty laugh. “Funny you should put it that way.”
“Who are you?” I demanded.
“My name is Angelo, and I’m your new caseworker.”
“Caseworker? Am I in jail?”
“Not exactly. You don’t remember what happened last night?”
I wracked my brain, trying to make sense of this, but I was so disoriented nothing came to mind. Looking down at my hands, I noticed my blackened sleeves. Charred holes pocked my shirt. My jeans were speckled with burn marks too, and I detected the faintest scent of gasoline.
It all came rushing back. Misery’s gone. I put my head in my hands, gasping for air as the night’s details raced through my brain. A red gas can. Shouting. Windows breaking. Gunfire. A lit match. Flames engulfing me. Explosion. Blistering skin. Pain. Blackout.
Misery was my younger sister by a year. She was given her name by my delusional mother who thought it would provide her with a charmed life. My mother’s name was Joy, and aside from a very few exceptions, she lived a life full of truly miserable days. Convinced the fortunes of the world hinged on mostly luck, she believed giving my sister the name Misery insured she would live the life Mom always dreamed of for herself.
“I made it through? I’m okay?” I asked, snapping back to reality.
“You made it through something…” Angelo grinned. His dingy, gray teeth looked slightly pointed. “Let’s call it a downward spiraling vortex, shall we?”
“Where am I?”
“Dude. You’re in Hell. Welcome to our humble abode,” he cackled enthusiastically, as if this was the first time he’d delivered this joyous bit of news.
“Hell?” Oh. Oh… A glimmer of hope piqued my interest, now understanding there actually is an afterlife. “Is Misery here?” That would be the only thing I could want. The only thing I’d ever wanted since my sister’s death – to see her again.
“Naw, man. She didn’t do anything wrong. We didn’t get her down here.”
My heart sank. All that work, trying to right a terrible wrong, and I ended up dead. And to make matters worse, I’m in Hell. Suddenly the heat made sense.
I looked back at my new acquaintance. He looked like one tough sonofabitch. Ripped jeans with chains hanging from the pockets. A leather vest with nothing underneath. Studs in both ears and over his left eyebrow. Bald head, full black mustache and frown lines creasing between his eyes. He reminded me of the gang leaders I had the misfortune of hanging with in my earlier days.
“Angelo.” He leaned back in his chair, crossed his meaty arms.
“So, Angelo. You’re my caseworker?”
“Yep. You can call me your guardian angel, only in Hell.”
His wit grated on my nerves. “Oh, I get it. Angelo. Angel. Hell’s angel. That’s precious.” Yeah, he probably didn’t appreciate my sarcasm, but considering my newfound circumstances, I thought I was entitled.
Just then, a gorgeous woman walked by my cell door. I mean, this woman could have been a goddess, except for the Hell factor, of course. Long legs, stiletto heels, short red leather skirt and a matching bustier. Blonde hair flowing to her waist, a snake tattoo at the small of her exposed back.
Angelo let out a low whistle. “C’mon back here, hot stuff. I got somethin’ for ya.”
The clomp of her heels kept echoing in the stone hallway, never pausing. “In your dreams, pal.”
“Yeah,” he grunted, looking back towards me. “At least a guy can dream.”
“Who was that?”
“Angelina. Another caseworker. I’ve been trying to get me some of that for, well, a couple hundred years.”
“How long have you been here?”
My expression must have shown my shock, because he laughed at me in a wheezing, chain-smoking-old-man sort of way. “Forever. I dunno. Five hundred years, give or take. I’m one of the newbies.”
I just gawked at him, speechless.
“Son… You don’t get outta here. This is Hell. There ain’t no going back.”
This was all too much to wrap my head around. Hell? Never in a million years did I ever think there was a Heaven or Hell. Mom wasn’t exactly the religious type, so we weren’t raised going to Sunday school or doing shit like that. We were lucky if she was even sober on Sundays, to be honest.
I took a deep breath, trying to steady myself, gather my courage. The hot air filled my lungs with a burning wetness that smelled like charcoal. “So, what now?”
A long, rolling chuckle rumbled from Angelo’s belly. “Now? Now you start your therapy.”
“Therapy? For what?”
“For all the bad things you’ve done. You gotta pay, and most important, you need to suffer for your wrongs.”
I shoulda seen this coming. “And what exactly does therapy consist of?”
“Oh, a little a this, little a that.”
“That’s helpful, thanks.”
“Such lip from someone only here on his first day. You’re not scared about what’s gonna happen to you?”
I couldn’t imagine anything worse than what I’ve already been through in life. Having to steal to survive, dealing with Mom’s nasty boyfriends, gang fights… The hardest blow – losing Misery. Not getting there in time to save my sister. The agony ripped through my chest again as I thought about it, what she must have gone through, how scared she must have been. I only saw the aftermath, but it was more than I could handle.
“Scared?” I laughed. “Not really. This place can’t be worse than the hell I lived through on Earth.”
Angelo rubbed his grimy hands together. “Oh, son… This is going to be fun!” He seemed to relish the challenge.
So Hell was kind of like its own corporation, with a hierarchy of personnel, all of whom have very specific jobs. Their collective mission statement: to make all of the guests feel as tormented as possible.
I hadn’t asked Angelo how he got his job here. My guess was those who lasted the longest without cracking made the grade for a promotion.
Our first stop in my official “Welcome to Hell” tour was one of the work rooms. According to the orientation information, my days would consist of basically three activities: work, therapy and recreation. Recreation? This I couldn’t wait to see.
The work room was a dark dungeon, ironically located on the top floor of Hell. The only reason I knew it was on the top floor was because Angelo hit the 116th button on the elevator we used to get there. We stepped out into a smoldering hot room that looked as if it went on forever.
“So what now?” I asked in Angelo’s direction.
“It’s not your turn yet. Wait until the shift bell rings.”
I watched, just taking in the sights. Hundreds of people, both men and women, were peppered throughout the expansive room. Hanging from the ceiling were ropes and chains, just dangling there. Each person in the room was reaching up, pulling at a free rope, trying to disentangle it from the black lava ceiling. Every once in a while you’d see someone who managed to make some headway; the rope wouldn’t be completely free, but it would be lowered by a foot or so. When it did, a shower of asphalt, rocks and soot pelted whoever stood directly below. Once the pull loosened from its bondage, it disappeared and a new one popped up somewhere else. It was a never-ending cycle.
The bell tolled. Those who were on duty mechanically pivoted towards the door and headed to the exit. Their shoulders down, hunched over like they were broken, shattered. Single file, they walked by me, heads bowed, none of them making eye contact. Finally, one guy looked up and I caught a glimpse of his face. It was covered in sweat, mixed with a layer of black grime. He wore safety goggles, but his exposed skin was battered with bloody gashes and swollen bruises from where the rocks rained from above. None of that seemed quite as moving as the clear, tear-stained streaks trailing from his eyes down to his chest. I could tell he suffered in silent pain, both physically and emotionally. Suddenly this job didn’t seem like it was merely work. There was definitely a calculated agony built into the exercise.
“Okay, bubba. It’s your turn.” Angelo grinned in my direction. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours for you.”
“Right.” I tried to sound confident. “I’ll do my worst.”
“You do that. See you soon.” He didn’t sound convinced I’d make it through my first test, which only solidified my determination. I’d show him, I thought as I gritted my teeth.
The first rope I reached for, I figured must have been rigged. It came loose right away and sprayed me with a bucket full of debris. Anticipating the result, I bent my head down and took the brunt of it on my neck and shoulders. I could feel the biggest chunk hit the back of my head, sending shooting pain and a trickle of blood running down the middle of my back.
I straightened up. Screw it. I’m not letting anyone have the better of me, no matter what. I approached the next chain with a resolved fury. Reaching up, I gave it my best heave-ho, with as much muscle as I could muster. When it started to give way, I stepped to the side and watched the shower of grit smash down on the floor beside me. I grinned. Sonofabitch. I can win at this game… Bring on the next task.
Okay, so the work environment wasn’t ideal… It was hot, well – sweltering, if you want to be completely truthful. But with each drop of sweat that left my body, I felt a little lighter, a little more cleansed.
I watched the others in my group, trying to see if any of them figured out the timing. None of them did. They all looked like they had given up, lost their spirit.
Eventually I sidled up to a young guy, about my age. “Hey, man, wanna know the trick here?”
He looked at me like I was a pariah. “Don’t talk to me. You know we’re not supposed to talk in here.” The fear in his eyes made me back away immediately. Not because he scared me, but because I didn’t want him to have a nervous breakdown.
So I continued to work, pulling the ropes and chains, freeing as much debris from above as I could. There seemed to be no purpose in the exercise other than to torment those involved in the process. When I left, I sported the huge gash in the back of my head, and a smaller cut in my forehead – from a stray pellet that flew away from one of the hundreds of packs I pulled. All things considered, I finished in pretty good shape when Angelo picked me up at the end of my two-hour work shift. My shoulder muscles ached from the reaching and pulling, but no serious damage at least.
I’d normally consider myself lucky, but, let’s be honest… I outsmarted this one. I hoped I could keep this trend up with the rest of my “work therapy.” I was sure they’d find something else to punish me, especially if they knew I figured out the key to this one.
Angelo met me at the door, ready to take me to my next appointment. He took one look at me and frowned. I think he expected me to look a bit more defeated. So it was my extreme pleasure to greet him with a smile and a “Hiya, pal. Great to see you again. What’s next on the docket?”
His jaw muscle flexed as he clenched his teeth. He took a deep breath and shook his head to clear it. “Next you get to meet Hell’s finest shrink.” He jabbed at the elevator button, which opened moments later into a blinding chartreuse lobby area.
We walked to the receptionist window and Angelo leaned in to announce my arrival. “Grant Williams here to see Zap.”
She nodded her head and pulled out a medical-looking chart, set it on the half counter between her desk and the back offices.
I hadn’t heard my full name in years. I didn’t go by Grant in my normal life. Everyone I ran with just called me Bones. Growing up, I never got enough food in me, so always looked like a pile of bones. The nickname just stuck. I always thought it sounded tougher than Grant. The only one who could really get away with calling me Grant was Misery. Well, and Gram, when she was alive. Mom just always yelled “Boy!” when she addressed me. What a class act she turned out to be.
We stood in the waiting room. There were no chairs, no magazines to pass the time. I mean, why would they go out of their way to make anyone comfortable here? It’s funny, the things you take for granted when they’re suddenly missing. Chairs. Air conditioning. Showers.
I leaned my nose down to my shirt. Yep. I smelled totally ripe after the hot house work festivities. Angelo stepped away as if he smelled it too.
The reception door opened and a tall, thin man with round glasses stuck his pointy beak out the door. “Grant?”
I couldn’t tell from that one word where his thick dialect came from, but I guessed Russia. His stringy brown hair hung to his shoulders and his face was covered in grease and pimples, almost as if his skin was allergic to the sweltering heat.
I stepped forward, smiled my best smile, extended my hand. “Yes, sir. I’m Grant.”
“Da… I don’t shake hands. Too many germs, you see?” He looked down his long nose as he sized me up. I smiled bigger, just to throw him off balance.
A germophobe, huh? Sounds like he’s the one needing therapy. Has he seen this filthy place?
“And where did you just come from?” he asked, his “W” words using the “V” sound.
Angelo stepped forward. “He just finished his shift at The Pothole.”
“Vich explains the filth,” he grimaced, wrinkling his nose. “Vell, never mind. Come on then.” He motioned for me to follow him.
“Zap, just ring me when you’re done with him,” Angelo barked, already on his way out the door.
We stepped into his office which shocked me with deer-hunter orange walls and a zillion fluorescent bulbs. It blinded my eyes.
“Nice place you got here, Dr. Zap. You must like your colors bright.” It was more of a question than a statement, delivered with a small punch of sarcasm.
“I don’t vant my patients to be lulled into comfort vith soothing colors,” he said as he narrowed his beady eyes on me. “Angelo varned me about you. Said you vere already adjusting too vell, to be your first day ‘ere.”
“Adjusting?” I laughed. “I just got here. I’m not sure anything has sunk in enough for me to adjust to. Let’s chalk it up to shock value.”
“You seemed to get out of The Pothole quite unscathed.”
“That’s just timing. I probably shouldn’t admit that to you… Hey, how come they call it that, anyway?”
“Because, quite simply, you are making potholes in the streets above you.”
“What?” And then I realized. Top floor. Must be right under the surface. Pulling chains, loosening asphalt. “You mean… Potholes are created in Hell?”
“Vere else vould they come from?” he smiled wickedly. “You’ll find in time that quite a bit of the nasty stuff on Earth is actually created down here, passed along from our vorkers to spread evil among the living.”
“Evil? How do you figure? How are potholes spreading evil?”
“Did you ever hit one with a car?”
“And vhat happened?”
“It blew my tire and I cussed like a sailor trying to change the flat.”
“Da… Beautiful language – vhat you call – cussing. Ve love that ‘ere. Tis music to our ears.”
“Yes, I suppose. And how did you treat the tire sales man who sold you the new tire?”
Something told me he already knew. His expression showed he understood a lot more about me than I felt comfortable with. “I haggled with him over the price.”
“Haggled? That is vhat you vould call it?”
“Okay, so I pitched a fit about the money. I mean, I’d call it highway robbery! He knew he had me over the barrel. I needed the new tire.”
“So you fought.”
“Argued,” I clarified. No fists were exchanged.
“Yes, loudly,” I sighed. “I screamed. He shouted. He called his manager, who threatened to call the cops.”
“Da… More joy being spread among the living, by just a simple little pothole.”
“And now you’re saying that after my work shift… I just spent two hours, spreading – what you call it,” I mocked his accent, “joy to the rest of the vorld?”
“Da.” His pimpled face spread into a smile.
“So that’s what I’m here for now? For you to explain how I’m spreading evil?”
“No. Your time ‘ere vill be spent sorting through your life.” He turned and hit a button on the wall. An enormous flat screen television emerged from the ceiling. “Have a seat.”
“Nice TV, dude. You get NFL games?”
“Da. But I’m more of a football fan. Not your football, you Americans call it soccer,” he rolled his eyes.
“Hmpf. Not a sport,” I grumbled.
“Vhatever. You von’t be vatching any sports on this,” he smirked. “Instead we’ll vatch a little about you.”
And with a click of a button, the television came to life and the screen filled with our old apartment and Misery’s sweet face. It felt like a dagger just sliced through my heart, seeing her smile again. Tears sprang to my eyes, a reflexive emotional response, and I winced at my instant and very unexpected reaction.
Until I was six we all lived with our grandmother who was in every way to us what a mother should be. When Gram passed away we continued to live in her apartment, but since Mom’s bartending job kept her away all night and asleep all day, we were left to fend for ourselves.
As I watched, I recognized the clip he showed me from my past. It was Misery’s eighth birthday, and I tried to put together a surprise party for her. Mom was off doing who-knows-what, of course. Gram had died a few years ago, and we had no other family. So I did the best I could to decorate the bare apartment with M’s stuffed animals and any random decorations I could find. I strung the house with Christmas lights – only half of which worked, as I found out only after I put them in place.
I skipped school that day to pull it off. We rode the bus in together, so Misery didn’t suspect anything. Once she went off to her second grade classroom, I snuck out the back door and walked the mile and a half home. Along the way, I tiptoed into a grocery store and managed to smuggle a set of birthday candles into the back pocket of my worn jeans. How I got the cake out the door without anyone noticing was anyone’s best guess. I didn’t even realize until I got home it said “Happy Birthday, Tommy” on it.
I scraped the Tommy off with a butter knife and managed to write Misery in as nicely as possible – in toothpaste. It didn’t matter. We just wouldn’t eat that part of the cake. There were only two of us, so we didn’t need the whole thing anyway.
When I finished, I walked back to school, just in time for the last bell to ring. Misery came to meet me where the busses lined up. We climbed on together and rode home like any other day.
No one really paid much attention to us. We were the poor kids, the hoodlums without any parental supervision – at least I was sure that’s what the other parents told their kids. “Stay away from the Williams kids. They’re bad news. You don’t want to get messed up with them.”
It was okay though. At least we had each other.
When Misery hit the door that afternoon and saw the party waiting for her, her eyes lit up. The biggest, sweetest smile spread across her face when she turned around. I whispered “Surprise, M… Happy birthday!”
She danced around the room saying hi to all her friends as I went to get matches for the candles. She’d never had a birthday cake before, and in my opinion, that was just a crying shame. Her first real party, her first cake. No one there but she and I. And her animals, which she didn’t mind. They actually were much better company than anyone else in our life.
She made me sing happy birthday to her. I hated singing, but would do anything to make my sister happy. When I finished, she clapped loudly and blew out her candles.
“This is my favorite day ever, Grant. Thank you for my party. I love you, bubby.” And she hugged me long and hard.
That was the best damn cake. Ever.
“You loved her very much, yes?” Zap eyed me as I watched this scene unfold, my eyes stinging with tears.
“She’s my sister. Of course I loved her.”
“How MUCH did you love her?” His eyes turned sinister, and I instantly knew what he meant. It made my stomach churn, understanding the implications of his tone.
“We weren’t like that. She was my sister, you sick bastard.”
He leaned back, chuckling. He knew he got under my skin, and he loved it. “Yet you spent every minute of every day together.”
“We were all we had.”
“Do you know vhy they call me Zap?”
I hadn’t really thought about it, to be honest. “No. No one’s told me. Why?”
“Because I know vhen you lie to me. And vhen you lie to me in therapy, I zap you vith electricity.”
“That’s your therapy? Shock therapy?”
“I prefer the more barbaric term – electrocution.”
“What’s the dif? Shock therapy is for the brain, right? You die from electrocution…”
“You can’t die. You’re already dead.”
Then I understood. He could zap me with whatever torture he wanted to and never harm me enough to kill me. I was already in Hell…
“So,” he continued. “Did you ever touch her, like a lover?”
“Ah, see… I know this is the truth. I have seen your life from start to finish,” he confirmed. “Did you ever vant to touch her like that?”
I wanted to vomit at the thought. The perv disgusted me. “No.”
“Vere you ever jealous of her lovers?”
Then it hit me. The crackling vibration of hundreds of watts of electricity charging through my muscles, searing hot pain, throbbing agony. I screamed from the torture. After five seconds of excruciating torment, he let up. My body slumped onto the floor, still cramping and smoldering with the static venom. I looked up and noticed he held a remote in his hand, delivering the “therapy.”
“Care to change your answer?”
“I only ever resented one guy because I was afraid he’d hurt her. Not because I wanted her like that.”
He waggled the remote at me. “Are you certain?”
“Yes,” I said through gritted teeth. “I’m certain. The guy was bad news and I hated her being with him. I didn’t like the thought of him using her like I’d seen him use other girls. But I wasn’t jealous of him, just protective of her.”
I must have looked sufficiently damaged, because Zap put the remote down. “I think ve’ve made enough progress for today, vouldn’t you agree?”
I didn’t know how he defined progress, but I was in no place to argue with him. “Sure,” I uttered.
He punched the button on his speaker phone and announced to his receptionist: “Let Angelo know Grant is ready to be picked up.”
“Right away, sir.”
Zap then looked back at me, still crumpled on the cold tile. “Grant? Do you prefer your other name? Vhat do you say – Bones?”
I clenched my jaw, trying to figure out the right answer. “I prefer Bones, but you may call me whatever you like.”
He grinned, understanding my conflicted emotions, knowing I wanted to word my answers correctly. “I vish to call you Bones. It suits you, especially since I can hear your bones chatter vhen I hit you vith the electrocution.” His head rolled back, and although I could hear no sound, his body shook with silent laughter.
“Fine,” I muttered, and gathered myself up to limp toward the waiting room. Angelo stood there, waiting for me. One look at me and his expression lightened, clearly amused by this sudden breakthrough in my therapy, happy to finally see suffering in the depths of my gray eyes.
Between my time in the work room and the massive voltage Zap nailed me with, my body screamed in pain. My neck and back muscles were cramped and knotted from the repetitive pulling. The knee and shin on my left leg were bruised and swollen from when I hit the tile in the shrink’s office. There were bloody fingernail marks in my palms from clenching my fists, and I had bitten a chunk out of my lip. I chuckled. The boys back home would call me a girl if I admitted this to any of them.
As Angelo and I walked in silence, my mind wandered to the scene with Misery. I never thought I’d see her again, even though painful, it was also heartwarming to relive even a glimpse of her life when she was happy. Okay, yes… I needed to watch my answers carefully with Dr. Lightning Bolt, but if my therapy sessions were just time for me to watch and talk about Misery, I could actually look forward to that. It may be the only time I got to be with her now.
Angelo noticed my expression relax and the satisfied look take over my face. He sighed loudly in exasperation. Apparently I wasn’t making his job easy. Poor baby…
“So, what’s next, big bro?” I asked, and watched him wince at my reference to our new bond.
“We eat here?” It never occurred to me we’d need to eat.
“Sure. You’ve got to keep your strength up for all the work we’ve got lined up for you.”
I groaned. “Right. Fantastic. So what’s on the menu?”
“Oh, it’s different every day. I believe today is veggie day.”
“Oh, don’t worry, we’ve got the finest chefs in town.”
I can only imagine…
We walked through a blackened set of double doors which opened to the biggest lunch room I’d ever seen. The picnic-style tables were stainless steel and bolted to the floor – just like you’d see in prison scenes in the movies. Rows and rows of them, and there were filthy people milling about everywhere.
To the left, along the far wall, stretched a long counter where you were served cafeteria-style. I stepped up to the back of the line and worked my way toward the plexiglass-shielded counters of chafing dishes. A server waited behind each trough.
I grabbed a tray and a set of silverware, then peered over at the first bin. “What’s that?” I pointed to it.
“Creamed corn.” No smile from the server, no personality whatsoever.
“Um, no thanks.” Gross. Moving on.
Pass. “In there?”
Okay, I see. Dinner time was just another way to torture us. Mix together all of the nastiest foods in the world, put them in a line, and make you choose. I understood… Clever.
On down the line – slimy okra, Brussels sprouts, asparagus casserole (to be frank, it looked just like creamed corn, only puke green), stewed cabbage, kale, overcooked cauliflower… I ended up with a handful of raw radishes, pickled beets and a cold pile of mashed peas. Yum.
Trying to find a seat proved yet another challenge. Angelo left me at the door, mumbled something about hating vegetable night, and bolted as soon as the smell hit his nose. The sound in the commissary was deafening – the scraping of utensils on plates, shuffling of feet, clanking of trays – all of which reverberated on the cinderblock walls. The funny thing about the noise, though, was hardly anyone talked. And those who did, spoke in hushed tones.
As I looked across the room for an empty seat, the only thing I saw were the tops of heads. Most people kept their faces low to the table, almost as if they were trying to block anyone from interacting with them.
I finally found an empty seat at a table where the body language of the other three guys wasn’t completely defensive. I approached, asked if I could join them. All I got back were blank stares, so I slowly lowered myself into the remaining seat.
“Hi. I’m Bones.” Short and sweet.
I looked over to the guy next to me. He pushed around a plateful of Brussels sprouts and cooked carrots. “Mmmm… Looks delish.”
Nothing. One of them glanced up at me briefly, but his eyes darted down as quickly as they looked up.
“So… You guys come here often?”
The guy across from me huffed. It almost sounded like a laugh. I think I was finally getting somewhere! I looked across to him, and he slowly raised his head to meet my gaze. “This must be your first day, huh?”
“Yep. And I’m quite impressed with the resort they’ve built here. I mean, look at this fine dining!” I took a huge forkful of my peas, which slithered out through the tines and splattered back down on my plate.
This got the other two giggling, albeit quietly.
“I’m Mike. Big Mike.” He was big alright. I noticed as he reached his beefy hand across the table to shake mine. His dark skin and Cajun accent led me to believe he was from the Bayou, or at least was raised there.
“Nice to meet you, Mike.” His grip was mighty, but his brown eyes showed just a trace of warmth in them.
“This here,” he pointed to the guy on my left, “is Yoshida, Yoshi for short.”
He bowed his head in acknowledgement.
“Yoshi’s from Japan, but his English is getting better. And this guy here is Pete. At least we call him Pete. We can’t get anything out of him, so we just named him ourselves.”
The darting eyes pierced up at me, and then back down again. Pete’s hands were in his lap, he didn’t move. I couldn’t tell by looking at him where he might be from.
“Well, it’s great to meet all of you. Thanks for letting me sit here. First time I’ve been able to sit back all day, in fact.”
Mike looked up at me. “I saw Angelo bring you in… How’reya gettin on? Where’ve ya’ll been so far?”
“My work shift first. Um, the Pothole?”
“Whoo-eee! You gotta hate the Hole. How’s them hands? Blisters?”
I looked down, opened up my palms. “Nope, no blisters, not yet anyway. Those bloody marks are from Zap, just a bit ago. He got me good with that damn remote control cattle prod.”
Yoshi looked up at me. “You been to Zap so soon? I not go to him until third week.”
I shrugged, grinned. “I guess maybe they thought I needed instant therapy.”
“What’dya do?” Big Mike seemed very curious, borderline nosy, but it didn’t bother me. Could be I found him easy to talk to. Maybe I just needed someone to talk with.
“I killed the bastard who murdered my sister.”
Silence took over the table, everyone digesting that bit of news. All of a sudden this felt more like a “what got you to jail?” conversation than “how’d you end up in Hell?” talk. I thought about this and looked around the room, realizing everyone in here had their own story – the details which landed them in this demon cul-de-sac of no return.
“Man, that’s just raw,” Mike shook his head. “I mean, that shouldn’t get you sentenced. Naw, it ain’t cool. Not to right your sister’s death and all…”
Yoshi shook his head in agreement. “What happened? Something go wrong?”
“Yeah, you could say that… Misery, my sister, got wrapped up in the wrong guy, her gang banger boyfriend. I knew him from before I dropped out of high school. We went from being best friends to hating each other’s guts. She knew I didn’t want her dating him, but she did it anyway behind my back.
“She texted me from his place one night. Said some of his buddies showed up, were drinking with him, talking about a drug run. She said she was scared, his friends were looking at her funny. Asked me to come get her. By the time I got there, she was dead. I got there too late.”
“Podna, that’s a load of shit. Sorry about your sis, man,” Big Mike almost looked soft, his eyes all glassy with tears. “Were they still there when you busted up in the place?”
“Nope. They just left her there. She lay there naked, tied to the bed.” I couldn’t choke any more out, thinking about the sight of her. It took several deep breaths to compose myself. “So I waited. I waited almost three weeks. Days of following him, them. Watching their hangouts, noting the patterns. I waited until one night when he was passed out at his dad’s auto body shop, and I torched the place.”
“Is that how you died?”
“I guess so. I don’t remember anything after that.”
“Well, it still don’t seem like enough to send you here. You was just defendin’ your sis, ‘at’s all.”
Yoshi nodded and I shifted uncomfortably. I didn’t like talking about my life to anyone, yet found myself in this strange place full of people I had never met. I guess now was as good of time as any to start making friends. At least I knew these guys couldn’t kill me.
Mike quickly changed the subject, and he and Yoshi spent the rest of our time packing in all the tips they could think of for surviving Hell. It sounded like the commissary was the only place where people were allowed to talk to each other. I wasn’t sure I’d call it a social gathering. That would definitely be a stretch, given the lack of atmosphere and catering options. But I already liked the two of them – Pete, I’d have to wait and see…
After dinner, Angelo walked me to my next assignment, which he kept calling “recreation time.” You know, I wasn’t a total cynic, but c’mon now… Work was certainly more than just work, and I wasn’t sure I’d call therapy exactly therapeutic. And the food – definitely not food. So nothing here was as it seemed, no doubt about it.
“So your schedule is the same each day,” Angelo reminded me. “I won’t take you after today. You’ll be responsible for getting yourself to and from your appointments.”
“You won’t hold my hand every day?” I mocked surprise.
“No, I’ve got a new assignment coming in tonight. Fresh meat from a car accident in Sweden. Drunk driver,” he shrugged. “I hope she’s at least something to look at.”
“Hey, what’s wrong with me?” I faked a pout, pointed to my gaunt frame. “You don’t like my beefcake?”
He pursed his lips in frustration. “You’re not my type,” his deep voice bellowed. “And you’d be wise to not have such a smart lip around here. You’re gonna get the shit kicked out of you.”
“And what’ll happen? Someone gonna kill me and send me to Hell?”
Angelo stopped in his tracks and roared at me. “What is wrong with you? Do you think this is a fuckin’ joke? This ain’t the country club, and it won’t get any easier for you. The best thing you can do is stay outta the way, do what you’re told, and keep your trap shut. You’re only going to make it worse for yourself by mouthin’ off like ya are.”
I got quiet, more out of not wanting to laugh at him than anything else. The dude looked scary and intimidating, but when I’m startled, I have a hard time taking anything with a straight face. We continued walking.
“So…” I tested the waters. “Recreation time. What’s that?”
“For tonight, it’s basically your chance to kick back and play video games.”
“Well, we’ve got different rec rooms for different ages. I figured this would suit you well for your first day. What are you – nineteen, twenty?”
“You played video games, right?”
“Uh, yeah. Love ‘em. Just never thought they’d be hot in Hell.”
“Well, like the work rooms, there are different rec rooms as well. You’ll rotate – I’ll bring each day’s schedule to you in the morning so you know where to go.”
We got there and stepped into the video lounge. It was dark and filled with huge flat screen televisions and leather recliners. If I weren’t in Hell, I’d say this could’ve been Heaven.
We found an empty seat and Angelo started rifling through the boxes. None of them were games I recognized, but I didn’t care. The recliner felt cushy, and I was getting ready to play games. Screw what Angelo says, I’m making the best of this place!
He popped a strange looking computer chip into the game console and handed me the remote. This game control didn’t have actual buttons, instead it looked more like a large iPhone – it was a long, flat, dark screen which popped up the game options on the electronic screen. Cool! They’ve even got the latest technology in Hell!
The television lit up as the game loaded. It was a Mission Impossible-type of game that introduced who you are as the main character, your mission, and then made you perform a series of actions which propelled the character to its final destination. This reminded me of those books I read as kid – read the first chapter, figure out what you want to do, then skip ahead to the next appropriate section. The story would end up differently depending on each decision you made throughout the journey.
A digitized female voice came over the screen to give me my first mission:
Your name is Guido Capone, distant relative of the infamous Al Capone. Trying to get back into the mob business, you are faced with a challenge that will test you mentally and emotionally. Your boss has asked you to go undercover, infiltrate his rival’s team, get close to the leader and kill him at the first opportunity. This will be a dangerous assignment, one that might get you killed. You’ve got several ways to get inside their organization:
Oh sweet! Organized crime… I looked down at the remote to see my options:
1. Get close to Adrianna Mendoza, the leader’s daughter, engage her in a romantic relationship. Get inside the family, isolate Tony Mendoza, go for the kill.
2. Approach the Boss directly, ask him for an entry level position with his team. Infiltrate the office, wait for your moment of least resistance, and plug him when no one is looking.
3. Dress up as a pizza delivery guy. This is the fastest route, but the most dangerous, as you don’t know how many guys will be in the room when you arrive. Pull your semi-automatic out of the pizza box and shoot the whole lot.
Oh, the choices. I’m all for efficiency, and while the girl angle is intriguing, I’m tempted to go with the pizza boy route. It seemed the bloodiest – bring on the gore! I clicked the button and the scene unfolds. I’m standing at the door to the cellar office, knocking.
Pizza delivery, sir.
We didn’t order no goddamn pizza.
Wait! What’s on it?
I heard another voice in the background. Great. At least two inside. The door in the video game opened and paused to wait for my next decision. I looked down at my remote control.
1. Stall – ask for money as you size up the room.
2. Grab the gun and open fire.
I decided to stall, see how many gangsters I’m dealing with. I hit the button. I could hear my character mumble something about the pricing and delivery charge, all the while I’m scanning the room. Mendoza sat behind his huge desk, four men peppered around the room in addition to one young girl. Adrianna, I’m assuming. She’s gorgeous. I should have decided to go after her.
I look down at the remote control to see what my options are now. Just one: Open fire. So much for choices… I secretly hoped for a choice that allowed me to deliver pizza and walk back out, but if the game is true to form, there’s no pizza in these boxes.
I hit the button marked “Open Fire” and watched the screen change. My video alter ego reached into the box and pulled out the gun. As if in slow motion, the four thugs reached into their belts for their pistols, drew and fired at the same time. I swept the room with my semi and as I watched the entire room go red with a spray of blood, my chest took three direct hits. The video showed my body hitting the ground from the perspective of my character. My head thudded to the floor, showing the room sideways.
Adrianna lay in my line of site. She took two of my bullets in the stomach and sprawled motionless in a pool of thick, dark liquid. Dying slowly, she gasped for air. The look of pain and fright on her face was as real as anything you’d see in slasher movies.
Well, I guess that was the end. I saw no “play again” button, only one that started a new scenario. The fake female voice came back to explain the next setting:
Your name is Thomas Cannon. You are an investment banker who has been embezzling money from your firm for seven years. At this juncture you’ve stolen $32.7 million from your investors and the general office fund at the firm, and the management is beginning to uncover your trail. Your wife of ten years and three young children have no idea what you have done, though they have enjoyed the lifestyle. What do you do?
1. Do nothing, hope it goes away
2. Start gathering data, frame a co-worker
3. Escape from it all, commit suicide
4. Rob a bank, pay back the money
5. Tell your wife, pack up the kids, leave the country
6. Don’t tell your wife, pack up yourself, leave the country
7. Turn yourself in, hope they go easy on you for confessing
Yeah, totally not telling the woman – I didn’t have the stones for that. Not stupid enough to rob a bank, and doing nothing didn’t sound like a smart idea either… Framing my co-worker seemed like the best option. I hit button number two.
The game sprang to life. I watched my cyber-self gathering papers, changing computer files, all to implicate my co-worker, Don Stillwell. The next scene showed the management in a meeting to discuss the fabricated information. The general manager picked up the phone, and I watched a group of three security guards approach Don at his desk. He didn’t even get time to pack his belongings. The video voice over came back:
Don Stillwell knows he is innocent and has the documentation to prove it. He has hired the most effective and efficient attorney team in town, who are preparing to sue your company for fraud and wrongful termination. In his preparation for the case, he’s uncovered your computer’s history, implicating you for the fraud. What is your next move?
1. Hire your own attorney, get ready for courtroom battle
2. Escape from it all, commit suicide
What? Wait… What happened to the other options? What about the “Leaving the Country” choice – with or without the wife and kids?! So I either implicated myself by hiring a criminal defense lawyer, or killed myself… Huh. I sat there, thinking about it for a long time. In the end, I just wanted this game to be over. It bored me, and this punk Cannon was a brainless idiot. I killed him. I hit the suicide button.
The scene showed me driving into my video game garage, closing the door. I put the car in park, still running, and laid down behind the back end of my shiny red sports car. The television screen showed no movement, only the sight of the garage ceiling as I waited for the carbon monoxide to do its trick. As the time passed, my blinking slowed, my vision became hazy. Eventually, one last slow blink blacked out the screen and the “GAME OVER” signal lit the screen. Good, let’s find something more exciting.
As I leaned forward to examine the other available games, the bell rang, making me feel like I was back in junior high and I needed to switch classes. I knew it signaled the time to head back to my cell to get ready for bed. Dutifully, I turned off the television and game console and headed towards the dormitory section of Hell.
My dreams that night were filled with Misery. They were just random, jumbled bits of our history, not in any particular order, none of them connected by any significance or pattern. I wasn’t exactly sure why people dream, or how they work, but someone once told me it’s the subconscious part of your brain working while you sleep. I think this was my brain’s way of spending time with Misery, the only person who had ever been good to me all my life.
The first dream replayed a time when I was about seven, and I had just crashed my bike in the street. I had only just started riding without training wheels. Without a father to teach me, it took me longer to get up the courage to figure it out. I came into the house, sobbing, my face slick with tears. My pain was both physical and emotional – the blood flowed freely and my pride also took a beating when my friends saw me crying after I fell.
“What’s wrong, bubby?” Misery sat Indian-style on the dirty living room floor watching television.
“I… I…” My speech stuttered as I choked in air. “I flipped… my bike.”
Mom worked nights in a bar and spent more time looking for the man who was going to solve all of her problems than serving drinks and food. Since Mom was never around, Misery always took her place.
“C’mon G, let’s go into the bathroom and get you fixed up.”
I was a mess of sweat and dirt, mixed with blood from the scrapes on my knees, elbows and one hand I used to stop my fall. Misery reached under the sink and pulled out the tub of first aid supplies, most of which Mom swiped from one of her various jobs over the years.
“Sit up on the ledge and put your knees over the sink, now,” her tiny voice instructed. I did and she gently angled my legs so she could pour “magic water” over my scrapes.
The hydrogen peroxide stung and made the open patches bubble. I winced, and she leaned over my knees and blew air on the bubbling blood to lessen the pain. She was so gentle and composed, you wouldn’t know she was only just old enough to start first grade in the fall.
“There you go, let those dry before we put Band-aids on them. Show me your elbow.”
She repeated the same ritual with every other gash and scrape on my body. “There you go, G. All better now.” She leaned in to tenderly kiss each bandage she applied.
“Thanks M,” I sniffled.
“Where’s your bike?”
“I left it in the street.”
“I’ll get it. You go turn the TV to channel five. Judge Judy starts in a few minutes,” she said, indicating the only luxury item in our home – a black and white television left behind by one of Mom’s short-lived boyfriends.
We were only able to get three channels, and by the time we saw a movie it probably had more than one sequel. Between the daytime talk shows, and the many programs in which people relied on television judges to solve their problems, we were both budding psychiatrists and lawyers. We would spend hours discussing how to solve all of life’s injustices. In retrospect, if we had spent more time watching crime dramas, I may have done a better job of avenging my sister’s murder.
When Misery came back inside, she carried a bag of frozen peas in her hand. She sat down next to me and held the peas to my right knee, which was already swelling from the worst of the fall.
“Here you go, G. This will make your knee feel better.”
“You just don’t like him because he’s older than me!” The next dream started with Misery shouting at me in my dingy bedroom.
“You know that’s not it, M.” I tried to reason with her, but it’s never easy getting your fifteen-year-old sister to be rational. Especially when she thinks she’s in love. We hardly ever argued, but this one was a doozy.
“So what, then? Because he’s your friend? I’d think you’d be happy I dated someone you actually liked.”
“He’s just not good enough for you, Misery.”
“Oh, shut it, Grant. You’ll never think anyone is good enough for me.”
Well, I couldn’t deny that… But since I ran with Joe, I knew the trouble he got into. Hell, I helped him get into most of it. And I also saw the drinking, the drugs, none of which she needed to get involved with.
We met an older group of guys who were trying to get us to join their crowd. Okay, it was a gang. We were seriously thinking about it, which would mean selling drugs for them. I only considered it because M and I could use the money, since Mom never came through for us. I didn’t want to explain any of this to Misery, but bottom line – she didn’t need to get involved with Joe. Not now, not ever.
“M, I’ve seen him with other girls. He’s not nice to them, he uses them, throws them out. I don’t want you to be the next notch on his belt.”
“He’s different now, Grant. And I love him, and I make my own decisions. So butt out!”
“I won’t butt out. I decide what’s best for you, and I say he’s no good.”
She laughed at me, reeling around and fixing a piercing stare on me. “Since when do you decide what’s best for me?”
It was my fault. I brought him to the house. We couldn’t hang at his; his mother always eavesdropped on us, nagged at us. What a pain. I don’t think she liked me much. Anyway, since there was no supervision at our house, it seemed logical to hang there after school. We usually stopped by his home so he could grab snacks, then go to my place.
The first time he caught sight of Misery he was hooked. He begged me relentlessly to fix him up with her. The thought totally disgusted me. I tried to explain as best I could… “You’re my best friend, man. She’s my sister. It just doesn’t mix for me.”
One day I came home and found the two of them making out on the couch. I went crazy, yelling at both of them. It embarrassed Joe, but not Misery. She was as stubborn as she was pretty, which proved a lethal combination if your goal was to keep your sister away from trouble.
“M, listen to me for one moment, please. Please! You’re smart, you’re going places. You could do anything you want to do. Stay focused on school, we’ll get you to college-”
“How’re we gonna afford college, G?”
“You let me worry about that. But don’t get yourself involved with a loser like Joe.”
“Joey’s not a loser! Besides, he’s not loser enough for you to stop being friends with. You make no sense, and you know it.”
“Please, M. For me. Please…”
Her face softened, her eyes bright with the tears of emotion. “Grant, I know you only want the best for me, and I appreciate it. Really, I do. I love you to pieces, you know that. But you’ve gotta let me grow up and make some decisions on my own.”
“You make more than your share of decisions around here. You run the place.”
“Someone’s gotta do it…”
“You do more than you should have to.”
“And what’s that gotta do with me and Joey?”
I knew I wasn’t going to win this battle. Not with her, at least. She was way too smart. I’ll work on Joe next. “Just promise me something, Misery?”
“What is it?”
“That you’ll take it slow with Joe? I don’t want to see you getting hurt.”
“Okay, big bro. I will. Don’t worry, though. I can take care of myself.”
The next dream happened in a place I didn’t recognize. It was dark; I couldn’t see anything. I could hear Misery’s voice whimpering off in the distance. It sounded like she was hurt…
“Misery! Where are you?”
“Grant? Help me, Grant! Hurry! Before they come back!”
I crawled on the rough stone floor, trying to feel my way and follow the sound of her voice. “Misery, who’s got you?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t know any of them. Hurry, G. Please!”
Her voice was getting closer and I could see a faint line of light from underneath a door. It wasn’t enough to light the room, but I thought I was nearing the end of the room. I was blind, not only from the lack of light, but also with fear for my sister.
“Talk to me, M. Where are you?” I could hear her ragged breathing, so I knew I was getting close.
“Right here. They’ve got me chained to the wall.”
I reached my hand out, fumbled to grasp something, and finally connected with her foot. Her bare ankle wore a cold, metal shackle around it. I felt for the wall and braced against it to stand next to her.
Grabbing her wet face, I kissed her forehead. “Shhh, M. I’ve got you now. I’ll get you out of here.”
“I’m so scared, Grant.”
“Did they hurt you?”
“Yes, and they’ll hurt you too, if they find you here.”
“Let me find some light. I’ll get you free…”
I felt along the wall in the direction of the door, looking for a light switch. As I got nearer to the entrance, I could hear footsteps coming toward the room. I froze in panic. I heard one of them say Misery’s name, then mine. I quickly retreated to where Misery stood and positioned my body in front of her, ready for confrontation.
The door opened and the fluorescent bulbs came to life, blinding me. I blinked a few times before my eyes adjusted enough to see who filed in the door towards us.
“Da… Looks like he’s already found her. Told you he vould. She’s the key to keeping him in line.”
The strangest combination of people were looking at me. Zap and Angelo, plus the guy from the cafeteria who served me cold peas, and Adrianna, the girl from the video game. Adrianna wore an old fashioned nurse’s costume.
“Don’t you touch her!” I shouted at the mob of intruders. “Don’t come any closer!”
“Or vhat?” Zap sneered at me. “Do you think you’re any match for us?”
Zap punched the button on his remote control and I felt the electrical charge run through my body. I heard a high-pitched scream, and didn’t know if it came from me or Misery. I ended up in a crumpled heap on the floor at her feet. I felt Angelo grab me by the back of the pants and toss me aside like a rag doll.
I heard Misery crying softly and looked up at her. Adrianna dressed wounds that looked like they were delivered by some sort of whip – long, red welts that were open and oozing clear liquid. They were whispering quietly to each other, Adrianna trying to comfort Misery.
The pea boy pushed Adrianna to the side. “That’s enough of that. It’s my turn now.”
He turned his head around and smiled evilly at me. “Today’s fresh catch is a heaping dish of Misery…”
I watched him grab her by the back of her hair and forcefully kiss her mouth, all the while his grungy hand worked its way up the back of her thigh while he ground his body against hers. Enraged, I sprang to my feet, jumped towards them to stop him from defiling my sister. Zap caught me in mid-air and charged me again with more blistering voltage. Instantly immobilized, I hit the ground flat on my belly.
The impact woke me from my sleep, much like those dreams where you’re falling and wake right before hitting the ground. I sat up in my bed, soaked in my own sweat, reeking of fear. The first emotion that hit me was relief – relief Misery wasn’t actually being tortured. After that, a slow, aching sadness took over. I still missed her desperately, and would do anything in my power to free her. The dream felt so real, I almost thought it might be possible.
I was sitting up on my bed, still wide awake, when Angelo came to greet me in the morning.
“Sweet dreams, sugar plum?” His gravelly voice annoyed me. I still hadn’t forgiven him for his part in my nightmare, even though I knew it wasn’t real.
“What’s wrong, pal?” His fake concern pissed me off too.
“Nothing. I just didn’t sleep well last night.”
“You’re not supposed to sleep well, ya know. We do our best to keep you busy while you sleep.”
“So, those dreams…?”
“Yep. We can control your dreams. It’s just one more way we can screw with you, and you can do nothing about it. Ain’t it just a bitch?” He rolled his head back and exploded in a rumbling belly laugh.
“Nope, not here.”
“Dude, I know the dream seemed real, but she’s not here. I wouldn’t lie to you.”
“This coming from one of the Devil’s right hand men. Not sure I’m buying that one.”
“It was just a dream, Grant. Nothing more.”
“Why were all of my dreams about Misery?”
“Zap said something to me yesterday about seeing an unusual connection between the two of you as he reviewed your life. Told me to program her into your dreams.”
“You program them?!”
“To some extent. Your brain’s ultimately in control, but we’ve got some behind-the-curtains magic we can use to plug variables into what you dream about. Just one more way-”
“To torment me. Yep. Got it.”
“You catch on fast, little buddy.” His yellow eyes sparkled.
Just then someone knocked on my door frame. We both looked up at the same time. A short lady with a pinched face, dowdy suit and her blonde hair rolled up in a French twist peered around the corner.
“Oh hi, Angie,” Angelo smiled politely at the caller. “Thanks for stopping by – I know you’ve got a busy morning.”
Her expression was all business, and she just gave him a curt nod.
“Let me introduce you to Grant Williams. Grant, this is one of my associates, Angie.”
“Nice to meet you,” I muttered. Their name play on the word angel was not at all cute. I wondered if one needed to have some variation on the name to get the job, or if they were all re-named once they got their assignments. If I were in a better mood, I might have asked. But at the moment, my heart ached from my time with Misery.
The shrewd little woman turned back to Angelo. “You asked me to bring our newest guest by, correct?”
Angelo didn’t seem at all bothered by her outward loathing of him. I think he noticed it – how could you not! – he simply didn’t care. “Yes, thank you Angie. Is he with you?”
She stepped aside to show a man beside her. He was mostly bald and dressed in a black and red velour track suit. A plethora of gold chains hung from around his neck.
“Grant, I’d like you to meet our most recent addition to Hell,” Angelo swept his hand back. “This is Tony Mendoza. Tony, this is Grant.”
Tony stepped forward hesitantly to shake my hand, and I looked up into his face. Then my brain clicked. I’d seen this man before. I knew him. My jaw dropped. I recoiled, hoping he wouldn’t recognize me.
“Nice to meet you, son. You’re new here too?” Tony looked apprehensive, but sounded hopeful at making a connection with someone.
“Uh, yes sir.” My brain wouldn’t form complete sentences. “Second day.”
“Well, maybe I’ll see ya around?” His voice was laced with an Italian accent.
Was that a threat? Did he know? What did I do? “Uh, sure. See you around.”
My eyes darted to the floor, not wanting him to get a good look at me. I could sense Angelo silently laughing, feel the vibrations of his body quaking as he stifled the sound.
“Thanks Angie, for bringing Tony by. Tony, good to see you, and welcome to our humble abode. Enjoy your stay.”
“Yeah, right. I’ll try.” I couldn’t see his face, but I’m sure it must have been dumbfounded with that greeting. Angelo made it sound more like he just checked into the Hilton rather than Hell.
“C’mon Tony. Follow me.” I could hear Angie’s sensible shoes click down the hall, away from my room.
I looked up at Angelo, my mouth agape. That only made him laugh harder, this time he roared audibly. “Was that guy…”
“I killed him in a video game?!” The thought horrified me.
“You didn’t kill him, Grant. A boy named Guido killed him last night. He’s dead now, too. Ended in a mob shootout. You may see some of the other guys around here too.”
“But…” I had no idea what to even ask him. This was beyond anything I could understand.
“Did it happen when you played the game?” Angelo’s eyes sparkled with delight.
I nodded my head.
“How did I…”
“Factor into the scenario?”
I nodded again.
“When I plugged you into the game, you were controlling Guido’s thoughts through the decisions you made with the game controller. You were in charge of what he decided to do.”
“And now they’re all dead?!”
“Because of me?”
“Yes, Grant. Everyone.”
I felt horrible. Seven people were dead because I played a video game. Seven… Wait.
“And Mr. Cannon?”
“Yep. Deader than a doornail. You’ll run into him around here too.”
“I don’t understand,” I stammered. “Why?”
“We’re short-staffed around here, and it only makes sense to make use of you guys to help us with recruiting.”
“Yeah. Convincing people to make the wrong decisions. You know, spreading more evil. You did great, pal!”
His enthusiastic glee was countered by my horror. I just killed eight people by playing a video game and sentenced them to Hell.
“Adrianna? Is she here?”
“I thought you were soft on her… That’s why I plugged her into your dream. Unfortunately, she’s the only one who escaped us. She passed the test upstairs. You won’t be running into her down here, sorry to say.” He clapped me on the back and grinned sarcastically.
I threw his hand off my shoulder in disgust.
“Anyhoo,” Angelo sang, “here’s your schedule for the day. All of the floor assignments are noted. Be sure you get to the right place at the right time.”
“Okay,” I said dully.
“Oh, and Grant?”
I looked up. “Yes?”
“Try not to kill too many people.”
I scowled and flipped him the finger. He left the room and I could hear him laugh all the way down the hall, until the elevator doors finally closed.
So at this point, I didn’t have any doubt everything I was forced to do here was in some way affecting the people still living on Earth. I didn’t know what kind of sick bastard the Devil really was, and I hoped to never find out face-to-face, but I promised myself to watch everything I did through a different set of eyes.
My next work detail took place on the 110th floor. I climbed on the elevator and punched the button, knowing I was nearing the surface again. When I stepped out, there were two identical doors about ten feet apart. In between stood a Hellion – it’s what I now called the management here – directing the incoming traffic.
“Right door, south side.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the door to my right, so that’s where I headed. Jeez. Personality much?
Inside the door, I found a dingy gray-black room that looked as if it were carved from shale. The ceiling reached about thirty feet high, but the room was narrow, and the walls extended as far as I could see to make a seemingly endless corridor.
The wall on the right was completely bare, but the left one was where all of the workers were gathering. There were pulleys of some sort attached all the way down the wall, at shoulder height. The pulleys were made of thick white rope, about three feet long, and on the end of the rope was a handle.
I started walking toward an empty place in the wall and suddenly I heard someone whisper my name. “Bones! Hey, Bones – over here!”
I looked up to see Big Mike discretely waving me toward him. Hundreds of people filled the room, and already I felt claustrophobic, so it was nice to see a familiar face. I walked over and took the station next to him.
“Hey, Mike! What’s up?”
“Nothin’ man. You doing okay today?”
“Hangin’ in. You?”
“Same shit, just a different day, y’know?”
“Where are we?”
“The Quake Room. There’re several of them in different parts. Basically when they blow the whistle, all you have to do is pull on your handle as hard as you can.”
My paranoia was on alert. I didn’t like the sound of this.
“What happens? Why is it called the Quake Room?”
“Did you see the other door when you came off the elevator?”
“There’re people in that room too, only pulling in the opposite direction.”
“What’s the point?”
“We’re working on a fault line, trying to pull it enough to create an earthquake.”
“An earthquake? You gotta be kidding me! We control natural disasters down here too?”
Big Mike’s teeth shone as he grinned at me. “Well, not all of them. We’ve got earthquakes and volcanoes. Of course we’ve got volcanoes. Only makes sense – hot, molten fire spreading over the Earth. Yep, that one’s a given.”
“What about the rest of them… Tornadoes? Lightning and thunder? Hurricanes?”
“Most of the atmospheric disasters are God’s work. Ours are generally the ones that come from the ground, and those which are harder to predict.”
“Oh, that makes sense.” I huffed in frustration and Mike chuckled under his breath.
“Now, we’re not supposed to talk in here. We’ll get in trouble if they catch us, y’hear?”
“Loud and clear, Mike. How do you know all of these things? How long have you been here?”
“Sixteen years, four months and three days – but who’s counting?”
I looked at him in dismay. “How old are you?”
“You mean how old am I now, or how old was I when I died?”
“Um… I guess when you died.”
I looked at his near perfect skin, no wrinkles to be seen. “So you don’t age in Hell?”
“Naw, man. Once you’re dead, you’re dead. No progression after that.”
I pondered that for a while. The whistle blew and we were thrust into the day’s work session. I dug in my heels and started pulling in the same fashion as Mike. I’m not sure what I expected, but this seemed like a pointless task. We were pulling on a wall – nothing moved, even budged.
To brighten the mood, there were several Hellions stationed in our corridor. Each of them carried bull horns and continued to yell obscenities at us, goading us to work harder.
“Is there any point to this?” I whispered through my gritted teeth. Already my face was drenched with sweat and my muscles were on fire from the acid burn.
“Not usually. Once I was in here when the wall gave way. Shook the whole durn place! They announced later it scored a six on the earthquake scale thingy. Did some serious damage in Tokyo.”
“Huh.” I knew I would uncover more strange news about how this place affected the Earth, but each time I heard it, it still surprised me.
We worked in silence for about twenty minutes, before I summoned the courage to ask anything else. All around me I could hear people moaning in agony, grinding their teeth to fight the pain of the job. With each minute I strained against this wall, I thought about how devastated an earthquake leaves a community. Disheveled homes, crumbled roads and bridges, people without food and water for days, weeks… Looters. There’s the evil, I supposed.
Between the ache in my body and the stress building in my brain, I needed to focus on something else. “Hey, Mike?”
“What happened to Pete? Why doesn’t he talk?”
“Rumor has it he cracked one day when he found out he couldn’t work his way out of here.”
“What do you mean, work his way out of here?”
“Some Earthly faiths believe once you die, if you end up in Hell, there’s a program which allows you to work your way out of Hell, into salvation. Into Heaven. I’m not sure, but it sounds like he believed this, and when the reality finally hit him he’s here forever, he eventually gave up trying. Most people do.”
“They do what?”
“They give up. Give up on caring, feeling. Hoping for an end. In Pete’s case, he gave up talking. I think he went just a little bit nuts.”
“Oh, that’s kind of sad… Have you given up hope?” I hadn’t really thought much about the future in the two days I’d been here, but the idea of spending every day for eternity here, doing this… Well, it just sucked.
“I don’t know if given up is the right term for me. Resigned, maybe. I know there is no other option for me – this is all I’m going to get, so I better make the best of it.”
I sighed, looked around. “I have noticed most of the people here, well, their spirits seem broken.”
“That’s the intent.” Mike nodded solemnly.
“Oh.” I didn’t know how I felt about being broken…
Zap was waiting for me behind the counter when I reached his office. He looked over the top of his glasses to see what kind of physical shape I arrived in. I was soaked with sweat from the Quake Room. My arms felt like my knuckles should be dragging the ground.
“Vell, at least you’re not dirty today,” he said, like it was a good thing. I still felt grungy, and my biceps and back muscles screamed at me. “Come on in. I’ve got some more videos of your life to vatch.”
He rubbed his hands together like he anticipated the latest blockbuster. Oh joy, he’s looking forward to this. Can’t. Be. Good.
We took our seats as the magical television screen appeared. I was instantly catapulted into my ninth grade algebra class. Mrs. Brunner droned on about variables and a bunch of other crap. I could see myself sitting in the back row, trying to pay attention, having a hard time staying awake. My leg bobbed frantically, as if the motion alone would keep me from nodding off.
It was the first day of school and I stayed up late the night before trying to comfort Misery, who fell apart in hysterics. This was the first year we wouldn’t be attending school in the same building and she dreaded being left alone. I wasn’t thrilled about it either but I couldn’t find a way to fix it. She was in eighth grade; this year I moved up to the high school.
“Mr. Williams? Mr. WILLIAMS?!”
Shit. I fell asleep. My head snapped up, I looked toward her. “Yes?”
“Can you give me the answer to this problem?”
The class turned around to stare at me and I felt my face flush with embarrassment. Then rage. Deep breath. “No, ma’am. Sorry.”
Her eyes narrowed on me. “Am I having a hard time keeping your attention, Mr. Williams?”
I squirmed in my seat, then tried to sit up straight. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Brunner. I-”
“Never mind. Detention, this afternoon.” She pivoted on her heel to turn back to the board.
I shrank in my seat as I heard whispered giggles around me. Great. I’ll be late getting home – can’t even ride the bus with M. She’ll be so confused. I hope she’s not too upset.
By the time I got home that afternoon (I walked, since the bus left an hour before I was released), Misery was sitting in the living room with a new friend. This only made me feel worse.
“Hi, Grant!” She bounded up to greet me. “How was your first day in high school? I was so scared today, being there without you, but then I met Kara and…”
The television faded to silence. Zap shut it off. “You didn’t look very happy there, Bones…”
“Vanna tell me vhy?”
“Well…” Where do I start? And I really wanted to keep my talking parts brief so he wouldn’t have the opportunity to charge me with his Hell taser. “Well, first of all, I hated high school. And we just watched my first day at my new school.”
Zap stroked his silver goatee. “And vhy did you hate high school so much?”
“I hated it because I was never very good at it. Misery was the smart one. For me, it was dull. I didn’t like to pay attention to boring teachers, have to study for exams. I also hated it – high school – because Misery wasn’t in the same building anymore, and that seemed weird to me.”
I waited. No electrical explosion. I relaxed a little.
“Did you have any friends?”
“Very few. My best friend, Joe, I met my second week into my freshman year.”
“Yes… Joe. Is he the guy who dated your sister?”
I clenched my jaw, ground my teeth. “Yes.”
“And he’s the one who killed your sister?”
Tears sprang to my eyes at the thought of the betrayal. I swallowed hard, refused to give in. Refused to be broken by this man. “Yes.”
“Normally I vould zap you for that, because Joe didn’t kill your sister, but since you don’t know exactly vhat happened that night…” His grin gleamed in delight. “Vell, vhy don’t we just vatch?”
The television came to life and showed me one of Misery’s memories. How the guy got all of this history plugged into his therapy vault was beyond me. If I wasn’t so horrified at the thought of watching Misery’s death, I might have been curious as to what other types of entertainment Doc Voltage possessed in his library.
She was in the apartment behind Joe’s father’s business – a gas station and auto body shop. Joe’s parents fought so much when he was a kid, his father built a place to get away when he needed to. When Joe turned eighteen, he convinced his father to let him move in there. Pretty sweet gig. I mean, the place didn’t amount to much, but he didn’t have to pay rent. And it allowed him to come and go as any teenager would like.
Misery and Joe were lying on the couch, making out. His hand snaked up her shirt, which made my stomach turn sour. I looked over at Zap, who watched me, waited for my reaction. I’ll be damned if I’d let him get a rise out of me with this.
Misery’s book bag sat on the floor next to them. A flash of fury hit me as I remembered she lied to me about dating Joe. When he and I had our falling out, I came clean to her about all the gang activity, the drugs, Joe… She promised she wouldn’t see him again. That was six months ago. I took a job, she graduated from high school, and we got her enrolled in the local community college. I was determined to keep her on track, give her a better life.
Little did I know that silver-tongued weasel would work his way back into her life. I had no idea how long she had been seeing him. When I got her text about where she was, I was angry at first, then petrified I wouldn’t get to her in time. I didn’t.
He got her sweater off, her skirt up around her waist and his pants were unbuttoned when the sound of a giant fist beating on the door stopped them.
“Joe! Open up!” a booming voice ordered from behind the door.
Misery jumped up from the couch, tried to find her sweater. “Who is that, Joey?”
“It’s just my boys. Lemme see if I can get rid of them, baby.”
She only got two of the buttons done before they barged into the tiny room. I counted four guys, the leaders of the gang I tried to distance myself from.
“Joe! My man… How’s it hangin’?” Jesse threw a six pack down on the table then turned to pat Joe’s crotch. “Doesn’t look like it’s hanging at all!”
His eyes turned to Misery, and you could see his expression lighten with interest. “Whatcha got here, Joe? You been holdin’ out on us? Who’s this pretty little thing?”
“Um… Guys, this is Misery. Misery, this is Jesse, Chris, Adam and Petey.” Joe shifted uncomfortably.
Misery held her head up. She knew who she was dealing with, so she tried to act strong, sure of herself. “It’s nice to meet you guys. Joey, I’ve gotta go anyway. I’ll call you later?”
Before he could answer, Jesse butted in. “Dontcha be goin’ on our account, now.” He blocked the door, preventing Misery from getting out. “Stay, have a drink with us. We just need to talk to Joe about a little business, and then we’ll be gone, quick-like.”
“I really need to be going.”
“I think you ought to stay.” He said forcefully and took a gun from the back of his pants and flopped it on the counter to make his point.
“C’mon Jesse. Let her go. She doesn’t need to hear any of this.”
“It’s all good, Joe. Petey will entertain her while I talk to you about the job.”
Joe nodded silently to Misery and her posture drooped just slightly. She headed back to the couch and took a seat. She took out her cell phone from her bag, typed a message into it.
“Whatcha got there, darlin’?” Petey squeezed next to her, put a hand on her bare knee. She brushed it off.
“Nothing. Just checking for messages.”
Jesse and Joe were huddled up at the counter whispering. When Joe turned his back, checking on Misery, Jesse opened a pill capsule and emptied the contents into Joe’s beer. Three minutes later, Joe passed out.
Once he was out cold, Jesse looked back up at Misery who was still fighting with Petey’s groping hands. “Looks like your boyfriend couldn’t stay awake. You must have really tired him out.”
“I… I…” she stuttered, trying to figure out how to get out of this. “I really need to leave now.”
“You ain’t goin’ anywhere, sweetie. I’d like to get a little of whatever it is that tired poor ol’ Joe out so much.”
She jumped to her feet and Petey instantly stood behind her, his hands on her shoulders. “Want me to take her to the bedroom?”
Jesse nodded. “Let’s do that.”
The four of them manhandled her to the bedroom and shredded pieces of a stray flannel shirt to tie her to the bed. Tears were streaming down Misery’s face as they ripped her clothing off.
“Why are you doing this?” She fought against the restraints, but they were too tight for her to break free of.
“Your brother needs to learn a lesson for deserting us. We were loyal to him and he left us high and dry, like we weren’t good enough for him anymore. When I heard Joe had hooked back up with you, I figured this provided a perfect opportunity to get him back.”
“This is about Grant?” Her eyes were wide with fear as she watched Jesse reach for the buckle on his pants. “Please. Please! I can talk to him for you. Please don’t do this to me!”
He just sneered, while the other three stood there watching, waiting for their turn. They were obviously aroused by the violence taking place. As Jesse crawled across the bed to meet her, Misery let out a blood curdling scream.
“Holy shit, woman! Shut the fuck up!” Jesse clamped one hand over her mouth, the other over her throat. She wrestled and bucked, but he proved much stronger. The guys in the room cheered Jesse on. After a minute of the struggle, all got very quiet. Eerily quiet. Misery lay there perfectly still.
They all four looked around at each other. Adam spoke first. “Did she pass out?”
Jesse leaned down toward her nose. A look of terror spread across his face. He then pressed his ear to her chest. Shock. “Fuck! She’s dead!”
“What did you do to her?”
“I only tried to keep her quiet, so no one heard.”
“We gotta get outta here, man…”
“I know, I know. Lemme think.” Jesse pinched his brows together, trying to put a plan together. “Okay. Adam, Petey – get Joe into our car.”
“Why are we taking Joe?”
“Because, idiot, if the cops show up and find her dead, and he’s passed out on the floor, they’ll figure out he didn’t do it. We gotta set it up, let him take the fall for this.”
“Oh, right.” Petey and Adam went back to the front room, carried Joe’s body outside.
Jesse just sat there, his hands on either side of his neck. Finally, he got up from the bed, shook his head and zipped his pants. “There ain’t nothing more I can do. Bones’ll learn his lesson. Not the way I planned, but there ya have it.”
He turned his back on Misery’s dead body and motioned for Chris to follow him to the car.
The scene went still, so I figured Zap paused the TV. Acid burned the back of my throat from watching this. I wanted to puke, but held it back. My head pounded, my fists and toes were involuntarily clenched. I eventually looked up at Zap to see what he wanted from me now.
“Yes?” Zap looked back at me.
“You stopped the video. I thought you had questions for me.” I tried to sound as polite as possible but I couldn’t get past the fury raging through my mind.
“No… The video hasn’t stopped. Ve’re still vatching.”
Oh. I looked, and yet the screen was still motionless. We sat there, staring at Misery’s naked body. The longer I waited, the harder it became to battle the nausea.
I heard it first. “Misery? Misery!” My voice echoed in the empty apartment. I came to get her, had raced my ass across town to her, and missed them by only six or seven minutes. If I had only gotten there earlier…
Finally I entered the screen’s view. The look of horror and anguish that hit my face brought back all those emotions again, like finding her all over again. “Misery!”
I ran to the bed, cut the bondage with my pocket knife. I reached under her and pulled her up against me, hoping for any trace of life in her. When I realized she was gone, I spent the next fifteen minutes sitting there, rocking her in my arms while I sobbed. The loss was too much to bear.
Zap made me watch it all, every single minute of. We watched as I dressed her in an old t-shirt and shorts from Joe’s dresser. Phoned the police. Talked to the police. Reports. Inspections. Dusting for fingerprints.
Eventually they took her out on a stretcher in one of those horrid black body bags – the kind you saw on television and knew instantly whoever lay inside was dead. When she was gone, I broke down again. Zap paused the television on me as I lay curled up on the floor, pounding it with my fists as I cried.
“You do not seem very moved by that scene,” Zap said. “I vould have thought you vere going to cry.”
“Is that what you intended?” The thought of it only solidified my resolve to stay strong.
“Perhaps, yes. Vhy do you not cry over the death of your sister anymore?”
I sat there for a minute, thinking. “I suppose… Well, I guess maybe I cried out all my tears when I was living. Does that make sense?”
“Yes, I think it does. So you’re not sad anymore?”
“No, I’m still sad. Very sad. I loved Misery more than anyone I’ve ever known.”
“Yes, even girlfriends.”
Zap pondered this for a minute, stroked his remote control with his thumb. “You are very interesting, Mr. Bones. You seem almost as sad now as you did vhen you vere in high school, vithout her.”
“I’ve come to terms with the fact that she’s gone. There’s nothing I can do to bring her back. So yes, that’s probably true. I probably feel about as lousy here now as I was back in high school when I lived my days without her. I’m not sure it feels much different…”
“I’ll have to give that some more thought…” Zap seemed perplexed by my answers today. And my reactions to his television therapy. I watched his eyebrows knit together in frustration.
“You seem troubled, Zap…” I grinned at him, even though my gut still trembled. “Anything I can help you with? Would you like to talk about it?”
“No, I’m just thinking. You are a complex one, my Bones.” He looked down at his remote with a disappointed expression. “Our session is over and I didn’t even get a chance to zap you.”
This time my smile was genuine. “Well, I’m a quick learner.”
Okay, so I won’t bore you with all the gory details of my time in Hell. Let’s just say this place is one screwed up mind trick.
One day I worked in a chemistry lab, mixing ingredients, only to find out later I created the components for cancer. The lab made all kinds of diseases like that – illnesses scientists on Earth are stumped by, can’t find cures for. Down here, a whole team of messengers were assembled to take the secret formulas and plant it in random treats for the living – candy bars, French fries, sugared drinks. You know, the stuff people can’t get their fill of. Once they ate enough of the Devil’s potion, their bodies got sick.
I spent two different times in Hell’s zoo incubator, feeding and breeding animals. They told me the zoo started out with just snakes, but then decided to import some exotics from the surface – scorpions, fire ants, leeches… Pretty much anything scary and painful to the living. I walked out of there covered in swollen welts – bites and stings from the cuddly creatures.
In another lab I helped mix water with the opposite of anti-depressant meds. They were designed to stimulate depression, panic and rage attacks, OCD tendencies, claustrophobia, you name it. We pumped infected water into bottles by the pallet and shipped it to grocery stores and markets all over the world. Angelo told me they decided to use bottled water as the vehicle since most humans believed it was the safest of all water sources. Extra supplies were sent to tourist areas in Mexico.
I also had another recreation stint in the video game cave… I didn’t kill anyone this time, thankfully. Instead of violence, I played a dating type of game where all of my buttons controlled the reactions of one of the people. The options said anything from “give blank stare” to “flirt with waitress” to “fart loudly” to “pretend you don’t have your wallet.” My favorite button was the “Tourette’s Syndrome” one – you never knew what would fly out of someone’s mouth! I enjoyed this much more, knowing I didn’t deliver any mortal damage to people, but I think I broke up four of the five couples.
The computer lab was another warped recreation activity. We didn’t have to do anything but type the information they gave us into a website or blog post. I posted several different articles on how to make various pipe bombs with household ingredients, how to set up your own meth lab (bonus recipe included), and even sent some nasty posts on profile pages of teenage girls. Nothing like undermining the self-esteem of a teenager… Been there, done that.
But I digress. Let’s just say it was four months of painful boredom. Guilt-riddled? Sure. But did I let it get under my skin? No way. Zap grew more furious at me because our sessions went so smoothly, he didn’t feel like he made a breakthrough worthy of Hell. He only electrocuted me once, when his finger slipped during a sneeze.
Angelo was the most frustrated of all. It was his responsibility to break me. I don’t know if he had a monthly quota or not, but if so, I didn’t help his numbers. Each morning he’d come to visit me, I’d sense more anger radiating from him. My last conversation with him went something like this…
“Hey, fuck face.”
“Good morning, Angelo. You know you shouldn’t use those terms of endearment with me. It’s not fair to the rest of your pals that I’m your favorite.”
He groaned in response. Instead of handing me the daily schedule, he folded it under his hulking arms and leaned against the door, glaring at me.
“What?” I smiled broadly.
“You infuriate me, boy.” His gritty voice got even deeper when he got pissed. I’d been hearing that baritone quite a lot lately.
“I’m sorry, friend.” I gave him a mock pout.
“I ain’t your goddamn friend,” he spat back. “I’ve sat through meeting after meeting about you and your behavior.”
“My behavior? What do you mean? I’m not causing trouble around here.”
“No, but you aren’t progressing like you should be, and I’m starting to get some heat from above about it.”
“Heat? In Hell? Oh my, that’s cause for concern…”
“Shut it, dick head! This ain’t no fuckin’ party around here.”
“I never said it was.” My tone got serious. “You guys have been working my ass off down here, doing your grunt work so you can spread evil on the surface. No, a party it definitely is not.”
“Those activities are designed to break you both in body and spirit. Yet here you are each day, sarcastic mouth and all, not a change.”
“So you’ve been meeting about me?” I started to enjoy this.
“I’ve been summoned to meetings about you. I’m tired of trying to explain why you’re not fitting into the mold down here.”
“Summoned by who?” This oughta be good.
“First by the Underworld BOD-”
“Hell has a board of directors?”
“Doesn’t any civilized organization?”
“You call this civilized?”
“Shut up, Bones. I’m trying to have a serious talk with you and you’re acting like we’re a bit out of Abbott and Costello.”
“Sorry. You were saying…”
“First by the BOD, then a couple of one-on-one meetings with Mr. D. He’s not very pleased with me, asked me to come up with a solution and quick.”
“You know him as the Devil.”
“Oh.” I paused, pondering that nugget. I knew there was a Devil here, obviously there had to be, right? Someone’s gotta be in charge. I just never met him face-to-face, so never really thought of him as being real. I had enough other evil leaders to cope with. “So what’s your game plan? With me, that is.”
“I dunno. I do the same shit with you every day, and nothing seems to work. The system is proven… You’re supposed to give in, collapse under the weight of it all.”
“What happens when people give in?”
“Depends. Many of them are still on the floor. They can still work – actually are more efficient when they don’t fight the system. But emotionally they’re just empty shells, walking around in a daze. The others, those who break completely, go to the Inferno Psych Ward. It’s one big padded cell.”
“What do they do in there?”
“Nothing. That’s the point – they’re not capable of doing anything anymore, so the Ward is the dumping ground for those who are broken beyond repair. We can get nothing out of them anymore.”
Suddenly Pete’s story started to make sense. Emotionally he was gone, so far gone he didn’t speak anymore. So he’s quiet, gave no resistance to the management, yet still worked effectively for them. A prize pupil, Pete turned out to be. Huh.
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing,” I squared my shoulders, looked him dead in the eyes. “You ain’t gonna break me. There’s nothing down here worse than anything I’ve lived through on the surface.”
“Nothing?” He rose to the challenge. I could see his chest puff up underneath his leather vest, the veins in his neck pop out.
“Nothing. You can’t make any of your rooms, any of your levels of Hell, feel worse than I did when I lost Misery. Worse than living life without her.”
“What part of life did you dislike the most?”
“Other than the three weeks after M died? High school, without a doubt. Hated it.”
“Hmmm…” Angelo rubbed the stubble on his face with his knuckles. “Zap mentioned the fact that you loathed high school. You dropped out, right?”
“Yep. Towards the end of my junior year. I was old enough to drive, got involved with a gang, had no use for school anymore.”
I could see his eyes light up, as if an idea sparked inside him. He started chuckling. It started with a low rumble and eventually built into a laughter so loud, I’m sure everyone on the floor could hear him. He threw his huge, bald head back, mouth open, and tears were streaming down his face.
“What? What is so funny?”
“Oh sorry,” he said, wiping his yellow eyes. “I just had the best idea…”
I didn’t like the way this idea amused him so much. “Okay. And?”
“Well, if none of my Hell’s down here seem to make you suffer…”
“Perhaps it is time to send you back to high school!”
Suddenly the room began to swim, black and red images swirled in my vision. I felt dizzy, out of control, sick at my stomach. It seemed almost as if my body were being tossed by some tornado, pressed together at one moment, pulled apart another, thrown back and forth like a rag doll. The motion made my stomach churn, my head felt like it would explode. I finally gave in to the sickness and blacked out.