Description: Misery’s Fire is a teenager’s account of his time in Hell. When the demons couldn’t torture him, they sent him to a place more gruesome – high school.
“When I found myself in Hell I learned several things. One, there really is a Devil and he does rule over Hell. Two, an eye for an eye does not extend to the lives of the gang members who did not personally kill your sister. Three, when you splash gasoline all over a body shop you also splash gasoline on yourself.
The fourth and most important lesson I learned was before you light the match with the intentions of burning down the gas station and killing the man that murdered your sister, you would be wise to leave the building instead of waking him up so he could see you pass your judgment on his life.
In Hell, everyone is assigned their own demon caseworker. His job is to make sure you’re as unhappy as possible and Hell lives up to its reputation. Much to my caseworker’s disappointment, after living through my sister’s death, none of the levels of Hell they created for me had the desired effect. I told him after living through the agony of high school, I thought I could endure all he had to offer. So he promptly beamed me back to the fiery pits of high school.”
Misery’s Fire is a crime thriller detailing the life and death of Grant Williams and his subsequent experience in Hell. When his caseworker, Angelo, couldn’t break his spirit, he exacted his revenge by sending Grant back to the fiery pits of high school. He finds himself in a new – and much younger body – with nothing but a backpack and a school uniform. Grant must learn to survive not only life on his own, but also the horrors of high school – cliques and chicks included.
“Wake up, sleepy head.” The gravelly voice, thick with a New York accent, 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 ensured 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 guessedRussia. 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 vith 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.
Misery’s Fire is the product of a seasoned hand, a veteran of the written word. I’ll subdue my envy for a moment and seriously try to be gracious and complimentary. Obviously, the high standard of prose and pace, that does not miss a beat, allows no leeway for criticism. The creation of the plot, devious as it is devilish, and its proficient development, is sublime. What a gift of comedic insight to be able to devise the ‘chain’ of why the guardian is called Angelo! And the Boy called Sue homage in the opening ? Respect! BACKED.
Robert Davidson, The Tuzla Run
If I laugh out loud while reading someone’s short pitch, it gets watchlisted; and when the first couple of pages cause me to delay brushing my teeth or putting on pants, the book gets backed. Nice. I’m down for more.
Greg Levin, Notes on an Orange Burial
Ok- Misery’s Fire – you got the gift – I found it easy to work my way through 6 chapters without even realising it.. that is a good sign of a great storyteller.. this has it all, humour, darkness, a hero with a mission.. I like it – well done! Backed and best wishes.
Diane, Good Blood
Kim, if you haven’t hit the right note with this I don’t know what the right note could possibly be. It’s a great new take on the human relationship with hell and the humour that pops up occasionally keeps it from being too grim. Will most certainly keep on reading, all the best.
Maggie Pritchard, Llangorfan
This is Brilliant. There have been many takes on hell and you seem to encompass them and go a step further, mix the preconceived ideas so we can relate, and then use your talent to take us to new heights.
Extremely well written, perfectly paced and the back story, which I feel is the most important, is perfect. Love of Family or lack of, is the key ingredient in the becoming of, to some degree, a product of our enviroment.
The choices we make or do not make based on the data we choose to process. Using Hell to show us, that even though we made those choices, doesn’t mean, that we can’t let them stop us from winning, or that, eventually, because of all those previous circumstances, we may perhaps reach a level we never thought possible.
It’s been a long time since I have been excited about a fiction book and where it goes, but I think this is really special, and extremely thought provoking in a very subtle but powerful manner.
Thank you for sharing your gift in this wonderfully paced book, with it’s complex but likable characters, and for the message that is clearly there for those who wish to see it…Backed 1000%.
Patricia, aka Columbia, Layers of the Heart
It always amazes me how people, such as yourself, have such vivid imaginations, and to be honest, I harbour a bit of jealousy (but don’t be telling anyone that.
Your story is very different from what I expected and your writing has a lot of warmth to it – no pun intended – and even though it’s fantasy your prose makes it so real. I love the closeness your narrator and Misery have for each other especially after their mother died. A very entertaining read, and already backed.