hell

It Gets Better

                The Hereafter wasn’t quite what Antoine expected. No fire, no army of demons. Merely an ambling desert, uncertain footing atop shifting sands for as far as the eye could see. There was no sun, but heat bore down on him regardless. His feet burned black on sand hotter than a furnace fire. The young, yet damned soul trudged beneath an empty sky, bereft of any color. Not blue, not red, no matte arrangement of stars, just emptiness, as if the land he tread was all that mattered. This must be Hell, Antoine knew, there was nowhere else it could be. This perdition was not nearly as horrible as he expected.

                And yet… yet…

                How he longed to have someone else to talk to. Alone on the plain, no wind, no noise except for the smacking of chapped, bleeding lips—he thirsted, he hungered, but did not die. He felt himself slipping into madness. Isolation, the most effective torture Satan could develop for mankind’s social soul. Antoine would have tipped his hat to the fallen angel, were he wearing one. This was a subtle Hell indeed.

How he craved a drink. His throat coated with sand. Every swallow brought more abrasions along his esophagus. Antoine bled internally from a thousand tiny cuts. Each breath flushed his insides with desert air, drying him out a little more. He took a step, and then another, less sure with each one why he bothered moving at all. Perhaps it was time to lie down, maybe he needed sleep. Just for a while… or for good. What difference did it make, after all, to the dead?

                “It gets better.”

                Antoine blinked in shock. Time passed him by with indifference, and he did not know how many forevers had come and gone since last he heard another voice. Here one was hanging in the air. The young man looked around trying to find its source, hands shaking with… fear? Yes, and excitement and hope. Something had changed in a static world.

                “Hello?” He asked, and his own voice shocked him, a loud baritone that cut through the quiet and quickly disappeared among absorbent dunes. “Who’s there?”

                “Well, first it gets worse… but it does eventually get better.” The voice again came from all around Antoine. He could not place it. The air itself comforted him, or so it seemed. Was this a trick? Another means to propel him down the path of madness? He tried to weep, but no more moisture availed itself. He was a husk dragging through nowhere to get to nowhere, forgotten by all but Death’s faceless jester who taunted him from the abyss.

                “You aren’t mad. Hopelessness is normal, given these circumstances. We’re about as far down as a man can fall.” The man spoke again, for it was a man’s voice, and this time it did have a direction. Antoine lifted his head and in the distance he saw a speck, a moving shadow, another life in the wilderness. He did not wonder then how it was he heard this man speaking like he was already in his midst, running gladly to him like the stranger brought with him an oasis of the coolest water. Sooner than he thought possible, they met, touching calloused fingertip to calloused fingertip.

                Wheezing with exertion, the young soul spoke first. “An-Antoine.”

                “I’m sorry?”

                “My-my… oh God, my name. It’s Antoine. Who are you? Where did you come from? W-why why are you-” Antoine stopped to catch his breath.

                “-am I here?” The other man smiled, just another crease on a face well-traveled with lines and folds, greyed with impossible age. He scratched his scalp, cracked and bare. “I suppose that will be apparent soon enough. All in Lou’s time.”

                “Lou?”

                “My pet name for our jailer. You know, Lucifer?” The old stranger smiled through every word, unnerving Antoine.

                “Where I’m from…” The man continued, taking the questions in reverse order. “A place, much like this, empty. A void suited best for limitless pain. My time there was done, so I was brought here. Now, as for my name-” He paused a while, chapped, pale lips pursed in thought. “You know, I don’t remember. It’s been so long since it was any use.”

                Antoine shifted uneasily from burnt foot to burnt foot. Suddenly, with a visitor to his hollow realm, he was conscious of his near nakedness in the thin rags that draped his emaciated body. He was a skeleton coat hanger for fabric bleached colorless by the heat. That the other man dressed similarly brought little comfort.

                “So, uh,” Antoine spoke, uncertain how to proceed, “Uh… what happens now?”

                “Suppose, in lieu of my name, I tell you a story. You’ll learn more about me that way than any name’d teach.”

                The young, dead man nodded in assent.

                “When I was, oh, just about your age I’d guess, I killed a man. I can’t now remember why. Maybe it was over something foolish like lust or love, but reasons matter less than consequences. The man died all the same, by my hands, in my arms.” As he spoke, the old soul traced a pattern in the sand with his toe—a spiral growing slowly outward.

                “I didn’t confess. The crime was never solved. I remember… forcing myself to cry at his funeral, being comforted by gathered friends and family. I suppose I must have known him rather well. Anyway, years passed. I married, had children, lived what many might consider a ‘good life’, and died at a ripe old age. And yet still, despite all that good papered over the sin I-”

                “You ended up here.” Antoine interrupted in spite of himself, quietly cursing his rudeness.

                The old man smiled, not minding the disruption. What was a little time lost to the dead?

                “That’s right, I ended up here. For the longest time I was alone in a desert, like you. Unlike yours, mine was a tundra. So cold I could feel my blood freezing in my veins. With every breath I swallowed hundreds of sharp icicles. Each moment birthed unendurable pain. I shuffled along for God knows, well… maybe not, how long. Days, months, millennia. Until I heard a voice.”

                “‘It gets better.’” Antoine intoned, unconsciously mimicking the old man’s voice.

                The nameless one continued as if he had not heard.

                “At first it was impossible to tell where it came from. But then I saw her, in the distance, no more than a mite on the horizon. Faster than I thought possible, there I was in her arms. She told me her story. Her sin is not important, but it was vile. A rough in a vale of diamonds. I asked her the same question you asked me: Why are you here?

                “‘To make you see.’”

                See what? Antoine wanted to ask, but he waited. The answers came in due course.

                “And that’s also why I am here, Antoine. To make you see.”

                Then Antoine did ask. “See what?”

                The old man shook his head, instead saying. “Tell me about your life.”

                And so Antoine did, or so he thought. He spoke of his childhood, a hard drinking mother and father both passing in an out of prison, never really a presence in his life. The aunts and uncles whose hands he passed through, whose hands often found themselves on him in places they shouldn’t. The grandfather who taught him how to shoot a gun, then placed him on a street corner at the young age of 12, pockets full of ‘dust’. He spoke of the life he took a year later, and how he regretted the violence each time. He spoke of his dreams, the poetry he wrote in secret and told only to the boys and girls who frequented his bed. He spoke of his too young death, and stopped, looking at the old man expectantly.

                The old soul frowned and again shook his head. “No, tell me the truth.”

                Again Antoine recounted his life, not sure what the old man wanted. This time he discussed more detail about the darkness that brought him here. How his hands shook after each kill, though less and less each time. About getting high in back alleys, selling to kids even younger than himself. He confessed to killing his grandfather, then his parents, once he realized he could sustain himself without their interference. He admitted that sometimes, after reading his lovers his secret poetry, his knife would dance across their flesh so that they could tell no one else, and how he’d find someone new to play with. Tears in his eyes each time. He told of his death, shot in the back by someone he never saw. He remembered fading as their hands went through his pockets, and then the dull pain as they stabbed his dying flesh, once, twice, three times for good measure. And then he was here. Again he finished and looked back up at the old man.

                He pursed his lips and sighed. “I said the truth, boy.”

                This time, Antoine recounted his tale without emotion. There was no justification. No weeping. No humanizing his actions. Just a list of sins, a long and varied catalogue of transgressions. There was so much wrong. So much hurt wrought by his hands and his alone. Confronting it again and again, the young man rubbed off the scabs over his guilt and finally saw all the pain he caused others. He saw this pain was all that mattered. No one saw how you suffered inside. No one cared about the motivations for your evil. All people see is what you do. The ‘why’ of anything is pointless before the weight of the ‘what’.

                The old man finally nodded. And the young soul found that, despite how low he felt delving into his past again and again, the telling lightened him somewhat. He fell to the ground and might have died of gratitude then and there were his heart still beating. It was over. He could hurt no one else now, not even himself.

                “Like I told you, it gets worse at first, but then…” The voice echoed from all around him again and when the young soul looked up, he was not surprised to find the old man gone. Nor was he worried that he no longer remembered his own name. His sins, all he needed, all he was, stood tall in his memory.

                “It gets better,” He finished the sentence that trailed into the distance, then sat down to wait, no longer burned by the sand.

Smiling, he knew it would not be long before he too was transported.

The City In the City In The...

                In the shadowed corner of a dead city, you spy a piece of its ghost. Its streets replicated in miniature, the same hidden places, the same short cuts, the same skeletons of strange, long-dead creatures lining its causeways. All is the same, but smaller.

Haggard reflections of lost greatness dwindle in the dark.

You squint at the maze-like road map, wondering if within this replica, you yourself are the only life that remains. If this phantom before you is that fidelitous to the truth.

                And yes, in this same block that you now wander through, you see a small figure, crouched down in the corner. You see a man spying the ghost of a ghost, wondering at its streets, looking for himself. The same wind howls through empty roads, and you both shudder. You look up, and so does he, and above you, through the clouds, you spy a familiar chin. A neck’s nape that is all your own. The face of a giant turned upwards. You scream, and matching it is a scream loud enough to rend the Earth asunder.

                How many selves, how many ghosts, wander the empty streets of their dead homes? How many men wonder at their smaller selves, who wonder at their smaller selves? How many giants peer through the clouds at a maze that is entirely too familiar? How many men are already dead, and just do not yet realize?

                Perhaps this is an endless cycle, a repeated hell, where time is fluid. And on and on we exist, watching ourselves watch ourselves in the corner of a city that life abandoned. Perhaps that is our punishment for sins we have forgotten.

Perhaps we are one, and that one is lost forever.

Redemption?

                The sun dims, even as it hangs high in the sky. The world quiets and fades. Our hero, mortally wounded, passes from one life into the next. His long prodigal son, weeping, cradles his head as he dies. After decades of estrangement, of seething resentment, of hatred. It takes the end. It takes sacrifice to bring these two back together.

                The gun trained on the young man. His eyes stood wide in horror. He couldn’t believe it. Was this to be all? All that came of his life? He was too young. He had too much to live for, a loving wife, an unborn child. Sure, he had made his share of mistakes. Committed his share of crimes. But was he already here, at the cliff’s edge, soon to be lost in memory? He looks to his father beside him, a silent plea in his eyes.

                Save me… please… save me. You’ve never given me a thing in your life. Save me. Save m-

                A gunshot, and before he can even register that he is not wounded. His father, once beside him, not in front, shudders and slacks to the floor. The gunman has already fled.

                And so the young man cradles the elder, one who abandoned him long ago, now our hero. And he weeps.

                “No… no, you can’t go. Please no. Dad, please no!”

                The older man looks up at him and smiles. “Son? How long… has it been… since you called me-”

                He dies mid thought, his eyes close at last.

                …and at the smell of sulfur, at the pain and the heat. They shoot back open in surprise. Around him swarms fire, and molten rock and dancing sadistic imps who poke his prone form with pokers.

                ARISE, NEW MINION!

                He struggles to rise, but broken glass bonds tie him to a slab of blades.

                “What? Where am I? Why am I-”

                In hell? You were a murderer, a liar, a usurer. What did you expect?

                In the smoke that hurt to breathe, a dark shape looms, multi-limbed and humongous. A beast the size of a skyscraper. There is no doubt. This is hell, and before him impends God’s once-favored. A beauty turned ugly, a ray of light lapsed into darkness.

                Lucifer.

                “My Son. I g-gave my life for my son.”

                Ah yes, redemption. What a theory. What a con. You thought self-sacrifice would punch your ticket to heaven?

                “I thought… I don’t know what I thought. I just wanted to save my child.”

                How noble, to be sure. But wasn’t it your drug deal that got him in trouble? Wasn’t it your abandonment that led him astray?

                The man has no answer. It takes all his concentration not to scream as the flesh flays from his skull, as his bones and muscle burn. As he is torn apart and remade, again and again. Suffering the same death and same rebirth, Prometheus torn to shreds by a thousand fiery vultures.

                The dark shadow bends to face him, eye to eye. A scabarous, horrid face, laced with boils and a hundred fetid mouths with rows of ten thousand rotting teeth. Eyes a sickly yellow, skin dark black and leaking pus from every orifice. Once beautiful, the corruptible angel is turned a nightmare by his sin.

                Be honest, as you died. Was your last thought of your son? “Thank God… he still lives.” Or of yourself? “At last, I am redeemed?”

                By his silence, the father’s truth is revealed.

The path to hell is paved with good intentions, down which men who do the right thing for the wrong reasons are always, always led.