By: Antwan Crump
“Have you prepared for the newcomers?”, a deep vibrating sound bellowed through the flames of the scorching caverns.
“Yes, my Lord.”
– the cloaked man replied, bowing as the rumblings beneath him made his burdened voice sound even more callous.
“And what of the others?”, the master boomed.
“The final soul is at the gates as we speak.” He quivered, followed again by his ceremonious bow.
“Very good, Dante.”
The flames surrounding him turned to smoke as they dragged him into the ground.
The endless caves went dark once again.
Linda had recently discovered that her husband had been cheating on her. After twenty some-odd years of marriage and putting their last child through college, it seemed best -to her- to ignore it. That was until she caught wind of his latest conquest.
The weeks following had gone as ritualistically as ever. The morning shower, a hearty breakfast, and the gentle kiss goodbye. Her bliss was destroyed by the missed courtesy call informing her that he would be working late, again.
Linda could sense her sanity snapping. Before today, she was able to tread, ‘just above the fire’.
Her phone vibrates.
It isn’t a call.
“A fucking text message!”
She scream-whispers to herself, raging around the kitchen, she decides that today would be the last of his betrayal.
“His precious fucking gun.”
On her way out the door, she tore down the pictures they’d hung on the wall.
Unable to hold back her tears, she left rubbing the running mascara from her eyes.
Bobby and Carol had been,’on again, off again’, since high school, a fact they had both been proud of. He no longer saw her as his mistress but as a chance to recapture his former glory.
“That woman”, he would often complain, of his wife,
“has taken everything from me, jailed me with child, after child, I just need to get out.”
-Carol was a reliable confidant.
During their near-nightly romp, Bobby and Carol notice a car pulling into the parking lot. It was only a slight disturbance, as the janitors had sometimes come to clean the offices late,
“High demand and all that”, he joked to Carol.
This was not the janitorial service. He knew this car. “Linda?” , he shrieked. Panicked, the two quickly dressed and began improvising explanations.
The horn honked several times. The two looked at each other silently, nodding in silent agreement that it was best to come clean. Leaving the office hand in hand, they surveyed the vehicle. It had a huge new dent on the front hood and was covered in a red liquid.
“Linda?” Bobby exclaimed to no answer, as they watched her shake behind the wheel.
“Honey?” Carol joined.
In almost perfect symmetry they asked, “Are you okay?”-
Hearing them, with her head on the wheel, Linda thought -between murderous thoughts-
Maybe they were meant to be together.
“Honey?” Bobby shouted as he reached to open to driver side door. A loud bang cracked through the car window and into the air.
Carol screamed as the top of her lungs as Bobby’s body fell limp onto the pavement.
Sirens blared as they pierced the roads, heading toward the parking lot. The blood flushed from Linda’s face, as she fell to her knees, crying hysterically beside what remained of her husband.
Racing down the highway to Bobby’s place of work, Linda could barely see the road ahead, as her eyes had swollen near shut from the constant rubbing.
“That bastard.” -she screamed beeping the horn with one hand, the moistened sleeve of her nightgown in the other.
During an intermission from her profane-ridden tantrum, she heard a loud thunk against the front of the vehicle. The car had spun out; the front windshield was splattered with ‘something’. Her first thought was that it was perhaps it was deer. Her Volvo came to a halt beside a tree. Miraculously, still in working condition.
Linda left the car to assess the damage, squinting down the road to get a glimpse of what she hit, she realized that it wasn’t a deer.
The bodies of a couple laid mangled on the side of the road. Linda covered her mouth in horror as she contemplated calling for help. What would Jesus do? She thought. Linda knew the answer, but Jesus never had any killing to do.
-Dante began counting.
She called 9-1-1 from her phone, let them hear her distraught cries, and slid the phone by the bodies without disconnecting.
They can trace it. They do in the movies -she thought.
Keith and Heather had just met at a party up the road. Both of them were ‘more or less, house nerds’ -not big partiers. They spent much of the night by the keg -bonding over Netflix shows and porn sites. Despite the willingness to drink amongst their classmates, they’d decided together that it was best to leave before harder substances were introduced.
Keith informed his friends that he would be escorting Heather home, to their resounding approval. Indeed, Heather was attractive, too attractive for Keith. She was also drunk and he’d been drinking soda, in his mind this knocked her down a few pegs and whatever happened was fair game. He carried a stumbling Heather out of the party, and toward the main road.
Though Keith had his intentions, Heather had an agenda of her own. She’d just developed her now infamous shapely form and had recently become popular for, “knowing how to use it”. Fearful of losing her popularity, she slept with any man or woman that would have her. Ever the home body, Keith, was unaware of the gossip. Though if he had heard -the ovation from his friends would have made more sense. He’d passed it off as ‘drunken jubilation’.
They seduced each other, and both got what they wanted.
Penetrating Heather by the side of the road, Keith fell too deep into their lovemaking trance to hear the screech of a car, careening down the road. Heather, drunk and bent in the opposing direction, had even less a chance of survival. He came, she came, and the 97’ Volvo followed suit, instantly killing them both.
Back in the parking lot -Linda aims the gun at a trembling Carol. Terrified, Carol’s afraid to do much but slowly fall to the floor -as commanded. As she does so, Linda approaches, spitting on Bobby’s body as she passes him.
“Linda, please listen to me, we’re friends.” Carol pleads. Linda responds by pulling the hammer down on the pistol, leaking endless tears as she does so. “Linda please!” Carol begs, as Linda -now inches away- points the gun at the center of Carol’s head.
Police rush into the parking lot. Surrounding the two them. One of the officers flashes his light and releases a quick burst from the siren, to get Linda’s attention. It works. Linda’s head whips around to find the origin of the bang. Carol attempts to grab the gun in Linda’s moment of distraction, Linda nervously pulls the trigger shooting her in the esophagus. The crowd of officers watched, panicked, as pieces of Carol cover the curb.
“Please, put the gun down!” One of them demand.
This wasn’t good enough for Linda. She knew that if she had heeded to their request, they would save this bitch’s’ life. Linda turns her gun on the police screaming, “It’s not done!” her words are overtaken by the requests of the negotiator.
“Ms. if you do not put down your weapon we will be forced to take aggressive action!”
-Linda ignores the warning, instead reveling in the sound of Carol, drowning on her own blood. As the choking slows, Linda turns to watch. She didn’t care about getting her gown any filthier, she refused to miss this justice.
Holding the gun to her own head, she faintly hears “stand down!” It was almost over, it was all so easy, it was all too perfect. As Linda watched the last breath exit Carol’s chest cavity, she turned to the police, smiled, and pulled the trigger,
-Dante smiled too.
The group of strangers arrived in a dark room. This wasn’t anything that they had experienced before. They were standing on sinking ground, but when they reached down, there was nothing beneath them.
A thick fetor filled the room, as the feeling of being quickly dropped persisted, despite their stillness. One of them would describe the experience as “A roller coaster on acid” -this is still one of Dante’s favorite descriptions.
“Hello!” one of them screamed as the words, suctioned from his lungs, only to return as a jagged sphere, that punctured his eyes. The ricochet reverb persisted. Hearing the punishment for speech, the others independently decided that it was best to remain silent.
A dim light approached, then a voice,
“Walk toward the light. Do not touch one another.” Everyone remained still, unaware the number of their company. The voice laughed, uncomfortably joyous,
-“It’s okay to speak, hurry now.”
Bobby yells,“Everyone, say here”, they comply, following the voice in front of them toward the flame -in the order which they had arrived.
Getting the closer to the flame, they were able to make out each other’s faces. Carol quickly ran to Bobby, as she tried to hug him, she heard a scream,
-“Bitch, don’t you listen?” Linda rushed past them in an unapologetic huff.
They collected around the cliff, arriving at a fire that had been floating several feet above them.
“Keith?”, Heather called. Keith darted his head around searching for the familiar voice. Looking up, he saw Heather, standing suspended in the air, beside a cloaked man. But it wasn’t the Heather he had remembered. Her eyes were blackened. Her perfect skin, now bruised and beaten. She didn’t look frightened, but complacent -and that scared the hell out of everyone else.
“Keith”, she pled. “We don’t belong here, please come with us.” The group stared at the young man -as if he knew something they didn’t -wondering why they had not also been granted such a tempting invitation, he walked to the edge of the cliff and screamed “Heather, what is this?”. Her head turned slowly to the cloaked man, he nodded in approval, focusing back on Keith she informed, “We’re dead.”
Keith stepped back from the cliff and stared at the ground. In that moment it had shaken again, cracking open to reveal a sea of melting arms grabbing upward, only to recede back into the molten depths of the rising magma. The crack repaired itself, and Keith began to weep, thinking of the family he’d left on earth.
I’m gone? He thought to himself as he backed into a wall and slid down. Carol rushed to the edge of the cliff and proclaimed “Well if he won’t come I will.” Linda argued, “No, I will. That bitch can stay here and rot.” The two bickered unintelligibly for a moment before the cloaked man ordered, “Enough.” The two fell silent.
Linda argued, “No, I will. That bitch can stay here and rot.” The two bickered unintelligibly for a moment before the cloaked man ordered-
“Enough.”, scorched debris fell, as the caverns shook, and the two fell silent.
“You all shall have your time.”, Dante said as the others listened intently. “ This moment is for the boy.” They retreated back as Keith presented himself to Dante.
Dante and Heather met him at the cliffs end. Heather smiled, and for a second -at least to Keith- she was as beautiful as she had ever been.
“Come with me Keith, we don’t belong here.” Keith looked longingly at Heather, just before leering at Dante. While sizing Dante up, he noticed his corpse-like smell. He could barely make out his face under the hood and layer of rotten flesh. A piece of skin fell from Dante’s face as he grimaced back at Keith. Following the sight fallen parts, he shivered in fear, disgusted at the sight Dante’s decomposing limbs.
Seeing his discomfort, Heather reached out to recover Keith’s attention. Just as she grazed him, she fell to the floor and began screaming in agony. Smoke permeated through her skin until it lit in a blue flame. Her screams were accompanied, by the quake and opening of the cavern depths.
Heather’s agony continued, as Dante watched with little reaction, other than a grin. Her bones shifted, out of place at the hip. Her arms cracked and split. She became the equivalent of a human pretzel.
Bobby blurted lowly in the background to Carol, “That’s worse than the wall”.
Her transformation complete, the group watched, as she burned on the ground in, absolute pain.
Seeing the horrified faces, Dante reminds them, “I told you not to touch one another.” “Now the rest of you, let’s go”.
The group remained frozen, as Dante proceeded forth on fire that had bridged the gap between him and cliffs end.
“What have you done to her?” Keith asked.
Dante turns his head slightly and replies “ I have done nothing. She knew the rules, as you all now know. And now must complete the journey as she entered.”
“But she’ll die…” Keith paused, reminding himself, that they were already dead. “We can’t leave her here.”
Dante laughed and continued forward, his echoed voice screaming “Then carry her. See how that works out for you.”
The group awaited Keith’s arrival at the end of the bridge. He hurried across, as the flames subsided behind him. Feeling his feet begin to boil, Keith burst into a sprint. Dante stopped in front of a brittle wall.
Linda walked ahead of the group, to Dante who watched as she gently grazed the walls with her fingertips. It was cold, and yet it burned her hand as if she had placed it in scalding water. She reflexively retracted her hand and placed her fingers in her mouth, which began to cook her tongue as well.
Unamused, Dante scolds “One should ask, before one acts.” Linda glanced at him angrily. Bobby and Carol giggled -entertained at her childlike misstep. Dante points, directing her back to the group, and announced to them all-
“You have all been sent to me, to prove you’re worthy of judgment. For the sins of existence, your sentence will be to face that which you most fear. Time will tell what you are, as well as where your place of rest shall be. But for now, your souls belong to the rings. However, my master is not wholly unreasonable of character. If you wish to forego these rings, you may decline.”
Linda attacked “And what happens if we do? Do we get to speak with god?”
Dante removed his hood, revealing a decaying skull, akin to a long deceased, and unembalmed cadaver. Carol let out a shriek, as the others gawked.
“Right now, I am your god!” Dante declared.
“So what happens?” Bobby interrupted.
Dante extended his skeletal hand to them, “If you wish not to see, simply touch my hand and you shall see nothing, and be no more.”
The four, quickly jerk away from him.
“No one ever wants to at first.” Dante places his hood back over his head and turns toward the wall. “So you’re all wondering what happens now.”
Dante touched the wall, as it broke down, the first ring of hell eroded from the darkness.
“Now, you see the fire.” flames began to engulf them. The rock shattered away, revealing miles scorching forest. “I want you to see the fire”.
He paused and lightly concluded, “I need you to see the fire.” Dante walked through the newly made path. Bobby looked at the gap behind them and considered jumping. A worried Carol called to him. After a moment of indecisiveness, he followed them into the inferno.