Short Fiction: A Hellish Mistake
Marisol woke up in a cell. She blinked her eyes to cracks in a ceiling. Her eyes itched, feeling of grit. She blinked in slow motion and turned on her ear. The cell was dimly lit with stone walls. There was a wooden door with a small barred window revealing weak torch light beyond. She began lifting herself only to realize she was elevated.
“A top bunk,” she thought to herself sleepily.
She grasped the edges of her bunk and peered below. Beneath her, a figure was covered beneath a sheet. The figure turned, revealing a blond-haired woman with blue eyes under very puffy lids.
“First time here?” Marisol asked quietly.
The woman nodded quietly, blanket pulled up over her nose so that only her blue eyes peeped out.
“What are you here for?”
The woman pulled the blanket down. Marisol noticed her lips were chapped.
“I smoked crack and stole a car.”
“I see. My name is Marisol, by the way.”
“Charlene,” the woman whispered back. “What about you? Is this your first time here? What did you do?”
“I have to admit it is, but I’ve heard of this place. We’re in jail, plain and simple. I ended up in this cell because I pierced a hole through a man’s skull, watched the light flee his body right through the chiseled bone. Then I skinned him, peeled his sinews off his bones, and used his sinews to string my dulcimer. Then I toured the land, playing wild death dirges under the fair moon.” Marisol’s face lacked humor, her tone matter-of-fact.
Charlene’s eyes grew wide. She pulled the blanket up again. “You’re fucking crazy,” she said through the blanket.
“It’s all true.” The first hint of sun was rising, peering through the tower window. The light shone through the bars, making Marisol’s face appear striped. “I played and played, city by city, town to town. I drew so much attention calamity ensued, strumming on the sinews of a dead man. No one knew the secret of my dulcimer, but it was like a radiating spell. Whenever I played, it was man against man, woman against woman, friend against friend. People cheated at poker and drank too much.”
Charlene had a glazed over stare.
Marisol continued, “They would vomit or fall on their knees, maddened by the wailing that hovered upon the waves, vibrating, humming, the secrets of this dead man on the heavy air.”
“Who was this guy?” Charlene asked. Her voice faint as if she were imagining herself very far away from the tower cell.
“I knew him not,” Marisol replied with a sudden taciturn tone.
“You just killed some stranger in cold blood?”
“He was a killer as well. That’s all I knew about him really. It came up one day in a letter he sent me. He would send these letters with no signature, but I knew it was him because I would sneak out and pretend to walk in one direction and double back. Then I would watch my doorstep. It was him, a tall man in a long trench coat, who would consistently place an envelope underneath my door. I don’t know who he killed or why, but I became his confessor in a way. Even though I had no contact with him in person, he was my lover, my hater, my stalker, my shadow. We get to know each other, here in Hell.”
“Hell? What are you talking about?” Charlene asked, more alert but still clutching her blanket as if it would protect her from the strange reality of the stone cell.
“I don’t know that much about it really, but I’ve been in Hell for a while I think. I’m stuck here in this cell now. It’s safe to say that committing murder in Hell wasn’t one of my better ideas.”
Charlene stared up at the top bunk with a furrowed brow. “How did you get to Hell in the first place?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Marisol replied, resuming her former amiable chattiness. “I didn’t visit my grandparents enough. I was judgy. I spoke prophecies of doom. I had sex with less than stellar mates and then choked on my shame; I jumped fences; I ate too much at parties; drank someone else’s beer; accidentally chopped the edge off a puppy’s tail; put too many blankets on the cat; pushed people around; spoke loudly; concerted with anarchists; drove with anger; disrespected time; ate candy when no one was looking; sent shadows after a stalker; mirrored up my defenses; drove everyone mad; refused to give up; became fashion obsessed; disappointed my elders; didn’t pinch pennies; disgraced my name; scowled at waitresses; tore down other people’s charades; was callous, envious, bored, and self-absorbed — all the while never sitting still. I broke the law, cut off my hair, didn’t water the plants. I engaged in schadenfreude, complained and complained.”
“You are fucking crazy. What are you even talking about?” Charlene responded glumly, hands on her aching head. Charlene had woken up in Hell with a hangover.
“I was guilty of the seven sins,” Marisol laughed. “What I think really did it, the time I really fucked up when I was alive was that one time I hooked up with a demon. I didn’t like him all that much, but I felt like killing myself. He was the only one around. I drank this espresso with him, a cursed espresso. Every one of the experts always said ‘Don’t drink cursed espressos with demons,’ but did I listen: no. The espresso didn’t work on me. I found it boring and unfulfilling, but since I had violated the laws of the universe and said ‘fuck you’ to the moral boundaries of man, sure enough, I soon found myself dead and damned. I didn’t even get official notice. I had to piece it together myself. To not even realize you’re dead and then to have to figure it out based on all of the strange shit going on around you is even worse than realizing that you woke up in Hell due to cause and effect.”
Marisol jumped off the top bunk and made her way to the door. She plopped down and faced Charlene, who glared back at her.
“You are schizophrenic. Great.”
“No, I am not schizophrenic. Unfortunately, life isn’t so cut and dry as you imagine. Sometimes strange things happen. If it makes it easier to understand, you can imagine the demon as some hostile, back stabbing junky, and me as a suicidal person bent on distracting myself from death by my own hand. That’s the irony of the whole situation, in fact: in saving my own life, I actually ended it.” Marisol paused, her mind mulling over the philosophical nature of the discussion. She blinked her eyes open and looked at Charlene. Their eyes met, and Charlene rolled her eyes in response.
Marisol snapped, irritated that Charlene wouldn’t enjoy the artistry of her flamboyant, slightly hyperbolic confession asking, “Do regular jail cells look like towers? Do you even remember how you got here?” Her tone was accusatory.
Charlene closed her eyes for a moment. “I remember drinking too much, stealing the car” she quieted for a moment. “I think there was an accident, a collision, impact. I woke up here…I don’t know really.”
“Well, it sounds like you died in the crash. If you are in Hell, you must have done something really bad.”
Charlene remained quiet.
“You must have killed someone.”
Charlene deflected, going along with Marisol’s strange chatter if only to remove herself from the spotlight, “You said you think the demon was how you died. Do you remember the actual moment of death though? Did you have a heart attack and see a bright light? What happened?”
“That’s the thing. I’m not sure. I think I might have been dead for years before I noticed. I do remember the moment I finally figured it out. It sounds more unreal than being in Hell actually. I was living life, or so I assumed, and I was talking to a rockstar online. It seemed like we were going to hangout. That’s how I knew I was dead. There was no way he would ever talk to me in waking life. He was too handsome, too popular, too creative a genius, yet it seemed as if he were interested. I remember that day I sat on the couch and realized either I had died and gone to Heaven and my dream came true or I had died and went to Hell, and the guy was just fucking with me as part of my punishment. I figured I must have died in my sleep. I didn’t wake up in this cell after dying though. Hell isn’t simply one torture chamber. From what I gather it is really quite sprawling and life-like.” Marisol’s eyes looked up as if talking to God. “No, no, I worked my way to this cell with that murder and those unholy performances. I got last night, and here I am.”
Charlene was staring at her, her face difficult to read. “Supposing you aren’t schizophrenic, those things you mentioned, other than the murder, don’t seem so bad that you’d end up in Hell.”
“Who knows,” Marisol replied flatly. “What matters more is that once a resident of Hell, I killed that guy.”
Charlene scoffed, “Don’t you want to get out of here? If you knew you were dead and in Hell, why would you go along and make it worse?”
“I do want to get out of here, but now more than ever, escaping Hell might be impossible,” Marisol replied, irritated but still willing to talk. “I’ll tell you why I did it though,” Marisol continued as if revealing an elaborate conspiracy. “People were bothering me. That’s why I murdered that man. I didn’t understand the nature of the place other than it didn’t follow the normal rules of reality. I felt like I was in a dream for the most part, and in dreams, people often find themselves acting out a part of a play they never auditioned for. Their bodies go through the motions, their voices articulate the lines, their minds perceive the impossibility of the situation, and yet, the dream continues on. What I learned about Hell is that it seems like regular life, except that you become a magnet for whatever bothers you. It took a while for me to figure it out. The people here, they were all resentful, but they pretended they were happy. They all tried to cover up their anger and despair. It was like being stuck in some bad circus show, and I just grated on their nerves. I wouldn’t shut the fuck up. It was non-stop philosophy. I made gowns out of Hell’s dry and bitter foliage. I took up art, using soot to fashion grand sketches. That really pissed them off. The guy I killed. He was the worst of them all. He kept acting like he liked me and then never carrying through, putting letters under my door and never knocking. It feels like I’ve been here for ages, and it’s not like sex drive dies just because you reside in an alternate dimension. It gets worse though. He spread rumors throughout the Hell realm that I was a crazy stalker, but he was stalking me. Every time I went to get a cup of bad coffee, the baristas looked at me askew. Around town, everyone whispered about my instability and awkwardness. They all talked about how I was bothering that man in the trench coat, but I couldn’t so much as take a piss without some trace of him assaulting my senses. It even seemed like he was breaking into my house somehow.”
Charlene let out a crazy laugh from the bunk. Marisol continued, her eyes scanning the stone walls as if they would reveal a secret to her if she simply discovered a new way to look at them,
“The thing about this place is that your life doesn’t just disappear. It comes with you, magnified and amplified. It is existence under a microscope, a trial of infinite beratement.”
Charlene started crying suddenly, tears and laughter, blending alarmingly. “Fuck,” she sobbed. “This is awful. I want to get out of here.”
“Want all you like. You’ll probably be trapped indefinitely.” Marisol’s eyes scanned the curvature of the room. She continued casually, “There are rumors that there are a few ways out of Hell.”
“What ways out?” Charlene’s nose dripped.
Marisol cleared her throat with mock officiality. “One, you serve your time and the gods release you; two, you have good luck and figure out how to transport out of here with your mind; or three, someone drills or shoots a hole in your skull and your soul escapes.”
“How would you know that?”
“It’s common knowledge around here. If you are here long enough, word gets around.”
“You drilled a hole in that man’s head. That means you set him free.” Charlene looked angry even as the tears rolled down her face.
“Even though I hated him, it was more of a compulsion. I was caught in the clutches of the dream.”
Charlene’s face exhibited even more alarm. “Jesus,” she wept. “We can pray to Jesus.”
“Yeah,” Marisol replied hesitantly, but that still involves the mind. I also think it’s more complicated than that. I believe in divine mercy — even divinity coagulated in one very aware man, but I think that sort of thing doesn’t happen only once. Instead, I think it can happen periodically, and if someone can push away the scurf, you never know…”
Marisol was cut off as Charlene threw the pillow square in her face, releasing a cloud of dust and tiny spiders. Marisol’s eyes were now the ones to clench, throat itching, loud sneezes erupting and coating Charlene’s face from across the small cell. Charlene lunged.
“You killed a man,” she screamed. “You don’t believe in Jesus. You deserve to be in Hell, witch,” she spat as she pummeled Marisol with her clenched fists. Marisol, fully underneath her at this point, began kicking upward and back with energetic pulses, hitting the back of Charlene’s head.
“What the fuck?!” She screamed, continuing her beratement.
Marisol kicked harder. Charlene paused at one especially forceful blow, and Marisol squirmed from underneath her legs and raced to the corner of the cell, jumping on the bottom bunk, ready to use it as a spring.
“You want to fight?! Come on then!” Marisol roared intemperately. Her rage numbed the bruises. “Let’s fight then!”
Charlene let out a growl and lunged at her, her full speed and aggression built up due to the horrific circumstances she found herself in. Her rush was so intense that when Marisol bounced off the bed to the position Charlene began in, Charlene didn’t have enough time to stop. Her lunge transformed into a face plant, flesh meeting hard, cold stone.
“Look, you may be bigger than me, but I’m crazier than you and less sensitive to pain” Marisol was chatting amiably now that Charlene had been stopped in her tracks. “Attack me again and see what happens. I’ll kill you too and use your sinews for dulcimer strings. I’ll bust my way out of here and start playing shows again. If I’m stuck in Hell again, I might as well salt everyone’s saccharine.
“No!” Charlene sobbed, her face bloody and bruised from her propulsion into the wall.
“Are you sure? It would be more entertaining for me that way.” Marisol’s mouth was getting the better of her.
Just then the cell door opened, revealing a tall hooded figure with a raven on his shoulder. The raven jumped down and, with an officious wobble, released a small square of parchment from its very long black beak at Marisol’s feet.
The card read: “Charges: amorality and mischief. Trial by magistrate.”
The man shut the door, raven walking amicably by his side.
“Never got one of these before,” Marisol voiced, more to herself than anyone else. Then Marisol shut up…. finally. Charlene silently sobbed in the bottom bunk.
“I’m in Hell because of amorality,” Marisol thought to herself. “So many don’t give a fuck types, they do 90 on city streets, rob grandmothers, throw their trash all over the city. I even knew a guy who took a shit in the cat’s litter box at this one party. Everyone knew it was him, but everyone acted as if nothing had happened.” Marisol sighed quietly, making her way back up to her bunk. Her thoughts raced, “Then there are those other ones, the ones who pretend that they are good. Me ending up in Hell seems like a heavy price to pay, and what about all those other people who are just as bad or worse?” Marisol was puzzled. She looked down at the parchment in her hand. No mention of murder was on the card. She dropped the card and grasped her head in her hands. “They say the root of all evil is pride. No wait. Was it actually hubris?” She wriggled her toes in perplexion. “No, no, that’s not it. It must be that amorality is the root of all evil,” Marisol thought silently as Charlene’s sobs grew louder. The sun crossed the sky, shining through the cell window, and as the day passed, the light and shadows appeared in different places in the room. Night came and both of them slept, hungry and thirsty, for no one had brought them anything to consume. Marisol’s memories raced through her dreams in a patchwork collage and despite her weariness, she clenched her jaw, tossing and turning.
A grating sound woke her. The cell was still dark, but at the now open door, the same man who came yesterday stood in a long black robe with his raven; man and raven were outlined by the amber torch light of the hallway. Marisol knew he was there for her. She hopped down off her bunk, her hair tangled and her breath reeking of hunger and dismay. The dark figure motioned at her. The quiet was punctuated by Charlene’s heavy snores. Marisol took a step forward and looked up at him again, hesitantly. She was apprehensive since Hell was always depicted as burning fires and physical torture. The man motioned again and turned around, walking quietly into the hallway. She found herself following him despite her fears.
They walked down the hallway to a spiraling stair case. Marisol peaked down but could see no end. They made their way down slowly, and time crept past. Other than the torches, the tower was pitch black even as the sun was rising outside. They walked silently. After what seemed like an eternity, Marisol worked up the courage to ask the figure, “Can I ask you some questions?”
She was met with silence. Stairway met ground, and they walked directly to a heavy doorway. The man reached toward the door, and it opened, revealing a bleak, pre-industrial town.
The continued walking down an earthen street, and tiny pebbles and sticks were slowly but surely digging into Marisol’s feet. The dirt road was smooth for the most part, and the tiny cuts that were erupting were smoothed over by the dusty earth.
“Hey, can you explain why I’m here. Why am I in Hell?”
The raven squawked “Hell,” but the robed figure said nothing. Marisol felt agitated. She grabbed the man’s arm and pulled him around, leaning in for a glimpse in his eyes, only to discover nothing underneath his hood. Her eyes met the void.
She was like a deer frozen before the hunter’s killing blow. The figure placed a gloved hand on her shoulder and turned her around, keeping his strong hand there as he pushed her forward. They continued walking in this way for a long time right through the center of the town. Marisol looked around. Not a soul could be seen. The air was unnaturally still.
Eventually, they arrived at a yard fenced in with wooden pikes. At first glance, the yard was empty, but once they entered, Marisol felt a wave of vertigo. When her eyes refocused, a heavy, sour faced man sat on a high seat behind a tall podium. To each side of him were bleachers. The missing townspeople filled the rows. Marisol gulped. She didn’t like that all of these people seemed to instantly materialize. The robed man pushed her forward to a stake placed narrowly between two long, rusted swords. Marisol felt the urge to scream, to run, to attack even, but she also felt weak and confused. The man reached for her shift and drew it off. Her muscles clenched. She had never been an extrovert on the best of days. To be undressed publicly was torture, but she did nothing, allowing the man to tie her to the stake. She watched in mute dread as the man fashioned elaborate knots that intertwined the stake and the swords.
The dark robbed man stood at her side. The raven perched on his shoulder and looked over at her cryptically.
“Marisol Buenavista Avalor” the magistrate’s voice recited formally.
Marisol sucked in her breath, teeth clenched.
“You have been brought here on charges of amorality and mischief. How do you plead?”
The crowd gasped. A long moment of quiet ensued, offering Marisol time to think about other trials she had heard about in Hell. The common wisdom is that it was always best to plead guilty in order to avoid additional punishment for being unrepentant. Marisol didn’t care. She didn’t think any of her earthly sins warranted damnation.
The magister continued, “Are you willing to take the knife on this?”
“Yes,” she replied dryly.
Marisol had no idea what the magistrate was talking about. Even though she had continued to follow the news after she had died, the government of Hell put a good deal of effort and time into recreating the realm of the living if only for the purpose of psychological torture. Still, Marisol felt like rebelling. She had always thought she was an average person who sometimes made poor choices like any other human, but for that to lead to Hell seemed cosmically unfair. The maddening twang of her dulcimer strings played in her memory, but she pushed the memory away, worried that perhaps the Hell beings could somehow read her mind.
“Bronvild, the blindfold.”
Her neck was tied in such a way that she could only look forward, but she heard a rustling next to her and the brief fluttering of wings. The raven had jumped off the man’s shoulder and stood in front of her as if assessing the situation. She blinked, and the robed man was in front of her, tying a long black veil around her eyes.
“His name is Bronvild,” she thought quietly. If it weren’t for her bindings, she would have dropped from fear, but she liked discovering something about the strange entity tasked with guiding her here to her trial.
Bronvild pulled a large razor tooth knife from one of the folds of his robe. He held it up to the sky, and the cold sunlight of Hell glinted on the clean metal. He turned to her, and with incredible force plunged the blade deep in her chest. She howled as he sawed back and forth. The air was filled with the sound of screams and bone grinding. Even as she drownt in pain, she heard a roar fill the air. Everyone in Hell was participating in the scene, a chorus to her tortured cries.
“What are you guilty of, Marisol?”
She opened her mouth to respond and blood came out. Somehow despite the pain and mutilation, she was able to speak. “I’m innocent.”
“You are guilty of something. What is it?”
Now her eyes were the ones shedding tears. She remembered the blue of Charlene’s eyes. They suddenly filled up a sacred space in her mind even though she didn’t know the woman and had no attachment to her.
“I’m guilty of not being kind enough, of voicing scathing words, of being self-absorbed, of playing parlor tricks,” she yelled. Gasping through the blood and the sawing, she continued, “I shouldn’t be here. I wasn’t evil.”
The crowd hushed as her chest gushed blood. The blood was slowly filling the yard.
“Bronvild, hurry up,” the magistrate ordered.
The robed man plunged both of his hands into her chest and cracked open the ribs. With one hand, he pulled out her beating heart.
“It says here you killed a man while in Hell. Is this true?”
Marisol groaned. The cold light of the sun had made its way above the magister’s head, and its intense light created a halo like effect along the edges of the black blindfold. The raven was standing in her blood, still looking at her. It noticed her body was now the color of lifeless marble.
“Yes” she managed to get out before more blood flowed from her mouth.
Bronvild marched forward with her heart in his palm. Despite the alarming levels of pain and the sheer impossibility of her being alive despite the removal of her heart, she still felt conscious of everything going on around her. The magistrate rose and moved aside, revealing a table behind him with a pair of golden justice scales. Bronvild ascended the short staircase leading to the judge’s platform, his raven close behind him, and he plopped Marisol’s heart on one of the plates. His raven jumped up to the podium, and Bronvild plucked one of its glossy, pitch-black feathers, placing it on the other plate. The crowd maintained an unnatural silence. The air felt thick with anticipation.
The heart rose.
“Oh,” the magistrate said in confusion. A few heart beats passed. “I’m sorry. There seems to have been a mistake.”
A collective gasp filled the air.
Marisol listened from the central point of peak suffering.
Bronvild hurriedly grabbed the heart and rapidly made his way back over to Marisol, plunging her heart back in her chest. Once in place, Marisol’s bones started reassembling. Red, dusty bone bits rose from the bloody floor and flew to the remaining bone as metallic sands rush to a living magnet. She screamed in anguish as her skin began growing over the contorting bones beneath.
“We’re sending you back.”
Marisol could barely understand the words as she hung suspended between the swords, supported by the stake. The blind fold masked the infinite dizziness that would have met her eyes, but it did nothing for the pain.
“Please,” she moaned, tears rolling down her dirty, bloody face and body.
“We’ll release you right now” the magister said. Bronvild didn’t need prompting. He quickly began untying her. He leaned in close to her ear. “It will only hurt for a moment more,” he whispered in a deep, resonant voice. He squeezed her hand and then gently dropped it, walking off a ways.
At the podium, the magistrate was loading a shotgun. He took aim and squeezed the trigger. The crowd watched as the bullet went through her head.