“Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky
His rage was fueled by love, stuttered with grief and loss. Behind him, his beautiful four-year-old Molly, the light of his life. She lay crumpled and torn, tiny arm extended to him, her baby-fine, flyaway blonde hair now stained crimson with the life that had drained from her precious body. Before him, the man
that had terrorized and murdered her.
He stumbled upright and moved on shaking legs toward the monster, snatching a jagged piece of the wrecked car’s bumper on his way. As he fell to his knees, straddling the prone figure, he transferred the metal from his left hand to his right, and in one smooth motion brought the knife to the monster’s throat. Distantly, he heard shouts of Police! and Drop the weapon or we’ll be forced…and NOW! but these voices came from somewhere else, somewhere outside the bounds of his reality, and had no meaning for him. He looked into the eyes of his daughter’s killer, searching for any sign of humanity, of regret. The monster’s eyes were wild with fear and pain and desperation, but revealed no remorse for his part in Molly’s death; only the knowledge that he was about to suffer the consequences of his actions was in evidence, spurring Adam to action.
He bore down on the monster’s neck with the sharp, twisted metal, transferring his weight from his knees to his arm, and slit the bastard’s neck from side to side. He felt the warmth of arterial blood on his face, stared into the monster’s eyes and watched the light disappear from them forever, and then the punch of a bullet like a two-by-four to the back of the head. His rage spent and suddenly weak, Adam fell to the ground, numb and exhausted.
As he died, Adam heard, faintly, as if through a tunnel, “I’ve got a pulse on the little girl…”
Colorful blurs of memory, like a home movie stuck in fast forward, and a panicked feeling that something was wrong…
…Making Molly her favorite peanut butter and honey sandwiches, spreading the honey first because she liked the crunchy-wet texture of the bread after the honey had soaked in…
…Molly, his budding poet, giggling as she told him that honey tasted “sunny” and grass tasted “green”…
…Tears making warm, wet tracks on his cheeks when he promised his wife Mary, as she succumbed to Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, that he would always take care of their little girl…
…Buying Molly an ice cream on Main Street, Disneyworld, and turning to find her gone, her fuschia plaid floppy Gap sunhat lying abandoned on the ground…
…Seeing a little girl wearing hot pink Mary Jane crocs, just like Molly’s, asleep in a stroller pushed by a nervous, sweaty man…
…Yanking a man out of his car and chasing the monster that had taken Molly from the park…
…The screech of metal against concrete as the kidnapper’s car hit a pylon…
…Warm wetness and a punch in the head…”I’ve got a pulse on the –”“
The shout was ragged and hoarse, grinding like broken glass in his throat. Adam thrashed awake, clawing his way out of the nightmare. The movement set off a blinding pain in his head. As the pain receded, the fragments of his nightmare dissipated like smoke, leaving him only with a sense of unease. Keeping his head still and moving only his eyes, he sought the comforting surroundings of his bedroom. Instead, he was assaulted by the unfamiliar: a single, railed bed with stiff, white sheets in place of his California King with its tan Egyptian cotton linens; the smells of vomit and medicine masked by disinfectant; the fast beep-beep-beep of a machine, wires snaking from its ports to his finger and chest; the chatter of strange voices just outside of the bare, utilitarian room in which he found himself. He reached up to his forehead, and felt stubble, the cottony roughness of a bandage, and a narrow, flexible tube snaking out of his head and beyond his reach. What was he doing in a hospital? Oh God – Molly. Where was she? Was she hurt?
Alerted by the noise from his room, a nurse hurried in. Seeing that he was awake, she left before he could he could vocalize any of his questions, returning in a moment with a doctor. He frowned as he looked at Adam. Adam immediately asked the most important question in his mind, throat clenching with the effort, his voice barely above a whisper: “What happened? Where’s my daughter? ”
“Mr. Shepard, I’m Dr. Jared. I’ll answer your questions to the best of my ability but please, take it easy. Your throat hurts because you were intubated in the ambulance. The tube was removed shortly after surgery; the pain will go away soon. Your body is recovering from an extreme trauma. You sustained a gunshot wound to the head. The bullet was deflected by the bone, and did not penetrate your skull, but it did result in a fracture. Some bone fragments penetrated the right temporal lobe, but we succeeded in removing them and debriding the resulting epidural hematoma with no further trauma to the brain. We have given you Decadion and Mannitol to shrink any swelling, as well as antibiotics to prevent infection.
“You’re fortunate to be alive; with ambulance transfer time, only 18 percent of patients with penetrating craniocerebral gunshot wounds survive long enough to reach a neurosurgeon, and of those, only 7 percent of patients that are unconscious upon admission pull through. We’ll discuss your recovery later, after you’ve had some rest.”
Adam looked at the doctor incredulously, his tortured voice rising as he fired questions at an increasing rate of speed. “A gunshot wound? What happened? What about my daughter? Where is she? Is she OK? Can I see her? I have to see – ”
“Mr. Shepard.” The whiplash tone in Dr. Jared’s voice stopped Adam in mid-sentence. The doctor softened his tone, and his eyes turned sympathetic. “I don’t have all the details, but your daughter was injured in a car accident. I’m sorry, but she didn’t make it. The head wound she sustained in the crash was life threatening, even if treated immediately. Every effort was made to reverse the damage, but due to the delay in her arrival at the hospital, we were unable to save her. I’m very sorry for your loss, Mr. Shepard. We did our best. If she had just been brought in a little sooner, we may have been able to…”
The doctor trailed off, looking critically at his patient. Adam’s face, already tinged with the unhealthy pallor of his recent experience, had turned chalk-white. Dr. Jared continued, “I need you to rest now. The nurse is going to give you something to help you sleep.” Dr. Jared glanced at the door, then back at Adam. “There are some officers outside who are waiting to talk to you, but I told them that because of the severity of the trauma you just suffered and the nature of the reparative surgery, they would have to wait until you are sufficiently rested. Get some sleep, now.” With a last, not-unkindly look at Adam and a quiet, “I’m very sorry,” the doctor left the room. The nurse stepped forward with a syringe in hand. As she approached him, Adam closed his eyes, desiring only oblivion and death. He felt the prick of the needle, and began falling, the world and everything he had ever cared about spinning away from him, until he felt nothing more.
For the time being, this chapter has been scrapped; I’m considering alternatives to the character Samantha.
“Where the hell is Samantha?”
The irritation in her boss’s voice set Sam’s heart pounding and pushed her to double-speed. She tugged at the three-quarter sleeves of her Ann Taylor short jacket and smoothed her short, dark auburn hair as she hurried towards Ms. Lotan’s office, mind whirling with excuses for her tardiness. She discarded traffic, flat tires, and alarm failure; she’d used these before with less than satisfactory results. She would have to use the old stand-by: non-specific illness. Not that it had more credibility than car incidents or power failure, but if delivered with a convincingly unhealthy face, it was acceptably difficult to argue. The trick was to present a sick face, and not an exhausted, I-slept-through-the-alarm-so-I’ve-only-been-up-for-25-minutes face.
Telling the CEO of Abbadon Industries that Jack, her live-in boyfriend of five months, had just dumped her was not an option. Explaining that Jack had dumped her between showering and brushing his teeth, emotionlessly confessing that he had been seeing someone else for four of the five months they’d been living together, was unthinkable. Ms. Lotan wasn’t a friendly sort of boss; she didn’t want to hear about personal problems – especially if they interfered with work. On the bright side, Sam’s eyes, puffy and pink from her self-pitying bout of crying, might assist her in presenting just the right image of general unwellness. Playing the sick card might even work in her favor; if the boss believed her, she would get kudos for her dedication to work while clearly under the weather.
Sam took a deep breath, fortified herself with memories of illness, and entered the Great Office. Its sheer size was imposing, even on days that she didn’t begin by incurring her boss’ wrath. As she walked through the door, the fireplace that dominated the main wall seemed to blaze up, bringing beads of sweat to her already-damp brow. The massive Raleo desk, centered in the room, was easily six feet square, handcrafted of tropical hardwoods and polished to a dark shine. Its two wide legs, each spanning a side of the desk, were twisted, as if a giant had pressed his palm heavily upon it and given it a one-quarter turn. As always, nothing but a telephone marred its glossy surface. Three walls of floor-to-ceiling windows commanded an awe-inspiring view of the Atlantic; Sam’s eyes locked on the small, colorful canvas of a faraway sailboat, and she wished she were anywhere but here.
Ms Lotan was seated at her desk, severely beautiful with her raven hair fastened in a French twist. She stared at Sam, eyes burning.
“I’m so sorry, Ms. Lotan – I’m not feeling well this morning, and it took me a little longer to – ”
“I’m not interested in your excuses, Samantha. It’s 7:43. You’re paid to be here at 7:30, and I expect you to be here at 7:25 so you’re ready to work at 7:30.” Sam wouldn’t have thought it possible, but Ms. Lotan’s face darkened even more. “And I won’t tolerate your lies. If you’re having problems at home, as I suspect is the case, address them before you need to leave for the office. They’re your problems – don’t make them mine.”
Sam suddenly felt intensely ill, as if she had manifested her imagined sickness. She was terrified that she would disgrace herself by depositing what was left of last night’s dinner on the pure gold and silver threads of her boss’s ancient Persian rug; it was an original remnant of the ‘Spring Carpet of Chosroes’, the only remaining piece in existence, outside of a few museums.
Ms. Lotan’s eyes bored into her, paralyzing her for another instant, and then moved to the door. The nausea disappeared. Sam turned to see what had diverted Ms. Lotan’s attention, grateful for the distraction. Her relief was short-lived. Standing in the doorway was Tom Wright, Vice President of Abbadon Industries, and the person that made her more nervous than anyone – with the exception of Ms. Lotan herself. Mr. Wright was an almost-handsome man in his mid-forties; his slightly crooked nose and the malice that flashed in his eyes when he inappropriately flirted with her ensured that she would never find him attractive. Sam was usually familiar with his business agenda, if not his private one, and used that knowledge to stay out of his way as much as possible. Unsure of the reason for Mr. Wright’s unscheduled visit to her boss’s office, she looked back at Ms. Lotan, searching for direction – should she go, or stay?
Of Adam’s first wife, Lilith, it is told
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,)
That, ere the snake’s, her sweet tongue could deceive,
And her enchanted hair was the first gold.
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of herself contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright net she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.
– Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Body’s Beauty”
My name is Lilith Lotan. Trite, I know, but we love trite down here – at least, the upper class does. The damned don’t know the difference. I am perceived as the President and CEO of Abbadon Industries, but I prefer to be addressed as Queen, or Your Majesty. I can get away with it, too – because I create the realities here.
That’s what Hell is: your reality, created by someone who not only doesn’t care about you, but actively sets out to make you miserable. I don’t physically torture you, or even influence your existence to the point that that it has no more meaning. I just create situations of sustained discontent through the use of carefully planned, and – if I may say it – brilliant disappointments. I don’t push the damned to total desolation – there’s too much drama in that, which in turn gives the damned a redeeming nobility through their ability to endure. I’m going for the almost-but-not-quite unbearable unhappiness, caused by the kind of events that you can’t really complain about to others without receiving “other people have it so much worse” looks of disdain.
What makes this work is that the damned don’t know they’re damned. They believe they’re still living their lives, pushing towards a better future. They remember the incidents that caused their deaths, but don’t know they passed on. For example, if Larry died in a hit-and-run accident, he wakes up in the hospital down here – a little sore, maybe a little disoriented, but the doctor on duty fixes him up and discharges him to his new life. Maybe Lil AK was shot in the head at close range by a rival gang member, but he’ll wake up down here with a memory of being saved at the last minute by a member of his own gang, with nothing to show for it but a little bump on the head.
I’ve got you thinking now, right? There are a lot of dynamics to consider in convincing people that the life they’re living is real. For instance, the damned can’t be allowed to see each other for who they really are. They might start comparing lives, and sooner or later someone would figure out that no one was having a happy existence. Aside from other questions this might raise, it would remove one of my weapons from my arsenal: envy. Envy is a fantastic tool of misery; half of my methodology is based on it. Loneliness is another. If I didn’t control the interactions and perceptions of the damned, someone might actually fall in love, which is the greatest impossibility in the land.
So how does this work? It’s quite complex; the only way I can explain it is through example. Let’s say that you are a 45-year-old white woman, single, and unattractive. You work at a bank. While at work, a balding, heavyset man in a black windbreaker and jeans walks into the bank and robs your window. He says, “I have a gun pointed at you right now. Don’t press the alarm button; just give me what you have in the register and I’ll leave quietly.” You give him the money, as he asks, and he leaves. You’re terrified, and you’re also worried that you’re going to lose your job for giving him the money without pressing the alarm.
The man that robbed the bank is another damned soul. He’s not actually a balding, heavyset man, and he’s not wearing a black windbreaker or jeans. He’s a single, gorgeous, 38-year-old investment banker in an Armani suit, and when he walked up to your window to make a deposit, he saw a beautiful black 30-year-old woman that made his heart race as no one had since his high school sweetheart. He asked you on a date. You not only turned him down, but made him feel like a fool for asking. He left the bank angry and ashamed.
These are two completely different events and points of view. I control what he saw and heard, and what she saw and heard, and made sure that the versions were unhappy for both. This way, none of my damned can ever make a soul connection. They can date and even marry, but only if the objects of their desires are completely unsuitable for them, and will eventually lead them to disappointment. And any happiness they feel in the beginning of a relationship will be countered by a proportionate dose of pain.
I don’t do this alone. I’m in charge, but I have to delegate a lot of the responsibility to others. These others are what I consider the “upper class”. They’re the Vice Presidents and Directors of Abbadon Industries. They don’t know the whole story, either, but I control their realities, and delegate the manipulation of the rest of the damned to them, so I only have to control a handful of damned. It’s a pretty sweet setup, with me on top of the bottom of the world. I was here when man first damned himself to eternity; I’ll be here when you screw up and damn yourself; and I’ll remain here until eternity decides it wants nothing more to do with the lot of us.
Hell is not as you’d imagine it.
The Damned, those tortured souls that opted out of Heaven by exercising their God-given right to choose, aren’t all rapists and child-killers, though we get our share of those. Many of the Damned simply didn’t tend to the positive development of their souls. Some were doomed by small, repeated Sins; others by a Sin so great that the sum of their virtuous deeds couldn’t tip the scales back in their favor. They indulged in their Cardinal Sins in a proportion greater than the Heavenly allotment granted to them.
You know the Sins of which I speak; there are seven: Lust. Gluttony. Greed. Sloth. Wrath. Pride.
Ahhh, Envy. Without that insatiable desire for the things you don’t have, the things to which you believe you’re entitled, Hell would be nearly deserted. Thank God for Envy. The housewife who keeps too close an eye on the status of the neighbors. The businessman who believes his boss’s position is rightfully his. The aspiring actress who would kill for a part given to another. As fleeting thoughts, these won’t Damn you to Hell, but when they rule your mind and result in direct action, causing harm to yourself or others, your soul is in jeopardy. When the housewife starts a rumor about the neighbor with a bigger house, when the businessman undermines his boss until he becomes his replacement, when the actress sleeps with the casting director and gets the coveted part, a Cardinal Sin has been committed. And I take notice.
The Damned aren’t all Pagans and Atheists, either. Hell has its share of Christians – mostly those that talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk, if you know what I mean. They preach Devotion, but sleep with their wives’ best friends. They put money in the collection plate, and steal from their employers. They warm a pew every Sunday morning, half-asleep and dreaming of the football game, and condemn those Faithful that pray in the forests.
The talk won’t get you into Heaven. It’s the walk that determines your eternal status.
Hell is not as you’d imagine it.
The sky is not a red, smoke-swirled ether; the structures aren’t gnarled and twisted stone columns or volcanic islands surrounded by fire. There aren’t any pointy-eared, flesh-deformed monsters poking the Damned in the back with tridents, or whipping tortured souls with razor-tipped lashes.
It is hot, though. Not so hot that your skin bubbles, burns and cracks, but hot enough to wet your brow and convince you that you’re running a temperature. Muggy enough to add weight to your clothes and make you feel as though you’re breathing through scorched, wet cotton until it hurts your chest to take another breath. It’s not a fiery, broiling, scalding heat, but a relentless, stifling, oppressive heat.
Hell is Florida.
I’m not making a literary comparison of Hell to Florida. I’m saying that Hell, in its physical reality, was modeled after Florida. Or maybe Florida was modeled after Hell, since Hell came first. I’m saying that Hell is a real place.
And I’m the Queen.
I’m starting out by writing this novel online to encourage comments and feedback. When you check out the story, please post comments and let me know what you think. If you like it, let me know; this is my first attempt at a novel, and I can use the encouragement. If you hate it, tell me that, too – and tell me why. Speak up, people!