Authors: Nate Gubin
Tags: #Fiction & Literature
"The horrible vent." Crain's eyes smiled as he stared at his prey.
He shook from his bloodlust with a clap of his hands. "Hey, everybody, whaddaya say we take a break and do a quick little field trip to the rim of the horrible vent. Come on!" Crain marched out of the room and everyone followed.
Patrick caught up to Hugh in the processional. Before he could say anything, Hugh spouted with a smile. "I'm going," he beamed, showing Patrick his pass, "I'm really going."
Patrick nodded with worry and tried to squeeze his sour lips into a grin.
The Horrible Vent
Led by Crain, the council ministers dragged their robe tails along an ancient path of crumbling pavers. A ragtag group of ghosts followed, still whispering about the horrors of the vent.
"You fall forever ... demons waiting to bite you ... burning, nonstop burning ..."
Hugh and Patrick walked side by side. "You need to think this through, man,” Patrick said. “Redo your risk-reward equation. You're not even betting on a long shot, you're betting everything on the myth of a long shot. Don’t go."
"I'd risk anything to be with her again, and besides, it's love, it's true love. That's the only thing that really matters. It's a sure bet,” Hugh said.
Crain posed on a rocky ledge just a few dozen yards from the Kingdom's gate. Below him was a smoking chasm of undulating despair. Sheer rock walls plunged straight down into a screaming, rancid hell.
"The horrible vent!" Crain threw his hands toward it in a grand gesture. "Nobody knows for sure what it's like down there because nobody has ever returned." He stared down into the infinite falling. "We're under the impression that it's very, very bad." Crain perked up, hands on his hips. "Given the fetid smell, searing heat, the screams of sorrow and pain that waft up out of it now and then, I think it's safe to assume ..." He paused for dramatic effect, his voice dark and low, "whatever awaits down there ... can't be good."
The gathering of ghosts swallowed hard and shrank a half step away from the baritone vibrations shaking the scalding rim of the abyss.
Jerry stepped out and revealed a notebook full of his dark scribblings. His voice preached, "Doom, doom down the horrible vent. Down, down, down forever falling, forever afraid of the sharp hard bottom that never arrives. An eternity of screaming sorrow. Your fondest memories torn from you, blink by blink, until all that's left is regret and despair ..."
He paused a little too long and everyone thought he was done. They nodded and turned, ready to head back down the path.
"But wait!" Jerry called them back. "It gets worse. Visions of your loved ones, trembling in agony as their loving memories of you are ripped from their souls. A front-row seat to the tears and the heartbreak as you are forever forgotten ..."
Once again Jerry took too long of a dramatic pause and the audience began to leave.
"Your body is tortured, your mind is tormented and finally ... finally ... Wait! There is no finally. Your soul has been offered up to suffer for eternity. So just when you think you're finished, that the bottom is near, you fall, fall, fall over and over again, fall, fall, fall ..."
Crain hunched his shoulders. "Is that it? Are you fin—"
"Over and over again, forever!" Jerry took another pause and then bowed dramatically. "Thank you. Thank you, please hold your applause. I've been working on that one for quite a while. I was thinking of titling it ‘Charred Remains Wrecked Asunder’ but I also like ‘No, No, No, Horrible Vent of Perpetual Soul Degeneration.’ I'm not sure."
Crain nodded. "That was ... nice. You might want to work on the ending."
Hurt, Jerry held the pages to his chest. "What's a matter with the ending?"
"Maybe it could use a little reworking, you know, just a little edit here or there. Seemed kind of clunky."
"Clunky?" Jerry gasped. "Clunky? I've been working on that ending for years."
Crain backpedaled. "Don't get upset, I thought it was really, really ... nice. It just needs a little tweak at the end."
Jerry turned in a huff.
"You want my feedback, don't you? Let's talk about this later." Crain turned to Hugh. "Just in case you think we can't get to you in the land of the living, we have marshals that are quite effective at retrieving fugitive ghosts. If just a touch of the new day’s sun falls on you, we release the reapers."
Crain threw his hand to the cliffs above, toward the fortress where the reapers waited, bloodthirsty and anxious for the hunt.
The reapers were faceless except for searing red eyes deep in their leather hoods. They were a cross between Roman gladiators and motorcycle gang outlaws with bodies like WWF wrestlers. They were cold, without emotions, save one: the sinister joy they took when they witnessed the squeeze of terror on the faces of their prey. That precise moment of horror when the living realized the jig was up. That shudder from
What's going on? Me? Dead? Seriously?
Oh no, please no, NO!
Terrified and heartbroken, all in the blink of a reaper's ravenous hollow eyes.
They thirsted for that desperation on their victims’ faces. To rob the reapers of it by covering the eyes, or rolling over and dying facedown in the dirt? That really bummed them out.
The job of a reaper was difficult and thankless, like a dentist who only gets to drill and never gets to sell the painless teeth-whitening treatments. Reapers hunted the souls that refused to cross over, but more often they delivered the death notices to those delusional souls that rejected the reality of their demise. The shrieks of terror followed by the cries of sorrow were the only bright arpeggios in an endlessly sad symphony of suffering that they listened to day in and day out.
A reaper was nothing without his steed. Below the barracks in the iron stables lurked creatures hidden in darkness. Husbanded from a cross between cavalry horses and vampire bats, the hard-charging pegasus hybrids were massive. Their powerful wings were made of patent leather strung between spikes of sharply knuckled wing bones. They were not all that frightening from afar. If someone saw them from a hundred yards, they'd think, Wow, that's a big black pegasus, maybe I'll check it out, feed it a carrot or something. When approached, it would turn its head and stare with torched eyes. A shrieking whinny would reveal a weaponized mouth of nine-inch saber fangs.
As if it wasn't enough to crossbreed a fearless and powerful horse with a ravenous bloodthirsty bat, the pegasus foal—pegonies—were weaned on the blood of jockeys, the puree of polo players’ hearts, and on their first birthday were set loose to hunt and devour a rodeo cowboy.
In the courtyard of the barracks, two reapers stumbled into a drunken sickle fight. Leroy was twice the size of the other reapers. His black leather engineer boots were the size of cinder blocks and his shoulders were wider than the hood of a Chevy truck. He towered over the smaller, drunker Chuck, who swung his sickle wildly with one hand and wielded a Jack Daniel’s bottle as a shield with the other.
With an easy swish, Leroy sliced the arm off his foe. The other reapers laughed as Leroy picked up Chuck's arm and whistled for his pegasus.
Grisly, the biggest and baddest of the pegasus herd, thundered out of the shadows. Leroy tossed the arm into the air. The ground compressed and shook as Grisly thrust into the sky, her wings outstretched, punishing the air with violent thrusts. With one wet gulp she devoured Chuck's arm whole.
The other reapers applauded with sinister chuckles.
Below, Crain called out to them, "Reapers! Mark this man! He crosses over seeking la ... lo ... low-vee ... lahh ..." He gave up with a wave, "You know what I mean, L-O-V-E."
Leroy walked to the cliff edge and looked down at Hugh. He thrust his sickle back into its sheath with a hungry grin.
Hugh swallowed hard and stuttered, "Back before sunrise, got it."
The Big Night
Hugh stood in front of his bathroom mirror, fussing with his hair, while Patrick lounged in a corner, watching him. "It's no use, there's nothing you can do with it. Maybe if you get a chance up top you could duck into a salon for a quick cut or put some product in it, like a gel or a molding paste."
Hugh tugged at his tattered coat, trying to bring it back to life. "I wish there was some way to look less, you know, evil dead-ish." He slapped his cheeks, trying to bring up some color.
Patrick took a bundle of clothing out from under his arm. "I brought you something, don't ask where I got it." Hugh unfurled the bundle and revealed a shimmering white-and-green Boston Celtics warm-up suit.
"I don't know what to say."
"I couldn't come up with any decent shoes. You're just going to have to make do."
Hugh started to change into it, but Patrick stopped him. "Are you crazy? They'll never let you pass over wearing that. Hide it under your coat. When you get through the gate, walk into the fog for a bit and then change. I desperately wanted to find you something nice, but then I found that and I thought, what the heck, it's the Celtics, at least you won't scare anyone. I don't even think they'll take you seriously in that."
"Thanks, this is ... I really appreciate this."
Hugh looked out the window in the direction of the gate. "Well, I guess I should get going."
Patrick stood and faced him. "I know it's weird and I feel really wrong doing this ..." He reached out and hugged Hugh. "Good luck, just promise me ..." He bit his tongue and took a step back. "Actually, don't promise me anything, just go."
Hugh nodded and walked toward the door. He stopped and looked back at Patrick. "So, regardless, I'll see you again, in forty ... fifty years."
Patrick pushed out a painful nod. "Yeah."
Hugh disappeared down the stairs, and Patrick sat in a chair with his arms crossed, trying to hug his soul. "I'll be right here waiting."
Out on the street, Hugh walked with a pop of purpose in his step. Everyone turned to watch as he rounded a corner and chugged up the winding road out of town and toward the gate. His enthusiasm was quite a spectacle.
In the distance, Crain paced along the parapet outside the Head Minister’s fortress with Jerry in tow. He stopped and focused on the small dot of Hugh climbing the narrow path toward the gate. "Mmmm, that one. Look at him anxiously go. Do you see that, Jerry? That's what hope looks like. By tomorrow you'll see the same man broken and bowed, returning as a welcome example of hopeless despair."
Hugh rounded the bend and started up a section of road that got steeper with every step. The infrastructure of the Kingdom was designed to keep a soul captive, like a mouse in the bottom of a five-gallon bucket. The gate, always looming above, was a reminder of being trapped. Just before the gate, the flume from the horrible vent slowly licked the sky, reminding all who passed that there was a far worse place than the Kingdom.
Near a dead tree, Ana sat on a rock, tracing a flower into the dirt with a charred stick. "So I take it you're going over," she said to Hugh.
"I can almost feel my lungs breathing again, my heart is almost ... never mind."
"It's not worth me asking, is it? I can see it in your eyes. But I have to ask, I have to beg. Please, come with me, back to the city. For your sake and hers, please don't go."
"I can feel her in my arms again."
Ana huffed, her head sinking. "It's no use, it has you and it won't let go." She slid her hand into her pocket and retrieved a bent beer-bottle cap, its Hamm's logo polished with decades of cherishing. "For protection."
Hugh took it with a smile.
"It's from the first time I met my husband. He bought me a beer, I saved the cap."
"I can't take this." He tried to give it back but she pushed it back into his hand.
"No, I've learned my lesson. Better to let go."
Hugh looked at it for a moment, then he looked up the road at the gate. There was a little scratch of something in the back of his mind, a notion that maybe this wasn't a sure thing, a notion that maybe ... He turned and looked down on the whole of the Kingdom, the wash of gray dim. "I should be going."
Ana nodded. "You're a fool." She looked away. "But I can't blame you for being one. If you happen to run into a very tall, handsome man named ..." She choked back her tears and shook her head. "Never mind." She turned and drifted back down the road into the village, her tattered robe decaying into the ash of the landscape.
Hugh continued his climb, quickly skirting the rim of the horrible vent. Glancing back, he tried not to notice its black smolder. “Nothing to fear,” he tried to convince himself. “I'll be alive soon and all this will be a bad memory.”
The gatekeeper was a chubby Chinese man with long hair pushed back over the top of his head. He was doing his best to keep his coif voluminous, like a lion's mane. He always held himself slightly at an angle to the person he was speaking to, a posture that made it look like he was about to attempt some sort of performance. In life, his parents brainwashed him into believing he could be a great opera singer. They were heartbroken when he turned out to be nothing more than a wealthy endodontist.