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The Salvation Handbook

The Salvation Handbook
  Lauren Walsh
varianta print

Lauren Walsh



Publicat Sâmbătă, 2 Septembrie 2006, ora 19:32

      The devil was livid.

      “What’s new?” muttered Matterson from Accounting under his breath as he followed the eleven others into the small conference room. The boss was burgundy from his starched collar on up. Steam perfumed the air with the scent of decaying meat. The oppressive odor filled the small office but since not one of the employees had an ability to smell, it did not matter.

      Satan spoke, “This is an all time low.” He hissed and his pink forked tongue flicked dangerously. Poisonous spittle flung, a tendril sizzled on the sleeve of Matterson’s jacket as he stepped back.

      The devil rounded the table. The Henchmen (all twelve departments represented) cautiously followed. The room was so crammed that if one person moved forward everyone was forced to adjust their position. The devil continued, “This is it, kids, whoever dropped the ball on this one will quite literally lose his ass!” His bulging eyes seemed all the more dramatic since Satan replaced his eyebrows and all body hair with licking flames a few years prior. Satan swiveled and stared at Matterson.

      “I heard your cute comment on the way in. Eleven more Sundays, Pal.”

      Matterson suppressed the urge to remark that the devil never released anyone anyway, so eleven more or less nevers (since there is no Sunday in Hell) was the same astronomical infinity. Ever since Hope left in the thirteenth winter, Hell had become unbearable to Matterson. Countless promotions since, Matterson knew that his savage behavior during the thirteenth Winter war had won him respect. It had not been born of bravery; Matterson’s rage was the spawn of something else. Matterson watched as tendrils of real smoke spiraled out of Satan’s nostrils.

      The devil began to pace. Henchmen bunched up and then moved forward. Each man wanted to be as far away from Satan and his theatrical displays as possible.

      “This was a simple assignment!” Satan’s voice shook with emotion. “A no-brainer, who do we got with no brains around here?” The devil stopped, rotated his head so that it faced out from between his shoulder blades. Matterson pulled up against the wall.

      “Watkins!?” Satan shrieked.

      “Sir?” Watkins squeaked.

      “Did I or did I not in the last month place on your desk an envelope and did it or did it not have marked clearly upon itself, ‘Urgent’?”

      Watkins looked pensive for a moment and then Satan’s arm shot out and pinned him to the wall by his throat. There was a ricochet effect in board meetings that both Matterson and the henchman on the other side of Watkins were at pains to avoid.

      “Did this file, by any chance, bear the name, Amelia Jones and son?”

      Watkins eyes lit with recognition, “Abtholutely, Bosth, I-I-I,” Satan removed his talon from Watkins larynx. “I remember because it also had stamped on the top of the first page a scrolled document, with a red wax seal that instructed that I forward all enclosed documents immediately to Accounting.” Watkins removed a small notebook from his front pocket and flipped several pages. He turned to a page and displayed it to Satan. The devil pulled his head back around so that he was facing forward and pulled out a set of reading glasses. Watkins leaned forward, pointing, “Here’s your courier’s signature, date and a drop of blood as per policy.”

      The devil held the pages tightly. The small book exploded into flames and Watkins shrunk back with the others.

      Turning all of his attention on Matterson, the devil nearly whispered, “I should have known your hand was in all of this.”

      Matterson was frantically repeating the file name in his mind. To buy time, he said out loud, “Amelia Jones, eh?”

      The devil had clasped his hands behind his back. The hands periodically pulled each other off and burst into flame at the stump, rejuvenated and repeated the process. Matterson was waiting for Satan to pull one of his own arms off and beat him with it. Matterson’s arm made an unwieldy club that kept bending at the elbow. (It was expensive to have a limb reattached but Matterson was vain and always spent the cash to save the embarrassment of limb loss.)

      At the last possible moment, a light went off in his mind. “Amelia Jones! Yes! I handed it to Lester Moland. It was on his desk two weeks ago.”

      Lester, a child murderer, was Satan’s pet in the Accounting department. It was a wonder to Matterson that Moland was not named Henchman when Gordon disappeared after the war. When Matterson saw Satan’s red seal, heard the pulsating alarm, saw how thick the file was, how urgent, Matterson had nearly jogged to Moland’s office. Matterson had been gleeful to find the desk unoccupied, dropped the file and fled.

      The devil halted in his tracks.

      “Impossible, couldn’t have been Moland, Moland never drops the ball, never!”

      “Moland?” Watkins asked. His voice was nearly cheery since he was no longer pinned to the wall. “Moland got lynched.”

      “Again?!?!” Asked the devil in a hissing falsetto. In Hell you could only get lynched or raped if you had done the same to someone Upstairs. Moland got raped all the time. Plus, in Hell, the worst crime you can commit is to be a victim. It’s considered a felony and you always get jail time. Moland was not coming in to the office in a hurry.

      The devil slapped himself on the forehead, smudging out both eyebrows, which smoldered and then burst back into flame. “Shit, I went to the party afterwards, got drunk with the assailants. All of you idiots, out!” Matterson tried to blend in with the scurrying group of men that clogged the shrinking exit. “Except Matterson.”

      The devil was trying to stay calm. “Please tell me, Matterson, that even though I can already hear your reedy whining voice whining it out, tell me, your boss, that this particular file did not get transferred to a Mr. Joshua Socks, perchance. Please, please, put my mind at ease and tell me that you gave it to absolutely anyone else.” The devil’s head was slightly bowed. Short waving flames licked through the follicles like a thousand small lit matches whose red fingers cast web-like shadows over Satan’s eyes.

      Matterson managed to wince out one word, “Socks”, before the devil’s shredding shriek filled the room and the walls caved in. Matterson woke up in pieces in prison.

     

      Mr. Joshua Socks’ office would have appeared to a casual observer to be completely empty. Four feet by six, the office was spacious compared to most. A desk segmented the room at an angle and a moldy file cabinet caught the door when anyone opened it. Joshua Socks had attempted to adjust things but ran into the same problem that he always did whenever he tried to do good in Hell, his efforts made things worse and never better. After countless Hellish millenniums, Mr. Socks had developed a profound difficulty with what was legally referred to as Not Trying. It was a Hellish vow and illegal to be even caught observing in a helpful manner.

      Behind a heaping mound of manila files crammed full with slippery thin white sheets that threatened to shimmy to the ground if touched; a balding white-haired man sat transfixed by the small mountain of paperwork he faced. All of the files bearing the name ‘Moland’ had collapsed his “in” box and after searching, snaking his thin arm under the dead weight of stacked parchment, Mr. Socks was still unable to locate his “out” basket. The search, purely academic since he did not have one item to deposit there, had resulted in the loss of the pinkie on his right hand. If he did not get to the bottom of the mess, he’d have to pay for a new digit. The thought depressed him; Mr. Socks had little cash to spare. Hell, as he had always suspected when he lived Upstairs, worked on a commission basis. Finger reattachment was costly and replacement was an illegal but flourishing trade. Going without was unthinkable; Mr. Socks was fastidious about his appearance.

      “Oh, dear,” He said sighing. With the heaviest of hearts, Mr. Socks lifted a document that he had noted was covered in red seals and marked urgent. Occasionally the manila envelope would emit a shrieking beep that indicated the contents were to be seen to immediately. Several deeply layered files sounded their similar alarms but Mr. Socks had learned to ignore such reminders. “Let’s see,” He said out loud to no one (he’d had fewer than eleven conversations since he’d been sent to Hell), “Hmmm, Amelia Jones.”

      Opening the file diffused the alarm and in his arms the file became a visual travel log through Amelia Jones’ life. Mr. Socks sat transfixed for hours. Occasionally he’d sigh, twice he laughed long and hard and said, “Oh, my!” The visual journey summation was Mr. Socks’ favorite part of any job assignment. Amelia Jones’ portfolio struck Mr. Socks like a kick to the chest. The file had been initiated on an inside tip. Some of the folks in Limbo had no scruples and tried to keep both camps sweet on them, never realizing that passing information to Satan’s scouts could send them downstairs. Mr. Socks had no respect for the fellows in Marketing who were in charge of such correspondence.

      On the outside, Amelia Jones looked like a fairly easy assignment. Mr. Socks immediately noticed that time was of an essence and much had been wasted. The file had shuttled between various boxes for nearly a month. Since time was not fixed, not a constant, in Hell it was almost impossible to ascertain what that span would equal Upstairs. A wave of pale blue nausea washed over his person and Mr. Socks noticed something that he had not experienced in nearly two Hellish decades, since the thirteenth winter. The realization struck Mr. Socks like a dull fist thudding the clay that was his groin, all of a sudden and almost erotic in it’s novelty, Mr. Socks found that he was sweating.

      No one could see this, no one. Prevention was ill advised in Hell but Mr. Joshua Socks quietly tiptoed to his office door. He carefully detached it from the mossy foam oozing from the open mouth of the file cabinet; he shut (with comic difficulty involving the recent loss of his small finger and Mr. Socks’ rediscovery of that fact) and locked the door.

      Mr. Socks tiptoed back to his desk and opened the file to find his fingertips tingled. His mouth was slightly damp and Mr. Socks fought the urge to lick his upper lip where droplets were now gathered. He was simultaneously gagging for a cigarette. (Eleven years earlier - and weekends in Hell were known to last for up to eight years - the devil had given up cigarettes). Satan gave everyone nicotine fits. Mr. Joshua Socks, who had never held a pipe in his hand much less inhaled one, would have gleefully stabbed school children for a puff at the moment. (School children in Hell are not at all like the one’s that you’re thinking of.) Hell was nonsmoking and everyone wanted a cigarette.

      His trembling hands made it difficult to focus on the reams of paperwork that followed the visual overview. The type swam and Joshua Socks utilized other non-beeping files to mop the furious tide of perspiration that coated his face. It was required by law to report to authorities if one experienced a purging emotion or physical response of any kind. In Hell, it is illegal for a man to sit in his office and sweat. Mr. Socks’ salty sweat was smearing the words, blending them. He read frantically and furiously as his own moisture dissolved the words on the paper. Before he knew it, Mr. Joshua Socks was exhaling. The stench made him wretch and he discovered he could again swallow, that his neck muscles were attached (albeit under the clumsy control of a novice puppeteer). Mr. Socks had a gaggy wonky swallow that he could feel in his throat and towards the back of his neck. Anyone who saw him now would be legally obligated to put him out (of his misery, shut him off like a light and a million other variations on the thought were law.)

     

     

     

      Mr. Socks leapt in his seat every time he heard footsteps in the hall. It was impossible for him to relax and savor the long lost, now returned sensations that waved over him, through him and in him.

      He knew what he had to do. From the moment that the video log of Amelia’s life started, a single plan had been formulated and approved of by an ancient instinctive mental process that occupied all of two earth seconds. As the picture emerged from the envelope that Mr. Socks pinched between his dirty rotting thumbs, one route was clear. Amelia Jones’s life was something to die for, to die again for, to be done for.

      It was a life that was killing Amelia.

      Mr. Socks watched her sitting, holding a cup of coffee with both hands, tears spilling across the dusty desert of her sun-bitten cheeks. Behind her, in panorama, a pink trailer home was leveled. Amelia sat on the only bit left standing. Mr. Socks stared at the small brown wisp of a woman perched at the top of the cement stairs. The sun pushed her in the face and defeated, Amelia lolled her head. Her nails were chewed and bitten and dirty. Brown hair, shiny and lush, was combed and trapped in a scrap of blue cloth that Amelia had knotted. Not a teacup had survived, the spoons had bent, the photos burned. The hand that extended from under the south-end bathroom wall, fingers curling as if beckoning her down to join him, had been the same once-warm paw that clasped Amelia’s small sweating hand two months earlier and certain words were spoken in the presence of a minister that had caused Amelia Jones to suffer a feeling she had not entertained since childhood. On her wedding day, Amelia had found that she still harbored optimism.

      Not that optimism can’t be crushed; the tornado that had hit Amelia’s trailer home took her enthusiasm with it. Mr. Socks watched the picture shift, melt into weeks that could be detected or ignored. It slowed to show Amelia working. The same shiny wet brown hair spilling down and the arms occupied with dishes. Her shoulder shifted and swept down as she reached for pieces of silverware that had sneaked to their watery grave at the aluminum basin bottom. The angle shifted and there from the side it became obvious. Amelia Jones was expecting a child. And not just any child, this was a special child, a banner of gold flowed from the center of the image and Mr. Socks read the words that were written there. This child had been quite literally sent from heaven to earth to bring peace to mankind. It was the soon to be the youth’s secret mission, his object. (Many children had been sent before and all had been found during or just after gestation and murders were just so simple to arrange it almost seemed unfair to the folks Upstairs). It is easy, “Intro to Hell” brain chemistry, you just stir in a little of this, a little of that and people just snap. Hell University, a requirement for the entire labor force, was also where Mr. Socks and the others learned the Hellish language. For the first two millennium in Hell you can’t understand what in the hell everybody else is saying.

      Mr. Joshua Socks, who had seen the entire life of and then read the bibliography and endnotes to the Amelia Jones case then placed the papers on a pile in the corner and calmly piled the rest of his desk’s contents on top of it. The second to the last file unearthed Mr. Sock’s pinkie, which he placed in his pocket. The stack of files in the corner was taller than he was. With his sense of smell returned, Mr. Socks scrunched up his nose and crouched under his desk. To further the illusion, he then pulled in the chair behind himself. It was the only recourse and although cowardly, Mr. Sock’s inaction bought Amelia Jones and her son to age twelve without incident. Two hours after he found his cubbyhole, Satan and a newly sprung Moland entered the room and took care of Mr. Socks and his desk with a rusty machete.

     

     

      The details of file 2047 were just the kind of details that Officer Moland enjoyed. The heaven sent children, their small wings extended were perfectly crushable. Good was so tentative that it sickened Moland and he felt no pity for beauty. Exactly the opposite, he relished destruction. It had been Moland’s only meal on earth, death and despair. Born in war, matured surrounded by rape and bloodletting, Moland came to manhood already a murderer. By nine, he’d already been raped and had returned the world the favor by raping an even smaller child. Satan worked in his life by instructing Moland never to be soft, always be a river stone, a battered invincible object without warmth. Moland took Amelia Jones to his world when he took the file that the devil had snatched immediately from its simple hiding spot.

      Satan, himself, had bigger fish to fry than women and children and he had been interrupted from an afternoon of religious fever that fueled at least a million bloody deaths a year. Suicide and hopelessness needed a vacuum of kindness that only Satan’s cold hands could orchestrate. Moland had a perfect record and was devoid of any sweetness or light. It was an assignment perfect for a violent runt of a man. Moland never disappointed his master.

     

     

     

     

      With the Amelia Jones file safely removed from the office of his least favorite employee and now being dealt with professionally by one of his truest servants, Satan stormed out of the office block and headed for town square. Both Matterson and Socks had been sent to the Tower. It was important in this case for the devil to be in attendance for their torture and later to savor their incineration, perhaps throw a small casual get-together after. Upstairs, there had not been one single murder or suicide for a full earth moment and as this fact flashed through Satan’s mind, the thought pained him, but, insubordination was not tolerated in Hell and Satan had to make an example.

      The fate awaiting Socks and Matterson was to literally become toast. Then, the disseminated dust particles often took hundreds of earth years to regroup and between two and fourteen Hellish seconds, to regel into a solid. It was especially difficult in spring when it rained for two Hellish decades every year. So, being incinerated was a painful difficult process that was best avoided. Since it was nearly spring, the devil quickly did the math. In the next five hellish years, two earth minutes would have passed. Amelia Jones and child were being taken care of and as far as the torture of the two unlucky men from Accounting; the devil was looking at a lot of leisure time.

      Time, a fixed pattern on earth, was anything but in hell. Seasons were assigned according to the devil’s fancy. It was winter for seven seasons in a row once when an angel broke Satan’s heart.

      At the other end of the square (burnt out buildings riddled with bullets provided the weary perimeter) a heavenly transport arrived. Satan watched with narrowing eyes as a beam of light intruded upon the dull omnipresent coal gray landscape. The devil had seen the memo but in the excitement of retrieving Amelia Jones’ file from the idiot in Accounting, he’d forgotten all about it. He glanced around to ascertain if any employees had glimpsed the golden opening in the fog. None had. Satan watched as the young angel who had come to retrieve a little churchgoing tea-totaling old woman who’d been misdirected in Limbo.

      Satan felt a presence behind him. People were leaving the head office to gawk at the new arrival. They had seen nothing, but they could sense her. Looking at this angel’s face gave everyone in the head office a chuckle. You could tell the smell of baking excrement and the rotting corpses lying everywhere were overwhelming and even though her feet didn’t touch the ground, you could tell the rats were getting to her. They don’t have them big as dogs in the attic.

      It had been to annoy Satan that God had sent his most fetching and radiant staff member. On earth, the angel had been called Martina and she had lived her whole sixteen earth years in Prague in what was then thought of as Bohemia. Her eggplant blue-black hair massaged her shoulders and curls spiraled down her full hips and in front across the slight rise of her belly. Her face made Satan’s yellow eyes ache.

      The angel carried parchment, rolled in her hand like a relay baton. She glanced to the left and the satin snakes of hair whispered over her shoulders and gathered protectively over her chest. She moved as if she was under water and she glanced in both directions, waiting for someone to move forward. Finally, a fellow from Marketing cat-called, a wet insincere whistle through rotting lips, but it was enough to break everyone’s concentration and you have to concentrate to be invisible.

      “Ah, here everyone is,” the angel said smiling and extending her small sun-kissed brown hand. She scrunched up her nose when she smiled in a way that reminded many in the circle of when they’d watched babies yawn. It was impossible not to smile back. Satan noticed that even the skeletons appeared to be grinning. He materialized and with a wave of one hand dispatched them and they shuffled back into the twilight.

      “I am Martina, you must be the boss, I have heard a lot about you.”

      “I have no time for pleasantries, state your business.”

      The angel gathered her shoulders together and made a slight harrumph. The slithery wet hair moved slowly. (In the humidity downstairs it is difficult to see through the moisture.) She unrolled her scroll and read the name of the woman she had been sent for.

      At the burnt soil under Satan’s feet, a hand extended. Kicking it nonchalantly as he moved to the side, the devil relinquished a bedraggled form in a pink cardigan. She hardly looked human, dirt settled into her scalp and her face was encrusted with mud. The sweater peeked through the pungent moss that had adhered to her dangling limbs. The angel shook with anger.

      “Is this how you treat your guests?” Martina asked moving towards him.

      “Come visit, my sweet, perhaps I will treat you better,” Satan swelled up and became a hovering figure, a canopy of night with a set of teeth in the center that gleamed white.

      The angel Martina gathered the limp figure like a bridegroom tasked with crossing the threshold. She seemed not to notice Satan’s dramatic shroud and managed to open a sunny beam in the center of his draping presence and she disappeared straight through him.

     

     

      The worst part about arriving in Hell is not the guy on the stairs congratulating you, it is not receiving the Salvation Handbook; the worst part is that when you glance at what you have been handed, you don’t recognize the language. The Hellish language is the physics of words. It says in the Handbook that it is a linguistically superior way to utilize letters. The subject and verb constantly switch positions so that every single inhabitant in Hell is also an action.

      Lester Moland was also the verb, ‘to hate’. He was a molding pale blue corpse of a guy. His sunken eye sockets and moist mushy lips emitted rancid gas that made the punishment of ‘Smelling the Moland’ a popular choice of Satan’s. Legend has it that he once made an angel vomit just from looking at him. Vezelopczic is the Hellish slang for that reaction. It pays to be very careful with slang, interpretation changes hourly. (One moment, you slap a chum on the shoulder and say, “Srebicolla!” and the fellow is all smiles. Twenty minutes later, you do the same thing and he stabs you repeatedly and advises you not to use his mother’s name in the same sentence as a rodent’s anus.)

      Lester Moland had memorized the Salvation Handbook from beginning to end. To amuse folks at lynchings, Moland sometimes sang verses. Lester didn’t fully understand the book, he secretly suspected that the entire dated linguistic style betrayed an overt attempt to manipulate, distort and mimic what was really a profound appreciation for the absurd but Lester thought it more succinctly, “Big words.” Big words with unclear meanings. The first sentence rings an ominous tone;

      Faith in the lucky charm is based upon the incalculable.

      Moland still shuddered when he heard it said out loud or even thought it. Something about what loosely translates into English as ‘lucky charm’ but especially that gut wrenching collection of syllables, ‘incalculable’.

      It was only when Lester was concentrating on ruining a human life, as he was at that moment, did he ever feel the bliss of distraction from the taunting words of the Handbook and his desperate need for a cigarette.

      Moland was a mutterer. Small indistinguishable words spewed through the strings of opaque saliva that connected his dissolving lips. The Amelia Jones file opened with a yawn and Lester’s eyes grew wide and unlike the beneficial effect the information seemed to have on Mr. Socks, the file seemed to drain Moland. It was if a straw had been stuck in his middle and a deliberate and constant suction was pulling the slight animation out piece by piece, a mold melting.

      Moland smiled at the scene with the crushed trailer. He grinned through the months of post-partum depression watching Amelia stare into the swirling water under the high bridge and sway. Lester laughed out loud when she broke her leg. His filthy fingers fondled the edges of the file, his flesh clung in strands to everything he touched like melting bubble gum to the warm invitation of a grinning sandal tread. The only thing that remained hard and fixed were his eyes as they devoured the details of Amelia’s life, watching, always watching, the little golden chosen child, the object of such love and tender affection as it swelled up from a small red fist of a face on a white pillow to the tall bashful young man who left a trail of smiling faces. This child’s gentle logic soothed the worried arithmetic of other people’s hearts. Moland watched as even animals reacted and they followed him and found him when he walked. Cats and dogs would take any opportunity to lick the small caramel brown squares of flesh left vulnerable between sock and pants or extending from shirtsleeves. Moland watched it all, watched the joy seeping through to other cold deadened souls upstairs and he watched as it warmed them inside where it stays cold the longest.

      “This will be a pleasure.” Moland said in his loudest moist voice. The first thing he did was make a few phone calls. First he buzzed his secretary, remembered she was on vacation (all holidays are spent in prison) so he stuck his head out of his office window and yelled across to the building on the other side of the narrow alley.

      “Idiot!” Moland screamed.

      “Sir?” A janitor threw the window open across the lane.

      “I need a storm suit and make it a monster.”

      The janitor saluted and ran out the door to arrange the matter. No one in Costume would be allowed to answer the phone on the first fifty attempts from any other number. So it was futile to try to reach them. Only Henchmen could answer on the second attempt. Managers and janitors (every janitor had been a millionaire or better Upstairs) could answer on third and then engineers and technicians (doctors and lawyers can’t even pick up the phone until after fifty). It was easier to get a peon to jog to the other office and arrange things. As for medical help, it is nearly impossible to contact a trained person, which is frustrating in what passes for a Hellish emergency.

      For example, neither Matterson nor Socks would have qualified as an emergency. Not even after Satan tortured, pulverized and incinerated the remains could those two have qualified as an emergency. Legally, if you saw someone suffering or terribly vulnerable, you were legally obligated to kick whatever part of them presented itself. The law was on the books but folks Downstairs are lazy. They don’t have the time or energy to rough up stiffs but you should see what they do to new arrivals.

      Marketing called and Moland, bound by law, let the machine take it. Then he called Marketing back but since the Henchman wasn’t around, he got patched through to a Junior Henchman who was, of course, not allowed to answer on the first ring which in this case did not matter because when the JH redialed the number, Moland, the newly appointed Henchman of Accounting could answer on the second ring.

      The surprised JH in Marketing answered in a casual second person, “Hot shit, a Henchman!?”

      Before Moland could speak, the JH continued, “Sir, it is a supreme honor to be given the opportunity to hear your voice, to be in communication with a man of your power.”

      “Shut up, you simpering fool! Do not speak another word or I will twist off your testicles with a pliers...” After that, it was an entirely one-sided conversation. Lester Moland requested the smoothest operator available Upstairs. He had to be tall, handsome and violent. The man for the job needed to be impervious to warmth and utterly untransformed in the presence of kindness. (It is a well-known fact that even the coldest bastard can dissolve near a loving child’s warmth.) The Junior Henchman was flipping through files frantically until he stopped and smiled. After dispatching a particularly cruel character named “Clay”, Moland returned to the file and put his fingers on the image of mother and son. He began stroking and twisting the images under his slimy fingertips like an exposed clock face when the glass is removed. Amelia’s life lay splayed in Moland’s marshy lap with it’s vulnerable arms outstretched, the quivering seconds ticking in that fragile timid fashion as Lester Moland with his too soft fingers adjusted a life.

     

      Upstairs in the Jones house, the bedroom stood sentry over the five slender feet of blankets rising and falling and curled like a smile in the center of brightly colored bed sheets. The cotton cloth cuddling the boy’s shoulders depicted an improbable automobile race involving various furry animals as drivers of sleek blue and red vehicles with balloons for tires. Around the child stood a protective barrier of cardboard boxes with cheerful titles like ‘toys’ and ‘books’ whose sides were marked by layers and layers of cream colored tape.

     

      “Mom, how come since we met Clay, we keep moving?” The boy asked, feigning interest in his peanut butter sandwich. Amelia was captivated by something outside the window and did not respond.

      Since the early morning, Amelia had been watching the season change in front of her eyes. Since breakfast, the leaves seemed to harden, turning first gold and then brown from chill. Amelia watched the blooming flowers in her window box darken and then droop. Petals blew in the occasionally fierce gusts of wind. Amelia felt a deep sad sigh inside her chest and fought it and lost. Amelia found that she could no longer read the word, ‘sigh’ and not do so. She hated how susceptible she was to suggestion. The same way with Clay. He was in charge; something in side of her just sat down and let him have his way.

      Amelia eyes widened when the weather truly and visibly changed. The sky appeared to have put on a vacuum just above the cloud. It sucked the sunbeams up and off the furniture in strips. A gray rug of rumbling clouds was laid back down over the houses in the valley where Amelia and Clay’s new duplex clung in desperation to its cement foundation. Soon the bright yellow building disappeared from sight. A cool enveloping gray fog descended and Amelia could see nothing out of any of her windows.

      “Hey, baby,” she said calmly to her son who was chewing quietly like Clay always told him to. “Come here.”

      The child put down his crust and walked up behind his mother. Amelia placed her warm palm on the crown of his head.

      “Let’s go to the basement.” Amelia could hear a power saw buzz and nails being hammered and she wondered how industrious her creepy neighbor, Mr. Fangle, was. Only that nosy old man would concern himself with building a shelter in the middle of a storm. Then the rain started and Amelia couldn’t hear a thing except the trees screaming as they were stripped of leaves.

      Amelia’s eyes narrowed. She was glad that Clay was out in the storm. She felt a pang of guilt but then rationalized that there was something to the thought that God might take Clay out, a car accident, something could happen on a job site, and no one could suspect her. She hated her handy elderly neighbor and his big ears. If Clay ever died of a suspicious cause, 911 had a catalogue of domestic calls to scan. Amelia hated herself for thinking such a thought but Clay had attached himself to her in such a fashion that even after the way he treated her and the things that he said to her son, she still felt love for him. Amelia knew she was a looksist, she liked pretty men. Guilt was thudding against her heart like a door trapping the fingers of her soul as she lead her son away from all the glass. Closing the basement door, Amelia heard the gunfire that signaled the hail was introducing itself to the metal shed.

      Leading the boy down with a firm hand and thinking clearly, Amelia wondered how she had ever stayed with Clay for so long. Of course, Amelia had assumed she’d leave if anyone ever hit the boy but she hadn’t yet and still couldn’t figure out why she was sticking around. Clay, the color of Cafe Au Lait, with a name that suggested malleability was anything but.

      The basement light clicked on with a rusty profanity and then swung back and forth as if trying to escape its tether. Amelia turned over a pickle bucket and pulled her son onto her lap. Above them, the house seemed to shudder with revulsion. Amelia heard shingles plucked up and off, wooden thuds of the gutter knocking at the front door and wanting to be let in. The hail popped up from the grass and bumped into the basement windows and Amelia listened for the shattering crash of the vulnerable front window collapsing in.

      Amelia held her son and rocked.

      “Daddy died in a storm.” He said.

      “A tornado, not a thunder storm.” Amelia countered.

      Amelia kept thinking, she knew illogically, that the wind against the windows had something to do with the poem that she had found on the kitchen table. Tucked in with the bills on a plain white sheet of paper with the words at an angle in the dead center and no author and no hint as to who sent it.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

      Splendid dignity

      Horrific paraphernalia

      Forbidden degrees

      Simple-hearted gaiety

      Gloomy fanaticism

      Horn dance

      Hideous representations

      Of cruelty and evil

     

      Amelia Jones did not recognize it but Matterson and Mr. Socks would have. It was the only poem in the Salvation Handbook. Everyone had to memorize it to graduate from Hell U. Until you graduate you have to endure hours of dentistry and vaccinations every morning before class. (Really it is the first two hundred Hellish years at the University that are the worse. The consistently switching curriculum and prerequisites can prolong your stay by several centuries. Half the people who show up to graduate are told they have to repeat physical education or categorical logic.) The poem was also Moland’s calling card.

     

      Although the angel Martina seemed to disappear in a moment, she did not. After passing through the veil of darkness that was Satan himself in smog form, Martina lost strength. Unable to rise above the dense cloud, she was stuck there, dangling, masked in fog, on black and bloody blue sky, invisible to all and struggling with the weight of the human burden. Nothing is heavier than a salvaged soul. Martina’s slow-paced camouflaged advancement was halted only once and that was to shift the pink cardigan that threatened to dissolve in her grasp. On this pause, very near to her, Martina came upon an astounding sight.

      In cement window in an ancient crumbling fieldstone tower were the strangest two creatures that she had ever seen. They instantly reminded her of Trolls from stories she was read as a child. One with a comical white tuft of hair and relaxed posture held another fairly young and handsome disembodied head. The head and the white-haired man stared at her with what looked exactly like love.

      It would have been impossible for Martina to understand how inviting the golden glow was that carried her slowly up. It broke the last secret straw suspending Matterson and Mr. Joshua Socks’ fragile souls. The ember being snuffed out and sent hurling from their eyes seemed to Martina a pure offering and when it hit her aura she heard an audible “Ping!” Martina shifted the pensioner again and moved closer to the window. “Psssst.” Said the cloud that was Martina.

      Matterson and Socks blinked. Satan, fifty steps away from the door, paused to remove a smoldering piece of lava from his sandal. Satan was wearing the shadow of a grin. Torture was something he looked forward to. Giving the men their beloved sensory perception back, a rug to stand on, the shadow of a memory of comfort and then making them pay for the privilege with a new small death. There was nothing that Satan enjoyed more than giving that taste of sensation back and then reclaiming the soul hurling through degrees of agony until the creature came alive again with the same sorrowful nothing.

      Matterson’s mouth was open and his eyes bulging. Mr. Socks was tugging a bit hard on his hair but it was more shock than manhandling. The cloud came even closer. “Psssst!” Matterson’s eyes rolled back in his head. Mr. Socks gave the hair a tug and discovered that Matterson had fainted.

      For the second time that day, Mr. Socks realized that he was sweating.

     

      The storm which was actually Lester Moland was bearing down on the small house where Amelia Jones and her son sat cowering in the basement. Occasional lightning blasts from the new arms of Satan’s favorite from the Accounting department, Lester throwing punches with those thin sharp arms into trees and power lines. These electric needles lit up the dismal basement scene where several power tools stood sentry. Amelia Jones was quietly thanking God for the safety of the cement basement. Having lost her husband (all but that arm that was sticking up) to a tornado (a guy named Tony Mélange who everyone knew could not storm) that seemed to pluck down out of the sky and destroy only her pale pink and baby blue metallic love nest and touch nothing else, Amelia insisted on basements. Clay could pick the neighborhood, the house, the furniture but it had to have a basement, not a vague map with directions to a shelter. Amelia Jones knew all about time.

      “I love you, Mom.” Words in the dark, her son’s small hand on her upturned wrist.

      “Love you, too, Baby.” Silence save the storm approaching like a vacuum cleaner hose with a penny stuck, the rattle of buildings being pushed over and cars crunching and what sounded like leather whips but was actually wind pushing the rain into things, slapping the surface and getting through. It was too loud to hear the water extend its long dark fingers down the exposed concrete then gathering, pooling, water mating, frolicking and bumping into itself all over. That ting of champagne glasses touching as a brave droplet plunged from ceiling high. This is really it, thought Amelia, she could feel her thoughts dry up and instinctively drew her son in closer. If only I could push him back inside, all the way to my spine and then zip it back up.

      “You’re not worried, are you, Mom?”

      “A bit actually,” Amelia admitted in her calmest voice that she reserved for her biggest terrors.

      “We’ll be fine, I promise.”

      The boy’s voice was followed by a boom of thunder that made their ears ache.

      “Baby, what have I told you about making promises that you can’t keep.” Amelia’s voice sounded steady. Every time she and Clay called it quits, he said, “Promise?” She never did.

      The storm ripped Amelia’s garage door off of its hinges and sent it soaring through the air.

      “I do promise,” her son continued this time louder, nearly shouting over the din.

      “We’ll be O.K. because we love each other.”

      The wind broke glass on the first floor and swept up the kitchen rugs and dragged them towards the stairs. The cowering mother and son moved towards the far corner of the room. The basement door blew in and down, stopping at Amelia’s foot (and apologizing but they didn’t hear it). Amelia was arched over her son and he lay across her lap. She could hear every word that he said. “Love can even make things better if you’re dead.”

      That is when the roof caved in and landed on the first floor and then crushed into the foundation. A sandwich of wood and cement with Amelia Jones and her son in the middle, human jelly.

     

      The gray cloud was nearly at the window when Matterson came to. Satan was seventeen stairs and one keyhole from entering.

      The cloud that was Martina spoke clearly and both men hung on the musical sounds that made up only four words and then the mist evaporated and both Martina and her pink cardigan clad burden were plucked up and disappeared through a pin sized hole in the dome of dark. Sucked clean through except for one button which fell through the air and Mr. Socks put his hand out like a little kid in the left field bleachers who might just, if he reached so or prayed hard enough or hoped deeply which was the dawning spark fueling his extended fingers, he might just catch that pink pearly gem. Believe it or not, he caught it and before Satan so rudely interrupted the scene, Mr. Socks put the pink pill-sized disc into his pocket to keep his pinky company.

     

      The gray cloud (Martina in mist) was nearly touching Matterson and Mr. Socks in their perch in the Tower. Matterson had come to and was blushing furiously at his fainting spell. Satan was seven stairs and one keyhole away from entering the cell.

      The cloud that contained Martina spoke clearly and both men hung on every word. There were only four words, and short words at that. And then the mist dissipated and eternal darkness closed upon them with the sharp impertinence of a guillotine.

      “Love is a verb.” Martina said and suddenly both men were struck by a psychic cramp that tore through them. Both men completely understood for the first time what they had done wrong when they were Upstairs. The missed opportunities, the choice not to attend, not to care, not to cry, all the things that the men had failed to accomplish struck them with a sickening thud kinda like when a skull hits concrete.

      Poor Mr. Socks, the rushing flood of undone, unsung, unfelt moments swam through his mind. Mr. Socks began to weep. Seeing this, Matterson leaned against him and in a moment of highly illegal camaraderie, Mr. Socks brought Matterson up and gave him a peck on the cheek. It had been countless millenniums since either man had been shown even a smidgen of physical affection and the newness made Matterson start to cry. That is when Satan entered the room.

      The obscene sight of two men comforting each other signaled an act past insubordination. Satan just lost it. “Crybabies!!!!” He shrieked. The Tower collapsed, pulling all three of them into shadow and fieldstone.

     

      Lester Moland had proved to be a fantastic storm. Hundreds of homes were destroyed and winds had measured upwards of 100 miles an hour. No cows were transported anywhere but a telephone pole out next to the highway had been found full of pieces of straw. The wind had blown the straw into the wood like nails. They brought school kids out in yellow buses from all over the county just to see it.

      The only hitch in the whole operation was right when Moland had been feeling at his fighting best, top of his game, tossing lightening bolts, rumbling up from his toes and fanning the noise across himself, pulling knees of clouds up and stomping on every thing in sight at his furious best moment, Moland suddenly spied out of the corner of himself a beat-up old orange tabby cat swollen with kittens and staggering across her owner’s front yard. Her tattered ears were blown back from the wind and physical effort, the tiny streak of orange fur caught Lester’s eye and snagged his heart, the tabby was baring her teeth from the pain. Moland single solitary soft spot was of the feline persuasion. When he had been Upstairs, Lester slept most of his nights out in the family barn. The rats scratched at the hay and it was the bawdy tomcats that kept Lester Moland company. They flexed their claws into the porous material of his pants and found flesh but he didn’t care. Cats killed and ate the mice that ran through his hair and dreams. Those mangy scar-ridden cats kept the night from him and the night wanted Lester Moland desperately.

      So, hovering and watching this swollen streak of orange lumbering along overwhelmed Lester’s reasoning for a moment and he paused and the rain ceased and the cat looked quickly up and then darted under a cement porch step and Lester Moland the storm intensified with furrowed brows of low hanging fog. He paused just long enough to save a cat and her kittens and gave a few earthly moments to an endeavor that he would not have approved of. Lester inadvertently paused just long enough before he rammed himself into the resistant structures smiling veins of white lightening as screams of surprise and pain cheered him on to his final goal of eliminating Amelia Jones and her aptly named son, Hope.

     

      Under six and a half feet of blue-gray rock, Matterson could not stop smiling. His right arm, he knew, had escaped all harm and was being relieved of it’s wrist watch in a park within walking distance, not that Matterson planned on walking anytime soon seeing as his legs (one, still in the toilet but now more realistically, part of the toilet) lay due North and the other due East. His remaining left arm had clung to his torso and lay sandwiched several feet under Mr. Socks.

      Mr. Joshua Socks, still in an accordion segmentation from the well placed machete blows of Lester Moland, lay neatly trapped under the massive iron bell that had topped the Tower, the bell whose melodic domed voice had summoned all of Hell’s inhabitants to the square for one of Satan’s rousing speeches or the carnival of delight which caps off with the nightly public executions. In the crumbling of the structure, Mr. Socks had been careful to look neither up nor down. He was afraid of heights and terrified of falling so neither option suited him. Instead, Mr. Socks screwed his eyes tightly shut and in the process, immediately misplaced Matterson. The skull slipped fully away in the slipping and sliding sensation that was echoing Satan’s disgusted scream. Mr. Socks hated looking away from where Martina had been. The words she had whispered were buzzing a warm new dangerous glow in his stomach. He remembered what was written about Hope in the Salvation handbook. Hope fathered Stupidity and comes occasionally disguised as Faith. Fear Hope, embrace Ignorance the evolution of an archaic emotion, the refinement of an indefinite by a finite.

     

      It was not an iron bell, but it was nearly as sturdy thanks to the diligent work of Amelia and Hope’s self-appointed bodyguards. As Lester Moland slipped into the storm costume, while Amelia watched and waited at her window, while Amelia’s neighbor, Mr. Fangle, lay on his couch clutching his remote control; a meeting took place in the basement.

      “Right,” said the Ax, a noisy little tool who had been assembled in Scotland and had picked up the odd phrase in the workshop. “I’m looking after the wee lad, who is with me?”

      Surprisingly, the habitually meek nail gun spoke up next, “We must save the boy and he’s no good without his mother, so we’re saving them both.”

      Miles away, thunder rumbled like someone clearing their throat.

      The floorboards, nosy as ever, had heard the weather report and then listened to the coffee pot talking to one of the saucers who’d heard the teaspoon read Lester Moland’s poem out loud and everyone one recognized the only poem from the Salvation Handbook, after all, what base element has not been to Hell? Soon, the whole house knew the storm was coming.

      “Shame the fellow isn’t home.”

      Many tools murmured in agreement. The basement was where the boy was brought to be punished by Amelia’s beloved Clay when she was at work. It was normal that most tools hate their masters but these tools despised their owner. The basement was where Clay kept a few of his secrets. The tools, hanging on the workbench, facing out, were witness to the boy’s innocent fingers fumble to expose the cinnamon colored back. All the tools watched Clay uncoil the green garden hose and they heard the dull rubber embrace skin over and over. No marks on Hope, but a vision that burnt itself into the lidless eyes of the trapped audience.

      “Why does everyone want to hurt the boy?” One of the silly little staples asked. No one replied.

      “Hush,” scolded the electric saw, and then burst into sobs. Her cord quivered with emotion. (You must forgive the old dear, she’d been a Christmas present and was prone to the dramatic). The mop leaned in to comfort her.

      “I-I th-think that this boy has been Chosen.” said one of the screwdrivers.

      “Ridiculous!” countered the towering broom. “He’d never have lasted this long. Over half the Chosen are aborted; don’t speak rubbish, you are scaring the other screwdrivers.” The ten or so tools were stuck tip down into the aluminum can whose faded label insisted that its contents was Peas. It was impossible to ascertain exactly which one was speaking. Screwdrivers are so chronically shy; they all clump up at a drop of scrutiny.

      “The boy,” squeaked the terrified little pinched voice, “Is humanity’s Hope.”

      “Hope’s in Hell,” the hacksaw said disgusted.

      “Nope,” Contradicted the hammer, “He left in the thirteenth winter, I was there, lived down the hall. I watched him pack.”

      “Are you suggesting that we should do something?” The electric saw sounded horrified. “Are you suggesting that we risk everything, that we just throw everything away to save this kid?” Everyone knew that the electric saw had a massive grandma crush on Clay and that she forgave everything he did. The electric saw’s motto was “I’m his and he is mine.” Some of the other tools made faces about the slogan.

      Silence fell over the tools. The wind whistled shrill songs through the holes in the walls and windows. “Ouch,” said the roof as the wind pulled off a clump of shingles.

      “If we are caught, the punishment will be swift, who is with me?” The red tipped ax pulled himself off the wall and turned to face the others.

      “Don’t look at me, buddy, I’ll not be counted in for any of this.” The electric saw pulled herself up closer against the wall and stood perfectly still and every other tool hit the bench with a clatter. It woke Mr. Fangle who swore and rolled over. A shutter on the north side of the house was ripped off and sent screaming through the air. One of the screwdrivers that had helped install her began to cry and was comforted by the others.

      There was no way that the tools ever could have rebuilt that corner of the room and reinforced the beams that held up the ceiling had Lester Moland not paused and glanced and provided the precious moments that saved Hope Jones and his beautiful mother.

     

      “Love is a verb.” Murmured Mr. Socks. “Love is an action.” The idea flooded his chest with a flood of painful joy. He considered the last rule in the Salvation Handbook.

      No construction, no repair, never engage in helpful behavior, never offer assistance because everyone knows that maintenance is love.

      The truth of the statement coupled with his new burden of understanding struck Mr. Socks like a blow to the chest. When he had been upstairs, that had been his particular problem. Mr. Socks could clearly visualize his pleading wife pointing to the hole in the thatched mud and straw roof, gesturing at the hole that dripped into her carefully maintained fire. Mr. Socks could see himself wave her away. He had avoided all conflict, especially with his wife; Mr. Socks had felt he had owed her no explanation. Mr. Socks, staring at the hollow dome in front of him, realized that his life of sloth was sin. Joshua Socks swallowed hard and blinked. He recalled vividly the countless opportunities that had presented themselves, the beggars with their palms extended, the many dying on dusty roadsides to whom he did not offer water. Mr. Socks remembered his oft-repeated motto Upstairs, Water is for the living.

      For the first time since his decent, Mr. Socks could see his life in lucid detail. It was like first viewing the negative, unclear and shadow but suddenly he was able to discern the distinct images because he could see omission and the role the absence played. For the first time since Mr. Socks arrived in Hell, he felt he belonged there.

     

      Amelia Jones woke with a start. “Where am I?” She wondered. Then, “Where’s Hope?”

      “Amelia?” A man’s voice was calling but Amelia was not sure which way was up. It was dark. “Is this heaven?”

      “Ms. Jones?” Inquired another voice.

      Amelia heard dogs sniffing and snorting around above her. Suddenly she felt Hope shift near her, she extended her fingers past what seemed be floorboards but was really a very recently enforced ceiling (created by a band of brave tools under the cover of the noise the storm made bullying the structure).

      Amelia felt up and under her son’s body, no nails had struck him, no broken bones, no wet patches of fresh blood. She exhaled painfully and found her voice.

      “We’re here!” She yelled feebly.

      A bustle of activity above them pushed the kitchen floor closer to them. A pile of cement crashed to their left and was followed by a cloud of dust and a beaming ray of sunshine.

      “We’re here,” Amelia yelled again with her smile forcing it’s way into her voice. “We’re fine.”

      As the rescue continued nearer, Amelia could peer into her son’s face, see his eyes. Something was very wrong.

      “What is it?” Amelia asked.

      Hope put his hand to his throat. The storm had passed and left them alive. Moland had failed but he had not left empty handed. As a souvenir to stave off Satan’s wrath and ruin the Chosen one, Lester Moland stole the boy’s voice.

     

     

      Voices are slippery little fellows. Lester Moland had checked back into Parts and Services and received his very wrinkled body. He removed his crown of lightening and the powerful chest vest of black cloud with its sturdy belt of thunder. Before hanging the storm back up, he checked the pockets and took the wet wiggly boy’s voice out and sealed it in an evidence baggy. This would be pinned to his report. Hope’s voice would be a snack for Satan (nearly as tasty as a saint’s relic but not as crunchy). Moland smiled imagining his reward.

     

     

      In the ambulance, Hope took a piece of paper from the nurse and borrowed a pen from the driver. Amelia’s heart beat a staccato thud. She felt nauseous. Haven’t we got enough trouble? She wondered.

      The boy wrote a few words. WE CAN DO IT was scrawled across the yellow scrap. Yeah, right. Amelia thought, thinking of Clay and what he was going to say when he saw the condition of the house, all of his nice things, his TV. that he wouldn’t let Hope watch much less touch, everything crushed and broken. Clay said Amelia was a plague, bad luck got stuck to her; this would just prove his theory.

      Hope smiled his gap-toothed grin at his mother. Sometimes he seemed to glow. Amelia would check on him when he was a baby and although she knew it was merely the hall light creeping in and lying on his features, he looked golden. Amelia turned from her son and wiped a tickling tear from her eye.

      As they entered the drive to the emergency room, Amelia wondered how long it would be before Clay found them. Clay would arrive with his calm condolences, misty eyes and caramel words that just melted into her and made Amelia’s thoughts sticky so they clumped up and wouldn’t come apart into words. Her thoughts were interrupted by Hope pressing a piece of paper into her hand.

      Hope doesn’t need a voice was written on one side.

      Amelia glanced at her son who was now investigating the passing trees through the oval windows. She flipped the paper over.

      Hope has hands

     

     

      Lester Moland was nearly skipping from excitement. He passed through old towne square at nearly a trot. He noticed but did not pause to examine the pile of rubble that had been the Tower. Under hunks of mortar and stone, Moland’s former Henchman, the decorated Matterson and the useless member of the Accounting department, Mr. Joshua Socks were trapped.

      Lester felt like singing. His failure to destroy the child now seemed a subplot to the reality of what had happened. I have Hope’s voice, I have it and Hope does not and Satan will be pleased, Moland thought as he headed towards the head office. His leprous fingers explored, felt the sharp edge of the evidence baggy and a smile crossed his face and stayed there. The smile would have evaporated immediately if he had realized that the wiggly precious voice had shimmied out of his pocket and down his leg and then had sprung from his cuff and scurried under the closest rock it could discern. Voices get scared out in the open. They look for warm places that are very shadowed. Moland’s smile would have instantly become a frown if he had seen where his little voice was heading.

     

     

      - End of Part I -

© Copyright Lauren Walsh
Sursa :   Imagikon
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