The Hell Of It

By David A Wimsett

Mary Jones never expected the gun to go off. It was a bluff. She hadn’t realized it was even loaded. Now, the auditor lay dead at her feet. She had tried to bribe him with some of the money she had embezzled, but he had refused. Then, he picked up the phone and dialled the advertising agency’s comptroller to report the theft. That was when she took out the pistol.

Her plan was to lock his body in a closet and escape with the money, perhaps to South America. Now, as she stared down at his lifeless form, a new plan took shape. She removed his wallet and watch, then carried the body to the alley behind the office. It would appear to be just another unsolved robbery. She was certain that no one would suspect her. As she walked away, she felt both regret and guilt. These emotions passed quickly as she realized that her dream of opening her own advertising agency was secure.

Half a year later, she used the stolen money to start that agency and hired bright, young minds to staff it. Still, she held the reins of power tightly as she controlled everyone and placed her mark on each deal.

After decades of lying, bullying and cheating, a stroke felled her. When she returned to the office after a month, it was evident that some of her power had already slipped away. A purge of dissident subordinates returned her to full control, but a second stroke put her in intensive care.

As she awoke in a hospital bed, her eyesight blurry, muffled noises came quivering through a haze. She tried to speak. No words came out. Someone started laughing in a deep and unpleasant tone. She closed her eyes and drifted into darkness.

When Mary opened her eyes again, she was sitting in an office with plush carpeting. The air had that cool, yet slightly dry sense of central air conditioning. A tall, clean-shaven man in a tailored suit sat at a desk. Behind him was a window through which she saw fluffy clouds against a bright blue sky.

The man stood and extended his hand as he walked forward. “Welcome, Ms. Jones, welcome to hell.”

She returned his firm handshake. “I beg your pardon?”

He smiled pleasantly. “You’re probably a little disoriented at the moment. Now, what I’m about to say may distress you, but please be assured that everything is just fine.

A moment ago, you were lying in a hospital bed suffering from a stroke. You died as a result. At that exact instant, your soul materialized here in the afterlife.”

Mary looked at her hands and realized her eyesight, blurry only moments ago, was now clear and sharp. The age spots and wrinkles on her skin were gone, as was the hospital gown. Instead, she was dressed in the same business suit she had worn on the day she opened her own advertising agency. She got slowly to her feet and examined herself in a mirror on the wall. Her grey hair was dark auburn again.

She saw the face of the tall man reflected behind her. He was still smiling. “As fine a figure as ever you were at thirty-four. I believe that was your favourite age.”

Mary ran her hands across the fabric. “I threw this out years ago. How is this possible, mister…” She paused for a moment. “I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name.”

Satan. Beelzebub Satan. But please, call me Beel.”

The skin on the back of her neck prickled. “It’s the drugs, that’s it. What did that doctor give me?” The prickling feeling did not end. She took in ragged, short breaths. All the sermons of hellfire and torment she had heard as a child flooded her mind. “I didn’t mean to kill him. It was an accident. You have to believe me.”

Satan raised his hand. “Calm yourself, Mary. All that fire and brimstone nonsense has nothing to do with hell. We know about the money you stole, the people you cheated, the careers you ruined, even the man you killed. That doesn’t matter. Good deeds. Bad deeds. They all wash in the end. Hell wasn’t created to punish those who sin.” He chuckled. “If it were, everyone would wind up here.

Hell is just a place where certain kinds of souls come, those with the drive to make it. For some there is heaven, for others hell. Or to put it another way, the sheep have their pasture and the wolves their forest.”

Mary took a step away from Satan. “Then, what happens to me here?”

Satan said, “What would you like to happen? It’s a whole new world waiting to be conquered, waiting for people who know how to make their mark and keep it there. Name your game: banking, shipping, media. It’s all here, and more. Oh, it won’t be easy. But, I can assure you it will never be dull. Wouldn’t that be the worst? To be bored through eternity.”

Mary walked to the window. Outside, she saw a modern city with a meandering river running through it. In the distance tree-lined mountains were topped with snow. She turned back to Satan. “But what do you get out of it? What’s your cut, Beel?”

Let’s just say that I’m the CEO of this multidimensional conglomerate. You make a profit, and I make a profit. Oh, not in dollars and cents. There are other things to strive for.”

So it’s like a contest between you and…” She looked up at the ceiling, “God?”

Something like that, only I wouldn’t gaze in that direction. Heaven is off there to the west. Very pastoral, but a little too sedate for my taste.”

Harps and halos?”

No, but new arrivals do wear the most awful white robes and they’re set to the same age as when they died. God says it helps them acclimatize. I think you’ll agree that setting people to their favourite age is much better, especially since you can change whenever you want.”

Do you mean I can trade this body in for a new one?”

Not exactly. The body you have now is the one you will keep for as long as you are in hell. We can alter it if you like or repair it if it gets hurt, but we can’t replace it if it’s destroyed. When you die here, Mary, your soul has nowhere to go. It just vanishes into oblivion.”

He opened a drawer and brought out a metal box. “But, don’t let that worry you. For now, just have a look around, get used to the place.” He took out a set of keys and a small handbag. “Here’s some cash and a few credit cards. They’ll get you going. The square key is to your apartment, the address is in the wallet and the round one is for…”

My Matla Turbo. Is it really my car?”

Satan smiled broadly. “Red with wire rim wheels, sun roof and leather seats.”

She took the keys and handbag. “I can’t believe it. It’s everything I loved best.”

We’ve opened a small advertising agency for you downtown. It’s not much, a couple of accounts, a little working capital, some employees, but then, you started with less, didn’t you?”

I certainly did.”

Satan guided her to his outer office. “If you have any problems just call. My secretary will give you the number. We’ll talk again in a few weeks. Good luck.”

Her apartment was a modern set of rooms built into the shell of a Victorian building. Her favourite clothes were hung neatly in a closet. The kitchen cabinets were full of food. Her grandmother’s china shone from a lighted display case. Everything was right.

The drive downtown took a quarter of an hour. Her office occupied a two-story brick building. The staff consisted of three advertising agents, a receptionist and a janitor who also filled in as a handyman. Mary sat through a staff meeting to get acquainted with the accounts. She was in control again. The excitement was still there, and this time it would never end.

A year passed and the business grew. One night, Mary closed a deal for the largest account her agency had ever landed. The final negotiations had lasted well past midnight. When she got home, she stumbled into the bedroom, still fully clothed, flopped across the covers, and immediately fell asleep.

She had a dream about a tree-lined avenue. At first, she saw only misty forms. The mist vanished suddenly as her senses snapped clearly into focus with shocking reality.

She was nine years old. Mary stood in her grandmother’s kitchen and stared at the cookie jar that was just out of reach on top of the refrigerator.

Grandmother had gone upstairs for a nap. Mary pushed one of the kitchen chairs over to the refrigerator and reached up for the lid of the cookie jar. She told herself that no one would notice if a few were missing. The lid was higher than she thought. She placed her hands around the jar to take it down when it slipped and fell to the floor with a crash.

Grandmother called down, “What’s wrong?”

Mary thought fast. She pushed the chair under the table and opened the back door that led to the driveway between grandmother’s house and the next door neighbour’s. Then she ran into the living room just as grandmother came downstairs and said, “What was that noise?”

Mary pointed to the open door, “Jimmy Watson came in and tried to steal some cookies. He dropped the jar when he saw me”. She remembered how grandmother was always complaining about that boy next door and how he made too much noise and cut across her lawn and stomped through her flowerbeds.

Grandmother got a strange look on her face. “Well, this is the last straw.”

Mary knew grandmother would be angry, but she thought she would just complain like she always did and that would be the end of it. Instead, grandmother went over and knocked on the neighbour’s door. Mary watched through a window with horror as Jimmy’s father answered. She was certain her lie would be discovered and that she would be punished. Grandmother gave an animated description of the crime. The father called into the house and Jimmy appeared at the door. There was more discussion and Jimmy shook his head.

Then, Mary heard her grandmother raise her voice and shout, “My granddaughter wouldn’t lie.”

Jimmy’s father grabbed the boy by the ear and dragged him back inside.

Later that day, she went outside and ran directly into Jimmy Watson. He stood still and stared at her. She was afraid he was going to hit her and wanted to run, but was too scared to move.

He just lowered his head and said, “Why?”

The single word hurt more than if he had punched her in the stomach.

The nightmare ended abruptly as the wail of a siren woke Mary from the dream. She sat up with a start, caught for a moment between the dreaming world and the waking. Her clothes were soaked with sweat. She got up and made some instant coffee. Her hands shook as she tried to sip the hot liquid. It had been ages since she had thought about the incident of the cookie jar, yet she couldn’t stop shaking as she realized that a part of her mind was waiting for Jimmy Watson to come through the door.

The dream was only a distant memory as she drove downtown the next morning. The janitor, Tom, came into her office and emptied her trash.

Good afternoon, ma’am. Congratulations on closing that deal.”

Thank you, Tom.” The janitor appeared to be in his seventies and Mary wondered why he had set himself at such an age. She said, “We’ll have to get you an assistant if business keeps growing.”

Oh, I think I can handle the load. Settling in, are you ma’am?”

Yes. Hell is a nice place. I took a walk by the lake during lunch and watched the ducks.”

Tom dusted a filing cabinet. “Sometimes I feed them bread.”

I’d have remembered to bring some today, if I hadn’t been so tired. Couldn’t sleep. Had the strangest dream.” She looked up to see Tom staring at her, his mouth agape.

She said, “What’s wrong?”

Nothing, ma’am.”

You look pale.”

I’m fine ma’am.” He left her office quickly.

The nights when the dreams came were terrible. The nights when they didn’t were almost as bad, as she lay in bed waiting for them. They retraced the petty mistakes, failures and embarrassments of her life: the date who never arrived for the prom, the exam she cheated on, the time she hit the neighbour’s cat with her car and hid the body.

The events were always insignificant. She never dreamed about the money she had embezzled or the man she had killed to cover up the crime. Still, the intensity with which she relived the trivial incidents smothered her.

When she mentioned her dreams, people changed the subject abruptly, except for Tom. He would stare into her eyes for a moment before turning and walking away.

She called Satan. “Stop by your local clinic,” he said. “They can give you something.”

That night, she took one of the pills and was delighted to awake the next morning free of the nightmares. Business exploded and she threw herself full into work.

A few weeks later she had a dream about her sixteenth birthday when she and her family had flown out to visit her aunt. The jet suddenly dropped several thousand feet and lost air pressure. As the young Mary grasped the oxygen mask, she found herself terrified, not so much by death, but by the realization that everything she had ever done amounted to nothing, and that no one would remember her name. When she awoke from the nightmare her hands were still over her face.

#

One morning she asked Tom to come to the basement with her. “I need some files moved.”

They went downstairs where a corridor led to storage rooms. Mary unlocked one and they walked inside.

There was a small table with two chairs pushed up underneath it. Across the table top were scattered some papers, two staplers, and a letter opener. A thick layer of dust covered everything.

Tom said, “Is this the right room?”

Mary closed the door. “There are no files. I need to talk to you, alone, about the dreams.”

Tom took a step back. “I don’t know what you mean.”

You’re a poor liar, Tom. I can see it in your face. You have the dreams the same as everyone in hell.”

Tom started to speak, then closed his eyes and bowed his head.

Mary said, “We can’t let this go on.”

Tom sat at the table and clasped his hands in front of him. “It won’t do any good.”

I need to know what we’re fighting.”

He gave a sigh. “Yes. Everyone has the nightmares. When I first arrived I tried to fight them, but they keep coming at you night after night, year after year, every petty blemish of your life. You can stand it for awhile, even make them stop for a night or two. You think you can win, if you just hold out. But then, one day, you break.” He swept his arm violently across the table, knocking everything to the floor. “You just break and that’s when you know Satan owns you.” He put his head in his hands.

Mary touched his shoulder. “How long have you been here?”

He shook his head. “I used to keep track, then it seemed pointless.”

Years?”

He looked up. “Centuries.”

She sat in the other chair. “After all that time, you must have learned something about how they make the dreams.”

He crossed his arms tightly over his chest. “I once worked in Mr. Satan’s building and stumbled through a door marked Dream Room.

There were people inside staring at crystal balls. A man passed his hand over one. It glowed and showed a picture of a boy beating a dog with a stick. Then, the dog spun around and bit the boy viciously.

I gasped. Several people looked up and saw me.” Tom closed his eyes tightly. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

Tom, it’s important. I can stop them from hurting you.”

He fell silent for a long while. When he spoke again, his voice was barely audible. “They strapped me in a chair and asked me if I had seen the master crystal and if I knew what it did. They showed me a picture. It was about the size of my fist and bright blue. Mr. Satan came down. He played other peoples’ dreams in my mind, over and over. I asked him to stop. I asked nice. Then I begged. Then I screamed.

Finally, I passed out. When I woke up I pretended to be asleep. Mr. Satan was saying how he had to find out if I knew about the master crystal and how it controlled all the dream makers and that they would stop working if the crystal were damaged in any way, even if it just got chipped.”

How did you find this room?”

It’s in a hidden office. The entrance is on the lower level of the parking garage. There’s a brass plaque attached to the wall that has a crescent moon and three stars on it. You press the stars all together, then the moon twice.”

Mary stood up. “Take me there.”

He shook his head. “If they knew I told you…you don’t know what they’ll do.”

I can protect you.”

He rose slowly, his eyes glazed over. “I’ll go to them and tell the truth. We’ll both go.”

Tom, we can fight them together.”

They’ll forgive us.” He moved slowly towards the door. Mary ran and knocked him to the floor. He struggled to get up, but was no match for her strength.

Stupid old man, she thought. He would ruin everything. She had tried reason, but he was hysterical. She saw the letter opener Tom had knocked to the floor. What did Satan say about a soul that died in hell? It vanished?

Tom continued to squirm as Mary reached out, grabbed the steel blade, and held it to the old man’s throat. “You’re not going to spoil this for us, you fool. I want to help you, but if I have to kill you to keep you quiet I will. You know what that means here.”

Tom raised his hands over his face. “Please, no. I won’t say anything.”

He twisted as Mary held the letter opener firmly. His legs jerked sharply up, striking Mary in the back. She fell forward with her full weight and the letter opener rammed into Tom’s neck.

Hot blood shot from the wound in spurts. Tom gave a gurgling cough as he opened his eyes wide. Pressing her fingers tight against the gash, Mary tried to stop the flow but only managed to get her clothes soaked in sticky gore. Tom moved his mouth. No sound came out. His skin began to glow. Mary jumped back as Tom’s body disappeared.

She ran to the other side of the room and vomited. With the sting of bile in her mouth, she whispered, “Oh, God”, then realized there was no help for her from that direction. She had to solve this herself, as she had solved all her problems. And, like all those times before, she would win. She would change hell as she had changed Earth, and this time her mark would last for eternity.

The blood was still wet on her clothes as she drove home. After a shower, she found that the only clean outfit she had was the one she had first worn when she first arrived in hell.

No one stopped her as she drove into the underground garage. The plaque was located in a little niche. She pressed the stars and moon in the right order and a section of wall slid open to reveal a carpeted hallway.

A uniformed guard sat at a desk reading a magazine. He wore a belt with a night stick and a side arm. The hallway continued on to a door marked Dream Room.

The guard kept reading without looking up. “Badge, please.”

Mary stood tall. In a sharp tone, she said, “Is that how you guard the most important place in hell? Stand up.”

The guard dropped his magazine and stood at attention. “Sorry ma’am.”

She brought her face to within an inch of his. “You should be. What’s your number?”

Before the guard could recover his wits, she pulled the gun from his holster and shot him. Like Tom, his skin glowed before his body vanished. She tucked the pistol into the waist band of her skirt so that the jacket hid it from view. Then, she walked down the hall and through the door.

The dream room was the size of a stadium. It seemed as if thousands of people sat in front of crystal balls where nightmares played out. At the far end was a large glass window from which a blue glow emanated. Mary walked toward it.

When she reached the window she saw a silver tripod beyond the glass. On it rested a perfect blue crystal about the size of her fist. On the wall to the left of the window was an elevator but she saw no doors or hatches leading to the crystal.

Mary pulled the gun from her waistband, aimed it at the wall of glass and fired. She jumped through the jagged hole the bullet had made. Piercing alarms sounded. Five uniformed guards charged forward. Mary grabbed the crystal and pointed the gun at it. “One more step and I chip this thing.”

The guards stopped, then moved slowly back.

Mary looked to one of them. “Dial Satan on that speaker phone.”

Satan spoke calmly. “Mary. You realize that what you have done is very serious. If you will just hand over the crystal I am certain we can come to an agreement.”

Drop the soft sell, Beel. I know what the crystal means. I can bring down your whole operation. No more dreams. No more control. What will that do to your little game with God?”

Mary, why don’t we talk about this? Stay where you are and I’ll be down in fifteen minutes.”

She was certain she was being set up. If he wanted her there, it was the last place she wanted to be. The dream room was the most important place in hell. He had to have a quick way to get there. She looked to the guard who had made the phone call. “How long does it take for your boss to get down here on that elevator?”

I don’t know. A minute or so.”

Satan’s voice barked through the speakerphone. “Idiot.”

Mary smiled. “We’ll talk all right, Beel, but not down here. I’m on my way up and remember, I’ve got a gun pointed at the crystal.”

Satan’s office was just as she remembered it, the desk, the window, the carpeting. She sat in the same chair with the gun pointed at the master crystal. “Now, Beel. Let’s talk.”

I’m listening.”

There are going to be some changes.”

Such as?”

To begin with, I control who has nightmares and who doesn’t.”

That’s quite ambitious. Do you plan to hold a lottery, or just take bribes?”

I don’t believe you understand how serious I am.”

Oh, but I do. I’ve known from the moment you arrived that you are a serious woman of action. It’s always been that way for you, hasn’t it? You have to win, have to make everyone look at you. At first you play by the rules, bending them of course, yet staying within your own interpretation of legal.

Then something happens that’s out of your control. The dreams come, for instance. You try to live with them, but they get worse. You’re about to go out of your mind, when you stumble onto an edge. Someone tells you about a power crystal that can make you master of your tormentors.

And then, to protect yourself, you kill him. It’s justified. He’s a threat. He might tell the authorities that Mary Jones knows where the crystal is. One murder leads to another. No real plan, but action nonetheless. Of course you have some regret, but not enough to stop you. Then here you are, crystal in hand, demanding your cut of hell. Very impressive.”

Mary felt a growing panic at Satan’s relaxed demeanour. “Well, I’ve got the crystal now, no matter what you say. So you found out about Tom. So what? Ending his torment was more merciful then what you did to him.”

Satan clapped enthusiastically. “Bravo. An excellent rendition of the ‘I knew what was best for them’ speech. Torquemada, Hitler, and thousands more have sat in that very chair and used those exact words.”

I’m warning you. I’ll destroy this crystal.”

Go ahead. It’s worthless. Might as well be dust.”

With those words, the crystal crumbled into fine blue ash. A breeze came from the air-conditioning vents and blew it away. Mary jumped to her feet and aimed the gun at Satan. “You lousy…” She pulled the trigger. A stick popped out of the barrel and a little flag unfolded with the word BANG written on it in oversized letters.

Satan laughed uproariously as he walked around the desk and took the gun. “Do forgive me. I just can’t suppress my love of theatrics.” He wiped a tear from his eye as he pressed a button on his phone. “Tom, would you come in here for a moment?”

The door opened and the old janitor Mary had stabbed walked into the room. “Hello, ma’am. Nice to see you again.”

Satan handed him the gun. “Please take this to props.”

Yes sir.” He left and closed the door behind him.

Mary stared with her mouth open. “But I killed him.”

He can’t die, Mary. No one here can die.”

But you said a soul killed in hell would vanish.”

Satan shrugged. “I lied.”

Then the guards, the crystal, my office staff?”

All made up for your benefit.”

She sat down slowly. “So, I’ll just keep on dreaming about all the petty failures of my life.”

Satan said, “Come now. What kind of torment would that be, really? The nightmares are unpleasant, but not much more than an annoyance. After a few years they would fade into the background the way your conscience did, and there would always be the hope that somehow, some way, you could defeat them. Not much of an eternal punishment, is it?

No. If you want to find the perfect damnation for a person, you have to know what she really fears, that thing that terrifies her so much she denies it even to herself.

Imagine someone who has to be in charge; someone who has to control everyone and everything around her so she can secure her legacy. She strives and fights and cheats and destroys anyone in her way until she stands at the pinnacle, about to achieve all she has dreamed of. But, at that moment, the dream slips away and she learns that everything she has have ever done amounts to nothing and that she has actually had no effect on the world, as if she had never existed. If such a person knew this, even for an instant, that instant would be the damnation of eternity.”

Mary found herself shaking. “What are you talking about?”

Satan sat down. “In a moment you will fall asleep. When you wake up, you will remember nothing of what has happened since your arrival here. Your last memory will be that of dying in the hospital.”

All strength drained from her arms and legs. Her head felt heavy. She fought to speak. “Please. I have to know. Is this the first time? Have I been through all this before? How many times have I sat here?”

Satan smiled. “Now that’s the hell of it, Mary. You’ll never know.” He laughed as her eyes closed and she drifted into darkness.

When Mary opened her eyes again, she was sitting in an office with plush carpeting. The air had that cool, yet slightly dry sense of central air conditioning. A tall, clean-shaven man in a tailored suit sat at a desk. Behind him was a window through which she saw fluffy clouds against a bright blue sky.

The man stood and extended his hand as he walked forward. “Welcome, Ms. Jones, welcome to hell.”

crystal ball photo courtesy of Taylor R via unsplash


David A. Wimsett’s stories contain female and male characters who examine themselves and their place in the world. He is the author of the women’s fiction novel Beyond the Shallow Bank and The Carandir Saga, an epic fantasy series consisting of Dragons Unremembered and Half Awakened Dreams. The third volume, Covenant with the Dragons, will be released for Christmas pf 2021.
He is a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, the Canadian Freelance Guild and the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia where he sits on the Writer’s Council. He lives in Nova Scotia, Canada near the sea.

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