“Hell. You think you have it all figured out. Fire and brimstone, sinners writhing in agony, cries of the forsaken. You think that’s it, but you’re wrong. You cursed me there when you drove the knife into me because I was different. You cursed me there when you watched me bleed out. You cursed me there in the name of God. I didn’t belong there. Not until your knife pierced my skin. And then I knew hatred. You taught me. As my life slipped away on the grass, as you spit on me, you taught me hate. In that moment, you sent me to Hell.”
My smile melts into a sneer. They lie in their bed, both paralyzed by my touch. His wife screams, but no sound comes out. His eyes are wide, mouth closed. Ten years have taken a toll on him, though my body is the same.
I yank him by his worn collar. “Does she even know?” I toss him into the chair beside the bed. His limp body slouches. “She doesn’t, does she? You never told her.” Roughly I arrange him into a proper sitting position and scoot the chair closer, twisting it so he faces his wife.
I sit on the edge of his bed, our knees almost touching. “Hell is filled with two types of people. Some are like you—they’re the ones writhing in eternal fire.” I lean forward, my lips at his ear. “Physical and mental anguish worse than you can fathom.”
His response is to void his bladder. An acrid smell fills the room.
“Are you scared? Truly scared, maybe for the first time in your life? Now you know how I felt.” I recline back so I can watch the effect my words have on him. His eyes dart around the room, then back to his wife, then to me. “Then there are people like me. You sparked hate in me, more powerful than anything I’d ever felt. When I took my last breath, I didn’t wake up in a fiery pit. No, I landed in a little gray room. That’s where my training began. Where I nearly died again. You made me hate so deeply that I was chosen to thrive in Hell. To live eternally with my hatred, become one with it, use it how I see fit.”
His eyes flicker with false understanding. I laugh. I tip his wife’s chin up. “He thinks he gets it. He doesn’t, but you are beginning to, aren’t you?” I snap my fingers and her terrified shriek fills the room. I let her body spasm on the bed, assaulted by raw emotions, the first real ones she’s ever felt. I snap my fingers again. She stills. Silent screams return.
I turn back to him. “You don’t know real hate, real anger. You are a fool, duped by those you follow. Your life is a lie and now you will bear the fruit of that lie.” I rip open his shirt.
Closing my eyes, I’m back in the little gray room. My teacher tried to break me. Bombarded my body and mind. Intense pain as my skin melted from an atomic blast, slow agony as ebola bled me out, despair as a child breathed her last in my arms. I know them all, and thousands more.
My finger touches his chest, freeing his body enough to tremble. He vibrates through me. I trace the edge of my fingernail down the center of his ribcage. The stench of burnt flesh hits me. I open my eyes and am met with his silent wail. Beautiful agony. A razor-thin line of scorched flesh flares then disappears.
I walk behind him. “This is where he stabbed me first,” I say to his wife as I push my nail next to his left shoulder blade. His body jerks in the chair and I release his scream, a guttural cry of animalistic pain. Flesh drips off him. I growl, “From behind. He’s a coward and he’s going to pay.”
I shove him to the floor and tear his shirt the rest of the way off. With precision I inflict every wound he gave me ten years ago, every cut etched into my being. White heat erodes his skin.
His wife’s eyes, once wide, narrow as he sobs and drools on the bed. I haul him up and reposition him in the chair. “Five in the back,” I say to her. “Seven more in the chest.”
Each cut elicits raspy gasps. His knife drove deep but I barely pierce his flesh. Ten years worth of hate doesn’t need much of an opening to do damage.
I silence him again and sit back on the bed. “And then he did two more things,” I say quietly, my head low. “He spit on me as blood poured from my body. All of that wasn’t enough, though. He bent down and ran the blade across my neck.”
My hands on my knees, I push myself up and glide to the far side of the bed, close to her. “I won’t spit on him, though. I’m not a base creature. Unlike your husband, the murdering coward.”
I look at her and see myself. I place my palm over her heart and press. The physical act mirrors what is already done. I let her husband hear her final breath before I no longer need to keep her bound.
We both know what comes next.
She gulps for air, bucking and slamming against the wall of the little gray room. Her head swivels as she takes in her surroundings. A furious yell fills the small space.
I smile. It’s time to begin her training.
∼ Mark Steinwachs
© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.
“Trust in me and I will guide you. I will heal you.”
I feel the words spoken but no one is in the room. Sighing, I put my backpack on the table and walk into the kitchen. Opening the fridge, I groan, marveling at the lack of food. I grab one of the cheap beers, the only kind I can afford, and twist off the top, taking a swig.
“Give yourself to me and I will make it better. I will take the hurt from you.”
The words are a breath in my ear. I stopped looking for the being behind the voice long ago.
My movements are automatic. Grab the small pot from the stove, shake out two packets of ramen noodles, down the first beer as they cook, then crack open the second one while eating the sodium-laced soup straight from the pot.
I finish my dinner in the same place I started it then rinse the pot and fork, setting them back on the stove, ready for tomorrow night. The second beer comes with me to the bedroom. It’s a matter of ten steps between the two rooms.
“I am here. I will take the pain you feel.”
There is nothing to pull my attention away from the voice because I have nothing left. The things I used to own? All sold to try and get by. The cheap build-it-yourself dresser wobbles as I set the beer atop it next to the stack of unpaid bills.
Undressing, I toss my clothes on the pile in the corner. I need to do laundry but there isn’t enough money. I walk into the bathroom and turn the shower on, stepping in after steam curls out from behind the curtain. At least I still have hot water to shower with.
The water stings my skin as it cascades over me. Reaching back, I crank the heat up further. My skin reddens and it stands out more where is it stretched taut from the burns. As I close my eyes, the vision comes back, like it always does. The mortar shells raining down around us, trying to avoid something unavoidable until it happens, a sound like the earth itself opening, then nothing but ringing as chaos ensues.
They said it wasn’t my fault but they didn’t live it. They can’t understand it. They didn’t watch their friends burn, trapped inside an overturned Humvee.
“So many have come before you. I await. Accept my invitation and I will make it better.”
The voice has been there since shortly after I got out of the hospital and back home. It happened the day I returned to my church. There was a hero’s welcome, but I didn’t deserve it. I let my friends down. They got a different hero’s welcome when they got home, and I couldn’t be there for any of them. I’ve done my best to make peace though. Maybe one day I’ll find out if I’ve been forgiven.
That night the voice spoke to me, I freaked out and couldn’t sleep for three days afterward. It didn’t happen much in the beginning—once or twice a week—but it’s become more frequent. It happens at least ten times a day now, it feels like. But I don’t count.
Opening my eyes, I shut the water off and dry myself, then close the bathroom door. I leave the light on; I need a little bit to help me fall asleep—that, plus a few pills. I grab my beer and shuffle to bed, picking up the orange bottle from the floor. I open it and tip three into my hand, gulping them with a shot of beer. My fingers fumble the lid closed and I finish the last dregs of my drink.
I lie down and reach to the floor, picking up the paper I know is there, a poem given to me by our church’s pastor: ‘Footprints.’ He told me that it was written for millions of people before they knew they needed it and that, one day, I would truly accept and understand the words. Only then would my life would be better.
I read the poem as I’ve done every night since I got it, the paper worn and ragged in my hands. I finish and gently set it on the floor, then flip the switch on my lamp. Only a sliver of light streams from the bathroom.
Before I shut my eyes, the voice is there one last time. “Accept me and you will be free. I am your savior.”
I drift as the pills take hold. “Maybe you are,” I mumble. “Maybe you are.”
I dream of those moments, but for the first time it really is a dream, not a nightmare. Their eyes tell me everything. It’s time.
My heart is hammering in my chest when I wake. I know what I must do. I roll out of bed onto my knees. The voice is there immediately. “I am your savior. Accept me and I will guide you from this pain.”
“Yes, yes. Please, yes. You are my savior, I accept.” Answering out loud to the voice only I can hear.
My body shivers as I feel movement behind me. I start to turn but it’s too late. Slender hands grip my head.
“Welcome home,” the all-too-familiar voice whispers. A skeletal finger touches each temple and a searing heat rips through me.
I burn inside the Humvee, my skin sloughing off until there is nothing left… and then the moments repeat. For the rest of eternity, my men will watch me.
It is hell, but it is my hell.
And I am saved.
© Copyright 2017 Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.
“It starts with your first cry,” the white-haired gentleman sitting next to me says. “Moments after you are born your demon is as well, a microscopic creature that grows as you do.” He takes a sip from the tumbler of whiskey he got moments ago and sucks in a breath from the burn.
“Melvin, honey, stop scaring the nice young man,” Barb—I think the bartender said her name was Barb—says from the other end of the bar while cleaning glasses.
I look up from my rum and Coke, realizing the two of them are talking about me. “I’m sorry,” I say, looking around the cramped room again. There are two tables with people who look lost in their own worlds. I’m out of place here, a new person trespassing on the regulars’ sanctuary. “Were you talking to me?”
“Sometimes the truth is scary, Barbara, you know that.” Melvin points a crooked finger at her while still holding his drink. He winces after taking another sip. “He knows it, too. Look at him. You know what his world is.” He’s still facing straight ahead, watching me through the mirror that is the wall behind the bar. “The doctors haven’t helped you, have they, son?”
I shift in my seat, glancing sideways at him. For a moment I let the question sit. Demon, I hear Melvin’s voice in my head. I decide to play along. “No they can’t. They say there’s nothing wrong with me. Not physically, at least.”
Melvin lets out a sharp laugh that turns into a cough. “Physically wrong? Oh, no, I can tell that just by looking at you. You’re what, twenty-five, maybe six? I bet you haven’t been physically sick in years. We both know I’m not talking about that kind of doctor.”
“Melvin!” Barb says. “You stop that right now. Leave that poor boy alone. You’ll run off my new customer.”
He doesn’t move his body but tilts his eyes up to Barb and then returns his gaze to me, waiting. No one reacts to the scene playing out between us.
“You mean psychiatrists? Yeah, I’ve seen my fair share,” I say. “They send me back to a regular doctor, who then sends me to a different psychiatrist. But I gave up on that a while ago.”
He takes a long swig of his drink, finishes it, and swivels his stool to face me. Barb comes over and refills the glass. Melvin brings up his right hand between our chests, palm facing me with his fingers spread. He’s looking at me with his head cocked, like he’s searching for something. “You feel him, son. I know you do. You’ve felt him for years, inside you. He’s become more of you than you are yourself.”
My stomach churns and I put my hand on the edge of the bar to steady myself. Pain isn’t the right word. It’s not painful. It’s anguish. Emptiness. Working from my stomach out in all directions. Pushing through my veins, invading me.
“You’ve seen him,” Melvin says. “Behind your eyes when you look in the mirror. You aren’t crazy, son. You just weren’t meant for this world.”
I grip the edge of the bar. It’s there. I saw it the other night, behind my eyes, a creature made of black ink. A drip fell from it and a burning ache seeped through my body. I had felt that thousands of times and now I finally knew what it was.
Melvin leans in and points his finger at my heart, almost touching my chest. “He’s never been there. You’ve fought him off. No one knows what you’ve gone through. The internal battles you fight every day.”
He’s right. Every word. The old man saw me for who I am. My eyes fill with tears. My body feels heavy. I’m tired, so tired, from fighting, holding the thing at bay as it inches closer.
“There’s much more to this physical world than we know. They are waiting to be learned if you truly open yourself to them. Just because society says something is weak and cowardly doesn’t mean it’s true. Maybe they just don’t understand.”
“I… I… It doesn’t hurt but it never goes away. Everything I do.”
“I know, son,” Melvin says in a quiet voice. “It’s okay. I promise.” His finger touches my chest and the sensation plunges into my heart.
In one moment, years of defenses topple down. My body. My mind. My soul. Exquisite peace.
“Thank you.” I stand up and walk out of the bar.
A minute later the sound of a single gunshot from the alley fills the bar. Barb says to Melvin while washing a glass, “Don’t you dare tell me he’s in a better place.”
“He isn’t,” Melvin says. “But he’s in a place where he can fight. Where he can win, if he is strong enough.”
“I hope so.” Melvin winces as another sip of whiskey sears his throat.
∼ Mark Steinwachs
© Copyright 2017 Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.
The buzzing invades your brain. Why is the alarm clock going off? You begin to open your eyes and realize it’s not the alarm, but the doorbell. Who the hell is at my door at— rolling over, the clock finishes your thought by flashing 3:10 a.m.
You slide out of bed. As your feet touch the floor, the buzzing stops. You get up anyway and walk through the empty house to the front door to see if someone is there. There’s no one on the porch when you look through the peephole. You unlock the door, open it. On the ground in front of you is a small cardboard box. Stepping over it, you look around the front yard and glance up and down the street. Everything is quiet. You scoop the package up and walk into the house, kicking the door shut behind you.
Something solid moves inside the box as you walk to the couch and set it on the coffee table. It’s a perfect square about a foot tall, and meticulously taped. You pick it up again. Whatever is inside shifts slightly, like there’s not quite enough packing material holding it in place. Turning the box over in your hands, you see no markings of any kind.
You set the box down not sure which side is up.
Well, the box will be there in the morning.
Getting up from the couch, you head to your bedroom for a few more hours of sleep. But it doesn’t come. Lying there with your eyes closed, the image of the box fills your thoughts. Your eyes open, and once again, you turn to the clock.
This is ridiculous. It’s a box. And it’s probably not even meant for me.
At this point there’s no falling asleep, so you get out of bed and return to the couch. You slide forward to the edge of the seat and lean over the box; your fingers reach for the tape. Using your nail, you pry up a tiny corner and pull it back. The tape comes off without effort and the two flaps open slightly.
You lift the box intent on opening it further to look inside, but instead, stop, and set it back down on the table. A moment’s hesitation, then you reach for the box again. Your left hand holds it as you cautiously reach in with your right. Your fingers grip the edges of something solid. There’s no packing material, and whatever it is, is almost the exact size of the box. The cardboard bulges and the back of your fingers scrape the inside of the box as you pull the contents free.
It’s a black leather-bound book and it feels light in your hands. Upon closer inspection, you realize it’s more than a book. There’s a latch, not holding the book itself closed, but a box held within it. The book consists of a few pages, then the box. Your eyes move back to the cover where you see your name etched in gold.
As your finger traces the letters, the hairs on your arm stand up. Opening the book to the first page you begin to read.
Your time on Earth is about to end; there is nothing you can do to stop it.
At 4:10 a.m. you will perish. This is the only definite you have left in the last few minutes of life.
You instinctively look up at the clock.
Then back to the book.
You have two choices. You can choose not to open the box. If you so choose, you will be trapped for eternity in an abyss, unable to escape, in which your body will slowly waste away until you no longer have the strength to move. Your mind, however, will remain intact; you will experience emptiness forever.
Turning the page, your hands tremble, and you continue on.
Your second choice is to open the box. In it you will find your afterlife. If you were a good person, then it will be everything you could ever want. If you were not a good person, then it will be filled with every fear you ever had.
The choice is yours, as was the life you led.
You turn the last page to find the box, with your name engraved on it. You run your fingers around the edge, stopping at the clasp that holds it shut. You look around the room, looking for something or someone—anything—to appear and announce that this is all a joke. A really fucked-up joke. Your eyes move to the clock.
Physically, you feel fine, but on edge.
This isn’t real. There’s no way this could be real, but…
You lean back on the couch, the book-box in your lap. Closing your eyes, you see flashes of your life’s moments and fragments of memories. Some are good, some are bad; some last a split second, others linger.
The clarity of these memories fade as you drill down deeper into your mind. There are no images here, but colors; soft hues that entwine with each other. When you focus on certain colors, your body feels lighter, while other colors make you feel heavier. They all weave in and out amongst each other, mixing and blending, then splitting away, then coming together once again.
You open your eyes as you start to quiver. The book-box shakes in your hands. You look up at the clock.
You feel like you’re moving in slow motion. Images begin to flood your mind, overload your brain. You cry out in pain.
Now your whole body is trembling. Your fingers go for the latch, but they slip off, your life crashing down around you.
You try again, this time your fingers grasp the latch. The box bursts open, releasing a brilliant flash of searing light as you take your last breath.
~ Mark Steinwachs
© Copyright 2017 Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.