Seeking to forget makes exile all the longer; the secret of redemption lies in remembrance.
-Richard von Weizsaecker
The bent trees displayed agony, the wind’s howl embodied misery, and the foul stench on each inhale was death. This was Hell. Buckle, sitting on the sturdy low branch of one of the many blackened and dead trees, studied the single green leaf at the highest branch. Maybe the place isn’t completely dead.
Buckle fancied himself a soul different from the dark souls here—maybe a poet of sorts, and if such a thing were possible among the dead, proud. Not immodest or conceited where he would actually vocalize a position of superiority. Saying such things could make his existence more miserable. Not for the first time, he imagined his condemnation had been an unfortunate mistake. He never felt evil. Of course, the feeling was likely intentional; instilling thoughts of some great injustice within a dark soul kept the soul tormented, and, after all, that was Hell’s purpose.
He repositioned his long, thin body for better balance and gazed back up. The leaf contrasted sharply with Hell’s deep red clouds. Buckle came here often to look at the leaf, believing it was a sign of hope… a glimmer of life in this kingdom for the dead. The leaf held each day despite Hell’s breeze. He liked to think of himself as the leaf—something good in a place of evil, something that stubbornly hung on day after day. The thought was fantasy, for nothing good existed in Hell, and the banished souls must therefore be evil.
Buckle often wondered upon his forgotten wickedness. Many of the souls he encountered were little more than marauding beasts. Despite Hell’s torments, he had never succumbed to devolving into primal, horrid actions like maiming and torturing others for no reason.
The leaf bobbed on the scorching breeze. For as long as he’s been in this place, it had withstood the torturous conditions. If the leaf actually held life, then he assumed life must exist within the tree itself. And if a splinter of life existed here then it could exist in other places.
The tree shimmied and creaked at a sudden and rare gust in the ever constant breeze. The wind shifted direction. In the decades or even century of Buckle’s presence, he never recalled the wind changing—ever. And this caused a funny feeling on his spine like someone was lightly drumming fingernails up and down on it. He looked in all directions, but saw nothing strange except the leaf.
The leaf seemed different now. He couldn’t quit put his finger on the difference until focusing beyond the leaf to the clouds. His hollow eyes tried to make sense of a swirling pattern directly overhead. The spinning appeared to intensify and concentrate to a small point. He’d never seen the clouds swirl or even alter their speed, color, or direction. A small, inverted funnel formed. A pinpoint of light shone through the funnel’s eye—brightness foreign in Hell’s murk.
Hell had shown him a singular, unwavering certainty: Nothing changes—ever.
Falling. The rush of air. Clothing flapped. Tumbling… twisting. Blonde hair whipped in all directions. She scrambled for something to grab, but felt nothing. Just falling.
This is just a dream… just a dream. Her mind flooded with strange sensations. Senses… just my senses. Fear… yes, emotion… yes, that was expected. Not a dream. Anxiety, nervousness, but right now mostly fear.
Heat… oh the heat, Father.
Reds and blacks tumbled across her vision. The sky’s deep red color put everything in stormy dimness. She held out her arms and legs like skydivers do, stopping the twirling and controlling her fall—sort of. Dark ground sped toward her.
I’m okay… nothing will happen… I can’t die here… can I?
Flashes of the surface. A city of sorts. Jagged streets like silver fractures on glass. She hurtled closer. Decrepit buildings. The city’s outskirts. Black pools. Hills… maybe. Splotchy ground. The smell of rot. A dead forest.
A withered tree.
A figure in the tree. An old man on a branch. Sunken eyes stared at her, mouth agape.
Branches broke as pain exploded in her chest. Air blew from her lungs as she hit the ground with the grace of a sandbag. The large branch whacked across her back, pinning her on the slimy ground. The man fell awkwardly on top of the branch and her.
She struggled for breath. The pain caused her to cry out. As with the initial sensations, she wasn’t prepared for pain.
“What the…. Who the….” The man’s gruff voice rumbled like an idling motorcycle.
Ragged breaths brought a stabbing in her chest. Broken ribs? Stinking, hot ground threatened to roast her. Not an ordinary heat like from a summer day, but the kind of heat that came off a fire’s coals. She didn’t burn, but edged on that point just before.
Gritty mud stuck to her face and scraped at her skin like a metal file. She tried to move, but the heavy branch kept her trapped and the pain made movement feeble. The primal part of her brain put her on the threshold of panic. She couldn’t afford to lose control. She’d seen the living souls panic. She needed her wits… and some luck.
“Sorry,” she hissed, twisting her head to see the soul. Her high-pitched tone sounded far from strong, and she needed to come off as strong when facing dark souls. “I think my back is broken.” Hopefully she could get some sympathy from the man she careened into. The pain throbbing from her left leg indicated her back wasn’t really broken. The clumsy arrival was nothing like she imagined.
How did I think it would be if I came here? Is this where I was supposed to fall? Everything seemed to go wrong… falling on a dark soul when she was supposed to avoid them, injured, trapped, and now all kinds of questions in her head.
The man rolled to the side and came to rest beside her. His dark eyes locked to her, studying her. His skin had a grayish color—the color of the dead. His tightly pressed lips and squinty eyes warned her of his mood. Deep wrinkles and liver spots covered his face. His scalp had splotches of wispy, ashen hair. The man stunk like rotting garbage.
She gagged and turned away, hoping to breathe clean air. She wasn’t prepared for the smells. She wasn’t prepared to confront a dark soul so soon. She was supposed to come unnoticed. Her arrival was quite the opposite. And she hadn’t imagined the foreign sensations would be so overpowering. On the plus side of things, the man didn’t immediately attack her and that was unexpected seeing how dark souls craved hurting others.
“There’s worse things here than a broken back.” The man groaned when he sat up.
She’d have to be hurt really bad to have something worse than a broken back.
The man’s lips, mouth, and jaw worked as if he struggled to keep words from spilling out. “Head injuries are bad. Zipper had his eye popped. It left a terrible mess. That’s bad. I saw a lady once who had the whole back part of her head missing. I can’t imagine that felt downright peachy.”
The man’s arm bone jutted from a rip in his sleeve.
What’s he talking about? She stared at him while he gruffly recounted injuries that could be worse than a broken back. She lay a bit dumbstruck of what to make of him. Her throat became parched. Her clothing felt confining.
As the old man rambled, he yanked his wrist, straightening his broken arm. She squirmed as he twisted and worked his arm back into place; his forearm bone crunched and ground. The man didn’t grimace.
Soul, she reminded herself. The body is just a vessel…. She tried once more to push herself up.
“Cabbage was the kid’s name… a young’un he was. Yeah, that was bad. He arrived missin’ an arm and then up and got his foot all whacked off.” The man shook his head. “Has to walk ’round on a stump… that can’t be good. And then—”
“Uh. I’m stuck.” Again, she failed to add any force in her tone. These were evil souls and she’d need to be strong and menacing when confronting them.
The man looked back at her. “It serves ya right, the way ya broke my tree. I’m not sure I should help ya. I’m not sure I should help ya at all. The way ya came here, I’m thinkin’ a demon’ll come lookin’.”
“Please….” The sincerity of desperation in her tone surprised her. So much for being threatening. She’d never been desperate before… she’d never experienced any of this before. If she could just get unstuck and away from the soul, she could figure out the sensations.
“I don’t want to cross no demons. I saw ’em whack off men’s heads… many times. That’ll do it. I don’t know what kind of place people go that’s worse than this, and I don’t wanna find out. No. I’m thinkin’ if I help ya then the demons’ll take off my head… and I think that’s far worse than a broken back.”
“I didn’t do anything.” She shot the man her best “woe is me” look—trembling lips and trying to force non-existent tears in her eyes. She couldn’t lie for long on the hot mud.
With what looked like great effort, the man stood. He was taller than she first thought. He wore a grease-stained, yellowish jumpsuit like mechanics wore. The nametag read “Ernie.” His chest looked deformed somehow, but she couldn’t really tell for sure.
He looked around and then down at her. “Who says ya have to do anythin’? Since when do demons need a reason to send someone to some lower existence? Ya came here differently. Different isn’t good, girl. Who are ya? What’re ya doin’ here?”
“I don’t… I don’t….” She couldn’t bring herself to lie.
“Yeah, memory’s not there? Well, don’t waste time tryin’ ta get it back. It’s gone, girl. Why’re come here fallin’ and all. Different brings the demons and I don’t want trouble with demons. Different gets ya head whacked off and then ya go to some worse place. I don’t want that.”
“I-I don’t either.” She let a sob escape. This wasn’t what she imagined. This wasn’t how it’s supposed to be. Murphy’s Law came to mind: If anything can go wrong, it will. She worried her quest would end before it even started.
The quest… my quest. How could she almost forget already? She took a moment to recite why she was here. My name is… is…? That’s not right, is it? Have I forgotten my name? I’m here to find the others… the other who? Her initial memory loss was worse than expected and the initial panic she had under control reasserted itself. Like me! The others like me. The missing. Father sent me here to find the others. Father? Where are you, Father? She squeezed her eyes closed.
An unfamiliar and unfathomable emptiness filled her.
Her spirit was alone—a concept she could’ve never imagined. The crushing loneliness threatened to consume her. Fight it… if the living souls can live in such isolation then so can I.
“Buckle!” a man shouted.
She twisted her head. The muddy earth smeared over her mouth. She tried to spit the vile, bitter taste from her tongue. She wiped the mud away from her eyes.
The man’s ragged red-brown coat hung on broad shoulders and its color nearly matched the sky. He could’ve been as old as the man in the jumpsuit. He meandered over. His red-tinged hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Like the other man, he had the same grayish skin color, but less blemished.
She recalled helping a child cope with the loss of a grandfather. With his large, dark, kind eyes and a manicured mustache, the man reminded her of that grandfather. I explained to the child that the passing wasn’t death… it wasn’t the end of life, but the next step in the journey. I assured the child her grandfather was with the Father.
She steadied herself, determined not to let the loneliness deter her from the quest. I can do this, Father.
The new arrival walked with a hitch as if his hip bothered him.
“Help the poor dear, Buckle.”
“I’m thinkin’ that’s not all together a great idea, Pepper.”
Buckle and Pepper… strange names, she thought.
Buckle pointed down at her. “It’s a girl. I’ve never seen a girl. Have you? She’s trouble, and I mean demon trouble. Ya don’t want that, do ya? Don’t ya remember what happened to Toaster?” He hesitated. “Well, I do. Whack… that’s what happened. Ya don’t want to end up like Toaster, do ya? Well, I don’t.”
“Stop exaggerating. What would demons want with a girl?”
Girl? Don’t women exist here?
“Since when’ve we ever known what demons want? I don’t want to know and I’m not ready to find out where the demons’ll send me.” Buckle raked a finger across his neck. “Whack,” he hissed.
She followed the exchange between Buckle and Pepper and wondered why women were unheard of. Women had dark souls. Perhaps not as common as men. Then she thought with the overwhelming number of wicked men, women probably don’t last long. But then where do their souls go? Another existence like Buckle says doesn’t sound right.
Pepper began lifting the branch. “You’re like some boil waiting to pop… don’t just stand there. Help me, Buckle.”
Buckle helped lift the branch, shaking his head as if releasing her was absurd. “I’m thinkin’ this’ll bring a demon.”
Pepper and Buckle heaved the branch to the side.
“You’re always thinking that. Sometimes you’re just thinking too much.” Pepper squatted down next to her. His smile showed neatly lined pristine teeth behind gray lips. “Where’re you hurt, dear?”
She scrambled to gather her thoughts. If she had any hope of success, she needed to pretend she was one of those dark souls. Blending was paramount to success.
Buckle took a step back and looked down at her. “She said her back was broke.” He crossed his arms.
She rolled to her back and hissed at the shot of pain. She put on her bravest face and pointed to her left calf. “No, it’s just my leg.” Her voice sounded strange, but the two souls didn’t seem to notice. Wiping at the mud around her mouth only seemed to add to the mess. She sputtered.
Pepper lifted the pant leg of her muddied blue jeans. Her skin bulged oddly midway between her ankle and calf. It looked bad.
“Hmm.” Pepper leaned back on his haunches. “It’s broke, but it’s not too bad.” He looked at the branch, to the tree, and then to Buckle. “What happened?”
Before Buckle could answer, she said, “I saw Buckle sitting in the tree and I came to him. That’s when the branch broke and fell on me.” Telling them the whole truth would be dangerous. Even if she mustered a small degree of trust, it would be dangerous. She looked at Buckle pleadingly.
Buckle studied her as if weighing the consequences of lying. He opened his mouth, but before speaking, a woman and a man approached, distracting him. “This is just great,” he mumbled.
Like Buckle and Pepper, the other two were elderly. Both clutched corners of a blanket that dragged behind them. The man was shorter than Buckle and the thinnest, gangliest looking man she’d ever seen. He adjusted his dark blue hat atop onyx-black hair. He wore a black t-shirt beneath an unbuttoned, blue vest and long, heavy trousers. Despite his anorexic physique, he sported a round belly, making him look like water hose stuck with a golf ball stuck inside. Her eyes fixed to what looked like three bullet holes in the man’s chest. She’d seen people who were shot, but the gag reflex was new.
“Are you okay?” she whispered. I can’t show concern. Dark souls don’t show such concern for others.
The man laughed, making his round belly bounce. The myriad of small material—gears, springs, wires, nuts, bolts—fastened to the man’s vest jingled as he laughed.
Buckle shook his head. “Comin’ from the junk heaps? What do ya want with more garbage? All you’re doin’ is movin’ garbage from one place to another.”
The man eyed her, ignoring Buckle. “Whatcha got here? She’s a young ’un. Ya shouldn’t have let ’er roll in the mud.”
The woman, who walked hunched as if she had a bad back, let go of the blanket. She stood beside Pepper. “You’re gonna have a hard time gettin’ that dirt off. New arrival?”
Everyone looked at her.
The woman confused her. A moment ago Buckle and Pepper implied they’d never seen a woman. No, they said “girl.”
Girl? She pushed down the building panic while inspecting her body for the first time. Why would the Father put me in this vessel? This place doesn’t have children. How am I not going to stand out?
“I said, are you a new arrival?” The woman’s white hair fell over the sides of her face.
She needed to be careful. Her survival depended on it. “Umm. I think so.” That’s what was odd about her squeaky voice—it was a girl’s voice. She couldn’t panic.
She couldn’t help staring at the woman’s dress. At first she thought the white dress had faded gray patterns. Looking more closely, old photographs were sewn in over every inch of material.
Pepper gestured to Buckle. “He broke her leg.”
Buckle said nothing, only stared down at her.
She mentally gathered herself. I’m a girl and I can use that to my advantage. I need to act confused and lost… that’s right. That’s the way an arriving soul would be. “W-where am I?” She hoped to convey fear in her tone.
“Yup, she’s new.” The man bent down, leaning toward her. “My name’s Slim Jim, but I mostly go by Slim.”
When her eyes fell to Slim’s belly, the man began laughing.
“I know, not so slim.”
“I’m Photo,” the woman said, ignoring Slim.
Buckle, Pepper, Slim Jim, and Photo… those are some odd names. I need to play innocent and then get on my way. “Where am I?”
Buckle eyed what looked like a leaf on the top of the tree and then scowled down at her. “Welcome to Hell, little girl.”