5ive and Dime- Pilot
Intro and Pilot Session
Author’s note: The story that begins in the following post was first going to be presented to the world several years ago, in the form of audiobook/video presentations. However, when I halted that production after four chapters/episodes, it was brought to a premature close, as I had decided at that juncture to pretty much scrap the entirety of my YouTube channel. I have a lot of issues with Google/Alphabet/YouTube, chief among them being their stances on intellectual property, their constant abuse of authors’ copyrights, and their persistent censorship of certain voices. Now, with Substack at my disposal, I have a place to present this tale. I have some cleanup to do on the back end of the story, but I’ll have plenty of time to get that done, as I’ll only be producing one chapter/episode every two or three weeks here.
So without further ado, let us present ‘5ive and Dime’.
The sensation of falling in and of itself did not tear loose from Tyler the bladder-emptying howls of agony escaping his mouth, not at the moment. No, the infinitely stretched, crisscrossing cables of barbed wire he kept bouncing off of, swaths of flesh and meat torn free to flap down behind his tumbling body, those held the place of honor in responsibility for that. The impossible heat blasting up at him from below, it's source unseen beyond a circle of white smoke further below him in the vent he descended in free fall could have cooked a full pig in half an hour, and done the job well.
The stench of blood and decay filled his lungs with each ragged breath he took during this tortured descent, vague, skeletal bird-things flying up and past him from the Pit below. The beat of their wings pummeled his ears, drowning out even his own screams of terror at the sight of them as they flew by.
The descent into Hell was not going well.
Tyler tasted blood in his mouth, felt a small thwack against his tongue as something minuscule landed there. Whatever it was, it moved, and a moment later, new pain exploded through the side of his face as the thing in his mouth stabbed out through his right cheek and peeled the skin wide, crawling out and jumping off of his flailing body.
Finally, he saw the end of this fall approaching, a lake of bubbling white liquid fire, the surface sloshing, wavering with the screaming, thrashing efforts at escape of scores of other people in its treacherous waters. He slammed down into the legendary lake of fire, damaged body parting the pearly, aquatic death around him like a cannonball dropped into a bathtub.
Though it pained him, Tyler felt a mild reprieve as the waters of the lake closed around him. He attempted to shut his eyes against the stinging in them, ceased when he realized his eyelids, along with much of his face, had melted off on impact.
Even pain reaches a point where it becomes accepted by the body, by the mind, and as the lake around him slowly dissolved his flesh, Tyler wondered if perhaps he’d already reached that point. If so, maybe Hell’s biggest problem will be boredom, he thought.
But oh, he was quite wrong. As he drifted face-down in the flaming waters, a trio of columns composed of violence and torment burst into his back, boring into him with all of the grace and comfort of a rhino horn-fucking a goose. His lipless mouth unhinged to holler out his pain, but no sound came; he could do little on his own as he was wrenched bodily skyward, hoisted out of the lake of the Damned. He did, however, observe the scores, perhaps hundreds, of other people shuffling through the white-flamed lake.
A turn of his head allowed him to make out a winged gorilla, arms layered in protruding bone-like scales, holding a long metal weapon handle in his oversized fists, feet planted for support. Given the three points of horror reporting ongoing damage in his back to his (brain? Do I have a brain here? I’m a soul now, does that make any sense?) mind, Tyler surmised this demon had used a trident to fish him up out of the lake.
A second later he was being moved to hang over the shore, then he was shaken roughly. He did not remain conscious for the landing; all things turned to black.
Apparently, there was rest for the wicked.
Awareness returned first with a vague recollection of having smelled himself cooking, a distressingly pork-like odor, his flesh and muscle broiled so thoroughly they melted off of his bones. Like being a human rack of ribs, Tyler thought groggily. Vision returning, a low throbbing in his skull, Tyler wondered how a dream could be so vivid. He lifted his head up, looked around the room he found himself sitting in, and realized that it had been no dream; he was in Hell.
Though, the room itself certainly didn’t send visions of Dante dancing through his head. The chamber looked like a mining crew had excavated a cavern of modest height and width, then used some loose stone and earth to close off connecting tunnels. Threads of silvery fire shimmered throughout several sections of the stone walls around him, scarcely noticed by the other people seated with him. The chairs he and they sat upon, the sort of low, oddly-bent durable orange plastic numbers that reminded him of underfunded public elementary schools, jarred the senses. The fact that he was once again whole and clothed also surprised him, though for some reason, also left him wary.
That aroma of the other other white meat lingered in the room, a faint thing that stemmed from the dozen or so other people and himself. Opposite where he sat, cut into the wall, was a reception window, complete with glass front and a closed metal shutter behind it, blocking anything else behind that wall from view. To the left of the window, near a shadow drenched tunnel archway, stood a simple black wood panel door. From beyond that archway rumbled noises that were, for the nonce, perhaps best left unexamined.
Tyler, having observed the physical environs, now took in his neighbors. All fifteen of them, himself included, appeared by and large to be normal human beings, likely Americans, from a few more moments’ observation of their attire and general physical demeanor. Before he could think better of it, Tyler began assembling some basic statistics in his head regarding his fellow Hell dwellers in the waiting room.
Five men, ten women. Seven caucasian, three African-American, two latino, and I’m guessing Pacific Islander for those three, he thought, mentally referring to a trio of folks, two women and a man, seated far to his right near one of the walls. Do I look as terrified as the rest of them? And what are those rings they’re wearing? He took a peek down at his right hand, and discovered that he, too, had one on his middle finger. An obsidian band wrapped about his finger near the knuckle, the top side elongated in a vertical stripe that hovered over the first joint from the base. Its surface glistened in the hellfire light given off from the capillaries lining the walls, giving it an oily, unclean aura.
The ratcheting of the metal shutter rolling up caught everyone’s attention at once. Tyler stifled a yelp as a human-fly hybrid in a hot pink blouse and white pullover button sweater gazed out at the room from behind the glass, its multifaceted eyes giving no indication of where precisely its stare fell. A tube-like protrusion jutted from the front of its head, almost touching the dotted grill of the window, and it spoke in a droning hum that set his teeth on edge.
“Tyler Evans, you’re next,” the demon said. Tyler stood up, cast a brief look around at the other humans, and approached the black door. He reached for the knob, and the thing spoke again. “One moment.” He heard a ‘thwack’ as the door was unlocked from inside, and he pulled it open. What he saw gave him another moment’s pause, for beyond the door, it appeared, he would enter a clustered gauntlet of workplace cubicles. Is this Hell, or a customer service call center, he mused. Tyler took a few tentative steps inside, and the door clapped shut behind him with the sort of finality typically reserved for haunted house films.
It might have startled him, if he hadn’t entered his current situation by falling into agony and chaos.
Turning his attention back from the door to the narrow aisle ahead of him, Tyler gasped, took half a step back. In the seconds he had not been looking, a tall, sallow man-thing in a plain white button shirt, black slacks, and a clip-on cornflower blue tie had approached. Aside from the eyes of purest black and a pair of extra mouths on either side of its head where hair might normally grow, it looked entirely human. Under its left arm it held a clipboard, and extended its right hand in greeting.
“Hello, Tyler, I’m Jixa, your Condemnation Assignment Representative,” it said, its voice a cheerful, plumy English accent. Tyler hesitantly accepted its hand and shook just twice before pulling his hand back.
“Uh, yeah, hi there. Um, what’s going on here? I mean,” he said, looking around, listening to the whispered conversations filling the cubicles about them. “This is not exactly what I was told this place would be like growing up.” Jixa offered him a solicitous smile and brought the clipboard up to his chest, clutching it in the manner of patient office employees all across Creation who must contend with coworkers who have yet to get past the knuckle-dragging stage of the evolutionary scale.
“I understand completely, sir, trust me. Most folks find the initial transition very disorienting, but that’s why I’m here. If you’ll just follow me, sir?” Tyler did so, walking closely behind Jixa, allowing himself to glance at his surroundings as they wove a twisting path through the rows and rows of cubicles and break room areas. The detachable walls and connections he saw in office buildings in his living years stood everywhere, with a thin, cheap gray tile carpeting covering the floor. The scent of industrial carpet cleaning solution dug into his nostrils, claiming residence without the need or expectation of rent, and the heat coming off of every flat surface, including the one under his feet, felt like the sun could be camped out just beyond that contact layer. Were he a living man, he could have lost a lot of weight walking through this place, wherever it was.
After an interminable amount of time, Jixa swept himself up beside a cubicle, and gestured Tyler inside to a guest chair across from the demon’s own. A pure black laptop sat on a solid oak desk, a calendar blotter laid out with various notes written in a tiny, foreign script Tyler could not begin to even comprehend. On the cubicle wall to Jixa’s right was a cubby shelf on which sat several black binders, and he pulled one down and flipped it open, pulling out a stapled set of crisp printout papers.
“This is your basic orientation packet, Mr. Evans,” Jixa said, offering the papers to him. Tyler took the packet, and to his relief, found the strange script swimming and shifting until the lettering was in plain block English. “We’re going to go over a few of the initial points and procedures, and then we’re going to introduce you to your tailored Condemnation Program, okay?”
“Okay. Jixa, you said your name was?”
“Jixa, where exactly in Hell are we right now,” Tyler asked quietly, holding his arms out slightly, hands open. The demon smirked, shook his head.
“You’re in the Condemned Intake Center Number 2,” the demon clerk replied. “This center is located in the Second District of Pandamonium, Hell’s capital city. We also like to think of our Center here as the best source of quality Condemned in all of Hell. Now please, hold any further questions until we get through the first three points in your orientation packet together.” Tyler heard an echo of a shout somewhere in the middle distance, followed by the ‘woof’ of a conflagration, and then something unseen and possibly unspeakable yelling, “Well, he fucked that up!”
“Sorry, go ahead,” Tyler said patiently, looking down at his copy of the packet. Jixa tapped the Roman numeral one on the left side of the paper, just below a paragraph of vague text welcoming the reader to their eternal afterlife.
“Part one simply states that you are a member of the Condemned class, which is different from the Damned in several very important ways.” The demon eased back into his seat, angled himself in his chair to be squared to his computer, and clacked several seconds on the keys before looking at Tyler again. “For starters, you will not be tortured all day, every day. You will receive a pre-established amount of punishment every week, from now on. For you, Mr. Evans, it’s,” he said, drawing out the final ‘s’ while he moved around one finger on his laptop’s touch pad. “Ah, here we are. You’ve been assigned two total hours of pain and torment each week, to be suffered at your discretion.”
“At my discretion? How the fuck does that work,” Tyler ejaculated, shoulders hunched up. “I’m not some kind of masochist, okay? I mean, sure, I don’t mind a little rough sex now and then, but I’m not big on asking people to hurt me.” Jixa gave him the bored, droopy-eyed stare administrative folk had mastered as far back as the Roman scribes who heard complaints on behalf of the senators they worked for.
“Read sub-part b of part one,” the demon said in a tone that positively dripped with false friendliness. Tyler looked down at the pamphlet in his hand, flipping to the second page. A few lines down on the page, indented farther in than normal, and in print so small that he could barely make it out, Tyler read the following:
‘Sub-part b of Part One: Any Condemned who do not meet their required weekly torment quotas will find the following week’s quota quadrupled. Two infractions in an eight week period will result in three days of persistent, continued torture of various sorts. If this punishment is required three or more times in a single year’s time, the Condemned will face one month as a temporarily Damned individual. If they reach this point a second time, their status will be permanently changed from Condemned to Damned. All Hail Satan, our Lord and Savior, Amen.’
Tyler read through the sub-part a second time, whistled appreciatively, and folded the corner of the papers to hold his place. “Okay, that’s a pretty good motivational tool.”
“I’m not sure anyone’s ever called it that before.”
“The mouse doesn’t typically appreciate when the scientist zaps his balls for grabbing for the cheese, but most humans are a bit more complex than mice. We can appreciate tiered systems like this.”
“You do know about the anti-vaccine people up top, right,” Jixa asked, eyebrow raised.
“I said most humans, not all,” Tyler pointed out flatly, arms crossed over his chest. Jixa nodded and continued on with the basic information run-down.
“If you’ll just follow along with me then on your copy,” the demon suggested. “Part two covers the CIR (cur), which is on your right middle finger there,” said Jixa, pointing to Tyler’s hand. The Condemned young man brought his arm up and stared into the jet black surface of the ring as Jixa continued his explanation. “The CIR, or Condemned Identification Ring, is bonded to your spiritual skeleton and flesh, so that it cannot be removed, lost, or broken, except by a Defiler Class or greater demon.
“While here in Hell, as a member of the Condemned, you will be assigned a job, a task that will allow you to function in our society and contribute to our ongoing existence. In exchange for performing your duties, you will be allocated credits, which can be used to purchase any number of goods, services, or perks. Most of these things are simple creature comforts, like snacks and such.”
Tyler tried and failed to control a derisive snort of mirth, shaking his head. “What, you guys have a distribution contract with Coke?”
“Oh goodness, no,” said Jixa, hand on his chest like a scandalized debutante. “Pepsi, Mr. Evans. Anything less would be uncivilized.” The demon’s jet black eyes shimmered a moment, and he turned his attention back to his computer screen. “Now, carrying on, if we may?” Tyler cleared his throat and nodded. “You will be assigned a domicile, which will mimic closely the sort of living arrangements one might expect in a first-world nation topside. When not at your assigned job, you may partake of numerous sorts of activities, or simply hang out in your personal home. The choice, as they say, is yours. However, there are certain areas in Hell’s vastness that you are not allowed to enter, and which, in fact, you will not be able to, being a mortal soul. An attempt to enter these places is mostly little more than an inconvenience, and we will take the ‘no harm, no foul’ approach. However, any Condemned who manages to find some way into such a place will immediately be subject to the guidelines of Part One, sub-part b.”
Tyler heard some kind of crash in the middle distance among the cubicles, and whipped his head around toward the commotion, his ears alone gaining any kind of clue of what was going on. It sounded like someone was making a ruckus, jabbering unintelligibly but more and more loudly, a panicked soul who had simply snapped from the reality of their situation. He couldn’t say as he blamed them; he felt very near to losing his own mind, after all. He shook his head and returned his attention to the patiently waiting demon clerk.
“Some don’t handle the orientation all that well,” Jixa offered quietly.
“It could be worse,” Jixa said. “They could be Damned, or claimed by Abaddon, the duke who rules over the Frozen Wastes.” Tyler found himself intrigued, but tucked away any inquiry for further investigation. There’ll be time for questions later. All kinds of time, actually. “Anyhow, every store or service structure where the Condemned may make purchases, you can find a CIR reading plate. You simply press the CIR into the plate, and your credits are transferred. And before you ask, yes, Condemned can transfer credits amongst one another by pressing the contact surfaces together.” Jixa pulled open a drawer in his desk and withdrew another ring, holding it up for Tyler. The young human pressed his ring against it hesitantly, and when the two connected, a stream of yellowish light flashed out to his left from the rings, coalescing into a kind of text hologram. There were three options presented in strange text, which changed into English after a moment.
“Whoa, very Star Trek, man,” Tyler commented as he pulled his hand back, the screen vanishing. “Should I hold questions for now? That contract thing seems like something to ask about.”
“We haven’t time to go into details on that, Mr. Evans. That will be covered in your home residence guide, which is a far more complete guide to your eternal afterlife as a member of the Condemned. A copy is waiting for you in whatever domicile you end up assigned to,” Jixa said. “You can find the answers to most questions you are likely to have by reading through that. I’m just going to go over basics to get you started.” Jixa looked over at his his computer screen, then tapped a few keys, and sighed. “In fact, we’ve only got about another ten minutes before I absolutely must insist you be in the transport area, so let’s move along.”
“Okay, sorry,” Tyler said, leaning back in his chair.
“It’s all right. Now, every member of the Condemned is assigned to a sector chief, a demon who is responsible for the doling out of torment, distribution of credits, and keeping the peace among the people. Sector chiefs are typically Torture Master or Task Master-class demons. Within each sector, and answering to the Chief, will be a handful of Imp-class or Fiend-class demons, any of whom can be turned to by the Condemned to address issues they may have in their sector. You, Mr. Evans,” said Jixa, scrolling down his screen, black, soulless eyes narrowing as he searched. “You will be in sector 26 of the Hellian city called Moonblade. The sector chief there,” another series of clicks, clacks, and typing on his laptop as Jixa searched out the information. “Ah, here we are. The sector chief there is Decker, a Task Master. It says here that he’s been in charge of that sector now for fifty years.” Jixa whistled through the mouth on the right side of his head, and the sudden movement of those lips returned Tyler’s mind to the absurd reality that he was sitting inches away from a demon, a thing that he had never in life believed was a real possibility once he reached the age of reason.
“Is, is that a long time,” Tyler asked, eyes glued to the mouth that had whistled. Quit staring, he admonished himself.
“For the sort of day-to-day chaos that tends to be the norm around here, yes, that’s quite a long stretch for such a post. Once you get above the Torture and Task Master classes, things stabilize a lot, sure, but at that level and below, things are pretty fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, until you get down to your class and the Damned. Of course, the Damned are incredibly easy to manage,” Jixa observed, head cocked to one side as he considered Tyler. “It’s your people that are a bit more, well, intriguing.”
“Nevermind that for now,” said Jixa, flapping his hands and checking the time. “Only a few minutes left. Let me give you the most basic run down, don’t worry about those sheets,” the demon said, leaning across his desk, elbows propped next to his computer. “Rule one: take your torment on time, every time. Rule two: do your assigned job, even if you do it poorly. Remember, the worst has pretty much already happened, because you’re dead, and now you’re here. Rule three: if a place says ‘restricted access’, ignore that place. Simple, ennit?” Tyler snickered, but nodded. At the moment, the demon’s energy seemed up-tempo and a little frantic, but perhaps because of that, he also felt more personable, as if there were a genuinely decent person to get to know behind those blank void eyes. “And lastly, rule four: don’t get noticed. If the Task or Torture Masters or higher take an interest in you, involve you in the politics down here, you’re going to be in for a whole new galaxy of weird and awful. Just keep your head down out there, and I’ll be by in a few days to see how you’re adjusting, all right?”
Tyler said nothing, simply stood up and tucked his packet under his arm. “Where do I go now,” he asked.
“I’ll show you, come on,” said Jixa, hopping up and leading Tyler away from the cubicle. The labyrinthine office space slid past on either side of him, but Tyler paid his surroundings very little attention now. He figured there was no need, as he likely wouldn’t be returning to this place ever again.
“So, let me ask you this, Jixa,” Tyler said as they passed through a set of double doors into a vast underground cavern. The area smelled like a bus terminal to Tyler, the blended aromas of sweat, urine, and general filth creating a perfume of noxiousness that only a city dweller could love. Scores of other demons and humans milled about, all heading toward the far end of the cavern from numerous doors stretching along a rock wall behind them. The processing center appeared to be releasing a large batch of Condemned to depart, and as he followed Jixa closely, Tyler could see, about three hundred yards away, several dozen long, black boats, though he could not make out many detailings from his current distance. “Who, uh, qualified to get into the other place? You know, Heaven?” Jixa turned his head only slightly, responding with the mouth on the left side of his head.
“There are only three sorts who don’t end up here or in The Void, Mr. Evans. Those are ethical Christians, ethical Muslims, and ethical Jews,” the demon answered.
“Ethical? What do you mean by that?”
“Well, it’s actually simple, really,” said the demon. “If the Christian, Jew or Muslim human does no act to willingly harm another person while still adhering to the basic principles of their faith, they get into Heavens Above. If they do willingly harm another person, and demonstrate no remorse or attempt to use their faith to defend their actions, they end up here, among the Damned.” Tyler blinked rapidly, trying to parse out the ramifications of this information.
“So, that guy from the Westboro Baptist Church…”, he said, letting the question hang in the air. They were now about a hundred yards away from the boats, which Tyler could now tell were fashioned after Viking longboats, made of the blackest wood imaginable.
“Damned. He’s spent every moment since his arrival being force fed stinging scorpions that claw and eat their way out of him, over and over again,” Jixa commented casually, as though answering a question about the day’s weather forecast. Cloudy with a chance of giant walking pineapples rising out of the shadows to rape you with a spear-penis, John, now here’s Sam with sports, Tyler thought. “I’m sure his tormentor will tire of that eventually and move on to something else. Satan knows, there’s plenty of other options.”
“Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but that sounds to me like the population of Heaven has got to be puny in comparison to what it is here. And that other place you mentioned? The Void? What’s that?”
“The Catholics call it ‘Purgatory’,” said Jixa. “It is the one place that no demon, angel, or mortal should ever want to find themselves in all of Creation.”
“Well, if something happens to obliterate your soul-body, it will re-corporealize in a short period of time. That’s how we’re able to absolutely destroy the Damned over and over again, and why demons don’t typically kill one another; it’s sort of pointless. However, the same cannot be said of the Void, Mr. Evans. Something that is destroyed there, since it technically exists just outside of Creation, remains gone forever. It is the only location where death is final, Mr. Evans.” Tyler logged this observation away for later potential use. They were now only ten yards away from a line that was quickly queueing up to get on one of the boats, and Jixa stopped in stride, checking his clipboard. “This isn’t your boat. Over there,” he said, pointing to the next one anchored to the left of them. Tyler once more walked along close behind the demon, adjusting his stride since the ground was rockier, uneven, this close to the shore. The body of water the boats were anchored in appeared to be entirely black, with patches of flaming pitch glowing like campfires sporadically around the area.
“Well, you said ‘ethical’ folks from those religions. What about ethical Atheists, like me,” Tyler asked. “At least, I’d like to think I was ethical.”
“Oh, you very much were, according to your file, Mr. Evans,” said Jixa jovially. “That’s why you are Condemned, instead of Damned. So long as a human was ethical in life, they qualify to be Condemned. Atheists, Shintoists, Taoists, Santaria or Voodoo worshippers, and a myriad other religious worshippers, so long as they were ethical, turn up here as Condemned.”
“What about those old religions, the ones that predated the Old Testament,” Tyler asked. Jixa cleared his throat, one hand running over his head awkwardly.
“Well, that was a bit of a mixed bag, you see,” said the demon, turning now to face Tyler since they had arrived at the swiftly shrinking line at his boat. “Back then, people went into two basic categories; those who properly worshipped their gods, and those that didn’t. The ones who did, got into the Heavens. The ones who didn’t, well, they ended up here. It took us a while to establish the difference between Condemned and Damned, and at first, well, it was kind of a crapshoot who was going to be what.”
Tyler grinned at the demon and patted him on the bicep, stepping around him to join the line. “Don’t be embarrassed, Jixa. It wasn’t like it was your fault. Before your time, wasn’t it?” Tyler was waiting for a response, and when he turned to look at the demon clerk with the English accent, he found Jixa’s face had gone slack and pale.
“No, it wasn’t, Mr. Evans. I was one of the first Condemned,” Jixa said.
“But, you’re a demon,” Tyler rasped, his mind howling for answers to a dozen questions birthed by Jixa’s revelation. “How is that even possible?”
“Because, Mr. Evans,” Jixa said, backing away from him. “That is how most new demons are born. One day, we are Condemned. The next, we are demons. Now please, you have to go,” Jixa said, turning on his heel and marching away rapidly, leaving Tyler alone. As he watched the clerk scurry away, a powerful hand gripped his wrist, wheeling him about to face a creature that could be best described as a snake-headed man with arcane tattoos all over his dusky, muscular body, reeking like a restaurant dumpster.
“Get in there, cretin,” this new demon snarled, its voice deep and sodden, like he was speaking through a soaked rag stuffed in his cheek. “Moonblade is a day-long sail from this port, and we’ll not serve ourselves any favors if we fall behind schedule. Lord Hugor intends to use the port of the city to fling Damned souls from catapults for his amusement around this time tomorrow, and we don’t want to be in the trajectory of those wailing sacks!” Tyler was forcibly propelled up a gangplank onto the longboat, where he shuffled and squeezed among his fellow Condemned, finally taking a seat between two women who looked like they were about to throw up.
The press of people around him muttered among themselves in two and threes, but Tyler himself remained silent as the vessel rocked beneath him, and began sailing out into the black waters. He took one look skyward, saw infinite darkness stretch away above him, and sighed, slouching down into himself, eyes closing. Despite the queer horror of what was happening to him, Tyler Evans experienced his first sleep in the afterlife.
There were no dreams, but rather, memories.
The alarm buzzed at him, a repeating idiot drone that inspired his first conscious thought of the day. That thought was, I fucking hate everything. Not precisely Wordsworth, but when one is awakening from the depths of a dream so sweet and splendid that it could be confused for the Nirvana sought by Buddhists the world over, compliments of a mechanical device designed to cause such disruptions, it might be forgiven. Tyler groaned, shifted his narrow body closer to the edge of the bed, and reached out for the clock.
Knowing himself as well as he did after twenty-two years of life, Tyler Evans had placed the clock just on the very edge of his reach when stretched on the lip of the bed the night before, set the alarm, and climbed under the single flimsy sheet that he used to cover up with in the deep of summer. Now, as he strained to get his finger on the snooze button, his balance failed, and the lovely force known as gravity kicked in, pulling him from the bed to the floor in a yelping heap of angular limbs, bed sheet, and scruffy, unkempt black locks.
“God damn it,” he muttered, pulling the pillow off of his face that had accompanied him on the short trip to his bedroom floor, tossing it casually aside. The droning continued, beeep, beeep, beeep, and he got himself unraveled from the sheet, up on his feet amid the dirty laundry acting as a secondary carpet around the room. He rubbed his head, fingers catching in knots in his too-long hair, and then reached out to press the snooze. After a second’s thought, he flipped the alarm off entirely. He was up now, for better or worse, and Bill would be expecting him in to relieve him for the day.
Stalking across his room, an experience one might equate with walking on a ball pit covered with a dense layer of carpeting or rugs from the way the floor level waxed and waned, Tyler slid his closet door open and grabbed out a clean, dark green polo shirt bearing the Handy Mart logo patch over the breast pocket and his lone remaining pair of clean khakis. He pulled on the pants, then fetched socks from his dwindling supply in his dresser, and finally, put on a Dropkick Murphys shirt under his polo, affixing his safety-pin name tag last. The white plastic block simply read ‘Tyler- Shift Manager’.
The title was something of a misnomer, since half the time he was the only clerk in the Handy Mart from seven in the morning until three in the afternoon. However, it had come with a significant pay increase, a more set schedule, and one comped ‘employee meal’ every day. This usually consisted of one of the pre-made deli sandwiches the gas station/convenience store put out in the cooler area, a small snack-sized bag of chips, and one of the fountain drinks they had available from a machine near the store’s lone customer entrance. It wasn’t much, but it meant he never had to worry about bringing food to work.
The money, while nothing to brag about at a class reunion, was certainly more than what he needed, being twenty-two and still living at home with his parents. Tyler had begun working at the Handy Mart part-time in his junior year, at the age of seventeen. Five years later, he was out of high school, but still working in the same store and living rent-free. Well, not entirely, he mentally corrected. I give them money, but they don’t call it rent. His father had actually come up with the idea of putting the electric and cable bills in Tyler’s name, to help him establish a credit history, and the arrangement had worked out quite well thus far. He was now routinely getting credit card offers, though he only accepted two of them since they started coming, and he only purchased gas for his beat up old Hyundai with them, immediately sending out checks the following week to pay off the balance.
This is the year, he thought as he laced up his Converse sneakers and decided he’d have a couple of breakfast sandwiches and shift-long coffee refills for his employee meal. His mother and father would be in the kitchen, making a whirlwind of it since it was a Friday morning, his father’s early day at the garage he worked out of. This is the year I apply to college, start working toward a real future. I just wish I hadn’t waited this fucking long. He left his room, swiftly descended the stairs to the first floor, and grabbed his faded denim jacket out of the coat closet by the front door. “Mom, dad,” he called out. “I’m taking off!”
“Have a good day, sweetie,” his mother replied, unseen, from the kitchen.
“We’ll see you for dinner, bud,” his father added, briefly glimpsed heading down the hallway toward the bathroom. Tyler waved absently at his broad back, then headed outside. It was chilly despite the season, but it wouldn’t take long for the day to warm up. He bopped along to the end of the driveway, clambered into his car, and backed cautiously out onto the road, pulling away from home to head off to work.
Bryn Mawr, a sleepy little suburb west of Philly proper, had been his home all of his life, and its local college, Alma Mater to Katherine Hepburn, hosted a reputable political sciences program that piqued his interest when he’d been doing some research online. He could still work in town, live at home, and attend university, all without losing out on the advantages of knowing his environment intimately. His parents had afforded him every advantage growing up, so now it was time to start trying to do with them what he could.
It took him all of five minutes to get from his parents’ house to the store, and he pulled into his normal spot alongside Bill’s dark blue Vega at ten minutes to seven o’clock. Bill himself stood in front of the store, a cigarette dangling in his right hand, smoke slowly streaming from the corner of his mouth. Bill looked like the awkward, chubby new kid everyone knew in junior high, the one who didn’t make many friends and yet stood out as the funny one in his group. If he had worn glasses and been a tad taller, he might pass as a pretty good Brian Posehn impersonator. Tyler sauntered up to him after getting out of his car, hands in his jacket pockets.
“The animals give you trouble in the zoo last night,” he asked. Bill took a drag of his cigarette, smiled, and blew out more smoke as he shook his head.
“No, pretty quiet throughout, boss,” Bill replied. “Besides, if there’s a dangerous element around here, it wouldn’t be dumb enough to come hanging around at night, not with the cop shop just up the street.” Tyler held out one empty hand, and Bill shook a cigarette out of his pack into it, lighting it for him when Tyler got the filter between his lips. “You still trying to completely quit these?”
“Yeah, it’s going pretty good,” Tyler said. “I never got worse than half a pack a day, and it was only for a couple of years, so cutting off entirely isn’t going to be any kind of real challenge.” He finished the cigarette, had Bill follow him inside, and started the change over from the night shift to morning, which included turning on the heat lamp cases and putting on fresh pots of coffee. He audited Bill’s deposits and ending register, though he only actually had one deposit, and his drawer only had twenty-seven dollars over the post-deposit amount required for each fresh drawer. “Light shift, Bill. How much porn did you end up watching in the office?”
“More than you would be comfortable with, my man,” said Bill with a lascivious grin. “The internet is a playground of filth, Tyler. Did I ever tell you about the girl I went to school with winding up in a gangbang video I found on my favorite site?”
“Twice,” Tyler said with a partly bored, partly disgusted sigh. The first time Bill regaled him with this story, it had been bad enough, with his coworker giving him a play-by-play verbal account. The second time, however, he had told Tyler to lock the door and ushered him back to the office, where his laptop sat open on the video, paused to apparently his favorite part. As he clicked ‘play’, the young woman who Bill went to school with began making animal-like sounds as a large, well-built man rammed into her vaginally from behind while a similarly alpha-like man fucked her mouth. Bill had laughed as Tyler turned away, disappointed but not really surprised by Bill’s antics. “You didn’t watch that thing again, did you?”
“No, man, but I found her in like, eight more videos. It was a little depressing.” Tyler cocked an eyebrow at him, the question obvious on his face. “Well, I mean, she was a fairly good student, man, could have gotten at least into a community college or something, maybe a state school.” Tyler shrugged his shoulders.
“Nothing wrong with doing porn, man. Maybe she didn’t see herself being a college girl, thought it wasn’t what suited her. Not everybody fits into a traditional life path or lifestyle, man.” He changed out the register’s receipt tape, updated the credit card machine’s shift report to start fresh, and took a quick inventory of the tobacco and vaping products with the clipboard on a shelf by his knees. “All right, you can head out, man, I’ve got it from here.” Bill thanked him, grabbed a quick coffee, and left the store, his Vega growling as he charged out of the parking lot at something in the neighborhood of ‘reckless’ on the speed scale.
The first hour of his shift had been typically quiet, picking up around eight o’clock, when folks poured in on their way to work, many of them energetic and upbeat with the weekend just a day’s work away. The ebb and flow of small transactions put him into a familiar, manageable rhythm, and before he knew it, nine-thirty rolled up with only a half a cup of coffee in his gut. When a lull finally settled over the store, he hopped over to the warming trays, grabbed a couple of breakfast sandwiches, and returned to the rolling swivel chair he called ‘the throne’ behind the counter, taking the opportunity to sit down and enjoy his food.
When the tinkle of the bells attached to the door frame sang out again, he swallowed his last bite of his first sandwich, gulped down a mouthful of heavily sweetened coffee to clear his mouth and throat, and heaved up out of his chair to greet this newest customer. Had he paused to peek over the counter at the approaching man, he might have ducked instead, and the rest of what followed might have changed, forever.
As it was, his forward momentum had him standing with his mostly flattened stomach pressed against his side of the counter a split second before he saw the long, glinting steel barrel of a semi-automatic pistol hanging in the air, inches away from his forehead. “Oh, shit,” he rasped.
“Money,” the man before him said simply, his voice pitched low, face mostly concealed by a handkerchief wrapped around the lower half of his face and an Eagles baseball cap pulled down on his head. Tyler tried to see more of the man, to memorize clear details to give the police later on, but his eyes kept swimming, focusing once more on the death engine leveled at his forehead. Had the end of that barrel remained steady, firm, he might have felt a little better; it would indicate that the man holding it knew what he was doing, and possessed the kind of control that allowed victims in these situations to come out the other side alive. However, what he saw was a series of tiny, miniscule jerks and twitches, which meant nerves ruled this perpetrator, fear flooding the man’s brain and body with a flush of chemicals not intended to be released outside of life-and-death scenarios. “Now,” the man added brusquely.
“Okay, man, just take it easy,” Tyler said, his right hand slowly reaching down for the cash register’s buttons. His finger hovered over the ‘VOID’ button, which would pop the machine open and allow him to get this man what he wanted, hopefully ending the entire situation. He pressed it with a jab, the register let out a ‘DING’ and flew open, and the robber, already coiled like a tiger with PTSD, flinched back with a yelp.
There was a flash, an explosion of noise, and then a weightlessness as Tyler felt his body flung back against the wall behind him, sliding down in a seated position on the floor. He saw his killer turn to the side and vomit explosively, gagging like a dying animal, and then things swiftly started blurring. Whoa, I know it’s summer, but why am I so hot now? Did I accidentally turn off the AC in here, Tyler thought as his hearing faded alongside his vision. Wait a minute, did I just get shot? Oh, shit, oh FUCK-
And then he was in the darkness, which was followed by the sensation of falling. And that, friends and neighbors, brings us back to where we started.
Someone was shaking him by the shoulder, and Tyler Evans snorted, lifted his head, and looked around, finding himself still surrounded by dozens of people under a pitch black sky and a hazy illumination coming from hellfire patches burning here and there on the blackened waters of Hell. The woman on his right, who had her petite, tan hand on his shoulder, looked him in the eyes, abject terror glowing in her own. “I think we’re almost there,” she whispered to him. “Someone near the front said they’ve seen the city.” Tyler grunted, nodded, and patted her hand with his own.
“I’ll take a look, if you want,” he offered to this pretty stranger, who gave no reply. He stood up, stretching his back and arms like a cat waking from a satisfying slumber. Nimbly he ducked and weaved among his fellow Condemned and the few Imp-class demons who had been assigned to chaperone this batch of newcomers, making his way swiftly to the front of the ship. What he saw before him there stilled his mind with a queer mix of awe and trepidation.
The city of Moonblade towered before them, a glittering metropolis whose shoreline was dominated by what looked like a large shipping operation and more docks than he had ever seen. Hovering and flying about near the docks were vaguely seen creatures, demons to be sure, and some kind of black-feathered shrikes that must pass for Hell’s version of seagulls. It struck Tyler that what he was feeling at that moment must have been similar to the experience of some immigrants arriving in America by way of Ellis Island and the backdrop of New York City.
Of course, New York had the Statue of Liberty; Moonblade had no such inspirational spire standing sentry over its nautical borders.
He made his way back to the woman beside whom he’d slept, and he eased down next to her once again. He took a deep breath, clasped his hands together on his lap, and said, “You ever been to New York City?” She shook her head, but seemed to smile a little. “Well, it doesn’t look exactly the same, but it’s a close enough approximation.”
“I’ve watched a lot of Law and Order, though,” the woman said softly. This got the longest, most genuine laugh out of Tyler that he’d had in days, and despite the fact that he had never seen or known this woman before sitting down next to her in a longboat bound for one of Hell’s largest cities, he took her hand in his own, and felt mildly at ease.
“Think we’ll be okay,” he said to her, unsure if he was lying or not. “I think we’ll be okay.”