Some days we wake and wish we were dreaming; others we dream of nothing but being awake. Even with our eyes wide open, it is the best most of us can hope for. Yet, few are fortunate to have the blind-fold ripped away. Jeremy didn’t know it, but he was lucky that, on this particular night, he was afflicted by the first condition. His wife was away on business and he found himself tossing and turning in an empty bed, chasing sleep. Unfortunately, dreams can not find those who are already drifting.
It was under these circumstances that Jeremy found himself visited by a tall, red-faced man, in a finely tailored pinstripe suit and hat, wearing a toothy grin.
“Hello Jeremy!” lilted the man, “Good evening and fair greetings! I suppose you might be a bit surprised by my interruption. Your struggle with the duvet was valiant, but all things must end.”
Had those last words possessed a more sinister intonation than the others? Jeremy wasn’t sure; the man’s appearance had thrown him a bit off his game. Oh, right…
“What the hell are you doing in my house?! Who are you!?”
“Now, now, while I’m sure my presence here is a fair mystery, I assure you that, like most mysteries, once you understand a bit more, the answer is delightfully mundane. So, relax and don’t do anything too hasty.”
Of course, by this point in the red-faced man’s calm speech Jeremy had had time to shout a few more expletives, threaten him repeatedly, and place his hand firmly on the fish that had taken the place of the mobile phone that sat faithfully on his bedside table.
“Of course, of course, I understand entirely, but you really must take a few deep breaths and calm yourself. I’ve come to offer you a promotion!”
Every muscle in Jeremy’s body was taut and braced for immediate action, but the man’s voice and mannerisms were beginning to work their way under his skin; calming him.
“Alright,” he growled darkly between deep breaths, “I’m listening. Talk quickly.”
The man chuckled, “First! Let’s take a quick tour of your potential place of employment.”
With a snap of his fingers, the world melted away. From its mingled essence rose a barren mesa overlooking a translucent sea that bubbled and frothed with the pleading screams of the damned.
Jeremy blinked and promptly joined then,
“Sssh! Sshh! Sshh! You’ll wake my little Cherry! He’s so hard to get to sleep once he gets wind of fresh meat. You’re screaming loud enough to wake the…”
“Don’t say it.,” A panicked Jeremy shot back, “Don’t even joke. I can’t be here right now. I just can’t. I… I’m an atheist for heaven’s sake.”
Ha. Ha,” the man murmured dryly, “Well, for heaven’s sake, let me tell you, definitively, you don’t have to believe in anything for these rocky, finely-carved canyons to believe in you. Now, collect yourself. If you’re to be familiarized with your surroundings well enough to take over your office in time for me to make my next appointment, then we must move quickly.” Another toothy grin, “Welcome, my dear Jeremy, to the Office of Repentance and Emancipation.” With a grand sweep of his arms he proclaimed to the wailing air, “We’ve been busy, for what seems like forever, carving and digging O.R.E. out of the very rock itself!”
Jeremy raised an eyebrow; he was more than a little impressed.
“If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you our facilities and give you a personal taste of just what it is we do here.”
That was it! Jeremy realized exactly what the man reminded him of! He was the spitting image of a used-car salesman. Glancing at his suit… perhaps, but a very successful used-car salesman; great at peddling warranties and upgrades.
Jeremy blinked, “Oh yes, sorry! Coming!”
Treading carefully over the crumbling path, he did his best to keep up with the confident strides of the red-faced man. After a time, they came to a winding staircase that led down, down, down into the heart of what looked like a solid stone outcropping.
“Here at the Office of Repentance and Emancipation, we handle an immense volume of customers. So, in order to be as efficient and economical as possible, we have divided our operation into seven, count ‘em seven, different departments with several sub-categories to ease product dispensation. However, as that can all get pretty complicated, we’ll stick to the seven main offices for now.”
The confident drawl echoed from somewhere below and in front of Jeremy. As quickly as he could — while ducking to avoid dashing his head against the low-hanging ceiling – he made his way down the rocky staircase.
Suddenly, he bumped into fleshy, unforgiving something.
“I’m so sorry. I do forget how much people depend on light.”
A flame and a grin split the darkness, revealing hundreds and hundreds of flesh-less, laughing faces. They surrounded Jeremy, in the walls, in the ceiling, the staircase itself was cobbled together using thousands of empty, ever-grinning skulls; their sockets leering from the shadows, mocking him. His next shocked step found nothing but air and Jeremy plunged downwards; his flailing body easily side-stepped in one smooth, polished movement by the red-faced man.
Down he rolled, bones snapping and muscles ripping under the onslaught of the hard, uncaring faces beneath his twisting, pain-wracked form. Until, finally, a white glow slashed into his fading awareness.
Truly, he was a pitiful thing now. Bones stretched and pierced flesh, brains drizzled through cracks and blood covered every available inch of strained, broken skin. It was in this way that Jeremy might have died had: his bones not snapped back into place, his grey-matter returned from its brief holiday and his skin decided to give it another go.
“AAAAUUUGH!!” he screamed through the excruciating process,” What! The~! Fu!”
“Yes. Yes! YES!” the man cried, clutching his fedora in one hand as he tossed his head and arms out triumphantly, “Our entire operation is built on people! This whole industry is fueled, operated and run by the lives and passions of people,” he drew his hands in and slapped his hat back into place, “A bit more literally than some might expect, but I think you’ve got the stomach for it.”
Jeremy rolled onto his side, pulled himself shakily to his knees and vomited onto the gravel-strewn ground. Thankfully, he had left the lipless grins back in that god-forsaken staircase.
“Now that you’ve… ahem… pulled yourself together,” Jeremy let out a groan completely unrelated to that fading pain in his body, “Take a minute and look around. If you’re not up to it yet, you don’t have to say a thing. Just sit back and take it all in.”
Jeremy opened his mouth to speak, but it stopped on a gaping vowel, hanging open in shock at the horrendous sight he would forever be afflicted with. Before him stretched a vast chamber filled with thousands… millions of red-streaked undulating masses of humanity that were fighting, scraping and crawling over each other to reach the precipice of one of the thousands of mounds of writhing flesh that stretched all the way to the ceiling. At the top of each floated a winged figure, cloaked in light, arms stretched out in triumph, being torn apart by the vicious hands of those that had clawed their way to the top. Each angelic figure wore around its neck a magnificent, glowing neckpiece of an ethereal material Jeremy didn’t recognize.
“This, you see, is where we process our most Envious customers.”
The man snapped his fingers and a glowing figure popped into being before them. It began a triumphant ascent before he clamped it to the ground under his fine leather shoe.
“You see, these fabulous neckpieces are the cause of the glow and the wings. He or she that possesses one rises, momentarily, above the rabble. Until, that very same rabble rises up to snatch it away. This rise to apparent glory makes them seem absolutely ecstatic. However, what one might not see is, well…. watch.”
It was only a matter of moments before the glowing form was assaulted by a large group that tore the neckpiece from its limp, bloody form. The gleeful individual that slipped it over his head became bathed in a light so bright that it defied observation.
“Behold,” the man cried, brandishing his snapping fingers at the light, “The price of success and adulation!”
The light faded out and the once victorious figure resolved from the blinding radiance. Only now, it was under a brutal assault from the awakened jewelry. Spikes of the finest white-gold forced their way under his skin and began to weave around his collarbone; wings of the purest white began forming, piercing bone and rigid sinew forced their way into his back and onto his spine; hooks of the finest diamond stretched and held his features in a mask of perfect exultation. Finally, a searing beam of heat that caused Jeremy to sweat from ten feet away shone down and focused on the angelic figure as it tested its wings and began to rise.
“You don’t think that, now that a few have seen the truth, they’ll stop this bestial contest?”
The red-faced man laughed as a fresh mound of flailing, clawing humanity began forming beneath the newly-minted glowing figure.
“They can feel the pain, being stabbed or trampled, but their bodies heal. You experienced it. True death is impossible here. So, on they climb. Many of them have been at this a long time. I’d wager most have Risen more than a few times,” He spat with obvious disgust, “Trampling or laceration… neither is an absolute. They don’t HAVE to scramble so. Some, even, stop for a time to sit and think. Always, always, always, they see someone rise, their eyes gleam and they go right back to it.”
A wistful smile cracked the edges of the man’s lips, “Some… I suppose… learn and they get to move on. Others… well, you see.”
Wiping fresh vomit on his sleeve, Jeremy replied, “Yeah, I see what you mean.”
“Onward and downward!” he strode along, grinning, through the fray as Jeremy carefully picked his way over a few of the recently trampled, “You’re a businessman, aren’t you? You can’t say clawing your way to the top doesn’t… intrigue you. Of course, I could offer you the mantle now.”
One of the finely-crafted neckpieces dangled from the gloved hand he extended.
“Uh, yeah, no thanks,” Jeremy replied.
“Good choice,” he laughed heartily, “Besides, it’s hardly any fun if someone just hands it to you.”
As they walked up to an imposing doorway, the man tossed four six-pence into a metal tray.
“These tolls are killing me.”
Two tickets shot out of a slot in the wall and he handed one to Jeremy.
“I’m assuming you didn’t bring any change with you.”
“Thanks,” Jeremy said more brightly than he felt, “I… uh… guess I didn’t really have time to think about it.”
“I figured as much.”
The door slid up and a massive, literally screaming, waterfall roared on the other side.
“You see? This is where that great sea you were singing along with earlier flows to. Aaand, our ride across should be here any minute. Ah!”
Across the water, Jeremy saw what looked like an old steam-paddler cutting a path through the wailing waters. As it got closer, he began to be able to make out the gruesome, flailing décor pierced along the rusted sides of the boat. More were hung from hooks and still others struggled vainly against the layer of blood-tarnished chain link to which they were lashed.
As the ferry ran alongside the dock, a bent figure in a long, black cloak kicked down a corroded, salt-encrusted bridge with a shattering crash and creaked across it.
“Tickets, please,” it croaked.
Jeremy extended a shaking hand, glanced at the side of the boat and wretched, cursing his newly-emptied stomach.
The cloaked figure scowled, “Those what didn’t pay. Tried to sneak across for free. When it gets full-up, we drop one into the depths to make room.”
Staring fearfully into the bubbling liquid, Jeremy fell to his knees and shakily dragged himself across the breech and onto the gently rocking ferry. The red-faced man extended his hand and strode confidently across.
“All ‘board!” cried the figure as the ship started its journey across the bubbling waters. Jeremy clutched desperately to the railing closest to the middle of the boat, shaking profusely.
“You might be wondering,” chortled the fedora’d figure, “Why we’re only now crossing the river.”
Jeremy shot him an absolutely wretched look, “It honestly hadn’t crossed my mind…”
“Efficiency!” the red-faced man cut in, “It’s all in the name of speeding up the process. The old ways worked in their times, but we’ve run into a great many consultants and businessmen that have advised us, between screams, to take another look at accelerating, improving and perfecting our system.”
“You see, processing the Envious is a pretty autonomous task. So, since most of our guests are guilty of that particular faux pas anyways, we let them do it on their own now. It’s kind of a self-serve take on redemption. Besides, envy is its own punishment. The room you saw there is one of many and those baubles are the mere beginning of the… ah… services we offer.”
“Isn’t it? We just lead them in and they do the rest.”
The boat rocked as a giant bubble burbled up from deep below the liquid surface and belched a repugnant cinnamon-sugar smell into the air.
The man breathed deep, “Ahhh, the very smell of distilled life essence…”
Another gurgled to the surface, resolving into a roaring inferno that burst briefly into being before leaving behind the lingering scent of burnt cinnamon.
“Ooh! A lively one!”
His chaotic laugh filled in the silence where no one else’s would. Frowning with consternation, he whapped the cloaked figure over the back of the head with his fedora.
“Ha ha ha…” it chuckled in flat, affectless tones.
“And here we are!” he fairly sprinted down the ramp as soon as it clanked onto the opposite shore, almost skipping.
“The other six departments are so much more fun! We get to be part of the action!”
Jeremy made a half-hearted attempt to walk across the metal bridge, but shook down to the tried and true hands-knees method.
“Here!” the man jammed a hat onto Jeremy’s head, “Up and at ‘em!”
The man whirled around excitedly and bowed before a massive, cement pavilion awash in the divine radiance of neon. Marquees stretched as far as the eye could see and on into the imperceptible distance. People in grey cloaks and black hats milled about in a central corridor, cutting a disinterested swath through the shining lights.
“Keep your head down, Jerr-bear!” whispered the red-faced man, pulling his hat down over his face, “Don’t look up at the marquees just yet. Quick, make for one of the benches…”
A bench he hadn’t noticed before sat, unassumingly, a few steps to his right. As inconspicuously as he could manage in his pajamas, he wandered over and sat down. The fedora’d man plopped down beside him, carving an unconcerned look out of his leering features, “Now, see those platforms under the marquees? I want you to look up in a second and glance over a few without letting your eyes linger. I repeat: don’t stare.”
A finger-snap broke through the monstrous tromp of footsteps and the platforms were suddenly populated with a variety of strange and unusual sights. Doing as instructed, Jeremy ran his eyes over a few, using every last bit of his iron will and intellectual detachment to keep his eyes from lingering on…
A naked woman, perfectly proportioned, striking an alluring pose. Her fingers drifted over her achingly beautiful breasts and down towards…
A man, with muscles cut from granite, holding aloft a severed lion’s head, laughing as blood dripped over his taut, muscular stomach past an enormous, engorged…
A pair of gorgeous, almost glowing children were snuggled in the arms of a man on fire with admiration…
…With a ledger…
…With a gorgeous woman…
…Carrying a worn notebook…
…Playing the loveliest of music…
“Pride!” the high-pitched voice broke the silence, “Here they are as perfect, slim, talented, intelligent, or etcetera as they could ever wish to be. More so, in fact, but no one gives a damn. In fact,” he chuckled, snapping his fingers, “They are entirely invisible. But sshhhh…” he held a finger to his lips playfully, every bit a boy with a cheeky secret, “They just think we’re ignoring them”
“Well,” Jeremy put in, gesturing at the marquees, “At least they’ve finally got their name in lights.”
“We spell the names wrong.”
“They’ve just got to learn to… prioritize.” He said, that wistful smile again gracing his lips, “Aand, off we go!”
Suddenly, the floor fell away, vanishing without so much as a good-bye, and they, Jeremy, the man and the bench, plunged with all due haste into the inky blackness below. The bench, being a professional, did its best to keep a stiff upper lip, without much flailing about. For a bench, it did quite well.
Cracks and vents in the rock of the dark chasm spewed steam and multi-lingual screams of horror that coalesced into one continual cry of unearthly suffering. Light stabbed from each, splitting the darkness and spilling briefly across the face of the red-faced man, giving Jeremy the distinct impression of being on a swiftly descending elevator, albeit one filled with the unearthly wail of a rotting titan.
“You see, Jeremy,” the red-faced man began darkly, quietly, “We here at O.R.E. are about more than just redemption. We want to give people the most precious resource of all: freedom. However, people are rarely anything but slow and, more often than not, we have to do things the hard way. The worst vices, the greatest sins of man, are inherent tendencies in their very genetic make-up.” A great and terrible grin spread slowly over his face, “You see, consumption, as much as possible, was important when man-kind was a very young species. Now, in this brief time of plenty, it is nothing but the greatest taint imaginable, as well as, among the hardest to stamp out. Gluttony, then, needs to be dealt with in the swiftest and harshest manner possible. Subject someone to enough pain and even the most stubborn learners will, excuse the expression, see the light.”
A crescendo of delighted laughter burst forth from somewhere deep inside the man’s slender frame. Only their abrupt arrival at, and crash into, the largest fountain Jeremy had ever seen brought it to an end, right in the middle of…
“The mall! What greater archetype, what purer quintessence, what better representation of reckless, needless consumption is there than a shopping mall? The largest ever constructed! You could literally wander these corridors forever. Not to worry, though, we keep the fashions and foods as up-to-date as possible. We’ve no shortage of help.”
That same raucous laughter burst forth, causing Jeremy to arch an eye-brow.
“Alright, alright, sorry,” the man guffawed, “But, if you don’t enjoy your work, you’ll never be happy.”
It was Jeremy’s turned to chuckle, “Okay, but what’s so bad about wandering the mall? Some people spent their entire lives preparing for this.”
“Well, we’ve only got one customer service desk and most of the bathrooms are out of order.”
“You’re a monster,” Jeremy returned sardonically.
“There’s no limit to what you can spend here. You can literally have anything you want, but there’s still a price for over-consumption. Hungry?”
Jeremy eyed him suspiciously, “Famished, actually, I recently lost some of the stomach contents I’d been planning on using.”
The man passed a hand through the air and, as it slid under Jeremy’s nose, a massive, delicious-looking hamburger came to rest on it. Accepting it solicitously, Jeremy tore into with abandon, driven by an aching stomach into a hunger-fueled feeding-frenzy. He gulped it down in huge, grateful mouthfuls until nothing but wrapper remained. Sighing, he burped and leaned back in a cliché manner, patting his stomach.
“Well, that was pretty much the most delicious thing I’ve ever eate… AUGH!!!”
Red-hot pain stabbed through him like a lightning bolt, wrenching a scream of agony and surprise from between his contorted features.
“It would seem,” the man said, seemingly unconcerned that his words dripped unheeded, “that you over-ate. Of course, the classics are always appreciated: a pound of flesh from somewhere, anywhere. It’s entirely random. We like to keep things interesting.”
The skin broke and peeled back from Jeremy’s fingers. A hole opened where his cheek should have been, exposing his jaw and turning his howl of pain into a warble of resignation. Then, at last, his skin retreated back over the newly-grown flesh and his jaw remembered its modesty. Wracked with pain and burning with contempt, he glimpsed parts of his burger again.
“What the HELL!?”
“A most apt description, wouldn’t you say? I thought the experience would describe itself better than words ever could.”
Hatred blazed briefly in Jeremy’s eyes, but he swallowed his feral urge to gouge the red-faced man’s eyes out and tear the nose off his face with his teeth.
“What… what now?” he panted.
“Now, we move on.” He walked to the nearest coffee shop and sidled past the crush of people to the front of the line.
“A hot chocolate, please,” he said, pushing aside the face of the customer who’d begun protesting his intrusion.
“Certainly,” the barista returned, “Would you like marshmallows with that?”
“No, no thanks.”
“Alright, step this way, sir.”
He motioned for Jeremy to follow. They stepped through a side door, around a corner and into a parking garage.
“Wait…” Jeremy protested, “THAT’S how you get out? What if someone just doesn’t like marshmallows in their hot chocolate?!”
“It’s never come up,” the man replied, aghast, “Can you imagine? Beastly! Besides, isn’t that the point of over-coming gluttony? Rejecting the extraneous?” he sipped at his drink, “Anyways, the hot chocolate there is terrible, but it warms you up,” he feigned a shiver and pressed the call-button for the parking garage’s elevator.
The elevator dinged a pleasant welcome and slid open its doors. Stepping inside, the man pressed a big, yellow button and folded his arms patiently.
“This next area is a bit… painful to look at, even for someone as familiar with the ins and outs of this place as me.”
Scoffing, Jeremy mumbled a “I find that hard to believe.”
“No, it’s true! Needless, self-inflicted suffering is always a painful thing to see.” he smirked, “Now, the rules of this next game are simple…”
Jeremy rolled his eyes.
“Walk ten miles OR sit in a very comfortable chair and be slowly eaten.”
“That doesn’t seem like much of a choice, really.”
“Well, it IS a remarkably comfortable chair. Also, every step requires the completion of a simple task or test before the next one is taken: 25 simple math problems, for example.”
“Of course, one can move on without solving them, but then a small, bleeding laceration the size of a pin-prick will form with every unearned step, until, at last…”
The doors dinged open and the elevator flooded with a wash of blood an inch thick.
“We really need to get a few drains installed,” the man muttered, shaking his head.
Countless figures writhed on the floor, caked in blood both fresh and dry. One near them lay flopping on the floor, arms dragging behind it; rendered useless by lack of circulation, feet kicking it forward desperately, face scraping along in the red muck. Coughing up a great gout of blood and bile into the unthinkable cocktail in which it squirmed, it twitched a few more times and lay still.
“Poor sod,” the red-faced man frowned and nudged the body with his foot, “he must have seen the door and decided to make a break for it. Ugh!” he spat, clearly disgusted, “Always trying to do the least amount of work for the greatest gain. Back to the start with you.”
The body dissolved into the sticky, red background.
“Bleeding out, wasting your time and your life will, well, get you nowhere. But, at least it does so with some expedience,” he sighed, “Sloth claims more lives before their time than almost anything else, save cholesterol, in some parts of the world.”
Looking down at the body nearest him struggling to breathe, Jeremy couldn’t help but sneer with contempt. It was just lying there. So close to its goal and he or she was just going to lie there and give up. At least, the pathetic flailing creature before it had shown some spirit. Well, no use judging. Others were already very busy doing that very same thing and hardly seemed to need his help.
A hand streaked red and black with gore reached desperately towards him from the muck as the elevator doors dinged closed.
“Being a businessman, I’m sure you’ll appreciate this next area,” he said, thumbing a green button, “No fancy exits this time I’m afraid, we’re running short on time.”
“Yeah, I was wondering about that.”
The man chuckled, “Well, you can’t have flash everywhere you go.”
The bottom and top dropped away from the elevator; the outer covering shot up into the darkness as Jeremy screamed into the unknown, the red-faced man joined in, adding his own fierce roar to Jeremy’s primal chorus.
They fell for what seemed like an age before plopping onto a giant pile of soft, squishy something.
“Can we stop falling, PLEASE!” an exasperated Jeremy breathed between huge gulps of air; his shaking hands steadying as the adrenaline ebbed.
“But it’s so much quicker!” the red-faced man shot back with a giggle of delight, “What? Are you afraid you’ll die and wind up here?” he said, sticking his tongue out at Jeremy.
Returning the gesture, Jeremy painted a stern frown on his face. Finally, the moment caught up with him and his expression cracked into gales of laughter. After a guffaw’s breadth of time, they were both on their backs, panting, in the squishy something.
“So, what on earth are we lying on?”
Unfortunately, Jeremy was screamed out; so, his revulsion could only express itself through the truly horrified expression that scrawled itself across his face. If skin could crawl, then he was sure his would have been doing a very neat impression of the man he’d recently seen thrashing in a pool of his own blood.
“Well, mostly. This is the room where the Greedy gather to buy and sell themselves. This pile is the remnants of those that sold their mouths and could no longer deal or wheel. Who knows, though, one of their associates could always buy one for them,” shaking with the loudest, most sincere laugh Jeremy had heard yet, he continued, “That’s it. Here, your worst enemy is your best friend and the currency is pure platinum,” Shining coins spilled forth from his cupped hands, “It’s the only place, anywhere, that you can literally own someone else, if you can get a good deal for your parts and buy them back later, at a reduced price. Supply and demand, you know. A man without a liver will pay a lot to end his self-imposed agony. Provided, of course, that it’s a working liver. Yup, a real meat-market.”
A disgusted sigh, and a quick scramble down a pile of flesh, later, Jeremy was propositioned by a torso, “Some nice legs you got there, boy. I’ll give you 30 platinum for them.”
“Bah!” another voice interjected, “A good pair of legs is worth, at least, twice that! I’ll give yah 100 for the set, if ya throw in an arm!”
“You already have five!” coughed the first voice, “I don’t have any!”
That’s your own business! I saw the deal you got. Tell you what, with some of that, I’ll give you a full set for 200.”
“You wouldn’t have to keep wriggling away like a pathetic, limp-livered inch-worm!”
Ugh! These things barely counted as human. Although, the price these coins would fetch… How much would he really miss one arm?
Jeremy shook his head in disgust, “Can we go soon?”
“Why?” the fedora’d man replied darkly, “Tempted?” The grin that spread across that sharp, gaping mouth chilled Jeremy to the core, “Don’t worry, you don’t belong here.”
“Well, isn’t that a relief,” stammered Jeremy’, heart pounding in his ears, “Still, I can’t help feeling that there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
That grin just wouldn’t dissipate… “Oh, He had nothing to do with it.”
More limbless, sagging effigies were swarming to the fresh bodies. A cacophony of shouting mouths and grasping, stroking hands clawed at them both, appraising and applauding their valuables.
“Get BACK, you pathetic creatures!” the fedora’d man roared. Red skin stretched over twisting muscle. His whole body swelled, possessed of a dark, terrible power. His very posture gave off an aura of pure destructive potential. As the words left his lips, fire flared around him, burning and scattering the crowd.
“There,” he said, masking himself in a calm demeanor once more, “It’s quite rude to shout and worse still to crowd.”
Chuckling in an attempt to break the viscous tension, “Come along, Jeremy, I think you’ll find the next department just as interesting as this one, if such things interest you.”
Feet shuffling and shoulders locked, Jeremy followed with the memory of that moment of anger seared deep in his memory. Clearly, this wasn’t a car-salesman to be trifled with; the extended warranty was looking more appealing every second.
They made their way towards what Jeremy could only assume was the exit, with the scarecrow effigies of humanity giving them a much wider berth. Ducking through another hole in the wall and down another flight of stairs, made of he no longer cared what, they broke through the gloom into a large field.
“Inside a cave. I’m really not surprised,” Jeremy mused.
“Let’s hope you’ve not lost the ability to be so, though. It tends to make existence much more interesting.”
Following the man closely, Jeremy was led into a structure that gave the impression, in every way, of a large barn. A large barn full of giant insects.
“Ugh! What on Earth!?”
“Not, actually. But, they are a distant relative to the common flea. Notice the strong, coiled legs! Perfect for jumping!”
Distant was right. They were absolutely revolting.
“Not that fleas are a picture of comely perfection,” Jeremy reminded himself.
Their entire hunched form was covered in a layer of stiff hairs. Two large, milky eyes sat forward on faces that were little more than long proboscises tipped with gaping maws, from which an inner mouth would occasionally stretch and display rows and rows of small, jagged teeth. Jeremy swallowed hard at the realization that his entire arm could easily fit up one of those revolting orifices. Wings sprouted and flapped under a protruding organ he didn’t recognize. A sensory organ? It seemed likely considering how their relatives hunted and fed.
“By the shape of the head and the wings, I’m guessing these things fly.”
“Brilliant Holmes!” the red-faced man snapped as he mounted one of the things, “Hop on, we’re burning sulfur!”
Swallowing revulsion, and not a little terror, he swung into place behind the man and hung on.
“Okay, steering one of these things can be a bit tricky, but here we go!”
While he hadn’t been paying attention, the roof had disappeared. A hurricane of wing-beats buffeted them as the creatures grasped the opportunity to escape. Jeremy clutched all the more frantically to the disgusting creature’s back.
“Oh, the stable-hands will be furious! It’ll take them forever to get them all back. Ah well!”
Laughing like a maniac, the man pulled on one of the finer hairs close to the creature’s mysterious sensory organ.
Jeremy felt like he’d been struck, hard. The ground sprinted away below them. The creature latched onto a crack in the wall and set itself for another titanic leap.
Clutching onto life itself, Jeremy managed a weak, “It grapples to things with its mouth? Wouldn’t that make it hard to feed if it damaged itself in the process?”
“Anything to take your mind off the dizzying jumps, eh? Well, actually, no, that’s an appendage. It doesn’t eat with that. This ride isn’t free. The creature is accepting our nourishment as payment. See? That’s why I’m not actually holding on.”
Horrified, Jeremy jerked his arms back. Tiny hairs had wormed their way under his skin, dripping blood and toxin as they tore away at his flesh.
“It’s very safe. You’re quite secure.”
With that, Jeremy finally noticed the larger ones snaking away from the arteries in his legs. Be it the shock or the blood loss, he’d had too much. Consciousness left him and he fainted, out cold, engulfed in laughter.
He opened his eyes to find the ceiling of his bedroom staring back at him. His legs were wrapped and splayed within the sheets and comforters, one under the other. After a few minutes, his heart finally began to slow its frenzied beating. Struggling out of bed, he found that one of his feet had fallen asleep from the awkward position. He limped his bleary-eyed way to the bathroom.
“God, what a dream.”
Reaching into the medicine cabinet, he pulled out his toothbrush and toothpaste, and squeaked the faucet on. Steadying himself against the counter with one hand, he began the doldrumous task of brushing his teeth.
Blood red mingled with the white of his toothpaste. He had never been much for flossing. He stared, horrified, at the reflection in the mirror. A crimson tide was welling from deep within his mouth and had started gushing forth. His reflection was a fountain of blood, but its eyes were smiling, laughing even. It reached forward and opened the door to the medicine cabinet. Jeremy followed suit, dragged along in the eddying tides of insatiable, revolted curiosity.
Where a shelf had been moments earlier, there was nothing. Literally nothing. A shapeless void assaulted Jeremy’s senses. He was overwhelmed, staring, until he saw something lying just beyond it. A familiar chuckle filled his ears as he fought his way through the inky emptiness.
Confusing visions swam back to him.
“Glad to have you back! You can’t really die here, but there are more than a couple brain-fried drones kicking about.”
“Still here, eh?”
“That’s the spirit. Come on!”
With some difficulty, Jeremy sat up. The blood rushed away from his head, and he realized, much to his chagrin, that he was hanging upside down from the same insectoid creature. Struggling against all odds to keep the bile from his throat, he pulled the hairs out of his legs, producing gouts of blood in the process. They ran down his body and dripped onto the purple floor below, extracting a brief slurping sound with each drop.
“Is there anything here that doesn’t eat you?”
Sighing, he let himself drop to the floor with a sickening crunch.
“A few,” the man answered, “The walls here may be alive, yes, but they are quite benevolent. They passively absorb the bodily fluids they come into contact with,” he easily slid off the creature and landed on his feet, arms outstretched in the grand gesture he so favored, “Welcome, to The Caves of Passion!”
Hundreds of thousands of caves puckered out from the walls of the chasm… the unfathomably deep chasm… that battered Jeremy’s vision. Every opening sprouted the same throbbing purple bio-mass that carpeted the floor beneath him.
“These are the caves where our patrons explore their dark, Lustful desires until they simply cannot think of them anymore… and then ad nauseum.”
A light flickered softly somewhere deep inside the cave.
“The problem being that these desires are often quite personal and quite… specific. And, as you can see, we tackled that problem by producing the most sub-divided department in our entire organization. Now, come, this you have to see.”
“You say that every time, you devil,” Jeremy shot back, “And I’m about sick of it. I’m not sure what you think I could possibly do here. The whole place seems to run itself. Or, at least, requires such an abundance of labor that one could hardly believe you’d commit so much personal time to each job offer, especially considering the probable rate of acceptance. Granted, I’m sure you have lots of time, but the turnover…”
“Is non-existent. The benefits package is… not to be believed.”
“Even so, I think I’ve seen enough.”
“Oh, not really.”
Jeremy stopped, speechless. Fear thrilled him to silence. After all he’d seen, what could he really say?
They tromped along down the winding purple passageway, the ground squishing softly with each step. The light in the distance grew more distinct with every squash. Down the distant, twisted cavern, Jeremy swore he could hear cries of pain or, more likely, ecstasy. Finally, the cries were all around them. They sounded strangely… familiar.
Turning the corner, an inner sanctum of the cave swung into view and his heart leapt for his throat, sticking there. Lights flickered a deep, crowning red, washed through with the wanton tint of flesh. Step after step of the man behind him squished an echoing return in time with each moaning scream of exultation, a litany to the rising torment he’d had so deeply entrenched within. She turned and smiled her smooth, pussy-cat grin over a bare, rising shoulder, “Your strength, darling, has always been your curse. You just won’t look away.”
She stiffened, suddenly, and let out a purring growl, her breath coming in heavy, pleading gasps. Blood ran in rivulets down her thighs.
Jeremy felt black and saw red. Rage swirled inside of him, a torrent of hatred whipping harshly around a limed core. All thought ceased and he became a wicked, terrible animal-thing; a focused essence of dark desire.
Skin, muscle and bone drove itself repeatedly against the pain. Straining, pushing, driving to destroy, raging in denial of everything Jeremy had seen. Of all she had done.
“But… but how? How could she be here?” he shouted, “Answer me!”
“You’ve known. You’ve known for a long time, Jerr-bear. You could smell it on her. Taste it. Feel it. Lack of attention, bitter glances and hopeful eyes. You’ve done your best to ignore it, but it’s not going away. You can’t pretend anymore.”
The bloody pulp beneath his fingers began to pull itself together and resolved itself into the twitching, frightened face of his wife.
“She was already being punished, Jeremy. Didn’t you see? Couldn’t you hear?” he let loose a howl of laughter colder than a winter gale, “This, right here, had nothing to do with punishing the lustful. That was something else: your own personal sin.”
“Wrath,” the word escaped inaudibly from Jeremy’s mouth; a look of understanding growing slowly out of his twisted features.
“Your anger drives you, feeds you, detaches you. Rage is an unbridled force of destruction. The account you closed on that poor fellow. The old woman you told off. The love, understanding and empathy you’ve ceased to show is delicious. Every aspect of your life has been infected and infused and I love it. We can use it here.”
Arms behind his back, chin held high, he walked in slow circles around the pitiful figure of Jeremy cradling his wife’s body, every bit a rallying general.
“Didn’t you notice? No, I don’t imagine you’d recognize “normal” anymore if you saw it,” the man said sarcastically, “Normal people can’t stare at another human wallowing in a puddle of blood, reaching out for help, and do nothing but sneer. You could easily have helped. The atrocities you’ve seen committed here… you haven’t done a thing. They’ve all been barely human to you. And you… you’ve been barely human for a while now.”
The red-faced man reached down and snapped his fingers. The figure in Jeremy’s arms melted away to a grey, pallid body that quivered in his arms.
“This, Jerr-bear, is the burnt-out wreck of a thing we here at the O.R.E. use to do our dirty work. And believe me, it’s all dirty. The Keepers of the Flame, the candles of Wrath, our final department.”
Fear, anger, pain, hatred, revulsion, a mixture of countless emotions rose within Jeremy as a solid tide. All of them shouted at once, a unified voice for him to embody: denial.
“No!” the cry rent his lips, “I won’t be your bloody puppet!”
The eyes of the form in his arms gleamed as it lashed out at him. Jeremy tossed it to the ground and bowled into the fedora’d man, rebounding as surely as if he’d run into a wall of solid iron. Grunting in frustration, he lashed out with a foot at the grey form clawing his legs and ran.
Without a guide, he was totally lost.
He ran deeper into the tunnel, turning and throwing himself down the nearest opening in the wall. Rolling to his feet at the bottom as soon as he was able, he continued on, feet pounding on what was now rock.
“Come on,” whispered a familiar voice in his head, “You belong here.”
The cries of pain that the pitiful effigy of his wife had made as he’d rendered her into a whimpering, bloody mass echoed in his head.
“That… that wasn’t her.”
Another frigid laugh.
He ran and ran and ran, though he had no idea where. Just… anywhere. Even if he didn’t know the way out. Even if there wasn’t one. Anything was better than…
“A life inflicting pain?”
“Get out of my head!”
“But that’s what you’ve been doing, isn’t it?”
An elevator door dinged open and he bolted inside, smashing the door-close button and running his fingers over the other options. Purple: lust. Gold: Pride.
“Hmm… Red… must be wrath. Might as well check out the office,” he thought.
“An excellent idea!”
Oh, for fuck sakes. Maybe not
He mashed the “Emergency Stop” button and the downward ride buzzed to a halt. A speaker on the wall crackled to life, “Please remain calm. A maintenance crew with be with you shortly, Jeremy.”
Drops of ichor seeped from the speaker’s grating.
“Great, but I don’t intend to be here.”
Using the railing on the elevator’s wall as a step, he pushed frantically at the maintenance hatch. It cracked open and he pulled himself out.
Huh. It was an archetypal elevator shaft. Wiiith… a ladder leading to a maintenance shaft outlined in yellow and black stripes. Without looking down, Jeremy pulled himself up the rungs and through the opening.
Dust and cobwebs swirled in the wake of his entrance, sending him into a coughing fit.
“Jesus!” he coughed, eyes squinted with tears.
Pulling himself along in the cramped space proved to be slow going, but he could see a light up ahead.
“Not that that could possibly herald anything positive down here.”
Something stirred in a vent off to his right. Through the growing light, he could just make out a large, eight-legged something. Suddenly, the multitude of cobwebs he’d been dragging himself through make more sense. Horrifying visions of being wrapped in silk and fed on for eternity sent him scrambling like a madman through the vent, kicking and screaming.
“Fuck… fuck… fuck, fuck, fuck…”
He could feel the stiff hair of the thing’s front-legs brushing against his calves. To his eternal relief, the skittering thing fell just short of him and the exit he threw himself out of, flopping onto a… dressing room floor?
The final piece of a great, ancient mechanism boomed into place. As he sprinted past chairs and costumes, mannequins and make-up counters, it all made sense. Why his wife was here. The grey-mottled figures that looked surprised by his sprinting presence. The torturous methods that had been so relevant to him. His personal guide. It had all been…
Jeremy crashed into the red-faced man, bedecked in the crown of a cuckold.
“This, Jeremy, is your own, personal, hell. Well, some of it was real, but I’m betting you wouldn’t know the difference. The pain. The anger. The torture you felt. It was very real.”
Again, that wistful grin touched his lips.
“Life… death… pain… happiness… once you move past it, it’s just a game. A dance. I wanted to show you… To take you beyond simply living and give you a glimpse at a world without destruction. This is just that. It’s all cabaret. The souls suffer; some repent and some don’t. In the end, it really doesn’t matter. The big-guy upstairs may have a terrible PR department, but he’s no doddering fool. That’s why this place exists. Humans were not the greatest of his creations, but they were blessed with something as his favorites: the freedom to choose.”
He took the hat out from between his new, fibrous adornments.
“Now,” the man continued, “I don’t want to see you back here. I like you. We shared a couple laughs. I know we had a disagreement or two, but the world is a playground and it was… enjoyable… to share it with you for a time.”
Once more, the red-faced man snapped his fingers and the world melted away to a blurry, blinking confusion.
He sat up, soaked in sweat, and threw the sheets off to look at himself in the mirror, carefully checking the medicine cabinet. No hat, no blood, no nothing. But it had all been so real. So vivid. He’d believed it. All of it.
It was time to wake up, though. His dream had left him with that much. He HAD been ignoring his wife’s indiscretions and it had been tainting his life, twisting him. Their happiness had been a lie and it had been tearing him apart while he wasn’t paying attention. He’d wanted to love her, unconditionally, but their falsehood, even crafted with noble intent, still cut as a cruelty with the truth bubbling just beneath the surface.
Sighing deeply, he let his head fall into his hands; a great sob shook through his body. Breath came to him in slow, painful rattles. It was time to let it all out. To let it go. To let her go.
He sat there, clutching himself for support as he rocked through the waves of emotions, until the first rays of the morning sun broke through the curtains.
He had to call her; to tell her while it was all still so clear and fresh, while he could see it, feel it. Before denial sunk its claws in again. Bracing himself, he thanked God for the dream that had spurned him to action. It would hurt, a lot, but eventually, things would look brighter than they ever could now. Even in the ruins of his current life, he could see that. He had to deal with it now, while he could, before the cynical bitterness grew roots too deeply to ever extricate; before he became the devil himself.
With another deep breath, he reached over and picked up his… fish?!?