Hell and Styx #6 reporting for duty! Voila and et cetera.
This one takes place directly after H+S #5 (which was directly after H+S#4) when Hell follows Father Wainscott into the church. You probably want to go back and catch up if you are new to their saga. Go to their page (also in the top right corner) for a full explanation of the Hell and Styx stories and a complete list.
(Note: The reference to a meeting with Heaven in this story HAS NOT HAPPENED YET. And I know this. I don’t want you to know about it. Just get the idea: Hell and Heaven do-not-equal-sign friends. That part of their story will be written later.)
Hell and Styx #6: To Visible
Hell followed the priest across the main chamber of the church, through a side door, and into a small square room, some sort of mess hall. It was obviously a chip off the same old, sacred block of the rest of the church, but there were modern touches dotted around the edges. A coffee pot gurgled in the corner. A mini fridge guarded sack lunches and flavored coffee creamers. Wainscott motioned to a plastic table, taking his own seat. Hell carefully lowered herself onto the opposite chair, surprised that she was—corporal.
“How are you doing that?” she asked.
“I haven’t the slightest.”
Hell growled, more off-put by the presence of something she didn’t understand affecting her body than joyous over being made whole in her home dimension.
“What’s your name?” he asked again.
Hell fidgeted. She had no misconstructions about her role in the universe, and most of the time, no qualms. But this was a priest. Avoiding eye contact, she mumbled, “Hell.”
She laughed sharply. “Hell. You know—fire and eternal damnation. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.”
“Let’s call me a middleman,” she said, playing off her discomfort with bravado.
“You’re not Hell?”
Hell’s hands twitched with annoyance and she let them tie up her hair, a menial task to distract them. “My name is Hell. My job is…a gatekeeper.”
“You send people to hell?” he asked, confused and yet incredibly on point.
“Sure.” Hell laughed to herself. “I’m like a bouncer of the underworld.”
A strange consternation crossed the old man’s face. “Am I going to die? Is that why I can see you?”
“Hell if I know.” Hell leaned back and crossed her arms across her chest. “I’m just as clueless as you are. I don’t make a habit of paying this world a visit.”
Wainscott chewed on his tongue, mulling over a ‘why,’ but eventually swallowed his question. “You live somewhere else?”
“I think you call it purgatory.”
A tidbit of mysteriously gifted religious knowledge flitted through Hell’s mind. “Whatever. It’s a marble room. Dead souls. Cracks equal gates to either hell or the underworld.”
“His name is Styx. Technically.” Hell rolled her eyes at her counterpart, not exactly sure why. “He’s for the nobodies. The people who didn’t do a damned thing with their lives.”
“And you deal with the…bad people?”
“The people who were so awful their actions stained their souls—yes.”
Wainscott poured himself a cup of coffee. “And heaven?” he threw over his shoulder, like it was simple, like he didn’t really need to know.
Hell flinched. “He exists. For all the good it does the universe.”
Wainscott’s hand paused mid-pour. “Do you want some?”
“I’m fine,” Hell said, not willing to risk having her corporality shattered by a drink that wasn’t even alcoholic.
“You don’t like heaven?” he asked, sitting.
“Not the guy.”
“You’ve met, I take it?”
A story played behind Hell’s eyes, crimpling a frown together with a smile. “We’ve met.” There was an entire novel in that syllable. “He never stays long. Better than us and everything. Not like he gets a lot of work, either.”
“No?” Again with that vague interest, like he can convince anyone he isn’t scrambling to find a glimmer of truth in his faith.
“You can’t just not sin. You have to be good. Your soul has to—shine. Good deeds do the opposite of the staining bad deeds do. Cosmic Windex. I don’t know. Something like that. He never really says. It’s rare. So Styx and I do all the grunge work and he drops into town whenever he feels like it.”
There was more to it that that, Wainscott knew. She was too bitter about it for it to just be a rarity. There was something about the man, not just the job, pitting Hell against Heaven.
“This soul purification—is religious?”
“Do you think I take classes on this? There isn’t an instruction manual.” Hell’s jaw clenched, then slowly released. When she spoke again, it was a forced calm. “Maybe. It helps some people. But it’s not a requirement. Religious people go to hell. Ninety-nine precent of Styx’s jobs pray to someone. I’m sure Heaven’s taken atheists It’s not the religion that makes the fate. It’s the person. If they get the strength to be honestly good people from a Bible—yay for them. If they have never been to a religious center in their lives and renounce gods til the day they die—who cares? It’s the person, not the beliefs. It’s the actions, not their words.”
“Does confessing do anything?”
“Remorse might. Confessing to a priest? Nope. You can say anything you want. You can line up all your sins in nice little lines and kiss each of them goodbye but that doesn’t mean they’re leaving. Souls are finicky. If you confess honestly, maybe it helps. Maybe you get a bit of Windex for yourself. But not always. You priests aren’t janitors. The person has to believe it. If they talk to a psychiatrist, a friend, a cat—it’s all the same.”
“And prayers? Can you pray for someone’s soul?”
Hell shrugged. “It’s the person that matters, not the people around them. Maybe praying for someone else’s soul helps your own. Shows you’re a good person, and all that crap. But you can’t change a person next to you, not with thoughts. You help them stay out of trouble, you be with them, you get off your ass and support them—then you’re helping their soul. Prayers are just words.”
For the first time, mild amusement played with the corner of Wainscott’s mouth. “How would you know?”
Hell paused in her rant, her train of thought rushing on without her guidance and tripping.
“I said, how would you know? About prayers.”
“I’ve never seen them do any good.”
“And you are omniscient? So you can suddenly explain why we can see each other?”
Anger at the universe slowly focused on Wainscott. “I know enough.”
“A rather paradoxical statement, coming from such a cynic.”
“I’m Hell. I think I know what I’m talking about.”
“And I’m a mere human. What could I possibly know about the gods?”
“Gods don’t exist.”
“How can you say? You’re a death deity in your own right. You’re undeniably supernatural. You live in purgatory. Are you saying it’s impossible that there is a governing force combining both universes?”
Wainscott smiled, thinking it a victory until she continued.
“Not one I’d worship.”
Then: “Would you care to elaborate?”
“I exist, okay? I exist to punish people. What kind of messed-up ‘faultless’ creator designs that? It’s the work of a bitter, pissed off guy. I know because I like my job. But I’m not a good person. Not in the slightest. But I have a right, a backstory. I lost everything I knew when I was five and I live with dead people and one other person and no one knows what it’s like to be and have to touch all those rotten souls, like squishing a bucket of worm-ridden apples with your hands and feeling the worms enter you, and I just saw my father dead and his memory of me erased and my entire existence replaced by a little bitch who had to be better than me with a normal name and a mom who she knows and they get to cry and mourn but I have to go back to my job and curse more souls and what kind of God creates me? What kind of God creates any of this shit? I won’t pray to a man who chooses some people to kill and lets the rest of them praise him for saving their families. I won’t pray to a man who punishes those that have heard of him but don’t accept him. And I certainly don’t see anything to pray to in a man who looks at a five-year-old and puts hell in her mind.”
“What about a God who gives life? A God who creates a world, and who gives people heaven?”
“If he existed, he could give me a heads up. I’m his freakin’ mercenary, I think I have a right to know who he is. And again, if he won’t—he’d just being a jerk. I’m not worshiping a jerk. Don’t they teach you that in Healthy Relationships class? And anyway, worlds can exist without a God. There doesn’t have to be something bigger. Sometimes all there is is the dirty truth and the elbow grease that keep the universe ticking. You find a God in that clockwork? That’s your right. But I don’t see him—and I’m the one winding the clock.”
“Are you proud of yourself? Or do you hate yourself? I can’t tell.”
Hell was fully aware that her comments were chipping away at Wainscott’s good humor and causing him to lash out at her. Pride flickered inside of her. She was still her good old self. No matter who died.
She had a snarky come-back on the tip of her tongue when a jolt of panic burst through her.
Gasping, she pressed her hands to her head, searching within herself for the source of the panic. It wasn’t her own—a sort of outside force invading her, trying to get her attention. It worked, she wanted to yell. I’m listening.
And then she felt it: Styx’s presence. And then she was there, on the steps of her father’s house, and she was Styx, and she could feel the realizations coursing through him. He knew about the daughter and he knew how it would affect Hell and now he couldn’t find her and he had no way of knowing that she was—wherever she was, away. And she knew how much Styx didn’t want her to be alone with these truths gnawing at her, how much he feared what these truths could do to her already crippled fire. She realized he knew the converse options—Hell’s fire permanently doused or indelibly kindled—and how he both longed for and feared the latter.
She knew far too much about Styx in that moment, and about herself, and she forced herself away, back into her body, grabbing the chord of panic connecting them and tugged, calling out to her counterpart, apologizing for scaring him and telling him she was okay and begging him to come to her, wherever she was. So that they wouldn’t have to be alone.
Then she opened her eyes and saw Wainscott watching her and realized she really wasn’t alone.
to be continued…