By Joanna Michal Hoyt
Alma assumed Sibyl was joking, so she forced a laugh; new in town and new at church, Alma knew she couldn’t snub someone at coffee hour. Then she saw the outrage on Sibyl’s face.
“Sorry. You really mean – ?”
“Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. It’s just that we’re concerned about you. Grace saw you hanging around there. Of course you wouldn’t go in,” (her tone implied that was just what Alma would do), “but people who choose to spend time in that area…”
“What’s really down there?”
“I just told you,” Sibyl said.
“I thought you called them stairs to Hell.”
Alma backed away. Was Sibyl crazy?
“It’s true,” David said.
“That’s the name of a nightclub?” Alma asked. “Or an occult bookstore?”
“No, it’s Hell—the real thing.” David looked gravely at her over the top of his glasses.
“You think the Gates of Hell are in that vacant lot?”
“A Gate of Hell,” Sibyl said. “Maybe every town has one. We know where ours is, and we stay away from it.”
“How do you know?”
“Everybody knows,” Gloria said, leaning over Sibyl’s shoulder.
“So people end up in Hell because they wander down the stairs?” Alma tried not to sound as incredulous as she felt. “Otherwise they’d all go to Heaven?”
“I’m sure,” Sibyl said, “that nine times out of ten the appropriate authorities – angels, fallen angels, whoever – take people there at the…the usual time. For cause. But you do hear about things…”
“Kids daring each other,” David said.
“Drunks,” Sibyl added.
“Not drunks – they’d break their necks before they reached the bottom,” Gloria contradicted. “The stairs are so steep.”
“You’ve seen them?” Alma asked.
There was a nasty little silence.
After coffee hour Alma walked back to the vacant lot and leaned into the open-fronted shed. Stepping inside, she looked down, down the stairs to where the green indoor-outdoor carpeting faded into shadow. Then she turned away.
Early next morning Alma was back, with a discreet cross pinned to her blouse and a flashlight, a penknife, and pepper spray ready in her jeans pocket. She tacked a note to the shed: ALMA FOSTER WENT IN TO EXPLORE AT 5:30 AM ON SEPTEMBER 2.
She had tried writing something longer to explain why she was going. “Because I need to know…” “Because if you’re pulling my leg I’m tired of it…” “Because if Hell is really what you make it out to be and angels or demons or anyone else are hauling people down there against their will I’ll organize a strike against God…” “Because if there are people trapped down there maybe I could help them get out…” They all sounded juvenile. She meant them all, but thought it better to leave them unsaid.
The staircase was very long. The irregular pulsations of the fluorescent lights overhead gave Alma a headache after a while. By the time she thought of counting the stairs, she had been descending so long that it seemed pointless.
The stairs ended on a cement landing before a neat exterior door which was windowless and institutional green like the stairs. There was no inscription on the lintel.
Alma tried the knob. It wasn’t locked.
She cracked the door open.
No sulphurous fumes. No tormented wails. Just a low buzz of conversation.
Opening the door a couple of inches, Alma peered in at a strip of green carpet and a white wall.
She opened the door wide and stepped across the threshold. No alarm bell sounded. One of the well-dressed people inside noticed her—a blond man with an insipid face. His gaze met hers, slid away, then dragged itself back before he returned to his conversation. Something flashed in his eyes as he looked at her. Not what she might have expected in the eyes of a man in Hell. Not agony, she thought, or rage, or lust. Fear? Maybe. Or hope?
Alma drew the door to, but not quite shut, behind her as she stepped into the room.
“Shut the door, can’t you?” The woman’s cultured voice was thin and shrill. “Don’t let that air in, you must know what it can do.”
“What can it do?” Alma asked.
The woman’s face tightened. “Just close it!”
Alma shut the door, immediately panicked, and tested the knob. It turned freely. Slightly reassured, she took a step toward the woman.
“I was just out there, and the air seemed to be fine,” Alma said. “What bothers you about it?”
“I wasn’t complaining.” The woman’s eyes darted around the room.
“Nobody thought you were,” another woman said in tones of exaggerated patience, motioning the first woman away from Alma and the door.
If this was a well-disguised Hell, Alma thought, and people were kept there by the irrational fear of something on the stairs, she could explain and save them all. But first she had to understand.
She walked further into the room. The carpet indoors was the same dead green as the stairs outdoors. The walls were off-white with a hint of green—though the green was just slightly wrong. So were the people. Women in slacks and fitted tops or in little dresses, men in suits and ties, all with decorous little smiles– what felt wrong about them?
She drifted closer to a pair of women.
“They didn’t do a bad job redecorating the restaurant.”
“Not bad. Well, Management has to accommodate the other Groups too… they wouldn’t appreciate anything really tasteful…”
“Is the new decor tasteless?”
“You haven’t seen it? Weren’t you at breakfast?’
“There didn’t seem to be much point.” The speaker gave a nervous titter. “I mean, I was so busy.”
“Of course.” Was the sweetness of the answering voice exaggerated?
The titterer opened her mouth, closed it, blanched, murmured “Oh dear, I shall be late…” and hurried away, stumbling a little in her high heels. Like the White Rabbit, Alma thought. But what did the other woman say to upset her?
Alma realized she was staring at the other woman just as the other woman caught her eye. Alma looked away from the woman’s face to her necklace. The pearls made her think of pupilless eyes which, nevertheless, saw her. Alma mentally christened the woman Pearl—it fit the smooth pallor of her face, the sparkle of her teeth.
“What are you doing here?” Pearl asked. “Which Group are you in? You’re not one of us, are you?”
“I’m new here.”
“Nobody’s sorted you? Put you with…” she eyed Alma’s thrift-store jeans and blouse, Alma’s brown arms—“your kind of people?”
“No. Should somebody have met me at the door?” Alma’s voice came out thin and worried.
“I’m sure they’ve done just what they should have,” Pearl said in a similarly nervous voice. “Make yourself at home.” Perhaps the invitation was meant kindly, but it didn’t sit well in Alma’s stomach.
Alma sidled toward another pair: a woman in a business outfit, a black-suited man with gold-rimmed glasses.
“Sorry I missed the committee meeting, Gladys,” Goldman said. “Another appointment.”
“Of course, we all know you’re terribly busy.”
“But your notes are as clear and succinct as Mr. Stone said.”
“He… he mentions me?’
A secretary in love with her boss, Alma thought. But would infatuation make Gladys’ hand hover at her throat like that?
“All the time,” Goldman said.
“He… he’s very kind,” Gladys gasped, turning to look out a nearby window.
A window? Alma thought. So far underground? She hurried toward it.
Not a window, a mirror. Alma’s reflection looked warily back at her. Behind Alma, Goldman fidgeted with something in his pocket. A tic? No, nothing so pronounced, but something about it made Alma’s stomach seethe.
Maybe he wasn’t the problem. The really unsettling thing was not looking at Goldman’s reflection, but looking at his and at her own at the same time. Alma squinted into the glass. She didn’t seem to fit with Goldman, or Gladys, or any of them. It wasn’t just her clothes. She looked solid, while Gladys, Goldman, and the rest looked like pictures on faded newsprint. And Alma was the only one standing still. The others were all moving their hands or shifting their weight in quick arrhythmic gestures. Alma felt her headache tightening.
In the mirror, she caught sight of another pair nearby, strained to separate their words from the buzz of talk around them.
“…doesn’t seem to belong.” The dark-haired man tapped his toes as he spoke. “A sorting mistake?”
“Did you hear what she said to Marguerite?” The fair-haired man pushed back his cuticles over and over. “Asking, ‘Should somebody have met me?’ as if…”
“That shows she doesn’t belong in our Group, doesn’t it? She doesn’t look like a foreigner – well, not all the way, though I guess she’s a little on the brown side – or talk like one, but if she’s one of the layabouts… or one of the eggheads? Some of them don’t bother to dress properly either. Which of us would have asked a thing like that?”
“Oh, she’s not one of us. But what if Management sent her? If she’s with them, and we do anything to displease her…”
The dark-haired man inhaled sharply. “I… I forgot, I have to be at a meeting.”
“You won’t mention anything about what I said if you, er, meet her ?”
The dark-haired man caught Alma’s eyes in the mirror, gulped, and hurried away without answering.
The fair-haired man stared at Alma, his hands moving faster and faster. Other people began to turn toward the pair of them. Began to look at Alma with those frightened, frightening eyes, and to gesture toward her with hands that weren’t quite steady… Alma backed away. There was an interior door in the wall near Gladys. She hurried through it into an empty corridor. It was too tall and narrow for comfort, but at least she had it to herself.
Alma froze, staring. The door at the far end had not opened, but she was no longer alone. The figure before her was hard to see clearly. It wasn’t washed out like the others. This man was bright as a stained-glass window with the sun coming through it, substantial as earth, more real than anything she’d ever seen. There was too much of him to take in. She tried to focus. First the colors came clear: the red-purple of his clothing, the mahogany of his skin. Then the face dimmed enough so she could see it. A wide, kind face, familiar from book covers and newscasts.
“Archbishop Tutu? What are you doing here? You aren’t dead, are you? We needed you back there…”
“You are not dead,” he pointed out. His voice was as much more real than hers as his face was. “I am. I am not dead, and I am not only the good man you named. You see what you are able to see and trust.”
“You don’t belong here.”
“No one does. Come away. Come with me.”
“But I don’t understand yet. I have to understand.”
“Do you need to understand this place before you can work or love in the world you left?”
Alma shook her head. Working, loving, those were always possible, but they went on for such a long time, and she got so tired, and they weren’t talismans against fear, not like knowing.
“Do you understand me?” he asked.
She looked at him, felt the headache fading.
“No. But I trust you.” Maybe you shouldn’t trust someone you met in Hell, her mind muttered, but she didn’t believe it. Not then.
“What about the rest of them? Why aren’t you getting them out?”
“I do not force anyone to leave.”
“You’ve been here before?”
“Please, I need to understand. I won’t stay here, but I can’t leave yet.” She remembered the conversation about the restaurant. “After lunch. Let me stay until then, see if I can understand, if I can help. Then I’ll come with you.” She paused. “I’m sorry. You—you must be terribly busy. Maybe you can’t come back then.”
“I can come back.”
“Is it a bad idea for me to eat here? Is it like eating food in the land of the dead? Does it trap you here?”
“There is no danger from the food.”
He was gone. Her headache throbbed again.
She opened the door at the end of the corridor and entered the restaurant. The carpet (almost the same beige as the walls) was spotless. There were pictures, maybe framed photos, hanging on the walls, but the light glared off the glass over themso Alma couldn’t see what they depicted.
About half the blond wood tables were occupied by pairs, trios, or foursomes of well-dressed people. No one ate or drank. No one was alone. Some people glared at a door in the far end through which a few scruffily dressed people were disappearing, shooed along by a uniformed waiter who hissed, “You know your Group’s lunch is over. Move along.”
The people here eat in shifts, Alma thought, and I’ve arrived in between, so no one’s getting served now.
She listened to the conversation at the nearest table.
“This is the third time they’ve been late with the shift change.”
“You’re not complaining about Management, are you?” The speaker smiled unpleasantly. The listener blanched.
“Of course not!” The speaker swallowed hard. “No, I… no! Of course those people don’t understand punctuality…. their Group, I mean, not Management, of course. Sorry. Long morning. Let’s start over. What do you think of the new photographs?”
“Not bad. The long exposures, the perspectives…”
“Mostly original, though after Crantham’s exhibit…”
“Crantham, of course, but isn’t that a deliberate homage?”
A waiter glided toward Alma. “Are you waiting for a party?”
“This way.” The waiter beckoned her to an empty table and pulled out a chair. Considered her. “Are you sure you’re in the right Group?”
“But you’re in this rotation?” He gestured to the diners. “Do you know anyone in this Group?”
“There’s Gladys, she’s the secretary to…”
“All right.” He passed Alma a menu. “We’ll send her to your table when she arrives. You won’t have to wait long.”
Alma ordered spanakopita, feeling very hungry. The waiter hurried away.
And waited. Glanced at her watch. Frowned.
Her watch said five-thirty am.
It’s no big deal, she told herself. It doesn’t mean anything, It does not, does not, mean anything at all… Okay, or if it does, it just means…
It means nobody will think I’ve been down here any time, however long I stay. Nobody will come and save me.
Who would have cared enough to do that anyway?
She shook her head, looked around for a clock. There, on the wall at her right hand. It had cherubs around the frame – vacuous puffy pink-and-gold cherubs, not six-winged cherubim. The light glared off the clock face so she couldn’t read it. She got up, went closer, passing one of the photographs on the walls, in which she couldn’t see anything except the fluorescent light’s reflection.
“Rather conventional,” murmured a voice behind her, “but it’s hardly the venue for innovative work.”
“You can see it?” Alma asked, turning toward the svelte red-haired woman who had spoken. “I can’t. It must be the angle.”
“Well, as Mr. Stone said…”
“Can I stand where you’re standing?” Alma asked. “From here I can’t see anything at all.”
The woman moved over. Alma took her place. Frowned. “I still can’t see.”
The woman walked unsteadily away.
Alma looked down at her own feet, realized that her toes were tapping. She willed them to stop. They didn’t. It was like trying to get her fingers to stop tapping that day in the DMV waiting room before her dreaded road test: the more she willed herself to stop, to sit calm and still, the more she saw herself twitching, which meant, she knew, that she looked crazy, and that thought just made her twitch more….
“Your lunch partner has arrived.” The waiter hovered at Alma’s shoulder, gesturing back toward the table where Gladys sat bolt upright and twitching. Alma went with him.
“Gladys? I’m Alma.”
“I…Yes, I… How…?” Gladys’ long nails dug into her handbag.
“I heard… someone… saying how good your work was,” Alma said, remembering in time that Goldman was a name of her own bestowing. “Saying how proud Mr. Stone was of you.”
Gladys’ right hand came up to her throat, clenched and unclenched.
“You know Mr. Stone?” Gladys asked breathlessly.
“I’m new here. I don’t know anybody.”
Gladys flicked a glance around the room, leaned forward. “Don’t go to work for him!” she hissed.
“I won’t, I’m just visiting. What’s wrong with him? What does he do? What does he make you do?” Several revolting possibilities flashed through Alma’s mind.
“I’m not telling you anything!” Gladys gasped. Then she deflated. “But it’s already too late, if you’re an Inspector…”
“What does he make you do?” Alma asked again.
“I update the mailing list, back up data, send out memos… it should be child’s play, but it isn’t; I’m always doing something wrong, something obvious– dates mistyped, words misspelled –”
“He complains? Punishes you?”
“No! No, he tells me, he tells everyone how good I am. How conscientious, how capable, how efficient. And they smile and say yes, yes, and I know they’re all laughing at me. Waiting until he has enough in my personnel file to get me.”
“To get you what?”
“Expelled,” Gladys mouthed. “Out of this Group. Forever. Out… out in the dark with… Them.”
“Who are They?” Alma asked at her normal volume. “What would happen to you if you were with them?”
Gladys gulped air in; her face went salt-white. Her right hand clenched and unclenched in front of her throat. Her left hand, trembling slightly, reached across the table toward Alma, who recoiled.
Gladys leaned back abruptly as the waiter appeared at her shoulder with a menu.
“When will my spanakopita be ready?” Alma asked. “Are you waiting so we can eat at the same time?”
Gladys and the waiter stared at Alma. She looked around. No one was eating.
There is no danger from the food, the Archbishop had said.
“Do you ever feed anyone here?”
Gladys and the waiter averted their eyes and tightened their faces as though Alma had passed gas.
“Do you?” Alma insisted.
The waiter walked away. Gladys rose from her seat. “You’re crazy!” she whispered. “And if you say what I said, no one will believe you.”
Alma hurried after the retreating waiter into a room of countertops and clean dishes. No food in sight. A waitress toyed with her hair. A waiter straightened a stack of menus. Alma went through a door in the back wall.
A big room. Cabinets, butcher-blocks, pans, mixing bowls, spoons. Knives – Alma avoided the wall to her left where they hung. No food. No movement. “Is anybody here?” she called. No answer.
There was a door in the opposite wall, mostly closed. A sign on it said EMPLOYEES ONLY. That might mean something important happened behind it. Alma edged round the right-hand wall and through the door.
She was in a dim little anteroom with whitish walls and a gray linoleum floor. The whole back wall was made of glass – no, was the glass doors that led into what seemed to be a walk-in cooler.
There went one theory. There was food, all right. Heads of lettuce, quarters of lamb, wheels of cheese, pizzas, salmon fillets, lobsters, olives. Alma stepped closer to look. Then froze, feeling a draft on the back of her neck. She’d closed the door behind her, hadn’t she? She clasped her hands tightly in front of her to stop them twitching, then turned round.
A thin man in a spotless white chef’s uniform stood in the open doorway, arms folded, glaring at Alma and sucking his teeth. His face was hard and sharp-featured, skin drawn tight over the bones: a knife of a face. His name tag said Nick.
Alma stared at the name tag, swallowed bile. Looked back at his face. Unpleasant, but he didn’t look old, and he also didn’t look powerful or evil enough…. Well, names weren’t everything. It also occurred to her that he looked frightened as much as frightening. Not that that necessarily made him safer. Still, she bit off the apology for entering an employees-only area that had been on the tip of her tongue. If he also took her for an inspector—
“This looks well-stocked,” she said in her most neutral tone.
“Matches the invoice,” Nick said in a tight colorless voice. “My invoice copy’s in the cabinet there.” He motioned to a small file cabinet on the right-hand wall.
“And your records of what you’ve served?” she improvised.
Nick stood absolutely immobile except for his darting eyes.
Alma stepped closer to the glass doors. Squinted. There seemed to be something wrong with the light, something that cast a grayish-blue bloom over the food…
No, it wasn’t the light. Scum floated over the olives; mold laced the salmon fillets.
“Spoiled,” she said, her appetite giving way to nausea. “The unit went bad? You’re waiting for a replacement part?”
“What in hell are you playing at?” Nick snapped. Then he ducked his head and resumed tonelessly, “Unit’s in good order. Best unit made won’t keep the food good forever. It’s all in the reports… you must have seen the reports…”
“Why don’t you try explaining this in your own words?” Alma said. She’d always despised people who bullied kitchen staff, but this was Hell, and she had to know… “Why didn’t you give this to people while it was fresh? Why not clean it out and order new food?’
“I can order, but that doesn’t mean it will come.”
“You tried ordering, and nothing came?”
“You have copies of everything,” he said, tight-lipped. “No back channels. You’ve seen my personnel file. No inappropriate behavior. No citations.” His voice was rising, pleading almost.
Alma tried to think what a real inspector would say next. Ask next. Well, a real inspector would know what he’d written…
Her doubt must have shown in her face. Nick took a step toward her, unfolded his arms, his empty hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. The fear hadn’t left his face, but it had changed. “Where’s your badge, then?”
“What badge?” Alma’s voice shook.
He came a step closer. “You’re no inspector. What do you think you’re doing in here, then? Didn’t you see the sign?”
“I wanted something to eat! Nobody out there’s getting anything…”
“Course they’re not getting anything. Never have, have they? Why’d they expect that to change now?” His eyes stopped darting, bored into hers. “You been agitating them? Getting them together to attack us?”
“No! Nobody’s getting together to do anything! But why didn’t you feed them this stuff while it was good and then order more?”
“Order more. Sure, miss. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But what if they don’t send it?”
“Why wouldn’t they send it?” Alma’s voice was rising.
“Why do they do anything? Don’t you go shouting and getting the others worked up –don’t you get them expecting food!”
“They don’t expect food? They don’t starve? Don’t they have to eat?”
“Who has to do anything, here? But if I started to feed them they’d expect it. Expect food from the kitchen staff. Figure they’d get it out of us, one way or another.” He ran a finger along his forearm like a knife. “One way or another. And there’s more of them than us, and only so much you can do to defend yourself with kitchen knives. And who knows what they’ve got, what they’d do with it, if they’d decided… I’ve told Management a thousand times we need better security, but who’s listening?” His face had gone pale as Gladys’ face, pale as his uniform. He reached an unsteady hand out to Alma. Pleading? Getting ready to grab? Alma swallowed hard, leaned left, and then when he moved that way sprinted to the right around him, out through the door, through the knife room. She was back in the dining hall before she realized that only the echo of her own lurching footsteps was following her.
Understanding that, she stopped to catch her breath. Stopped under the clock. The light still glared off its face, she couldn’t read it from any angle, but she could hear it ticking, ticking, skip and ticking again, then dragging out and out slow, thenjerkingahead…
She hurried away, slowed so as not to bump into the waiter. But he – She stared. He was was walking in, in time, in the no-time of the clock’s ticking. And the diner punching something into his cell phone—his fingers flicked, stuttered in just the same rhythm. Just the just just just the same…
Alma tried not, not to see her fingers twitching in that just just-wrong time, bolted into the corridor where she couldn’t hear couldn’t hear the clock (and if she stopped looking at her hands, her feet, if she, if she ignored the irrhythm of her breaths, maybe she could forget it…)
“Please,” she gasped. “Please, Archbishop…please, whoever you are…please, come back. Get me out of here.”
There had been nobody in the hall, and now there was an old black man in a purple cassock. No radiance now. And was that really, was that what the Archbishop’s face looked like, wasn’t it too long, but hadn’t he said anyway he really wasn’t, what had he said, did she, did she really remember anything?
“Are you ready to leave?’ he asked.
“I…have to,” she said, forcing the relevant words through the syncopated babbling in her brain. “Can you still get me out?”
“You can get yourself out. I can go with you.” He reached out to her. She didn’t reach back didn’t dare. You shouldn’t trust anyone you meet in Hell…
“Who…who are you, really?”
“I couldn’t tell you anything you’d believe or understand. Come.”
“But how do I know it’s safe?”
“Nothing is safe. But you can leave.”
She was afraid of him more afraid of trying to leave without him most afraid of not leaving at all most totally afraid
“I’ll follow you,” she said.
He opened the door at the end of the corridor.
The room looked like the entrance hall at the high school right before the buses arrived. Girls with brand name T-shirts and hair it never comes blond like that except out of a bottle does it but mostly the roots don’t show oh who cares but look at their fingernails and… Other girls with layers of makeup on their faces, with not much cloth on their bodies I was never that trashy it wasn’t just because I didn’t have much to show off because I it wasn’t really it was it wasn’t…. Other girls hunched under overlarge sweatshirts, looking down, grimacing. I never looked that pathetic I never looked really I didn’t did I... And boys, strutting or slouching or or curled in on themselves. And the words – about members of their own sex (derogatory), about the other sex (speculative), about their parents (disgusted)… I got out of there ten years ago I got out forever I was done it’s done why am I here again what have I done am I done for can I get out why can’t I get out
Alma’s eyes caught on a girl who seemed to feel the same way. Looking at her, Alma felt her own mind unfogging a little. The girl wore earbuds and a big shapeless shirt, stood a little apart from the others. Her toes tapped in the same dragging and jerking time as the clock in the restaurant. Her eyes were unfocused and miserable. But when she looked at Alma and the man who might be the Archbishop, Alma saw the same hope she’d felt when a stranger from the adult world passed through the high school halls: There is another world out there, other possibilities. Alma nodded toward the girl, looked at the door. The girl looked at the door too, and slowly her toes stopped tapping. She took a step toward it… We can get out, we can, see, it’s all right…
“Move it, wide-ride,” a boy said, slapping the earbud girl’s buttocks and pushing past her—not to the door; to one of the blonde girls. Earbuds recoiled, hung her head, started tapping her toes again.
Alma’s stomach lurched. Her brain started chattering again. He touched He touched her Now she’s trapped Now she can’t go If they touch me If It’s not the food It’s the people It’s when they touch you It’s touch But nobody nobody touched me yet, I pulled away from Gladys I dodged Nick I’m safe safe safe… But how can I get through them all how can I without them touching me if they touch me if they touch
“We have to go out later,” Alma gasped. “When the room’s empty.”
“It is never empty. Come!”
“When there’s a different crowd in there, maybe. Not them! I can’t! If they touch me…”
“You can still leave.” He reached a hand toward her again. “All will be well.”
That’s not how the Archbishop talks, Alma thought. The sentences are too short He’s a devil He’s a demon I I I…
She backed up. Reached for the door into the hallway. Stopped, seeing another girl between herself and the door. Turned her head away. Caught sight of herself in the mirror. Her hands twitched, and she was pale and insubstantial as a picture on faded newsprint.
Maybe I’m damned already.
She looked away from the mirror. Down at the carpet. I won’t look I won’t go through them I don’t have to know I can try later if I don’t try I’ll always know I can try I… The rhythm, the irrhythm, seemed to matter more than the sense of the words. Alma’s brain and her stomach seemed to have turned into a timeless clock beating out its nonsense, sending out that pulse that kept that kept them all in in…
A whimpering noise distracted her. No, she wasn’t making that sound, Earbuds was. Earbuds was staring at Alma, her eyes glassy with hopelessness. There is no other world. Alma didn’t know if she was hearing her own thoughts or the girl’s. Nothing is possible.
No, those must be the girl’s thoughts. Alma briefly caught her own twitching eyes in the mirror, and read the fear in them: fear that something else was possible, something even worse. Something so much worse she couldn’t bear to name it to picture it – couldn’t bear to know it was there…
“Don’t be afraid,” the old man said.
“That’s impossible,” Alma snapped.
“Everything’s impossible,” Earbuds said faintly.
“No,” Alma said. “You can get out of here.”
“She can, with you,” the old man said. “And you with her. You can help her leave, or you can make it harder. Love drives out fear…”
He’s quoting the Bible wrong It says perfect love It says all fear It says… But she’d heard the real Archbishop talk about how people needed each other in order to be fully human. Had he never been to an American high school?…Well, anyway, Alma couldn’t leave Earbuds stuck there – couldn’t be part of what stuck her there. I won’t be a demon I won’t be a damner If I’m damned I’m damned At least I tried…
Her hands kept twitching. She took a step. Two steps. Someone’s shoulder brushed hers. She winced. Kept moving. Passing Earbuds, she reached out her left hand. Their fingers locked. The panic drilled deep, but she took one more step, two, three, the door open ahead of her, the grip on her right hand warm and firm, the one on her left sweaty and cold.
The snick of the door closing behind her. The panic-pulse dying away. The smell, from the stairhead, of cut grass and ripe apples and dog poop. (Smells! There had been none on the other side of the door…) Her right hand empty, and her left hand curled in the hand of the girl who stood beside her, wide-eyed, upright under her shapeless clothes, staring at the warm living light that reached down the stairs to meet them.