Why does boob disease get more attention than heart disease? When Mandy had learned that five times as many women die from heart attack as breast cancer, she felt manipulated. Breast cancer this and mammograms that—get ’em checked, ladies! Get ’em pressed, poked and prodded, and while you’re doing that, let’s not forget about your chum-chum because cancer could be hiding there too.
Lying in a hospital bed, feeling as though she had been hit in the chest with a baseball bat, Mandy did her best to push through the pain that would last at least until she was able to get her medication. That was if the nurses weren’t too busy to get them, or hadn’t forgotten about her altogether. In the meantime, she did her best to enjoy her visiting family, while also trying not to worry them, while also trying not to laugh or move quickly. Laughing or moving quickly caused shooting pain throughout her body, which in turn caused some gnarly facial expressions, which in turn caused her family to worry.
Mandy was a thirty-seven year old mother of three who cared more about two-for-one potato chip coupons than she did exercise. Not that she was a huge woman, but her preference for eating over sweating had definitely increased her dress size. Thankfully, her husband didn’t seem to mind the extra padding and would often remind her that everybody looks better in the dark. All things considered, Mandy enjoyed a fairly stress-free life. So of all the things that she might have worried about, surviving a massive heart attack, at her age, was not one of them.
Yes, she was overweight—weren’t most people—and no, she did not get enough exercise—who did—but heart attacks were for old men. Didn’t women have enough to deal with? Monthly bleeding, cramping, weak bladder, lack of sleep, and on and on. She was grateful to be alive, of course, but she was also bitter. She didn’t have time for this. Worse than time lost was the very real probability that her lifestyle was about to change. Eating habits would change, lounging would change, eating while lounging would change, and no doubt there would be pills of some kind.
Mandy hated the hospital. She hated the mix-and-match smells of cleaning products, medicines, and bathroom mishaps. She hated the food, the lack of food, the controlling doctors and even the amiable nurses. She hated it all. She had only been a patient on three other occasions and those were for childbirth. As happy as those moments had been, she couldn’t wait to leave. Even now she couldn’t stand the bandages, needle pokes, and sharing the room with another patient. Honestly, does the TV have to be on all hours of the night?
“Would you like anything, Mandy, dear?” her mother asked, patting her arm.
Oh how annoying it was to hear her mother call her, ‘Mandy, dear.’ It was annoying because Mandy hated the name. She had actually thought about changing it, but didn’t want to upset her mother. What kind of name is ‘Mandy’ anyway? It wasn’t even short for Amanda, which she could have tolerated, but was instead a combination of ‘Man’ and ‘Andy’, which was both masculine and gross. Would I like anything? How about not naming me after a song on the radio!
“It’s a beautiful song,” her mother was fond of saying.
Many times, Mandy had listened to the silly story of her mother in labor, still without a name for her daughter, only to be inspired by a song on the radio titled, ‘Mandy’. Well, after this heart attack fiasco, Mandy felt that she would have no problem informing her mother that Mandy was going bye-bye. It would be fun, actually, to pick out a new name. Like picking out baby names all over again, only this time it would be for her. She would pick something sweet like, ‘Abigail’ or ‘Olivia.’ She smiled at the thought and did her best to get comfortable in a hospital bed that was too small and too soft. Hospitals, what an unfortunate necessity.
Mandy gasped as a sharp, wrenching pain flared within her chest. Her eyes squeezed shut and her teeth snapped into a clenched snarl. She must have looked a fright because the cries of her family rang out. She tried to open her hand, hoping to calm those around her, but her muscles would not respond. Through fluttering eyes, she caught glimpses of her family’s fear-stricken faces, her youngest daughter’s being the worst.
Mandy tried to speak but her mouth had frozen into a voiceless scream. Nothing was working! Her throat was closed and she began gulping for air. She couldn’t breathe! Panic and fear washed over her and that’s when she noticed the medical equipment—were those beeps always beeping? If so, were they always beeping so fast? Another burst of pain flared within her and she began convulsing on the bed, her hands reaching out for balance...
“Hold on, honey!” her husband shouted.
Mandy felt her body seize and become rigid. Tears were squeezed from her eyes and she felt her forehead pushing out sweat. Her children began screaming and she felt hands upon her, gripping her, shaking her. Could this be it? Was she dying? She didn’t want to think the worst, but that’s where her mind went. Where’s the doctor? Somebody help! HELP ME! Darkness.
Mandy was in a state of muddled self-awareness, unable to grasp the details around her. It was a conundrum that she had experienced a few times in her life and was not surprised to be experiencing it now. With all of the medications that she had absorbed, and the pain that she had endured, she was sure that her mind was playing catch up. Her eyes were catching up too as they processed a twinkling of light, far away, pushing its way slowly through the dark. A pinprick that grew steadily bigger and brighter, moving toward her until she was surrounded by a cloud-like blanket of white.
She squinted and used her hand as a protective shield, raising it despite a resistance that felt as though she were underwater. Instead of a covering shade, her hand and fingers offered a transparent anomaly and she jerked back as if they weren’t hers. Except that it was her hand, and her fingers. They were clear. She looked at the rest of her body and struggled to make sense of what she was seeing. She was a ghost, or something like it. A reflective, translucent form. An optical illusion? Powerful drugs, her mind suggested.
Quick flashing lights appeared to her distant left, providing a well-timed distraction. Soft yellow blips danced within the cloud like a grouping of fireflies. Joining these flashes and blips were the repeated ‘pops’ of what sounded like gunfire. Moments later, and to her distant right, larger flashes appeared and louder booms occurred. Back and forth these flurries repeated, beautiful and haunting, flashes and booms responding to blips and pops.
“They’re talking about us,” said a distant, garbled voice.
Startled by the interruption, Mandy let out a short squeal. She had been transfixed by the lights, a surreal experience that now intensified at the realization that she wasn’t alone. A large crowd of clear, reflective forms surrounded her in the thick fog. Ghost forms, like her, that she hadn’t seen or heard until the voice had alerted her to their presence. Forms that were more like outlines than solid mass and while they were shaped like humans, they were textured like jellyfish.
“What are they saying?” asked another voice.
Yes, Mandy realized, the lights and sounds were a conversation. A conversation about them.
“A trial,” a third voice concluded.
A trial? Drug-induced hallucination was more likely, but not a trial. Maybe this was a drug-induced hallucination about a trial? A chill slid down Mandy’s spine as her mind began searching for answers. If this was a trial, what was the trial about and what had she done? How did she get here and where was she? She looked at the forms around her, each a sort of dreamlike apparition...
Whatever this was, it wasn’t right. Who were these people? Were they people? Who was speaking? What were they speaking? Did lights and sounds constitute language? She turned her attention back to the lights, back to the trial. While the lesser lights seemed to be acting as lawyer, and the greater lights acted as judge, she realized that there was no advocate for her. Where was her lawyer? How could there be a trial without two sides to litigate? Unless this isn’t a trial, her mind whispered. It was an obvious answer to the previous rhetorical question, but it wasn’t the accepted answer until she had considered a few more possibilities...
This isn’t a trial, she concluded. It’s a sentencing. Something bad was coming...
“I’m sorry!” she shouted, feeling guilty, afraid, hoping for a response, but getting none. “What did I do?” Again, no response. “Talk to me! What is this? What did I do?”
With a resounding bang, a gavel dropped and so too did the lights... Darkness.
There comes a time when prolonged darkness is enough to frighten, when the unknown instills paralysis. Mandy had passed that time a long time ago. She had tried calling for help, but received only silence. It made the darkness worse and turned fear into panic. Could a person go crazy from a lack of light? She didn’t know, but she was testing that theory with every second. And then she was floating...
Mandy turned and rolled in slow, sweeping spirals. She was lost, physically and mentally. Was this a dream or a nightmare? Soon she would wake and there would be light and familiar faces and fresh air, but not yet. Darkness lingered, no longer an inanimate object, but a force that seemed to hold her. That didn’t make sense of course, but without light or objects to orient her mind, nothing was making sense. She felt like a child, wrapped in a thick, wet blanket, experiencing all of the fears that a child would fear. Something had her. Something would get her. Something was out there. Don’t move, don’t breath, don’t scream. Don’t give the monsters any sense of where you might be because if you did that, they would pounce. Ridiculous, but true, fear has many allies.
Mandy had once heard that darkness of itself wasn’t anything to speak of because darkness of itself wasn’t a thing, but the absence of a thing. Darkness was the absence of light and that was suddenly a very menacing fact. Without even the dull glow of a light beneath a door, or the first faint star in a remote forest sky, there was cause for concern. Without light there was fear and that fear turned to terror when she realized that she was falling. She wasn’t floating, she was falling, and there were no sounds to be heard, not even the upward winds that she might have expected. Her body tumbled, her limbs swayed and her hair slapped against her face. Like a meteor streaking across the sky, she was on a swift, downward trajectory.
Why aren’t I waking? THINK!
She looked around as if expecting something other than black. Flashing lights! She remembered lights. Pops and booms! After those lights she remembered sounds. After those sounds was a trial. Lawyers? Something about lawyers and—her sentencing! There had been a sentencing and then there was darkness and there was darkness still and she was falling and nothing made sense...
LIGHT! Between tumbling, rolling, and spinning, she saw the outstretched pattern of dull red. With a struggle that was more difficult than it should have been, she oriented herself so that she was now falling head first toward the light. Far below, yet gaining in clarity, was a dense web of red lines stretching away from a large red ring. Intersecting the lines were red ovals of varying sizes. Rising up and around the red lines and ovals were the mountainous sides of a large crater.
I’m falling into a crater? Has to be a dream, has to be a dream—Wake up! Her heart pumped faster and her breathing was nearing hyperventilation. A volcano! Those lines and ovals below her were lava! I’m falling into lava? Wake up, wake up, WAKE UP! How is this possible? Why can’t I wake up? She began pinching herself and was surprised to feel pain. She was more surprised to hear a scream. Her scream! All around her was screaming—lots of screaming. With mouth-gaping horror she saw that others were falling with her. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people were falling. Some were limp and lifeless, most were wide-eyed and terrified.
With her focus on those around her, instead of the red webbing below, Mandy again began to tumble. When her body faced up, she screamed at those who were screaming at her. When her body faced down, she screamed at the fast-approaching valley floor. A dark floor with red veins and fiery pools. She was close now, close to impact, and she was not going to plunge into lava, as she had originally thought, but was instead going to slam into dark rock...
“Nurse!” she screamed. “NURSE!”
She watched as people crashed into an unforgiving surface, their confused and terrified cries cut violently short. Clouds of dust shot up from the impact and she began waving her arms and legs in a frantic attempt to fly or stop or at least to slow down. It was no use, the ground was rising, racing to meet her. She too would cause a cloud of dust, her body crushed, the pain—
A distant wail pricked Mandy’s brain, which she did her best to ignore. A scream followed the wailing and then another scream followed that. Whimpering became audible and it seemed to Mandy that somebody, somewhere, was slowly turning up the volume to the sounds around her. She was waking from a dream, the surrounding noises pulling her free...
“Shut up,” she slurred. She wanted to go back to sleep, but the fragments of her dream kept her mind active. She had been falling and was just about to hit the ground when everything went black. Things were black still, but any second now and she would open her eyes to the dingy hospital ceiling and the bleach-white bed sheets. Any second now...
Nothing. Still dark. If only that screaming would stop. Child birth perhaps, or maybe gun shot victims. Whatever the cause of those screams, did they have to happen now? She was tired and needed rest. What she didn’t need was yelling and yet it continued. Scream after scream penetrated her foggy conscious until eventually, reluctantly, she opened her eyes...
Black rock obstructed her view.
Without lifting her head, Mandy could see a red glow above her and darkness above that. She was suddenly reminded of her honeymoon, when she had tripped and fallen while on a short hike to a nearby waterfall. She had landed face down in the dirt, atop a mountain ledge at sunset, and the view then was surprisingly similar to the view now. A mountain ledge? Her mind scrambled to think of other possibilities, but came up with nothing.
Foul language and shouting now joined the screaming around her and she could wonder no longer. Grudgingly, she lifted her head and pushed herself up before sucking in a deep, wincing breath. Searing pain ripped through her arms, cheek, and chest, as she pulled away from a rocky surface. She growled a short burst of a yell, the shock like a slap to the face, her senses now fully aware. It was a mountain. She had landed on a mountain!
“Easy, Mandy,” she whispered. Except there was nothing easy about this.
She looked to her left and right, careful not to move her head, hoping not to draw attention to herself, her eyes moving in careful patterns to see as much as she could. It took her less than three seconds to see more than she wanted. Her jaw dropped and she struggled to take in air. Like a puzzle piece within a wooden board, she was stuck in the ground. Bits of dusty debris fell from her face and it was all she could do to steady herself upon shaky elbows. Again she looked around, expanding her field of vision, unable to fully process the sights and sounds... It wasn’t a dream.
There must have been thousands of people pushing, fighting, or struggling to remove themselves from their own rocky indentations. She had fallen into a crater and was lying in a black valley, surrounded by black mountains and a fiery ring of glowing red light. Long, dim shadows danced across the valley floor. There was yelling and violence and a foul, nasty stench. Somebody bumped into her, jolting her body and causing her elbows to scrape along the rough mountain surface. Anger and frustration flared with the sudden pain, but these were quickly replaced by the surprise and humiliation of her own hanging breasts... She was naked!
Why am I naked? Where are my clothes? Her head swiveled back and forth as if the answers, or her clothes, might be lying beside her. Shadows and feet were the crater’s reply as people moved in all directions. There were no answers, only more questions, and panic and fear were not only spreading through her mind, but also through the crowd around her. She needed to get up or risk being trampled.
Grunting and grimacing, Mandy peeled herself from the rough surface and stood as quickly as her punctured body would allow. A body covered with hundreds if not thousands of dimples and black, chalky soot. She looked like walking asphalt, but had no time to investigate due to the growing aggression of the mob around her. They were impatient, skittish, pulling and pushing her along. She was surrounded by frightened, clamoring people, as if the rocky walls were expelling bodies by the dozens.
“What’s happening?” she yelled to a woman next to her.
The woman turned and it was obvious that she would be no help. Her face bore the wide-eyed expression of shock as she stumbled around in a frantic attempt to both cover herself and keep up with the crowd. Mandy recognized a weak link when she saw it and began searching for other options. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long to spot two ramp-like hills at the other end of the crater, rising from the valley floor, enticing as anything that she had ever seen. Exits!
Thick, dusty air made it difficult to breath, while the large crowd made it difficult to move. Get the hell out of the way! she wanted to scream, and then her mind locked onto a word that she now tried to skip over. Hell? Her eyes widened and her head jerked left, right, up and down. Could it be? Could she be? No, no, no... she wasn’t dead. Not yet, I’m too young. You had a heart attack. I was recovering! I was in the hospital! People die in hospitals all the time... SHUT UP! Think, Mandy... but she couldn’t think. She could panic, worry, and stress, but she couldn’t think.
A loud, rumbling horn blast echoed across the valley. Unheard screams escaped open mouths as people crouched and covered their ears. Pushing and shoving were replaced with fear and silence and waiting. They were trapped. Mandy was trapped. Somehow, some way, she and all of these people had been rounded up. Like the Jews in Nazi Germany, perhaps this was genocide. She was tired and her mind was running out of strength. Her mind that had been protecting her was losing its grip on denial. Whatever Hell was, this couldn’t be much worse.
Eventually, slowly, she and the others returned to standing, attentive awareness. As if a herd on the Serengeti, there was a sense of expectant danger. Something was coming. It was palpable and everybody seemed to know it. Shadows were closing in and her heart was racing. She felt like crying but feared the confirmation that tears would provide. A determined shiver raced through her body, the icy chill of impending doom.
An outburst of hysteria startled her to stiff attention. Unseen voices had surrounded the valley and were yelling as a means of intimidation. It was working. Mandy and many others were visibly shaking as the uproar continued. And then she saw them. Like stampeding cattle they came streaming over the hillsides, hundreds of screaming men, running and waving weapons with gleeful anticipation. It was conquest, retribution, invasion...
Terrified shrieks erupted from the valley of would-be victims. Those who had made it to the ramps were quickly trampled. Those who stood near the ramps, too scared to move, were also trampled. All others, who might have hoped for escape, clamored and thrashed about like fish in a barrel. It was instant panic and there was nowhere to go.
There was nowhere to go and yet Mandy went with them, going where they did because a frantic mob knows no patience. She yelled and screamed because that’s what the crowd did and when they turned, she turned, because she could not turn against them. Against the strength and frenzy of belligerent chaos, the best you could do was stay upright. To that end she did her best to hold, pull, and yank, on any arm, head, or tuft of hair. More than a few people had gone down and those that did were there to stay. With no remorse, or care, those on the ground were stepped on, broken and crushed. Their screams, blending in with the screams above them, were easily ignored.
What was not easy to ignore were the crazed warriors closing in. Sticks, elbows, punches, and brute force, were all used to quickly remove their prey, dragging some and carrying others. They were hateful, primal men, like something from a long-ago tribal army. Mandy screamed as the anticipation of capture brought about an unspeakable terror. What will happen? What will they do?
Scarred, gnarled, and menacing, the men had badly shaved heads and wore what looked to be animal skins. They were close now, with just a few rows of people standing between her and the oncoming brutality. They were efficient in their conquests and offered no time for pleading or negotiating. Those that tried to fight back were quickly and viciously dealt with. They were beaten, pushed back and beaten some more. Within the violence was an organized system of retrieve and remove. Like ants hauling bread crumbs, victims were carried, pushed, or dragged up the hills. What was that smell?
Death and decay punished her nostrils like a strike to the face. She winced and lowered her head, covering her nose with her hand. When she looked up, the men were in front of her and she screamed. A stick to the ribs ended that scream and began a fierce beating. She raised her hands to protect herself, but it was too late. Blow after blow rained down upon her and nobody helped because nobody could.
Two men stepped to her—disgusting, dirty men—grabbing her arms and pulling at her like an abusive step-father. Another disgusting man stepped forward and yanked her hair away from the back of her neck. “Marqué,” he said. It was French and she understood French and she was now confused and terrified in two languages. Mark? What kind of a mark? Marked for what? How did I get marked? Am I in France? WHAT’S GOING ON?
Mandy was pulled, pushed and carried across rocky terrain, one of many captives on her way to an unknown destination. Maybe she was in France, but did it matter? If this was France—some crazy, barbaric, long-forgotten area of France—was it better than Hell? Could it be that Hell was segregated? French over here, English over there? Did it make sense that Hell would care about keeping nationalities together? If that were the case, why wasn’t she with Americans? Was she with French-speaking Americans?
Confusion and despair pressed upon her like nothing that she had ever experienced. Everywhere she looked were grim examples of a harsh reality. She had died, she had been convicted, she had been sent here. Her heart sank, her mind went blank, she was lost. How could this be? Who’s responsible? This was Hell? She was in Hell? Was it really an eternity? Could it get worse? She wasn’t a bad person! She didn’t deserve this! She shouldn’t be here!
“NOOOO!” she screamed, and was beaten again.
Mandy crumbled to the ground, holding up a submissive hand, whimpering and unwilling to move. If she could just have a minute to figure this out... If she could somehow plead her case... But there was no minute, and there was no pleading. Instead, she was lifted by the arms and dragged out of the crater by way of a rocky incline.
What happened below, what was happening below, was nothing compared to what was happening up here. As she absorbed the view, with its wide-ranging struggle and cruelty, a malignant dread washed over her... It was Hell. Hell was real...
“Jesus,” she whispered. It was not a confession of faith, nor was she calling to him. It was a word that she had spoken many times when she was afraid, angry, annoyed, or any number of reasons to use a word that had almost become foul language. Like any other curse word, “Jesus” had become an emotional response. When you didn’t know what to say, or you didn’t want to say a lot, there were four letter words and then there was “Jesus...”
Only Hell could look like this and Mandy felt her knees buckle. Steam, misery, and violence, accentuated great plains of black lava rock and a vast network of trenches. It was a human railroad station with lines going everywhere. To those in line it was terror. To those working the lines it was business-like delivery or make-shift sporting event.
Perhaps a million people were spread out across the murky landscape, many of whom were being tossed into one trench or another, struggling not to go in, but going in just the same. It was chaotic, savage, mind-numbing. Some trenches contained piles of people—writhing, climbing, and clawing over each other—but other trenches contained lava. People were being thrown into lava! Red fiery sludge that pushed out ash and ruin! It was unimaginable! Unthinkable! How could people throw other people into lava?
Mandy didn’t realize it, but she had dug her heels into the ground and was struggling to free herself, screaming and thrashing about in a subconscious effort to delay the inevitable, auto-pilot to an insane situation, reacting without thought or care, jerking wildly, shouting, pleading, begging to be released. Her tormentors laughed and pulled her toward the edge of a trench—a lava trench! This was it, she was going in! Six feet, four feet—TWO FEET TO THE EDGE!
More laughter as she was pushed to the edge and pulled back in a disgusting game of human yo-yo. Pushed forward and pulled back, forward then back again...
“WAKE UP!” she screamed...
Movements were happening in jerking flashes and she wondered if her mind might be checking out early. Her toes moved past the rocky edge and were scalded immediately. She shrieked and lashed out with her legs, struggling to find footing, but it was no use. She was about to endure a freefall that allowed no return, waiting for the splash, the hit, the end. And then she was falling! She had been thrown from the edge!
Searing heat streaked across her skin like a thousand razor blades. She was screaming, flailing, anticipating impact, horrified to see her skin bubble and pop before melting into pieces that peeled away from her body. She closed her eyes, squeezing them shut, hoping to keep out the heat for even one second more. It didn’t help. Her eyelids burst into flame and her vision became blurry and warped. Erratic jitters of movement morphed into tiny spheres of boiling liquid. Her eyeballs were evaporating and then a grotesque twitching rupture preceded total darkness and she was blind... and then she hit...
Mandy splashed into a thick gelatinous mass of intense heat. It enveloped her, invaded her, and of course it burned. Every inch, every pore, everything was on fire and yet she continued to live. Except that she wasn’t living. She wasn’t even existing. She was something else. Not even death could describe this because death implies an end. This wasn’t the end. Mandy now understood Hell as a situation. It wasn’t a location, destination, or an ending. Hell was an inescapable set of circumstances revolving around torment.
Torment—Severe mental and physical suffering. Instead of dying or hurting, Mandy was dead and hurt. She felt physical pain, but she also felt mental anguish. She was sad, angry, lonely. Thoughts that loved ones might someday feel what she was feeling made her sad. Memories of good times or good places made her angry. Nobody helped, cared, or encouraged, and that made her lonely. She was bitter and jealous and filled with rage. Every thought ended in hatred and added to her suffering. She understood it, couldn’t stop it, could not even embrace it. Hell was Hell and it was eternal.
Eternal—Lasting or existing forever. How could this last forever? Her body must have melted and yet she felt pain. Her brain must have dissolved and yet she could think. How could she think without a brain? How could she feel without nerves? She had no ears and yet she heard screaming. Was she screaming? How could she scream without a mouth? Who could create such a place? Why was there such a place? She didn’t deserve this! For the rest of her life, or death, or whatever this was, she would burn and there would be screaming and anger, sadness and loneliness, and it wasn’t fair—IT WASN’T FAIR!
Above the valley floor, and set within the southern most mountain, a skybox suite allowed its guests to enjoy the regions finest drop zone. While bodies plummeted from the dark, drinks and appetizers were served. While people pulled themselves from their rocky imprints, an elaborate buffet was picked from. While new recruits were harvested and sorted, cheering and applause ensued. It was entertainment, and it was meant to keep loyalty.
Watching all of this from a large leather chair—smoking a pipe and drinking dark rum—was Regional Field Marshal Engano. Rarely one to show emotion, there did emerge an occasional smile as bodies fell, and again when especially brutal collections occurred. What did not make Engano smile were the lava baths. A waste of resources, if one cared to ask, but nobody had and so the waste continued. At some point in time, at some place or another, it had been agreed upon that those unfit for the games, and not required for parts, should be discarded.
Except that all people—fat, old, disabled—were fit enough to be served up as sport. Better to enjoy their demise via contest than to watch them burn and melt away. And for those who preferred to watch them burn, why not let them fight before burning? What better motivation than to avoid burning and what better punishment than to burn after defeat? Some of the regions were already pitting fat against fat, old against old, and any number of combat varieties, but none of them were doing what Engano was planning on doing.
Like any organization, Engano had superiors, but that didn’t mean they were beyond persuasion. In due time they would see. In due time this region would be the model region for every region. When that time came, there would be power and prestige, wealth and privilege, and Engano would have it all.
This short story is related to H narratives: Divulgence →