“So this ‘Alice’?”
“I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“Fine,” Rook shrugged, “but I won’t be much help knowing nothing.”
“Well it’s not like you told me about Monica.”
“Hey, that’s entirely different. I’m helping you. When we go looking for Monica I’ll be sure to clue you in.”
“You know, you’re kind of a dick.”
“Hey, watch your mouth, kid.”
“Well if you really want to know about her quit being such a hypocrite!”
“No, you talk about her all the time, so what’s the big deal? I just want to know what happened, damn.”
Rook sighed and dragged his mit down his face.
“I knew there was a reason I never had kids.”
“Whatever…” Isaac looked down at the thirsty earth and kicked a chuck of it as they walked. It disintegrated.
“Fine, fine, I’ll tell you if you wanna know so bad.”
Isaac glanced up at him, thumbing at the loose bits on the cuffs of his sweatshirt.
“Yeah, sure, kid. You see this?” He gestured at the gaping hole in his stomach. Isaac noted that at certain angles you could see right through it.
“Kinda hard not to.” Isaac tried his best not to think about it.
“It was a lovely parting gift from Monica’s killer.”
“Let me finish, you’re so impatient. He was a stalker of hers, and a well armed one. He ambushed us in our house one night and shot her. And just before I could get my hands on him he shot me too. Right here.” He poked at the empty air in the center of where his gut would be.
“One bullet did not do all of that.”
“Nope, that was the maggots.”
“Augh! Come on!”
“You asked. I didn’t die right away and he buried the both of us. I think you can take it from there.”
“Okay, that did not answer my question. That’s just gross.”
“You wanted answers, you’re getting the whole deal.”
“I just wanted to know why you’re looking for her.”
“Oh! Well why didn’t you say so?” Rook smirked and chuckled.
Isaac rolled his eyes and shook his head.
“Hey, chin up, kid. We’re getting to the good part. So Monica and I found each other on the Midscape when we died, but not even a day later she was taken by a demon.”
“She was kidnapped?”
“No, possessed. Turns out we apparated quite close to Hell and, well, I’m not so sure what happened. All I know is that she’s still out there. I’ve been talking to every demon expert and angel I meet to find out more about it. Her soul is probably still in her body but the demon’s soul is stronger.”
“Woah, okay, I just got here a few days ago. I don’t think I can handle detail.”
All of the technical stuff rattled Isaac’s brain. He didn’t know why he was dead, but he just wanted to go home. He wanted to go see Alice and make sure she was okay. Then he could rest forever. Not knowing was weighing on him. His head spun and the binder on his chest felt tighter. He felt bad for calling Rook a dick earlier. He really wasn’t. He was just some guy who decided to drop everything and help. Isaac supposed that made him a very selfless man.
As nice as he was, Rook was surely a shock to see right as Isaac appeared in the Afterlife. The hole in his gut never got any easier to look at. He swore He could see some intestines still attached in there, but Rook denied it. ‘I want to talk about it just as much as you do, a’ight?,’ he’d always say whenever it was mentioned.
“I believe it’s your turn, mate.”
“Oh, right.” Isaac didn’t look up from the ground. The yellows and browns seemed to vibrate under his feet. “She was a friend.”
“I’ll believe that when I hear it from the horse’s mouth.”
“Well, she was, okay? That’s all she was.” Isaac huffed and pulled his hood up.
“Gees, alright, fine, you’re butthurt about it, I get it. What’s important then?”
“What do you care?”
“God, kid, look, I know this is a lot for you but quit making an ass of yourself. You’re better than that. I bet Alice knew it too”
Isaac had to turn his head away. He could feel his eyes puffing up and he had to suppress his approaching tears. He heard Rook give a hefty sigh.
“The first few weeks are the hardest. It didn’t really hit me until the third month. I’d spent all of my time looking for Monica, but when I started to give up I realized where I was. What had happened to me.”
Isaac glanced up at him from under the ridge of his hood. He balled up his cold hands and stuffed them in the front pouch of his sweatshirt. Rook went on.
“You don’t even remember what happened to you yet. It comes back slowly. For some it could take years. But if we can figure out what might have happened maybe it’ll bring you some peace.”
Isaac nodded and focused on another chunk of dirt. He crushed it under his sneaker when he got up to it.
“Alice has always been my best friend. Since first grade.”
“And, what, you’re a highschool freshman?”
“We did everything together. We made sure we had every class together, we told each other everything, and I mean everything.” A smile broke Isaac’s stoic stare. “Heck, she knew I was a boy before I even started to figure it out. I remember her telling me and ever since then everything about me started to make sense.
Anyway… when we started high school we met this guy, Ryan. He was three grades ahead of us and he had a car, so he’d invite us to go the the movies with him sometimes. That’s how it started out anyway. Then he started taking us out every week to the movies, to get food, to the mall, whatever. Then he just kind of stopped. And then I had nothing to do so I’d try and hang out with Alice but she was always busy. Later she told me that she was still hanging out with Ryan and that she really liked him and, I mean, I was happy for her, y’know? It was her first real crush, and he seemed really nice. But then they started dating.”
“And everything went south.”
“It was okay for the first couple of weeks. I mean, it kind of sucked because he was taking up all over her time. When me and Alice did hang out though she would just tell me about how he would blame her for things or yell at her for nothing. It scared me at first but then I just got angry. There was one day at school I called him out on it and he beat the shit out of me in the bathroom. We both got suspended. Alice was more worried about him than me.”
“Don’t take it personally. Shit like this messed up people’s priorities.”
“I know, I figured that out. And so did Alice, but she just kept letting him get away with things. I was hanging out with her a few months ago and I noticed a bruise on her jaw. She told me she fell.”
Rook shook his head.
“Yeah. I keep finding more marks on her. She only recently admitted that it was him. But she just, erg, she won’t leave him! She’s terrified of him! He beats her, he fights with me constantly! He hits his own mom! Fuck!” His tears came flooding back. “I don’t even have a mom! That son-of-a-” Isaac punted the nearest chunk of earth. It spun off the side of his foot and crumbled. Not satisfying. He felt a bit mit on his shoulder.
“Alright, alright. I know it’s frustrating-”
“It’s so frustrating! He was out in the car with her when I left! She’s probably dead! He probably just dumped her at that fucking rest stop!” Isaac resented his voice as it cracked and squeaked through his whole rant.
“Hey, take a breather for a second.” Rook stopped walking and stopped Isaac with a squeeze to his shoulder. Isaac shut his eyes and took a few deep breaths. In for three, out for two, just like his therapist had taught him. ‘It makes your body think you’re calmer than you really are,’ she said. After a few more repetitions he opened his eyes to the hazy atmosphere they’d been walking through.
“So this ‘Ryan’ doesn’t like you.”
“Okay, and you mentioned you were with he and Alice before you died, right?”
“Yeah. Alice was going on a trip with him and I invited myself. I didn’t want them alone together in a different state. Alice somehow convinced that jerk-off to let me ride with them.”
“But you didn’t die in a car accident?”
“No, it couldn’t be. We were at a rest stop, that’s the last thing I remember. I had to use the bathroom.”
“Do you remember being in the bathroom?”
“Yeah. It was really gross.”
“And… that’s it. I walked in, it smelled like barf, and that’s the last thing I remember.”
Rook fell silent as the two started walking again. Isaac noticed his squinted eyes and distant stare. He could practically hear the gears turning in his head.
“So you’re saying this guy really hated you.”
“Hate is probably an understatement.”
“And he let you go on a trip with he and Alice, who he’s obviously possessive of.”
“Yeah, I dunno why.”
“I think I do.”
Isaac’s brow furrowed and he stood upright.
“This kid’s obviously not afraid to get violent. He hates your guts, but lets you intrude on his little couple trip.”
Isaac’s face dropped.
“Oh my god.”
“So you go into the bathroom.”
“And he follows you.”
Isaac shook his head.
“Ryan killed me. Oh my god, Ryan killed me.”
Rook sighed and nodded.
“I’m afraid I’ve found your answer.”
Isaac stopped and pulled his hood down. He stared off at nothing and tried breathing again, but he couldn’t bring himself to be calm right now.
“Ryan fucking killed me. Of course it was him, why wouldn’t it be. I kept telling Alice he’d be the death of her but he- wait, he still could be. Oh god, I’m not there. They’re still on that fucking trip.” He felt sick to his stomach. “Rook they’re still on that trip, what if he’s going to kill her too?!”
“Hey, I know he’s a terrible guy but I don’t think he would go killing his girlfriend.”
“But listen, he doesn’t hate her, he hated you. She’s not dead, I guarantee it. Besides, we don’t even know if he killed you. Not until you remember anyway. He could just be a big coward.”
“A coward, huh? Do you know where his favorite place to punch is?” Isaac pulled up his shirt to reveal a deep purple bruise staining the skin over his ribcage. Half of it was covered by his binder, but what was visible was still big. “”Still think there’s a chance he didn’t kill me?”
“Well that slims it, but it’s still possible.”
“If he hasn’t killed her already than he’s going to!”
“But if she dies she ends up here with you.”
“That’s not the point! She’ll be dead!”
“Yeah, but what if she isn’t dead? You know what happens between those two.”
Isaac thought for a moment. It hurt to admit that maybe Alice was better off dead at this point, but he really didn’t want her to get hurt anymore. He felt himself about to cry again.
“It’s not fair! She’s the sweetest, kindest, most optimistic person! Her voice is too quiet to order food at a restaurant, I used to have to order for her! She cries when she sees the sunset! She used to be happy! She used to smile! Why is this happening to her?!” Isaac buried his face in his oversized sleeves and sobbed.
“Hey,” Rook took Isaac’s shoulders, “I know, you’re upset, but,” he looked over his shoulder, “just try and pipe down. We don’t want to upset anything else.
Whatever light that had been spread over the sky was fading. There were no sunsets here like there were back on Earth. The days here just dimmed until it was dark enough to be deemed night.
Isaac sniffled and rubbed his face on his sleeve.
“You know, I haven’t seen any hellbeasts since I’ve been here. I-I’m not a kid, you can’t just scare me with that stuff to make me shut up.”
“What? You’re dead. You’ve seen an angel already for fuck sake, and you think I’m lying to you about hellbeasts?”
“I don’t know,” he looked up from the fabric, “you’re a man. Aren’t you, like, uncomfortable with crying or something?”
“I’ve done my fair share of crying to be entirely comfortable with it.”
That shut Isaac up. He stuffed his hand back in the pouch of his sweatshirt and stared down at the ground. The colors of the dirt and dust jittered. He didn’t think much of it until he could feel the jittering up his legs. He stood still for a moment.
“Hey, desert’s up ahead. I’d like to get there before nightfall.”
Isaac was silent. He could feel the sensation rattle his bones.
“Hello? Hey.” Rook walked up to him. “Gees, don’t take it to heart, kid, you’re fine. Let’s go.”
“You don’t feel that?”
Rook was silent for a moment. A tinge of fear struck Isaac’s heart. The ground was vibrating.
Isaac’s muscles tensed and his skull rattled from the ground. The vibration developed into a tremor. He didn’t dare breathe.
Through the hazy atmosphere Isaac could see the edge of the desert sands. The ground there started to crack. Dry sand hissed into the breaks. Something was churning the earth. The cracks burst. Sand sprayed through the air and stung Isaac’s eyes. He couldn’t see for a moment. Once the sand was blinked away he realized he was standing in a silhouette. A towering creature had burst from the ground. Its segmented body leapt from the gaping hole in the ground. A ring of teeth chomped at the dirt when the massive worm bowed back down. In seconds it burrowed right back down. The force of its body shattered the dry earth.
Isaac gasped when Rook jerked his arm in the other direction.
The ground quaked. Isaac took off. His only focus was keeping his balance. His panicked breathing dried his throat. His chest tightened from how hard his heart was pounding. He could hear the earth churning again.
“Go, kid, get out of here!” Rook’s voice was distant. Isaac dared to look back. He’d put yards between him and Rook. The ground was moving behind Rook. He kept waving his arms for Isaac to go. “Keep going!”
The ground under Rook broke. He fell into a pit. A ring of teeth surrounded him. They curled and snapped shut as the worm emerged. It arched towards Isaac. His body took over and sprinted as fast as his adrenaline would allow. The crash of the worm burrowing threw him off balance. He stumbled, but couldn’t let himself fall. He didn't know if he was running fast enough. Something burst through the ground. A silhouette cast over him.
A beam of white light cut through the darkness right over Isaac's head. He instantly dropped and huddled on the ground. A booming roar shook the air. Isaac squeezed his eyes shut and waited for it to be over. The ground broke and crumbled. The creature’s wails pierced through Isaac’s head ear to ear. He could hear a voice grunting and shouting. The ground rumbled again before something big came crashing down. A strong gust of debris was whisked into Isaac’s face. Sand and dust dried out his mouth and he hacked. He braced himself on his hands and heaved. He couldn’t feel his tongue with all the sand stuck to it.
“Easy, child. Here.” A woman’s voice spoke over his shoulder and a hand was placed on his back. A canteen was held in front of him and he snatched it up. He gulped down the water inside, swallowing what dirt and sand had been in his mouth. He had to stop when another coughing fit hit. The hand on him rubbed his back before leaving. The canteen was left stuck in the sand for him. While he gulped down more water he heart a visceral cracking and squelching behind him. It almost made him want to gag again.
When Isaac turned he couldn’t see the desert anymore. Instead a giant worm-like carcass blocked his view. His jaw fell open as he got a better look at it. A deadly ring of jagged teeth lined the gaping hole of its mouth. A band of narrow slits around its head housed its black, dull eyes. Its body was rigid, or what was left of it. Two gaping holes were burned through its thick skin and green blood oozed from the raw wounds. The smoke coming from them scented the air with burning nightcrawler flesh.
Standing further down its body was a woman. She held a gleaming dagger that emanated its own white light. She stuck it into the worm’s thick, fleshy belly and climbed inside the hole she’d already carved into its throat. Isaac gasped and got to his feet.
“Wait, what’re you doing?!” He ran to the body, but skid to a halt. The odor was overpowering. He squinted and pressed his nose into the crook of his elbow. Slime marbled with green blood dripped from the large cut. It smelled like a dead fish baking in the sun.
Squelching footsteps echoed up through the worm’s tunnel of a body. Isaac took a few steps back when he could hear the woman coming back. She came out back first and struggling to pull something with her. When she made it over the ridge of the cut Rook’s body fell right out with her along with snippets of tendons and flaps of wet tissue. Isaac gasped and the dead fish smell plagued the back of his throat. He held his breath and ran to him quickly. The woman took one arm and Isaac the other. They pulled Rook’s limp body away from the worm and Isaac allowed himself to breath again. Strings of slime and bile trailed between his hand and Rook’s shoulder.
“Rook!” Isaac didn’t know what to do. He grabbed his hair and stifled and whimper. He felt cold slime slick across his scalp.
“He is alive, do not worry.”
“Yes, just unconscious.”
“How do you know?”
The woman knelt beside Rook and fixed his crooked body so he would lay straight. She gave a smooth breath and her back glowed white. A mass appeared from her shoulders and Isaac backed away. When the mass took the form of two white wings Isaac no longer recognized this person as human.
“You needn’t be afraid. Your friend will be alright.”
The talons on the tips of her wings gave this angel an edge, but Isaac wanted to trust her. Especially since she had her hands on Rook. His body glowed faintly and she removed her hands from his chest.
“You’re an angel.” Duh, of course she was. Why was that the first thing to come out of his mouth?
“You may call me Luewit.”
“Okay. Well, I’m Isaac, and what the hell was that?!” He threw his arm in the direction of the giant worm monster that had just made his only companion an evening meal.
“A Lumogorg,” Luewit calmly explained, “or Sand Worm if you prefer. These hellbeasts make the desert their home. Very few still reside in Hell. Almost all of them have migrated up to the Midscape.” She stood a whole foot taller than Isaac. “Nasty creatures, they are. They can feel vibrations in the sand. Anything, wind, footprints, even a voice. They ambush travelers like you.”
“And you just happened to be around to save us?”
“Correct.” Her blank stare showed little sympathy for the trauma of this experience.
Isaac took a deep breath and the world started to spin. He sat in the sand and held onto his head. Luewit crouched in front of him.
“May I ask where you were going? The desert is no place for the ill prepared.”
Isaac had to take a moment to get his bearings on reality. He tucked his head between his knees, closed his eyes, and took a few breaths. In for three, out for two. It made him lightheaded, but at least his heart wasn’t ramming anymore. He picked his head up and met Luewit’s bright eyes.
“Rook told me there was a portal in here. He said it was through the desert, the worst parts of it. I told him I could make it no matter what. I had to, I still do.”
“A portal? To what then?”
“To Earth… back to life.”
“Life? You cannot come back from death after so long.”
“So long? But I’ve only been here just a few days.” The world spun again. Luewit shook her head.
“Those portals are for the lucky and the worthy. You appear to be neither.”
Isaac teared up. That had been his only chance, Rook told him so. Now there was no way he could help Alice now. No. There had to be. He wiped his eyes and sat up straight. He grit his teeth, sapping up any emotion that threatened to surface.
“Then tell me how to become worthy.”
“Child. It will be a long journey if you wish to take it.”