Today’s story is from the wonderfully witty and wacky pen of Isa Lee Wolf, author of The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management, Better Living through GRAVY and other Oddities, Aunty Ida’s Full Service Mental Institution & Aunty Ida’s Holey Amazing Sleeping Preparation (Not Doctor Recommended).
We’re especially grateful to Isa-Lee for giving up her time to produce this story for us, and not only stepping-in at short notice, but during the blogging A-Z Challenge.
“So,” said the woman, smiling as sympathetically as a being could around incisors like two hooked carrots, “I’ve got some bad news.” She hugged her clipboard to her chest. It was seared around the edges.
Zinnia took in air to speak but bent in half from the force of her coughing, heavy sulfur stinging the top of her throat. The being with the carrot-teeth gave her a few sharp whacks on the back. Zinnia strangled in a breath, another round of coughing triggered by the fresh dose of sulfur and this time something else, something sour.
“There there,” the being said unconvincingly. “It happens to everyone at first. Well, almost everyone. Some people are totally fine, which makes you wonder what, exactly, is going on up there.”
As she prattled, Zinnia managed to gain control by breathing through her nose, and only very shallowly. She straightened, her eyes red, tears gathered around the bottom lids.
“Crying already? That’s not a good start. I’m Crystal, by the way, and you must be—” Crystal consulted her clipboard, her translucent ears going flat as she read and perking up again when she finished, “—Zinnia”
“—Zinnia,” Zinnia choked out with her. “Can I get a glass of water or something?” she said, her voice hoarse.
“Nope,” said Crystal, her ears lightly bouncing as she shook her head. “It’s kind of part of the whole bad news deal.”
“That’s…” Zinnia said, looking around at the sandy expanse around her, punctuated here and there with jagged rocks in a slimy black, “kinda weird.”
“Won’t be when we’ve finished orientation. Follow me.” Crystal offered another carrot-toothy smile, revealing molars like cubed squash, and turned abruptly on the ball of her stiletto. The shoes sank deep into the sand with each step, from high heels to flats and back again. Momentarily mesmerized, Zinnia had to hurry to catch up, careful to keep a little distance. The tip of Crystal’s tail was pointy. “And watch where you put your feet, don’t want to end up like that.”
Crystal pointed with nails as curved as those carrot teeth to the top of one of the sharp spires, where someone dangled upside down, the zenith of the rock protruding through his thigh.
“Help?” he said, his tone less than hopeful. “A little help would be nice. You? There? A hand?”
“Can’t we help him?” Zinnia craned her neck too look at him “That looks like it hurts. Can’t we do something?”
“You’re really not getting the hang of this place.” Crystal filled the silence with a guffaw, each ear twitching in its own direction, her skinny tail bobbing with mirth, “get it? Hang? Because he’s hanging? Get it?”
“Doesn’t hurt,” called the man. “Except my dignity.”
“Haven’t learned your lesson yet, have you, Henry? Pride pride pride!” She paused her striding to shake a finger at him, black ash falling lazily from her hand to the ground.
“But I’ve been up here for a while, I haven’t even made it past the doorway.”
“Doorway?” Zinnia said.
“We’ll get there,” said Crystal. She gave Zinnia the old up-and-down. “Maybe.”
“It’s so boring up here.” Henry’s words held a hint of whine.
“If you want to liven things up, I can send the ravens.” Crystal poised her pen over the clipboard.
“That’s OK.” Henry arched back against the rock, crossing his arms over his stomach. “Maybe see you around,” he said to Zinnia, his head craned to an odd angle, his face red from his inversion.
“Maybe?” said Zinnia.
“That’s it, Henry! That’s the spirit!” Crystal marched forward again, fast despite the sunken shoes, and held a hand to the side of her mouth, “I wouldn’t count on it,” she whispered.
“I heard that,” said Henry.
“That’s the point,” said Crystal in that same stage whisper. Zinnia struggled to keep up, the soft sand tying her calves into knots. Following along mostly in Crystal’s footsteps, she scurried to the left to avoid something gray and scuttling she preferred not to get closer to, and as she righted herself on the path in the sand the ground trembled. Then rumbled. Then roared.
Like a dart aimed at $50 target, a black pebble shot upward, skinny and razor-sharp at the top, growing and growing until it towered above them, settling with a final groan.
“Pretty sure I warned you about those,” said Crystal, not bothering to turn around.
“There was this crawly thing…” her words trailed off as Crystal stopped in front of a loose triangle of splintered wood, the boards leaning against each other, sand piled like snowdrifts on the surface.
“In you go,” said Crystal.
“Aren’t you going to tell me the bad news?”
“What fun would that be if I just told you?”
“It would be fun for me,” said Zinnia.
“Exactly,” said Crystal. “In you go.”
“But it’s tiny.”
Scanning the ground for any suspicious black rocks, Zinnia dropped to her hands and knees and squeezed through the opening, the pokey bits scraping all exposed skin until they weren’t anymore. She looked up.
She was inside a kitchen, dirty dishes piled on the counter and in the sink, teetering mountains of splotchy white. A woman frantically unloaded dishes from the dishwasher, placing them in the cabinets as quickly as she could.
“Hello,” said Zinnia.
“It doesn’t matter how fast I put them away, there are always more dishes,” said the woman.
“I’m Zinnia,” said Zinnia.
“Always more dishes. It’s never empty. Ever. Never empty.”
Crystal appeared beside her. “Pretty terrifying, huh?”
“She’s emptying the dishwasher.”
“But it never gets empty,” said Crystal in a spooky voice.
“It never gets empty!” said the woman, her words heading toward a sob.
“Can I help?”
“This isn’t that kind of a place, sport,” said Crystal. “You’re an odd one, with all this helping.”
Zinnia shrugged and grabbed a plate off the counter. The moment she touched it, it transmogrified, a sneering face in the center, fire everywhere else, scorching her fingers. It crashed to the floor and shattered into dust.
“Now I have to clean that up, thanks so much,” said the woman. “So much.”
“Told you it wasn’t a helping kind of a place. Come on,” Crystal said, disappearing through the wall. Zinnia tried the same method, whacking into the counter, hard. The towers of dishes shuddered.
“Stop wrecking stuff,” the woman said. There was snickering through the cabinets.
“Use the tunnel, dummy,” said Crystal.
Zinnia crawled back out only to discover she wasn’t in the sand but in a living room, where a man paced back and forth aggressively. A printer beeped at irregular intervals, lights ablaze. Though he held a phone to his ear, they heard both sides of the conversation – such that it was – clearly.
“I’m sorry,” said the smooth computer-generated voice. Something buzzed a warning buzz somewhere. “I didn’t quite catch that. I believe you said ‘End call.'”
“No,” said the man, his voice breaking. “Three. Option three.”
“Got it,” said the computer voice brightly. “Now I need some information about you.” The printer let out a screech and spewed a ream of paper at missile speed. Zinnia plunged back to the floor to avoid certain decapitation.
“I’ve said it a million times,” said the man.
Crystal laughed. .”I love this one,” she said. “It’s one of the examples of leaky technology.”
“Smith.” The man spat the syllable. “S. M. I. T. H.”
“I’m sorry,” the computer voice said, “I didn’t quite catch that. I believe you said “End call.”
“Yes, we had it first and it spread up there.” Crystal poked toward the ceiling. “Computer operators. No way to get a person. Quite an accomplishment.”
“Darron. D. A. R. R. O. N.”
“I’m hearing you want to start over. Hello, and welcome to our automated system.” Darron lunged at the printer, using the phone to smash it, and the printer to smash the phone. They splintered into tiny pieces as an alarm blared from somewhere, and he knocked the shards to the ground and stomped them.
“There,” he said.
The spot where the printer had been got mushy, then wavy, and a growth emerged, mutating into a new printer as Darron’s hand morphed and changed until it was holding another phone.
“Hello, and welcome to our automated system,” said the computer voice.
“AAAAARrrrrrrrrhhhhhhhhggggguuuuuhhhhh,” said Darron.
“Such a hoot,” said Crystal. “This way.” She disappeared down a dark hallway, the walls nothing but amorphous shapes with glowing eyes. At the end stood a massive door, wood planks bound with steel. “This one’s yours.”
“So,” said Zinnia, “I gather the bad news is this is Hell?”
Crystal chuckled, then howled, and then dissolved into something half-snort and half-strangled turkey. “Hell? You think this is Hell? Wait until I tell Z-Bub you said that, we’re very close—”
“No we’re not,” a disembodied voice boomed from everywhere.
“He lets me call him Z-Bub.”
“No I don’t,” said the same voice flatly.
She wiped a tear away with her sleeve, leaving a gray smudge on the red fabric. “Hell.” She shook her hair and those orange teeth glowed dully in the light of the hallway eyes. “This isn’t Hell.”
“Then what is it?”
“I mean you didn’t pay seven parking tickets, never returned a library book, got a little gossipy now and then and pledged to make a monthly donation to Wikipedia then changed your mind. Could you imagine how crowded Hell would be with dolts like you there? Hell.” She shook her head, her translucent ears still sprightly with mirth.
“Then where are we?”
“Hey-Deese.” She swept an arm in a wide game-show model wave, the black ash falling again. “as in ‘Hey-Deese are really annoying things.’”
“Fine, it’s called the Eternity of Mild Inconveniences, or EMI, but everyone likes mine better.”
“No they don’t,” came that voice again.
“Never heard of it,” said Zinnia.
“No one ever has. We really don’t get the PR talent of the hot place. Anyway, EMI is like the suburbs.” Crystal brushed stay ash from her skirt.
“The suburbs of Hell?”
“It’s actually a mildly intolerable bedroom community,” said the disembodied voice.
“Enough chatter,” said Crystal. With a flourish, she turned the knob on the door, the heavy wood creaking as the door knocker clanged. “In you go,” said Crystal.
“Through the doorway.”
“Will it be awful?”
Crystal shrugged. “Awfulish. You probably should have returned that library book. And flossed regularly. Go.”
Zinnia braced herself, took in more of that sulfurous air than she should have, and stepped through.
There stood Crystal, complete with the clipboard. “So,” she said, “I’ve got some bad news.”
© 2017 Isa-Lee Wolf