It was a spring morning, somehow sunny and cheerful regardless of the thick, dark clouds drifting across the sky. I was in a hurry to do everything that morning. I had a deadline to meet. I was bidding to be the advertisement artist for some company I don’t even remember the name of now. A series of my work had to be in by Monday. It was Saturday and I hadn’t even started. I don’t know why I waited so long before I started, I knew about the deadline months ahead of time.
The rushing around, frantic to get everything right, seems so pointless now. Stupid really. It’s funny how priorities can change so fast.
I remember the crunch of gravel as my pick-up truck’s tires pulled into my parent’s driveway. I was there because I needed to use the paint studio set up in my old bedroom. Of course, I had a studio in my apartment too, but that one was tiny and I needed plenty of space to work. I had so much to do. Ten paintings needed to get done in just two days, and that called for the big studio back home.
Me showing up wasn’t a surprise to anyone, I often came back home to work in the studio. Living just over in the next town meant the commute wasn’t a hardship for me either.
I trudged up the porch steps, lugging canvasses and craft boxes filled with my good paintbrushes just as my father stepped out the door. My father was a round, jolly man that reminded me a bit of Santa Claus without the beard and with less hair on top.
“Hey Dad, can you give me a hand?” I asked, puffing heavily to look more needy.
“Oh, sorry Pumpkin, I’m already late for T-time with Dale and the boys. Maybe I could help you clean up when I get back.”
Dad disappearing on Saturdays to go golfing with his buds was nothing new, nor was him skipping out when I needed help carrying heavy art equipment. So I just nodded, rolled my eyes, and continued on with my canvass-lugging.
As I attempted to toe the front door open with one of my work boots, Dad called to me out his car window.
“Oh, uh, Jina? Your mom’s a little under the weather today. I think it’s a cold or something. Could you keep an eye on her for me, honey?”
“Yeah, sure Dad. No problem.”
“There should be plenty of soup in the cupboard.”
“Got it. Have fun, and say ‘Hi’ to Dale for me.”
“Will do, thanks Pumpkin.”
Then he backed his jeep down the driveway and drove off.
It was an exchange that had happened a million times in my life. It could have been the beginning of any day for me.
I spent most of the morning dragging equipment through the house and into the studio. I never saw hide nor hair of my mom. I figured she was sleeping in, she had a cold after all. It was no big deal. Besides, I had work to get done. My mom would understand if I didn’t hover over her just this once.
My mom was like that, she was the only one in the whole family that had ever really understood me. Some of the other family members tried, but it was like mixing acrylic with oils, scientists and artists just didn’t see eye to eye.
My mom did.
She encouraged me to go to art school and had been the first one through the door at my first gallery show. We had some rocky years while I was a teen. Now she was probably the closest person on the planet to me.
She would understand.
Once I had everything settled in my studio, I immediately got to work. I didn’t bother to check on Mom, after all she was sleeping. It’s not like I watched her while she slept. That would be creepy.
I don’t keep a clock in my studio for a reason, and on most days I’m glad for that. On that day, I really wish I had at least worn a watch. It was well into the afternoon before my hand started to ache. It was only after my hand started cramping up did I finally take a break. I thought I’d grab some lunch and check on Mom.
I found her still wrapped in her fluffy lavender bathrobe. She was in the kitchen, rummaging through the silverware drawer, and muttering something about peanuts.
“Hey Mom, how’re you feeling? Want me to heat up some soup?”
“I can’t find the peanuts for the elephant,” she said, scattering spoons and forks onto the floor.
“Um, okay. . . . . . . Why don’t you sit down and I’ll make you something to eat,” I said, shooing her to an over stuffed recliner in the family room.
I wandered back to the kitchen, as I walked I kept checking on her over my shoulder. She was still mumbling to herself.
I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little shaken by the way my mom was acting. She had always been such a clear, concise speaker. She just didn’t say strange things like that without some kind of explanation. And my mom was such a neat freak, she’d never drop handfuls of silverware onto the floor.
All through stirring the soup and ladling it into a bowl, she had me worried. It wasn’t until I had her lunch settled on a TV tray with crackers and a glass of orange juice that I decided, my dad had obviously given her some very heavy cold medicine and she was a little out of it.
“Everything is going to be fine. I need to stop being such a worry-wart. Mom’s just had too much cough syrup, that’s all.”
I ended up skipping lunch. After the incident with my mom, I wasn’t in the mood to eat. I went back to work, but couldn’t shake the feeling that something was really wrong. I mean, I’d seen my mom sick before, but she had never acted like this.
I worked a little on my third painting, but I really couldn’t concentrate. After an hour or so I went back out to check on her again.
I found her kneeling in the dining room shredding newspaper onto the floor and feverishly giggling.
“Um, Mom? I think you need to get some more sleep. You’re acting kind of weird.”
“No,” she whined like a small child.
“Seriously, you need to go lay down. I’m going to call Dad.”
She whined and fretted the entire way as I guided her back to bed. She was acting like she was about five years old rather than her refined and poised fifty-nine.
Once I had her tucked in, I hurried to the phone to call my dad. I lost track of how many times I called; twelve, fifteen? I don’t know. Each time I got the same answer, a mechanical voice telling me that, “The phone you are trying to reach is out of its calling zone, please try again at a later time.”
I didn’t like this, I really, really didn’t.
I tried calling my siblings, but all I got were busy signals and voice-mails.
By now it was late afternoon, and I wasn’t even close to done with my paintings. I tried, once again, to reassure myself that it was just an over dose of cough syrup and nothing more, but it was getting harder and harder to believe that.
Wouldn’t cough syrup have worn off by now? Why does she seem to be getting worse rather than better?
Trying to shove those questions away, I cleared my mind and started working. Again I became immersed in my painting, again I lost track of time. I had finished my sixth painting before I heard the sound of my dad strolling through the house. I came out to the family room to greet him and give him a good scolding for giving Mom so much medicine. I was surprised to see that the clock over the TV said it was forty minutes to midnight.
“Hey Dad, you’re getting home late.”
“Well, good evening to you too,” he shot back.
“Sorry,” I said, “Mom’s just been a real hassle today. Why did you give her so much cold medicine in the first place? She’s been completely out of it all day long.”
“I didn’t give her any medicine.”
“Huh, what do you mean?”
“I mean, I didn’t give her anything before I left, she was asleep.”
Just as his words sunk in, for a split second, my heart stopped. It was like walking down a strange hallway in the dark. You take a step and suddenly you realize there isn’t any floor under the foot that’s coming down. And for one terrifying moment you fall in the darkness.
Everything after that was a blur. My dad going into the bedroom. Not being able to wake Mom up. Calling for the ambulance. EMTs clattering into the house with their medical equipment and huge SUV sized gurney. Someone’s voice I didn’t recognize saying she had been dead for hours.
And screaming, lots and lots of screaming. At the time I didn’t know where that sound was coming from, I just wished it would stop.
It was days later before someone told me that the screaming had come from me.
Over the days that followed, clear through the funeral, I was completely numb. Though everyone was very nice, nothing they said really reached me. Most of the time I hardly even noticed other people.
The only thing that ever touched me was the question that so many people asked, “Didn’t you see any sign of something wrong? It was a stroke, nothing seemed off at all?”
“No, nothing,” I mumbled.
The worst lie I ever told.
Only my family never asked that question. They had messages left on their voice mail. They knew there had been something wrong, long before Mom died. I could see it on their faces, the accusations, the hatred.
“Why didn’t you do something?” their eyes screamed, “How could you let this happen?”
As the day of the funeral dragged on, people slowly disappeared from the viewing room. I was the last one left on the front pew. And then the last in the whole funeral parlor.
I sat there alone in the dimmed quasi-church and didn’t cry, not one tear. I wouldn’t allow myself. No amount of tears was ever going to make this right.
What I did do was pray.
Not to God, I didn’t think He would have anything to say to someone like me. I prayed to everything else, anything else, that could somehow make this right. Something that could bring her back.
I sat there for hours, until my body ached, until my head felt heavy and dull. I was begging with all my heart for something to come and make this right, and still. . . . nothing.
I sat alone in the darkened room.
And then slowly, like a shadow creeping across the floor at the setting of the sun, it came to me.
A bargain, of me spending a year in Hell for my mother’s return. Surely that was a reasonable offer. Something had to want a nice ripe soul to torture for a year.
The moment that thought formed to completion, that something appeared.
There was no puff of smoke, or strike of lightning. It was just a handsome yet somber looking man calmly walking over from the center aisle and sitting down next to me.
“You wish to trade?” he asked, his voice was like a sweet southern warmth that had been swallowed by shadow.
“Yes,” I replied in a dry voice, barely above a whisper.
“All deals are final upon signing,” he warned.
“I want to trade m—.”
“I know what you want. I heard you the first time.”
“Do you accept?”
“I can’t have you for a year. There are rules, you know,” he said.
“That is, unless you would be willing to die or become evil in some way.”
“Aren’t I already evil?”
He threw back his head and laughed. It was a deep thunderous sound. His mouth opened wide to reveal rows of long, black fangs lining each side.
“I’m afraid not, Love. You’ll have to do more than not saving someone from their death,” he said, and flicked his long, curly, black hair over one shoulder.
“So what can I trade?”
“Will that get her back?” I asked.
There had to be a catch.
“What else?” I asked.
“You have to prove you truly want this.”
“But I do!”
“Let me rephrase that. You have to prove that you want her back at any cost to yourself.”
I sat and thought, and let that sink in.
“I’ll do it,” I finally said.
“You’ll walk along a road that leads in and out of Hell. If you hurry, you should make it to the end in three days.”
“If you don’t make it to the end in time you will be trapped there forever and your mother will remain dead.”
The darkness in the room thickened until the pews and walls disappeared all together. The only thing that remained visible was the handsome man in the charcoal suit as he rose to stand in front of me.
I stood, ready to accept his challenge.
“You will be given three tests, you must pass each one to continue on along the road.”
“Never step off of the road,” he said.
As the light finally started coming up, a rocky, volcanic landscape was just barely visible.
“You will have no guide nor guard. If you step off the road you will become lost in every sense. You will never find your way again.”
Though hazy, the land I stood on was completely visible. Orange and red desert mountains sloped up and away from the dusty, dry valley I found myself in. A wide road of shiny, black pavers curved through the valley and between a gap in the mountain range in the far, far distance. My feet teetered on the wobbly, loose stone surface of the path. Hot orange light waft down at me from a sunless sky. There was no sign of life anywhere, not even vegetation.
“Your vow please,” the man said, pulling an ornately cut glass bottle from his inner breast pocket. The grooves cut into the glass glowed with swirling red symbols.
“My what?” I asked, as the man handed me the container.
“Simply open the urn and say that you accept our bargain.”
I opened it. My lips hovered over the mouth of the bottle for a long heartbeat.
“Excellent,” the man said, as he snatched the bottle from my hand and then jammed the stopper down on to the mouth.
There was a strangely sweet taste on my tongue.
“No blood?” I asked.
“No longer necessary,” he replied with a smile, tucking the flask back into the pocket he had pulled it from.
“It’s a stony road through Hell, are you sure you wish this?” the man in the charcoal suit asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
Then he was gone.
I stood in that alien land for a long moment, still not completely fathoming what was happening to me. It seemed as if it was all a dream. In reality, you never get a chance to make right what has gone so terribly wrong. I stared at the desert valley and couldn’t seem to make it any more real to myself.
That is, until something with far more than four legs crawled on top of my boat shoe and started hissing at me.
I looked down to find an angry black scorpion on my foot, making jabbing motions in my direction with its stingered tail.
I replied to it with equal hospitality in the form of a really loud scream and to kick it off my toe as hard as I could. The nasty little bugger flew through the air and far off the road. I watched as it landed on the hard, dry, cracked ground of the valley with an odd, “crush-whump” sound. The scorpion trembled and squirmed, but finally pulled itself onto its leg points. It took one step toward me.
“If you come after me again, I’m so going to squish you, nasty little bug.”
And then the nasty bug just disappeared in a puff of dusty sand.
As the dust settled, I stared at the spot where the creepy crawly had landed. It was honestly gone. The only sign that it had ever been there was a tiny scattering of shiny, black shell bits and the end of one of its legs.
Was this what the man in the charcoal suit had meant when he warned me never to venture off the road? I certainly didn’t want to test that theory.