Hell and Back

By Joshua Scribner

"So, do you think you might be interested in becoming a member of our organization?" the man in the gray suit had asked.

And at that time, he was eighteen, just out of high school, but not college material. He was smart enough. But Willie Tantel didnít have the kind of patience it took to stick with something for several years. Like so many kids his age, he had wanted it all and wanted it fast.

"What will I have to do?" Willie had asked.

"Anything we ask of you," the man had responded.

Six months of desensitization to just about any fear or repulsion that might affect his work, another six months being deprogrammed of all he had learned was good and right and programmed for what the organization wanted him to think, two years as an assassin in the organization, two months of hiding from the organization after his programming failed him, and here he was.

He stood in a dark, nearly empty bedroom of a nearly empty apartment, with a .357 in his right hand. He had taken enough money when he ran to stay in hiding for at least a year. He hadnít been outside much in the last couple of months, just enough to get food and supplies from a store right down the street. He had no vehicle or anything else they might be able to trace him by, some five hundred miles from where he had been stationed. He knew all of this was in vain. They had installed a homing device deep in his internal organs. They had only wanted him to stew for awhile. That was the way the organization worked. But even in vain, it had still eased his anxiety a little, taking an active, even if futile, stance in prolonging his life.

Heíd been walking down the street, nine oíclock at night, late enough to be out in the cover of darkness, not so late as to look strange walking down the street, a bag of groceries resting on his arm, when the long black Mercedes pulled up beside him. The window came down and there was the man known only as Scar, so called because of the vertical gash that ran up the right side of his face. A specialist in the organization, Scarís job was to handle deserters. Without seeing the rest of the carís occupants, Willie had known there would be at least three young members in the car. The organization liked to send its members out with men like Scar, so they could see what would happen should they ever decide to desert.

Willie had taken off running through somebodyís yard. It wasnít that he thought he could escape. They had tracked him this far, and it wouldnít be hard for them to track him a little while longer, until he collapsed from exhaustion. Willie didnít plan to escape for that long, though. He only wanted to get back to his apartment.

And now here he was, gun in one hand, looking out the window screen. The Mercedes pulled in at the end of the lot. It parked in a slot just below his third-story apartment, which was enough for him. He lifted the gun, put it in his mouth, and squeezed the trigger.

* * *

What little light there had been was gone. Then there was just enough light to show a figure of a man standing in front of him. The manís naked skin, from his feet to just above his neck, was a swollen black and red. Looking at the manís face, Willie immediately knew how the manís skin had gotten that way, because Willie himself had done it. One of the activities of the organization was wholesale of various illegal drugs to dealers. When dealers didnít pay their bills, assassins were sent in. The dealer himself was sometimes killed, sometimes not. Those around him were often tortured. The man, or more accurately, the ghost of the man before him, had been an associate of the dealerís in some way or another, which meant nothing more than he was there when Willie arrived at the dealerís location. Willie had doused the man with gas and lit him on fire for the dealer to see.

The ghost in front of him, a vengeful grin on his face, shook his head at Willie.

And like that, there was more light. Willie was again standing at the window with the gun in his hand. Down below, in the parking lot, were still cars, most of them familiar. Willie breathed a sigh of relief. It had been some kind of dream or hallucination, he thought. His anxiety over the past two months had gotten the best of him, made him a little crazy. That was all.

But Willie couldnít hold onto this delusion for long, because he saw the Mercedes pull into the lot again. It drove up and parked in the same place heíd seen it park before. Without time to ponder what had just happened, Willie put the gun in his mouth again. But this time, when he went to pull the trigger, the trigger wouldnít budge. Willie looked at the gunís safety and found it was disengaged.

He tried again to fire the gun, this time under his chin. But the trigger must have been jammed, because it wasnít cooperating.

Down below, one of the doors opened. Willie knew no one would get out and risk being shot. They held the cards. Theyíd wait until he was most vulnerable.

Suddenly, instinctively, it occurred to Willie what they would try. He reached over and whipped the window shut, just in time. An instant of a second later, the dart hit the window. Its tip, containing the tranquilizer, came part way through the glass, but the rest of the dart did not. Willie gasped, realizing that if he would have been just a little slower, that dart, which would have completely penetrated the window screen, would have also penetrated Willieís skin. He would have woke up in their custody hours later.

Willie backed out of view. He doubted they would come in until the homing device told them that he hadnít moved for a long time. He started to think of a way out. If he went out the door, he probably wouldnít be fast enough to get down the stairs before they had the exits blocked. All the windows but one faced toward the lot where they waited for him. The one that didnít face the lot was in the bedroom he was in, and they would just have to move a few yards to be along the side of the apartment building, where heíd probably just be getting up from his jump. He might be able to dodge the darts from one of their guns but not all of them.

Still trying to think of an out, Willie thought he heard the car moving down below. He peeped out on time to see the Mercedes pulling away.

"Of course," he said out loud. In the panic, heíd not thought of it, even though, in their position, it would have been the same move heíd made. For all they knew, he was calling the police right now. Or maybe someone had seen them shoot the dart gun. They had no reason to stick around. Most of the former assassins in Willieís position werenít smart enough to off themselves. The men in the Mercedes figured theyíd just nab him at a more convenient time, when they were less likely to draw police attention.

With his hunters gone for the time being, Willie having escaped the fate they planned for him, Willie was still not naive enough to think he could go on living on the run. Now that heíd had time to stew, they were going to get him and get him soon. He wasnít going to give them that chance.

Willie considered slitting his wrist, but opted not to. It would take too long, and theyíd be able to get to him and make sure he was nursed back to health. Nursing people back from near death was something men like Scar were good at. They had to be, because that was how they tortured deserters, taking them to near death, only to revive them, so they could be tortured again. Trying to OD or poison himself in another way was likely to have similar results.

But Willie wasnít without recourse. He did actually have a phone. He hadnít had it connected, but by law, any phone line had to be equipped to dial 911. It was something Willie had thought of before, a last desperate effort should they corner him and he not have the guts to pull the trigger. He wasnít going to dial 911 now, but he had other plans for the phoneís cord. After dropping the useless gun to the floor, Willie jerked the cord from the wall, then from the phone. It looked long enough.

Willie rushed into the kitchen. He looked around and thought of the logistics. After a few seconds, he pulled out the screen of the kitchen window. He then moved a few feet to the refrigerator, which he moved in short but quick spurts closer to the window. Next, he fashioned a noose out of the phone cord. He then wrapped the end of the cord several times around the refrigeratorís handle and tied it. He placed the noose around his neck, then without giving himself a chance to consider that this wouldnít be the most pleasant of deaths, Willie got up on the window ledge and slipped out. The cord stretched but didnít snap. The first sensation was the burning in his neck, where the cord had burrowed in. Then he felt as if his face would explode. Then he realized that he was suffocating. Reflexively, he struggled, kicking his legs, unaware of anything but his need for air and the fact that he would soon be dead. Then, suddenly, he was rising.

At first, Willie thought that he had died and was now a spirit rising from his body. But that didnít make sense, because he could still feel pain and he still longed for air. He felt his back brush against the outside wall of the building, then felt the metal part of the window pane. He was pulled back inside.

A small figure was above him. And that figure reached down with something sharp and cut the cord from his neck. Then the lights of the kitchen came on and Willie saw the figure above him was a teenage girl. She had on a pair of jeans and a red tank top. Three holes in that tank top ran all the way through the ghostís body. And this ghost spoke.

"You wouldnít remember me, Willie," she said in a half-satisfied voice. "But you did kill me, when you and a few of your friendís sprayed my fatherís house with machine guns. The girl said no more, just laughed a high-pitched, wicked laugh. The lights went out.

* * *

And then Willie was standing in the kitchen with the noose in his hands. And that noose grew hot, so hot he dropped it. Willie went to the wall and turned on the light. He stared down at the noose, which was now bubbling on the kitchen floor. He watched it and the rest of the cord sizzle, then kind of evaporate, within a matter of seconds. The cord left no residue whatsoever. It was just gone.

Willie began to shake, thinking he knew what was going on. It had to be a part of the programming. Maybe the chip they had installed in him was more than a homing device. Maybe it affected his brain, distorting reality, not allowing him to take the easy way out.

With that terrorizing thought in his head, Willie ran through the apartment. He jumped out of the window in his room and landed in the grass along the side of the building. From there he ran behind the apartment complex and into another parking lot, then onto a sidewalk of the neighboring apartments, where he continued to run. He became aware that this was similar to the way many of his own victims must have felt, running from a terrible fate, knowing escape was impossible. Why, like his victims, had he forsaken the organization? He remembered back to the day when he left. He was on a job. He was supposed to enter the house of a man and kill one of his children. It was a horrible thing to do, but Willie had done it several times before. His programming allowed him to do such things, and he was paid well to do them, a nice home, a boat, women, cash. But on this day, his programming had failed him. His conscience had slipped through somehow, and he suddenly couldnít do it.

Running through residential areas, hiding along the sides of houses, darting across streets, he ran a couple of miles to the edge of town, where he saw the exit ramp from the interstate and had an idea. Maybe if there were someone else involved. Willie ran a little ways down to where there was an overpass. He climbed up on the concrete embankment, as cars passed below, without a doubt noticing him. But that really didnít matter right now.

Willie, his breath now labored from both anxiety and the run, looked down the interstate, as cars came, some coming into town, others blowing by. It didnít take long before the headlights of something big came into view. And it didnít look like it planned on pulling onto the exit ramp. Willie climbed over the edge of the overpass and got onto the shoulder. Would it work? Willie didnít know. But he had no idea what else to do. When the truck sped passed the exit and was just yards away, Willie flung himself in front of it.

* * *

Willie was suddenly further down the interstate, standing on the shoulder, looking down at the mangled mass that was his own body. Beside him was an actual dealer, who Willie had shot. The man curled his lips up below the gaping hole in the middle of his face.

"Nope," the ghost said.

* * *

Then Willie was sliding down the side of the overpass, which felt like it was lubricated with something. Willie landed down on the road, then got to his feet. He put a foot back on the embankment. It felt normal again. But when he tried to go back up, it was as if it had been oiled. He couldnít even move up a few feet.

Realizing it was futile to try to kill himself now, but not wanting to accept the horrible alternative, Willie decided to run. He would run for now, until he could figure something out.

Across the street was a gas station. There were cars in the spaces in front of the store and cars at the pumps. At the side of the store was a bike. Willie ran across the street and stole that bike.

He rode all around town for several hours, stopping for short breaks to rest his legs, stopping at parks to drink from water fountains. He thought of turning himself in to the police. But that would just prolong his agony. The organization would have people in prison. And they would torture him slowly, over many years. There was no way out.

Willie was on the east side of town, way after midnight, riding down one of the townís main roads, the traffic almost nonexistent, when he saw the Mercedes ahead. He turned right and peddled as hard as he could down a curling road. That road led to a bridge, where Willie had to stop. His legs would go no more. He got off the bike and dropped it on the side of the road. He vomited over the concrete embankment into the river below. He stayed that way, leaning over the embankment, looking down into the river. Finally, he looked up and saw the Mercedes coming his way. Too tired to run, but still desperate, Willie let his body fall over the side of the bridge, head first. His head connected on a rock below, and his neck bent and broke.

In the water were several people. One, a completely charred body with a female voice, spoke to Willie.

"We were just there for a party. We didnít even know what the guy did. Why did you have to blow up the house?"

And like that, Willie was at the top of the bridge, where they grabbed him and put him in the trunk of the Mercedes.

* * *

The first day, they drugged him. He spent that day dizzy and sick, vomiting for a little while, then dry heaving the rest of the day. The second day, they sodomized him with various instruments, each bigger and sharper than the one before. The third day, they covered him with molasses and dumped insects on top of him. The fourth day, they slowly stripped him of his remaining skin. The fifth day, they lit him on fire, and on the sixth day he was dead.

* * *

And he got to meet with Timothy Zaire, a man he knew had been through the same torture, because Willie had been one of the men who tortured him.

They sat in the same room Willie had been tortured in, turned away from Willieís corpse.

"Is that all?" Willie asked.

Timothy, who had regained his pre-torture appearance, said, "Yeah, I think so."

Willie sighed in relief. Then he asked, "Was it part of the programming?"

"No," Timothy said. "At least, not the programming youíre thinking of. The organization didnít do this to you." Timothy laughed, then continued. "And you donít get to go back a second time. Next time, you stay in Hell."

Timothy and the room disappeared.

* * *

And then Willie was back in a familiar office. He sat in a leather chair. In front of him was a big oak desk with a bigger leather chair behind it. Off to the side, a middle-aged man in a gray suit entered through an open door. He came in, smiled at Willie, then sat behind the big chair on the other side of the desk.

"So, do you think you might be interested in becoming a member of our organization?" the man asked.

Willie didnít answer him immediately. He was suddenly aware that he was eighteen years old again. He had been to Hell and back.

After the shock of it wore off, Willie looked at the man and said, "No thanks."

Willie got up and left that office. Eleven years later, he graduated medical school.

The End

Copyright © 2004 by Joshua Scribner

Bio:Joshua Scribner is the author of Bone Song, a novel from Terminus Books. In the last year he's published stories with Alienskin, Echelon Press, Fables, and Nevermore. He lives with his wife, two daughters, and two cats, one of which he's certain is possessed.

E-mail: joshuascribner@hotmail.com

URL: www.joshuascribner.com

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