The Breadcrumbs widget will appear here on the published site.
From the Depths
By Jennifer Cornet
The massive red doors oozed with blood, making Candy cringe. He always did have particular taste. She was careful only to grab the brass doorknob as she pushed it open. The last thing she wanted was to be covered in that awful mess.
“I see you’re honing abilities are getting better,” he called before she even fully entered the room. His voice was silky, yet it had a rough purr-like growl to it. “You don’t even need a guide any more it seems. How marvelous.”
“I think we both know why that is,” she said with a chill in her voice.
The windows that lined the far end of the expansive room seemed to stretch up into the heavens but Candy knew that wasn’t possible, not from these depths. Just beyond the glass, the sky churned with scolding red and pitch-black streaks. It was as though the clouds themselves were on fire. Inside the space, however, looked like an office more likely to be found in a high-rise in Manhattan than Hell. Plush leather furniture was situated in a small seating area to one side. The opposite side featured an oversized desk made of speckled rock of some sort, brimstone most likely.
She had half expected to see him at the desk, and for him to do the slow cliché turn in his overstuffed chair to greet her. But trite was never his style. Instead he was standing in front of one of the windows, looking out on his vast kingdom. He looked different than the last time she had seen him, thankfully. Now, he had resorted back to the form he was in when they originally met.
He was tall, over six feet, with wide powerful shoulders and a trim waist. The slightly overgrown hair and scruffy stubble that lined his creeks gave an ease to his appearance, which was very misleading. His immaculately tailored white suit, fresh pressed shirt, and creamy white tie contrasted with his rich dark skin. It was the perfect embodiment of who he was: not too much of anything to scare someone away, but enough of everything to draw them in. Rough but polished, adventurous but safe, dangerous yet charming.
“What brings my beloved to see me?” His playful eyes twinkled when he saw her. His mouth parted into a devilish grin.
Candy rolled her eyes and made her way farther into the space. The doors slammed behind her and then vanished, leaving a plain wall in their place. “It’s good to see you, too, honey bunny.” She smiled tightly, her words dripped with sweetness.
“Oops, I smell a favor coming on with that tone.” He knew her well.
She stood next to him at the window and looked out at the vast wasteland. It was hard for her not to gasp when she saw it, but she was getting better at controlling her reactions. The first time she was here the sight nearly ruined her. She cried for days upon days. Now, the devastation did little more than startle her. It could be that she had desensitized herself to it, but more likely it was Luke’s bonding to her that hardened her to other’s suffering.
“I need to see Howie,” she told him. There was no use is pussyfooting around the topic. Luke knew there was a reason for her visit. She didn’t see him unless she absolutely had to. Even then, she usually found a way for him to come to the surface to avoid making the journey herself.
“Too late, lover. Once in Hell, no one can have visitors. You know the rules better than anyone. I’m almost shocked you asked.”
“He hasn’t been sold yet.”
Luke crossed his arms and eyed her. “And how do you know that.”
“You aren’t the only one with ties in the afterlife.”
He laughed and the entire room shook. He nodded towards the window. “Love, I own this half of the afterlife.”
“Yeah, well, a couple of your cronies owe me a favor or two.”
“Tell me who,” he smiled like a girl ready to hear some good gossip. “Come on, it’ll be fun.”
“Fat chance. Now, I need to see Howie. I know he hasn’t gone up for auction so that means there is still time for me to contact him.”
“Do I not make you happy? Is that what this is about?” He pouted and batted his eyelashes.
“Luke, this isn’t about you. Look, I just need to see my dead husband for a few minutes. That’s it. Then I’ll be out of your hair and back on Earth. I promise.”
Luke casually paced around the room, contemplating her offer. “You know, I could just keep you here. Get a head start on our ‘Happily Ever Afterlife.’”
She shook her head, “You can’t do that.”
“I’d be careful what you tell the Devil he can and can’t do, dearie.” He waved his finger back and forth.
“I’m not saying that you are incapable of doing it. I’m saying, by contract, you can’t.” She stared him dead in his eyes. It was a power play, she knew, but what was the worst that he could do? Take her soul before she had a chance to die a natural death? If she died a few years early all it would mean was she would be rid of her earthly frustrations a little sooner than expected. Not a terrible outcome. She was going to end up in the same place no matter when she went. “And if I remember correctly, you never go back on a deal.”
Luke huffed and straightened his perfect tie. “And if I remember correctly, you weren’t always such a buzz kill. Very well. If you want to see that old sack of bones before he’s damned, then you shall. A hound will take you there. But remember, if you let go of its leash and get taken, that’s it. Your eternity starts. Got it?”
Candy nodded and a dog appeared by her side. Not just any dog, but her Maggie from when she was a child. She looked from the boxer to Luke who shrugged. “Relax, it’s not really her. The real pups are up there.” He pointed to the ceiling. “But, I thought you could use a friendly face. That and hounds in their true form would frighten you to the very core of your being.”
Maggie the Hell hound barked and nuzzled against Candy’s leg. She petted her instinctively. “Thanks, Luke.”
“Anything for the future Mrs. Evil.”
“I really hate when you call me that,” she said. The doors reappeared on the far wall and opened. Excitedly Maggie charged for the door, dragging Candy along out into the depths of Hell.
The lines of souls wrapped endlessly around the jagged, black stone mountain. They were packed so tightly together, each person’s toenails were practically digging into the heels in front of them. Sulfuric smoke seeped out between the cracks casting a noxious cloud over the land. Candy held her hand over her nose and mouth but it did little to block out the smell of death. She arched her neck, trying to see the top but it was no use. It was entirely too massive. She knew her late husband was in there somewhere but by the looks of the line, it would take all eternity to find him. By then it would be too late. Too late for everyone.
She scratched Maggie behind her big floppy ears to calm her own nerves. There had to be a way to find him. She wrapped the leash tighter around her wrist. A flash of white light from her hand gave her an idea. She slipped the three caret rock off her ring finger and crouched down in front of her pup.
“Okay, Mags, this is the ring Howard gave me. It was his mother’s. It’s the only thing I have of him. If you smell it or something, can you find him?” She felt childish talking to a dog but she didn’t know what else to do. It probably wouldn’t work, but it would be better than checking each individual.
The Hell hound barked and the souls in line turned momentarily to look. Candy shook off the creepy crawling feeling that ran up her spine when they stared at her with their blank eyes. She held the ring out. It only took a moment before Maggie was off running. She ran so fast, Candy thought she would end up being dragged up the sharp rocks.
Half way up the mountain, Maggie screeched to a stop. Candy recognized him instantly. He looked the same as he had the last time she saw him. He was hunched over. His arms and legs where painfully thin and weak. His white hair was a wiry mess on his head, completely unkempt. Howard looked paler than normal, but maybe it was just due to the black stone backdrop.
“Candy?” Howie’s eyes were watery as he looked at her. “Is that really you? What are you doing here? Have you passed away? But that can’t be … ” his voice trailed off as the confusion set it.
“No, no, Howard. I’m just here to visit.” She smiled sweetly at the old man.
“I saved you. You can’t be here. I saved you,” he pleaded.
Candy took a deep breath and placed her hands on his shoulders. A fiery pain shot through her and she jumped back. She couldn’t touch the souls apparently. “That’s what I need to talk to you about.”
Howie seemed to not be keeping pace with the situation. “How are you here?” he asked again. “I saved your soul. You shouldn’t be here.”
She bit her lower lip. This was going to suck to explain. At least she knew whatever she had to say wouldn’t kill him. “You couldn’t save me, Howard. I sold my soul a long time ago. Long before I met you.”
“That’s impossible! I checked the records when we first met and yours was free and clear. I even had you walk through the detectors to be certain.”
“You and I both know there is only one entity who doesn’t need record keeping. Who has the power to override the system and make one look whole even when they aren’t.” She led him on, knowing he’d put the pieces together himself. Howard was a smart man; at least he was in his youth. He had run Harvest Corp. for the last fifty years or so. He knew the soul selling business inside and out, better than anyone. Every time a soul was bought or traded, it went in the books. There was only one who was exempt from the rules of the trade.
Understand crossed over his weathered face. “No, you didn’t. It can’t be.”
“I’m afraid so. I would have told you before but I was forbidden. But since you are dead now, and there is nothing in the contact keeping me from talking to a dead soul, now you can know.”
“But to him? Oh sweet Candace. To Lucifer himself?”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. Now is not the time to discuss the terrible decision making skills I had in my youth. About the box … ”
“It won’t work. I already tried to save you. It won’t protect you from him,” he mumbled.
“It’s not for me, idiot,” she snapped. She calmed herself. “Where is the box, Howard? Pandora’s Box. I know it’s somewhere but I have tossed the house and the office, and I can’t find it anywhere. Please, please just tell me where you hid it.”
Howard straightened his posture and squared his shoulders. Suddenly, he looked less feeble than he had in years. “If I tell you were it is, I need you to do something in return.”
“You are dead, what in the world can I do for you.”
“You can talk to him.” He pointed to the ground. Candy knew who he meant without the pointless gesture. “I know he can’t save me or anything foolish like that. But he can make sure I stay on the upper rings, with a decent demon. If you ensure that I won’t spend my eternity wallowing in filth on a lower level with some sort of twisted, depraved creature, I will tell you were it is.”
Candy thought it over. Lucifer, or Luke as she knew him, was quiet fond of her. He had done her favors in the past. Heck, he had handpicked her as is own so that one day she would join him in the afterlife. Perhaps he would grant her this favor as an early wedding present of sorts. “Deal. I’ll do anything I can to make sure you end up on the upper levels. Ring one, two max. That’s the best I can guarantee.”
Maggie opened her snout and a voice echoed out, “I accept the terms of your deal. Howard, you are assured a position on the second ring. Candace, we will discuss what anything means when you return the hound.” The dog winked and licked her nose.
Candy rolled her eyes. Of course Luke would be keeping tabs on her. This was his world after all. Nothing happened down here without him knowing about it.
For a brief second, Howard seemed disappointed but then his life must have passed before his eyes, and suddenly relief crossed his face. He was a kind man when he was alive, but by no means a good one. Without the deal he would have gotten a much worse position. Satisfied, he turned back to his wife.
“I’m buried in it.”
Candy threw her head back in frustration. “You what? You can’t be serious.”
“Very. Or I should be if the instructions in my will were followed. Take my autobiography. Highlight the second word of each paragraph then read it from back to front. Those are the instructions on how to use the box.”
She could feel the excitement spreading through her. Finally, she was getting close. She didn’t think, instead she leaned over and kissed Howie on the cheek. Flames sparked between them but it was worth the moment of pain. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
Maggie began to pull her back down the mountain but before she was out of ear shout, Howard yelled after her. “Who is it for?”
“My daughter,” she shouted. It was the truth, she owed him that much.
Candy showered for the fourth time. She scrubbed her skin and her hair until she was pink with a sore scalp. Each time she came back from Hell, it was harder to wash the stench of the afterlife off of her. It was like the place was slowly claiming her, piece by piece; marking her as one of its future captives. The thought made her shiver even in the blazing hot water.
Four times would have to be enough for now. She didn’t have time for a fifth. She had to get moving if she was going to be on time. As she stood in her walk-in closet it hit her again, as it did from time to time, how far she had come. There was a time when she was living out of her car and she would have killed to have a home even half the size of this single room. Her entire livelihood was based on strangers throwing money at her. And now here she was, in a penthouse apartment in the heart of Manhattan surrounded by the finest things money could buy. As the widow of one of the wealthiest men in the world, she had an endless fortune that could get her anything she wanted. Anything.
Luke truly had come through on his end of the bargain, more than she had ever expected.
Candy threw on a pair of skinny jeans, riding boots, and a simple turtleneck sweater and headed out the door. It was as good an outfit as any to rob a grave.
“What is that?” Haley asked. She swung her scrawny legs back and forth off the kitchen island. Candy couldn’t help but see herself in the young girl. Stretched out like a bean pole, all knees and elbows with thin blond hair. Although her cheeks were kissed with freckles, something she must have gotten from her father because Candy never had any. For a moment she tried to think back to which man had freckles. Maybe that would narrow down the possibilities. It was hard to think back fifteen years. Everything from that time period was a haze. Candy brushed it off. Solving the mystery of Haley’s father wasn’t important right now. Her soul was.
Candy looked from the urn back to the young girl. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“It’s Pandora’s Box.”
“You’re right. I don’t believe you,” she responded in that snotty voice only teenagers seemed to master.
“Well, the good news is you don’t have to believe it for it to work.” Candy returned her attention back to the instructions in her hand. Each step would have to be completed precisely for it to work. She only had one chance to get it right and she couldn’t screw it up.
“So how does it work then?”
“Well, the story goes that once upon a time, this box contained all the evil in the world. Blah, blah, blah, Pandora opened it and let everything out. Well the box didn’t lose its powers just because some dumb chick didn’t know how to show some self-restraint. It can hold on to a soul, keep it safe. That way no one else can have it. It will rest peacefully for all eternity, safe from you know where.”
Haley rolled her eyes and jumped off the counter. “You really believe in that whole ‘God and the Devil’ bit? Aren’t you a little old for that?”
“Trust me, it’s real. It may not be like how they teach you in that fancy private school your parents have you enrolled in, but it is completely real.”
Candy felt it in her chest before she heard it. He was here. Two seconds later there was a knock at the door. She contemplated not answering it, but she knew that was useless. If he wanted in, he would get in. Silly things like doors and locks were nothing.
“Speak of the Devil,” she said between clenched teeth as she opened the door.
Luke walked in without invitation. He wore an all-black suit. The only splash of color was from a crimson red pocket square. The playfulness she was used to seeing in his eyes was gone and replaced by muted rage. He had shaken his trademark charm and adopted a deathly serious demeanor. Candy could feel the temperature in the room instantly plummet. This was not going to be one of their typical sexual banter filled encounters, she knew. Whatever he was here for, he meant business.
“I hear you have something that’s mine,” he said without preamble as he marched toward the kitchen.
“Haley, go in the other room and lock the door,” Candy demanded, trying to keep the fear out of her voice.
“Mom, what’s happening? Who is this?”
She had to stop herself from correcting the girl. She hated being called mom, because she was nothing of the sort, but now was not the time for splitting hairs.
“She looks just like you, you know?” Luke turned to her with a hungry grin.
“Don’t you touch her.”
“Oh, I’m not here for the girl. I am here for something far more precious. My vessel. Now hand it over and I will be on my way.”
Candy’s eyes darted to the kitchen but the urn was gone. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
Luke rolled his eyes and threw up his hand in frustration. “Have you ever wondered why you ended up with Howard Grim? I could have made you successful and rich a million ways. I have that power. I can do that. I could have made you intelligent and gave you the ‘next big idea,’ or made you an international super star singer. But no, you married a wealthy old man who brought you in to the fold of his soul-selling business and eventually left it to you along with his entire fortune. Why is that? Why him?”
Candy shrugged. In truth, she had never questioned how everything played out. She had gotten what she wanted from the deal and that was good enough for her. Luke would get her soul when she died and she would become his bride. Everyone would be happy, agreement fulfilled.
“Don’t be foolish, girl. I expect my souls to be smarter than that.”
Suddenly she understood. “You knew he had it all along,” she whispered. Luke smiled as confirmation. “Then why not just take it from him? Or get someone else to sniff it out?”
“You don’t think I’ve tried that? Howard was a smart man. He had a nose for demons and could sniff them out from a mile away. So I couldn’t use any of my actual minions to get to him. That left humans. What human would be able to get close enough to him to find out the location of the box and then be willing to pass along that information to the Devil? Ah, one without a soul is the answer. But with the soul detectors he put in every one of his buildings, that crafty bastard, it meant that the soul could only be bought by one entity, me, otherwise he would know.”
“But how did you know I would ever go looking for it? I didn’t even know what it was until a few weeks ago,” She asked trying to keep up with the rapidly coming revelations.
“Ah, that took work. Linus, Howard’s number two, had to be bought, which between you and me cost way more than he was worth. Then he had to be made aware of the box, or at least its existence, and let that information slip to you. When it became apparent that Howard didn’t tell you or Linus anything at all about it, I had to scramble. Cue the social worker.”
“Haley,” she whispered. “You had Haley find me because you knew I’d do anything to protect her soul.”
“Yes, even travel to Hell to ask your poor late husband where the box was located. Now, love, tell me where it is or I will make quick work of the girl and when her soul reaches my world I will make certain she spends eternity in the lowest ring.”
Before she could answer the penthouse filled with a blinding white light. In a flash, blackness took over. Then, just as quickly the lights came, everything returned to normal. Fury crossed over Luke’s face and flames shot up from his shoulders and out his fingertips.
“That little twat,” he cursed.
Haley entered the room carrying the urn and placed it on the countertop. “I’m sorry, mom. I thought if I just followed the steps … ” her voice trailed off.
“You can have it, here please, just don’t do anything to her,” Candy pleaded. She’d figure out another way to protect her soul. There had to be another way. She looked back and forth between Luke and Haley, entirely uncertain of what was going to happen.
“It is of no use to me now,” he spit. “Now that it is filled with a soul, I can’t even touch the damn thing. Ugh, I just want to kill you both right now. I can’t believe this is happening.”
Candy waited hesitantly. If Luke wanted them dead it would take no more than a snap of his fingers. “Please, don’t kill her. She didn’t do anything wrong. Take me. I’ll amend our contract. Just don’t hurt her.”
“As tempting as that sounds, I can’t kill her anyway. I don’t know what Howard told you that box does, but clearly it wasn’t entirely correct. It protects the soul alright. Until she dies a natural death, no celestial being can interfere with her life in any way. And then when she does die, only a divine creature can retrieve her soul from the box and carry it to the afterlife. Until that happens, it’s a useless piece of crap.” Fireballs formed in his hands. He squeezed his fists tight to extinguish the flames. “Why are you mortal women such a headache? I swear.”
And then he was gone. The apartment was still as Candy and Haley stood motionless, holding their breath. Slowly, Candy found herself starting to smile then letting a laugh escape. She had spent the last eight years of her life learning the trade of buying and selling souls to demons. In all that time, never once had she imagined one day she would steal one away from the Devil himself.
Jennifer Cornet grew up in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Ocean Engineering from Virginia Tech and works as a civil servant for the U.S. Navy designing DDG51 Destroyers. Her debut novel, Order of Earth: Elements of Ink Book 1, was released in September 2013. A deluxe edition as well as a series of short stories are also available on Amazon. When not writing, Jennifer is an avid hobby collector, filling her time painting, sewing, and gardening. Jennifer currently lives in Springfield, Virginia with her husband, Vladimir.
#ShortStory #Fiction #CreativeWriting