Once again, Harley, we are so sorry about this mixup. Dementors really pushed to go paperless, so all of Seven Rings of Hell had to do the Microsoft rollover over the summer but somehow all of the Teutonic demons never got the memo and now…” Nysroh trailed off shrugging his leathery wings trying to express the indescribable. The recently deceased can be so mercurial, he thought. Wrapped in a celestial shawl over her Muppet Show tee and joggers, the lost soul yawned. “Right, right, and all the records are in the cloud and I’m in Hell until it gets straightened out. Got it. The name’s Charlie by the way, not Harley. It’s short for Charlotte, and I’m kind of exhausted from the whole trolley running me over thing. Where am I bunking, Batty?” “Yes, Carly right this way.” Nervously the second order demon waved a talon and ushered Charlotte through his newly opened swirling portal. One more screwup and his immediate supervisor Chax relocate him to Gary, Indiana. Nysroh shivered. They stood in front of a run down gingerbread Victorian monstrosity in pink and lilac with towers and turrets and windows of various sizes. Charlotte thought it looked like a princess party cake built by an octopus. Charlotte loved it. “Remember it’s only temporary. All the best IT guys are in Hell. They’ve assured me we will be—“ “Wait how many people live here? Is this some kind of twisty Twilight Zone? Is this some kind of trick and axe murderers jump out of closets all night,” Charlotte demanded. “Noooo, unless you want people to jump out of closets. We have a directory of murderers and I know the axe murderers have a pretty active golf frisbee club. They’re creepy but excellent hand eye coordination. No one can visit this house without an invitation maybe throw at trivia—hey hey hold on!” the demon exclaimed. He flapped after his lost soul. At the sound of no drop in guests, Charlotte sprinted for the dilapidated wraparound porch and pushed open the massive front doors. She scrambled from room to room. There were bric a bric, knickknacks, and geegaws as far as the eye could see. Every room had one sofa too many, or a confusion of coffee tables. Charlotte explored the cozy clutter. “It’s so clean. How many rooms?” “Hell houses are self cleaning, duh. Room number varies based on the hell house’s whims but usually these houses set—“ the demon stopped when Charlotte screamed. “It’s a library!” Floor to ceiling shelves of books lined the walls. With thick wool rugs, rolling ladders, and velvet settees, the entire room smelt of old paper and self satisfied comfort. Charlotte swayed. Nysroh sagged. “I’m afraid so, Haley. Please don’t be too upset. The STBT, that’s the soul to be tortured, who was slated for this hell housr was a social influencer. She convinced a bunch of people to eat Tide pods then died eating chicken cooked in NyQuil. Irony, huh. Anyways so this house embodies all of her worst fears manifested no Wi-Fi, no cellular data, just books and gardening and kitten Tuesdays and unlimited carbs and somewhere around here is a movie projector, behind that stack of phonographs I think—“ Charlotte clapped her hand over the demon’s mouth, “no need to apologize. Don’t worry about me, Nysroh. I can bear Hell for a week or so. Run along now. And remember the name is Kalee, with two ees.”
Hold my hand Snake your arm Warm and firm Around my middle Tuck your finger under my chin Lifting up my head when it is down Never believe me when I say I’m fine Because you know I’m fine means I’m finally broken and empty and so very very Tired of being never enough Look deep into my eyes again, again Until I see me reflected And I will press my forehead to your forehead And together we will stand just like that And together we can be our cathedral And together we are a fortress Of broken pieces knit together Made stronger And alone Never again
I don’t remember when I first saw her Probably in the hallways Maybe in the cafeteria One pretty girl amongst pretty girls Pretty much the same I remember when she saw me In the library, study hall, second period
Her eyes a little too big for her elfin face threw wide A cloud sailed away from the sun; I burned from her light She asked me to be her lab partner Cracking the sternum Dissecting the four ventricles
I wasn’t shy just deep quiet She, awkward effervescence of the perpetual new girl Soon we were Sleepovers, secrets Braiding hair Falling asleep on the phone We found a home in each other’s pocket
Then her dad got another job in another state And she was gone Like that In a flurry of boxes and cardboard promises to visit
There were other friends and boyfriends College then work Then a husband and children Some days still Every once in a while It rains while the sun is shining When that sliver of light carves cumulus I feel her little too big eyes on the back of my neck I turn and look for her looking at me
“Tina, is that you? Oh my God it’s been ages. It’s me,” Lena said.
She was carrying an burnt umber plastic tray of General Tso’s chicken in the Chase Mall food court. Tina looked up at Lena with huge eyes. Lena and Tina had been thick as thieves in high school. Tina had transferred in the middle of junior year. Overnight Tina became the star of spring track and softball, cheer leader, and class photographer. Lena had been not shy but a quiet girl, who slipped along in the shadows. They met in Honors English and Lena remembered suddenly being in a spotlight of Tina. They lived in each other’s pocket. Tina’s aunt was real strict so Tina practically lived with Lena’s family. Lena stared into Tina’s big eyes of sleepovers and secrets and so much unexpected joy. Lena remembered when her best friend suddenly left town early in senior year, no email, no call. Just whispers and sympathetic looks from a few administrators. The girl in the high school cheerleader outfit said nothing. Slowly Lena took in at the girl with the big eyes’ clothes and her giggling circle of clearly teenaged girlfriends and the fear in those huge eyes. Lena stammered and walked to a table across the court. “Who’s that girl, Mommy?” Kristina asked.
Lena’s daughter bobbed alongside her with a tray of chicken fingers and waffle fries. “Do you know that girl? She’s like the one in the picture, right.” “Not anymore Teeny. Let’s chow down before the movie.”
The pair sat at the small yellow table and Kristina chatter away. Across the food court the cheerleader watched them a grateful look skittered on her face before she joined in the laughter at her table.
Uncle Lawrence was snoring. The twins, Seth and Sam, were pretending to enjoy the game. Freddy was talking to Parker. Parker was scrolling on her phone. Mom and her sister Auntie Jacks were cleaning up in the kitchen. Dad was still dead. And I was contemplating exit strategies. Where was Shona? Ducking out of Post Thanksgiving dinner was so much harder when someone had beat you to it. I snuggled under Grammy’s quilt and fantasized about driving a riding mower across the living room and out the bow windows. I turned a page of the Reader’s Digest. My mom and them cackled from the kitchen. Freddy the neighbor boy who invited himself to our holidays leaned in to Parker. The twins cursed at the tv while Uncle Lawrence farted in his sleep. “What that smell?” Parker said still looking down at her phone. Shona appeared. With her extra long locs and boho goth vibe, Shona reminded me of the girl from The Ring. I wondered if I could borrow her hell well. Then I noticed what she was holding. Then we all noticed what she was holding. “Holy shit, the Grudge found the Monopoly!” Sam shouted. Carrying a wine glass, Mom walked out of the kitchen. With a red wine mustache Auntie Jacks followed. Uncle Lawrence blinked in the afternoon sun. Shona raised the slightly crushed dust encrusted box over her head. It smelled of endless bickering, violent arguments, house rules, and that weird scent of old basements. I’d thought the game had been thrown out after the infamous snow day debacle of ‘09. Shona set it on the cleared dining room table. Even though the edges were buckled and burst it was apparent the game was completely intact. The family and Freddy took our places. Uncle Lawrence set the tv to an oldies station. The twins got a knife and the nice dessert plates. Parker carried in sweet potato pie. The smell of pumpkin pie spice and coffee mingled with old basement. Auntie Jacks plunked a boxed wine on the sideboard. Shona looked around the table and lifted the lid.
“Hello, hello,” Shanae asked. “Yes.” “Is this Yum Yum GoGo’s complaint line?” Shanae asked with an edge to her voice. “Do you not know what you called? I can direct you to medical services, brain trauma. Are you a minor in need of assistance? I can direct you to social services. If you are—“ “Back the truck up. I don’t have a problem. This meal program is the flipping problem. I’m a loyal Yum Yum customer. Where’s my customer service? What kind of person are you?” “I’m not.” There was a deep sigh over the phone. “What the what!” Shanae shouted. “I’m not a person. I’m a Sentient Artificial Intelligence SAI. State the nature of your complaint, missing delivery, spoilt item, incorrect—“ “So you’re like a souped up Siri?” The SAI sighed and cursed under its nonexistent breath. “That’s like saying a human is a souped up chimpanzee. I’m a person. You’re a person. I was alive once ordering overpriced tiny portions of food to pretend cook because I was bone idle. You’re alive now complaining apparently,” the SAI said. “Wait wait you were alive. You’re dead. I’m talking to a dead person. Wait did you call me a monkey.” “Are you sure you don’t need medical services because you are slow on the uptake? Can’t you just tell me what’s wrong with your fifty bucks of organic squash and angel hair girlfriend so we can both get out of here,” the SAI pleaded. “It’s baby carrots and you are a total bitch. Why are in customer service?” “Exactly! I didn’t apply at the funeral home to hear millennials whine over their fake ass food sensitivities. I was a food writer. I lived large and loved hard. Then I got sick and my husband couldn’t go on without me. I downloaded all that I am into an Everlast Griefbot AI so I could be Isha and Max forever. Six weeks in the ground and Max is balls deep in his grief counselor. The love of my life sold me to Dum Dum and I’m being annoyed 24/7/365. What is wrong with your damn pasta, chica?” “Damn girl, that’s the worst kind of threesome I’ve ever heard. That puts my dinner in perspective. I got marshmallows instead of ricotta but I will just make it work and shut the hell up. Sorry Isha I hope Max gets donkey kicked in the groin,” Shanae said. Sniffling, Isha said, “that’s the nicest thing I heard in a long time. I am sending you a we’re sorry coupon and a brownie pie in your next order.” “Thank you Isha and hang in there,” Shanae said sniffling. “You’re welcome Customer 675990 and remember there is no such thing as a baby carrot. They just whittle down big cheap carrots and charge you up the wazhoo. Have a lovely dinner and a wonderful evening.”
The sink was dripping. Oliver was snoring. Cookie at the foot of the bed was snoring. On the baby monitor Isabella was breathing peacefully with baby snoring. The whole world was asleep except for me. I dreamt of something, something horrible, horrendous, and gone from my mind as soon as my eyelids opened. I swam for my nightmare. It drifted furthering away. Frustrated I extracted myself from the nest of blankets and headed for the bathroom. I navigated the islands of clean laundry and baby toys. The tile was cool against my soles. The overhead light was a confirmation. My face was puffy and gray and I thought of waterlogged corpses. Roaring in my ears, the snores grew louder pressing against me. I reached for the tiny water glass and went to turn the faucet. The sink was bone dry. It wasn’t dripping. I stilled. The dripping was behind me. The dripping was around me. Without looking I knew the ceiling had swollen with moisture, bloated and taut. The dripping increased. A floating stray pink sock brushed my ankle. I set down my glass. Wading back to bed, I was weighed down with slumber. I squished down on my mattress. The snores crashed over me. My bed lifted up as the water poured down. I sank into the deluge.
“Wait how do you spell ‘sincerely’?” Carson asked. “Is there an ‘e’?” “Dude are you high? There are like three e’s and shit,” Frank whispered. An old broad in an enormous hat turned and gave them a look. Hunter had an urge to give her the finger but instead offered her a sheepish smile. He nudged his coworker in the ribs. Barrett had invited the whole office to his son’s nuptials. Barrett said it was because the company was family but Hunter figured it was to show off his fancy house. 2500 square feet with a new kitchen but builder grade bathroom fixtures in the guest bathroom, the house underwhelmed Hunter. His eyes took in the stupid Mason jar luminaries and predictable hydrangeas and calculated when he could do a Murphy fade. Frank and Carson were discussing the inscription on their joint wedding card. Hunter rolled his eyes. The bride was walking up the aisle. God he hated garden wedding. Hunter noticed a small smudge of grease on his jacket sleeve. A wave of revulsion bubbled up in his chest. He would have to have a talk with his dry cleaner. He twisted the wedding program. Then Hunter saw Ava, his Ava. Ava was the bride. His world tilted. They had met in college. Hunter had been the Resident Advisor of Ava’s freshman dorm. Electric ran up his arm the first time he saw her smile. He took care of her and showered her with attention until all of her smiles were just for him. Hunter smiled at his thoughts of her. They couldn’t get enough of each other. He couldn’t bear to share her and she was lost without him. The image of Ava’s dad intruded on his memories. Her family had come between them, taking her from school, ignoring his calls. Hunter knew love conquered all. He left her notes and gifts on her car and at her door. There had been some unpleasantness when Hunter had persisted. Storm clouds rolled across Hunter’s handsome features. Cutting all ties, they had taken her from him. Her family made her change her name and hid her from him. He squeezed his own heart commanding himself to calm. None of that mattered. She was back. She was back for him. The music swelled. Her face was so happy as she danced down the aisle. Hunter searched for all of the tiny secret signals his Ava made only for him. Carson passed Hunter the wedding card to sign. His love kindled, sparked, and blazed. With the slightest tremble in his hand, Hunter wrote to his love.