A flame engulfed the man’s cigar as he sat on a wooden stool on the verge of collapsing. The cigar and beer were an excellent match for his tastebuds. The Iron Steed was his bar of choice. It retained the rustic qualities of the twenties, nestled in a back alley in New York City.
A small window gave him a vantage of the prostitutes and dealers beginning to corral. He was quick to judge them, but didn’t do so idly. He had lived there long enough, unbothered by the everyday horrors of life, or the scum who flooded the streets with blood.
He raised his mug high, securing its last drops into his mouth.
“Tab,” he said, while holding his billfold up.
“Sure thing, Jax. It’ll be thirty-five for everything,” the keeper said.
Jax tipped him nicely, then got up from the stool.
“Be sure to come back.”
Jax felt a mighty buzz when he stood up, and put his brown leather bomber jacket on. He opened the door to the street, blanketed by a blend of cool air and garbage. A shiver rolled down his spine; the night was unforgiving. It was two in the morning; the witching hour. A whore pestered Jax, but he remained resolute as the insults flew his way. He took a back alley often, as it was the quickest route to his apartment. He felt like a rat trapped in a man-made hell. Rain poured down and trash leaked into the alley.
He stopped for a second, noticing a body lying near the corner of the alley. A neon green sign cast sickly light on the corpse. Jax got closer, and was sorrowfully unphased; he felt ashamed about not batting. He eased closer and saw it was a woman, beaten with her clothes torn. Raped, it seemed, by the lowest scum who would reside in the lowest stages of hell one day. Jax contemplated whether or not he would be bound to an unfortunate fate as she was.
Jax heard a splash nearby, followed by persistent footsteps. He unsheathed his pocket knife. His heart raced. A silhouette appeared.
“I didn’t do this,” Jax blurted out nervously.
“You’re that quick to believe me?”
“If you were guilty, you wouldn’t still be here,” the man said. “What seems to have happened?”
“Rape and murder,” Jax said, coldly.
The stranger approached Jax, looking closer at the body, and said: “How can man do such a thing to a beautiful creature like her?”
Jax noticed the man in a black trench coat had blonde hair.
“It’s not surprising nowadays!”
“What’s your name?”
“That’s an interesting name,” Jax said, frowning in a curious manner.
“I’m not from here Jax, but somewhere far worse, or at least that’s what I thought,” he said, staring into the girl’s lifeless face. “What surprises me the most, though, is that you feared being accused of this carnage more than the fact that it happened.”
“Why should I be surprised by the depravity of man?” posited Jax. “Where are you from anyway?”
“Do you think it was lust, or power that influenced the rapist?” asked Artemas, like a detective questioning motive.
“Power,” Jax answered quickly.
“Nothing gets man off quicker than oppressing others,” Jax said, cracking a dark humored smile. “You still didn’t answer my question, Artemas!”
“I like you Jax, even though I hardly know you. You’re not going to believe me when I tell you where I’m from, which I will surely prove to you. I feel as if you will be of great use to me tonight, nonetheless.”
“Spit it out already,” said Jax, quick-tempered unlike before.
“Hell Jax — I’m from Hell,” Artemas said, letting off a sign of exhaustion. “I’ve been set loose to walk the Earth.”
“What? You’re a damn madm — ”
As Jax spoke, flabbergasted, Artemas snapped his fingers, and the pair ended up in the bathroom of The Iron Steed. Jax didn’t know what hit him first, the realization that Artemas was a demon, or the vomit he threw up on the grimey floor.
“It’s nice to see something phases you, he-he,” said Artemas.
Jax immediately made the sign of the cross. Artemas walked closer, grabbing the finger cross unphased, then said: “Only true believers can make the sign of the cross. All you believe is that Hell is real. You haven’t seen proof of God.”
“No, I haven’t. All I ever see is the bad,” Jax solemnly closed his eyes.
“He-he, tell you what, come with me,” Artemas said.
“If you prove mankind’s cruelty further, then I will grant you three wishes. No tricks, I swear!”
“Anytime, anywhere, anyplace,” asked Jax sickened by mankind enough to accept the demons request.
“Ah, of course.”
“You sure?” smirked Artemas.
“Positive,” croaked Jax.
Artemas snapped his crooked fingers once more. It was midsummer now, a ghastly odor was in the air. Jax and the demon Artemas stood close to an outdoor tunnel, hidden by shrubbery that led to a large metal door. “No one can see us from here on,” said Artemas. The metal door opened, revealing skeletons standing in an idle room. The two-time travelers finally realized where the odor came from. The skeletal figures were ordered by uniformed men to dispose rotting corpses scattered about. It must have been hundreds of bodies, and as soon as one of the skeletons tried to pick up a corpse, the flesh ripped clean off the body. Bile cascaded down the tunnel from the door, from the cesspool of maggots, feces, and other bodily fluids. The demon’s eyes bulged out of his skull, and Jax vomited once more. Still, he vomited more from the traveling than the horrors before his eyes.
“Where — where are we?” questioned Artemas, unknowing of the horrors he was witnessing.
“Treblinka,” Jax hesitantly responded. “We are seeing the cleanup of a group of Jews that were killed in that gas chamber.”
“So, this was Hitler’s handiwork? I heard about this in Hell, but always figured it was a tale.”
“Well, it wasn’t,” said Jax, rubbing his eyes. “This scares me, but it isn’t affecting me quite like it is you. From what I can tell.”
Artemas said nothing.
“You’d think a demon would be used to a scene like this,” Jax said, striking quickly.
“In Hell, we see the punishment of men, not what they did to be sent there,” said Artemas, bewildered by both the odor and the scene. “This has shaken my core Jax, but we still have more to see today. Let us leave this place.”
So, the two ventured from one ring of Hell on Earth to another. Artemas snapped his fingers in a hurry. The temperature was now well into the negatives, and the pair were standing inside a concrete structure; furthermore, there were what appeared to be prison cells, with guards pacing down the halls. Screaming from the cells echoed, until a possessed guard rushed into a cell to beat someone senseless. Only moaning was heard, faintly, after that. Artemas peaked out of a crack in the concrete wall. It was snowing in the taiga area surrounding the building.
“Where are we now,” asked Artemas. Nearby, a guard hysterically watched as a man with a broken leg crawled to his cell. The guard stood over the frail man and proceeded to beat him to death.
“A gulag,” Jax responded.
“What is a gulag, and why are these people here?”
“Another enslavement camp for people who have opposed a madman. Millions have died because of him. It started with an ideology, a hope of universal equality. But, the intellectuals forgot what man is. Now, Artemas, witness what man always has been, and always will be. They lacked the understanding that you can’t have freedom without oppression. It lies within us, and we oppress ourselves before others,” mused Jax.
“The former was more unsettling to the eyes, but the latter — to the ear,” spoke Artemas. “Another fine example Jax, shall we leave?”
Jax shook his head in agreement, then Artemas snapped his fingers wondering what was in store next. Now, they were in the middle of a crowded street. Jax had become accustomed to the traveling. Artemas realized they were back in New York City, but it was peaceful, like before a raging storm.
“Why have we returned?”
“See those towers?”
Jax retreated backwards into the crowd, away from the street. Artemas’ gaze was fixed on two identical skyscrapers. The first tower was struck by a fireball and soon after, the adjacent tower suffered an impact. Artemas watched on in horror as the beacons collapsed, crumbling into the city streets. He wondered who would do such a thing.
“I don’t want to know why. It doesn’t change anything,” said Artemas.
He snapped his fingers for the last time. They returned to the alley. Artemas shed a single tear — uncharacteristic of a demon. Cruelty in Hell was divine punishment, but cruelty amongst man on Earth was unlike anything else.
“You’re still not pleased, are you?” asked Artemas, dolefully wondering. “What are your wishes?”
“I only have one: let this woman live, and change her tragic fate into a happy one,” Jax said, more serious than ever.
“You could wish for so much more, yet you choose to save just one. You don’t even want your other wishes?”
“I could wish for so much more, but I’m positive that man would find some way to demolish it. As long as there is good, there will also be evil, so I choose to do one good deed starting with her. If I want to do better, then I must do it myself, and not through wishes. Give her life, and make it a happy one!”
Her body faded away from their presence. It was early in the morning when the rain ceased. Artemas then fled New York, fearful of the cruelty of mankind. Jax was alone, finally, and left the former murder scene; he noticed the woman from the alley; alive. She was beautiful, and hugged her husband before going off to work. Jax smiled with relief after the nightmarish night. He never saw Artemas again.
Landon Carter is a college student living in Kentucky. His major is English Literature, and he hopes to become a college professor one day. He loves to write fiction and poetry, and hopes to become an established writer. Landon draws inspiration from writers such as Milton, Dostoyevsky, Goethe, amongst others.