In times of great adversity, my mind tends to reminiscence upon the words of a wise man, ‘Started from the bottom now we’re here.’ Yes, I know the song refers to rising above, but it can also be used to describe the waist-high level of shit I have currently found myself in.
‘What the fuck, Leo?’ I sighed and took a seat on the dirt floor. My long black hair hung heavy with sweat. ‘How the fuck did I let it get this bad?’ I knew how, or at least why.
The last time I looked into Jamie’s eyes I all I could feel was longing and sadness.
Now, as I looked at the eyeballs in my hands, complete with veins, muscle and partial eyeball skin, I see that same sense of desperation.
“Leo!” Sunny shook me from my haze. I almost forgot that I wasn’t alone in this hell. “We need to get out of here, we need a plan!” The blonde teen tore at the bottom of her gown, the strange sparkling prom dress that she had originally appeared in.
“We need to figure out where ‘here’ is.” We appeared to be in a cave, lit by torches, with one distinct exit.
Sunny, undeterred, used the strip of fabric to pull her hair back as she walked a few feet ahead. “Hey, I think I see a light.”
I stood up, but didn’t immediately follow. “I can’t see it.” All I could see was a long corridor, leading to darkness. But what the hell, the only other option was to sit back down, so I followed anyway.
“Look at this!” she shouted, confidently looking upward. “I think we need to scale this wall.”
The ‘wall’ seemed to be made of a different material than the rest of the cave. It was smooth, and cold to the touch, with a grainy, concrete-like, texture. And it led straight up.
Sunny easily positioned herself and started to climb towards what was a definite light source. The opening was large enough for an average size person to climb with arms and legs spread. But the fact that the light was the size of a pinhole made me believe that the exit was possibly several miles away. We needed a plan. I was about to call Sunny to get down, but as soon as she’d gotten about ten feet up the shaft, an earthquake forced her to the ground.
“Ow,” she groaned, having landed on her hip.
The tunnel started to crack. From the cracks, hands emerged. Fleshy hands, dripping with blood: they seemed to belong to creatures who were desperately trying to push their way through. “We need to find another path.” I closed my hands around the eyeballs, giving them a slight squeeze. Something about the firm, tactile sensation felt comforting. ‘Please, Jamie, I need a hint.’ I closed my eyes and looked up the passageway. With my eyes closed, I could see a series of lights. It was a map, of sorts, made up of the hands.
But even if I did believe that the wall-creatures would lead me, how was I supposed to climb while holding the eyes? Was I meant to place my trust in these wall-dwellers to pull me up several miles of tunnel? Even if I did, I would need a way to keep track of Sunny. I opened my hands, letting the gooey mass slide around my palms. My goal was to slide both into one hand. Then, in doing so I dropped them both at my feet.
This earned me a painful blow to my head, that felt like it came in the form of a sonic boom. I was knocked to the ground, gasping for breath.
“You would leave me behind again?” Jamie’s voice whispered close to my ear. It was as if he was next to me. I gripped the ground to push myself up.
A second blow struck my face.
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” said a second voice. It was a female. “You remember when you walked out on us. Don’t you Leo?”
Vines started to grow from the ground, twisting and turning. Except these vines were made of computer components; each limb was a messy braid of black cords, and colorful wires of all shapes and sizes.
‘Started from the bottom now we’re here,’ I muttered to myself. I knew who this was. I walked out on her. If she wanted revenge she was completely entitled.
But my mind was panicking for a different reason- where were the eyes? My hands were open, with wires wrapping around my fingers, forcing them open until they bent at painful angles. I couldn’t break them. “Sunny,” I cried. Even if she was still there, she couldn’t help me, no one could. The wires grew over my eyes; I was going to get torn apart, blind and helpless.
I could hear Sunny shriek. But what she said was strange. “Oh God! Stay away!”
Was she talking to the wires? No, there was someone else here.
“In life we make decisions,” said a feminine voice, with a distinct hiss.
I knew spirits; hell demons, angels. “Momo?”
The harpy’s sharp nails glided down my cheek, freeing my eyes from the wires. I had never been so happy to be face to face with the massive, doll-eyed, creature.
“Is this real? Are you really here?”
“You did good work at one time,” she said, perching her half-a-body on my chest. Her wings were folded back, as she sat like a typical bird.
Momo sitting on me wasn’t the most comfortable feeling, given the fact that she was roughly the size of an ostrich. But her wings; that’s what was different about the real Momo. Unlike the one that was the basis of the monster stories, the real harpy had pale, leathery wings- like a plucked chicken. “Where am I? And how did you follow me here?”
“You’re in hell,” she replied bluntly, as if it would have been obvious.
“Hell is a big place; that’s like saying we’re in California.”
“Yeah, well, Hell’s a little more complicated then California. I tracked you here by your soul energy. It’s kinda strange for a living human to get dragged down here. Even stranger for two,” the last part she muttered as she got off my chest, allowing me a much-needed breath. “You’ve always been good to my people, my kind. I think you deserve the chance to prove yourself.”
“To whoever sent you here.”
This was a strange predicament: every monster for themselves. But I wasn’t in any position to question her motivations; I needed any olive branch I could get. “Where’s Sunny?”
Momo tilted her head like an owl. “You actually care about that human?”
“I care about all creatures.”
Momo sighed as she took a bow. “I know you do. I’ll leave you to find her.” She pulled her wings over her face, creating what could only be described as a bubble of skin. She was leaving.
“Find her?” I asked out loud, to no one. I was now at a different, much darker, level of the cave. But there was still enough light to see if I was truly alone. In the corner I could barely make out a human form. “Sunny?”
The figure moved its leg, allowing the fabric of a certain dress to catch the light. Sunny was sitting with her legs pulled to her chest. Her eyes were darting around. “He took the eyes.”
“Someone who looks like my ex-boyfriend, Tony, but I know it’s not him.” Her eyes were glancing at an unlit corner.
Whoever it was, I could hear him laughing at us. It was clear, he had been waiting for me.
A teenage boy stood in the shadows. His long hair falling over his eyes as he twirled two balls in his hand. They looked like medicine balls or some kind of fidget toy.
“Tony?” I asked. No reply. As I approached, he looked more and more like a zombie or a broken mannequin. “Hey, man, I think you have something that belongs to me.”
Tony’s head jerked up, looking me in the eyes with his dark empty eye sockets. “So, now Jamie belongs to you?”
“That’s not what I meant. I’m just trying to help.”
“Help?” Tony’s mouth was filling with black saliva as he laughed out loud.
“I’m going to bring him to where he belongs, where he’ll be safe.”
“People like you are all the same!” Tony shouted. He made a visible effort to spit a wad of tar-like sludge in my face. “When he was alive he needed you and you weren’t there. But now he belongs to you? Is that really how love works?”
The tar, despite being the consistency of putty, seemed to go straight for my eyes. In a matter of seconds, I was blinded except for a few rays of light creating shadows. I clawed at my face but the material had dissipated. There was nothing to scrape off: I was screwed. My only course of action was to give him a real, rational response. And hope it would be enough to appeal to whatever logic this creature had. “I…”
I was about to answer when I heard Sunny using the wall to pull herself to her feet. “Yeah, that’s how it works,” her voice trembled as she spoke, “From the moment I held Tony’s hand in kindergarten my heart belonged to him.”
She pushed past me. even in my blinded state, I could still make out the shape of Sunny’s form. She appeared to be leaning in for a kiss.
Her voice was a soft, seductive whisper, “That’s why I know you’re not him.”
The next sound I heard was zombie-mannequin-Tony grunting in pain as he fell to his knees.
“Here,” Sunny said quickly. “I got the eyes back.”
“What did you do, kick him in the balls?”
“Yeah, let’s stick with that,” she paused for a moment as she placed Jamie’s eyes in my hands. “What do you see?”
Blinking my eyes, all I could see was fire the brimstone. This was not the first time I had set foot in hell but I had a feeling it would be my last. “Darkness and flames. What do you see?”
“I see a house,” Sunny said, in a calm voice.
I could hear the sound of her footsteps walking away. “Sunny?”
“This is just a dream, right?”
She entered the house, disappearing from my vision. As I drew closer to the house I felt colder. The air felt thick, with a toxic smell, as if the fire had already burned through the area. I blinked my eyes, desperate for the slightest hint of light.
A figure lay on the ground, huddled in the fetal position. “Sunny, is that you?”
No, it wasn’t Sunny. As I came closer I could hear the figure humming ever so softly, in a voice masculine and sweet. It was Jamie. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” the words were barely audible, sounding more like notes from a musical instrument. “That saved a wraith like me.” Those words were clearer; the figure was turning his head. “once was lost, but now I’m found.” The figure looked me in the eyes, revealing two black holes where his eyes used to be. “Was blind but now I see.”
I realized this was the part when I was meant to give him back his eyes. He wanted the eyes, I was holding the eyes. But I didn’t want to give them back, not now, not here.
Jamie started to laugh.
Even with my limited vision, I could see his long black hair floating around his face. It was as if he was filling with an electrical current. I braced myself for an attack. But all he did was stare at me; his bloody eye sockets, his dirt-encrusted skin covered in lesions, and his mouth. Even in death Jamie still had the mouth of a meth addict; cracked lips that seemed to bleed with every movement and a distinct lack of teeth.
It was a further reminder of how Jamie had taken his own life, gouging out his own eyes while ridiculously high. All because of me. “Jamie?”
“Do you know why I killed myself after you left?” My old friend’s voice sounded as beautifully clear, the same as when he was alive. “I was raped by a cult in some kind of sick ritual. They took turns, giving me drugs while they cut me, burned me.” Jamie reached his arm out, giving me a close-up view.
I had a feeling he expected me to be disgusted, maybe even terrified, so instead, I took his hand. Jamie’s skin was covered with puss-filled lesions and open sores. “You always had beautiful hands.”
“Fuck you,” he said as he jerked his hand away. “They promised me $100 and some food. I hadn’t eaten in days.” Jamie’s corpse was trembling, sobbing. “We went to a hotel and I-I just took it. I was their fuckboy-whore. They robbed me, beat me, then left me to die.”
I picked up Jamie’s body, attempting to hold him while still holding the eyes. His skin was coming off in chunks, revealing blackened flesh and protruding bones. I didn’t know what to say, so I asked the one thing I would have asked Jamie during his life. “What happened to your guitar?”
“I don’t even know. All I wanted was to die. I did a bunch of drugs, whatever they left behind in that hotel room, and I thought of you. I guess that was what gave me the strength to go outside and walk to the lake. I-I wanted to rest someplace beautiful.”
Jamie wasn’t angry, he was disappointed, broken.
And I had left him broken. “This isn’t beautiful,” was all I could say. “I just wanted you to get the help you needed.”
“I-I just needed you to believe in me.” Jamie took a breath, his chest expanding and contracting, like a bullfrog, until a tear started to form in the decaying skin. Black fluid oozed from his mouth as his ribcage opened like a bear trap.
I didn’t want to let go. I couldn’t, even before the bone spikes sank into my arms.
“Just give him back the eyes!” shouted a young male voice. A beam of light engulfed the room.
Suddenly my vision returned. I wish it hadn’t. I knew what I held in my arms, the condition of Jamie’s corpse, but I wasn’t ready to see it in 20/20 clarity.
A felt a hand upon my shoulder. “You know the saying ‘if you don’t love me at my worst you don’t deserve me at my best?’ As a proud former fuckboy, it took me a while to realize what that means.”
I turned to see a Hispanic teenage angel carrying Sunny over one shoulder. “Austin?”
I knew he was Sunny’s mom’s boyfriend, a high school senior who had healing powers and tended to act perpetually high.
“What happened to Sunny?”
“Dude, I found a way to follow you into hell and you’re more concerned with Sunny?”
“Cut the bullshit. You came to save Sunny, or else your sugar mama would cut you off.”
Austin laughed. “Yeah, maybe I did.” He paused, running his fingers through his hair. “But look, I come from a long line of helpful people, I think I can walk you through this.”
“Through what?” I asked. Austin the angel, made everything seem so simple as if he truly held all the answers.
“The fact that you’re forcing yourself not to touch him. You feel the way you feel because that’s not Jamie.”
“Not the Jamie I remember.”
“You probably remember the last time you held him, touched him.”
I nodded my head ever so slightly.
“Well, don’t. That moment was probably pretty shitty. Instead, I want you to remember the moment you knew Jamie was the one; the one worth leaving your calling for, the one who could save your soul.”
Somehow I knew exactly what he meant. I had maintained a relationship with Jamie for a little over a year, working in and around South Dakota just so I could come home to him.
Jamie lived out of a motel playing his music at clubs and bars. One day I came home to find him sick with the flu. He was asleep, so I carried him out to my truck and we drove into the South Dakota badlands.
Holding each other for warmth we slept in the truck, camping under the stars. “Is this what love feels like?” Jamie asked as he leaned in close, resting his head on my chest. “I’d give you my heart, but it’s all filled with hate and pain, and lots of heroin. but I’d love to give you my eyes, to let you show me someplace beautiful.”
Now, holding Jamie’s corpse my hands move on their own, placing Jamie’s eyes in their sockets. I saw him blink. A rush of energy struck me in the gut, causing me to close my eyes in pain.
When I opened them, I had been transported back to the truck. I knew what was about to happen, and it made me sick to my stomach. I was about to experience what happened after Jamie previous speech about love and beauty.
Jamie had fallen asleep on my chest. He looked so peaceful. The way his lips parted ever so slightly as he took a breath, looking like a genuine smile. In the passion of the moment, I had tried to kiss Jamie on the forehead as he slept, only for him to punch me in the face.
He sat up and gasped, gripping his hand in pain. “Oh God, no!” He paused for a moment, looking at me with shame and terror. Tears were welling up in his eyes. He muttered one last, “Oh fuck,” before pushing his way out the passenger door.
“Jamie, wait!” I cried. At that moment I was prepared to run after him, but that wouldn’t be necessary.
Jamie immediately left the truck and fell to his knees, vomiting on to the ground. “I’m sorry,” he said between labored breaths. “You didn’t deserve that.”
“You’re sorry?” Jamie was the last person who needed to be sorry. The world had done this to him; taken a butterfly and pulled its wings off until all that was left was a crippled creature pleading for death.
“My clients always want to touch me. I have to get high just so I don’t puke all over them.”
In the actual sequence of events, I had waited for him to finish vomiting and together we got back into my truck. This time needed to be different. I took his hand, helping him to his feet. There was an energy between us as we touched.
Sunny ran up to me. “Thank god you’re ok!” She gripped my shoulder. Now apparently part of the scene.
Jamie continued to stand up, facing me. They were both there, both real. What was this?
‘Oh yeah, this is hell.’
“We can get out of here!” Sunny said happily. “Austin is holding a portal open, we can leave back to Wisconsin.”
“You actually want to go back to Wisconsin?” This seemed off.
“What?” she chuckled. “Would you rather die?
“I don’t know who you are, but I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Hurt me?” her expression was changing to one of anger. “You really think I give a crap about this body- this life?” She placed her hand upon mine. Whoever this was, she was trying to make me let go of Jamie. “You have work to do. You have devoted your life to keeping the world in balance.”
Looking at Jamie, I could see his hand decaying.
“It’s fine, Leo, really. I can’t make you stay with me, no one can.” He was looking at me with his dark brown eyes; his real eyes. “I know the world needs Leo the spirit hunter, it’s what you were meant for.”
My decision was clear. “Yeah, it was either that or death.” I had been eighteen, depressed, desperately needing something to believe in. “I sold my soul for meaning, truth.” I looked to Sunny, or whoever was occupying her body. “I hope you find your truth someday.” I pulled Jamie closer. This was my choice; he was my choice.
God created Eve from Adam’s rib for a reason. He needed to strip away Adam’s perfection.
All beings are created in God’s image, but when we are sent to earth our true souls are broken to pieces. This forces us to spend our lives trying to find purpose, the one truth that can make us whole again. For some, it’s academics, arts, family, or even love. For me it was Jamie, it was always Jamie. I closed my eyes as we held each other, unsure of what would happen next.
When I opened them, I was standing in the middle of a dark road.
Austin was standing over Sunny, who was wearing her normal street clothes, leading me to believe this was now the true reality. Austin seemed to have wings made of light as he smiled a coy, sexy smile accompanied by a sigh. “I think it’s time to go home, too bad she won’t remember any of this.” Austin picked up Sunny’s unconscious body, this time carrying her like a bride. “When I get her back to Wisconsin, I’ll go back to being the horny teenager screwing her Mom.”
“Is there anything you can do for her?” I truly felt bad leaving Sunny without any closer about her missing father.
“I’ll still be there for her to bitch at,” Austin said with a shrug.
“You know what I mean,” I couldn’t help but smile, especially as I heard the sound of Jamie’s laughter.
Jamie put his arms around me, resting his head on my shoulder. “Yeah, angel-boy, there has to be someone you can hook her up with.”
“Well, there’s my Dad. Ever since my Mom died he’s been well… what’s a word that means something worse than depressed?”
Jamie chuckled as he kissed my cheek, “Someone with a dead wife and a fuckboy son?”
Austin rolled his eyes. “Well, my dad’s kind of a big deal.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Best mechanic at the second worst auto shop in Rock County. That and he’s an immortal Aztec God.”
I honestly didn’t know how to feel about that. “Well, if he’s anything like you, she’ll be in good hands.”
Austin nodded. “Thanks, Man.”
I looked at Jamie who still had his arms around me. “You ready to go?”
Jamie stroked his hand down my cheek. “I am.” His smile was one of pure light.
cupping his face in my hands, I kissed his forehead, down his nose to his lips. I feel his breath, his warmth. There are tears in his eyes as I feel his soft lips open to kiss mine. “I love you.”
The moment we vanished into the light was the moment I knew true happiness. There was where I was meant to be.
(Sunny’s story will continue …)