Chuck’s Challenge this week: Hell.
Here, then, are 917 words. Still no happiness to be found in my short work. This one kinda turned my stomach at the end.
Norman ran down his mental checklist a final time. Shoes: polished to a mirror finish. Tie: red, powerful, Windsor-knotted for a spot of class. Jacket: freshly dry-cleaned and impeccably lint-rolled. He’d chosen the pinstripe but couldn’t help thinking that the simple charcoal might be better suited. He chuckled under his breath at the little pun. Resume: perfect.
In short, he was as poised as he was going to be for what was likely the job interview of his lifetime. The vinyl seat cushion squeaked every time he shifted his buttocks, which was often, given the nerves that the situation called for. A bit of a cheap choice, the vinyl, but then, who was he to judge?
He checked his watch, an expensive-looking cheap thing he’d put on as an afterthought. He had decided after much deliberation that his prospective employer was likely concerned with punctuality. Six after six. The secretary, one of those too-attractive women they put out front of swanky offices to both lure men in and intimidate them with a single low-cut blouse, looked his way.
“Mister Mantooth?” Her voice was full, smoky, devilish.
Norman stood up, picked up his briefcase, tugged his lapels into place, and approached her.
“Luke will see you now.” She led him down a fluorescent hallway replete with the drabbest of potted focuses imaginable. Everything about the office, in fact, had been totally forgettable, Norman realized as he took in the cookie-cutter heavily pocked ceiling tiles that hung just overhead.
Everything, that is, up until now. She stopped at a heavy, oaken double-door and used the oversized, blackened cast-iron ring to knock. Its heavy thud reverberated in Norman’s bones.
“Good luck,” she said, sashaying away as the doors creaked open.
Seated behind the desk was the man that Norman had dreamt of meeting. The man he’d spent his life hoping just to stand in his presence. The man whose example he had followed as he slavishly shaped his soul for his life’s work. And now Norman was here, in the flesh, about to interview for a job working with the man. Norman felt giddy.
Luke was a perfectly nondescript man in every way, except that he seemed to be a little too much everything. His suit, simple and gray, but there seemed to be too much of him stuffed into it. His smile, white and inviting, but a little too eager. His hands, strong and sure, but a little too well-manicured. His eyes, bright and youthful, but a little too red. He welcomed Norman with the warmest of greetings and invited him to sit down opposite his gleaming glass desk. The naked man on hands and knees at the side of Luke’s chair said nothing. Norman sat, brushing imaginary dust off his knee as he crossed his legs, attempting to look anywhere but at the naked man.
“Don’t listen to anything this guy tells you,” Luke said with a too-charming smile, and sat himself, sending a cloud of ember-smelling air through the room.
Norman reached for his resume, but Luke waved it away. “Your qualifications are in order; let’s not worry about that. What I need to know is,” Luke paused, clipping and then lighting a leathery-looking cigar, “what kind of man are you?” He pulled a deep breath in through the cigar, its end shimmering, orange and ash.
Norman licked his lips and fingered his briefcase. “May I?”
Luke waved his free hand: by all means.
Placing the briefcase on the cold glass, Norman pulled from within it a small object, cradling it the way a man making shelter in a snowstorm might cradle his last match. He offered the bundle, a tiny, near weightless trinket wrapped in bloodstained tissue paper, to Luke, who took it in his free hand and upended it, sending it tumbling and skittering across the glass. A human finger.
Luke eyed it like a co-worker’s baby pictures. “Whose?”
“She used to wave it in my face when she scolded me as a child.”
Luke picked up the finger, passed it under his nose, and bounced it off the naked man’s head. “Boring. What else can you show me?”
Norman was ready. Next was a news clipping, a story about a burnt-down church. “My work,” Norman said, allowing himself a small self-satisfied smile.
“Please.” Luke rolled his eyes and stubbed his cigar out on the nape of the naked man’s neck; the man whimpered and wept, but did not cry out, did not move. Luke stood, unfastened his cufflinks. Sparkling goat heads, rubies for eyes. Smoke seeped out at the seams of his coat. “Unimaginative. Last chance.”
“Wait,” Norman said. “I have a child.”
Luke grinned a horrific grin, the sudden smile splitting the corners of his mouth, his eyes glowing a gory crimson. “Yes, yes, you all have children. Hell is full of parents whose children can’t survive without them.” The shadow of enormous black wings enveloped Norman, shutting out light and hope.
“You don’t understand.” Norman loosened his tie, drawing from around his neck a string of what looked like dental floss knotted through a series of beach-broken sea shells. The devil drew closer, exhaling thin tendrils of black smoke without the need of his cigar. Fingernails. “They’re my daughter’s.”
The devil became Luke again, seeming to shrink in size as he cocked his head to re-appraise this man. He yanked the macabre jewelry from Norman’s neck, held it to the light, bit off one of the fingernails, chewed it, and swallowed, all while staring into Norman’s unblinking eyes.
He tossed the string of nails back to Norman and approached him once more, this time extending his hand with a genuine, toothy smile. “When can you start?”