“I came to see what the new girl made for dinner,” said the Devil, standing among the maimed cooks in his Hell’s kitchen.
“Me?” I asked innocently.
“I made dessert.”
“Oh,” he clapped his hands together. “I love dessert, people don’t make dessert often enough here.”
“Well I managed to scrounge up the materials.”
He looked me up and down. “You don’t seem to be missing anything, except for a finger that is.”
I shook my head. “Nope, I managed to make you a dessert without maiming myself.”
He pouted. “Where’s the fun in that? What could you have possibly made?”
I turned around and brought the tray out from my hiding place. “Cupcakes.”
He blinked, seemingly lost for words.
“I made you cupcakes.”
There was a hiss of breath from all over the room.
“You made me cupcakes?”
I nodded enthusiastically.
“They’re pink,” he said.
“It seemed festive.”
I shrugged. “It’s the color of guts if that makes you feel better.”
He smiled again, that evil smile as he rolled his bottom lip under his teeth to bite down on it in anger. “Well, I’m glad you’re doing such a superb job, Abigail. But I thought perhaps you could use a little assistance, so I brought a sous chef to help you out. Lydia?”
A woman walked out from behind the Devil, her face barely recognizable. Her skin hung loosely over the bone, yellowed with age. Her arms were painted with pink circular patterns, as if a child had taken a stamp out and begun to decorate her arm, or like a mother that had used the arm to put out her many cigarettes. She was almost unrecognizable save for the cigarette that dangled between her lips and the large smile that spread across her lips at the sight of me.
“Hi Mom,” I whispered softly.
The Devil smiled, giving Lydia, my mother, a little push in my direction.
“I’ll leave you two to catch up.” He grabbed the platter of cupcakes. “Oh and thanks for these.”
I smiled slightly, never averting my eyes from the woman who had destroyed my life.
The Devil left us alone and everyone got back to work, sticking their eyeballs out with skewers and barbequing them, or baking their hearts into souffles. It was like a cooking show, Hell style.
“Well Abigail,” Mother said, coughing slightly, the ash falling from her cigarette, gray and toxic. “You’re looking good.”
“Thank you, Mother.” I said quietly. I turned back to the counter, thinking about what I could make next without cutting off another finger.
“It’s good to see you. It’s nice to be in a kitchen again, reminds me of the good old days.”
“What happened to your arm?” I asked.
“I said, what happened to your arm?”
“You know what happened to my arm.” She nodded to my own arm, which looked the same as hers. While my scars had faded to pale silver against my white flesh, hers were fewer and had not yet healed.
“Your punishment is to put out your cigarettes on your own arm?”
She didn’t speak, just grabbed a handful of thyme and began to chop it.
“The cigarettes aren’t my punishment,” she said. “I’m supposed to inflict every pain on myself that I did to you.”
I nodded, glancing back at my arm.
“Well it looks to me like you have a bit of time left to serve.”
She shrugged. “Only about a year left, I think. I broke my fingers for the fourth time last week.”
I stopped what I was doing, unable to move. “Excuse me?”
“I said, I only broke your hand four times, so I don’t really have that much time left to serve.”
My hands trembled and my breathing was unsteady, quivering inside my chest with a repressed fury. “I think you still have quite a bit more time to serve.”
“Huh?” she said absentmindedly, not looking up from the garlic she was mincing.
“I said that you still have a lot more time to serve. About 12 more years in fact.”
She looked at me. “Why do you say that?”
I smiled, unable to help myself, she wasn’t getting it, she was so blind, so stupid, that she couldn’t think outside herself. I took the knife that was no longer shaking in my hands and slid it into my mother’s stomach easily. The blood pooled through my fingers warm and pulsing. I bathed my fingers in my mother’s blood as she had done so many times in mine. I smiled as I twisted the blade, realizing with a sense of mixed joy and horror that this must have been how my mother felt.
She fell back, stunned. “Abigail!” she croaked.
“It was never about the physical pain, Mother. It was the betrayal. You hit me, you smacked me around, you broke bones, and you burned me. You stood by and let them do things to me.” I bit my lip hard till I tasted blood. “I was your kid, but at that moment when you turned away from me you ceased to be my mother. You ceased to be any part of me.” I was breathing heavily. “So now, I’m going to do what you did to me. And you have to live with it.” And with that I turned and walked toward the door where Gerry stood. “I would like to see him now.”
He nodded, leading me out into the main lobby and through a door to where the Devil sat, his long legs stretched in front of the fire.
“You’ve been playing a game of chess with me haven’t you, Abigail?” the Devil asked. “I make my move then you make yours. Who do you think is going to win in the end?”
“I don’t know sir,” I answered. “I know exactly what you are,” I said. “You’re the Devil. You punish the wicked. You force them to live in eternal torment. You’re also responsible for when those chosen many die. So I came here now to thank you. You were the one who took my mother from me, and for that I am eternally grateful. So you can be as horrible and as cruel as you want to be to me now. You can force me to work side by side with the woman who hit me. The woman who duct-taped my hand and slammed the door closed over and over again until my fingers broke, and the woman who didn’t lift a finger to stop her boyfriends from raping me after they were done with her. You can force me to spend every minute of the rest of my existence with her, but you can’t make me forget the kindness you have shown me by taking her away and inflicting her punishment. I was twelve when she died, fell down the stairs in one of her drunken hazes and broke her neck; because of you I got out and was able to grow up into the woman I am today. I was able to get my G.E.D. and go to college, and fall in love. Because of your kindness in taking her away from me at the age of 12, I am able to face her at the age of 25.”
“What did you do?”
“What did you do to get here, what did you do that made the boys upstairs believe you were evil?”
“You don’t know?”
He shrugged. “About 10 years ago we started delegating to outside contractors.”
“Why are you here?” he repeated.
I smiled. “You already know that.”
His smile mirrored mine. “Maybe, but I want you to say it out loud. I want you to admit it to yourself. I’m cruel like that.”
“I pushed my mother.”
“You shouldn’t have been sent here for that.”
I smiled wryly. “I wasn’t sent here because I pushed her. I was sent here because I pushed her down the stairs. She died. I killed her.”
The mother’s face has a flicker of recognition as she realizes what is happening and what has been done. The moment seems to last forever as the mother fumbles blindly for something to hold onto, something to save herself, but she cannot stop looking into the little girl’s eyes, enthralled and hypnotized by the hatred she finds in them.
“Well that is something we serve punishment for.”
We were silent for a while.
“Do you really let others decide who goes to Hell and who doesn’t?”
He chuckled. “I don’t let them, it’s out of my hands. The guys upstairs get to decide who’s naughty and nice and I’m not even consulted.”
“So you don’t know why everyone is here? Why they’re serving out their sentence in the most feared prison on, or rather in the planet?”
“I only know the worst of the worst. You know the Hitlers and of course,” he rolled his eyes, “the Obamas. Can you believe those Tea Partyers? I can’t wait to have a sit down with them when they get here.”
“You’re not getting any special treatment you know. No matter how nice you are to me, or how much you try to manipulate me. You’re not getting out of Hell.”
I nodded, a sad smile on my face. “I know, and you know what. I’m okay with that. I did something bad and now I’m going to pay for it.”
He narrowed his eyes in disbelief. “Really?”
He shook his head. “Humans, I’ve never understood them.”
I glanced over at Gerry, looking him straight in the eye for a second before looking back at the Devil. “I’m accepting my punishment, sir,” I said slowly, speaking the words I knew would bring my freedom. “I am repenting for my sins.”
He nodded. “I understand.”
“If that’s all?”
He nodded again, staring back towards the fireplace. “You may go. Oh and Abigail, Hell isn’t just a place, you know. It’s a state of mind.” He smiled, a mischievous glint in his eye. “Why don’t you ponder on that for the rest of your existence?”
“Did you mean what you said?” Gerry asked as he walked me out of the Devil’s study and into the main lobby where the stairs stood.
“Every word. If I could take back what I did I would, but I can’t change the past.”
He swallowed, his hand unconsciously touching his neck and the thin chain that was around it. “Barry,” he said to the man at the desk guarding the exit. “I’ll take it from here.”
The man nodded and left.
Gerry cocked his head to the exit. “Go! If you go through that arch, you’ll be able to walk up the stairs.”
“Why are you doing this?” I asked.
“Because you have repented and paid for your sins. You don’t deserve to be down here.”
I squeezed his hand gently. “Thank you.” And without a glance back I walked through the doorway and up the stairs.
I emerged back on earth through, unbelievably, the closet door in my apartment. I glanced over at the clock on my bedside table, which read October 5, 2013. It had been a week. I had been dead only a week. I smiled, unable to believe that I had achieved the impossible. I had been as manipulative and as clever as the Devil himself, playing on Gerry’s religion and his sense of morality. He was religious and he clearly felt that God had betrayed him by sending him down there. While he couldn’t escape, himself, he could help others he thought were down there unjustly.
I laughed softly as I walked out of the bedroom. “Kevin!” I called. My fiance would be so surprised. Would he faint? Would he scream? I thought of the different ways I could break it to him gently. “Hey honey, I came back from the dead, I escaped from Hell. I beat the Devil, so that I could come back to you.”
I was still smiling as I walked into the living room to see Kevin lying on the floor amongst a handful of pills, his skin pale and blue, his blond hair messed up as it always was early in the morning when he just got out of bed.
My smile slowly melted away like a winter’s first snow, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a napkin lying on the couch. One word had been scribbled onto a cocktail napkin.
And the Devil’s last words to me ran through my head. “Hell isn’t just a place, you know. It’s a state of mind.”
Ashleigh Macdonald-Bennett, an Amagansett resident, has a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing from the State University at Purchase. Her stories have previously appeared in The Star, and this one, she notes, is in no way autobiographical, particularly as concerns her mother. She works at the East Hampton Library.