An excerpt from
Hell looks like Death Valley.
That’s my first thought as I realize I’m standing in the center of a vast expanse of hard, flat ground, cracks running like claw marks as far as I can see. Blinding light surrounds me, and I throw my arm over my head in an attempt to shut it out. It’s blisteringly hot. I’m sure this is Hell because the last thing I remember is getting behind the wheel in a suburb outside Seattle with a blood alcohol level that must have registered somewhere between head-in-the-toilet and comatose.
In the distance I hear screams like someone’s being tortured. I spin in place trying to locate the sound, but there’s only wind. I lick my lips, already chapped from the heat, and start to move. The direction doesn’t matter—anywhere is better than here. But after twenty minutes filled with distant, intermittent shrieks of terror, I realize I’m getting nowhere fast.
I fall to my knees and lower my head to the ground. I’m thirsty, I’m exhausted, I’m scared, and I’m pretty sure I’m dead. I take a deep breath, nearly choking on the sand, and stand up, dusting off my jeans.
“Well you finally got your wish, Josh,” I say out loud. My voice echoes all around.
“Why would you ever wish for this?” It’s a drawling male voice that speaks in my ear, and it makes me shiver like ice has just been poured down my shirt. I turn open-mouthed toward the man behind me.
“Joshua Gaynes,” he says, placing an arm around my shoulder with a dangerous smile. “Have I got a proposition for you.”
The man smells like my dad trying to cover up after an all night bender—too much Old Spice. He appears middle-aged with salt and pepper hair. He’s dressed in a pinstripe suit, and his shoes look freshly shined. But the thing I notice most are his eyes, dark and intense. They make me uncomfortable.
He hands me a glass of ice-cold lemonade with a tiny purple umbrella and a swirly-straw. I’m sure he didn’t have it a moment ago, but I take it eagerly, throw the straw and umbrella to the ground, and guzzle. When I’m done, I wipe my mouth with the back of my arm and see that he’s still standing there with that awful grin, watching me like I’m a dog who’s just performed a good trick.
“Where am I?” I have many questions, but I start with this one.
“Where do you think you are?”
“I don’t need therapy, I need an explanation.”
“Hell,” I guess.
“Clever. How old were you? Seventeen?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Wait. Were?”
“You don’t think you could still be alive if you’re here, do you? I’m counting on you being smarter than that, Joshua.”
“So I really am…” I can’t bring myself to finish.
“Dead? Oh, yes. Irrevocably. And you haven’t exactly been the poster child for goodness, have you, my boy?”
I swallow hard. “So what happens now?” I ask when I’m able to speak.
“That, Joshua, is up to you.”
“So I get a second chance?” That’s good news. Could I manage it? I try to picture it. I’ve always taken the easy way out, and I’m not so sure I could cut it as “good guy” material.
“No. No second chances I’m afraid. Not in my territory. There’s only a choice. Eternal torture—” He pauses while the screams in the distance reach a crescendo, “—or you do me a favor.”
“That’s right. Now, I’m not saying it will be easy. But I believe once you have considered the alternative, you will find it most reasonable.” He offers me another lemonade.
“Do people really choose…that?” I ask, pointing into the distance.
“Not everyone has an option.”
Did his eyes just flash red? “What’s so special about me?”
“Not everyone has your charm, your quick wit, or your looks. You’d be surprised how many things people will do for someone as handsome as you.”
No. I wouldn’t. That’s probably why I’m here.
“What do I have to do?” I ask, accepting the drink.
“’Atta boy, Joshua. I knew you’d see it my way.”
There’s no mistaking the red glow in his eyes this time.