Jason stood in the front garden, leaning on the spade, and looked down at the small empty shell that was once his daughter. He felt a cold chill run down his spine as he saw the large jagged indentation just above her temple.
I don’t care what happens to me now, he thought, but if I could take this back for you, Angel… Make it better somehow… I’d do it. I’d do anything for you, my beautiful… precious… baby. Jason crouched down, laid the spade on the ground, and combed Emily’s blood-matted hair away from her eyes with tender hands. He looked up at the rolling smoke. “Please, God,” he asked, for the first time in his life. “Please take this back. Change this. Forget about my worthless soul, but not hers. Not my Angel. She didn’t deserve this.” He looked down at Emily.
“And you the atheist.”
He turned and saw Lilith standing in the doorway, watching him. Ignoring her, he stood and picked up the spade and then looked down at Emily once more, before digging a hole next to her. Four years ago, the judge had refused his request to leave custody for an hour to go to his daughter’s funeral. The judge’s decision had been influenced by one pre-pubescent, acne-ridden doctor, who said it would be “Too much of a risk to Mr Drake’s fragile state of mind.” This time he would dig the grave and bury her himself. And no schoolboy with a Ph.D. would stop him.
“What are you doing?” Lilith asked, mocking curiosity in her tone.
“You can read my mind, work it out.”
“You realise that you’re burying your daughter in hell, don’t you?”
“Just let me do this one thing, just this one thing! Then you can go back to tormenting me as much as you want.”
“Don’t worry. I have no intention of stopping you from digging that hole. Stick it in the ground if it makes you feel better.”
“Emily! Her name is Emily.”
“No, her name was Emily. But she won’t answer to it anymore, will she? So now she’s just decaying flesh and not worthy of a name.”
“Why did she have to die?” Jason thought aloud.
“Because your wife killed her. Are you having trouble keeping up with current events? Your wife smashed her head in with a slab of marble.”
“At least tell me that my wife is down here, too. Burning in a lake of fire or something?”
“Lake of fire? There are no lakes of fire here, Jason, and hell is not below ground. Hell isn’t anywhere you would understand.”
“My wife, is she here?”
“What? She killed my… her daughter.”
“And she felt remorse. Zoe asked to be forgiven, and so she was.”
“But… Murder. Isn’t that a fucking sin? She killed someone.”
“And you killed your wife. But you have no regret, do you? You took a life and all you have in your heart is anger. You and your wife had a chance for forgiveness; she took it, you didn’t.”
“You bitch!” Jason yelled, as he launched the spade.
The projectile headed, straight and true, towards its unflinching target. Then it vanished.
Lilith’s gemstone eyes smouldered as she said, “She’s gone with your next breath.”
He looked at her for a moment, fearful and perplexed, and then he realised what she meant. “No!” He looked down just in time to see Emily’s tiny body become stone. A web of small cracks shot across the surface of her face and then her entire body crumbled. A moment later, Emily disintegrated into a fine powder and took to the light wind, leaving nothing but a blood-soaked yellow dress lying on the ground next to an empty grave. His shoulders dropped. “No more. Please, no more.”
“But we’re just getting started. I have more for you, much, much more. You’ll know the essence of true pain before I cast you aside. This is just self-pity you’re feeling right now, which does nothing for me at all.”
“Derwood,” Jason announced in despair. “Derwood said there’s a way out of this place. You’ve left something by a mountain for us, and if we find it you’ll let us go.”
“I’ve been waiting for you to ask about my little game.”
“Game? Was Derwood right or not? Is there a way out of here? Or is he yet another fucked-up soul? Another toy for your amusement.”
“That’s better, Jason. Anger is so much more interesting than self-pity. Yes. He was right. You all get a chance to play my special game.”
“And what will I win? Three wishes, which will all turn out to be not quite what I expected? Make a deal with the Devil and don’t act surprised when you get burned.”
“I’ve already told you, Jason, I’m not the Devil. You’ve met the Devil, so why are you having trouble distinguishing us?”
“You watched him eat one of those who made a deal.”
“Hobs, Jason. The Devil is very much alive, so worthy of a name. Although, like me, he also has many names and cares not which one is used when he comes to collect.”
“You’d be surprised how many worms want to make a deal with the Devil. For a small piece of gold in life, they’re willing to give so much in death.”
Despondent and with no other options, he asked, “The game?”
“The game is simple enough, and if you win, you get that which you most desire. No tricks, no misunderstandings.”
“How can I trust anything you say?”
“Well, I suppose you can’t. But what’s a game without the gamble. Play, don’t play, it’s up to you, Jason. I’ll get what I want in the end, anyway. This is simply a chance for you to get something you want, too. For my amusement, I like to make a game of it. You still don’t understand how insignificant you are, do you? As I stand here and tell you this, I’m also with a million other people, having a million other conversations similar to this one. Your wishes, the prize I’ll give should you win, is of no consequence. You, and the millions of others like you, mean little more than a passing sigh to me. Do you understand? Let me put it another way…” She brushed something from her dress with a flick of her hand and then continued. “When you were twelve years old, you once walked across a field to go fishing in a nearby river. Your mother and father had been arguing again, and you wanted to get away from them. I can see that memory, can you?”
“Arguing. That’s one way of putting it. A violent bastard who couldn’t keep his hands…” Jason shook his head. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Do you remember all the cows in that field? How frightened you were by those big monstrous beasts, but you marched on. Through those scary creatures. As you continued on your way, the cows came closer and closer. They were curious about you. You ran across that field, away from the approaching inquisitive monsters. Until you fell over something—do you remember that?”
“A fox.” The memory came back to Jason as if it had happened yesterday. He remembered the fox, and its whimpering struggle, and how the sight had sickened him.
“Yes, a fox. Someone had shot it with a crossbow. The bolt and the fox’s shattered leg bone protruded from a festering wound.”
“I didn’t shoot it and I don’t know who did. I wouldn’t hurt an animal, then or now.”
“No, you didn’t shoot it, but you did stand there and watch as that poor creature struggled to drag itself across the field. You watched the creature for a few minutes until it moved no more, its fight for life all but done. Then you watched as a multitude of flies gorged themselves on that once majestic and beautiful creature. Watched as those flies fed upon the open wound. You watched until your curiosity had waned, and then you left that field, the cows, and that dying creature with its swarm of disgusting ravenous flies. An hour later you pulled your first fish from the river. How happy you felt to catch that fish, the earlier events unimportant to you and soon forgotten.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Jason, you’re like one of those flies. Buzzing around an open, festering wound.”
A long moment passed, before Jason asked, “How do I play your game?”
“First, I want you to meet someone. Follow me.”