Jason ran like a blind man within the smoke. The ground was soft sludge beneath his feet, and with no visible reference to maintain a straight line, he let hope guide his path. He ran until his muscles became alight with fatigue, and then stopped to let them cool and to catch his rampaging breath. He knew that he could run for at least five miles before his muscles and lungs felt like this, but he had doubts as to whether he had travelled any distance at all. His screaming muscles told him he had, but his eyes told him nothing. He could feel a light wind and see its mild turbulent effect on the smoke, creating swirls of grey within the blackness.
He smelled the air. He had expected it to have a smell of burning wood or sulphur, but it didn’t. When he first ran into the smoke he’d noticed its strange odour, but thoughts of escape had consumed his mind so he paid it little attention. The smell became more nauseating with every breath. It smelled like old, stale perfume. He breathed through his mouth to keep the stench away from his nose, but the repulsive scent persisted. An odd sensation brushed over his skin. His anxiety rose. He felt as though unknown eyes were now watching him, faceless minds debating him. He held his breath for a moment and listened. He could hear whispering, chattering voices coming from somewhere within the smoke. With a sudden increase in volume, the voices became more distinct.
“Get on your knees,” one voice ordered.
“No,” said another. “Get on your belly and squirm like the maggot you are.”
Yet another voice called out, “Prostrate your flesh and let the sodomites have their fun.”
Manic laughter erupted from the many voices.
Jason launched himself into a staggering run once more.
Keep moving, he encouraged himself. There has got to be a way out of this. This can’t be how it is when you die; there must be a way out. There’s no way this is it. He could hear many voices now, rushing up to him as he ran. They were all talking at once in a cacophony of derision interspersed with more laughter. The book of Jason’s life was now open, the pages being ripped from their bindings and devoured. His life’s misdeeds and character defects were being vomited back at him by the faceless entities within the smoke.
“Pissing on your father’s grave, instead of facing him when blood still pumped through his veins. Too frightened to stand up to him when he was still alive. Too much of a coward to protect your mother from him. You were a worthless son, Jason.”
“A kid, you bastards. I was a fucking kid when all that happened. What could I have done?”
“Your mother died alone, Jason. Her last breath choked by her tears. Was that one-night stand worth it? Fucking a woman you’d never see again while your mother’s cancer took its final bite. You knew that would be the night she’d die. Shit on the heel of a discarded shoe has more worth than you.”
Jason stopped running, tears now adding to his blindness. “I cared for her. By her bedside for a year. Day and night. One night that’s all. For just one night, I wanted to think about something other than death. I… I… I know she died alone.”
“A pathetic spectator to your wife’s growing madness, weren’t you? You knew what it would lead to, yet you did nothing. Waited for the inevitable to happen and then killed her for it.”
Jason fell to his knees and laughed back at the voices, hysteria in his voice as he screamed, “You won’t get to me that way. You’re too late. You say I’m pathetic. You say I have no worth. Well, you’re at the back of a fucking long queue, with me at the front. So, if that’s all you’ve got, you’re wasting your time.”
The smoke cleared. To his dismay, he realised he hadn’t travelled very far at all and now knelt on the dead grass of his old garden again. He looked up and saw a familiar face looking down at him.
“Self-pity again?” Lilith said. “You should give yourself a slap, Jason. Get off your knees and look at what your caretaker has for you.” She pointed to the spectral being standing a few feet to his right, its hands held out, offering something to him.
A deep raking sound emanated from the caretaker’s chest. Then its words exploded into Jason’s head. “Take it.”
Jason got to his feet and looked at the caretaker’s open hand. “Take what? Your hand’s empty.”
“Before you do,” Lilith interrupted. “If you still want to play my little game, the mountain is over there.”
Jason turned to see where she was directing, and realised that his old house and garden now stood in a vast desert. His house sat upon a high plateau looking out over an immense ocean of grey dunes. He watched for a moment as wafting peaks marked the gradual progress of the dunes in their slow waltz with the indecisive wind. The cloudless sky appeared grey, although a shade or two lighter than the sand of the desert. A dark smudge on the far horizon separated the desert from the sky.
“That’s it,” Lilith confirmed. “At the foot of that mountain is a cave. If you go into that cave, you’ll find it.”
“What? What will I find?”
“Well, it wouldn’t be much of a game if I told you that, now would it.”
“Derwood said it was by the entrance to the cave.”
“Derwood, like so many here, is weak-minded. I told him the same thing I tell everyone who wants to play my game: go to that mountain, find the cave, and then follow it. If you do that, you’ll win the game. But, if you’re too scared to explore the cave, you’ll find nothing but an unbroken eternity of pain and suffering.”
“Has anyone won this little game of yours?”
“Oh, yes. Many have played, and many have found the prize. In fact, Derwood is about to work up the nerve to enter that cave. So, he will find it soon, too.”
“How do you know that?”
“Jason, have I taught you nothing. I am everywhere and anywhere I want to be: here and there. This is my world and I see all.”
“What do I get if I win the game?”
“You’re tiresome, Jason. Find that which I have left for you and I’ll grant you your true heart’s desire. I’ll give you a long and happy life with your wife and daughter. I’ll give them both back to you.”
“My wife! I don’t want…”
“Yes you do, Jason. You want it to be as it once was, and I’ll give that to you. The last four years of your life will disappear from your memory, and I’ll place you in a time before it all went wrong for you. Your wife will get better. She’ll not kill Emily, and so you’ll not feel the need to kill her. You and Zoe will stay together, in love, well into old age. Emily will grow up and have children of her own. They will all love you and make you happy. Then after living your lives together, Zoe will die one year before you do, at peace in her sleep. One year to the day after your wife, at the grand age of ninety-one, you too will go to bed and die in your sleep. A guarantee of a long happy life is what I’ll give you if you go to that mountain, go into the cave and find that which I have left for you. Now, if you want to play, take the flower from your caretaker.”
Jason looked once more at the dark smear on the horizon and then glanced back at Lilith. She no longer smiled. She held his gaze with a seriousness devoid of sadistic levity, hitherto unseen by him. He turned to the caretaker and looked up into its dead eyes, then reached for its empty open hand.