“So how do we get into the apartment? Do we go through the club?” I asked curiously, unsure of what to do, and took a tentative step forward.
Michael grabbed my hand. “Nah, there’s always stairs around the back of these places. Come on.” He paused for a second. “Don’t ask me how I know that.”
“I have a feeling I already know.”
He pulled me around the club and, sure enough, a brittle metal staircase that looked like a fire escape greeted us. I tried my best to ignore the couple having sex on a filthy mattress that looked like it had been used for that purpose before. “The door’s up there.”
I went first and was careful of where I stepped, not wanting to break it and fall onto the cement below. I finally reached the metal door after climbing up the zigzagging stairs and knocked. I thought I heard something inside, but it also could have been the club, which was certainly alive below. I knocked again, louder, and waited, turning to Michael to ask questions. “So, how do you know what time it is? Is it nighttime? Did I sleep that long?”
“No one knows the time here.”
“But what about the clubs and bars and…” I motioned down below. “And there’s never a sun or moon?
“They’re on 24/7 but the sky stays the same. It’s always red and stormy.”
“No sunrise to stop the parties, I guess.” I knocked again. “What about jobs? Do people have jobs? Are you required to have jobs?”
“Well yeah, this shit couldn’t run if no one worked.” Michael chuckled. “Usually, it’s not required, unless you do something to piss off the leaders and they let you off easy. Those are the unsavory jobs, though. Some people eventually get bored of this stuff and settle down, just getting a job to pass the time. We’re here forever, so yeah.”
“Not settled down yet?” I elbowed Michael softly and grinned.
“How long have you been here?”
“It doesn’t feel like very long, but time just blurs together so it’s impossible to tell, really, but I have a feeling time passes a lot slower here than on the upside. Doesn’t really matter, though.”
“I was just curious. Obviously, I’m a fresh addition to the legions of Hell, but you seem pretty comfortable here. You know a lot.”
Michael slung his arm around me with a laugh. “I guess you could say I’m your mentor, Persephone. I could teach you a lot of other things in the sheets if you’re curious about that.”
I rolled my eyes and pushed him off of me. “No thanks.” I grimaced. “What was the year you died?”
“The turn of the millennium. Everyone thought the world was going to end.”
My eyes widened. “Yeah, it’s been a little while since then.”
Michael’s eyes squinted for a second, something he did when he thought, and he let out a heavy sigh. “Fine, you’ve peaked my interest, wretched woman. No, wait. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
“You’d look like my father, probably.” I laughed.
He groaned. “Thank God I died when I did, am I right?”
I glanced at the door. “Why isn’t she answering? I’m getting worried.” I knocked on the door even harder and finally it was pulled open.
“Speaking of the devil…” Michael grinned and winked at Fia, who was hastily pulling her robe closed and smoothing her wild hair back.
“I brought you your stuff!” I smiled and handed her the bag. “Can we come in?”
She looked a little flustered but grabbed her bag from me. “Uh, well, I have someone over right now.”
“Oh, oh!” My eyes widened.
Someone shouted from inside. “Yo, redhead, what’s taking so long? Someone come to join our little party?” A man could be seen further back in her apartment, completely naked, and met my eyes. “Well, damn. You didn’t tell me you knew someone as hot as that cute little blonde piece of ass.”
Michael looked over me and glared, but his eyes widened. “Hey man, long time no see!”
“Yeah, dude, it’s been awhile, since you stole that one girl from me, actually. Put some damn clothes on, though. I don’t want to see your dick all hanging about.”
“Fine, fine, fine!” The man inside grumbled and grunted. “How do you know these little hotties?”
“Persephone took the penthouse in my apartment building yesterday and Fia is her friend.”
“Fia?” The man looked confused and Michael glanced sharply over to her. “Oh, Fia, right.”
Fia looked annoyed with us.
“Or not. Hey, Fia, we can just leave, too…” I pulled on Michael’s arm.
She glanced back at the man inside, who was now dressed, and hissed, rubbing her head. “No, it’s fine, this guy was just leaving.”
“I was?” He asked, surprised.
“Yes, you were. Get out.” Fia suddenly lashed out at him, her mood changing so quickly I shrunk away in fear.
“Well, damn.” He chuckled nervously, coming closer to the door. She let him pass, but as he passed me, he whispered, “cunt,” under his breath.
I caught his arm and hissed a warning. “Don’t say that about my friend.”
“Hands off, Pride bitch.” He raised his hand at me.
“Woah dude, don’t fuck with her. She was full on supposed to be placed in Sector Violence, Judges’ orders.” Michael cut in and moved between the man and me.
The man appeared to be amused as he peered over Michael’s broad shoulders. “She doesn’t look like much.”
“I bet that’s what the three men thought before she killed them in the shootout.”
I tried not to look phased as Michael hit the man with that tall tale. The man was clearly surprised and looked between us, narrowing his eyes to try and determine if we were bluffing or not. I guess Michael had a good poker face because the man jerked away and left without another word.
Fia arched her eyebrow. “Something you haven’t told me?”
“No!” I jumped away and got in front of Michael. “What were you thinking? You can’t just say that stuff!”
“I can. I just did.”
“But what if someone tries to put that to the test?”
“Reid? I know him, he wouldn’t try anything like that. He acts like he’s tough but he’s a wimp, seriously.”
“Wimpy in the bed department as well.” Fia huffed and let us inside. “So what are you two doing here?”
“Sorry that we interrupted your little get-together.” I chuckled nervously. “I just wanted to see if you were okay. After what happened…”
“Uh, yeah, I’m fine. Dead, as you well know, but fine.”
“We were drugged last night, Fia. I wanted to make sure you got home okay.”
Fia glanced around. “Oh, well, looks like I did, but I guess that explains why I woke up in a puddle of my own vomit. That hasn’t happened since I was 14.”
I grimaced. “Do you even remember?”
“It was Lady Callista, apparently. Some people outside told us.”
“Why would she…” Fia looked confused as she struggled to remember.
“She wouldn’t.” Michael jumped in. “She only did it because Lord Luca ordered her to.”
“And why would he do that?”
Michael’s gaze flickered over to me and I blushed.
Fia’s followed. “Persephone?”
“Because I asked him to,” I mumbled in embarrassment. They were going to make a big deal about this.
Her green eyes widened and she looked at Michael. “Whipped?”
“That’s what I was thinking.”
Fia blew up at me with excitement, invading my personal space. “What did you do? Give him the best blow job or fuck in his life?”
I grimaced again. “Ew, no.”
“She said she didn’t do anything. He just ran into her after the second fight when she was passing out and he took her home and stayed the night to look after her.”
She crinkled her nose at me. “Sounds like commitment. Disgusting.”
“I doubt it. You don’t know Lord Luca. I think this is the only time I’ve ever heard of him not fucking and ducking. I bet he’ll go back to it tonight. His exploits are legendary.” Michael said and the look in his face said his heart was swelling with pride.
“Men.” I shook my head, disgusted. “I don’t plan on letting him into my apartment ever again.”
“I know what you mean, girl,” Fia said, sighing. “When women start acting like the men do, we get called sluts. Hypocritical assholes, if you ask me. Why can’t my exploits be legendary?”
“Hey, there’s a man in the room!” Michael said, his ego visibly deflating.
“Good. You can take our words to heart.”
“I like to think that I’m a genuinely nice guy--”
I made a funny face. “Then why are you here?”
“--With a few character defects that brought me here.” Michael finished and glared at me.
I grinned and shrugged. “Hey, we’re all here for a reason I guess.”
The other two mumbled their agreements, but fell quiet, minus the pounding music from the club below.
“That must get annoying,” I remarked as I glanced down.
“Yeah, but I’m sure I’ll get used to that dumb music eventually.”
“Hey, I like this song!” Michael frowned.
“But it’s so old and overplayed.”
I leaned over to Fia and whispered, “He died in, like, 2000.”
“Oh, that would explain it,” Fia smiled sympathetically. “Well, any crazy parties tonight, Michael?”
“Yes, actually. Every night there’s all kinds of parties, and you live above a popular club. It’s not like it’s hard finding somewhere to party.”
I groaned as I shuddered and my stomach churned just thinking about alcohol. “Count me out of that one.”
“You’re lame.” Fia rolled her eyes. “But I guess we’ll manage.”
“Yeah, I’m fine staying home by myself, but Michael, what about what you said earlier?” I rubbed my stomach and tried to quiet the growls.
“Huh? Oh! You hungry, Fia?”
“Yeah, sure. Why?”
“I was planning on taking Persephone over to Sector Gluttony to try out the amazing food there. Anything high-end you could possibly imagine.”
“Sounds good. I’ve heard from the other girls that there’s also awesome spas in that sector so would you like to join me, Persephone?”
“A massage sounds so good right now, honestly.”
* * *
At dinner, Fia proposed a rather interesting question. “Michael, you might want to cover your ears for this.”
He looked confused. “Why?”
Fia laughed and shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
I set down my fork and wiped my mouth with my napkin. “Now I’m intrigued.”
“So basically everyone stays the same age as they were when they died, right? Well, I was thinking about something. Do women still have their menstrual cycle down here? I mean, there wouldn’t be any point to having one, I know. It’s so nice not having to worry about birth control and STDs, let me tell you…”
Michael was staring hard at his food and trying not to have a reaction.
I watched him with amusement. So many men were incredibly uncomfortable with this subject. “I don’t think so. I certainly hope not.”
“But what if you died on your period? Would you have one for eternity?”
“I literally cannot think of a punishment worse than that. I certainly fucking hope not.” That sounded horrible. “I wasn’t on my period when I died. You?”
“Well, eventually we’ll find out if we still have one or not, but I guess we won’t ever know about the dying on your period proposition. Unless you want to ask someone yourself. No way in hell I’m going to do it.” I turned to Michael, whose ears were turning pink. “So, Michael, with your superior knowledge of all things related to Hell, do you know?”
“No.” He paused. “And I really wish I had covered my ears. I was eating.”
Fia and I laughed.
With a stomach full of the best food I had ever tasted, Fia had found a spa that could have easily cost thousands of dollars in life and got us into a massage room. Currently, I was naked on a massage table and covered with oil while being rubbed and kneaded. I heard Fia expel a sigh of bliss from her table. Calming music played in the background, snaking through the air along with the smoke of incense. I was struggling to stay awake.
“I can’t believe this is Hell.” I breathily said, trying not to wince as the masseuse rubbed particularly hard on a tense muscle.
“I know,” Fia replied.
“Better get used to it, ladies!” Michael said from the other side of me. “You know, I’ve never gotten a massage. This is awesome. Great idea, Fia.”
Fia let out a positively sexual sounding moan. “I know and thanks.”
“You’re all newbies?” One of the people asked.
“I am, the redhead is, but the male is not.”
“Well, well, well. We hope you enjoy your stay.”
“I certainly have been.” Fia let out another moan. “Right there, harder.”
“I’m getting a massage, Fia, not listening to porn.” Michael huffed and it threw me into a fit of laughter, completely throwing off the relaxation I had been feeling, but it felt so good to laugh like this.
“That’s it. I’m done.” The lady massaging me stepped away as I got up and put on my clothes, glancing to make sure Michael wasn’t watching.
“Is there anything else we can do for you?”
“What else do you guys offer?”
“Can I get a facial? I’ve never done that before.”
“Which one would you like?” She asked and listed off a bunch of different options.
“Uh, whichever one you like the best.”
“Follow me,” she said and brought me into a new room, sitting me down in a comfortable chair. “Someone else will be right in to help you.”
“Awesome.” The same calming music played in here, which I enjoyed, and eventually another woman came in.
“I heard you’re a newbie.”
“You’d do well to remember that not all places are as nice as this. Most are unsavory.” She said softly, starting to give me the facial.
“No, I don’t think you are. I can tell by your eyes. You have not seen the evil that is capable here and how most people will not care at all. Hell is just like Earth, really, but no one even attempts to put up a facade. We were all sinners in life, all people who have done terrible, terrible things, and everyone simply pretended to care when those tragic things happened. It’s unbridled here.”
“I may be new here, but I understand that. I am going home, and I am staying there.” I said tersely. “Now, please, I don’t mean to sound rude but I’m just trying to get a facial.”
“Of course,” she said softly and continued giving me my facial.
When it was all over with, the others joined me, Fia excitedly making plans with Michael for tonight. I noticed the way she was wrapped around his arm and briefly pondered if she was flirting with him, but figured she was just one of those touchy-feely girls.
“Hey, you guys!” I squeaked, catching up with them, “You’re still planning on taking me home, right, Michael?”
Michael flushed slightly and scratched the back of his head. “Uh, totally forgot about it honestly. It’s gonna be extremely out of the way and I don’t plan on coming home tonight, if you know what I mean.”
My face fell. “Oh, I see. It’s alright, I guess. I can manage to get home by myself.”
“We’ll catch you around, then?” Michael asked.
“Naturally. You live in my building.”
Fia ran over and gave me a quick and platonic kiss on the lips, her usual way of saying goodbye to me, and we left the spa and went our separate ways. I put my hood up, keeping my head down and walking as fast as possible. I just wanted to get home quickly, but I was on the opposite side of Hell. Men and women alike kept catcalling me, but it wasn’t as bad as the night of the welcoming party. I did my best to ignore them and walked as fast as possible, just short of a jog.
After people offering me all kinds of services I had absolutely no interest in, I finally burst out of that sector and into the center of Hell. It seemed like it had come alive once again, with thousands of people crammed into the area. Why? There wasn’t another welcoming party for another week. Maybe it was the party Michael was talking about. Either way, I didn’t care. I just wanted to get back to my apartment.
It felt like I was fighting against a current of people and I started having to shove to get through. This caused a lot of rude words to be yelled in my direction and I ignored those, too. Hands grabbed onto me but I shrugged them off and ripped myself away. I saw the doors to Sector Pride and they were like a beacon to me, a haven.
Suddenly, I tripped and fell down in the sea of people, getting trampled and kicked. Instead of crying out, I curled into a ball and tried my best to endure it. Bones were broken and healed, only to be rebroken again, the air was knocked out of my lungs as my ribs cracked, and my vision went black as my skull fractured. The pain was unfathomable and it seemed like it would never stop; this ocean of uncaring souls continued on, not even bothering to look at what they were stepping on.
No one cared. No one would save me.
Everything in my body healed rapidly, explaining why I had no injuries when I woke up in the cavern, but it was useless because everything was broken all over again.
“Persephone,” I thought I heard someone murmur, and suddenly was grabbed by the arm and jolted to a stand. I thought I saw piercing gray eyes when my vision cleared, but as soon as I saw them, they were gone and I was alone amidst this sea of terrible people.
I waited for my body to heal before shoving through people with a renewed fervor. “Get the fuck out of the way,” I hissed at people who shoved me, and my fists occasionally met other people’s faces. Finally, I burst through and sprung out into Sector Pride, but naturally, my problems weren’t over yet.
“Where you going, little lady?” A man came up to me, blowing smoke into my face and grinning with rotten teeth.
“Mind if I join you?”
“Yes, actually. Get away from me.” I snapped, nearly at my breaking point. Whether that breaking point meant tears or rage was uncertain.
“No need to be rude.”
“No need to harass me.” I retorted. “Leave me alone.”
He stuck the cigarette between his teeth before lunging at me, his meaty hand circling around my neck and the other on my wrist, yanking me down. I grunted as I made my impact with the ground, squirming to free my already sore hands. The rough cement scraped my bare skin raw. A sudden heat on the back of my thigh caused me to shriek in pain; his cigarette had burned a hole through my pants and into my skin. I kicked at him as hard as I could and felt his grip on me loosen, I crawled forward and grabbed a fistful of dirt and gravel, turning back to throw it directly into his eyes to distract him. He hissed and I struggled to get away, trying to push myself up and make a run for it. His hand and fingernails sank into my ankle and pulled me down again as he continued to tell me all the things he was planning to do with me. My heart raced as the adrenaline flooded through my system, sharpening my senses because of the immediate danger I was in. As he dragged me into the alley, broken glass and stones grinding into my skin, my hand found a loose brick and I quickly grabbed it. When he flipped me around, I smashed the side of his face and knocked him off of me, but instead of using that chance to run back home, I kept hitting him, over and over and over again.
His face was unrecognizable when I finally stopped and blood covered my hands. I stared down at the brick before throwing it back into the alley and sprinting home. My heart didn’t stop racing until I was in the shower and red water circled down the drain. I was cold, despite the warmth of Hell and the sting of the scorching water. My hands hurt as I flexed them open and closed.
No one cared enough to help me when I was about to be raped, yeah, but I had saved myself.
The rush I felt as I practically killed that man, if we had been alive in the first place, was intoxicating. It had been difficult to stop. Was this what Lord Luca meant by me belonging in Sector Violence? I shuddered. I stayed in the shower for as long as possible before drying off and getting into bed. It took awhile before the shivers ceased and I was able to relax and fall into a dreamless sleep.
I didn’t leave my apartment for several days after I cleaned up the blood I had smeared on all the doorknobs leading to the bathroom. It was a boring and safe few days filled with household chores like cooking and cleaning. Both Fia and Michael would stop by and try to coax me out, but I saw the looks they shared when I adamantly said no. They would come by often, using my apartment for the home base after the crazy clubs and parties they went to. I didn’t mind as long as they didn’t trash my place. After all, I had plenty of room for them and I think Fia liked not having to listen to old music all hours. They were just trying to include me in on things because they considered me their friend. I was happy that they seemed to care, but wary after everything everyone had told me about Hell.
Yes, I was one of those scared people who shut themselves in their homes and hid in Hell. At least I was safe here, at least I wasn’t going to get raped.
One night, Michael dropped by without Fia and without the intention of pre-gaming to sit me down and ask me what happened the night I walked home by myself.
“Persephone, you can tell me, you know. I won’t judge you. I just want to help.”
“Nothing happened, Michael.”
“Something had to have happened to you. It’s written all over your face and your eyes. Both Fia and I consider ourselves responsible because we were too lazy to walk you home.”
“It’s not your fault.” I replied quickly, but really, wasn’t it? I doubt it would have happened if Michael had been with me.
“I fell down in the crowd in Center Sector and was trampled, then some guy grabbed me in our sector and dragged me into an alley and…”
Michael gasped. “Persephone, he didn’t, did he? Who was it? Give me his description and I’ll make him pay.”
“He tried, but… God, Michael, I don’t know what came over me. I found a loose brick and beat him to death with it. I just couldn’t stop until his face was an unrecognizable, pulpy mess. I’ve never done anything like that before.”
Michael tried and failed to completely hide his surprise. His shock was what I felt when I realized I was capable of such a thing. “He deserved every bit of what he got and more.” Michael pulled me into a tight hug. He smelled clean and nice, refreshing and comforting, in this air so filled with smoke and smog. What had he done to deserve Hell, I often wondered. No one in Hell could truly be comforting, could they? So what was Michael hiding?
I pulled away from him. “I know, but maybe I do belong in Sector Violence.”
“No, you don’t.”
“I was supposed to be put there.”
“Persephone, I’ve seen the people put in Sector Violence. You are not like them, at all. You think these other people are bad? You haven’t seen anything. I ventured into Sector Violence once, just to see what it was all about, thinking everyone was just exaggerating. I haven’t gone back there since. Those are the bad guys, Seph, and you aren’t one of them. They are serial killers, serial rapists, psychopaths, people who enjoy hurting others who don’t deserve it. Does that sound like you?”
“No,” I murmured.
“Exactly. You belong in Sector Pride, with me.”
His words were reassuring, but I felt like, deep down, I could be one of the bad guys. Somehow, someplace inside of me was capable of that kind of violence. “Thanks, but I’m not really sure about that.”
I pulled my arm free and showed him my mark-free forearm. He gently grabbed my wrist and shifted my arm in the light, trying to find the sector tattoo I was supposed to have.
“How? Where’s your mark?”
“I don’t have one. Lady Lucielle couldn’t give me one, I think. I don’t know why.” I took my arm away from Michael and rubbed my skin. “Please don’t tell Fia. I think she feels inferior to me, but I don’t want that and I don’t want anything else about me to be special, understand?”
“Women.” He muttered under his breath. “Yeah, I get it. You’re something of a mystery, Persephone Flemming, and I want to know why.”
“I’m not a mystery. I’m just Persephone. Please don’t put me under a microscope.”
“I doubt that, but fine.”
I didn’t say anything.
Michael sighed, the tension releasing from his body, and his tone changed. “We’re just worried about you, but Fia doesn’t know what happens. She hasn’t seen it yet. The people who stay in their homes and try to hide from all the rotten shit that happens in Hell, they go crazy. Please, just come out with us. I promise I will be with you at all times.”
“I don’t know, Michael. I’m not ready yet.”
“You don’t understand, Seph. They literally go feral, like needing to be locked up in a mental asylum crazy. Sector leaders have to force them out of their homes to make room for new, saner, people. Usually, they end up prowling around the Outer District, homeless, on drugs…”
“Enough, Michael. I don’t need to hear any more.”
“Later this week, the welcoming party, let’s all go together. You had fun at yours, remember?”
“I also got drugged and was sick all night.”
“Fine.” I sighed heavily and pulled away. “Just this one, though. I don’t want to party all of the time.”
“But it’s fun.”
“When it doesn’t get outrageous. I have a hard time telling myself no once I get started drinking.”
“You don’t have to tell yourself no.”
I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to talk to him any longer. “I’m going back to bed. You can let yourself out.”
“Sleeping this much isn’t good either.”
“I don’t care.”
“I’ll be leaving then.”
“You do that.” I grumbled and wiggled under the covers, trying to find a comfortable position.
“Do you promise to come with us, Persephone?”
“Yes, fine,” I snapped. “I promise.”
Michael left without another word, though he opened his mouth to say something and the look I shot him silenced it. I tried to close my eyes and sleep but my mind was too turbulent. I had spent days trying to forget what had happened to me and exactly how much it disturbed and excited me. Flashes of dark alleyways, the cigarette burning my thigh, blood staining my hands and embedded under my nails, and pink water circling the drain. Before, the choice of a sector, knowing smiles below gray eyes, my skin refusing to be marked, and the hazy argument Lucielle had with Luca. Nothing was clear to me. Why was I so different?
What was wrong with me?