Demons whispered in the blackness beneath him. Claws clicking as they skittered about. Above, Nick saw a brilliant white light with one glittering gold star, twirling and twirling.
He floated between the darkness and the light. Was this Purgatory? God surely knew he deserved to burn in hell after what he had done.
Cool hands touched his face. An angel hovered over him. The bright light behind her illuminated the pale, golden halo surrounding her sweet face. Her eyes shone a liquid green with tears. Katie’s eyes cried for him even after he had killed her.
As he reached up to touch the angel, her image dimmed. Darkness obliterated her. A chorus of raspy whispers swelled into a deafening buzz. Demons’ mouths spewed out blackness. It covered him in a massive, droning swarm of hornets.
His mother set a steaming bowl of soup on the coffee table. She sat on the edge of the couch, placed her hand on his forehead and then kissed him. “You’re burning up.” She cuddled him in her arms. “You’re burning up, Nick. Burning. Burning.” Blood oozed from deep, jagged cuts on her palms. Warm blood flowed over his face and arms as she caressed him.
He reached up to touch the blue flames dancing under the sauce pot on the stove. Nonna whacked his hand with a wooden spoon. “No!” she scolded. “Never touch the fire!”
“I have to touch it, Nonna.” He reached into flames. The fire raced from his fingertips, up his arms and engulfed his body in a billowing inferno of red and yellow. There was no ground, only fire and above his head, more flames. His father dragged him from the fire by his feet, yelling, “Do as I say!” Nick kicked his father’s legs and punched his hairy arms.
His heart beat faster, and his breath quickened into short huffs. Exquisite spasms wracked his body. Katie gasped and shuddered beneath him, their arms and legs wrapped around each other. Suspended in air, they floated. He couldn’t tell where his body ended and hers began. A warm, sultry breeze blew against their skin. He tightened his grasp, drawing her closer. The gentle breeze billowed into hot, gusts of wind. The scorching-hot gale buffeted their naked bodies. It flaked their flesh into a fine powder and swept it away like ashes in the wind. He held her until there was nothing left of either of them but minute, glittering particles swirling in the air.
Kneeling on the ground, he groped through flesh-colored sand as fine as talcum powder. It sifted through his fingers and lifted into the wind. He couldn’t separate the tiny specs into what was Katie and what was him. Panic rose in his chest. His desperate gasps blew the precious dust into the wind.
A thin ribbon of bright red trickled through the dust. More scarlet ribbons appeared, flowing faster through the sand. They joined into one gushing torrent. He stood neck deep in blood. A red wave washed over him, knocking him down. He struggled to push his head above the suffocating sea, kicking his legs and pushing back the thick, salty current with cupped hands. With his lungs burning for air, he swam upward until his hands broke the crimson surface, and then his head. He gasped to draw in air but instead sucked in flames that burned his nostrils and mouth and raced down into his lungs. An inferno spread throughout his body. Victor Ruby’s laughter vibrated around him in thunderous rolls.
Blinded by flames, he stretched his arms to grope in front of him and staggered through the fire. The air stank of sulfur and burnt flesh and beneath his bare feet, black, jagged rock laced with lines of roiling, red lava. Moans, shrieks and gut-wrenching wails deafened him. He glimpsed shadowy figures in the flames. In a blink, naked bodies surrounded him, twitching and lurching in stop-motion alongside him in a macabre march. Anguished faces with white eyes, devoid of pupils, stared straight ahead. Nick’s outstretched hands collided with a barrier. The throng of bodies crushed against him, their hands clawing at the barrier. Pinned against the invisible wall, Nick pressed his face to the searing hot glass and stared into Victor Ruby’s living room. A scream welled up from deep within his soul, but his open, gaping mouth delivered no sound.
Katie’s mutilated corpse lay on a low, stone table. Her blood-stained hair hung in tangled mats over the edge. Blood seeped from countless slashes in her flesh. It pooled around her body and drooled over the edges of the table to the floor. Ruby and Talon filled their silver goblets with the dripping blood. Smiling, they tapped their cups together, turned toward Nick and drank.
God decided. He was in hell.