Just so you all know, we're in the final two months or so. If it hits my expected chapter count of 44 (might go a little lower or higher than that), we're in the first week of the final eight.
A special thanks to the small handful of people who have been posting comments that wonder why I didn't go the traditional publishing route, because they feel this is well-written enough and commercial enough to have picked up a publisher.
There have been some novels published online that still picked up a traditional publisher, so don't rule out a "dead tree" edition of Hell on $5 a Day someday in the future. There's nothing in the works now, but if those commenters aren't just a vocal minority, it might pick up a publisher someday.
Anyhow, I'm rambling. Getting back to the story... George had an idea. Lord help us all.
Hell on Five Dollars a Day
A Novel By Greg Bulmash
© MMVIII - Greg Bulmash - All Rights Reserved
George yanked on the rope to test the knot. It seemed to hold, so he leapt up, grabbed it just above one of the knots and swung out from under the mezzanine into the uncovered portion of the plaza. "It's good," he shouted.
The fisherman waved to them and then untied Kurt's length of rope from around his waist, letting it fall to the floor. Releasing the railing, he floated up and out, rising to the top before he was blown over.
George let go of his rope and stood next to Kurt out in the plaza. Junior remained back against the wall, but a call from Kurt brought the boy jogging out to stand between them as Kurt went about the task of forgiving each of the remaining souls in quick succession, watching the air above the plaza fill with floating bodies.
George was amazed by all this. He'd grown accustomed to magic at an early age; his parents having a vampire for a best friend helped. Yet nothing could have prepared him for all this. He'd seen dead bodies, seen the undead, but the demons, these souls... God forgive him, but they gave him the willies. Even Junior. For all intents and purposes he seemed like a little boy, but he wasn't. He was older than George and he'd never even been alive. He wasn't a boy. He was a thing. George couldn't help feeling a little spooked.
Even with Alain's vampirism, George had never really believed in Hell, or demons, or the Devil, not deep down. But now... Now he was trying to physically make his way to Heaven, his soul bet on whether or not he could. And when it came down to it, every dirty fighting trick he knew, every bullet he'd brought, none of it would help him when he got there. This guy, Kurt, some kid who ended up here by accident... He'd watched this guy jump into that pit and somehow beat it from the inside. Now he was literally saving souls, speeding up their voyages to Heaven, and it was like nothing to him.
Kurt didn't seem extraordinary. He had a good fighting spirit when he got charged up, but he was a kid. Half of the time he seemed like a helpless baby, totally ignorant of the harsh realities of the world, of all the ways it tried to kill you. And then when it reared up its ugly head and came after him, Kurt turned reality around and kicked it in the ass.
"Ready to go?" Kurt asked, the last soul floating off toward whatever destination. George nodded. He'd follow Kurt anywhere, if only to see what was going to happen next.
George had climbed the rope, the loose length going up coiled over his shoulder. Now one end of the loose rope was tied around Junior's waist as George stood on the mezzanine, holding the other. Kurt slipped off the backpack and Junior began to rise. Somehow, watching Kurt send those souls floating upward had attached the boy to him even more strongly, had opened him up. As Kurt had been releasing them, relieving them, whatever the heck it was he'd been doing, Kurt had snuck a glance at the boy now and then and he could swear he'd caught Junior smiling.
George pulled in the slack on the rope, keeping Junior in tow, pulling him toward the mezzanine as he floated upward. As he pulled the boy over the edge, with nothing to weigh him down, he tied the rope off, letting Junior float there like a helium balloon.
Kurt adjusted the straps on his backpack and put it on, then tied the bottom of the knotted rope to George's pack. The rope was thin enough that the knots didn't give the best purchase, but slowly Kurt made his way up it, thankful for the physical exertion, thankful for something to absorb his concentration so he didn't have to think about what he'd just done. It confused him, and as a matter of fact, scared the shit out of him. As he crested the edge of the mezzanine railing, George began pulling the rope up, his backpack along with it. Kurt used the time to pull Junior down to the floor and put the other backpack on him. Once the two lengths of rope were coiled, the unknotted one was put in George's pack while the knotted one, now too bulky, was strapped to the outside.
George walked point, Uzi at the ready, while Kurt took flank with the pistol back in its holster. Junior walked between them. This wasn't the Yellow Brick Road and it wasn't wise to walk abreast of each other, arm in arm, singing. The running crowds of the lower level had proved that Purgatory was not a safe place.
From up at this height, Kurt still couldn't see the far end of the mall. It had to stretch on for miles, and with his luck, the stairs or escalator or whatever it was that led up to the first walkway was probably at the other end. The mezzanine that they walked on now was just covered with the same tile, a four-foot wall along its periphery, a chromed metal tube running along the wall's top as a rail.
Something sort of pink lined the wall ahead to the right, almost like a padding a foot or so thick. Coming within about thirty feet from it, George stopped. "What's up?" Kurt asked, moving around Junior to stand next to George. George seemed green around the gills, half ready to vomit. Holding on to the railing for support, he waved his Uzi at the padding.
Kurt stepped closer to examine it. The surface was uneven and the padding was segmented, with lines running down the middle of each segment. Kurt moved closer. The lines were zippers, and the padding's plastic lining was semi-translucent from a closer distance. "Body bags," Kurt mumbled in disbelief. Running a few miles ahead of them, the wall was covered three to four high in body bags, every one of them full. He heard the roar of the crowd in the distance, the mass of souls running at inhumanly breakneck speed.
Peering at the closest bag, one without any above it, he didn't see movement, but there was something inside, a human shape darkly outlined in the plastic face. He was tempted to open it, inspect what was inside, talk to the person. The roar of the crowd grew louder, nearly below him as he reached forward for the zipper. He drew his hand back like he'd been shocked as the shape inside reacted violently, thrashing in response to his closeness. Kurt stepped away, moving back until the soul inside the bag settled down.
The crowd had passed below him now. The souls were probably just being pushed out. He turned to look out over the plaza and see the bodies pass. They rose in ones and twos, sometimes a hanger-on making it past the mezzanine level, and then one paused. Shaking, it blew diagonally toward Kurt. He ducked as it passed over his head and smacked into the wall with a thud. Like Bela Lugosi's cape, two sheets of plastic shot out from the wall and surrounded the unfortunate soul, meeting in front of it and zipping up, sealing it in. It thrashed a moment, but soon fell still.
Kurt racked his brains for what Alain had told him of Dante's description of Purgatory. These were the late repentant who had died violent deaths; essentially good people who had died unexpectedly and had only repented with their dying breaths. Kurt felt a rage growing inside him. He might believe in God now, but he still thought God was an asshole. Knowing he could possibly save these people, he was tempted to start unzipping bags, start the whole process he'd gone through on the last level. But how long would it take? There were thousands of bags.
He felt frustrated. He had never expected to be able to help these people, but he could. But the more time he spent helping them, the more he risked his chances to get to Heaven, get an audience with God, and plead Alain's case. People were going to die faster than he could forgive them, anyway.
Kurt's knees went out from under him and he sat down on the floor with a thud, suddenly unable to stand. These thoughts were so alien, so incredible. It was like they were registering on him for the first time. He was going to walk through the gates of Heaven, up the steps of the celestial palace, and ask for an audience with God. Hell, when he was in college, he couldn't even get an audience with the Dean of the English department without making an appointment two weeks in advance. The magnitude of the whole thing was outrageous.
Even Moses had been told "don't call me, I'll call you." Who was he? A junior copywriter from New York? He wasn't a prophet or saint. He hadn't been selected by God. He'd literally fallen into this when Vinnie knocked him through the portal. He'd seen all of existence, been to Nowhere...
"You okay, Kurt?" George said.
Kurt jumped, surprised by George being next to him, not having noticed him approach, but the shock helped knock him out of his stupor. "Uhh, yeah," Kurt said, looking up.
George put out his hand and Kurt took it, letting George help him to his feet. Kurt was still dazed, but at least his legs would support him again. "You sure you're okay," George asked, inspecting Kurt's face.
What was Kurt supposed to say? No, I'm not okay. I can't do this. What the fuck ever made me think I could? Junior was over by the wall, seemingly too afraid of the body bags to come forward, but Kurt was sure Junior would come if he called him. "Yeah, I'm fine," Kurt said in a low voice, his breathing so shallow he had to inhale before he could say another word. "Take point and keep close to the rail. We don't want to disturb the bags."
George looked surprised. "You're not going to do anything to help them?"
"What do I look like to you," Kurt snapped, his face bunching up, his eyes squinting, "the fucking messiah?" He walked to the closest bag, the soul in it thrashing in response to his approach. Kurt brought his arm back and drove his fist into where he suspected the soul's stomach was. "Stop it! Stop it!" He turned to George. "They knew the rules," he shouted. "It wasn't like every priest didn't tell them to repent every Sunday before he went and fucked an altar boy up the ass. It wasn't like every pompous born-again on the street corner didn't wave his Bible with his slicked-back hair and shit-eating grin, telling them 'Repent before it's too late,'" Kurt waved his hand above his head like it held an imaginary book, then brought it down, extending his hand toward George, an accusative finger pointing at his chest. "Hellfire and brimstone, George. That's what they got promised. Fuck that it's not fair! So it's hard on Earth. Fuck them!"
Kurt turned to the bag he'd punched, reached up, and grabbed the zipper, yanking it down. The soul inside was dazed, confused as Kurt took a grip on its arm and jerked it out of the bag. "Smile, you fucker," Kurt said, dragging the disoriented soul across the mezzanine, "you're being saved."
Reaching the edge, Kurt pushed the soul, a man, against the low wall. "I forgive you!" Kurt smacked it in the jaw with his open palm, impacting hard and then sliding his hand off slowly. "Fly! Be free!" Kurt bent down, grabbed one of its legs, and lifted it, pushing it over the railing. The soul went over the edge and paused in space before a wind rose up and threw it back against the wall with an audible thud, a bag wrapping out around it and sealing it in. "I am not the light! I am not the way! And I don't have time for all this shit!" Kurt paused, breathing heavily, then stared at George. "Now take point."
George didn't move. Reaching down to his belt, Kurt drew the pistol from its holster and leveled it at George. "I told you to take point," Kurt said, his voice hoarse and heavy as he flipped off the thumb safety and squeezed the handle, his index finger tight on the trigger.
"You gonna shoot me, Kurt?" George asked, his voice almost a whisper.
Kurt's hand shook, tears blurring his eyes. "I'm not a fucking saint," he shouted. "I can't save everyone. I can't even save myself."
George reached out, putting his hand on the barrel of the gun. "Let go of the gun, Kurt."
Kurt released his grip on the handle, letting George slide the gun out of his hand. "I can't do it, George."
George set the safety, put the gun in his belt and stepped forward. He put his hand on Kurt's and gently pushed it down to Kurt's side where Junior took it in his. Kurt looked down at Junior, expecting the boy to be frightened or nervous, but the boy looked up at him with a reassuring smile.
"It's okay, buddy," George said, softly. "Why don't we sit down and take a break?"
[To Be Continued March 12, 2009]
Hell on $5 a Day is a work of fiction, serialized by its author on Brainhandles.com. Excerpts may be used for blog posts or articles about the novel. The length limit on excerpts is 4 paragraphs. Any more extensive usage requires permission.