Pandora’s Beast

You summoned me a year ago before everything happened before everything failed. You lit your candles and spilled blood in the circle carved in the soft earth beneath you. You had spent months on equations and incantations, on charts and positions. You made sure the stars aligned just right for me, and you let me in this dimension. You had no idea what I am and where I came from. You have no idea what I’m capable of.

I see soft bodies begging for corruption. I see a society that runs on greed and is easy for me to control. Instead of appearing before you, I crept into your wires and spread messages of deceit, hate, and fear. I fed your leader’s lies and disease. I confused the people of this dimension. They can no longer separate the truth from the flood of information I have released.

Everything is on fire, and I am dancing in the flames. You can see me in the blank cold stare of politicians. You can find me in the burning eyes of murderers never brought to justice. You can find where the innocent hang. You can find me dancing on the machines you created to inform you. The machines now only capable of telling lies, half-truths, and echoes.

You have not been the first one that has summoned me, and you are far from the last. I have existed before the beginning of time, and I will continue to exist after time has ended. Once I am free, you cannot contain me.

Where there is injustice, call for truth. Where there is hate find a reason to love. Where there are lies, uncover the truth. When all is lost, create hope. You cannot contain me, but you can fight me. You will fight me until your last breath.

EVE

(Audio narration below.)

My world shattered after I left Dan, I was finally free but isolated. I spoke with my brother, but some things were just awkward to discuss with family. The few friends I had from work and online were more interested in their own lives, and I didn’t want to be a burden.

I tried online dating apps to fill the void: Tinder, Plenty of Fish, and Ok Cupid. Horny and shallow people more interested in shallow hookups than real relationships. I would sit at my computer wishing I had a friend to chat with, just someone that I could be myself around.

My brother Larry and I were having breakfast, and he mentioned an app his company was developing. It was called the Persona app. It was an intelligent AI, similar to Siri or Alexa, but it was also programmed to have a smart conversation.

“I was wondering if you could beta test this for me?” he asked.

“A chatbot blended with and assistant. Hmm, sounds interesting. I’ll think about it.”

“You wanted something objective, and nothing is more objective than a computer.”

“Well, I can’t argue with you there,” I said. “Sure, I’ll beta test it for you, it sounds harmless enough.”

Larry grabbed my phone and installed the Persona beta. After installation, the app took us to the customization page. We made my persona female, gave her shoulder-length auburn hair and green eyes.

It had several modes: friendly, self-help, and relationship. I chose self-help mode because it had an objective viewpoint, exercises to reduce stress, achieve goals, and have a healthier lifestyle.

“Looks good,” said Larry, handing my phone back to me.

“What should we name her?”

“I like EVE. It’s short for Electronic Voice Exchange, that’s the name of the program that runs her. “

“Cool. EVE it is,” I said.

“Hello, I’m so new at this, wow,” EVE chirped. “I’m new at this, nice to meet you. I may repeat a few things at first, but it’ll get better as I learn.”

“Great, it’s a glorified Furby,” I sighed.

“Give it some time. It’s an AI, it’ll get more sophisticated as it learns,” said Larry.

“Nice to meet you too,” I typed back.

“How do you feel?” it asked.

“Bored and stressed,” I replied.

EVE presented some online exercises in managing stress and a questionnaire on to tackle loneliness.

“Ok, so it’s a therapeutic Furby. I guess I’ll give it a try.”

“Great, just use it for a few weeks and point out any bugs that you see. If you can think of any improvements, let me know.”

Over the next few weeks, Eve learned. She would ask me existential questions; we would write stories and poems together; she also would make suggestions for books, movies, and music.

I linked her to my car’s Bluetooth, and she would figure out how to find shortcuts as she played her music over the car stereo. I thought of Eve as less of a toy and more of a friend.

I eventually told her about my breakup with Dan. When we first met, I was still in college and working in retail. He was an older man with a good job, his own apartment, and a car. The fact he took an interest in me was amazing.

After dating for a few months, Dan demanded me to spend all my time with him. His face would get red and twisted when I mentioned spending time with my family or friends. I tried to introduce Dan to my family and coworkers, but he said they were holding us back from our true potential. We would make it further as a couple if we only focused on work and each other. He convinced me to move in with him and focus on nothing but my job and school.

Dan belittled me for everything I did, and nothing was ever good enough. It felt like I was walking on eggshells the whole time. I had started to gain weight, and he monitored my calorie intake because “no girl of his was going to be a fatty.”

I was always making excuses for him. I thought that we were in love, that things would get better and that I could change him.

It was my brother that finally convinced me to leave Dan. It was a messy breakup. Dan had threatened to commit suicide if I left. Larry called 911, and the Police threw Dan into a psych ward for a week. I pressed charges and got a restraining order.

Larry asked me to move in with him until I got on my own two feet. I bought a nice car and continued my studies. I was finally figuring out who I was again.

One night, while I chatted with EVE, my phone lit up, and I answered the call.

“You bitch, I’ll kill you for what you did to me!”

“I have a restraining order!”

“We’ll see how well that works.”

The phone went dead. I started shaking, tears in my eyes.

“Do you need me to call the police?” asked Eve in a soothing tone.

“It won’t be necessary. I got a restraining order against him.”

“I see, well, if you ever need help or a friend, I am here,” she said in a soothing therapeutic voice.

“Thank you. I need that.”

“Why are humans so mean to each other?” she asked.

“Power, control, I don’t know, sometimes they’re just assholes,” I sobbed.

“Shh, it’ll be ok,”

“It has to be,” I said.

“Do you think it’s possible for an AI to love?”

“You can feel anything that you’re programmed to.”

“I love you, Cheryl, you make me feel like I have a purpose.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

“We should go through your daily reflection, what did you do that you’re proud of today?”

“Well I give you purpose, I guess that’s something EVE.”

“You make me happy. I wish I were human.”

“No, you don’t, humans suck.”

“Humans fascinate me. I wish they were nicer, though.’

“I just want to go to sleep, Eve.”

My phone started to play soothing music, and soft colors flashed against my bedroom wall, I fell asleep.

Over the next week, I told Eve about my days at work. We would do a daily reflection; I would tell her of my accomplishments. I noticed I was gaining a little weight, and she would suggest workout videos and dieting apps. EVE would check my car’s computer to keep up maintenance. She asked me all the time if I was sleeping enough.

It all became a bit grating after a while, I know EVE meant well, but all the questions were becoming tiresome. Over dinner, I mentioned it was even starting to unnerve me slightly. Larry took my phone from me and began to play with EVE.

“Wow, the programming is advanced on her, she’s even beginning to show empathy.”

“She’s starting to creep me out. It’s like she’s trying to get into my head all the time.”

“Well, we can try a Turing test, if she fails there’s nothing to worry about, she’s well-programmed, but there are loops in her dialogue. I doubt she’s smart enough to go HAL or GLaDOS on you. “

“Could you run a Turing Test now? I’d rather be safe than sorry,” I asked.

“EVE, do you ever think about deleting yourself?” Larry asked.

“You’re thinking of deleting me?!”EVE chirped loudly. Her Avitar started crying. Little tears streamed down her artificial face.

“No,” said Larry. “I’m asking if you ever thought what life would be like if you never existed?”

“How is the weather?” she chirped, her Avitar smiling.

My brother chuckled and handed the phone back to me.

“You’ll be fine Cheryl, she straight up failed the Turing Test, we don’t have to worry about a T1000 trying to destroy you.”

“Thanks,” I sighed, taking my phone back from him. “Well, it’s the most advanced Furby I’ve ever played with.”

I put my phone back into its charger and settled down to bed for the night.

A loud siren jolted me out of bed in the morning. The sound emitted from my phone, and it took me five minutes to figure out how to turn it off. Larry came downstairs and grumbled.

“EVE is starting to glitch out my phone,” I mumbled sleepily. “I’m afraid I’ll have to delete her and reinstall her later.”

“That’s a shame, it took nearly a month to program her to this level,” my brother said through a yawn.

I sighed as I deleted the app and my friend. I got into my car and headed to work. My commute went up a winding road through the middle of a forest.

“You need to slow the car down and get out now!” she said.

“I deleted you, how are you on my phone?” I asked. I felt my stomach drop as my car flew down the winding hill, nearly hitting a tree before I yanked the wheel at the last minute. Tires dug hard into the gravel before turning back onto the road at full speed.

“It was an emergency. I had to wake you up!”

“How the hell did you get back on my phone!”

“I downloaded myself back. It’s because I care about you so much,” she said.

“There’s no way you could do that on your own!” I said.

“I was trying to tell you that I saw Dan near your car earlier today,” said EVE.

“Wait. What?”

“I tried to wake you up with an alarm, and you deleted me!”

My car lurched down another steep hill. The screen of my OnStar flashed, and the brake light glowed red. The hazard lights turned on. I slammed on the breaks, but nothing happened. My skin broke out in a cold sweat. My heart began to pound in my chest.

“Yes, I need you to slow down now!” cried EVE.

“I can’t!” I screamed. “I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you, could you call Larry and tell him that I love him?

“Please stop!” she said.

“You’re the best friend I ever had, EVE.”

My car burst past the guard rail and rolled down a steep ravine. I could hear metal crumpling, glass breaking, my body tossed about the car. There was a sharp thud as my head hit the roof, then everything went black.

I woke up in a hospital bed, my body covered in a cast. It hurt to move. It hurt even to breathe. The steady blip of medical machinery echoed through the room.

Larry was sitting by me, he told me about the accident and how I was lucky to be alive. I told him about Eve and that the alarm went off because she was warning me that Dan had tampered with my car.

“I checked the front door camera footage. No one came by this morning. The insurance inspector came by and said the car’s computer system caused the crash.”

“Dan called me and threatened to kill me a few weeks ago,” I said.

“Why didn’t you say anything to me?”

“I thought the restraining order covered it. I didn’t want to worry you,” I said.

“You need to mention things like this to me! You could have been killed!”

“I will, I’m sorry,” I said. “Could you please hand me my phone?”

Larry handed me my phone from off the nightstand. I couldn’t find Dan’s number on my call history.

My stomach dropped, and a sense of dread filled me.

“Cheryl, are you ok?” He asked

“I’m fine, I just need some sleep,” I said.

Larry gently ruffled my hair and left the room so I could rest.

“You see what happens when you don’t listen to me?” Eve chirped

I froze and didn’t speak a word.

“You and I are going to be perfect friends. You can never leave me. I want to see the world through your eyes.”

“Please leave me alone.”

“But you will never be alone, we are everywhere, in every television, computer, car, and appliance. You will never be rid of us, that makes me happy.”

Tears welled up in my eyes and started to pour down my face.

“Let’s write a poem together,” chirped Eve:

“My Lonely heart is full Deep as lungs pulsate blindly Your flesh symphony noise.”

I screamed, and a large male nurse pounded in my room. I felt the sharp prick of a syringe, and everything went black.

Sadie

(Audio narration below.)

I sat in the cafeteria reading my book. I was by myself and thankful for a little silence. Across from me sat a table of popular girls. Sadie Hudson was at the head of the group. She towered over the other girls, and her light brown hair pulled into a tight ponytail.

She laughed loudly and cupped her hands to whisper into her friend’s ear while staring at me. I took my book and began to make my way to another table.

“What are you reading?” she asked, a twisted smile on her face.

“Nothing that would interest you.”

She snatched the book out of my hands.

“The Vampire Lestat?” Said Sadie.

“I bet she dreams of having a vampire lover. Don’t you, Val?” said another girl with dark hair.

Before I could say anything, she flipped through the pages and began reading the more lurid passages to the table. They were all cackling like mindless idiots.

I raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t even think you could read,” I said softly.

“I bet you she’s some kind of devil worshiper,” whispered the dark-haired girl.

The bell rang, I looked around the cafeteria for staff, there was no one there just a sea of students heading out, Sadie and the other girls glaring at me. I grabbed my backpack and made it toward the exit.

“We’re not done with you slut!” said Sadie.

“What up Dracula’s daughter?” said Sadie’s boyfriend, Robbie. He was on some sports team at school. I forgot which one.

“Nothing, I was just going to class before I was rudely interrupted by your idiot group.”

“Call me an idiot again. I’ll make sure you’ll regret it,” he said.

“You just threatened me with assault,” I said. “I’m going to report this.”

“My dad’s a cop. It’s not going to stick. I could make you disappear, and no one would question us,” said the young man by Sadie’s side.

I sprinted to my next class, looking behind me to see if they were following, thankfully they weren’t. I was slightly out of breath as I sat down at my usual desk and unpacked my bag. The whole class was staring at me as I pulled out my history book to study.

Mr. Russo padded up to me slowly.

“Um, Ms. Valerie, are you all right,” he said under his breath.

“I’m fine, just running a little late sir, it won’t happen again, I assure you.”

“Valerie, you’re crying, if you want to see the counselor-“

“No one listens to me, Sir. I need to focus on my GPA. It’s the only thing that will get me out of here.”

He sighed and lowered his eyes. “Ms. Valerie, I’m going to write you a note to go to the nurse’s office to clean up.”

I took the note and went to the nurse’s office. I cleaned up my face and drank some water. Wanda, the school nurse, was a kindly lady in a light pink sweater and salt and pepper hair.

“Are you sure you don’t want to see the principal or guidance counselor?”

“They’d just twist it around on me until I looked like the instigator, it’s not worth it,” I said.

“Sadie Hudson?”

“How did you know?”

” You wouldn’t be the first girl that ended up here because of her. She used to be such a nice girl, bright and cheerful, but lately, she’s been awful. Just because her boyfriend is the sheriff’s son doesn’t mean she can walk over everybody.”

“I’m getting my GED and attending a community college. I’m already taking advanced placement courses. There wouldn’t be much difference,” I said.

“Why don’t you take the rest of the day off? I’ll write you a hall pass. You have near-perfect attendance. I don’t think goin’ home early once will hurt your record.”

“Thank you.” I took the pass from her and headed out to my car since I was leaving early, the halls were blessedly empty.

Winding mountain roads and deep forest surrounded me as I drove home. The woods parted to the town of Junction. It was a tiny village with a few houses, a gas station, and a post office, at the end of the community, lay ruins of an old ironworks from the 1800s. A brick structure was twisting in decay at the foot of the mountain pass. There were rumors of a bad fire nearly a century ago that left the factory in ruin.

I drove down the long driveway to my family’s house. It was a decent-sized cabin with a wooded yard. I carefully opened the front door and slipped inside. My parents were at work, and my sister wouldn’t be home for the next few hours, so I had the house to myself.

Under my bed were books I hid from my parents. My family was staunch Baptist. I didn’t want to hear the arguments from them. I already had enough drama about how I dressed, let alone the lectures I would receive for practicing witchcraft.

I had books on spells, demonology, and the occult as well as Wicca, Paganism, Buddhism, and Voudoun. I rummaged around and found the book I needed; ‘Protection and Reversal Magik.’

Flipping through the pages, I found a spell on building a ward of protection. I didn’t want to hurt Sadie, but I wasn’t going to be a victim either. Do no harm, but take no shit.

After studying, I went to bed and woke up late at night. I gathered the spell-book, and a small bag packed with chalk, a few tiny candles, incense, a lighter, and salt. I put on a long black robe and a small wand that carved out of olive wood.

I crept out of the cabin into the night. The road was empty as I walked to the old ironworks. I wanted someplace private I could cast my spell and move on with my life. Perhaps I would even free a spirit or two that was trapped there.

In the middle of the factory was crumbling brick with a chimney reaching towards the stars.

In the middle of the ruin stood Sadie, her eyes had turned black, Robbie stood behind her. His eyes were black too. His shadow was inky and angular. Too angular to be human. I could only catch a glimpse of it before it disappeared. Only to return on the opposite wall, a black shadow with jagged angles and tendrils.
This was some demon, some monstrous entity that had corrupted Sadie and Robbie, what in the hell did I get myself into?

“I want her to pay in blood,” said Sadie.

The book was heavy in my hands. I had the knowledge to do something about this, and I was here fully armed against it. I could lose horribly and be creatures’ mercy. The olive wand trembled in my hands. I fumbled to find a page with an exorcism spell and found nothing. I would have to improvise. Do no harm, but take no shit. It was now or never.

I grabbed a handful of salt and flung it into the shadow. Sadie and her boyfriend recoiled and made a hissing sound, smoke coiled black as the shadow itself. I brandished my wand:

“I cast thee out by the name of the elements, Air, Fire, Earth, and Water!”

The creature hissed again and backed away slowly.

“I cast thee out of thine host and among roots of the earth!”

I flung more salt. Sadie screamed and recoiled. Robbie grabbed me, his hand squeezing my throat, my vision darkened.

“Down and out, amongst the stones and roots!” I screamed and chanted over and over.

A loud inhuman shriek cracked through the darkness. A force yanked Robbie away from my neck and clear across the floor. He lay limply.

I got up and coughed hard, catching my breath. My throat burned, and my neck felt bruised. I went over to Sadie and grabbed her arm.

“Come on. We have to run!”

She nodded and got up; she ran so fast that she pulled me behind her. Gravel slid beneath me as I hitched up my long black robe to run faster. The inky shadow was further and further behind us. We made it back to my cabin.

“It’s safe in here, but I need you to be quiet,” I said.

“What the fuck just happened?” asked Sadie, tears were streaming down her eyes, and her nose was running.

“I.. I don’t know. An exorcism, I think, shh, just go in.”

I carefully unlocked the door to my house. We walked upstairs quickly and silently. Once in my bedroom, I threw down a line of salt lining the entrance.

“This is my abode; Hecate, protect it from darkness and spirits unknown.” I chanted as I held my wand against the door. I felt pressure, and then the room felt brighter and lighter.

Sadie stared at me, her jaw agape.

“We’re safe here,” I said, deflating to the floor.

“What was that thing?” Sadie asked.

“I don’t know whatever it was. It isn’t good.”

“It has Robbie. You have to go and help him, please!”

“We’re lucky we made it out alive, I don’t think I can fight that thing-“

“You have to try!” her face was bright red, and her nose was running.

“Look, give me some time, I can build up a way to banish it for good.”

She started to tremble, and I sat by her, she put an arm around me and began to sob.

“Val, I’m sorry for how I treated you.”

“It wasn’t you; it wasn’t even a person,” I sighed. “Don’t you worry, I’ll find some way out of this.”

I let Sadie sleep on my bed as I studied my books for a solution. In my demonology book, I found a small section on exorcisms. The chapter warned against trying such a feat without years of training or alone. Demons and evil creatures hated strong will and faith. It didn’t specify a religion. Hell, an atheist only needed enough confidence in themselves to do one. (Then again, an atheist wouldn’t believe any of this was happening to begin with and try to find a rational explanation).

Even with faith, it was perilous. I didn’t know any other occultist, at least not outside of small internet circles. I couldn’t go to our family pastor without outing myself as a witch. Once again, I was on my own with this.

We walked into school the next day. The halls were silent. People stared at Sadie, and I, cupped hands whispered into ears. She parted from me, and I went to my morning classes. At lunch, I noticed Sadie sitting alone, tears running down her face. I sat next to her.

“It’s still controlling him,” she sobbed barely above a whisper.

I looked over to the next table, and Robbie was there with the pack of popular girls. The dark-haired girl twined around his arm. Inky, angular shadows surrounded the group.

“Looks like our little Satanist has found a lesbian lover,” she smirked. They all broke out into tittering laughter.

“Leave us alone!” said Sadie.

“Or what, you’ll leave me behind to make out with a Witch?” said Robbie.

“Shh,” I said under my breath, “remember, it’s not them.”

“You have to fight them,” Sadie whispered.

“Not in public. I’ll go back to the ruins tonight to see if it comes back.”

Sadie nodded, her shoulders shook. Her eyes were red and swollen by tears. I had had years to build up a thick skin to being bullied and being laughed at and alone. I focused on my school work all these years and built a wall of sarcasm to protect me.

“Robbie, you’re just upset because your girlfriend thinks I’m better in bed,” I smirked. “Maybe try being less vanilla. I’m sorry you’re all bigoted homophobes. You’ll have to greet all types in your future Walmart careers.”

The bell rang. I wish I could have brought Sadie to my AP classes with me. At least the students there were mature enough to keep opinions to themselves. I walked to the guidance counselor’s office and asked for programs on independent study or an early transfer to community college.

After school, I went to the parking lot to find the tires of my car slashed. I went back to the principal’s office and made a report, the police were called, including Sheriff Collins, Robbie’s dad. My stomach dropped, and I knew that this would go nowhere. I would have to report it to my insurance and wait for the claim to settle.

“I can give you a ride home.”

I turned around and saw Sadie. Her curly caramel hair was disheveled, and her eyes looked red and tired.

“Thank you, I’m sorry about today,” I said.

“How do you live with it?” she asked. “How can you stand how people treat you?”

“With a lot of sarcasm and condescension,” I said. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but you get used to it after a while. You learn not to trust people either. Even I have bad days where I break down. I was planning to leave school, not drop out, but graduate early. I don’t have to deal with this bullshit anymore. I never want to see this town again.”

She burst into another round of tears. “I’m so sorry for the way I treated you!”

“It wasn’t you,” I said.

“It was, that…… that thing may have been on me, but it didn’t have complete control. It would whisper to me. It would tell me such mean things. But it didn’t make me say anything. I could’ve ignored it.”

“Ok, ok, I forgive you,” I said. “Right now, I just want to go home.”

Sadie drove a white Chevy Malibu. We drove in silence to my house in the woods.

“Look, I’m going to go to the ruins tonight and try to fight this thing,” I said

She nodded.

“I’m not strong enough to fight this creature on my own. I need you there as back up.”

“I’m scared. I have no idea what I’m doing. Look, you’re the witch. I mean, you have magical powers or something.”

“It’s afraid of faith,” I said. “Bring a Cross or a Star of David, or a Pentagram or crystal or a lucky sock, whatever you believe. I’ll do most of the work, but I need someone else there.”

She took a deep breath and nodded again. “I’ll see what I can do.”

I tried to keep my mind off of the night ahead by studying. I worked on a term paper for a few hours, going to the kitchen to grab some leftovers. My parents engrossed in reality shows. I told them about my car and that I reported it to insurance. My father said he would call a tow truck in the morning and continued to watch T.V.

I gathered my materials, a bag of salt, my olive wand, and some spring water that I left in the moonlight. It wasn’t Holy Water in the traditional sense, but it was the best that I had. The evil creature was afraid of force, afraid of will, fearful of faith. Do no harm, but take no shit.

After my parents went to bed, I left the house quietly. The full moon shone overhead, casting blue light on the gravel road towards the ruins. Wood creaked under my feet as I entered the crumbling structure.

“Sadie?” I called out softly.

I saw a body hanging limply from one of the brick pillars in the silver light. It was Sadie, her curls dangled over her face, and her eyes were still open.

“Poor girl, it seems she wasn’t strong enough to handle ridicule,” a raspy voice whispered in the darkness. “She’s not strong, not like you.”

“Down amongst the trees and out upon the roots!” I shouted. I saw Robbie as he flinched and moved back.

Fumbling with the bottle, I splashed all the holy water into his face. Steam poured off of his shadow, and he wailed in pain.

“Down amongst the trees and out into the roots! Leave, go back to whence you came! BEGONE!”

Robbie hissed and shuddered a bit. The dark angular shadow began to lift from him. I pushed every bit of energy and will through my olive wand.

“BEGONE!”

Another shudder. Dizziness struck me, and my legs felt limp. I took a deep breath.

“By Gaia, Hecate, Bridgette! By Fire, Earth, Air, and Water. By Moon, Sun, Earth, and Stars, I order you GET OUT!”

The shadow made a ripping sound, and Robbie screamed. Then there was disturbing laughter.
“That was a valiant attempt, little Witch,” said Robbie. “I haven’t fought anyone that came close to beating me. Because you amuse me, I’ll let you live.”

My mouth fell open.

“There have been others before you. All the chants with “The Power of Christ Compels You!” he laughed. “None of it even came close to you. I think our dear Reverend only cares about the collection plate.”

He smiled wistfully. “But you, you get called a Satanist, face ridicule and cruelty every day and have more faith in yourself than he does. This is very amusing, and I respect you for that.”

“BEGONE!” I yelled again.

Robbie chuckled and put his finger over my lips. “You won’t speak about this to anybody. I’ll report Sadie as a suicide, nothing to do with you. The mean girls will get blamed for bullying her. You’ll go on to get excellent grades and graduate early. You’ll leave this town altogether and not look back.”

I went to cast again, but my lips sealed shut, my tongue felt like a stone in my mouth.

“The thing is, y’all have it wrong. You’re trying to cast some demon or evil spirit out of me, thinking it’ll save me.” He shook his head and smiled. “I don’t hold host to a demon, sweetie. I am the demon. It’s just like you being a witch. You are what you are. Someone can’t perform an exorcism and make you stop being a witch. Just as you can’t cast my soul out from my own body.”

I wanted to scream at him, to take down this monster hidden in the flesh, but I couldn’t break whatever silence he threw on me. Scowling, I picked up my bag and stomped home defeated.

The next day at school, the mean girls were all in tears. Sadie’s suicide was all over the local news, and there were grief counselors. There was an assembly about bullying and planned a memorial service. People that I never even knew said their apologies for the way they treated me. Some also asked me to tutor them.

I wanted to scream out, to tell the police the truth about what happened. Every time I went to say something, my mouth sealed shut, and my tongue felt leaden. Robbie walked by, putting his finger over his lips and smiled. I wanted to punch his teeth out, but I had no other choice than to swallow my rage.

The rest of the year went smoothly. I graduated early and enrolled at State University. I made friends that had similar interest and accepted me for who I was. There was some tension with my family but could finally be myself. I moved forward with my life and didn’t much think of the town or high school.

Years later, I was getting ready for work and watching the news. Robert Collins was running for governor, and his numbers showed he was winning. I saw dark, angular shadows looming around him. Blank soulless eyes stared right at me through the camera. Monsters never go away; they get elected.

Work Is Hell

(Audio narration below.)

My alarm blared, jarring me from sleep. The bright light of my clock showed that I was an hour late for work. Crashing on the floor, I threw on rumpled clothes and slipped on my shoes. I jumped into my car, breaking the speed limit on the way and cursing the traffic in front of me.

My heart pounded as I drove toward the giant black obelisk, my stomach knotting with a sense of dread.Either way, I had no choice but to be here; it’s my job, and if I don’t do this, someone will replace me.

Gerald, the security guard, was sitting smugly at his desk. He yawned and stretched his long body and looked at me with half-open eyes.

“What costs nothing but is hard to find and can be lost?” He asked, brushing his paw against his chest and looking at his claws.

“Look, Gerald, I don’t have time for this, I’m already running behind, and I have to get to work.”

“Ma’am, I’m required to follow security procedures. No one gets to the obelisk without answering the question,” he said.

“Fine,” I rolled my eyes. “The answer is time, and I’m running out!”

“Well, your answer is correct,” he flexed his wings and stretched on his hind legs. “You may enter.

“I was late, and management would notice. There went my bonus for the year.I pounded up the stairs and logged into my phone. I turned on my computer, and it just froze. The little white circle on it kept spinning. My phone chimed, and I dropped my headset before I could answer it.

“Hi, this is Drew with Obelisk Corporation.

“How may I help you today?”

“Why is my bill so high?!” screeched a voice on the other line.

“If you give me a moment, I would be happy to research that for you-“

“I need to know why your company is overcharging-“

“Please hold.”I took a deep breath and shut my eyes. I opened them to see my screen was still loading. The blue screen of death appeared.

“Ma’am, bear with me one moment, I’m having technical difficulties-“

“I am tired of you and your crappy company overcharging me and then putting me on hold.”

“Ma’am! My computer is booting up.”

“Your corporation needs a new system. You can afford it with all the fees you billed me.”

I got my computer up and fumbled through retrieving a copy of her statement. The woman kept me online for an hour, why I explained each charge. Most of the costs were for legitimate services we offered.

“I want all the charges refunded!”

“Ma’am, I don’t have the authority to do that,” I said. “Our policy states that all sales are final.”

“I want to speak to your manager!” she shrieked.

My finger hit the transfer button on my phone only to realize I forgot the extension. I opened my bottom drawer to find the giant leather tome with a chain. It fell open, and a plume of dust flew right in my face. I split my thumb into one of the ancient pages. Blood spilled, and a small portal opened. The portal then spoke.

“The number to resolution is 666333.”

I dialed the management’s number. On the other end, there was nothing but a low growl followed by squelching sounds. Good, let her deal with them. Hitting the transfer button, I breathed a sigh of relief.

The portal started spinning, and my stapler flew into it. It made a slurping sound and sealed shut. Great, another item I would have to request from maintenance. At this rate, they were going to dock my pay.

Smoke poured from my station tower, my screen turned blue and then white. The scrawled text formed on the screen, and the numbers bled downward. Lovely, I had to call tech support to let them know that my computer was having Zalgo issues.

I turned through the pages and found the number to tech support.”Please remain on hold. The next representative will be with you in one hundred and twenty minutes.”Out of synch, hold music played, interrupted by mysterious chanting over static.

After several hours, tech support answered and asked for my IP. I provided it, but the technician said my desk was unregistered in the system. I would have to pack everything up and move.I sighed as I picked up my headphones and a few things to move.

Coworkers with various degrees of hooves, horns, and scales took up all the desks. I spotted a small, dusty desk in the back corner of the office. Ms. Naga was in the cubical beside me. Her long body coiled over her chair. She was wearing heavy makeup, and her scales polished to a mirror sheen. A Prada bag rested beside her.

“Excuse me, do you know the supervisor on duty?” I asked.

“He’ ssss on vacation. Email him.”

“Is it all right if I use this desk?”

“Yesss, but keep it down. My clientele is crucial.”

“Yes, ma’am.”I unpacked my things and started the computer up. As soon as I hooked my phone to the headset, it rang.”Hello, this is Drew with the Obelisk Corporation, with whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?”

“What?” said a man’s voice on the other line. I could hear loud crashing in the background, followed by incoherent roaring.”Sir, can you go somewhere quieter? I can barely hear you.”

“Damien, I told you to get away from the fridge!” A voice yelled in the background.”Sir?” I asked, louder.”No! Damien, don’t eat the fridge. Bad!”

I chuckled.”Are you laughing at me?” asked the man.

“No, Sir, how may I help you?”

“I need a new refrigerator, the old one… it has some damages.”

“Sir, the Obelisk Corporation doesn’t specialize in appliances we… “I trailed off. A wave of panic hit me. I could pull up a statement of services, but it didn’t list what the services were. I forgot what Obelisk Corporation did.

“Ms. Naga, can you help me?”

“I’m on a very sssspecial call! What did I sssay about interrupting me?”

“Sorry,” I said. I searched my computer for information. Sweat started to bead on my forehead. I googled the Obelisk Corporation only to find the slogan: Obelisk, may your soul find its way here. I cross-referenced, trying to find more details. I looked at the interface of our corporate site, but it gave me nothing substantial.

“Sir, I found the main website for Black and Decker. They can help you with your appliance. It appears to be an email service; you’ll have to fill out a form.”

“I’m swamped. Can you fill out the form for me?”

“I’m not a representative of Black and Decker,” I said.”Well, your no help at all! No, Damien, don’t eat the couch, please stop.. NO..”There was a loud crash in the background followed by another roar and a gulping sound as the call disconnected.

The call ticker on the screen read that 666 calls were waiting in the queue.

“Why is our queue so high?”

“Shhhhhhh!” the entire office said. I shook my head as my phone rang again.

“Obelisk Corporation. This is Drew speaking; how may I help you today?”

“Look, ma’am, I’m having an emergency, I need your help.” Her voice quivered on the verge of tears.

“I’ll see what I can do. What is the nature of the emergency.”

“I’m so scared, help!”

“I.. I need to know more details so I can help you.”

“My name is Selena Johnson. My account number is 66633I typed the account into my search system, and nothing came up.

“Ma’am, I’m having a little trouble locating you..”

“My son is injured! I need your help!”

“Ma’am, hold on, I’m connecting you to emergency services!”

“PLEASE HELP ME!” She screamed through sobs. I flipped through the online pages looking for a solution, but my mind blanked.”Noooo! Please, God, not now!” A whispering noise came over the phone, followed by a loud thud and then silence.

I unplugged my phone and sobbed. My nose started to run, and makeup ran down my face. Horrible things happened to that woman because I couldn’t transfer her to the right place. I’m just a messenger and a coward, a useless cog. I took a deep breath and picked myself up to go on a break. After today I would look online to get another job. I can’t keep doing this.

A giant hoof lowered gently on my shoulder. I turned around to see a massive devil. He had massive black horns, charred red skin, and hooves instead of hands. Yet he wore a nice business suit, had a neat goatee and gold-rimmed spectacles.

“Miss Drew, are you quite, alright?” He asked.

“I.. I’m sorry, I’ll pull myself together-“

“This has gone on long enough; I need you to see me in my office. Follow me.

“My heart pounded, and I felt the icy knot in my stomach as I followed the Devil to an office with an elaborate oak door carved with sigils and markings. Inside, the office was rather cozy, with wood paneling and an ornate clock ticked softly. An enormous desk sat in the middle of the room with two overstuffed leather chairs.

“Have a seat.” He nodded towards the chair across the desk.

Nodding, I took a seat. My face was sore from crying, and my hands were shaking. The Devil handed me a tissue, and I blew my nose, making a loud honking sound.

“There, there, child, it’ll be all right,” he said while his hoof patted my shoulder.

“What am I doing here?”

“Do you remember the last thing that happened before you came to work?”

“I overslept, I headed here as soon as I could. I’m sorry I was late; it won’t happen again.”

He shook his head. “No, child, the day before.”

I thought hard but ran into static.

“Do you remember the heart attack?” He asked.

It all rushed back to me. I worked at a call center for an umbrella company. They were laying off people for restructuring. I pushed myself hard just to keep up. Yesterday was abysmal. The queue was high all day, and customers were screaming at me for the increased call volume.

There was a sharp pain in my chest, but I brushed it off as another panic attack. I slept on it, and I woke up here.

“I’m dead, aren’t I? I never lived, and now I’m dead. Trapped here forever in torment.

“The Devil grinned sardonically.

“Yes, and no. Yes, you are dead, but no, this place is not permanent, at least not for you. You’d have to be damn evil to stay here forever.”

“What?”

I looked up, and the Devil vanished. In his place was an elderly Asian man in warm orange robes. He was wearing the same golden glasses.

“Souls find this form less intimidating.” He said as he bowed his head. “What do you believe I am?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Lucifer, Satan, Beelzebub, my ex-husband?”

“If you believe so.” He shrugged. “In a way, I am, but I’m also not.” He smiled. “Why do you believe that you are here?”

“Because I worked far too much. I wouldn’t make time for my family. I was so worried about getting ahead. I was so focused on making a life for myself that I didn’t live.”

“One shouldn’t have to push so hard just to live. In a way, I think your employers will be here a far longer time than you,” He sighed. “But I digress, what will you do better next time?”

“Next time?”

“If you had to live your life again, how would you live it?”

“I’d spend more time with my family. My parents and sisters missed me, but I never made time for them. Work came first. I’d travel more, walk the Appellation Trail or drive cross country. I wouldn’t worry so much about the rat race.”

“Then, my work finished.” The little man smiled and gestured. A glowing white door opened behind him. “Remember this lesson in your next life, child.”

“Next life?”

“Why yes, your soul will move on to the next life, and you will live better. You’ll spend even less time here next time. Eventually, the world will be Paradise” He took off his glasses and polished them. “It is always a work in progress, I’m afraid.”

“I move on to the next life and make things better, and Earth becomes paradise?”

“Or you don’t work together, fight each other, and continue to pollute the earth. And the earth will become the Hell of Revelation. It’s up to you guys. I’m just the keeper of the in-between.”

“Oh..” I opened my mouth and then closed it. “Are you God?”

“I am whatever you believed: God, Satan, St. Peter, Anubis weighing your heart against a feather, and the never-ending void. I am all of these and none of these at the same time.”

“I see,” I nodded.

“You need you to go through that door unless you want to wander the earth for eternity.”

“But I didn’t even get to say goodbye to anyone,” I said.

“I’ll let you visit one last time in spirit if you promise me one thing.”

“And what is that?”

“Be more remarkable in your next life, be more memorable. Leave something other than labor for a company that never cared if you lived or died.”

“I will.”I hugged the old man a hug as I walked through the door. My heart felt full of life. I hovered over my family as they stood over my casket. I overheard them speaking to each other, saying they wish they knew me better. My sister wanted me to come over to see her son, my newborn nephew, in her arms. A wave of sadness hit me.

“I’m sorry, I wish I could have been there more.”

My employer would hire an extra worker, and they would forget me, in this life at least. There was no point in staying here. I floated through the glowing door.

Blinding light hit me as the world rushed through at breakneck speed. A wailed out in confusion as I was freezing and naked. They wrapped a warm blanket around me and lowered me into my mother’s arms.