Look Into Hell
"The torture of a bad conscience is the hell of a living soul." – John Calvins
“Francine, we’re good here. We’ll talk soon, okay?”
Francine, caramel-skinned and standing with perfect poise in flat shoes, raised her hands and clasped her palms together in a gesture that was oddly masculine. “You’re sure you don’t need me…?”
Jessica tipped a glance to the figure in the bed, the chest rising and falling. “We’re okay,” she said, eyelids sliding closed with the barest nod of her head. “Thank you.”
Francine turned on her heel and left, closing the door softly behind her.
Jessica sat forward in her chair and exhaled, her elbows resting on her knees, hands dangling at the wrists. She could hear the younger woman’s footsteps down the stairs, out the hallway, and the brief rise in street noise from outside the house as the front door opened and closed again. Wearily, she ran a hand across the back of her neck, the base of her platinum bob barely starting to grow back and stubble after the latest cut and style.
For a Wednesday in mid-May, the neighbourhood sounded quiet; even though Bevin College, whose students often truanted class just for the hell of it, had at least another week before the half term holiday. Afternoon sunlight filtered in through the window, falling across the floor, and highlighting the broad rectangle of darker carpet from where the bed used to be. The bed, cooler now in the far corner of the room, would never know eastern exposure again.
Silence again. Like the cancer, she had gotten used to its presence. Not quite the elephant in the room as it used to be; days in the wake of the prognosis and treatment had seen to that. Certain words and phrases like “fatigue” and “palliative care” at the time proved meaningless, while others such as “hospice” carried far too much weight. As it was, the hospice had since been declined in favour of more familiar surroundings – her own home. One small consolation was that it wasn’t happening to her. Jessica’s breasts were fine.
“Has she gone yet?” the voice wheezed.
Jessica lifted her head, looking at Audrey. Sweat stains marred the armpits of the beige slip, and lesions dotted the exposed flesh: the neck and chest, the meaty arms and the subtle roll of skin hanging over the back of her elbow. Despite the pained expression on the sweat-sheened face, full lips bereft of lipstick, gloss or chapstick had quirked ever so slightly at the corners. Gallows humour now had a regular part in the drama.
Audrey’s eyes half-opened, lashes fluttering. “No one… should have an ass that pretty. That’s… just wrong.”
Jessica chuckled, clasped a pale slender hand on top of Audrey’s, feeling the bigger woman's knuckles shift under her palm. "Alone at last," she said.
"Yeah." The black woman met her gaze. "As we all are. Alone. Alone, alone, alone..." Her voice trailed off into a whisper.
Jessica tightened her grip. "Don’t you dare, young lady. You've still got that shortbread recipe to perfect." It was true: while Audrey was renowned for her white chocolate and lemon shortbread, her strawberry version had always proven problematic. From using strawberry essence to strawberry extract, and even freeze dried powdered strawberry, she had yet to find a variation that had just the right taste and texture to wow her inner circle.
Audrey's head turned; more a falling of her face along the crisp cotton of the pillow rather than a conscious act of will. With trembling effort, she raised a hand to Jessica's face and gently cupped it in her palm. Jessica tensed, hoping the anxiety wasn’t noticeable. Last week had seen Audrey’s latest outburst where she threw a glass of water across the room. Days before that, the missile was a spoon. The doctor/consultant had warned there might be personality changes as a result of a subsequent intracranial malignancy. But then, such a prognosis could make anyone throw a fit. Maybe.
Full lips pursed in a rueful gesture. "There've been some good times, haven’t there?"
"Aud..." Jessica swallowed, feeling the lump form in her throat. Audrey's thumb prodded against her cheek in a blunt rebuke.
"No tears... you... soppy cow. I've had a good time."
Tired eyes fixed on her own. "What now?" The weary tone of an adult who again has to concede to a persistent child.
For Jessica, this was now where she would cross a line - not dissimilar to finally confronting the boy you wanted to ask you out. The last time Jessica had done that, the boy hadn't batted an eyelid, but had simply moved in for a liplock lacking in finesse and experience. His approach had been fast enough that his teeth had butted against hers, making her recoil. As long as she had known Audrey, the overwhelming sensation for what now lay ahead was one of heart-pounding anxiety.
"I know... one of us doesn't have all day."
Jessica bit her lip, and saw the genuine concern in Audrey's eyes. "I can save you," she whispered.
Silence descended. The hardest part was over: revealing that Audrey may just possibly have a choice. The bigger woman's eyes slid closed. Jessica strained to hear the other woman's breathing, and succeeded only in hearing her own. Whatever the final outcome, she knew she wouldn't be abandoned without a parting word. Audrey would run true to form.
Audrey’s lips parted in a sigh. "Why won't you let me go?"
That very question and scenario had played out in Jessica’s mind many times before, weighing what to say and what to do. With the moment now at hand, she couldn’t do anything except play it by ear. She grimaced in a flitter of self-loathing. "Because I can save you."
"Because you think you can save me."
"I know I can. You may not –"
"Don't presume to tell me my own mind. You might have sat with me, but… you’re not in this with me." Her eyes opened. "I don't even have to… tell you not to forget it. Because I know you won’t. Neither of us will."
"I don't have to tell you that this is hard for me too," Jessica said. She bit her lip, wondering if tears would come, but none came. Not a soap opera, she thought. "You may be ready to go, but I'm not ready to lose you. There. I said it, and I'll keep saying it; I don't want to lose you." She brought a palm up, raking slender fingers through her hair.
"I know." Her shoulder lifted slightly. "But you're going to."
"You don't... want me to try?"
Something in Audrey’s half-lidded gaze stirred, roused by a wary curiosity, and only after some time did she curl her lip, as if to mentally confirm what she would say. "Baby, listen. Consider this a… last will… and testament. It's not for us… to decide who lives and who dies. For you… to consider this..."
At some point in the midst of the pros and cons of power and its misuse, Jessica’s mind drifted a little. Days of Audrey on her deathbed sweating her way through fresh bed linen and nightwear had bled into each other... enough so that what Jessica first latched on to as idle escapism soon became the most viable solution. Early forays into witchcraft had met with varying degrees of success. An attempt to levitate a pencil had proven successful, fire from ice had proven tricky (although on a couple of occasions, the iced tea boasted a flickering flame in the glass), and on having swatted a fly with a rolled up newspaper, the right blend of cadence, wording, intonation, gestures and props had resulted in the flattened insect crawling along the very newspaper it was smeared across. Subsequent flies appeared unharmed after their ordeal, and had emboldened her.
Jessica wondered if this was how normal people became unhinged from reality. Vague recollections of quotes from Jurassic Park films came to mind: the road to hell was paved with good intentions, that some people were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn't stop to think if they should. Of course, Jessica thought she should, since she didn’t want to lose her friend. The woman could be abrupt to many, but had proven to be a big sister in –
"...how... it should be."
"You've got a tendency... to keep your head in the clouds. It's not a bad thing. But do try to pay reality a visit once in a while. Okay?"
"I’ll keep my feet on the ground."
"Promise me." The voice grew stern despite the whisper.
Palms on her knees, Jessica sat forward, scrutinising every movement, every nuance of the other woman' body. Had Audrey known what was coming, she surely would have found the strength to interject. Audrey didn’t know her own mind, so it fell to Jessica to save her friend from herself.
Coarse dreads of dry hair scratched against the pillow as Audrey's head rolled back, lips parted, her eyelids fluttering closed. Jessica drew a deep breath and began the incantation under her breath. Words rose to her lips in a smooth cadence as her hands and fingers traced intricate patterns in the air. On one circuit of her hand, she plucked a sharpened nail file from her pocket and sliced herself across her other palm with it, wincing, and nearly breaking the flow of the incantation. Had she been a more proficient spell caster, the drawing of blood would have caused no more pain or injury than the passage of a strand of horsehair. Placing her bloodied palm atop the other woman’s hand, she continued the incantation, her free hand still weaving its own path in the air. Glowing motes coalesced and encircled Audrey until moments after the incantation.
Jessica gently lifted her palm from the other woman's hand, seeing no trace of blood on the brown skin. She looked at her own palm, her flesh a pale ivory. Again, unmarked by any blood. A fragile smile crept across her face.
“Audrey?” she whispered.
Thoughts of various scenarios assailed Jessica like dust in a strong wind. Did the spell work? Would it take a while to manifest? Would it manifest too late? What if the cancer didn’t –?
Audrey sat bolt upright, drawing a sucking gasp or air. Her eyes rolled back in her head before darting over the room, her chest hitching in her slip.
“Hey,” Jessica soothed – and still wide-eyed, Audrey turned on her with the speed of a reptile. Jessica drew back, giving the other woman a chance to collect herself. “How do you feel?” She wet her lips, watching Audrey relax by degrees, her breathing slowing, the tension easing from her shoulders, hands clasping her elbows. One finger traced a sore on the back of her elbow.
“You know, I thought that was it for a minute.” Audrey’s eyes lit with a brief exhilaration as she let out a shaky whoosh of relief… only for her expression to falter when she met Jessica’s gaze. Both women grew solemn.
Jessica clasped her hands together and swallowed.
Audrey’s eyebrows drew together. “What?” The one syllable was lengthy and drawn out. Almost a warning.
The air felt still. Stifling, even. “Did it work?”
The scowl that came in reply silenced Jessica more effectively than any insult or beating and she felt her stomach clench like a fist. The look in Audrey’s eyes was pure and merciless fury. Jessica had never seen Audrey like this – not even the time when, doing night shift on Gleason Ward, one skinny black girl had called Audrey a fat cunt.
“What did you do?” The tone was soft and laced with warning.
Jessica opened her mouth to speak and swallowed, struggling to find one word or phrase that wouldn’t sound pathetic and stupid.
“What… did you… do?”
“I cured you.” She cleared her throat and nodded, as if this would make the predicament clearer.
Audrey’s nostrils flared. “I see.”
She lowered her face into her hands, her shoulders heaving. Jessica listened when the sobs came, reached forward to comfort her… and stopped.
Lesions – and sores – marred Audrey’s flesh. One of the new sores on her arm wept, as did the woman herself.
Jessica clasped a hand to her mouth as she watched, processing this new development. “I know that some treatments might not have the same efficacy, but I think if we tried again with a –”
Still in front of her eyes, Audrey’s hands had balled into powerful fists.
Her shoulders rose and fell, shuddering. “Do you know why I wanted to die?”
Jessica shook her head, not realising the gesture couldn’t be seen.
“Because I thought I might get some release.” A pause. “I just lie here, looking into Hell. Think what a shitty hand you must have been dealt to think that” – her voice cracked – “death is the easy way out.”
“But it doesn’t have to be,” Jessica pleaded.
…and shrank back as Audrey’s head whipped up, the tear-stained face contorted in a mask of rage. “Do I look any better?” Do I?! DO I?!” She ripped the duvet aside, exposing a leg spattered with lesions and sores, and swept an angry arm across it. “I could fucking KILL you!!!”
Jessica got to her feet and backed away, as Audrey clambered out of bed. This was nothing like the friend she knew: the perfectionist baker, the casual poker player, the woman of impeccable taste when it came to wine and beer. Her passage across the room allowed the window’s sunlight to backlight her, her body silhouetted under her slip.
Was it her? Or…?
“This is one of the things that truly gets me about you,” Audrey snarled. “You’re too fucking blind and stupid for your own good. I didn’t ask for this shit, but I just wanted to die with some dignity. All you had to do was keep me company in my final hours, but no. You had to interfere – and then you tell me that you’re doing this shit for me? How fucking selfish is that?”
“Audrey, wait, that’s –”
“Don’t fucking ‘Audrey’ me,” she sneered, shaking her head like a rag doll. “You then resort to witchcraft. There I am thinking ‘she can’t do this shit’. Which then graduates to ‘she won’t do this shit.’ But you know what really pisses me off? That the only thing worse than a witch who can’t perform is a fuck-up who GETS… the SHIT… WRONG!!!”
Audrey launched herself at Jessica who turned and fled, only to catch her assailant’s full bodyweight in her back. The move slammed Jessica into the wall, most of the impact catching her across her forehead and shoulder. Strong hands spun her around and threw her back against the wall, as she looked into Audrey’s face. One of Audrey’s hands splayed across her chest, pinning her to the wall. Absently, Jessica remembered the gold hoop earrings she was currently wearing. If only she would get a chance to remove such an obvious target.
“You’re so fucking stupid,” Audrey spat. Her other hand drew back in, clenching in a fist.
Jessica wailed and threw her hands up, shielding herself – and an arc of flame licked from each palm, crossing in mid-air: one singeing a path through Audrey’s hair, the other one leaving an angry red line from her chin to her cheek. Audrey gasped at the flame’s passage, and back-pedalled. The two women faced each other: Jessica wide-eyed as Audrey touched her left breast. Jessica’s eyes followed the gesture, noting that the flame had burned a notch into the neck of the fabric and scored a line up the chest.
Audrey gave a humourless laugh. “See, this is exactly what I mean. Whatever power you think you have, you don’t understand it and you sure as hell can’t control it.”
Jessica held up her hands in placation, expecting the other woman to recoil or at least flinch. “You’re sick. You need to –”
“No.” The voice was soft. “You know? I was angry enough to kill you.” She shook her head. “That’s a scary, scary thought. I couldn’t do anything like that.”
Jessica let out a shaky breath. “Honey, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I tried so hard.”
“…but what I think I’ll do is return your kindness.”
Prickly heat washed over her. “Wha-a-aat?”
Audrey raised a wistful smile to the ceiling. “She still doesn’t understand,” she whispered with a chuckle. She shrugged, looking down at her slip, and her tainted skin. One raised welt caught the light as it curved across her cheek.
“You wouldn’t show me any mercy, would you? Not when you could keep me around to suffer.”
Jessica felt her bladder, full and heavy. “Oh, God.”
“Don’t you dare bring God into it!”
Jessica fled for the door, barely making it out, before Audrey’s full weight slammed into from the other side, followed by a hard knock. A split second later, wood splintered behind her in a booming blow accompanied by a cry of pain, and she whirled to see a fist extended through a ragged teardrop hole in the bedroom door. The limb struggled to withdraw back through the hole as the ruined and splintered wood creaked in protest.
“When I catch you, it’ll be slow, do you hear me?” Audrey yelled. “Fucking slow!”
Jessica fled down the stairs and flung open the front door and ran. The dreadful refrain of her actions whispered at her, teasing and taunting her.
You did it wrong. You did it wrong.