The man called Virgil’s words echoed in Greg’s ears. “No, you’re here because you don’t believe in the word of God.”
Greg stared blankly at the hooded man before him. The words didn’t make sense. He was so convinced he had been banished because of how he lived his life that any other possibility seemed trivial. “Virgil, right? You’re telling me that’s why I’m down in this hell? My mother was right? Is that a joke?” As punctuation, Greg felt his skin sizzle under the upside down cross burned into his chest.
“You are a heretic. Does this seem like a joke to you?” Virgil stared daggers deep into his eyes.
Greg felt shame creep up his cheeks. “I don’t belong here.”
“That’s not what I asked you.”
“I’m not laughing.”
“Good. Now, lay back down in your hole and rot.” Virgil lifted his staff and aimed it again on the same singed mark on his chest.
The threat of another slow burn jolted Greg’s memory. “Wait! Virgil–I know your name.”
Virgil stopped and straightened his back. He placed his staff down again with a thunderous shake of the earth. “Yes, how?”
Greg sat squarely in his burning box. His legs were now solidly fused to the hot iron. Moving an inch caused his whole body to shake with lightning bolts of pain. His hands steamed on the scorched earth where he left them, but he was terrified to move them.
How did he know this man? It’s not a common name, but something had made it stand out in his memory. He looked at his attire again, and tried desperately to place his accent. It wasn’t modern, but medieval. No, ancient. “You’re an author and poet.”
“…and a guide.”
* * * * *
The Sunday morning sun peeked through the barely-there blinds on the tiny air-shaft window. The dense metropolis below the top six floor walk up in Brooklyn was bustling below the tiny air conditioner unit that sat precariously in the window. It made the most ungodly noise as it shook to life. Greg’s breathing grew more shallow as he woke in a suffocating heat.
He sat up with a jolt not recognizing his surroundings. There were clothes strewn on the shag carpet and candles littering the tops of dressers and shelves. There were also stacks of books in every corner interspersed with vinyl records. Among the fray, a book caught his eye. Greg wiped the sleep from his eyes and stood unsteadily from the bed. As his vision cleared, he noticed it was an old copy of Dante’s Inferno. Gently, he flipped open to read some of the text when the bathroom door opened and Doug stood there in a towel. “Morning, sunshine.”
Greg let the memories of the previous night flood over him. “Morning. What time is it?” He put the book back where he found it.
“About eight.” Doug did not miss Greg’s interest in the novel.
“On a Sunday? Come back to bed.” Greg reached out his hand.
Doug grasped it, but said, “I go to church Sunday mornings.”
Greg looked at him as if he said he clubbed baby seals. “Just when I thought you were perfect.”
Doug laughed. “No one is.”
* * * * *
Greg looked at Virgil. “Dante’s guide.” A slight smile crossed Virgil’s lips. “I thought that book was fiction.”
“Many say the same thing about the Bible.” Greg smirked. “You know why you are here now. Time to get back in your grave.” Virgil lifted his staff and pushed with an ungodly might against Greg’s chest. The same burn radiated with pain as he gritted his teeth against the heat coming from under his legs and now back. Each inch closer burned more furious. His skin felt red hot, but also like a magnet, attracted to the hard surface.
“Please, no.” Greg’s voice was barely over a whisper as tear pricked his eyes. His skin made contact with the hard earth and steam rose around him. He could feel the fibers of his delicate flesh fuse with the hot iron forming a seal, locking him in place.
Virgil moved to stand right above his head. The dark shadow tempted Greg to open his eyes, but it terrified him. Through blurred vision, Greg saw him lean down close to his ear. “If you want to learn and see Paradise, nod. I will come back.”
Furious, Greg could barely move his head. “Learn what?”
“The way of God. If you truly believe, you can escape.”
Virgil stood and looked down at Greg. “You saw your surroundings, Greg Abbott. If you call this ‘bullshit,’ then I cannot help you.”
Greg stared straight up at him. Even upside down, his figure was menacing and overpowering. He balled his fists and felt each hair follicle rip apart as he nodded his head slowly and deliberately. His scalp felt like rubber as moved, like he was encased in another person’s skin.
“Do not get up again until I return.” And with that, Virgil turned to leave.
“Wait!” But it was too late. Virgil was gone. His one outlet for human contact. And once again, Greg was alone in his burning box letting the heat envelop him. He could do nothing against his pain except embrace it and weep.
* * * * *
Time passed. Slowly or quickly, Greg didn’t know. He gave up on trying to count the seconds or days as he sizzled in his tomb. He didn’t even scream anymore. It was useless. He was told to wait, and wait he would do. But he didn’t stop sobbing. Just like before, his eyes would fuse shut if he stopped his tears even for a moment. While the sky above him offered nothing but death and grey, he found comfort in being able to see the wisps of swirling and suffocating grey rather than the black bleakness of his eyelids.
“You know what d’at man say is a lie, right?” a voice said. Greg could barely hear it over the screams of the underworld and his own sobs, but it was distinct, and he was unsure how many times it tried to get his attention. “D’at man is a lie. He deserve to rot in this prison.”
“Are you talking to me?” Greg managed to choke out.
“You can hear me, no?”
“Who are you, and why are you saying that?”
“Becau’e he is. He promise me da same t’ing: escape. But I am still in m’ tomb for all eternity.”
It was strange having a conversation with someone without seeing them face to face, but the woman did not seem phased by it as she continued to talk out loud.
“How long have you been down here, ma’am?”
“Ma’am, ha! No one call me ‘ma’am’ in m’ life. Lemme as’ you, when did you die, Greg Abbott?”
“You know my name?” Greg lurched forward instinctively only to be stopped by the tender skin on his scalp.
“Virgil may be a lie, but he ain’t quiet.”
Greg thought about this for a moment. Should he trust this mysterious voice coming to him in the underworld? Honestly, what could it hurt? It’s not like he was going anywhere fast. “It was 1979 when I died. A virus called AIDs. It is so new, apparently, the doctors could only watch me die.”
“I coulda helped you. I can cure any ailment or sickness, you just as’ me.” The smugness in her voice was hard to miss.
Greg raised an eyebrow in skepticism. “When did you die, may I ask. Maybe you could have helped.”
“I died in 1881.”
Greg gasped. It hadn’t occurred to him people much older than he would be down here. “1881? Who are you? Where did you come from?”
“Her name is Marie Laveau, and she could not have helped you, Mr. Abbott. She practiced voudoun, not miracles of the Lord.” Virgil’s voice was unmistakable as it boomed around Greg’s ears.
“God is a superstition,” Marie spat.
“And that is why you still sit in your tomb.” Greg heard a thunderclap and felt the earth shake around him. Then, he heard Marie scream. He could only imagine Virgil pushing her back in her box with the end of his staff, and he instantly felt sympathy for the old woman. “Greg Abbott, if you are ready to begin, now would be the time to ask questions.”
Greg stared straight up at the ominous clouds above him. The voice could have come from the clouds for all he knew as there was nothing in his line of sight. If this really is hell and Marie Laveau is in the tomb next to me, this must be real, right?
“Yes, Greg, this is real.”
“Then, where is Doug? And why do I keep seeing him in my head?”
“When earthly time ceases there will be nothing to know, nothing but the sin of the past.”
To be continued…
To read more of Dreadful Dantes, click here.
(c) Copyright 2015, Alison C. Wroblewski. All rights reserved.
Resource: Williams, Charles. The Figure of Beatrice. pg 127. Copyright (c) 1943.