With a metallic clang, the elevator doors opened, flooding the damp Holiday Inn hallway with light. The brand of silence you can only find around 3 am filled the hotel as she dragged her suitcase into the cramped space of the elevator. With the press of “1,” it shuddered to life, the sudden commotion making Elena cringe. The early drive home was not worth her headache --a message from her body that a 4:30 wake up was not the best idea.
The floors ticked by, painfully slow:
3......................2.......................1. No ding. No hushed glide of opening doors.
Elena’s nausea worsened. Okay, time to open now. As she reached for the emergency call button, a ding interrupted the action. Floors were ticking by again, faster now:
A parking garage? No way, not for a tiny motel off the side of the highway. Elena stared as the floors continued down. And down. Ding. The doors opened to the lobby of the Holiday Inn, dimly lit and foreign. The clerk looked up from behind her desk, young, slightly overweight, and with rows of razor-sharp teeth. “Heaven.” The clerk spat. “Who left the gateway open?”
Meanwhile, Elena was trying her best to not have a panic attack. She’d been crouched in the corners of the elevator with her suitcase as a shield, and though her legs were beginning to cramp, it seemed like the optimal position for survival. The shark-like being behind the desk peered at her with annoyance.
Elena nodded vigorously. “Well,” the clerk said. “Welcome to Hell. You get the sneak peek.”
Elena opened her mouth, maybe to ask for a way home or maybe to scream her head off, but the clerk continued her spiel. “I apologize to inform you that you’ve been caught in a wayward portal to the Underground, more commonly known as Hell. We are not responsible for any misplaced belongings or any harm pertaining to mind or body during your visit, including burns, dismemberment, waterboarding, kidnapping, flaying, axe wounds, mind control, and papercuts. Sign here.” With a wave of her manicured hand, an full floor-to-ceiling liability waiver appear in front of Elena, flickering in the air, the font miniscule scribbles. She signed it with a shaky finger: Elena Sanchez. All I wanted was a break to split up the twenty hour drive from school. Now I’m having a fever dream about portaling into the underworld.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a door slam at the other end of the lobby. A man stumbled into view, looking bewildered in a gray t-shirt advertising Nino’s Pizza and crooked glasses. Locking eyes with the clerk and her grinning shark’s teeth, he immediately turned heel towards the door, only to find it had vanished and been replaced by a lobby-appropriate stock photo of the Blue Ridge mountains. He tapped a finger on the frame wistfully.
“I...I...must have passed out in the iHop bathroom,” he stuttered. “I’m hallucinating. This,” he said, extending a finger to Elena, still crouched behind her luggage, “is not real.” The clerk let out a sigh and rolled her eyes yet again. As she moved out from behind the check-in desk, Elena could see her name tag more clearly. Its cobalt font read: Michelle, Destroyer of Men and All Things Holy. And below that: Team Member since 1546. “Another living one?” Michelle spat, regarding the man. “Damn, they’re getting lazy up top.” She beckoned to the new visitor a vague wave. “Welcome to Hell,” she droned. “We are not responsible for any misplaced belongings...yada yada yada...sign here.”
The man shook head once. Twice. Then he signed, ruffling his hair with a free hand as he did. Left-handed, Elena noted, as most lefties do when among their fellow southpaws. The clerk caught her stare and gave her a grin full of blades. “Only left-handers can get through a portal. Sign of the devil, you know.” The man finished his signature with a flourish, and the contract vanished in a puff of smoke, and Michelle returned to her post behind the check-in desk with a satisfied smirk on her face.
“Well?” She said, turning to the pair. “Are you coming? There’s only one way up, unless you want to wait another millenia for that portal to open up again.” Elena stood hesitantly, dragging her luggage out of the elevator to join the confused stranger in the middle of the lobby. Their split-second eye contact conversation went something like this:
Random Guy: Do you know what the hell is going on right now?
Elena: We’re in the same boat, buddy.
Random Guy: We are definitely going to die. And then end up right back here.
He held out a hand. “I’m Ethan. It’s a pleasure to meet you, and I’m sure it will be a pleasure to die with you.” Despite the lightness of his tone, his extended hand shook slightly. He ran the other through his hair.
“Elena,” she replied, steadying his trembling hand with her damp grip.
Don’t throw up don’t throw up don’t throw up don’t throw up don’t throw up don’t throw up don’t
“Let’s GO,” Michelle yelled, exasperated, her words finally breaking apart the face-off. The pair followed as the (Caution: Automatic) doors swept open and thrust them into Hell.
And stepped out onto a highway. One of those blank, impersonal interstates that criss-cross America, lines of evergreens on the sides broken only by the occasional run-down gas station. Unlike the typical American highway, which boasts bumper to bumper cars and at least one McDonald’s in eye sight at all times, the pavement stretched miles into a flat horizon, eerie and silent in a baking sun. Despite the glare, Ethan and Elena cast no shadow on the concrete.
“So...we’re home?” Ethan said, his voice cracking slightly on the upturn of his question as he realized what the answer was. He shielded his eyes to look into the horizon. “An actual highway...to hell.”
Michelle licked her lips with a forked tongue. “Not yet. I’ve called ahead. Minoxach will pick you up in a few minutes. White BMW.” Her eyes shifted back and forth down the road as she spoke. “Portal-crashers like you aren’t entirely uncommon. But...” Michelle’s eye-rolling, sarcastic manner had vanished. “We’re in the borderlands right now. Anything goes. Don’t give your true name out. Remember. White BMW.”
“Wait, why can we give our nam-” Ethan started.
Michelle (Destroyer of Men) had vanished. Elena wasn’t sure she’d even been there at all. The pair of foreigners stood in silence while Elena busied herself with putting up her dark hair into a ponytail in preparation for whatever near-death experience lay ahead.
“So...how’d you crash-land here?” Ethan said, breaking the increasingly tense silence.
Elena tried and failed to match the lightness of his tone. “Elevator.” She replied. Were her parents were beginning to worry? Thanksgiving break had started, after all, but she was far from Albuquerque. Or college, for that matter.
“Huh.” Ethan replied. “Me, I was at the iHop off I-85, you know, to get food after work. I mean, I get meals at work because I’m a waiter, but you can only have so much free pizza, you know? Anyways, there I am, alone at iHop because it’s four in the morning, and I get up to use the bathroom, open the door...and end up here. How’s that for a wild story?”
Elena had barely managed a reply when a roar overtook the conversation. From the shimmering heat waves on the highway emerged a sports car, pitch black, the driver obscured by tinted glass. It screeched to a halt in front of them and rolled down a window, the engine coughing exhaust into the atmosphere. The driver grinned, white teeth gleaming against his dark skin and sunglasses obscuring his eyes. “Need a ride, kiddos?” His voice had a deep, classy twang that warred with his alarmingly modern vehicle. “Y’all two the portal-crashers? Miss Michelle called ahead. I’m Minoxach, you can call me Zach.” He held his hand out the window for a shake. “And you are?”
“El-” Elena paused. “Eleanor. I’m Eleanor.” Minoxach’s handshake was tepid.With the Ray-Bans over his eyes, she couldn’t tell where his gaze was focused. Ethan, busy cleaning his glasses on his t-shirt, piped up as well. “I’m Enrique. Iglesias. Enrique Iglesias.”
The demon’s grin spread wider, splitting his face just slightly too far to be human. His teeth were white, so white they seemed to transcend the color spectrum altogether and make rainbows dance before Elena’s eyes. “Alright, y’all. Let me pop the trunk for Miss Eleanor’s luggage, and we can be on our way. Don’t want to stay out here too long with the bad sorts about.”
As Ethan moved forward to accept Zach’s offer, Elena caught him by the arm, spinning him around. Her eyes darted to the car, then back to Ethan’s gaze. White. His eyebrows raised. Looking up from Elena’s grip to face the not-Minoxach, Ethan grinned cheerily. “Actually,” he said. “We were planning to walk. Come along, Eleanor.” He hooked his arm with hers, and they began to stride steadily along the roadway, Elena’s suitcase bouncing behind them in the weeds.
Get in the car.
The thought echoed in Elena’s mind, and judging by Ethan’s startled look, his too. Simultaneously they turned, looking at the vehicle behind them. It loomed, sucking up every drop of sunlight around them. Its engine rumbled.
Get in the car.
“Drop the suitcase.” Ethan said, his command stark and out loud. Elena made eye contact with him for a split-second and the agreement was made. They ran.
Together they tangled through the gravel and weeds along the highway into the woods that lined it. As they approached the trees however, their trunks knit togethers, rippling into an impassable wooden barrier. Elena touched the bark, then pounded her fist on it.
“I can’t...I can’t get through. We can’t get through!” Her heartbeat pounded in her head, shaking her vision. This demon was going to kill her, helpless on the side of the road. As the mechanical roar of the car approached, Elena knelt down into the grass. She couldn’t breathe.
Ethan, for his part, turned and faced their doom head on. Zach leisurely guided the car parallel to them, sliding his sunglasses down with one hand to peer. He had no eyes. Just sockets. Empty, hollow sockets and a blinding smile. Ethan knelt besides Elena, scrabbling the grass for something, anything, to fight back with. Elena’s suitcase lay out of reach, its contents spilled on the asphalt. Minoxach’s smile never faltered. Ethan closed his eyes.
Like a star going out, the demon’s grin vanished. His empty gaze focused on something behind Ethan’s back before he slammed the gas down with a audible clunk, fishtailing the midnight car down the road as fast as it had appeared. Ethan opened his eyes to see the source of the demon’s hasty retreat, extending a middle finger to Minoxach’s bumper as he did. Another car sped towards them, this one a creamy white, stark against the gray concrete.
“Need a ride?” The white BMW had arrived.
They’d been humming along the highway for an indescribable amount of time when they finally arrived. According to their driver, Elena and Ethan had narrowly avoided an altercation with a crossroads demon, fairly common in between-sectors areas such as these. The driver wore a Cubs hat, and he tapped his brown hands against the wheel as he wearily answered Ethan’s endless chatter. Like Michelle, he had a blue name tag, but this one just read: Zach. (Team Member since 2012). Unlike Michelle, the tips of his ears came to a sharp point--a feature that Ethan was ecstatic to compare to Legolas in Lord of the Rings. Elena listened to the conversation with her knees drawn up into her chest in the backseat. Ethan had elected for shotgun.
“So...you’re the real Minoxach? The one the pointy-toothed lady sent to take us home?”
“Minoxach is a common name.”
“Two Minoxachs! Zachs squared. Ha. My twin brother Eli and I, our friends would call us E squared.”
“I don’t really care.”
“Okay! Where are we going?”
“The nearest open portal. Crashing is usually a one-way trip, but there are a couple portals that can go both ways. It’s how some of my coworkers are able to monitor surface activity--and how you’re going home. There’s a price, though.”
“Oh look. We’re here.”
The highway had melted away into a city landscape. Something you’d see on a late-night 80s sitcom, a skyline that seemed familiar but you couldn’t place. Though the car flew at alarming speeds, the city remained on the horizon, framed by a picturesque setting sun. The road trippers were currently cruising through what must be Hell’s version of suburbia--white picket fences, carefully maintained lawns, matching houses. Zach screeched to a halt in front of one of them, a ranch house with beige siding and chestnut shutters. 666 White Rose Dr.
“Alright. Welcome to Envy sector 7A. Everybody out.” Zach said as Ethan stepped out to get Elena’s tattered suitcase out of the trunk.
“Wait.” Elena said, her first words since their encounter with the other, more evil Minoxach. “What happens now?”
“Now? Now is when you get out of my car and I get out of here to fetch-” he checked his phone. “Yin Wang Li of Nanjing, China. Poor girl landed in Wrath.”
“No. I meant, like, how are we getting back?”
“Oh. Just knock on the door. Hopefully she’ll be home.”
Ethan rapped on Elena’s window impatiently before she could ask any further questions. Giving Zach an awkward wave of thank-you-for-saving-us-but-you’re-kind-of-a-jerk, she joined him on the curb. Together, they cut through the manicured lawn and Elena raised a fist to give the front door a firm knock. Just as her knuckles brushed the wood, it swung open. Ethan and Elena stepped back and braced themselves for sharp fangs, hollow eyes, pointed ears.
“Oh! You’re right on schedule. I’m Shannon.”
The monster that greeted them at the door was bottle-blonde, sporting boot-cut jeans and a sensible orange cardigan. She shook hands firmly with Ethan, then Elena.
“Come in, come in. Do you kids want any snacks? I made pizza rolls!”
Elena politely refused. Ethan took two.
“Alright!” Shannon clapped her hands together. “So. The business of getting you home. Ugh. And you two just got here! Envy never gets visitors nowadays. Greed takes all the good ones.” She gave them a wink. “Hopefully this won’t be the last time we see each other.”
Elena cleared her throat. “You were saying...about going home?”
“Right! Well, dearies, it’s not free. Getting down here is easy, it’s going back up that’s the hard part.”
“So...what’s the price?” said Ethan.
“Depends.” Shannon considered them, her eyes suddenly hungry. “You,” she said, addressing Ethan. “Your greatest fear.”
The group was silent for a moment before Ethan realized that this was his cue.
“Oh! Hmmmm...I don’t know...maybe sharks?”
Shannon shook her head. “Your greatest fear exists not in the physical realm. It’s in the cobwebs at the back of your mind. It’s in mirrors when you refuse to look at night. It’s what makes you jump off the bridge, pull the trigger, close the garage and start the car.”
“Eli.” Ethan said. He seemed...quiet. Like the kinetic energy inside of him from the start had been smothered.
“Eli killed himself three years ago. Stepped right in front...how did you know?” he said softly. “How did you know?”
“Your greatest fear. What’s your greatest fear?”
“Being alone.” The answer was dragged from his lips. There was more to Ethan’s fear than two words, and it hung in the air between them. Shannon smiled.
“Perfect. Now you.” She pointed to Elena. “A secret you haven’t told a soul.”
Elena spared a glance to Ethan. His gaze was empty. “Um. I’m bi? I don’t think I’ve told anyone that.”
“Wrong!” Shannon cackled. “You told Robert Wittenberg on the online forum ‘Strangers Share Secrets’ in ninth grade.”
“That was anonymous! It shouldn’t count.”
“Too bad, sweetheart. I still want a secret.”
In her mind’s eye, Elena was sixteen, newly licensed, four years away from a wayward elevator into Hell.
In her mind’s eye, Elena was at school. The hallway was freshly abandoned, as the final period of the day had ended twenty minutes ago. Glancing left and right, she dug into the recesses of her backpack and found her phone--not her glittery iPhone 5, but an old one her parents had forgotten she’d even owned.
In her mind’s eye, Elena casually flipped it open and sent a text. The number wasn’t in her contacts, but she’d memorized it anyway. Her message glared green: You’re such a sl**. Why don’t you just die?
In her mind’s eye, Elena was in bed, lying on her stomach like a quintessential teenage rom-com protagonist. Her most recent text out read: The world would be better off without you.
In her mind’s eye, Elena was at McDonald’s with her best friend. Together they laughed at their message: Hope your hook up was worth it, b****.
In her mind’s eye, Elena sat sullenly at the suicide prevention assembly. The principal was saying something about finding your support network. Brenda Trang was still in the hospital after downing a bottle of sleeping pills.
“Perfect,” said a voice.
Elena opened her eyes. They were on the side of a highway. One of her hands held her suitcase, its zipper hanging by a thread. The other hand held Ethan’s, and though his grasp was sweaty, he didn’t seem quite ready to let go. They both had shadows. Ethan let out a whoop of joy.
“We’re back! My shadow! I’ve missed you, buddy.” He winked at Elena and held out a thumb to a passing car. “Hey...now that we’re like, Hell buddies or whatever, can I get your number?”