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The man in the white suit hated business trips. He understood that they were necessary, and he especially understood the importance of public relations. He’d made plenty of statues cry in his time. But oh, how he hated leaving his office, his cool, climate-controlled, 1,200 square foot office, with its view of everything he had made shining like stars.
He hated going downstairs; he absolutely hated the Elevator, not so much for what it was but for what it represented. And he hated his bodyguard, Gabriel, the flamboyant jacka***, with his multi-spectrum suits and ties and that smirky little kerchief always poking out of his chest pocket like a little fabric gopher. It just sat there in its little nest, mocking him. He often found himself wanting to take a mallet to it. Of course, there was nothing really wrong with Gabriel himself, but that didn’t mean he had to start liking him.
Yet here he was, walking down the hallway that led to the Elevator, with stupid, frivolous Gabriel in tow. Why the h*ll did he need a bodyguard? As they neared the Elevator, he noticed he had broken a sweat. Already? Usually they were half-way down before he began to register the heat. I’ll have to mention that, the man in white thought. He glanced at Gabriel, and saw that he too had noticed the heat. He had loosened his silly tie and undone the top button of his dress shirt.
The Elevator was the only entrance to the underfold, at least from where they were. There were other ways, but as he was the CEO of the whole operation, he had never had occasion to use them. The machine was a relic from the pre-revolution days, and it was unstable. Who knew where you’d end up if it were to malfunction? The fact that it was letting through so much heat proved that it was breaking down, and he knew it needed replacing, ASAP. But that would mean talking to his counterpart in the underfold, which meant another business trip, which meant another ride on the Elevator. And there was the budget to consider, a live, finicky animal that didn’t take kindly to idle hands. Here he was, the most powerful man in the world, a god to some, and he couldn’t afford to fix a godd*mn broken Elevator. He wondered how Gabriel could afford his glorified clown suits, and brooded. He remembered the last time he’d been forced to borrow. He’d lost a son over it.
As he neared the Elevator, its double doors slid open with an irritating little ding! that was too enthusiastic for its own good. Around the faded interior were intermittent scorch marks, as if someone had poorly and hastily put out a small fire, only to have it erupt again as soon as they turned their back. For all he knew, that was exactly what had happened.
It smelled organic, as if they were standing inside some massive animal’s intestines. It was not pleasant. Too meaty. He made sure to breathe through his mouth as he stepped across the threshold. His finely dressed feet felt like they were sinking into the meager carpeting and he shifted uneasily from one to the other.
Gabriel followed him, and as soon he was inside, the doors ground shut. The floor button panel flickered to life and the man in white selected the lowest of them: B-9.
He stepped back and folded his hands across his front, and the Elevator dropped. It slid interminably downward, the muted shriek of the Elevator’s cables the only other sound in the car other than his and Gabriel’s breathing. What it really needed was a painting. Something to hang on the wall. Something for him to look at that didn’t have mushrooms growing on it. He scowled some more.
Sometime later, the Elevator jerked to a halt, and after a very long pause, its doors slid open. The man in white and Gabriel stepped out into a foyer that was nothing if not impressive. It resembled the inside of a gothic cathedral, all high ceilings and dark stone, lacking only the obligatory pews and altar. There were luxurious black leather couches along the walls, with coffee tables topped with lamps in between them. The stacks of magazines were a jarring spot of color in the deliberate, stylized gloom of the place; one doesn’t expect to find current issues of Good Housekeeping in the basement of creation.
A doorman was waiting to meet them; the man had the fashion sense of a body-bag, and all the cheer. He said nothing, and the man in white saw no reason to make him speak. The silent man led them to an ornate door, above which was inscribed, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” on a carven stone banner. Tacky. Very tacky.
The door swung open, and behind it stood a tall man suited majestically in black. He nodded to the man in white and ignored Gabriel completely. The escort bristled at this affront, but remained silent.
To the body-bag man, he said, “Thank you, Mr. Gadby. That will be all.”
He turned to the man in white and said, “You can leave him out here,” and nodded at Gabriel, who was secretly delighted to be acknowledged. “He and Mr. Gadby can entertain each other.” The two lackeys looked at each other awkwardly, then down at their shoes.
“Step into my office,” said the man in black. The man in white nodded, and, abandoning his manservant in the foyer, stepped into the spacious, well-lit room, one wall of which was made entirely of glass. It afforded an expansive, if a bit unpleasant, view of the glowing lake of fire in which the souls of the d*mned burned for all eternity.
The man in white adjusted his baby-blue tie, and surveyed the office. It was neatly arranged, a huge black desk with its back to the glass wall its main feature, with two deep black leather armchairs seated in front of it. Behind it was another chair that was more like a throne than a regular seat, with time-worn brass skulls laid into the armrests. They were a tasteless and rather outdated affectation, but a perfect testament to the avarice and arrogance of the being that inhabited it.
The man in white said to the man in black, “Well, Mephisto, I like what you’ve done with the place. All those years ago I fired your a**, and here you’ve gone and made something of yourself. I mean, look at this!” He spread his arms wide to encompass not only the office but beyond, to the black void filled with fire, and made a slow circle.
“Every time I visit, it gets a bit nicer. Well, not for the tenants of course, but I’ve seen some h*llholes in my time, and baby, this takes the cake.” The man in white completed his turn, and waggled a long, pale finger at the man in black.
“I’m almost jealous of you, you know that? You’ve got real freedom down here. H*ll, sometimes I think striking you down was more of a reward than a punishment.”
A rumpled sack made of wings and teeth and raw, sagging flesh flopped haphazardly past the window, and the man in white let out a bark of laughter. “D*mn, look at that! Gives me the chills, and I’m the master of creation for chrissakes.”
The man in black smiled, his mouth opening like a wound in his face to display the transparent, pointed teeth that filled it. “Thank you, sir. I always look forward to your visits, and I am glad you approve of the work we have done here to accommodate those who find themselves in our company.”
The man in white rolled his eyes and said, “You’re like a snake, you’re so smooth sometimes. These people come here to burn for a lifetime of sin and vice, and you make it sound like they’re refugees or prodigal children, something to be helped, not punished. If you were mortal, you’d be a politician.”
The man in black still smiled. “We both know politics are your fault; the concept was bound to trickle down sooner or later. As to my tenants, well, maybe that’s what they are to me, father: children. Just like I was to you.” He paused. They both knew to what he was referring, and the ugly face of the animosity they’d both been barely suppressing slipped briefly from its hiding place behind the flimsy wall of friendly banter.
The man in white’s countenance darkened, but he quickly regained his pompous, semi-jovial veneer. “Well, Mephisto, that was a long time ago, and you’ve gotten along quite well outside the Kingdom. Let’s not go about stirring up bad blood, now.”
The flames roared up outside the window, and the man in black nodded in agreement. “Come. Let us play.”
They each took a seat at a small card table. In keeping with the rest of the decor, it was black, and on top of it rested a lacquered chess board, patterned black and red, with the pieces already out and in formation. This game had been going for a very long time.
“Your move, father.”
The man in white let his hand hover over the board, contemplating, and selected his last eligible piece.
“Pawn to E6,” he said, and slid it into place.
“Mr. President?” the aide asked. He looked up, and saw that she was carrying a manila envelope in her hand. She held it like a dirty diaper, out from her body with her thumb and forefinger, and set it on his desk.
“What is it?” he asked. He had a feeling he already knew.
“Authorization for launch, sir. All they need is your go-ahead.” She wouldn’t make eye contact with him. He stared down at the envelope on his desk, and it stared back. He opened it to reveal the form inside. At the top it read:
PRESIDENTIAL AUTHORIZATION FORM
FOR USE OF NUCLEAR FORCE
He picked up his pen, held it in his sweating hand for a moment. He took a deep breath, and as he let it out, he touched the pen to the paper.