Chapter 2: Hope
Mary had been raised Christian, sort of. She didn’t actually believe in much of anything, not after the way her life had turned out. But that was why she had the now as it turned out fully justified fear of damnation and the Devil, and why she had the name that she had.
She faced the demon, who had no name.
“I suppose I should get you acquainted with this place,” it said.
“Yes,” said Mary dully.
“Oh. You’re broken already! I like that.”
Mary said nothing.
“We’re seeing that more and more these days,” said the demon. Mary simply waited for whatever horror was to come.
The demon said, “Down here, there is only one sin.”
“Taking something that doesn’t belong to you.”
“Like Eve and the apple?” Mary offered tiredly. “The original sin.”
“No. Taking something that doesn’t belong to you. A hope, or a dignity, or a dream, or a life.”
Mary nodded. It wasn’t like she disagreed. And though she knew it would do her no good, she quietly said, “Yes.”
“So when you killed your baby, even though you didn’t mean to, you took all those things. Everything,” said the demon. “That’s the original sin, if you like. You were told not to take something, you knew not to take something, and you took it anyway. It just wasn’t an apple.”
Mary could only nod, again.
“It’s almost never an apple,” the demon said perkily.
When Mary didn’t answer, it pursed its lips in what might have been annoyance.
“Well, you’d better go,” it said.
“I’m sorry, did you think I was going to hold your hand? You’re on your own in hell, babes.”
“I…” said Mary. And then the room was gone. She was alone on a dark and desolate street, surrounded by people who were screaming silently at the air. It wasn’t hot, and it wasn’t cold either. It was nothing.
The buildings on the street didn’t look real. They were vague appropriations of places she’d known as a kid, mockeries. Mary thought everyone else must be seeing their own. The only thing that did look real was a dark, looming mountain range in the distance.
Something fell on Mary’s head, and it hurt. At first she thought it was a rock, but when it rolled away she saw it was an apple. Then another came, and hit her on the arm. She started walking fast to get away from them, but they kept coming. It was a specific, mean torture. But she wouldn’t die from it. She was already dead, dead, dead.
“Can I get one of those metaphors?” someone asked.
Mary looked up. The apple rain stopped. Another woman, redheaded and aged maybe about 40, was standing there.
“Um, yes,” said Mary.
The woman bent down and grabbed an apple from the floor and started eating it.
“Do you need to eat here?” Mary asked, figuring that none of them were exactly likely to starve to death.
“You don’t need to,” said the woman, “but I want to.”
Mary wondered how they could understand each other. Who knew what language any of them were speaking?
“My name’s Hope,” the woman said.
“Of course it is,” said Mary wearily.
“No, it really is,” she said. “I forgot my last name, but my first hope was definitely Hope. Is.”
“I’m Mary,” said Mary.
They waited for more apples but luckily no more came.
“I…” said Mary, “I know in my heart you won’t be able to answer this question, but I had a child. Once. And I want to find him, I have to find him. What happens to…”
“What happens to the children? Oh, well, they sure don’t go to heaven,” Hope said with a harsh and bitter laugh. “I had a kid, died of cancer at age four, and she’s here.”
“Here is all there is, I think. All there ever was.” Hope said. She pointed. “She lives on the other side of those mountains, in a slightly better place. In a big house filled with hundreds, maybe millions of children. I climbed over there once and saw a glimpse of her outside, just once, and even from that I can tell she doesn’t remember me.” She paused for a second. “So that’s my punishment, see? Or at least a part of it.”
Mary’s mind raced. If there was a house of children perhaps there was a house of babies. “Who – who looks after any of these children?” she managed to say.
“They look after themselves. None of them can die,” Hope said gently. “Who knows, perhaps for a few of them, this actually is heaven. They don’t know it’s hell.”
But they must do, Mary thought.
“Most people who were parents go towards the slightly better place and stay there looking down, trying to reach their children,” Hope said. “Some people wait there for years and years, but they always come back empty-handed. Always.”
Obviously there was technically no such thing as years anymore, but Mary knew what she meant. And she also figured the Slightly Better Place was what a lot of people called Purgatory.
“I may as well go,” she found herself saying. “Things can’t exactly get worse.”
Something with wings flew overhead and almost knocked them over. It was a massive demon, a sort of dragon-shark that would have looked beautiful and awesome under different circumstances. It whirled up a tornado of dust with its wings and then spun back into the sky.
Hope barely batted an eyelid.
“They terrify me,” Mary said flatly.
“They won’t always. Not that kind anyway,” Hope said. “Some of them look like monsters, but the worst ones look like regular humans.”
“See, all around us,” said Hope, “they look like people but lots of them are demons. You can tell after a while, I don’t know how, you just can.”
“I don’t think I can,” Mary said in a whisper.
“They all have names, apparently,” said Hope. Some of the people around her were looking on and she pointed them out. “That one’s Envy. That one’s Wrath. That one over there is Spitting On The Ground In A Public Place.”
“What up,” said Spitting On The Ground In A Public Place, who bore a sullen expression and a red baseball cap.
“They won’t bother you all the time,” Hope said, “but enough. They know the worst things you ever did, and they’ll never stop reminding you of it.”
“Well,” said Mary, as soon as the human-demons weren’t looking anymore, “I don’t need reminding.”
“Oh?” said Hope.
It all came of Mary in a rush. No-one had known. Her parents hadn’t known, her friends hadn’t known, one other human at least had to know.
“I was pregnant,” she began, “and I couldn’t have the baby, so…”
“Why couldn’t you?” Hope asked.
“I just, I just couldn’t. I wanted him to go somewhere safe. To parents who could care for him. To anyone who could raise him better than me. I was only fifteen years old. So I left him on the steps of a church, I thought someone would come, but… but they didn’t.” She started crying, which surprised her, she didn’t think she had any more tears left. “It was cold. It was so, so cold. And I didn’t realise…”
Hope’s eyes were cold as well.
“He died,” Mary said, feeling like she was vomiting out the words. “I didn’t mean for him to but he did. That’s why I’m here.”
“Right,” said Hope in a clipped voice, almost before Mary had finished speaking. “You killed your own baby.”
“I didn’t mean to-“
“Well, you know what I did?” Hope said. “Fucking nothing! I didn’t kill anyone. I didn’t hurt anyone. I loved my kid. I gave money to charity, volunteered at a soup kitchen, everyone I ever met liked me! Now I’m stuck here with the monsters and rapists and baby-murderers!” This part came out in a scream. Hope picked a rock from the floor and hurled it at the demons she’d previously named. They didn’t even acknowledge it.
“You know what, fuck you, Mary,” said Hope. “I don’t belong here with you.”
She started walking away.
“No, don’t, I’m sorry,” Mary garbled weakly, “I didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean to…”
“But you did,” said Hope.
For one split second Mary wondered if Hope was a demon too, a particularly cunning and driven one. But even if she was, surely she was right, which was the worst thing.
“It doesn’t matter what you meant. Guess neither of us will ever see our kids again then,” Hope said flatly. She walked, and walked, and then she started running. Eventually she was just a blur on what might have been the horizon and then she disappeared.
Spitting On The Ground In A Public Place hovered in the air above Mary, then slowly lowered itself to her level and saw the tears dripping from her eyes. Then it spat at her.