“Ghosts” by Dan Forkapa

Today, Lise and Kevin explore “Ghosts” by Dan Forkapa, submitted to Zoetic Press for NonBinary Review #19: Dante’s Inferno.

“Better to reign in Hell, than serve in heaven.”

The tolling of church bells shakes me from my evening slumber. I wipe the sleep from my eyes and throw open the curtains, squinting out into the horizon. The sky smolders its last few embers as the sun begins its descent; brilliant strokes of magenta burn streaks across the sky as a maze of skyscrapers – towering stone and steel – casts shadows over the landscape. I begin preparing myself, consuming a cup of coffee to nourish my body and sustain my mind throughout the evening. I have a job to do, and I’ll be journeying to my personal hell to complete it. I won’t be allowed past the gates unless I’m wearing the proper attire, so I dress myself accordingly; a simple cloth shirt, emblazoned with the company logo and stained with the blood, sweat, and tears of countless hours of harsh labor – enough sacrifice that even the devil himself deems me worthy of entry into his domain.

As the sun sinks lower and lower, I begin my own descent through the concrete jungle, cutting through crowds of costumed creatures that roam the city once every year. Bands of skeletons, devils and demons masquerade all around me. My thoughts drift back to my past; a child-like apparition amongst the monsters, not fearing them, but embracing them. I was safe behind my plastic mask, pillowcase of candy in hand as I paraded the streets with ghosts and goblins. These tortured masses surrounding me put their existential sufferings on hold under false pretense. Samhain, a Gaelic celebration marking the end of harvest and start of the darker half; a liminal eve in which sprites and spirits can transgress the boundary between our world and the otherworld with ease. These paganistic roots, buried deep and forgotten, have given blossom to falsified religious festivities. Ironic how a day dedicated to slaughtering cattle before the first frost became a day to pay respects to dead saints. Even more ironic that these cattle will inevitably slaughter themselves.

*     *     *

In my efforts to circumvent the masses crowding the streets, I encounter a fairy in a yellow dress, wings fluttering about as she emerges from one of the steel structures dotting the landscape. Her beauty is unparalleled; hair like copper silk gave way to glowing bronze skin. Her eyes burned like fire. She looks at me and flashes a smile that hides a million secrets, rounding a corner and disappearing further into the labyrinthine metropolis. Every fiber of my being wants to follow her, but I have a job to do.

As I approach my destination, heavy drops of rain spill steadily from above. The spirits parading around the streets flee to nearby shelters to stay dry and begin their ritualistic consumption of poison. The passageway to the underworld is guarded by a collective Cerberus of security; three heavy-set heads chomping at the bit to chew up anyone that doesn’t belong and spit them back out into the rain-soaked gutters. They recognize my shirt, nodding as they step aside and allow me access to the stairs that will lead to the devils doorstep.

*     *     *

As I descend the cracked concrete steps, the all-to-familiar smell of stale beer and Pinesol invades my nostrils. A steady pulse of bass grows louder and louder with each step, like an excited heartbeat pounding through the thin walls of the establishment. As I reach the front entrance, I prepare myself for the task at hand. Just do your job and go home. No bullshit tonight, please. I reach for the handle, pulling back the heavy steel frame of the door, and step into hell.

*     *     *

Smoke fills a dimly lit room as multi-colored lights swirl and flash against the walls. An overflowing crowd of tangled limbs, writhing and flailing to the pounding of music, occupy the entirety of this tiny space. I push my way through the heaping masses of flesh in search of the ruler of this underworld – Satan, also known as Justin. He’s a tiny man, but his horns give away his location easily from across the room. I approach him in the far corner to sign in, offering another fraction of my soul for a pocketful of cold coins. T’s crossed and i’s dotted, the next eight hours of my existence belong to him.

He hands me a small glass of liquid; something to take the edge off before the crowds come pouring in, he tells me with bloodshot eyes. His breath wreaks of fire and brimstone; thick wreaths of smoke spew forth from his lungs. He’s bound to this place; trapped here for an eternity while he plots to regain his former glory. He once saw great success in the district above, managing a respectable establishment with a close-knit staff reminiscent of a family. When the business fell apart, his fall from grace landed him here, struggling to claw his way back to the top.

I throw back the liquid, throat burning as it passes my lips. Fireball. I hate it, but there’s no sense in turning down an offer from the devil when he already has ownership of your soul. I thank him and fight my way back through the crowd, working my way towards my usual post near the front door. Mobs of painted beauties and masked beasts continue to pour into the enclosure, clambering for glassfuls of poison to ease their pain, if only for an evening. My job is to remove the fools that consume too much, losing control of their faculties or allowing the temptations of sex and violence to consume them.

From my vantage point near the front of the room, I survey my surroundings: To my left, a princess cries tears of whiskey, wiping her eyes while a lumbering elf locks a sultry-looking skeleton into a romantic embrace behind her. Not far from them, a vampire desperately tries to guard a case of Budweiser, fending off a gaggle of thirsty witches as a thief slips in and sneaks one away from behind his back. To the right, a zombified Jesus elicits cheers from the crowd as his group of apostles simultaneously waterfall their Coors Light down his throat. In the far back corner, I watch as a knight and a monk go at each other’s throats over spilled Miller; the scene is short-lived, however, as several of my fellow henchmen swarm them like buzzards attacking a carcass, pulling them apart with ease.

I help carve a path through the crowd, clearing the way as the men are restrained and dragged out, pleading for forgiveness. The pleas fall upon deaf ears. One slip-up is all it takes to be removed from their tainted slice of heaven; excommunicated from this hellish Garden of Eden. To the tortured masses dwelling here, each of us henchmen is a god. Our word is final, capable of banishing those that are deemed to have consumed too much of the forbidden fruit. Overconsumption poisons their minds, mistaking purgatory for paradise – this cesspool for a celebration. Lucifer said it best himself: “the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

The crowd continues to grow. From amongst the masses, a familiar looking fairy flutters towards me. Her yellow dress cuts through my drab surroundings like a match in the darkness. She looks at me and smiles; yet again I fall victim to her spell. She speaks, but the sound is drowned out by the deafening heartbeat of bass reverberating off the walls. I offer up a half-assed smile and nod, oblivious to whatever message she was trying to convey to me. A look of frustration falls upon her face as she beckons me closer. I lean in and her arms wrap around my neck, pulling me toward her.

“You don’t scare me, baldy.”

I feel her kiss me on the cheek, face burning as she hovers back into the throng of bodies and disappears from view. I want to follow her, but I have a job to do. From across the room, Satan laughs and gives me a thumbs up as I wipe at the spot on my cheek with the back of my hand, smearing glitter and lipstick into my beard. The poison continues to flow like water as the clock ticks and tocks away the time. Soon, my soul will be my own again and I can leave this forsaken place.

*     *     *

By midnight, this underworld has reached maximum capacity. Spirits and sprites are packed body-to-body from wall-to-wall. A thick musk fills the air; flesh, rainwater, and stale alcohol. Like a precursor to death and decay, the scent reeks of mortality, reminding me of how finite our time here really is.

Up to this point, my night has been filled with the forced removal of several soulless husks that overdosed on poison, dragged out to the street where Charon awaits to ferry them back to their pitiful lives. By this point, every living thing has had too much to drink, giving way to a grotesque orgy of man and beast. Satan stands atop his outpost, scotch in hand, pointing out the rule-breakers. A gigantic unicorn that was caught trying to steal a keg is carried through the crowd by red-shirted henchmen, futilely trying to resist until he is lugged out into the gutters.

The fairy in the yellow dress appears once again, but this time her magic seems to be wearing off. Her wings are lopsided and her eyes are glazed over and bloodshot. The scent of booze is seeping through her pores. She speaks and the words are garbled, almost unintelligible, but I’m able to make out her message this time.

“Listen, I know I shouldn’t ask you this since you work here and you’re the big, bad wolf and all, but my boyfriend just broke up with me and I just really want some cocaine. Please don’t be mad at me. I’ll fuck you if you can find me some.”

*     *     *

Just like that, the spell is broken. I stare at her for a few seconds before telling her that I can’t and won’t help her; that I have a job to do. I watch as she zigs and zags, stumbling from guy to guy in search of sex and drugs. She disappears into the crowd once again, and that is the last I see of her for the remainder of the evening.

After an hour or so of more of the same, last call is announced and the drunks that managed to hang on long enough to make it to closing time start to wobble their way out into the streets. The pounding music has quieted; the booming bass has stopped reverberating off the walls. We are ordered to herd up the stragglers like wolves, crowding them towards the exit as they stumble amongst themselves. We group up in pairs and drag away the ones that refuse to leave, tossing them to the curb so we can begin cleaning up their mess. Broken glass covers the floor like tiny shards of shrapnel; puddles of amber liquid have collected in the cement, which is now littered with various pieces of costume that didn’t make it out with their owners. Glasses, masks, gloves, wings – all are strewn about the room as if a bomb went off.

As I sweep up the tiny crystalline shards of glass, Justin calls me over to the women’s restroom. “Looks like your Tinkerbelle couldn’t handle herself. She’s passed out in one of the stalls, see if you can get her up while I call the EMS.” I approach the stall and see her lying there, crumpled up in a tiny heap on the floor. Her left wing is broken and her yellow dress is stained with vomit and beer. I nudge her with my boot, trying to get her to come to. She stirs a little, enough of a reaction to reassure me that she isn’t dead. I can’t help but to feel guilty, like I could’ve saved her maybe. In a different life, perhaps, but right now I have a job to do. I lift her up with one of my co-workers and carry her outside. We set her down on the sidewalk next to a police offer, where Justin awaits on his phone to deal with the medical personal. It must be such a strange sight to passerby; a tiny man with horns standing over a battered fairy with broken wings. I wonder if that is how angels’ looks when they arrive in hell; something once so beautiful now so tarnished and deformed.

I’m completely covered in glitter now, spreading it all over myself as I try to wipe it from my body. I write it off as a lost cause, heading back inside to finish cleaning up after the ghosts and goblin that trashed the place. By time we finish returning the bar to its former glory, the first rays of sunlight are peaking out over the horizon. Homeless scavengers take to the streets like birds of prey, searching for loose change and half-smoked cigarette butts. Standing there on the street corner, I look over to where the fallen fairy was laid down. Her broken wings were left behind, and tiny sparkles of glitter dot the pavement.

*     *     *

One of the bar backs steps out to the patio with a case of Bud Light and a plastic baggy of weed. Justin pulls up a chair at one of the circular tables, beckoning us to join him. We all sit there, like some crude inversion of the last supper, throwing back bottles of toxic liquid and breathing in clouds of musty smoke. They all laugh and tell stories about the evening, about the elf that kissed a skeleton and the fairy that asked everyone for cocaine. I look down at the glitter covering my body and can’t stop thinking about the yellow dress and the broken wings. I stay quiet though, inhaling a thick lungful of smoke. I don’t usually partake, but when in hell, do as the devil does.

*     *     *

The sky sparks to life as the sun begins its ascent; brilliant strokes of magenta burn streaks across the sky as the maze of skyscrapers casts shadows over the landscape. I breathe in one last mouthful of smoke and my thoughts drift away with the breeze. I see the spirit-like apparition of my former self wandering the pathways of memory; a time in which fear was only an afterthought to the terrifying creatures that existed within the halls of imagination. Never go up to a house alone; you could be kidnapped. Check your bag for razor blades; people have been putting them in candy bars. Make sure to keep your black cats inside; they might get stolen and killed by devil worshipers. These things never happened, but yet the warnings stayed the same each year; the monsters might be scary, but watch out for bad people.

Year after year, the masks got less scary, but I came to realize that the real monsters existed behind them – terrifying, misguided creatures caught up in the act of pretending while their time ticked away. Like the ones tonight, all just looking to get lost in a bottle – just trying to find themselves, to forget their mortality. Or maybe just to feel.

*     *     *

Somewhere behind me, a tiny gust of wind shakes me from my reverie, kicking up the flecks of glitter dotting the pavement and carrying them away, scattering them amongst the land of the living.