Hell is a Dream
by Jaime Colley
by Jaime Colley
He came into my dreams like a fire, burning and spreading across a plane of dried grass. He consumed my mind as if he was the thick smoke billowing up a blocked chimney. He froze my blood, like he was so hot to the touch it was cold. Immediately I knew who it was.
I had met this man back in my youth, when the cane in my hand didn’t shake so horribly. And now I was being greeted by him again, when my skin was covered in creases like a wrinkled shirt. My dream turned white, hardly the colour you expect from a man like him. He stood at the centre of it all, hands perched neatly on a cane, a dragon carved into the wood, his eyes closed.
“Lovely to see you again Mr Fingley. You are well, I presume?” he huffed. His words reminded me of smoke wafting from a man’s mouth after dragging on a cigar, intoxicating and dull. I gave a shrug.
“I am fine thank you. However, I must admit that I wasn’t expecting you to ever enter my dreams again. What is it that you want? You know I have nothing more to give you,” I replied curtly. It had been forty odd years since I last looked at this man’s face. He had not aged since I had seen him last. He had remained tall and good looking, high structured cheekbones and a firm jaw. But I noticed the paleness of his skin had intensified and the bags under his eyes hung heavy and black. Some, like I had been once, would be easily tricked by his appearance, but age had left me wise enough to see the hollowness of him. He opened his eyes, revealing the heavy black pupils that shined like perfectly polished buttons, “Yes, it is quite unexpected. But you knew you would be seeing me again, seeing how you sold your soul and everything to save your precious Eve.”
Her name made me flinch. It sounded wrong coming from his mouth, like a daisy about to be consumed by fire. I clenched my jaw. Yes, the last time I had seen this man, I was certainly tricked. I was desperate and angry at the world and when the Devil came pouring into my dreams with a solution, I took it. It didn’t work however. Death is inescapable, even from the Devil’s trickery. I remembered our last encounter so clearly, a tinge of guilt curling around in my stomach. I regretted my decisions deeply; the remorse was so heavy it stained my manner, turning it bitter. I wasn’t always a cranky old man.
I remembered the way the Devil had crept into my dreams the same way he had now, his voice smooth and appealing to my desperate soul. I thought he was the Lord. At the time he had to have been, I had prayed so eloquently, so vehemently. My darling Eve, her illness was cancerous and uncontrollable. Each day I saw the light darken in her eyes. So when the Devil offered to make a trade, I agreed. My soul for her life.
He was right, I did know I’d be seeing him again, but only when death had wrapped his arms around me to squeeze the life from my heart. I was condemned to hell, just to save my darling Eve. And I’d do it again if I could. I huffed, “What do you want Devil?”
He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly, “I need you to do something for me…”
“No, wait! Joshua please. Do you think I’d come to you if I didn’t need help?” he insisted, taking a step towards me. Instinctively, I took a step back, “What’s in it for me?”
“Your soul,” the Devil said quickly, like he was trying to push the words from his mouth before he regretted them. He had a point. He was the Devil, a man of power and cunning. He had to be desperate if he wanted help, especially from an old, mortal man. For him to offer back my soul, meant he was more than desperate; he was desolated of options. The Devil, a man who had all the tricks, had finally run out. It meant I wouldn’t be convicted to hell, I’d be free of my binding contract. I narrowed my eyes, “Why me?”
The Devil bit his lip, and for the first time I saw him generally worried, “Because you’re the only man with a heart big enough to do what I’m asking.”
When I woke, I had two thoughts; a question and a fact. The question seemed obvious, was I going to regret yet my second bargain with the Devil? And the fact was the Devil had aged. While it might not have been noticeable like mine, he had. It was like the fire that burned in his blood had slowly charred down to embers and was cooling, because based on what he was asking of me would imply he had a hint of empathy.
The Devil had explained the task in the dream. It was simple and elegantly tragic, almost heartbreaking. Yet I knew it had to be done. When I asked him as to why he couldn’t perform the task himself, he simply shook his head and whispered, “I rob people of things Mr Fingley, so how could I possibly do this task without robbing the girl of more after so much has already been taken from her?”
That’s when I knew he had aged. It was blindingly obvious to me, like a light reflecting from sharp glass and into my eye. I suppose one must get tired of dealing in pain and grief, even the Devil.
He had given me strict instructions and directions. I was to be at the big bridge across town at approximately ten o’clock that evening. He assured me that she would be there. Time flickered past easily, my afternoon nap’s dream hanging around my neck like a noose, a relentless reminder that yet again I was playing with fire.
At nine o’clock, I found myself shuffling into my car and driving across carefully to the other side of the city. It was quarter to ten when I arrived. I stood out of my car, shaking horribly from my brittle bones. I leaned on my cane, grateful for the support it offered. Time was a monster like that, it didn’t just steal people from you, but you from yourself. It took away a person’s ability, character, heart and in some cases, even their soul.
The air was cool, a gentle reminder that autumn was slowly settling in. I leaned on the edge of railing, watching the water move as time wasted by. From the corner of my eye, I saw a girl lean on the railing a few yards away. Instantly I knew it was her. The Devil reassured that I would know.
“She will look like she just woke from a nightmare, caught in a daze. In a way, I guess she has,” he had said carefully. She didn’t look like she had woken from a nightmare, but more like she was in one. She glanced down at the water under the bridge, her breath spilling from her mouth and curling like smoke in the air. I could practically feel her fear from here. Slowly, I shuffled towards her.
“Her name is Dannielle,” the Devil’s words formed in my head, “Her mother was just killed… overdosed on drugs. It was my fault, I whispered into her mother’s ear, crooning for her to want more. When her mother died, she took my hand and looked into my eyes with complete fear. Rather than fearing me, she started crying and very simply said, ‘My daughter!’”
I knew it took a lot for the Devil to tell me that; to admit that it was his fault. In the dream, after he told me about Danielle and her mother, he whispered to me, eyes full to the brink with repentance and told me how she was the first, out of millions, to fear something other than him. He admitted it left him petrified and that he would rather be feared by every mortal soul on earth, than have to gaze into the eyes of someone who feared something more terrifying than him.
The girl, Danielle, hooked one leg over the railing and for a small moment I hesitated. Would she jump? Would she really do it? Suddenly she looked me straight in the eyes and even from where I stood I saw the answer gleaming in her pupils. My heart gave a twist and I projected myself towards her. She panicked. I lurched forward, an arm hooking around her shoulders. She screamed and then sobbed as we crashed onto the ground. My brittle bones ached.
“What is wrong with you?!” Danielle screamed, “Go back to the nursing home you demented old man!”
“Danielle…” I whispered. She froze at the sound of her name. “You can’t do what you’re going to do…”
“What? Jump?” she hissed, “I was just going to sit on the railing to have a smoke.”
She and I both knew it was a lie. The tears flowed from her eyes in a constant stream, trickling carefully over the corner of her lips. In that moment, I both cursed the Devil and praised him. Cursed him for inflicting the pain on a girl so young; and praising him, for doing what he could to save her soul from being scorched by his own fingers.
“You’ll regret it.” I said quietly.
“How would you know? You’re old, probably have grandchildren somewhere.” she spat.
“Actually, you’re wrong. My wife, Eve, died from cancer before we could ever have children,” I said. Danielle suddenly fell silent. I pinched the bridge of my nose, “I was like you… I hated, hated the world for taking her from me. She deserved so many more years than what she got. Believe it or not, I once stood where you were moments ago; my life hanging by a thread.”
My voice shook, my eyes watered. I never tried to jump, but I had tried drinking myself unconscious, so the only thing I’d ever see was Eve perched elegantly and alive in my mind. There were days when I hoped I would never wake up.
Her voice was small, childlike, “What stopped you?”
“I don’t know. You see, I didn’t have someone come and pull me from the ledge like you. I had to make the decision myself. And for some reason unknown, I just decided that I wasn’t going to do it. And I can’t say that my life suddenly improved… it was hard. Still is. Some days I find it hard to breathe even. I knew Eve wouldn’t want me to be like that, but I didn’t pull myself from that ledge for her. I pulled myself from that ledge for me. I don’t regret it.” I whispered. My heart was thundering in my chest as thoughts resurfaced to my mind. No, I didn’t regret living. She shakily stood up, mascara running down her cheeks.
“My mother…” she started. For a moment, I thought she was going to tell me that she died. Instead, she said, “… would have liked you.”
Danielle collapsed into a bundle of sobs and I gingerly reached a hand and placed it on her shoulder.
I drove her to a friend’s house after she told me the address. I offered her my telephone number, if she ever needed to talk and she took it, twirling the paper between her fingers. And when I drove away, my heart was pounding against my chest and as my car pulled into the driveway and I had turned the engine off, I lent my head carefully against the steering wheel and cried.
Sleep wrapped it’s arms around me after I had tossed and turned for hours. I was greeted with the white landscape and a figure standing in the middle of it all. The Devil turned, leaning on his cane. His black eyes gleamed. He had a small smile on his face and the hollowness that I had seen in his cheeks had disappeared. I spoke first, “I think she’ll be okay.”
“She will be,” he said, “As will you. Thank you Joshua.”
He reached a hand out towards me. I shook it, like we might’ve been friends in a different lifetime. He turned quickly on the heel of his foot and went to walk away.
“Wait, what about my soul?” I called back.
“What about it?”
“You said I’d get it back.” I said stupidly. There was a hint of anger at the edge of my words. Maybe the Devil hadn’t changed at all, maybe he simply intended to bribe me with my own soul to do his dirty work. He grinned a handsome smile and stifled a small laugh, “Believe it or not Mr Fingley, I gave you back your soul after you got out of your car at the bridge. The instructions were to go there and find her. It was never mentioned to save her life. Yet you did anyway. I didn’t think you would, but apparently, I was wrong. You just needed a little bit of soul to do it.”
The words hung in the air like a chandelier, beautiful and glowing. Relief flooded me and for a brief moment I felt like crying. The Devil nodded my way and faded away. He never mentioned it, but I knew it would be the last time I would see him. Oh, the trickery of him… he had already given me back my soul. I watched, the last of him drifting away. I wanted to say goodbye, but I kept my mouth shut. While the words were not said directly, our goodbyes had been said. I hoped Eve was staring down from somewhere, watching into my dreams like an angel flying above the word watching miracles happen, and I hoped she was smiling at me.
It took me forty odd years to rid myself of my devils, and while the time may be large it doesn’t matter. It only matters that I did.
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