Will you go unscathed when hell reaches out?
|Hell found me. You may think I'm being rhetorical, but that's only because it hasn't found you yet. Oh, I'm sure you've experienced hell. After all, there are all kinds; the hell of a broken heart, the hell of plodding along day after weary day with the stresses and worries of this world. There's the hell of losing a job, a limb, a life; the hell of abuse, rape, uncertainty... and then there's the real thing. The hell we heard about growing up. Fire, brimstone, an eternity of agony, and the fork-tailed beast himself waiting to gloat over his victory.
You may have scoffed (much as I did) or you may have stood in trembling awe as the preacher announced we were all bound for hell if we didn't repent. Whether you will scoff or tremble, I assure you that neither reaction is sufficient when faced with the hard, cruel reality of the Truth.
I didn't believe. God help me, I didn't WANT to believe. Why should I believe in such a mythical place when I could look around every day and see hell on earth? It waited in the stare of a hungry child; the aftermath of war; the gloating smile of a murderer as he walked away from punishment. Sadism, masochism, brutal and unfeeling evil- these things were real. We could see them. They filled the news the world over to remind us of the monster that lurks within.
But then something happened. I don't know how or why. Either way it no longer matters. Hell is here and it has unleashed something hungry and insatiable. I've been lucky... I've survived. Many others haven't.
It started on a day much like any other; a hot day with the kind of breeze that leaves you sighing with relief. I remember it clearly because it was the last day I saw the sun... the last day I felt a cooling breath of wind. New York was bustling with activity as always. Streets were clogged with traffic and the never-ending stream of people rushing from one place to another. Somewhere a child was being born to replace one of the many others who had passed.... Somewhere lovers were squabbling and murder was being done. It was a day like many others with one exception.
The eclipse was all over the news, in the papers, touted by scientists to be unlike any past phenomena. Why this should be, they never really said though they pondered why seismographs the world over had fallen silent. Whispers were heard that animals were acting peculiar as if the sudden quieting of the earth made them uneasy. And then there was the stilling of the tides that brought no markable dangers. It was almost as if the earth held her breath in silent anticipation. Of what, no one could guess. But we, being such adaptable creatures, took it all in stride and went on with our busy lives.
Those not caught up in the normal hustle and bustle of a New York day stood like sardines, packed shoulder to shoulder, and awaited this magnificent event. Some laughed and joked around enjoying the break from the usual stress. Other people grumbled and grouched as they shoved themselves into better vantage points. Finally, the much awaited event began as the first slivers of the moon reached out to blanket the sun. To hear about an eclipse is quite unremarkable... to see it first hand is a sobering experience. The magnitude and weight of such an abnormal darkness in the middle of the day is enough to make anyone stare in astonishment. I was no exception. Mouth agape, I watched as the sun vanished.
All the pushing and shoving, the laughter and talk, suddenly ceased as glasses or solar viewers were raised. The silence seemed to stretch for an eternity as all eyes turned to the heavens. In awe we watched as the moon slid before the sun in a graceful arc of splendor.
The first trembles were barely felt. A few whispers echoed from the crowd only to quiet again as curious eyes returned to the stratosphere. By then the sun had completely vanished; thin fingers of flame remaining to dance lazily around the edges of the moon. The next trembles echoed up through the earth with enough strength to turn legs to jelly. Fretfully, I looked around as those around me began to fidget and whisper aloud at the strange occurrence of a simultaneous earthquake and eclipse. Others muttered about ill omens and the inconsistencies of Mother Nature. Yet there was no real panic. Being New Yorkers we were used to the grumblings of the ground; the discontentment of the earth we so ruthlessly tried to claim with our pillars of steel and concrete.
Some people prudently moved away from the towering buildings to huddle in the relative safety of the street. Others stared vacantly at the ground as the trembling increased to a tooth jarring shake. Dazed by the abruptness, I stood rooted where I was, heart pounding as the earth, seeking to vent its anger and frustration, began to crack and split. Alarms screeched to life as cars parked in contentment howled their rage at such violent treatment. Buildings woefully moaned as their foundations rocked and pipes, securely placed and carefully maintained ruptured, sending great gouts of flame skyward.
NOW panic began to set in as the first effects of shock wore off. People went scurrying vainly in all directions, their screams bouncing from the buildings to echo loudly. The last hateful bellow of the earth drowned them all out with an ear-splitting crunch that dropped me to my knees. Helplessly, I watched as those who had sought refuge in the street disappeared, the ground below them rupturing in a satisfied belch of flame. Smoke billowed from the perforated earth stealing oxygen from the air and painting the already darkened sky in shadows.
Showers of glass rained down like diamonds and buildings quavered as from the heavens came flaming rock and dirty ice; their steady cadence laying waste where fire had not yet reached. Screams rose anew as the tortured crowd was pelted and burned.
Fearfully, I sought some means of escape, some place I could ride out the devastation, but there was no safe haven in sight. Everywhere I looked cars were exploding, buildings were crumbling, people were running and screaming or trying to beat out flames that sought to feast upon their flesh.
Choked by the suffocating heat and smoke, trapped by my own fear and indecision, I watched as those around me died. Mothers screamed in defiance as children disappeared from sight, ingested by the angry earth or ripped from their arms by the frantic mob. Other people, too stunned or injured to move quickly, were pounded beneath the feet of those too frightened to care. Absolute chaos and disorder reigned as I groped with the indifference of those around me to offer aid. A woman, covered in bloody tatters, stumbled to the ground beside me and I hastily reached out to help her up. We had barely made it to our feet when the ground buckled. Clutching her hand tightly, I hit the pavement with enough force to knock the wind out of me. When I regained my senses enough to move, I turned to reassure her and stared in horror. A wave of nausea swept over me and the severed limb dropped from nerveless fingers. Yards away, her twisted and mangled body sat in a parody of dark contemplation; empty eyes staring sightlessly at the heavens, head slightly cocked as if hearing their reply. Tears coursed down my cheeks as the reality of such senseless death overwhelmed me. It was the realization it could have been me instead that jerked me to my feet, mind reeling. I needed to move. I needed to run. I needed to hide. Every fiber of my being screamed at me to DO something. Anything. I took a few stumbling steps then faltered to an uncertain stop.
From the decimation there came a new sound, much like a train speeding past, and the darkened sky came alive. From the undulating smoke came creatures unlike any the human imagination could devise. Crowned in gold, with the faces of humanity upon their grotesque bodies and the sharpened teeth of predators, they rose. As they passed before me, I saw their twisted bodies were covered in what appeared to be armor. Stingers, like those of a scorpion, dripped venom that hissed and steamed as it struck the ground. I watched, fascinated and horrified, as they spiraled to the four corners of the earth. As I stared bleakly after them, something more came hurling through the smoky sky. I did not see it clearly, but I caught the tail of its passage and knew what it was. Larger than any of the fiery rocks that now pounded the earth, it streaked away in search of other cities to demolish. In a queer sort of way, I was thankful it had passed over us. Inwardly I mourned at the massacre that would ensue when it crashed.
Tearing my eyes from the fearful sight, I frantically looked about me, again seeking a place to escape the burning rock, the trembling earth, the dying groans that tortured me, and the screams that assailed my ears. It was by chance that my eyes swept over the crater in the street. There they remained. Forgotten were the groaning buildings. Forgotten were the screams, the flames, the dead and dying. Forgotten was the total destruction that reigned about me. For that's when I saw a nightmare beyond human understanding.
I can put no name to the horror that came crawling from the bowels of the earth. There is no name that could encompass it. Beelzebub, Abaddon, Apollyon, Satan, Lucifer... all of these are woefully inadequate. Its body, misshapen and grossly muscular, was black as tar. Pustules formed and broke sending molten rock dripping from limbs to land in hissing globs upon the ground. Wings, segmented and tipped with hooked claws, rose in fiery splendor from the creatures back. Its tail was unlike any picture or description I had ever seen or heard. The tail I saw was a hissing cobra, venomous fangs dripping death as it struck at anything behind the beast. Its face, I know, was a horror to behold but I cannot, even now, describe it. What I remember most clearly are the eyes. Glowing coals of red peered around coldly and absolute slaughter followed in their wake. Whole crowds of people vanished in the blink of an eye as flames rushed to engulf them. Sanity fled and many ran into the flames blindly, their shrieks dying suddenly. I watched in stunned disbelief, the blood chilling in my veins as those eyes sought me. In that moment I caught a glimpse of such evil that all shreds of courage fled. Frozen, I prayed for the first time in my life.
Perhaps the Lord heard me. Then again, it could have been the overwhelming certainty that I would die if I continued standing there. Either way, survival mode kicked in and, with a surge of fear-born strength, I wrenched my frozen feet into action. Screams and howls of pain nipped at my heels as I desperately tried to outrun the glare of those soulless eyes. Falling debris and fire rained down around me as I pushed through the terror-stricken crowd; my feet finding each new crevice and obstacle to send me sprawling to my knees. Face to face with the frozen countenance of the dead, I shuddered. Hands reached for me, tearing and pulling, seeking help, solace, bringing fresh tears as they pleaded for mercy, but I had nothing to offer. "I'm only one man!" I wanted to yell. "I can't help you, I can't save you. I can't even save myself!" But the words refused to come and I simply shoved them away as I scrambled to my feet. I don't know how long I stumbled and ran, forever it seemed, before I saw the stairs that led to the subway. Logically, underground was not the safest of places to be at that moment, but I was no longer thinking logically. All sense had fled with the appearance of the unexplainable.
I flew down the stairs, heedlessly shoving away an old lady who clutched at me with surprising strength, and darted into the men's room. There I locked myself in a stall and waited for the nightmare to end. For surely that's what it was. I told myself that it couldn't last long. Eventually I would awaken and laugh at the absurdities of the human imagination and marvel at how vivid it could be. But the nightmare persisted in all its horrifying details. Screams echoed down endlessly. Clasping my hands over my ears I tried to block them, tried to deny their existence- rocking, rocking, rocking, in an effort to comfort my tortured soul. Yet the shrieks continued. Hour after hour after hour they reverberated against the walls around me to pierce my heart and soul, painting grisly pictures of death and doom. Closing my eyes I tried to will them away but, mockingly, they remained painted against my eyelids. I shook my head in denial and vented my frustration with a scream that went unheard, swallowed by so many others. Inside I ranted and railed against the cruel fate that insisted upon torturing, tears of rage and confusion dripping like blood from my heart. I know I came close to losing my sanity. And though I quiver at the weakness that gripped me, I can't help but think it may have been better had I gone mad.
Others came seeking refuge, and yet others ventured out into the hell that waited above; perhaps seeking a more secure place to hide. Locked within my stall I listened with growing dread and prayed to a God who seemed deaf. Above, buildings collapsed shaking my underground haven and sending large chunks of plaster to the floor around me. The walls buckled and split as the pressure of their burden became too much to bear. Hoping beyond hope those four walls would hold, I crouched, alarmingly certain they would crush me.
Time no longer had any meaning. What matter was it when the world was being rocked to its very foundations? Eventually the screams faded into eerie silence, nagging my soul more deeply than any of the shouted terrors before. It was finally hunger, that most basic of human needs, that drove me from my concealment. With pounding heart and shaking hands I ventured into the devastation that waited.
I had heard the screams, endured their heart wrenching pleas... felt the tremble of buildings as they gave their last weary groans and died... suffered through the heat of the inferno that raged above as it filtered down to steal my breath. But none of it had prepared me for the sight I beheld.
New York as I had known it was gone. No building remained intact. Only burnt and hollowed shells remained of what had been a bustling metropolis. Skyscrapers that had once reached to the heavens, lay in tumbled heaps; mountains of concrete and steel that mocked their lost grandeur. Burned bodies littered the rubble sending their putrid odor through the still, smoky air, causing my stomach to rebel and retch. Ash fell like dirty snow coating everything with bleak and unending gray, thankfully masking the contorted faces of the dead. Fiery rock and ice no longer fell from the sky, but the trail of their passing was visible in the crushed shells of cars and craters that dotted the macadam. Fires, unchecked and uncaring, still raged through it all seeking food to fuel its flames.
Other dazed and confused survivors peered from partially standing buildings, their expressions speaking aloud the turmoil that twisted my heart; driven, I suppose, by the same need that brought me there. Though our eyes sought out one another, no one spoke. I don't guess we could. Even had we been able to, there could be no words to express the emotions that engulfed us all. It was enough just to know that we weren't alone in such a despairing place.
Setting one foot in front of the other, I forced myself to walk away from the haven that had saved me. I tried desperately not to look upon the smoldering bodies of those who had once been so full of life, but my eyes betrayed me by seeking out each new horror. Grief welled in my breast, harsh and unyielding, threatening to give voice to a scream I knew would never end. So many questions that would never be answered... so much pain and needless death, and for what? What the hell was expected of us? What had we done to deserve this? I stared numbly as I passed two children clasped together in death and wanted to rail at the coldness of a God that could punish their innocence.
Stepping around them carefully, I wiped away the tears and hardened my heart. I am not a callous person. I am not careless of the cruelties that confronted me with each glance. It was for the sake of my continued sanity that I closed my heart and banished my tears. The mind can only assimilate so much before it refuses to take anymore. Soul burdened by the empty shell I must become, I made my way back to where it had all begun. Curiosity drove me with morbid fascination to the very brink of the chasm where the demon? the devil? had birthed itself into our world. Flames licked around the edges seeking something more to consume as I peered into the yawning depths.
There was no sign of the monstrosity that had wreaked so much havoc. I hadn't seriously expected to find any. I knew, on some primitive level of consciousness, that it had already moved beyond us. The world is a large place, full of souls to harvest and cities to lay waste. Yet something remained within those darkened depths. I could not see it, but I could feel the overwhelming hate and anger that emanated from it. Voices echoed out, mocking and cruel; Whispers barely heard but promising a painful end. Chills coursed through my body and sent me scurrying away, ghostly laugher clawing its way after me.
The day passed into night with no real differences; smoke still darkened the sky obscuring all light and mighty trembles still shook the ground beneath our feet. Huddled together, frightened by this new world that greeted us, we few survivors sought a place to grieve and rest. Sleep was scarce as the horrors of what we had endured intruded upon our dreams. Children, shaken beyond all sanity, wailed and clutched at any adult within reach. A few brave souls whispered quietly together, planning the specifics of what needed done to ensure our continued existence. I, sadly to say, was not among them. I did not weep and wail, nor tear at my hair and clothing as others were doing. I did not rush to clasp the crisped husk of a once dear friend, nor did I sit and actively plan for my survival. Instead, I huddled in upon myself and contemplated my lost system of belief.
Logic would have no place in the world that remained to us. The God I had never really believed in, would show no mercy and save us all despite the prayerful pleas to do so. More than half of those who'd survived would sicken and die, leaving the rest of us to revert to the basics of human nature. Only the strong could survive. Only the strong would endure. And I couldn't help but wonder; would I be strong enough? Could I lay aside all logic and rely solely on the most primitive of instincts? Only time would tell.
I lay there in my tiny corner listening to the peals of thunder that wracked the night and the crackle of fire as it tore away the life I had known. The maniacal hiss of flames reminded me again of the mocking whispers and gloating laughter that had floated from the chasm. I tried to imagine what new horror would rip its way from those depths but my mind anxiously shied away from the possibilities. I had already seen more horrors than my mind could endure. Subconsciously, I suppose it knew that such contemplation would send me screaming over the brink of sanity. Whether it wished to shy away would eventually make no difference. The time would come. That foul evil would eventually claw its way into our world and when it did, the world would be its playground and we the unlucky pawns it toyed with.
I knew, with my limited scope of biblical prophecies, that there would be more to endure before the breaking of the world was complete. If the destruction we had so recently survived was any indication, the four horsemen of the apocalypse had been ranging across our lives for some time. Peace between nations and peoples had long since crumbled and murder was commonplace. Uncle Sam had upped the prices and taxes upon our homes and food many times over, stripping us of our hard-won wages. Death stalked like hungry lions across the whole of the world claiming the guilty and innocent alike. Now the plagues would ravage humanity, culling out all but the strongest of its surviving members. Blood would run like rivers across what remained of the continents, for evil would beget evil and eventually turn its head to the eradication of all that is good. For a thousand years the horror would remain, and each passing year would bring worse terrors.
I closed my eyes, trying to break away from the wails of grief, the prophesies of a God I saw as cruel and uncaring. I attempted to close my mind to the torments I knew would come. And though sleep finally found me, it was an uneasy rest filled with mocking laughter.
Over time, the other survivors and I scavenged for food and other basic necessities. Planning continues as we go through our days with only the thought and hope of seeing the next. Today marks the thirtieth day since New York passed from existence and took her bustling population with her. Time is no longer calculated and means nothing. Days are counted by the slight lightening of the smoke-filled sky, as the sun has remained hidden. The burning continues so we are forced to find new shelter daily and ash still falls with the silent intent to obliterate all snatches of color and life. What breeze we get is so filled with decay and rot that we no longer turn to greet it with relief. Water is a precious commodity and must be guarded at all times to ensure everyone gets enough. Once it is gone, we will not be able to replenish our supply. Rain, once the life-giving substance we all took for granted, has become a poison that sears the throat and brings disease. Even the many rivers and tributaries offer no solution as the water has turned bitter and red.
The world is ending. Life as we know it is ending. Food is becoming scarce and fresh water has become a new myth. Of the survivors that made it through the initial crush, only a handful remains. Death has become an old friend and it seems that many welcome his embrace. I watch as men and women turn against each other over things that no longer have a place in this dismal world, trinkets of gold and silver that can't even buy a loaf of bread. The children went first, though we tried to save them. Sickness and disease brought about by the sulfurous air and ash claimed some of them. Violence and fear claimed the rest. It is starvation and thirst that will claim those of us who still manage to survive. There is no succor. There is no hope. All we can do is wait. There can be no escape, no true escape, only a false sense of safety. Numbers will not save us. Weapons will not protect us. The devil has been loosed and his minions await his call.
Yes, hell has found me; still it binds me...
and soon it shall find you as well.