Traveling the corridor between life and death.
Stairway To Hell
"How bitter another's bread is, thou shalt know
By tasting it; and how hard to the feet
Another's stairs are, up and down to go."
-Dante's Divine Comedy
Enraptured by the spicy perfume of death, Hatch climbed up and down the endless tunnel.
It stretched before him like an immeasurable ribbon of stairway, dark and unwavering, about seven feet across and curving upward to where it met and formed a ceiling. Behind him was a dazzling fire of red light, and always before, the white brightness that was too blinding to behold. It was as if he were trapped within a black, stench-filled tunnel that burned fiercely at both ends, neither of which he could reach.
No rats fled before him, as he had expected, as he had hoped. In fact, he had seen no rats at all on the stairway and this bothered him. He loved rats. They were carrion-eaters, revelers in decay, scurrying janitors that cleaned up in the wake of death, and he respected that. But he also appreciated their sinister presence, their undeniable creeping in silence, gliding as fluid as black water, darker than the night and radiating a merciless intent.
Although he longed to return to the land of the living, this endless tunnel of eternal damnation was a pleasurable distraction from his everyday life of slaughtering innocents, but still, he didn’t feel quite right.
Gray, he was, and sunken-cheeked, as though too much of his essential essence had been somehow sucked out. His skin was thin and crumpled, and he felt like a balled-up piece of paper that had been absently thrown into the garbage. Hatch knew he had not gone home with death, but they had definitely been at the dance together.
To Hatch, death had always been a breath of honesty, a wounded wonder that he courted like the ultimate truth, and within this grotesque relationship, he developed into a man who had eventually murdered his own soul and was simply living only to die.
He found that this thought angered him. But it was an anger he embraced and amplified because he had always been filled with hate, but also because anger was the yeast in the bread of violence, and violence was the staple of his diet.
Anger thrilled him, and became an urgent need. It grew by the minute like a sensuous inner heat that could not be quenched but only fueled. He prowled the stairway seeking satisfaction, and then finally, gratefully, stumbled upon the first body.
The woman was light-skinned, blond, and very familiar. When he bent to turn her over, he immediately recognized his handiwork. The woman’s eyes had been removed with a blunt object. Hatch recalled doing it with an old rusty spoon he had found in her garage just minutes before he had attacked and killed her.
From within her tattered blouse, there was movement like the writhing of worms, and for a moment, he thought that perhaps she still lived and breathed. When a rat scampered out from between her breasts and screeched at him, he smiled with the realization that the rodent had only been feasting upon the softer parts of the woman’s body. Then it quickly scampered down the staircase, turning once to glare back at him for disturbing its meal.
“Don’t chastise me,” he scolded. “It was I who produced this banquet for you.”
Leaving the woman behind, Hatch followed the rat downward.
Another of his victims presented itself in a crumpled heap. This one was an elderly woman who was missing her ears and several fingers. Hatch smiled as he recalled how high-spirited she had been when trying to protect her diamonds and jewels. Here too, there were several rats that chewed upon her sagging cheeks, but they angrily scurried away when discovered.
Then he came upon his crown achievement. She lay nearly split in two, ligaments and tendons and veins stretched and popped in interesting ways; not just dead, but gruesomely dead, fearsomely dead, dead in ways that defied human acceptance. He had pummeled her relentlessly with a small hammer until her body was no more than a jelly-like package of skin and blood and pulped organs. The sight of the woman made his flesh tremble. Hot coals smoldered sullenly in the dark corners of his mind, capable of flaring into an all-consuming fire.
But even then, he stood from the body and wondered. What's the point of all this? he thought. Why in the hell am I here?
Something about that thought spoke first to his emotions rather than to his intellect; it teased him to see it, to know it; gnashed the teeth of his mind.
Then he heard the strangest of sounds and saw thousands of hungry, screeching rats scramble up the stairwell toward him. A creeping disquiet climbed up Hatch’s spine and placed a cold kiss on the back of his neck. He immediately knew why he had been placed here, and why the rats had come. He watched in horror as they bit and clawed at each other in a cold-blooded frenzy to be the first to reach him.
The vermin’s eyes glowed red, merged, and became the scorching red fire at the bottom of the stairway that, as yet, he had been unable to reach. Even in his panic, his breath laboring madly, he heard a mewling sound of pure terror, and at first, he did not realize that he had made the sound himself.
The fire consumed him, and then again returned to the form of thousands of rats. They crawled over his body like a red swell, pulled him down into their midst, clawing and biting him, whittling him down until he too was a part of the bloody flood. Then they changed direction and flowed downward like an outgoing tide and Hatch began to transform.
His forehead was no longer a smooth plate of bone. It became lumpy, knotted, and extended. Strange excrescences rose in random patterns through his flesh, while a narrow gnarled ridge of bone appeared down the center of his face and extended to the bridge of his nose. He felt thick, pulsing arteries along his body sprout hair, where there should have been no hair.
The change smashed through him as if it were a bolt of lightning blasting through a tree, the current entering at the highest point of the highest limb and sizzling out through the hair-fine tips of the deepest roots.
Hot tears flooded from his eyes, and rivulets of thick saliva streamed from his mouth. His breastbone cracked, shuddered, shrunk smaller, and sought a new shape. His spine creaked, and he felt it shifting within him as it curved up into hunched and deformed shoulders.
Caught helplessly in the tide of change, he groaned, hissed, gagged, and whimpered, and then he was one.
The tide of rats swirled downward toward the bottom of the stairwell as if caught within a flushed drain. Hatch ran with them on all fours, his protruding teeth gnashing at nearby brethren, and his long tail dragging behind.