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© 2019 Benjamin’s Fiction — All Rights Reserved

 

The city’s sidewalks were congested with a continuous moving mass of New Yorkers. Few places in the world rivaled the sheer amount of people occupying the same hurried space. This was by no means a news flash to anyone, James and Denby included. They were well aware of this as they stood just outside of Denby’s ordinary office building.

 

James, with his back against the building, grabbed Denby by the arms and used him as a human shield. To the endless foot traffic walking by, it appeared as though Denby was a possessed marionette.

“Hey—“ Denby objected.

“Apologies, but I would rather not be inadvertently whisked away,” James held onto Denby. “Taken downstream, as it were.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your kind always has the right of way.”

“Excuse me?”

“Let’s focus on the task at hand, shall we? We must get to the land of New Jersey.”

“Why? Why do we need to get to Jersey? What is going on? What is in Jersey”

“Who. ‘Who is there?’ That is the question. The answer of which is my good friend. My good friend Blindal.”

“You’ve got a friend in Jersey? Named Blindal?”

“Yes, a dear old friend. Has a quaint little set-up in Clifton. Known as the gates of hell to a few of your kind.”

“Excuse me if I am not overwhelmed with joy. Why do we need to see your friend at the gates of hell?”

“Because, my good Denby, that is where we find the answers.”

“I want answers. I do. But I can’t just run off to Jersey. I need my job.”

“We are dealing with something far greater than any job.”

“Wonderful. You gonna pay my rent?”

James pursed his lips and swiveled his head, “Perhaps we travel to the gates of hell after the paper shuffling?”

“Exactly.”

James pondered the new plan, then dismissed it, “No, we must go now. Grave danger. For us all.” He put strength behind his words, “Denby, I have been around longer than most living beings on this earth. In that time I have learned things. An accumulation of knowledge so profound and enlightening and often terrible that its weight would decimate the average mortal man. One of those pieces of profound knowledge—which you don’t need immortality to understand—is that most humans waste their precious lives on things that do not matter. Such as sucky jobs. Yours is a sucky job, Denby. Sucky, sucky, sucky, sucky,” James threw his arms toward the ordinary office building. “If this becomes lost to you due to our necessary journey to the gates of hell, then you will easily be able to find another. Your world is riddled with sucky jobs. Trust me.”

Denby wanted to have an insightful argument to refute James. How he was on track to join a sales team and was building a résumé—climbing rungs of the corporate ladder. But he did not have it in him. He did not know whether James was imaginary—a manifestation of some rare form of unknown hereditary psychosis—or not. But James was one hundred percent correct about Denby’s sucky job.

“Okay. I’ll go.”

“To the gates of hell! We must acquire transport. Posthaste!”

Denby stepped into the street, thrust out his arm, hailed a cab and flung open its door. James danced between pedestrians and hopped into the backseat. Denby slid in beside him.

 

“We need to go to . . . Clifton, New Jersey,” Denby informed the cabbie.

“We?” the cabbie asked.

“I. I need to go to Clifton, New Jersey.”

“Address?”

“Umm . . . gimme a minute.”

James lifted a flat quarter-inch-thick black medallion from his assortment of chained jewelry. He spun it, studied it and announced, “Seven hundred Clifton Avenue, Clifton, New Jersey. The gates of hell.”

“Seven hundred Clifton Avenue, Clifton, New Jersey,” Denby told the cabbie.

“Okie doke, it’s some ways over there,” the cabbie pulled the taxi into traffic.

“Tell me what you know. Start from the beginning,” Denby said to James.

“The beginning? Dearest Denby, we do not have that kind of time. And, odd as it may sound, I am wretched at reciting history,” James said. “Blindal, on the other hand, lives for history lessons. Will be able to tell you everything.”

“Great. Blindal at the gates of hell,” Denby sighed.

“It is great! Aside from the near-inevitable doom we face, it is great! Journeys are always such fun,” James said.

“Yes, near-inevitable doom. You keep saying that,” Denby said.

The cabbie glanced back at Denby, “You talking to me, buddy?”

“Ahhh. No.”

“You are rehearsing lines for a play,” James directed.

“I am rehearsing lines for a play,” Denby repeated.

“Oh, I am a bit of a theater buff. What play?” the cabbie asked.

“Jim the Amazing Immortal,” James proclaimed.

“Jim the Irritating Imaginary Friend,” Denby said.

“Haven’t heard of that one,” the cabbie said.

“Irritating? Imaginary?” James asked.

“Amazing?” Denby answered.

“I did save Jerry while pirouetting off a Chrysler and remained unscathed.”

“What's amazing?” the cabbie asked.

“Nothing. Going over my lines,” Denby said.

“Have at it,” the cabbie said.

“Where is Jerry, the earless rabbit?” Denby asked.

“He is not an earless rabbit, and he is at home,” James replied.

“Home? The green door? And where is that?”

James separated the shimmery green bauble from the other curiosities that hung from his neck and dangled it before Denby.

“That is the green door? That is your home?”

“Indeed, it is,” James replied.

“You carry it with you?”

“Such as a vagabond’s tent. It contains all my worldly possessions and can be unpacked at any time. Provided there is proper space. A large enough space away from your kind. One that they are either unable or unwilling to infringe upon.”

“Jerry is in there? He is okay?” Denby asked.

“Perfectly safe. Safe and most likely napping. Snoozing away as he will.”

Denby took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, “I am beginning to believe you are real.”

“Oh, I am very real, but why now? Why now do you begin to believe?”

“Just . . . my imagination. It's not like this. But, then again, I dunno how schizophrenia works . . .” Denby’s words trailed off.

“If ya don't mind me saying, this sounds like an odd play,” the cabbie said.

“It is,” Denby nodded.

 

The taxi carrying James and Denby rolled into the town of Clifton, New Jersey. Denby peered out his window at turn-of-the-century homes, weathered storefronts, low-rise office buildings, commercial shopping malls, and ordinary people going about their day.

 

Have I been here before?

 

"Why does this look so familiar to me?" Denby asked.

“Americana,” James answered. “It has a déjà vu-inducing quality.”

“Bunch of T.V. shows filmed around here,” the cabbie answered. “Mostly gangster stuff.”

Denby nodded in acknowledgement, but did not know if any of that was true.

The cabbie pulled up near a local liquor distillery, “Here we go, 700 Clifton Avenue.”

James looked upon the faded sign that clung to the side of the old industrial building, “The Black Prince Distillery.” His mind wandered as he stared at its logo—a mounted knight with lance atop a charging armored stallion. Hooves crushing the soil echoed through his ears. The rattling of steel shot through his mind. He gripped his hands and closed his eyes as he became lost in distant memories. He became so lost that he failed to notice Denby pay the cabbie's fare, get out of the taxi and shut the door behind him.

James shouted in a panic as the taxi began to pull away, “Denby! Denby! Have this vehicle stopped at once!”

Luckily, Denby heard the muffled plea, chased after the taxi and slapped repeatedly on its trunk.

The taxi stopped, Denby opened the back door and James hurriedly jumped out.

“What’s the deal?” The cabbie asked.

“Oh . . .  umm . . . nothing. Thought I forgot something. All good. Never mind,” Denby answered.

 

Again, the taxi pulled away.

James gathered himself, "You mustn’t forget . . . and I will be diligent to remind you . . . I nor anyone of my kind can interact with your world. Not a door knob. Not an apple. Not a fair maiden’s lips,” James took a moment and then continued emphatically, “If you had not released me from that motorcar I would have been trapped, for gods know how long. Imprisoned in a wheeled tincan until its door was opened long enough for me to escape. Understand?"

" . . . yeah . . . I think so.”

James’ self-proclaimed amazingness returned, and he began to saunter down the avenue, “Good! Then let’s be on our way."

“Wait!" Denby shouted. "If you . . . if you can't interact . . . how . . . how'd you get into my office?”

“Persistence and timing, my good Denby!" James shouted back. "And a sprinkle of luck of course. Always need a dash!”

Denby shook his head, then hustled to catch up.

.

“How far is it?” Denby asked.

“Not far to the entrance, then a short trek below,” James pointed toward a graffitied train overpass. “We travel the tracks. Then a path through the woods leads to the gates. Only a short jaunt.”

.

Red oaks lined each side of the train tracks, obscuring James and Denby from all the ordinary people and their turn-of-the-century homes. The towering trees spread into several small forested areas.

 

Denby looked up at the clear blue sky and wispy white clouds, then brought his eyes down to his simple black dress shoes as they crossed from railroad tie to railroad tie.

It is such a lovely day, he thought.

 

As a general rule, Denby was not against playing hooky. If it weren’t for the fact that his traveling companion was no doubt a complete figment of his imagination or that he probably needed immediate medical attention of the mental health variety or if their destination was not the gates of hell, he might have actually rather enjoyed being out of the office for the afternoon. It is an all-together lovely day, he thought, minus those things.

Denby and James easily found the forested trail. It appeared as if the gates of hell had been visited a time or two.

Canopies of leaves soon shaded them, and Denby thought he could hear the chatter of young boys.

That was exactly what he heard. Young boys pushing dirt bikes. They apparently shared the same opinion about playing hooky as Denby. The boys had passed without a word when the first boy suddenly piped up and asked, “Hey mister, you goin’ to hell?"

The unexpected question from a grade schooler startled Denby, "Umm . . .  yeah . . . I suppose I am.”

"Lots of people try to go,” the second boy said.

"Some make it all the way down,” the third boy added. "They say there is a door when you get to the bottom. Lots of people have tried to get in.”

"Some get lost. Come out on the other side,” added the first boy.

"We should not dawdle with these jaspers much longer," James advised.

"You really going in there alone?"

"Gonna ruin that suit."

"Yeah, well . . . " Denby said.

"Good luck, mister.”

.

James and Denby stood before the entrance to the gates of hell.

This is it? Denby thought before he said, “It’s just a big sewer."

“And what were you expecting?” James asked.

“To be honest . . . I dunno.”

The gates of hell was indeed an entrance to a sewer. A series of six large cement drain pipes jutting from the side of a hill. They were large enough for a man to walk through. Five were rounded and had constant streams of water pouring from them. The sixth? The sixth was different. It was squared off for a reason unknown to anyone who had been asked, and was completely bone dry. It was this particular sixth squared pipe that had been given the ominous designation by the townspeople of Clifton. A designation due to an old myth about what lie below. The devil himself.

The city had stopped maintaining this section of the sewer system long ago. Whether that was an effect of the myth or the cause, who is to say? Regardless, the myth grew and the squared-off pipe was avoided at all costs. Avoided by all but the adventurous who had a hankering to meet the devil in the flesh.

“The jasper was correct, you really are going to ruin that suit,” James confirmed, then slapped Denby on the back. “Well, let us not dilly-dally.”

Denby and James walked underneath a giant graffitied arrow that dripped “The Gates of Hell” and stepped into the squared-off sewer pipe.

 

Denby read the graffiti along the old cinder and brick patchwork walls of the sewer. It was not a cheery story. Satan lived here, some surmised. Death and torment and pain awaited all. A single step farther and all that one knew and held dear would become forfeit to the whims of pure evil. Also, something about a skull, but Denby could not make out the shoddy penmanship.

I am gonna die in a Jersey sewer, Denby imagined.

 

Among the doom and gloom there were a few markings that showed a bit of hope. Messages that proclaimed love or at the very least human arithmetic. "Kurt + Jill" sprayed from a can in the shaky hand of an overly smitten young boy or girl.

That's cute . . . I wonder if anyone will find my body.

 

.

The graffiti stopped abruptly. A perfect measuring stick of how far the most adventurous vandal was willing to go toward eternal fire and brimstone.

Side by side, James and Denby continued onward.

A breeze lifted up from below and brought a pungent stench to Denby’s nose. He gagged, coughed and covered his mouth.

“Yes. Very stinky,” James said.

.

James and Denby had walked beyond what little daylight was provided by the squared-off sewer entrance. They were now left in nothing but darkness and stench. A darkness that Denby’s eyes could not properly adjust to and a stench that no ordinary nose could handle.

 

"You'd think the gates of hell would be properly lit," Denby gagged. "Don't . . . don't suppose you brought a flashlight . . . or . . . torch . . . or. Wait. I think my phone's got some sorta light app thingy."

 

Denby dug into his jacket pocket.

 

James fumbled with his necklaces.

"All will be illuminated, my good Denby,” James said and then whispered softly. "Flick. Unim."

Denby heard a short hiss and a whirl, followed by a crackle. He watched in awe as a bluish spark jumped from one of the chained baubles.

 

The spark came alive. It danced and bounced off the patchwork walls and illuminated the sewer in a bright blue haze.

Denby looked down at the rotten ground. It was caked with dried garbage and littered with debris, all covered in a thin dreck. Broken liquor bottles. Twisted tree branches. Pieces of street signs. Bones of unfortunate woodland creatures. All leftovers from when the tunnel was a functioning town sewer. Before the devil moved in.

I think I preferred the dark, Denby thought.

 

James rubbed the top of Denby's head and pointed, "Rightio, onward we shall go."

 

And they continued their journey to Blindal’s at the bottom of the gates of hell.

.

"So, Denby. Tell me about this Hazel."

"Now?"

"I love love stories—only the beginnings of course. The endings are always ripe with horror. But the beginnings! Tell me yours."

“What do you want to know?

“How did the two of you meet? Tell me the tale.”

"We know each other from work."

“The dreadful place. Details, Denby, tell me what came to pass—the reason for the unleashing of this unbridled passion within you and the exquisite Hazel.”

“Umm. That’s it. We know each other from work.”

“This is not a good story.”

“Well, I don’t really know her.”

James stopped cold in his tracks, “Hazel is a stranger to you?”

“Well . . . I mean . . . not a complete stranger. I know her a little bit.”

"And how is that?"

"Umm . . . "

"Oh, dear Denby, it is a good thing that our paths have crossed. With my guidance you will be able to avoid peril that leads to nothing but despair. First, you must—" James paused, turned his head, and looked down the tunnel as far as the blue haze allowed.

“First, what?” Denby asked.

James did not respond and continued to look through the blue haze.

“First, what?” Denby asked again.

“Do you hear that?” James whispered.

Denby cocked his head, looked down the tunnel and answered, "No."

"Listen carefully."

A low, faint, rhythmic baritone sound began to reverberate off the sewer walls.

.

Woomt. Woomt. Woomt.

.

"What is that?" Denby asked.

"That . . . ," James answered, " . . . is peril."

.

Woomt. Woomt. Woomt.

.

"Wommils to be precise," James said.

"Wommils? What’s a Wommil?"

.

Woomt. Woomt. Woomt.

.

“What’s a Wommil?!” Denby yelled.

.

Woomt. Woomt. Woomt.

.

“Nothing comparable in your world. Imagine, Denby, if one of your cockroaches mated with a hornet, then abandoned their child.” James held his hands a few inches apart, “Size of ripened luttfruits. Love the dark. Mostly keep to themselves if left undisturbed. There must be a nest nearby."

.

Woomt. Woomt. Woomt.

.

"Well, let’s not disturb them," Denby implored.

"It appears to be too late for that.”

.

Woomt. Woomt. Woomt.

.

“Let’s turn back.”

“It is too late for that as well.”

.

Woomt. Woomt. Woomt.

.

“What do we do?”

“They are not terribly deadly.”

“Not terribly deadly?” Denby asked with an immediate need for clarification.

.

Woomt. Woomt. Woomt.

Woomt. Woomt. Woomt.

Woomt. Woomt. Woomt.

.

“One sting isn't deadly. Two stings? Two will bring an experience of excruciating pain so great that you will pray for death, but death will not come. Three? I have never actually met anyone who has been stung three times by a Wommil—certainly not a human. Your poor little heart would probably just stop. Give up on the whole game entirely. So yeah, never mind that not deadly bit. Sort of deadly. To you anyway," James said while he looked about the sewer and devised a plan. "And here I am without my Wommil spray—left it at home. Who knew there would be Wommils?"

.

Woomt. Woomt. Woomt.

Woomt. Woomt. Woomt.

Woomt. Woomt. Woomt.

.

“Well, let’s go get the spray! Open up that neckless thing, break out the green door and take a minute to think about this!”

“No, no, these sewers are much too small to unpack, and time is of the essence.”

.

WOOMT. WOOMT. WOOMT.

WOOMT. WOOMT. WOOMT.

WOOMT. WOOMT. WOOMT.

.

"Denby, there is nothing to fear. I will not let any harm befall you. I am by your side," James said. “But if you ever want to see the stranger Hazel again, you must not question me and do exactly as I say, understand?”

.

WOOMT. WOOMT. WOOMT.

.

James’ reassurance did little to calm Denby, but he did his best to fake it, “Okay . . . Understood.”

.

WOOMT. WOOMT. WOOMT.

.

“See that?” James pointed to the remnants of a half-bent rusted stop sign, “Pick it up.”

Denby did as James said and held the broken sign in his shaky hands.

.

WOOMT. WOOMT. WOOMT.

.

James reached into his pocket, pulled out a small glass flask that contained a trace of fine grey powder and once again reassured Denby, “You will be fine. But just in case, I am going to sprinkle this on you. Been going through a lot of it lately. It is all I have left, but I believe you may need it."

"What is it?"

"A dash of luck."

.

WOOMT. WOOMT. WOOMT.

.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” Denby’s voice shook as he held up the bent and broken stop sign.

“When the Wommils come, when they are nearly on top of us, you are to swing. Swing as hard and as wildly as you can and you mustn’t stop.”

.

WOOMT. WOOMT. WOOMT.

.

“But—“

“Exactly as I say!”

“Okay. Exactly as you say. I promise.”

.

WOOMT. WOOMT. WOOMT.

.

Through the blue haze, Denby and James could see the Wommils. James’ description was lacking. Cockroaches? No. Hornets? No. Spiders? Yes. Giant, fat, headless spiders with a slick black skin and a large barbed tail that Denby correctly assumed was the “sort of deadly” part.

The Wommils crawled along the walls, ceiling and floor.

They were everywhere.

.

WOOMT. WOOMT. WOOMT.

WOOMT. WOOMT. WOOMT.

WOOMT. WOOMT. WOOMT.

WOOMT. WOOMT. WOOMT.

WOOMT. WOOMT. WOOMT.

.

James and Denby were completely surrounded.

.

“They will attack at any moment. Be ready," James warned.

WOOMT. WOOMT. WOOMT.

“What—"

WOOMT. WOOMT. WOOMT.

James wrapped himself around Denby and shouted, “Now!”

.

The Wommils leapt.

Denby swung.

The flat face of the broken sign connected with the leaping Wommils.

.

The Wommils were flung in all directions.

 

But . . . 

. . . they still kept coming.

Crawling.

Swarming.

Leaping.

.

Denby swung again and again.

And again and again, the Wommils were beaten away by the half-bent stop sign.

.

There were just too many of them.

 

Too many Wommils.

 

They clung to James as he protected Denby.

 

James acted as if he was an amazing immortal Wommil shield.

 

Which he was.

.

 

Denby kept swinging as wildly as he could.

 

With every swing, he broke up the swarm and cut a path through the blue haze in front of them.

.

Wommils buried their barbed tails through James’ coat. They pierced his skin and stung him over and over and over. He let out a murderous howl, lifted Denby off his feet and began to run as fast as he could through the path Denby was creating.

 

James used Denby and his half-bent sign as a makeshift Wommil plow.

 

Which they were.

.

James was blinded by pain, but kept Denby firmly in his grasp.

 

He ran and ran as far and as fast as he could in the direction of Blindal’s.

 

Denby, true to his word, never stopped swinging the half-bent sign.

 

James, with his eyesight completely gone, did not see the massive open grate directly in their path. His boot hit the opening in the floor.

.

He lost hold of Denby.

.

They tumbled.

They fell.

They fell and fell and tumbled and tumbled while the blue spark from James’ bauble lit the way through the darkness deep into the gates of hell.

.

Ker-plumf.

 

PLUMF.

.

.

.

Denby awoke on a clean slab of concrete in a small cobblestone room. He could see two opposing open archways and the hole in the ceiling where he had fallen through. James was lying next to him, face down and motionless. He assumed correctly that James had broken his fall. That, combined with the dash of luck, helped him survive the deadly drop. The half-bent stop sign was still firmly in his hands. His plain grey suit and inoffensive tie were no longer plain nor inoffensive, but soaked with sweat and covered in dreck. Surprisingly, the stench was gone, as were the Wommils. He pushed himself off the floor and rolled James over.

WOOMT. WOOMT. WOOMT.

There beat one remaining Wommil. Its barbed tail impaled in James’ side. The Wommil squirmed and tried to free itself. Denby, with all the force he could summon, swung the broken sign at the squirming Wommil. He hit it head on, ripping it from James’ side and launching it against the cobblestone with a splat.

The sign fell from his hands, he dropped to his knees and pleaded, “Jim! Wake up!”

James did not wake up.

Denby slammed his hands into James’ chest, “Come on, buddy! You took a speeding Chrysler head on and came out just fine. You gotta get up!”

James did not move.

Denby put his ear to James’ mouth. He was not breathing. Denby only had a day’s worth of knowledge on the workings of amazing immortals but assumed that not breathing was a bad thing.

Denby sat, legs crossed, on the floor of the small cobblestone room. His head rested in his hands and he evaluated the situation.

What am I doing?

 

In Jersey.

 

In some . . . ancient sewer.

 

Fighting imaginary bugs . . .

 

. . . with an imaginary immortal.

Denby looked at James’ motionless body.

 

Who apparently isn’t all that immortal.

 

I should be in the hospital.

 

Getting a cat scan . . . or whatever it is they do for crazy people.

 

The Kevins are gonna be pissed I didn’t do that report on the Northern region.

.

James jerked upright at the hip and screamed, “Wommils!" He tried to clamber to his feet but began falling back to ground. Denby caught him.

 

"Good boy," James puffed out as he put his arm around Denby and patted him on the head, "Good boy. The stranger Hazel would be most proud.”

“Thank God, you're alive . . . wait . . . really? Proud?”

“Most absolutely. Without question. Most proud,” James swayed, “Now . . . on to Blindal's.”

“James . . . how . . . how much farther do we have to go? You really don’t seem well.”

James blinked, wobbled his head about, scanned the cobblestone room and coughed, “Not far . . . Denby. We seem . . . to have fallen . . . into the foyer. Just our . . . luck . . . ”

.

James, stumbling, led Denby through an archway.

.

“Here it is . . . Blindal's . . . or the devil to your kind,” James said.

.

James leaned on Denby as they stood before a metallic red door.

It shimmered.