18

Damnation and Minimum Wage: A Group-Writing Project

About the Authors

1 Deo Dominic Brumit, Colorado, June 22nd, 2015
2 Leah Scott, Colorado, June 29, 2015
3 Joe Reinis, Colorado, July 6, 2015
4 Alice Steward, Colorado, July 13, 2015
5 Deo Dominic Brumit, Colorado, July 20, 2015
6 Stefanie Molina, California, July 27, 2015
7 Randy Butternubs, Colorado, August 5, 2015
8 Deo Dominic Brumit, Colorado, August 11, 2015
9 Leah Scott, Colorado, August 17, 2015

 

About Dually Noted

Dually Noted is TBL’s exciting group-writing project. New and established writers from around the world come together to create one ongoing story through weekly installments. If you would like to add the next section, shoot us your 500-word addition by Friday night. Our editor will publish the best submission at the beginning of each week.

Damnation and Minimum Wage

by the TBL Writing Community

Ronald McDonald’s Grand Acropolis of Unearthly Delights

I pulled my hand back as the padlock on my staff locker oozed when I attempted to slip the key in. It was sorta fleshy, and I swear it giggled a bit when I grabbed hold of it. I looked at my nameplate, which someone had vandalized using what looked like blood. “Rick Bukowski” had been turned into “Prick Fuckowski.” It wasn’t glamorous, but I was happy in my position at the drive-through at the McDonalds just down the block from my apartment building in Tampa, Florida. As luck had it, and this is a typical corporate screw-up, there was some kinda clerical error down at HQ. Next thing I know, I got my boss telling me I got a transfer for a manager position at some location in the “Deep South.”

I think, I sure as shit ain’t qualified for the position, but I do love the gumbo, and the pay-raise’ll help fund that jet ski I been lookin’ at in the catalog for a while. So, one evening a couple’a weeks later, I get a shuttle-bus sent by my place, figure it’ll take me to the airport. I take a look at the driver as I hop on, pale lookin’ fella, in some kinda leather bondage getup, buncha piercings too, all chained to the wheel. Now, I ain’t exactly up to times with the fashion these days, and I ain’t a man to judge, so I just greet him and keep on movin’.

As I take my seat, the bus kicks into gear. I’m gettin’ ready to relax for the ride when, a great, stomach-turnin’ rumblin’ sways the bus around, and a screamin’ meat-hole opens up below the bus, plunging us deep into the Earth. It’s gettin’ real loud and hot now. The sign above the driver’s seat clicks on, and in a burnin’-bright orange it says “PANDÆMONIUM.”

So, here I am, branch manager at Ronald McDonald’s Grand Acropolis of Unearthly Delights in Pandemonium, High Capital of Hell. I’ll admit it’s a scenic location, right across the Quadrangle from the Palace of the Fly. The folks though, the folks are awful! I thought the regular redneck bozos I got rollin’ through my station back in Tampa were rude, but the jerks down here are somethin’ else! I can’t man the register for more than five minutes without some tall fella botherin’ me about tradin’ my soul for some magic sack of gold or some crap. This one guy with four faces comes in everyday and screams the exact date and time of my mother’s death when I ask for his order.

It’s obvious my employees don’t take me seriously, either. Sure, corporate gave me a flaming whip for whenever they’re slacking on the line, but I can only lash so many employees before my arm starts gettin’ sore. Twice this week they left early for lunch and never came back. Not only is it tough workin’ the joint on my own, but I can’t stand molding all those screaming souls into patties. Shit ain’t right, I tell ya. Now, on the topic of shit that ain’t right, what does a guy have to do to get a couple-a’ cervezas around here? Am I right? Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you, Captain Hook! I see you over by the jukebox!1

A Burlesque Queen’s Laments from the Second Circle

Cursed with libido and a smokin’ hot bod
I dance with the devil eternal.
Incubus filth who poke me and prod
As they please my taut flesh bruised infernal.
“Lo!” they will say, when I’m up on the pole,
“All this heat’s turned that ass into diamond!”
Being in heat all the time is quite droll
After spending my life in this climate,
But it’s true that my ass is fantastic
And it only gets hotter with time,
Body bending and folding elastic
Over demons’ ejaculate grime.
I do whatever they ask me to do—
There are no boundaries in my contract—
My time in the strip club will never accrue:
All my life I’ve been flashing my fabulous rack,
Crouched on knees while they claw at my back.
I dance like a phoenix with life on repeat
Wishing for death but reborn with each move
For eons I’ve never stopped using my feet
Caught in a state of perpetual groove.
Even the music will frequently pause
Its bone-shredding-shrill-screeching-scream-ghastly-racket
But I must still shimmy and shake my ta-tas
While these cretins demand me to “whack it.”
Sometimes they’ll yell out, “Hey toots, take it off!”
And of course, I am bound to oblige them
So I’ll find some cheap whiskey and take a long draught
Then remove my big toe, or an eyeball.
Some crowds really love when I rip off my leg
But they all get off hard when I twist off my head.2

Refills

If a soul should ever read this account, I cannot say. Still, I must write this with haste. If you, dear reader, come upon this tale, quickly scrawled upon a stack of napkins, do not dismiss it as the ravings of a mad man. Hark! and hear of my woeful fate:

I do not know with certainty what led me to the establishment. However, once seated, I was quite content with my decision. Quaint atmosphere, friendly wait staff; it was quite pleasing overall.

A brief glance revealed several rooms of joyous diners, reveling in all manner of pasta and sauce concoctions. They seemed to delight in their consumption almost reverently…

“Sir?” A tall fellow with an affable smile stirred me from my ruminations.

“My apologies. I seem to be distracted this evening.”

“It is no bother, sir. With so much to take in, it’s easy to lose oneself here.”

“Indeed it is.” A rumbling of a considerable nature echoed through my abdomen. “I am finding myself to be quite famished. Do you have any recommendations that might satisfy?”

Almost imperceptibly, something like excitement flickered across the server’s face.

“Are you familiar with our endless pasta plate? It sounds like just the cure for your affliction.”

I marveled at this. “Are you to say that one could have as much pasta as they wished? Sounds like fairy tale. I believe you may have underestimated how substantial my hunger is.”

He leaned close, and spoke like a conspirator. “Sir, when we say endless, it is truly without end. We will provide you with more pasta than you will know with what to do.”

“Splendid! Then I shall be obliged to order this plate and see for myself.”

His grin spread. “Very well sir. Very well.”

Dinner service proceeded rather pleasantly. The server brought a simple, but pleasing salad and he produced an exceptional vintage I hadn’t previously encountered.

“It is called Ricminciare, sir. Its name is Italian for ‘start over’.”

It sounded like a fine name for the drink to begin my meal.

“The meal will be out shortly.”

And sure enough, a plate arrived—tender pasta covered in a delectable sauce. I am embarrassed to report that I consumed it so vigorously that its completion occurred only moments after its arrival.

The server appeared almost immediately. “Another plate sir?” I found it endearing how eager he seemed to provide me with more sustenance.

“Yes, please.” And so he proceeded to bring plate after plate, each more luxurious than the last. I savored every morsel, indulging in each drop of sauce. This proceeded until, and rather expectedly, I had reached my limit.

“Another plate sir?”

“No, I believe that I have been bested.”

“I understand, sir.” I slumped into my chair and began let my meal settle. I watched the other diners continue to waging battle on their meals, defying all gastronomical reasoning. Were these the same guests who I had first begun dining with?

“Here you are, sir.” I looked up to see another dish sitting in front of me, the delectable aroma rising up to greet my face.

“I believe you misunderstood, I actually…no. Never mind. One more plate will be perfect.” I consumed this last plate slower, still enjoying the pasta, but certainly pushing beyond the limits of my well-tested stomach.

“Another plate, sir?”

“No, no, quite seriously this time. I am through.”

“Absolutely.” With that, he left. And much to my surprise and growing ire, he appeared with another plate.

“Sir, your service this evening has been impeccable. However, I must insist that these refills cease.”

The server looked over to two of his coworkers and promptly waved them over. Each carried over a fresh plate of pasta and set them down at my table.

“This is absurd! Surely this must be some strange jest, one that I am in no particular mood for. I insist on speaking with your manager.”

“Certainly, sir.” The servers vanished behind the swinging door. As I waited for the manager to emerge, I felt a meaty hand grip my shoulder with a brutish force. Alarmed, I turned to see my assailant. It was one of my fellow patrons, a rough looking character with an untamed beard, still seated.

“It’s rude not to eat your meal. Ain’t you got manners?” Each word spilled out from his still-chewing mouth. Upon asking his question, he inserted another overloaded forkful into his mouth.

“Pardon,” I said while shrugging out of his calloused hand, “but I did not request these plates. They were brought to me unexpectedly.” I took a sharp tone with the oaf. “It was not my intention to be rude.”

The bearded man let loose a deep belly laugh. “Intention ain’t got nothin’ to do wit’ it. You’re just gettin’ what you ordered.” He laughed some more before he turned back to his plate and resumed his meal. Little chuckles escaped between mouthfuls of sauce.

Just then, I turned to see the manager approaching the table. “Sir, it is my understanding that you wished to speak to a manager?” The manager was a middle aged man with a bulbous throat, not unlike a bullfrog. He was nearly bald, save for several long wisps of hair.

“I don’t mean to be a bother, as your staff has done an outstanding job for most of the evening. However, and it may be an odd failing of communication, my server seems to insist upon bringing me more plates of pasta, despite my protestations. I am utterly full and simply wish for my check.”

The manager nodded a moment, looking from me to the plates of pasta and back again. He licked his ashen lips, almost obscenely, before he spoke. “Sir, it appears that you have ordered our endless pasta plate. Are you familiar with the term ‘endless’? Because if you are, you’d know that these few plates could hardly be considered a start.” He licked his lips again before spreading them into too wide a smile.

“But… that… that simply cannot be. This is madness!”

All of the other guests looked over. Laughter erupted from all corners of the restaurant. I stood up, disoriented, trying find the exit. The wait staff and the other patrons began to crowd around me, plates in hand, shoved toward my face. “Don’t you want some more?”

I tried to push my through, weaving through the overbearing mass of human cattle. As I pulled through the gaps of flesh, I caught a glance at my hands and was horrified. They looked ancient and frail, almost corpse-like. How could this be? Wasn’t I a younger man? What has become of me?

I fought my way out the room and into the lobby on feeble, old legs. My reflection met me in the glass doors, a skeletal wraith of my former self. How long had I been here? In that moment I realized that I couldn’t recall how I even arrived. How did I get here?

Driven by the panic tingling at the base of my skull, I closed my eyes and ran towards the door. It burst open before me and I could feel the night air hit my skin. Needing to see that I was truly free I opened my eyes…

… and found myself seated at my table in the restaurant. I looked at my hands to see that their youthful appearance had returned. The room was filled with other diners, happily enjoying their meals. A tall young man with a warm smile approached the table.

“Welcome home, sir.”

I was quite startled by this. “Home?”

The server’s eyes brightened. “Yes. Home sir. With your family.” He gestured toward everyone in the room. “Will you be having your usual order, sir?”

I wanted to scream, but as soon as he asked, I felt the deepest ache of hunger, as if my stomach were cavernous and throbbing. I was ravenous.

A tear rolled down my cheek. “Yes. The usual will be just fine.”3

Help Wanted

Even in the lowest circles of The Pit, where the flames have cooled to an unforgiving chill, chain stores selling bland clothing are still in high demand. Aesthetically boring, yet affordably priced, these retailers are successful on every plane.

Brett and Cody were halfway through folding the latest shipment of aggressively plain khakis. If asked, they would tell you that folding and stacking the nondescript pants was an endless task. However, if either man had a more complete understanding of the word ‘endless’, they would know that a meager 27,418 piles could hardly be considered a start.

“You know what’s fucked up about this?”

Cody raised an eyebrow. “Everything? Were you going to say everything? Because the answer is everything.”

Brett slapped another pair of pants on the counter. “I was an atheist. All of this? I didn’t believe in it. I still kind of don’t.”

“Oh, my sweet Brett.” Cody reached over and gave Brett’s arm a squeeze. Brett slapped the hand away with a half-hearted sneer. Cody shrugged, the last gesture of an old routine. “That’s how your heathen ass got down here.”

“That’s bullshit. I didn’t do anything to deserve this. I donated to charity. I volunteered at an animal shelter. I drove an electric car, for fuck’s sake. My carbon footprint was immaculate. I was a good person.”

“Sure you were. I crushed my lover’s skull with a vase we bought together from IKEA because he was a cheating prick. That’s how I got here. But it must have been just a clerical error for you.” Cody cocked his head and gave a close-lipped smile. Brett’s only response was a glare significant enough to cause a nearby infernal customer to awkwardly shuffle to the other side of the store, an impressive feat for one of the damned. The two men resumed their folding in the silence of mutual disdain.

A few yards away behind the cashier’s counter stood Heather, the object of more than a few of Brett’s longing glances. She was trying to explain, to a customer composed entirely of buzzing insects and broken doll parts, that this particular location didn’t carry shoes.

“Um… ma’am (I think?), I’d be more than happy to look, but we just don’t have shoes here.”

The insects swirled and hissed in unison. “shoes.wecameforshoes.doweneedtospeaktotheMANAGER?”

At the very word, all eyes darted to the office door at the back of the store. The opaque widow darkened considerably and the door handle began to frost over. The damned employees could see their breath as their skin turned to gooseflesh.

“N-no, ma’am. No need to get the manager.” The room seemed to warm slightly “I’ll go take a look.” Heather sincerely hoped that they would just leave while she pretended to be on the hunt for shoes.

Brett watched her as she seemed genuinely disappointed not to find a single reasonable pair of flats under the piles of khakis. Instead, she only found a crumpled invoice from an old shipment. She looked at it with a sad fascination, as if it would sprout some straps and a heel any second.

“Hey, I’m going to see if Heather needs any help.”

Cody crossed his arms. “Or, I could just slap you and tell you that you’re a creep right here instead. I’m closer and she looks too busy to tell you herself.”

“Are you ever not a dick? And it’s not like that. I’m just trying to be-”

A good person? I know. Make sure you save some blind orphans on the way over.”

Brett walked over to Heather, offering a non-committal half-wave as way of greeting. “Do you need any-”

“Can you not see that it’s like, the worst time ever? Go away, Brett.” Cody’s snort behind them was unmistakable. As if to punctuate her point, she threw the crumpled invoice into the trashcan, which she instantly regretted.

A wall next to the dressing rooms disintegrated into ash revealing a long, dark hallway. Distant screams echoed into the room.

Heather began to tremble, staring into the inky black distance. She mouthed the words “Trash run.” In case the significance of this moment isn’t clear, it should be noted that the infernal customers ceased their browsing and immediately deserted the room.

“Oh, Heather. I’m so sorry.” She didn’t bother to push Brett’s hand off her shoulder as he attempted to console her.

“No one comes back from these. I have to go, don’t I?” Her eyes were wet, but she blinked the tears back.

Cody stepped between the two, guiding Brett’s hand off of her. “Yeah, someone has to go. You still feel like a good person, Brett?”

Brett took a few steps back, with his hands held in front of him, like a shield. “No way. I didn’t throw away that last piece of trash.”

“I didn’t think so.” Cody turned away from him, now facing the hallway. “Heather, I’m sorry, but there’s no way I’d ever go down there alone. I won’t go for you.”

She nodded slowly and headed over to the trashcan. Cody walked with her and picked up one side of the can. “But I’ll go with you.”

“Cody, no, you don’t have to…”

“Everyone goes eventually. What am I going to do? Just wait until I have to go by myself?”

Brett watched as they each took a side of the can, and walked into the darkness. He looked on until he couldn’t see them anymore. The ceiling over the hallway began to melt and drip, filling in the missing wall.

Brett was alone in the store. He looked at the pile of unfolded khakis. Numbers flooded his mind as he tried to calculate a lifetime of charitable donations.4

Good Morning, Asmodeus

In the Golden Château of Asmodai in the Second Circle of Hell, Prince Asmodeus the Lusty was taking a nap. The cyclopean structure squatted in a rolling landscape of hills, blanketed by fertile and fragrant fields of fat, aphrodisiatic fruit. One tower stood above all others, its igneous façade hewn into an open pair of luscious lips, from which a cascade of glittering honey poured. Behind the lips, within the structure, laid Asmodeus’ personal chambers, a Temple to Desire. The salty smell of oysters and seed mingled with curling strands of smoke rising from the tips of long sticks of lavender incense. An arabesque of carved, shiny abalone shell shimmered on the walls and ceilings, playing with the the weak light seeping from the room’s smoldering braziers. The stained marble floor was littered with jasmine petals and pomegranate jewels.

Despite the Hellish penthouse’s gaping mouth, the blasting, soul-saturated storms of the Second Circle stirred the room as a gentle and soothing breeze. In the chamber’s center, behind a fragile veil of crimson satin, The Licentious One stirred in Its nest of catamites. The source of Its awakening was the light patter of bare feet on hard stone, as one of Its hermaphroditic masseuse-servants hurried into the bedroom to rouse The Throbbing Eminence, Asmodeus, for the day’s business. In a husky voice, the attendant recited a sweet mantra of stimulation to excite and awaken the Prince.

Slowly opening a single, ogling eye, Its Lewdness spoke lazily in a bubbly voice that has seduced a billion nuns:

“Masseuse, your recitations are nectar to my ears. You are granted the privilege of disturbing my slumber, though you will be punished most luxuriously for it, after my morning latte, of course. Now, stay your tongue, slave!”

Before the writhing servant could moan at the thought of lashings from the Infernal Whip of Asmodeus, The Bawdy Beast blinked out of the room with nary a sound.

In another place, known to the race of man as Portland, Oregon, a cocktail of sexual discharge bubbled from the cracks of the sidewalk in front of a popular coffee shop, “Holy Grounds,” the preferred establishment of Asmodeus, Purveyor of Wanton Deeds. Flecks of liquid flew against the windows of the café as the ripe, primordial juice grew into an amorphous mass, only to withdraw and soak back into the cement, revealing the lithe yet bountiful form of the Earl of Orgies: Asmodeus.

Gleaming with a thin coat of mucous membrane, It leaned against the door, oozing through with a tantalizing, royal strut. A man sitting in a booth in the back corner of the shop made brief eye contact with Asmodeus, the High Dominatrix, and gave in to the sudden desire to achieve sexual congress with his mocha latte. Asmodeus drew in the thick scent of coffee grounds and human pheromones with sensual grace as it approached the counter.

Looking away, yet rolling his eyes, the barista hailed The Dread-Slut with a half-hearted and well-recited greeting:

“Your Sexiness, your many bristling genitals are looking especially tempting and moist today. How may this lowly sack of fluid and meat serve you this sensuous morning?”

“My chai latte, little sweetling,” It whispered in his ear, running Its hands through his hair, “with extra goat’s milk, of course.”

“Yes, your ‘Sexellency’,” replied the barista, with a hint of facetiousness, as he moved over to the espresso machine.

Asmodeus of the Supple Buttocks turned and leaned casually on the counter, as It peered deep into the memories of each of the café’s customers, savoring their sexual memories as if they were the richest of chocolate truffles. Some tried to ignore the Probing Tendrils of Asmodeus, tried to ignore the constant prickling sensation in their erogenous zones. All was in vain, for who could truly ignore the sultry presence of Asmodeus the Voluptuous? One or two customers, faces flushed and sweaty, gathered their belongings and hurriedly departed, and the man in the back corner continued consummating his union with his beverage.

“Please, Great-Prince-of-Pansexual-Delights, sample this silky chai latte which I present before you. May you also drink the souls of a thousand nymphomaniacs in your journeys,” said the barista with a hint of irony.

A sip turned into a deep quaff.

“Yes,” It said, as It wiped its upper lip clean with Its lengthy tongue, “this is to my liking. As for your payment, I shall graciously delay the inevitable: normally, I would damn you to an eternity as a slave to hedonism in my Brothel-Pits. However, for your fine services today, you shall continue to live in ignorance with your earthly pleasures for at least one more day.”

“Your kindness is only surpassed by my sexual attraction to you, my Prince,” replied the barista impatiently.

Nodding with satisfaction, Asmodeus, viciously tonguing Its beverage, glided backwards out the door, staring at the barista. Outside, another wave of discharge hit the windows as the Prince of Pleasure returned to his domain.

“Hey Terry,” called the barista, “bring the bucket over again!”

Terry, exasperated and trying to hide his erection, stomped outside with the bucket and rag, and began vigorously wiping the windows down.

The barista looked at the fresh, heavy stains on the counter and the uncomfortable customers, turned to his co-worker, and said with a sigh, “Man, I fucking hate that guy.”5

A Horrid Meal

“You’ve reached the Pandemonium Office of Sentient Relations. This is Liz. How may I help you today? Yes, yes. I see. Well sir, I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do about that. It’s classified as an occupational hazard by code HELL-0894562. You’ll find it in your employee handbook. No, I’m sorry. Have a hellish day, sir.”

Liz dropped her head on her desk with a thump. The newest wave of transfers was the worst yet. They had so much to complain about. Some guy from Ronald McDonald’s Grand Acropolis of Unearthly Delights had called three times to rant about his employees skipping out and how much he hated making those soul patties. The third time he tried to pretend he was somebody else. What a crybaby. It was worse than that time Big Man called up to whine that one of his servers had spilled a drop of wine on his new robes, which were “the biggest thing in fashion right now, you know.”

But it was 6 A.M., which meant her shift was finally over—if she could escape before the phone rang again. Liz jumped off of her pedestal, dashed to grab her bag, snatched up her keys, and had her hand on the doorknob when the inevitable happened. The phones here didn’t even have the decency to ring brightly. They screamed. Liz’s phone had the voice of her most obnoxious, least favorite aunt.

LIZ! LIZ! ANSWER THE PHONE LIZ! ANSWER THE PHONE NOW LIZ! WHY AREN’T YOU ANSWERING THE PHONE LIZ?”

Liz picked up the phone and said in her most unwelcoming voice, “Pandemonium Office of Sentient Relations. This is Liz.”

There was a commotion on the other end of the line and then: “Hi, I’m at Ronald McDonald’s Grand—“

“Sir, I’ve already told you that there’s nothing we can do—“

“No, no, it ain’t that—“ There was a scrambling noise. “We got a live ‘un, miss, and you the first number on this stupid hellphone—“

Liz pinched the bridge of her nose and prayed it wasn’t another escaped hellhound. Big Man was terrible at keeping them in line. He was always feeding them anybody they wanted. It was madness.

“A live what, exactly?” she sighed.

“One a them—uh—Horrid Meals, the kid ones, somebody opened it up and it just crawled right outta there—I got no clue what it is.”

Liz straightened up a bit. This was interesting. “Where is it now, sir?”

“Think I got it trapped in the soul grinder. ‘Fraid to turn it on, might never get the pieces out, and then it’s goodbye soul patties…hmm…”

“Do not turn on that grinder, sir. You could endanger a potentially undiscovered species. Secure the grinder and find yourself a safe place. You may want to consider a barricade.”

“A barricade?

“Yes, sir,” said Liz matter-of-factly. Her hand was bent awkwardly into the back of her office filing cabinet, feeling around for her employee-issue sword. Really, she thought, Big Man ought to get with the times. Keeping up with fashion, but not with modern weaponry. Piffle.

“But—what do ya think—?”

“Sir, I’ll need you to remain calm and keep safe. I’m on my way.”

The man spluttered rather violently, but having finally located her sword, Liz dropped the phone back into its cradle with a satisfying click and strode out the door. If she were honest with herself, she was really quite excited. Lots of nutso things went on in Pandemonium, but these Horrid Meal Horrors (Liz congratulated herself on this brilliant christening) were something new.

But—

“LIZ! LIZ! ANSWER THE PHONE LIZ! ANSWER THE—“

Liz stomped to the phone in a very bad temper. What?”

“Excuse me?” said a haughty voice.

Liz slumped back into her chair. “My apologies, sir. What can I do for you today?”

“Well,” he said, “if you’re quite finished. I, erm, seem to have misplaced a hellhound again. It’s Sisyphus, he just can’t seem to understand that he’s only supposed to eat the people I put in his cage…”

Liz glanced at the time desperately. “Sir, I’ve just received another call, it can’t wait just a—”

“Now, I’m afraid not,” he said sternly. “You know how he is, he’ll go through half the Fields of Asphodel if you don’t get him soon—”

“But sir—”

Now,” he said, the haughtiness gone. The line clicked loudly.

Liz rubbed her ringing ear sadly and resigned herself to another boring day at the office.6

Buttered Popcorn

In between showings of Battlefield Earth and The Horse Whisperer, the theater was silent but for the oozing and hissing noises made by the lingering infernal patrons in the back row.

The evening manager handed Tilly a broom. “Okay, newbie, put your gloves on before you start sweeping up the popcorn. Put it all in the garbage bag. When you’re done, mop up all the butter.”

“Do I really need gloves? This seems like some basic cleaning.” Tilly had only worked the concession stand so far, but on the whole, she liked her new job. It was a dramatic improvement over being a barista at Asmodeus’s favorite coffee shop. Best of all: she got to eat all the popcorn she liked, even though her coworkers seemed to be over that perk already. They never ate any, just looking at her with disgust whenever she did.

“Eww. Gross. Of course you have to wear gloves. It’s disgusting in here.” Confused, but not wanting to be transferred back to her last job, Tilly put the gloves on. As she did, a noise like a plunger in pudding came from the back. “Don’t mind them. Just try to finish up quickly.”

After her manager left, she started making her way through the sticky theater, sweeping up any stray popcorn she found. Last week she was able to watch 30 minutes of From Justin to Kelly, which was awful, but the best entertainment she had since her arrival. She was hoping that she might be able to watch a whole movie at some point.

Something that sounded like a jello mold being sucked through a hose echoed from the back of the theater. She was warned that the “locals” might cause some problems during clean-up, but she wasn’t ready for the noises they made.

After a few minutes, Tilly was almost done sweeping, except for that back row. She was terrified to go back there, knowing she would have to clean the whole theater. She began to make her way back when she heard voices.

“Yes! Yes! Oh-Oh-AGGGGrarGGH—” Something vaguely feminine moaned.

“I’m going to—” A tall, winged creature that looked like corn on the cobb sat up and a geyser of popcorn sprayed into the air. Tilly staggered back to avoid the spray, only to stumble to the theater floor. From there, she could see a small flood of what looked like butter oozing out from behind the back row.

Just then, her manager came back. “Tilly, what are you doing? We need to get all of this popcorn bagged and up to concessions.”

Her stomach turned, and she wondered if that clothing store in the mall was still hiring.7

餓鬼 (èguǐ)

On a muggy Singaporean evening on the fifteenth day of the month-long Hungry Ghost Festival, Vincent Ong stared through the broad glass panes from behind the counter of an empty convenience store, having come in for the graveyard shift. The setting sun filtered into the shop, bathing the shelves and their goods in an orange light. Absentmindedly, he watched a frail old woman squatting in front of the small wooden red-and-gold shrine someone had placed in front of the store window at the beginning of the lunar month. With shaky hands and great care, she neatly placed a plump mandarin orange on the shrine. Afterward, she turned to the smoldering coffee tin next to the shrine, unfolding a thin stack of decorated, coarse bamboo paper: “hell money.”

In a loose bundle, she dropped the Underworldy bank notes into the tin, quietly watching them burst into flame and reduce to flaky ash. While such practice was normally reserved for graveyard or temple visits, the Ghost Month meant that the gates of Hell were flung open, and the deceased were free to roam the Earth, visiting the living. Satisfied that her gift of money was accepted by the spirits, she lit a large joss stick and held it in between her pressed palms, closing her eyes and mumbling a short prayer under her breath before placing it standing in a small golden cup at the top of the little shrine. Finally, she gathered her shopping bags, rising into her hunched posture with difficulty, and continued her shuffle home.

A sentimental smile crossed Vincent’s lips as he was reminded of his own grandmother, who had recently passed. She was a sweet yet deeply superstitious woman, always ready to warn Vincent of the danger that comes with offending the dead. He thought of one of his earliest memories. When he was quite young, around five or six years, he and his grandmother were walking to a certain park, taking a detour through an alley. It was the Hungry Ghost Month, and his grandmother noticed Vincent reaching for some sweets somebody had left on an altar in the alleyway. Smacking his hand, she scolded him, telling him that he had nearly angered a spirit that inhabited the alleyway. At that moment, young Vincent felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle, as he imagined a pair of leering eyes belonging to something lurking just behind him, peering around a trashcan. Vincent began to wail, tugging at his grandmother and pleading for them to leave the alley, sorry for trying to take the sweets.

Vincent smiled at this memory, having done away with his childish fears a long time ago, despite his grandmother’s staunch warnings. Vincent was pulled back into the real world by the chime of the automatic doors as someone walked in. A tired-looking man in a business suit walked briskly past the counter, rounding the snack-covered shelf, stopping at the refrigerated drinks. He walked up to the counter and wordlessly paid for a bottle of green tea and a few tall cans of beer. The door chimed again as he left, continuing on his way under the nearly-set sun. Not long after the customer was gone, Vincent decided to have some dinner: a hot cup of instant noodles and a bag of chips. As the last rays of sunlight faded and the dark colors of the early night sky settled in, he wolfed down unceremoniously at the counter. With a belch, he turned around to find the trash so he could toss out the plastic remains of his meal.

With his back turned, he heard the “ding-dong” of the automatic door. He looked over his shoulder towards the shop’s entrance but saw nothing except for the glass doors as they closed. He felt a strange prickle on the back of his neck and looked over his other shoulder, flinching as he recognized a withered old man standing by a shelf covered in food items, facing away from Vincent. He called out to the man:

“Uncle, do you need anything?”

The old man turned around slowly, revealing a pale, greatly weathered face, a balding head, long, wispy eyebrows and facial hair, and a pair of watery eyes. Past dry lips, the old man managed to croak in Chinese:

“I’m starving…”

Vincent, impatient to get this potentially homeless or senile old thing out of his store, came out from behind the counter, and asked the old man what he would like to buy, to which he replied, still in Chinese,

“So hungry…”

Vincent asked again several times, not receiving any answers too different from the first. With a quick sigh, he went and grabbed a bottle of water and a savory bun from the shelves and brought them to the counter. Bringing the old man’s attention towards him, Vincent asked,

“Okay, Uncle, how is this, eh?”

Stepping weakly towards the counter, the old man moaned,

“Hungry…”

Vincent told him the total, which the old-timer, still mumbling about his hunger, acknowledged by pulling a crumpled wad of bills out of his pocket, which he gingerly set upon the counter top. Vincent picked up the wad of money to sort it out. As he unfolded one, he noticed a portrait of the Jade Emperor, a heavenly ruler in Chinese mythology, amongst imagery of flowers, clouds, and cranes, as well as the seal of the Bank of Hell.

As he looked up from the wad of Hell money, Vincent started to say: “Uncle, you cannot pay with this,” but had not finished the sentence by the time he realized he was alone in the store. Surprised, Vincent swung his head around, scanning the small convenience store for any signs of life, which he could not find. He jumped, hearing the old man’s faint voice one last time, from somewhere around the shelves of food.

“Please, I’m so hungry…”

Swiveling his neck and looking in the direction from which he had heard the voice, he could have sworn that for a split second, he saw a single watery eye surrounded by a bit of wrinkled old skin peering at him from between the bags of potato chips on display.

Vincent moved from the counter and slowly walked around the shelves, hoping to confirm that he was just seeing and hearing things. He found nothing. Surely, the old man’s mental faculties were declining in his age, and he had wandered off, out of the store without Vincent noticing. Slightly unnerved, Vincent realized he had forgotten about the wad of Hell money that still sat, crumpled, on the counter. He gathered up the bills and proceeded to throw them into the garbage can behind him, and placed the water and bun back on their respective shelves, and then settled back in for his long night shift.

The next handful of hours went by without event, not a soul had passed through. Vincent had spent his time either smoking cigarettes or leafing through a worn-out cooking magazine he had found under the counter. At the stroke of midnight, he was distracted from staring at an image of a magnificently frosted cake by the distant sound of a woman’s shriek from outside, barely audible as it wafted through the night. The scream was manic and drawn out, and sent an involuntary chill through Vincent, though he chalked it up to a drunken Friday night reveler.

At the stroke of three, Vincent’s attention was grabbed by the rhythmic clang of funeral gongs and drums drifting from the street outside. Leaning over the counter to get a better view, he peered through the glass windows at the streetlight-spotted road beyond, expecting a funeral procession to pass, despite the ungodly hour. The streets were as bare as they had been since nightfall, without even a single passing car to cut the stillness of the air. Despite this, the source of the chiming continued to grow in volume, until it sounded as if it originated from an invisible group of monks standing on the store’s threshold.

At this point, the shop was suddenly filled with the heady, sweet scent of frangipani flower, nearly overwhelming Vincent’s nostrils to the point of distraction from the unseen funerary instruments. The clamor soon faded, as if continuing further down the street, yet the thick smell lingered. Vincent, developing a cold sweat, kept his eyes on the doors, hands tightly gripping the edge of the counter. He heard another far-off scream, exactly like the one from before, though it seemed as if this one had emanated from inside the store.

Vincent ducked down slightly, and swung his head around wildly, yet he saw nothing out of the ordinary, as the shriek petered out. A tap on the glass caused him to turn back to the entrance, where a woman stood, without alerting the motion sensor of the automatic doors. She was completely naked, revealing her skin’s unearthly pale tone and her distended belly. Her face, framed by long and wild black hair, was young, beautiful, and strangely familiar to Vincent. He had seen a few photographs of his grandmother when she was a young woman, and he was reminded of this as he gazed upon the woman at the door. Her soft face became unrecognizable as it contorted into a hateful grimace, her wide, yellowed eyes remaining unblinkingly on Vincent.

He stumbled backwards, knocking packs of cigarettes off the shelf behind him, and turned to run to the store’s back exit as the sickly smell of frangipani burned tears in his eyes. He found himself blocked behind the counter by the familiar woman. Her features were twisted as if she were experiencing unbearable amounts of grief, and her head swiveled round on its neck. Her twitching hands rose up and clamped down on Vincent’s trembling shoulders.

“Vinny, I’m so hungry…” she groaned in Chinese, “Help me, Vinny!”

Her voice sounded hoarse and elderly, and the paralyzed Vincent could do nothing but stare in her agonized face and listen to her pained words. Her words began breaking down into garbled screaming, and her long fingers gripped down into the flesh of Vincent’s shoulders even tighter.

As he gazed upon her, Vincent noticed her aging, slowly, at first, but soon her hair was graying and skin was wrinkling at an incredible rate. A new terror dawned on him as he finally recognized the once-familiar young woman, now elderly. Though her usually-kindly face was twisted with rage and fear, he saw her features and grew pale with this realization. As she kept begging frantically for his help, she began inserting her gangly, thin fingers into Vincent’s mouth, getting a tight grip on his bottom jaw. A tear rolled down Vincent’s cheek as the fingers on her other hand began snaking their way past his teeth. He choked and heaved as his grandmother forced her arms in up to their elbows. Her crying and screaming turned into wet cackling and thanks to the gods, calling Vincent a “sweet boy”.

The pain rattled through Vincent’s body. His grandmother’s form twisted and cracked as she slithered further past his unhinged jaw. Her manic babble was dampened as her upper body pushed through, and her ragged toenails scraped his face as she disappeared down his throat. Vincent’s misshaped body collapsed to the floor of the shop in convulsions, and blackened bile leaked out of his nostrils and mouth. Finally, after a few more violent twitches of the body, Vincent lay still.

At the beginning of next morning’s shift, the employee found Vincent crouched by the altar in front of the store, cramming the few offerings that were there into his stained mouth. The stretchmarks on his inflated stomach were visible where it poked out from below his shirt. Unable to get his attention, the employee walked into the store, stepping onto a carpet of crumbs and discarded food packaging.

As the paramedics dragged Vincent into the ambulance, he thrashed about, screaming. The employee stood behind the glass window, listening to his shrill voice, a gibbered mess, begging to be fed more.8

A Spinster and a Seamstress

I’ve never had a man. But I’ve always been smart, and I have very strong fingers. I’ve always had very strong fingers. When I was a baby I could break down to a bodybuilder’s bone with a single pinch, and I’m telling you this because it actually happened once. That has actually happened, but a romantic evening with a handsome gentleman has never happened—not to me. Which scenario seems more farfetched to you? Watching my baby fingers peel away the muscle fibers of an arm with a 10-inch diameter, or finding me on a date?

I’ve always been smart, and I’m not even that bad-looking. The only reason I never went to school was because of my goddamn fingers. My mother was a highly talented seamstress and lace-maker, and upon discovering my “gift,” she decided the best thing for me—by which, of course, I mean her—would be to remain at home and join the family trade. Tortured by the mundanity of this sorry, cliche lifestyle, I strayed from the traditional doily and garment business during my adolescence. An uneducated, modest, virginal teenager, I knew absolutely nothing beyond the weaving and sewing of various fabrics. So my ultimate act of rebellion came in the form of lingerie. I began making it in secret, fashioning fishnet stockings, corsets, and garters from my mother’s scraps. Of course, as cliche plot lines go, my mother found all of these items stowed under my bed and had a real fit. She called me all sorts of things, and I felt a strange and particular joy at hearing the word “slut” ooze out of her mouth. She also told me I’d go straight to Hell. Needless to say, I became horribly angsty and strangled her that night in her sleep. It took no time at all, thanks to these god-forsaken fingers. I actually lucked out, as chance would have it, because the next morning I was hit by a garbage truck while walking to the mailbox, thus rendering me incapable of dealing with the logistics of my mother’s dead body.

 

She was right, though. I did go to Hell, and Hell is where I’ve remained for heaven knows how long. It isn’t what everyone says it’s like: none of that fire and brimstone nonsense, no otherworldly demonic folk that I’ve seen. It actually resembles my hometown quite a lot—there are ticky-tacky houses everywhere, clean-shaven lawns, men in khaki pants and polo shirts. Of course, not one of them has ever asked me out. Instead, I see them all at the Buxom Burlesque, where I work endlessly—every single night. As I said, I’m not that bad-looking, but I sure as Hell am not stripper material. So I report for duty as the dancers’ seamstress. Night after night. And I watch all these men drooling over these ladies, all of whom are removing my handmade garments from their glistening, rippling bodies, many of whom remove phalanges and appendages from their glistening, rippling bodies, and there I am just lurking in the corner, shrouded in shadow, unseen, only to appear when a woman has plucked her fat head off and needs it reapplied to her neck. Do you think I’ve ever had any reason to wear one of my sexy frocks? The answer is no, because all I do is lurk in the shadows, unseen, and sew legs and arms and heads and breasts back onto the bodies of beautiful women who can never die of asphyxiation.

 

As I said before, though, I’ve always been smart—clever, even. Which is not to say that these women are not intelligent. If they could stop shimmying around like epileptic serpents for just one moment, they’d probably have a lot to offer a conversation. But because they can’t stop shimmying around for just one moment, it is clear that the fools who come to the Buxom Burlesque do not particularly value what exists inside these girls’ heads: they’d rather see their heads ripped off. And for this reason, I suppose I wouldn’t even want to go out with them anyway. It would still be nice to be looked at, though—to be seen in something hot. Something I made myself. I already told you I’m not stripper material. I don’t have a body that glistens or ripples, and I don’t know how to dance. But I do have very strong fingers, and I figured I might as well take matters into them.

 

Over a period of several weeks, I collected body parts from different dancers while they danced: phalanges, arms, thighs…whatever I could get hold of from my position backstage. I’d just reach out and pluck something off of them, like pulling a hair from a sweater. Sometimes I’d get lucky and find something they’d already tossed away, which is how I got my head. These dancers are literally incapable of pausing—I meant it when I said they can’t stop shimmying, even for a moment—so even if they did notice that they were suddenly missing a foot or a boob, it wouldn’t matter. They can’t help but keep going.

 

So I made a new, glistening, rippling body from the bits and pieces of women with glistening, rippling bodies. It took a while, but if my stitch precision wasn’t so outstanding, the process would have been literally impossible. I did it, though. And then I opened the skull of the head I’d collected, which had a silky, flaxen gold mane like the hair of an angel. I removed the brain and placed it in a bowl. I then spliced open my own head and carefully divided my clever, clever brain into two parts, so that I could successfully perform the operation: I placed one half of my brain in the empty cranium—the body to which it’s attached suddenly switching on like a garbage truck engine—and then this new body, activated by the freshly-inserted brain, removed the second half from my previous body and stitched the two together with absolutely no precision at all. I had failed to realize that my new body, containing the hands and fingers of many anonymous strippers, does not possess the fingertip strength of my other self. Nor does it possess any skill with sewing. It is also, as I have said, composed of stripper-cells, and thus, it does not stop dancing. So not only are the hemispheres of my brain haphazardly joined, but the crown of my head—and its silky angel hair—is missing (having never been sewn back on), and I cannot stop moving. I cannot stop dancing to save my life.

 

But I finally have a glistening, rippling bod. I can wear the sexy things I’ve made for heaven knows how long, and men will see me. They watch me on the stage, and they want me, and I still have my mind, and I’ve always wished I knew how to dance.9

Many people think that customer service jobs are hell. This collection is all about customer service jobs in hell. Tell us your 500-word stories in this setting! Feel free to borrow characters and locations from other installments. Your section can stand alone or build on what came before. Send us your submissions by Friday for consideration!

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