Bittersweet seraphim, p.5
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       Bittersweet Seraphim, p.5

           Debra Anastasia

  She smiled and shook her head. “No, I used to have him pretend to drink.”

  “Pretend?” He was perplexed.

  Kate had no idea how old this man was, what time he came from, but the concept of pretending was clearly foreign to him. “It’s a way of going through the motions in your head, but not really doing it.”

  He took a sip of the liquid. It was still way too hot, but he seemed not to notice. “So I’m a pretend father? I do the right things in my head while I’m shoveling, but I’m not actually doing it.”

  Kate blew on her cup and thought for a moment. “No, you do what you can. You’re just not an often father.” She reached over and made Fuzz Bucket take a noisy sip.

  Nero’s whole face lit up, and his smile made his black eyes sparkle. “That bear has no manners.”

  She found herself smiling back at him before she prompted, “What was too much to ask?” She glanced at her mother’s nightgown.

  Nero looked down. “I was wondering if I could have a small piece of her gown. But it’s too selfish to ask. I already took her from you. You should have all her relics.”

  Kate stood and opened a drawer, and Nero rose quickly to his feet. She got a pair of scissors and opened a cabinet to get some cookies. She placed the cookies in their package on the table and sat so her father would sit. He sighed again at the rest.

  “So, you shovel? That’s your sentence? Will it ever end?” She took her mother’s favorite nightgown—it was the one Jenny had put on when she was missing Nero the most—and carefully began trimming the bottom.

  “Kate, I’ll shovel until the end of time.”

  She held up her hand. “No, stay sitting,” she said as she rose and motioned for his arm. She tied the strip of white around his bicep.

  He stood when she’d finished, ignoring her request. “I thank you. It means so much to me. My daughter, because my time constraints make me very bold, may I have a hug?” He opened his arms.

  She waited a beat, remembering all the times she’d thought of this moment. In daydreams she would deny him, tell him to go without like she’d had to do without parents for so long.

  But the five-year-old in her needed that hug. She stepped into his arms and was rewarded with his sigh of happiness. “My pride, my daughter. I love you.”

  He engulfed her with his large arms, patting her gently, careful not to pull her too close to his heat-emanating frame. She wanted to be tougher, but here, with this demon from Hell, was the peace she longed for. She hugged him back hard, too hard, and ignored the searing heat. Her wracking tears were years overdue. Sobbing, being strong for no one, felt like a release.

  “Sweet girl, it’s okay. It’s okay. I’m here. I’m here.”

  He stroked her hair gently as she took shuddering sniffles. They must have stayed that way for a long time, because when Kate finally had the courage to end the hug, her father’s hands were shaking.

  He looked at them sheepishly. “I’m so sorry. I wish I could make them stop.”

  She took one of his big hands and held it tightly, concentrating intently. It stilled, but the other kept right on moving.

  He used it to touch her face. “I’ll be leaving soon, but I have help. I’ll be back—but only if that makes sense to you.”

  She leaned into his hand. He was all she had anymore. “We’re separate, but we’re family.”

  He smiled. “Family is such a beautiful word. I’m so glad to be part of one. Part of yours.”

  She hugged him again, because he was here and soon he wouldn’t be. Then an unearthly howl shredded the moment to ribbons.

  Her father tensed. “Get your gun. That’s Brut.” He grabbed her shoulders and looked her in her eyes. “I might have to kill him now, which means I won’t be back. Know that I love you. And I will be doing that forever.”

  He pushed her in the direction of her shotgun and strode toward the yard, looking exactly like a warrior from Hell. The white piece of cloth on his arm fluttered as he opened and closed her door.

  It was such a change, such a shock. Kate steeled herself and pointed the gun at the door. If she saw the things from her nightmares, she would just shoot and keep shooting.

  Cracks and screams filled the night. Explosions illuminated the windows. Kate wondered if she should go outside, though she could scarcely imagine stepping out and helping Nero. Would she just distract him? She was filled with doubt.

  She never heard him, never even sensed him until he whispered something from behind her, against her neck. Her shotgun was wrenched from her hands before her brain could tell her to pull the trigger, and she found herself pinned painfully against a huge minion. She pictured Brut based on the glimpses she’d gotten of him before Aunt Bess had locked her in the basement all those years ago. But something was off. The minion holding her was not Brut. This one was taller than her father. And, despite the rage and anger outside like a natural disaster, this thing behind her was calm. Not even a hint of the shakes.

  “As I was saying before you rudely interrupted me, I really love boobs.” He waggled his eyebrows.

  Kate could feel her own eyebrows climbing skyward.

  “You have a set.” He looked down over her shoulder at her chest.

  She craned her neck to look him in the face. “Who the Hell are you? And if you say my worst nightmare, I’ll pee on you.”

  He laughed, the rumble shaking her body as well. “I’m Ransom. Handsome Ransom. And you’re one lucky little lady. I’m going to rate your boobs on a scale of one to ten—ten being the most firm and pointy.”

  Screeching from her backyard drew her attention. “Dad.”

  Ransom let her go, and she scrambled for her rifle. He ignored her and looked out the kitchen window.

  “Nero’s losing.” Ransom bit his lip and seemed to contemplate his choices.

  Kate aimed her rifle between his eyes. “Go help him.”

  He lifted his hands in half-hearted surrender. “Why do the girls protect the boobs so vigorously? Fine. I’ll put Brut down.”

  The tall, lanky minion walked out the door, and this time Kate followed. Brut looked up from Nero’s crumpled body and smiled at her. She fired. The shotgun blast hit Brut dead center, and Ransom stopped short, as if waiting to see if she was done. She wasn’t. There were two shots in this double-barreled shotgun, and she planned to use them both.

  Brut staggered a bit as he began to come for her. The second blast forced him back a few steps and set Kate’s ears ringing, but to her absolute horror, Brut kept moving. He’d slowed a bit, but still coming. She tried her hardest to feel brave, but Brut was smiling and chanting, “Want. Want. Wantwantwantwantwantwant!”

  Ransom shook his head and advanced on the sick, freaky minion. The restraining move he used on Brut seemed so simple, but it had to be complicated, because Brut ended up face down and almost completely immobilized.

  Kate kept her shotgun and rushed to Nero’s side. He was moving and seemed to be speaking, though Kate couldn’t hear the words. They were swallowed by the fuzz in her ears. She was so grateful to see him moving. She bent, and Nero nodded. She could almost read his lips, catching a few words here and there. “Kate” and “okay” kept surfacing, so she spoke to assure him. “I’m fine, Father. I’m fine.”

  He nodded and seemed relieved. He rolled over and stood slowly. Turning his face silenced his words for Kate. She wanted to hear more, but all the minions were shaking now, their compulsions causing halting, jerky movements. She began to make out their conversation, her ears healing from the shock in little bits.

  “If you’re going to get rid of him, do it here,” Ransom argued. “Maybe you won’t have his sentence then. I’m not going to kill him. I could never be a shoveler. And I didn’t even get to see boobs.”

  His eyes drifted back to her chest, and Nero slapped the taller minion across the face. “That’s my daughter. Never look at her.”

  She almost laughed. The tea party, the hug, and now her dad was protecting her fro
m a leering suitor. It was like all her dreams were coming true in a single nightmare.

  “Do you want me to let Brut go? Don’t disrespect me again.” Ransom went from playful to serious in a heartbeat.

  It was time. Even Kate could tell. Nero turned to face her.

  “I’ll never risk you again. Remember, the absence of me is my love for you.” He hugged her quickly, his whole body shaking, and hers as well. “Never let anyone near the shed. Never show anyone this gateway.”

  Then together Ransom and Nero dragged Brut into the shed. There was a huge flash of light, and the backyard was empty.

  It was just Kate. Again.

  Part 2

  Hell, 2012

  Chapter 7

  “Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done…” Emma’s voice was just a whisper, and the sound of it echoing off the cement walls made her feel more alone. She tried to remember who she was, what she was. “What I still am,” she said aloud. She held her arms and legs tightly to her body. The floor was alarmingly cold. It was cold for any floor, but this was particularly harsh since Emma was in Hell.

  “I’m an angel in Hell. I have a purpose. I have people I love. I have a purpose.” She took a breath to steady herself. Then she tried again. “Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…”

  If she hadn’t been so dehydrated, she might have teared up. The prayer had been one of the first things she’d learned as a young girl. Soon after she knew her name, Emma knew how to say the Lord’s Prayer. The lack of those words in her mind was a defeat.

  Emma was in the middle of her worst nightmare: the Hell hallway designed specially for her by Jack, the previous Devil. As innocuous as the simple hallway looked, it was filled with terrorizing internal plagues, separated by slender respites from each of the exhausting, painful tortures. Right now she was between anger and confusion. Maybe it was her proximity to the air laced with dementia that stole the soothing words from her mind.

  Her mind. Such a simple thing to take for granted. She never knew it could be attacked from within. She’d wanted to be a strong, fearless crusader for right, but since the Heavenly trial had come to an end, she’d been shackled with more than she’d imagined possible. She’d taken the punishment of Jack, the former Devil, and a good-intentioned angel, onto herself. So Jason, her handsome half-breed friend and sometime lover, had ripped her wings off, rendering her human. Sure, she’d asked for their sentences from the archangel judge, but her thoughts kept returning to all the other souls going about their regular existences again now. After being carried to Hell by Everett from the place she felt the safest, Emma’s heart had yet to find its bearings. Her flouncy, ruffled panties had stayed in place when Everett had tried to force himself on her, which had infuriated him and confused Emma. Still, when he’d tossed her into the hallway, she’d panicked. She hadn’t seen him since, and this was good…but probably bad in the long run.

  Emma unfolded herself as carefully as she could, desperately wanting to avoid a bout with the traps so close on either side of her. She stretched her back, wishing she still had her angel wings. She imagined she could shield herself and her mind by tucking them tightly around her like a feather-covered shroud. But the only remnants of her heavenly decorations were two silver lightning bolt tattoos—or at least that’s what she guessed. There was no mirror. And anyway Emma was glad not to see her reflection. She judged herself harshly enough as it was. No need to see her gray eyes staring their agony and loss back at her. Plus, if a reflective surface were available, she was sure Everett would make her watch next time. Next time.

  Just the thought of Everett—on top of everything else—made Emma’s heart pound. She needed more gumption to try to escape. She looked at the gaping exit, which seemed so close at the end of the hallway, though she knew there was nothing but pain between there and here. And, really, why? When an angel is sentenced to one thousand years in Hell, she has a certain desire to see her sentence to the end, follow the rules—even if the rules hurt every second.

  Emma buried her hands in the short, flouncy skirt of her French maid’s costume, trying to keep her elbows tucked close. The power in the air on either side of her was nearly tangible. What had stopped Everett that day? Did she have someone or something on her side here in Hell? She tried again. “Our Father, which art in…” The words scrambled from her grasp. “Damn it.”

  “Who arts in something? I always thought that was the most bullshitty of prayers they fed us.” Everett’s form followed his voice through the doorway, dripping with cocky arrogance. “Are you trying to remember the words? Still a believer after all you’ve been through, Emma?”

  She hated that she shook when she saw him. She was scared of him, which was not only embarrassing, but she felt shamed by it.

  Everett bit his bottom lip, trying for a moment to hold back a huge grin at her obvious fear. He was unsuccessful. “Not talking? That’s okay. I don’t need you to talk. As long as you can grab your ankles, we’ll be fine.” He began to unbutton his silk pajama shirt.

  Emma wanted to look away, to deny him at least her attention if she could deny him nothing else, but she watched him the way she would a poisonous spider. His chest was sculpted with muscle, and he stepped forward with every button he unfastened.

  Emma squirmed and closed one eye. This man was the Devil. He had everything, anything at his disposal in this damned place. Her flimsy panties would not shield her much longer.

  Everett untied his pajama bottoms and inched the fabric down. The muscles below his hips were defined into a promise of horrible things. “You can’t wait to see my goods, I know. Fantastic things will come in those who can’t get away.” Everett took another step closer. He was just inches from the Hell hallway entrance. With his next step, the first trap in the hallway assaulted him, and instantly he backed up. “What the fuck was that?” Everett pointed at the space in front of him.

  Emma almost smiled. “That? That first one’s hunger. It’s the easiest because hunger moves you forward in search of prey. The second? That’s depression. That one’s a bitch.”

  He sputtered with anger. “But, but I’m the Devil. I can go anywhere!”

  “Try again, ass clown. It’ll give me something to watch.” Emma shrugged.

  Rejection with a tinge of fear created a pattern of dismay on his face. He proceeded to try numerous things to get to Emma. He threw a rock, which bounced off the air in front of him like a wall and hit him in the head. Everett tried running with a large pole he’d dug up from somewhere. It cracked in half, and the pointy end stabbed him in the balls.

  He paced back and forth like a caged tiger, snarling at Emma whenever they made eye contact. Finally, as if they’d been having a conversation instead of her observing his failures, he demanded, “Well, just come over here then.”

  Emma shook her head.

  Everett tried pointing and snapping. He tried closing his eyes and concentrating.

  Emma gave him the finger.

  “I will get in there. You probably know better than anyone the crap I have access to in here. If I have to tear this place apart, I’ll get to you.” Everett pointed again.

  Emma rubbed her forehead. It had been days, maybe weeks since she’d had a drink of water, a bite to eat. She’d have been dead if she were a human on Earth, but a human in Hell wasn’t granted the freedom of death. She tried to pull her long, blond hair out of her face but gave up when her elbows came close to the traps. She let it tumble around her shoulders. “I hope your blue balls poison you.” Emma looked at her feet, fairly confident she was out of his grasp, for now.

  Everett crouched down to deliver his next promises. “When I can finally lick your face, do you know what I’m going to do next?”

  The sounds of Hell seeped in around his words. She looked over her shoulder, and he wiggled his tongue at her.

  “Um, stick your Smurf nuts in some panties just like these and put heels on?” Emma tr
ied to hold his gaze as she pointed to her underwear. His face crumbled into a very convincing mask of evil.

  “You think you’re sassy, but you’ll pay for every word with screams. Every insult with blood. I’m going to chain you by the neck to my ankle for at least a hundred years. You’ll lick my feet clean. I’ve so much time to play with. This hallway is just a speed bump. You should fear every moment.”

  He stood, and as instructed, her new best friend, fear, crowded into her heart again. Emma shut her eyes tightly, waiting for him to leave, and panic trickled down her back when Everett didn’t walk away like he should have. His threats had provided him opportunity for the dramatic exit he preferred, and yet he remained standing there, just looking at her.

  “Why do you hate me?” Emma finally gathered herself enough to say. Such a simple question. Why not ask?

  He shook his head and turned his back on her. Emma tried to wet her mouth with her dry tongue.

  Then Everett suddenly turned around. “You really want to know? Shit, how about I tell you? How about a little story time, whore?”

  Emma was a captive audience, so she didn’t respond as he disappeared toward Jack’s old chambers just down the passage and returned with a chair.

  He sat in it and crossed his legs. “Maybe you need to hear this, understand a bit about me. When we met all those years ago, I thought you were an angel on Earth. Funny, right? Isn’t that ironic?” He waited for her to respond. She didn’t.

  “All that blond hair and those big ol’ eyes. I thought you’d be the one who would love me forever. I did all the right things—look at me! I look perfect, right?” He motioned to his body again. “I can even say all the right things. Listen: ‘Emma, you have satin hair and the most beautiful smile. Touch me. Feel me.’ Isn’t that wonderful? But those things didn’t make you quake. Tell me, why I wasn’t enough, Emma? Why were you such a frigid whore?”

  The chair squeaked with his agitation and the pressure of this impromptu heart-to-heart. Emma threaded her fingers together and looked at her dirty nails. She knew what he was talking about: when she’d been just sixteen and expected to marry Everett. He’d already been a man.

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