That day, the longest day of Sock’s afterlife, started as any other. At the most unholy hour of the morning, he spooked Jon awake, then proceeded to torment his counterpart all through the morning routine until it was time to go wait for the bus. Not the school bus, mind you, for Jon had already graduated, and gotten a job. Still, he had not yet killed himself, and had perfected the art of not being bothered by Sock’s antics. He’d had four long years of practice.
For Sock, it had come to the point where he just didn’t want to make Jonathan kill himself. He knew he’d be fired if he didn’t, but he’d also lose the blonde if he did.
His deadline was approaching. Although his boss insisted that there was no time limit, he felt the pressure every time Mephistopheles dropped in to check on him. Meph’s patience was growing short. He wanted his soul, as shitty and pathetic as it was.
Sock was nothing if not determined, but he felt trapped. Still, he was making a half-assed effort to be as annoying as humanly – er, demonly – possible, in the hopes that maybe Jon would eventually crack as time went on.
Jonathan yawned as he locked the door, dressed in his work clothes, messenger bag on his shoulder, demon floating behind him blabbering on about some grotesque thing he’d witnessed earlier that week. It was 7:27 in the morning. Even though Jonathan knew that Sock technically didn’t have to to start his spooky shift until 9 o’clock on the dot, he also knew Sock loved spending every free moment he had hanging out with his human. It was safe to say that Jon himself had grown to like Sock’s company just as much.
“Hey,” he huffed, his voice soft and gravelly. He hadn’t quite woken up fully yet, and neither had his vocal chords. Sock loved the sound of Jon’s voice first thing in the morning. The rough, gentle grumble was enough to make Sock’s face flush pink, despite not having a beating heart to pump hot blood to his face.
“How about you lay off of the torment until your shift actually starts, eh? Can we have one pleasant morning before work?”
Sock hesitated a moment, then nodded, smiling warmly. Jon nodded back and began making tracks to the nearest bus stop while Sock floated next to him.
There was silence for a few minutes as Sock thought about something pleasant to talk about. Not that he didn't have any good stories to tell that weren't about horribly disfiguring a rabbit or something, but it had been so long since he'd had any really nice, non-gorey memories.
“Sooooo…” Sock said.
Jonathan didn’t reply, but Sock pushed forward, getting an idea of what to talk about. “I…. used to have a dog,” Sock started slowly.
“Did you?” Jonathan asked softly, clearing his throat and turning onto the sidewalk at the end of the road.
Sock nodded, his face lighting up as he recollected and recounted memories of his pooch. “...and he was real scared of me. But I’d never hurt him, honest! I think he knew that I’d horrendously maul small helpless animals, and was scared he’d be next. But no, he was my best buddy, I never would have done that to him!”
“What happened to him?”
The demon shrugged. “I dunno. I didn’t see him after...” Sock trailed off, his face falling. It tugged on Jonathan’s heartstrings. ” ...The neighbors probably found him and took him to the pound, if he didn’t run away into the night, never to be seen again,” Sock finished, quickly, as if the subject was still sore for him, and he didn’t wish to dwell on it. Jonathan was silent after that. He stopped at a crosswalk and pressed the button to cross.
Jon looked at Sock, who was floating next to him, still looking sad. The light changed and Jonathan started walking. “Hm?”
“Do you think he-” The sound of tires screeching completely drowned out Sock’s quiet query and startled the heck out of Jonathan. They froze in the middle of the crosswalk, heads turned toward the sound, eyes widening. An out of control school bus was barreling towards them. Sock’s eyes widened as the bus rushed right through him, tires screeching painfully before coming to a stop on the shoulder of the road.
Sock shook himself out of it and looked around in a panic, not seeing Jonathan anywhere. He heard a shout and watched as the bus driver clamored out and almost fell trying to rush to get to Jonathan’s unmoving body several feet away.
Wait! Sock’s eyes widened as his gaze followed the driver’s path to his human counterpart’s lifeless body. Jonathan! The demon flew to Jonathan body in a worried panic, but stopped cold when his boss, Mephistopheles, poofed into existence near the human’s lifeless form, his hands behind his back, and a stern look on his face. With him was a buff and mean looking bodyguard of a demon, wearing a black muscle shirt with words in a language Sock didn’t know. Without a word, Mephistopheles jerked his chin at Jonathan, and the muscular demon bent down and picked Jonathan up, but not quite all of him. His hands phased through the body and pulled out Jonathan’s unconscious ghost, and slung the fake blonde over his shoulder like a sack of wheat.
This whole time Mephistopheles had not even acknowledged Sock’s existence. But now he fixed his burning golden glare down at the demon boy, looking highly disappointed and much more businesslike, and simply said, “I’ll see you in my office, Sowachowski.” He snapped his fingers and the world spun.
When it stopped spinning Sock stumbled and found himself on the floor of Mephistopheles’ office. He felt like his pupils were doing that cartoony spin around his eyeballs. Sock closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to get rid of the feeling, and when he opened them again, he found a very not amused Meph looked down at him, his arms crossed over his chest. “Get up,” the devil ordered. Sock scrambled to do so, still feeling a bit dizzy from the sudden shift in realms.
Meph pointed a finger to the chair in front of his desk. Without a word, Sock sat down, not daring to meet his boss’s eyes.
“Do you know why you’re here, Sowachowski?” Meph asked, in a voice far more menacing than the first time he asked the question. Judging by the fact that they no longer seemed to be on a first name basis, Sock knew he was in some deep trouble. He swallowed nervously, and shook his head even though he knew it had to be because he’d failed.
“Really?” Mephistopheles said in a voice that said that he didn’t believe that for a second. “Well, let me put this as simply as I can.” He walked to his desk and slammed a hand down onto it, making Sock flinch. “I’m not a patient man, Sock,” the devil answered, sitting down in his chair and steepling his hands. “But I tried to be. After all, when you first started you were very new at this. It was obvious to me that you’d have some trouble with this case. This human-” he paused to pick up a file and open it. “-is not easy to convince, hm? You expressed this, and I made notes. ‘He doesn’t care’ you said, ‘he’s not affected’ . You pestered and harassed and made him make a fool of himself in public and it did nothing, correct?”
Sock looked up and nodded. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. He did have a lot of trouble trying to get Jonathan to do anything remotely suicidal. Nothing worked. Jonathan just didn’t care. He didn’t care about life, he had no real plan for his future, and probably assumed he’d be listening to music and working at a convenience store for eternity, or at least until he was thrown in a loony bin for talking to his demon counterpart in public too much. It seemed that wouldn’t be the case in this life.
“Which was fair of course, perhaps I shouldn’t have given you such a hard case right off the bat,” Meph continued. “But I’m a firm believer in the idea that if you overcome a hard task first, everything else is a breeze. If my further notes on this are any indication, however, you are clearly not cut out for this.”
“Further notes?” Sock asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
Mephistopheles nodded, pulling a pair of half-moon reading glasses from his inside suit jacket pocket and putting them on to read his notes. “I mean, I didn’t go around spying on you all the time, I’m far too busy for that, but I had someone else do it. In your realm I think they called it, uh, Secret Shopping? Anyway, ‘Combs has been known to fraternize with his counterpart, engaging in topics that steer away from heavy subjects such as personal weakness, bad or intrusive thoughts, current events and/or anything else that would otherwise make him question whether he should be alive, thus driving him closer to the brink.’
“ ‘Combs has also been observed to smile and laugh more around his counterpart, the exact opposite of what should be happening. Upon closer inspection, it seems that his counterpart has started making less of an effort to be obnoxious as possible, and is actually gaining affections for the human as well.’ ”
Sock swallowed and looked down. If his heart could beat, it would be anxiously pounding in his chest right now. He pulled his trembling fingers into a fist, and hunched his shoulders. He hadn’t meant to fall for Jonathan as he’d had, but everything his boss had written was true, and he had nothing to say in defense.
Mephistopheles removed his reading glasses with a sigh, closing the folder and setting both down on the desk, with the glasses on top. “So I sent that bus to get him. By proxy, he’s spent so much time with you that there was no possible way he could have been grabbed by Her.” He cleared his throat and leaned back in his chair, propping his legs up on the desk. “I like you, Sock. Despite your disappointing efforts as a Demonary. Maybe that’s mostly my fault. During the renovations I was strapped for souls and I stooped so low as to hire someone wholly under-qualified.” He sat up. “Still, I don’t think I’ll get rid of you just yet…”
Sock looked up, face brightening.
“Oh, make no mistake, you’re still fired, and there’s still a price to pay for all the murder,” Mephistopheles’ easy smile had a sinister look to it. Sock’s face fell again, and he pulled his hands up to grab his scarf to rub the worn but soft fabric between his fingers.
“But until all the paperwork gets processed, you’re on your own for now. Try not to get into too much trouble, or your punishment will be much worse for you.” Meph held the playfully sinister look for a moment as he stood and leaned over until his face was mere inches from Sock’s, before darkening once more. “Now get out of my office,” he growled.
Sock stumbled backwards as he scrambled to get up and run out the door, tripping on the chair legs, his own feet, fear coursing through his body. He reached the office door and pulled it open but stopped when he realized that the office was floating high in the air over open green flames far below. He looked back over his shoulder in time to see Mephistopheles push him square in the back, causing him to tumble down into the green hued flames below, flailing and screaming.
Mephistopheles watched him fall, and sighed. He closed the door and turned back to his desk, which was already stretching to accommodate the mountain of paperwork appearing. Sock’s paperwork was in there somewhere, and the only thing he could do now was work through the mountain to find it.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Sock landed hard on what felt like the ground after falling a few thousand feet, and he lays there for a moment, getting his bearings, groaning. Oh, he could definitely feel pain in this realm, and it is the worst pain he’d ever felt. Even worse than when he’d killed himself. It was a bit of a shock, considering he’d been used to phasing painlessly through objects at will in the other realm.
Finally he inhaled and pushed himself up, coughing and rubbing his sore spots. If he’d been alive, a drop like that would have most certainly broken every bone in his body, if not killed him, but at the most it just left him more bruised and sore than he’d ever been in his life.
“Y’alright?” A gruff voice asked him.
“Yeah,” Sock answered without thinking. “I- Uh,” he rubbed his face and looked around for the source of the voice. His eyes instead catch sight of a big neon sign flashing Welcome to Hell in fancy and block lettering not too far away from his landing spot. The big neon ‘H’ seemed to not be working at all, though, turning the sign into ‘Welcome to ell’. Pretty neat.
Down behind the sign was a middle-aged man with a tanned and weathered face hardened by time and work. He was dressed in a blue janitor’s jumpsuit and was crouched down by a fuse box, and seemed to be working on it. Under his blue cap was a mess of curly brown hair with little demon horns peeking out. A huge ring of keys was clipped to his jumpsuit, and a few clinked together quietly with his movements. There was a soft ‘bzzt’ and the whole sign went out.
“Mm, it was the first thing built in the renovations. Guess some people are just too stupid to realize that they’re in Hell, as if the flames don’t give it away. I dunno, it makes this place feel more like a tourist attraction than a place of eternal sufferin’,” the demon answered with a voice as equally weathered as his appearance.
Sock hummed, and stood up, wincing and brushing the Hell dirt off him. He walked around the sign to watch the other demon work. The janitor replaced a fuse, flipped a switch and the sign lit up again. This time the H was working. He made a gruff sound of approval, closed and locked the fuse box, and stood back up, brushing his hands off on his jumpsuit, walking away down the red cobblestone path leading to some buildings in the distance that Sock didn’t noticed before, keys jingling rhythmically with his gait. Sock followed him. “Where is everybody?” he asked. “Shouldn’t this place be packed?”
“Usually, but they’re in the First Circle, Limbo, at least for the time bein’, while I had to fix the sign. The Boss is a bit of a stickler for things workin’, as if yer stay in eternal damnation won’t actually be as terrible as it seems, if we can afford to have one of them Vegas signs. Bit of a sadistic bastard if you ask me. Soon as Judgement realizes everythin’s fixed, the floodgates will open, so I’m makin’ tracks back to the Centre as soon as possible. I don’t plan on bein’ trampled today.”
“Judgement?” Sock said, increasing his pace to keep up with the janitor.
“She oversees whether or not mortals earned the right to go to Heaven or Hell. If the amount of good ya did in yer life outweighs the bad, you go to Heaven, and if not, Hell. It ain’t really about religion, it honestly never really was in the first place. Believin’ in Her is good ‘n all, but if ya were greedy, or terrible to people or prideful with that ‘holier than thou’ attitude? It’s the broiler for ya,” the older demon explained.
“Oh,” Sock said, “I see.”
“There are some exceptions to the rule of course, some special cases. If ya kill yerself, it counts as manslaughter down here. Cause ya did kill someone, technically. If yer killed by another person, no matter how awful ya were, ya get sent to Heaven, and yer allowed one free reincarnation, because it wasn’t yer time yet, and some bastard took that from ya, so ya get another chance at life.”
“A chance to be a better person, ….and earn the right to be in Heaven?”
“Yeah, ya got it!” The demon turned to offer Sock a small smile. “Yer pretty smart, kid, what’s yer name?”
“Sock,” Sock answered brightly.
“Sock, huh? Odd name, but I’ve heard weirder. I’m Tom,” Tom said, pausing mid stride to stick his hand out. Sock took it, and shook his hand, a little caught off guard by the rough and strong grip, but he supposed it fit the janitor’s character. “I’m the janitor here.”
“The only one?” Sock asked.
Tom looked thoughtful for a moment, and continued walking. “Hmmm, no, probably not the only one. But the most important one, I reckon. I’ve been here for so long that I’m pretty sure I’m the Boss’s most trusted handyman. I’m always runnin’ ‘round fixing things that are always breakin’, and I’m the only one allowed in his office at the end of the day.”
Sock was about to ask when the end of the day was but Tom cut him off. “Just an expression kid, time doesn’t exist here.” Sock closed his mouth, but opened it again a moment later with another question. “What are you gonna do now?”
“Probably resume my cleanin’ duties and answer to any more requests for things to be fixed, why, ya wanna tag along?” Tom raised an eyebrow. They were approaching what Sock assumed to be Hell’s Centre, which was filled with buildings for the different Circles of Hell, all surrounding a magma fountain that had a huge ‘You Are Here’ kiosk directing one to the main building that would tell one which of the other buildings one would go to for one’s Punishment. The Centre was pretty empty currently, probably because of the issue with the sign, but Sock had no doubt it’d be packed with damned souls soon enough.
Sock looked around the Centre. “Can I?” he asked, fearing it would be too much to ask.
“Mm, well I dunno, kid. Ya might wanna see if yer headed to a Circle first,” Tom pointed to the main building. “It’s empty now, but it won’t be in a few minutes, so I’d take advantage of bein’ the first one in line. That’s a luxury you’ll never get again if you wait. I’ll be in the janitor’s closet in that buildin’ if it looks like you’ll be waitin’ on your paperwork to process. Ya let me know, okay?”
The younger demon nodded, and took off running for the main building. He pushed through the double doors to find a DMV style roped line to a few help desks. One of the clerks raised their head up. “Welcome to Hell’s Centre! I can help you find what Circle you’re going to,” they greeted.
Sock started walking through the long winding roped path to the help desk. After a few minutes the clerk cracked a smirk and called, “You can just duck under the ropes, dear, it’ll be faster. You’re the only one here, and we won’t give you flack for it!”
Flushed with embarrassment and giggling nervously, Sock did just that. He held onto his hat and goggles so they didn’t accidentally get knocked off. In no time, he reached the help desk of the clerk that greeted him. He heard the doors open and glanced back to see Tom enter the building and veer off to a door marked “Janitor’s Closet’. “Hi Tom!” another clerk greeted. “Sign all fixed?”
Tom grunted, and reached towards his hip for the key ring to unlock the door. “Break time’s gonna be over for y’all soon, Betty,” he called back.
“Drat,” ‘Betty’ answered. “Sure hope someone breaks it on their way in. No offense to you, Tom.”
“Maybe ya should have been a better person when ya were alive, if ya didn’t want to work in customer service for the rest of yer afterlife,” Tom retorted, unlocking the door and entering the closet. The light went on just as the door closed, and if one squinted, they could see him moving around through the little window. Betty huffed, “How rude ,” she muttered to herself.
“Heh, they don’t call you Petty Betty for nothin’,” the other clerk teased, tapping his pen on the desk, looking bored.
“Oh hush Steve,” Betty sulked.
Sock’s clerk shook their head and sighed. “Your name, dear?”
“Your real name, dear,” they smiled patiently.
“Oh, uh, N-napoleon Maxwell Sowachowski.”
The clerk typed on the keyboard, and clicked on the mouse. “Hmm, it seems your paperwork hasn’t been processed yet, I’m afraid. Minor delay, seems you’re on suspension until it’s finalized, no punishment for you yet. Lucky kid.”
Sock shuffled his feet and played with his scarf. “So what do I do until then?”
“Well, you could always join the 9 Circles tour. It’ll give you a taste of what to expect if you get sent to one. Or you could explore around for yourself. We’ve also got a waiting room for people waiting for their paperwork to be finalized. Those are a few options.”
The demon looked around, catching sight of a room with large windows, a couple demons were sitting in chairs reading old magazines. The door to the Janitor’s closet opened and Tom came out, pushing a janitorial cart. He looked up and over in Sock’s direction, and paused expectantly.
Sock cleared his throat. “I… I think I’ll just, um… I’ll just explore for myself, thank you.”
“That’s fine! We’ll send someone to summon you when your paperwork is finalized. Until then, have fun, don’t get into trouble! And here,” the clerk opened a draw and pulled out one of those temporary laminated passes. “This will give you clearance to enter any of the Circles. It’s good for all the Circles, you just won’t be allowed in any of the torture chambers.”
Sock nodded, taking the pass and putting it into his vest pocket. He turned, walking around the ropes to meet up with Tom, who nodded at him with raised eyebrows.
“My paperwork isn’t finalized yet, I have time to tag along,” Sock confirmed. “And I got a pass, too.”
“Good, saves me from havin’ to vouch for ya,” Tom said, beginning to move towards the doors. Sock ran ahead to open one for him, and Tom nodded in thanks. Damned souls were already starting to trickle in from the entrance, a few stopped at the kiosk, but several were making tracks for the main building.
“Hey, so why are you letting me tag along, anyway?” Sock asked, letting go of the door to follow Tom. “You don’t really seem like the kinda guy who’d be so willing to have company.”
Tom turned the cart in the direction of the building that had a large “Second Circle: Lust” sign on the front. Sock looked quizzically at him, running ahead to open the door. Tom paused in half in the doorway, and turned to address Sock directly. “To keep ya from makin’ a mess or breakin’ stuff I’d have to clean up and fix later. I ain’t here to babysit, but ya look like the type to get into trouble when unsupervised. And ya gettin into trouble means more work for me. In the long run, it’s better I keep an eye on you until you’re under someone else’s.” With that, he continued to push the cart the rest of the way into the building. Sock followed, flushed with embarrassment. The janitor wasn’t exactly wrong there.
“So, are you gonna to show me around, then?” Sock asked as the doors closed behind them. Tom stopped the cart and turned around to glare at Sock over his shoulder. “If ya wanted someone to show ya around, ya should’ve signed up for the 9 Circles Tour,” he responded gruffly. Sock smiled apologetically, “Haha, sorry…”
Tom regarded him for a moment, and then turned back around with a sigh. “But I guess I can tell ya what I know about every Circle as I make my rounds.” He pushed his cart over to the elevator off to the side, next to the Help desk for this building. It was smaller than this one, and was empty. The lighting was dimmer, easier on the eyes. The symbolism of that went over Sock’s head, at first, as he commented on how dark it was.
“Yeah, it’s easy on the eyes, ain’t it?” Tom deadpanned. “This is the Second Circle’s Directory buildin’. The Circles are actually more like levels. Circular levels.” Tom laughed quietly at his own joke. “Anyway, the first Circle is actually Limbo, and that’s usually where most end up first, where Judgement can get a good look at their sins. Sometimes a person dies havin’ done equal amounts of good and evil in their life, and they’re left to wander a Maze of Decisions until the amount of Good or Bad choices they make outweighs the other, and they get sent to Heaven, or sent down here.”
“Oooooh,” Sock said with the kind of tone of someone who just got a joke. Tom gave him a look, “Did you hear any of what I just said, kid?”
Sock looked up at him. “Oh, yeah, Limbo is the first level and something about judgement for sins? I just uh, kind got your joke about the lighting, because this is… Yeah…”
Tom shook his head, “Just hit the down button.” Sock did as he was told. “So…. what about this level, what’s with that?”
The elevator dinged and the doors opened to reveal a very large and spacious interior, probably meant to carry a bunch of sinners down to the torture rooms below? Sock was pretty sure that was why. Tom pushed his cart in and Sock followed. Tom hit a button on his way in, which made Sock hurry to get in before the doors closed on him.
The janitor cleared his throat and cracked his knuckles and leaned on the cart. “Hell’s Centre, technically Circle 1.5, the Directory. Has 8 buildin’s, the Main and seven more for the other Circles. Limbo doesn’t really need one since it’s usually the first Circle ya encounter and if yer gonna stay there for eternity, ya’ll know it immediately. Used to be, ya entered Limbo an’ Judgement would direct you to an elevator down to yer assigned sin, but there were some complications and issues and she made a big fuss about the whole process and now we - and that’s a general ‘we’ - handle the Sins, and she just handles the morally neutral.”
The elevator dinged again, and the doors opened. Tom pushed the cart out into an even dimmer hallway illuminated red. It was very quiet. At the end was two more hallways to the left and right that seemed to go on forever, and a demon guard, who made them pause for clearance. Sock pulled out his laminated pass, and the guard nodded, but Tom paused to ask whether anything needed fixing.
The guard looked thoughtful. “Actually yeah, the-” but he stopped and looked at Sock, sweet baby-faced Sock, and nervously hesitated. “Uhh, the um….” he cleared his throat and leaned over to whisper what was wrong in Tom’s ear. Tom’s expression hardly changed, but Sock had a feeling it was something really graphically bad if he wasn’t allowed to hear it. When the guard pulled back, Tom glanced at Sock. “How old are ya?” he asked.
“I- Uhhhh,” Sock replied, actually having no idea since he’d died as a young teen, but since he was dead and didn’t age and had no idea of the passage of time since his death…
“Y’know what? Forget I asked. This ain’t something for the General Audience to see anyway,” Tom said.
“Never mind. Just stay here by the guard and don’t move, I’ll be right back.” Tom pushed the cart forward and turned down the right hallway. Sock tried to peek out to watch him go, but the guard pulled him back. Sock objected, “But I have clearance!”
“Technically, but there’s some pretty gruesome things going on down here, and it’s best you don’t see them,” the guard responded. “We don’t know if you’re old enough to witness some of this stuff.”
Sock pouted, and sat down on the floor. He waited a long time, but Tom never came back. Sock played with his scarf, with the edge of the laminate, with his shoelaces, listening intently for the squeak of the cart wheels and the jingle of the keys. Which reminded him….
“Why is it so quiet down here?” Sock asked, looking up at the guard. The guard glanced at him. “It has to be, the rooms are soundproofed for a reason,” he answered.
Sock flushed warmly. “Oh…”
Sock went quiet again. He crossed his arms and tapped his fingers with a sigh. He looked around at his surroundings, the bored looking guard, anything that could keep him occupied in the too quiet atmosphere.
“Do you remember everyone that comes through here?” he asked, just trying to make conversation.
“Not really. A lot of people come through here, after a while the faces blend and blur together,” the guard answered. He looked contemplative in the silence that followed. “Why?” he asked at last, “You looking for someone?”
“Well,” Sock hesitated, not really sure. He was just trying to make conversation, really. Then he remembered the reason he was here at all: Jonathan! He had to be down here in the Circles somewhere! “Uh, yes, actually! I-I kinda, um, lost someone close to me. Goes by Jonathan, or Jon, and has really messy blonde hair over a dark undercut. Last seen wearing sandwich shop work clothes and green converse, looks like he hasn’t slept in five years, and has permanently half lidded eyes,” Sock babbled excitedly.
“Damn, that’s pretty descriptive, kid,” the guard said. “Died recently?”
Sock thought about it. “I don’t know how long ago ‘recent’ would be down here. I mean, it feels pretty recent, like, only a couple hours at most…. B-but I guess time doesn’t really matter down here, does it?”
“Not really, no. But if he died while the Directory was temporarily shut down, I might not have seen him yet.”
“Oh...” Sock looked down, crestfallen.
“But, I’ll keep an eye out for him. What might he have done to get sent to this circle? Consume explicit media? Actively seek after someone in the crudest of ways?”
“Uh….” Sock thought about it. “I-I don’t think he really….. Was into any of that?”
“Gotcha. That’s about what I thought. Sounds like he won’t get sent here at all, but he might end up in Greed or Gluttony. Maybe even Sloth. Or maybe not any of the Circles at all but the Personal Hell torture chambers way deep into the bowels of Hell. Either way, I’ll still keep an eye out. Might give me something to do.”
Sock looked up, hoping the guard wasn’t being sarcastic, but no, the look on his face seemed sincere. It was at that moment that he heard cart wheels squeaking and keys jingling rhythmically and Tom turned the corner, looking the same as he did when he first walked down the hall. He glanced at Sock and nodded, and the demon scrambled up, and followed Tom to the elevator.
“Hey kid,” the guard said. Sock stopped and turned his head to look at the guard. “I hope you find who you’re looking for.”
Sock nodded and smiled. “Thank you!” And turned to run into the elevator before the doors closed.
The ride up to the Directory was silent. Sock took his goggles off his hat and rubbed at the glass with the end of his scarf.
“So…. where are we headed to next?” Sock said, the silence making him anxious.
“Wrath: Where the Vengeful and Merciless Meet Their Doom.”
Sock looked up at him in confusion. He put his goggles back on his hat.
“The Circle’s Slogan. Lust has one too but it ain’t age appropriate. Anyway, it’s as equally a gruesome scene as the other one, but for different reasons. ….But somethin’ tells me ya’ll barely bat an eyelash,” Tom explained. The elevator dinged and they stepped out. Already the line for Lust’s Help desk was full of a bunch of sleazy looking people. Tom pulled his cart around and put a hand out to push Sock away from the line. “Don’t look at ‘em, kid.”
That made Sock curious, but Tom kept moving him at a rate that gave him no time to look back until they were out of the building.
“So what’s the deal with Wrath?” Sock asked, following Tom to Wrath’s building.
“That’s typically where mass murderers or generals of wars stay for eternity. Anyone who caused a lot of innocent people to die ends up there, gettin’ torn to shreds, or treated like chew toys by all sorts of beasts. The worse ya were in life, the more slow and painful yer eternal death. There’s a special place in Hell for every one of them. Even if they get away with it in their past realm, they sure as heck don’t get away with it here. There’s a price to pay for being a harsh and violent person,” Tom answered as they approached the doors to Wrath. Sock ran ahead to open them, and Tom gave him a nod in thanks.
“Okay, so, do you think that’s where I’ll end up?” Sock asked as he followed Tom to the elevator. Tom stopped the cart and pushed the down button, gruffly humming in thought.
“Were ya a Warmonger, or a General who ordered soldiers to kill innocent civilians?” he asked. The elevator dinged and the doors opened and they both stepped into it.
“No,” Sock answered.
Tom leaned on his cart. “Are ya responsible for the mass destruction of several cities in a fight for land or authority?” The doors closed, and there was a shift as the elevator descended.
“No,” answered Sock.
“Have ya ever been the cause of a mass shootin’ or any other instance where multiple people died at once because of ya?” Tom took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair before putting it back on.
Sock frowned. “Not really.”
“Then I’d say no, ya won’t.”
Sock turned his eyes to the doors. “Alright then…”
Silence fell between them, but Sock made no attempt to make conversation until the doors reopened and they entered a hall that was tinted a dangerous orange. Growls of feral beasts and terrified screams could be heard echoing all around as they walked, drowning out the sounds of the cart and Tom’s keys.
A faintly booming thud sound could be heard, though it was hard to tell where it was coming from exactly. The reached the end of the hall where a guard was stationed, and Sock flashed his pass at the guard, who nodded.
“Th’ Chimera’s trying to get free again, Tom, be wary,” the guard said as they turned the corner. Tom put a hand up indicating that he’d heard, and kept walking. Sock pulled his hands up to his chest, suddenly nervous, and maybe even a little excited. They passed by window after window that allowed a peek to the gruesome fate of some terrorist to humanity. They passed rooms filled with venomous snakes, rabid animals, and carnivorous plants having the time of their lives absolutely going hog wild on these immoral souls.
The booming sound grew louder with every step they took. Sock felt the thud of it crashing in his chest like a heartbeat. A very big something was ahead, trying to get out, and they were slowly approaching it. Every now and then Tom would stop to wipe bloody hand prints off the doors, or check the durability of windows, seeming unconcerned by the sound.
As they came upon the room where the source of the noise was coming from, Sock could see the glass window already cracked and some kind of creature throwing itself against the glass. As they got closer, Sock could see the beast pacing and throwing itself at the window, the glass cracking a little more each time. A few more bashes and the window would shatter for sure, but there seemed to be no way to restrain the beast without getting horribly disfigured in the process. Sock looked up at Tom, whose steely gaze seemed to be focused on something else entirely.
Tom’s pace quickened with a tad more purpose, but Sock was reluctant to follow. He could sense the danger, and felt like bolting past the room as fast as he could. Or even to turn back and run as fast as he could to the elevator. But he kept following Tom, moving to the side of the janitor farthest from the room, practically clinging to him. He felt safer just knowing there was someone between him and the beast and that he’d have a fighting chance to escape when the window broke.
On their way past the window, Sock watched as the beast paced around the room, and flung itself into the glass with a roar, which shattered the window and sent shards everywhere. The chimera roared with triumph and prepared to leap out of the window at the two, but Tom held his right hand up at the window and snapped. In a flash, the window repaired itself and the glass seemed to grow thicker than before. The Chimera pounced and slammed head first into the glass with a dull thud that knocked it senseless, its body dropping to the ground like a sack of wheat.
Sock’s jaw dropped, stunned into silence. Tom grunted in approval and nodded and went on his way like nothing had happened, leaving Sock behind. He didn’t even seem to notice that Sock wasn’t behind him for a moment, before stopping and looking around him, then back at Sock, who was staring at the window in shock.
“Ya comin’, kid, or are ya lookin’ to stick around in case somethin’ else decides to bash through a window and eat ya alive?” Tom asked, which finally moved Sock to skedaddle back to his side as Tom continued on.
“What was that?!” Sock demanded when his ability to speak came back to him. Tom glanced down at him. “What was what?”
“Th-the- the- the- thing! With- with-” Sock stuttered, trying to articulate his words despite his excitement. “Your hand!” he snapped his fingers. “And- and- the window! You just- And then it was-” He gestured wildly. “How did you do that?!?!?”
Tom shrugged. “Oh, that. That’s a perk I get fer bein’ Employee of the Month. One Insta-Fix with a snap of my fingers. I save that specifically for the Chimera, who routinely tries to get out of its room.”
“That was so cool!” Sock shouted, jumping and skipping around Tom, who smiled a bit.
“Why can’t you use that all the time?” Sock asked once he calmed down.
Tom frowned. “The thing is, I can only use it every so often, And then it has to recharge. As luck would have it, it just so happens to fully recharge exactly when the beast breaks the window, which is good because there’s no easy clean up to be made if that Chimera gets out and wrecks havoc. Better that I keep that perk unused as long as I can, to nip that breakout in the bud before it makes everythin’ worse.”
“Oh,” Sock replied. “I see.”
They fell into silence once more. Everything else seemed to be okay, and eventually the hallway leading to the elevator came back into view. The guard nodded at Tom as they passed and Sock ran ahead to press the button. A few moments passed and the doors opened, releasing quite a few people being shoved along by a rougher looking demon, who barely gave Tom and Sock more than a passing glance.
Tom looked down at Sock. “It’s gonna get more crowded the further we go, so you’re gonna wanna stick close to me so ya don’t get swept up in the crowds.” Sock nodded, moving closer for good measure. They entered the elevator as the doors were shutting. The ride up was silent. Sock was preoccupied with thinking about Tom’s power, seeing the Chimera smack against the glass again and again in his mind.
It wasn’t until they left Wrath’s Main Building that Tom broke the silence with, “So, I hear yer lookin’ for someone?” which caught Sock off guard for a moment. The smaller demon stuttered and stammered, “I- Well I- I mean, kinda. That wasn’t- I kinda-”
“Take your time, no rush, I was just curious,” Tom interrupted, chuckling.
Sock took a deep breath, collecting his thoughts so he could explain why. “Okay so, I was assigned to make this guy kill himself, but it kinda didn’t work out that way. I was really enthusiastic about it at first. I’d do gross things, I’d harass him in the public bathroom,” he counted on his fingers. “I engaged in conversation with him in crowded areas, which made people look at him weird, hoping that would embarrass him enough to make him want to die, but nothing worked! He just didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of him!”
Tom hummed to show that he was still listening.
“Pretty soon I got to know him as a person. What he loved, what he hated, his favorite band, favorite food, dreams and aspirations and before I knew it, I’d caught feelings,” Sock looked down at the ground. “And then… I didn’t want him to die,” he said quietly. “And Mephistopheles ran him over with a bus, and-” his throat suddenly felt tight. “I-I watched his soul get taken right out of his lifeless body.” His eyes filled with tears. “Oh god w-what if he blames me for this? What if he hates me?” Sock’s voice got high and whiny at the end and the tears spill over and down his face as he looked up at Tom.
Tom looked conflicted for a moment, then sighed, laying a hand on Sock’s shoulder in comfort. “Hey now,” he said, his rough voice surprisingly gentle. “It sounds like ya really care about this… Johnson?”
“Jonathan,” Sock corrected, sniffling.
“Jonathan. Ya really care about him, and if I were to wager a guess, he probably cares just as much about ya.”
Sock wiped his face. “You think so?”
Tom smiled. “Sure, what’s not to like about ya? Yer this adorable friendly kid, and it sounds like ya’d started to make more of an effort to appeal to this boy before his light was snuffed out.”
The younger demon sniffed and nodded, smiling. More tears welled up and fell despite Sock’s best effort to wipe them away.
The janitor sighed. He’d probably get in some trouble for this, but he couldn’t stand to see this kid cry. “And if it’ll help ya stop cryin’, I’ll help ya look for him.”
Sock’s eyes widened. “Really?” he asked, grinning hesitantly as if he couldn’t believe his ears.
Tom shrugged. “Sure, why not? I’m feelin’ charitable, an’ it seems to mean a lot to ya.”
The smaller demon had started bouncing excitedly before the janitor had even finished his sentence, and jumped in excitement with an exuberant squeak to match. He hugged Tom, which caught that gruff demon off guard a bit. “Thank you thank you oh my god thank you so much!” Sock babbled, crying happy tears now.
“Uh, yeah, yer welcome,” Tom said awkwardly, patting Sock’s back. “But, let’s keep the physical affection to a minimum, okay?”
“Okay!” Sock released his grip on Tom and bounced back. “Where to now?”
“The rest of the Circles. Let’s see if anyone’s seen ‘im,” said Tom, patting Sock’s back. Sock nodded, all smiles.
They traversed through Pride, and Greed and Gluttony, but the guards claimed none of them had seen Jonathan. Sock really hoped Jonathan might be in Sloth, but the guard there gave no report of the fake blonde’s appearance. Dejected, they moved on to Heresy and Travesty, but they were met with more of the same.
“Let’s head back to th’ Main Buildin’,” Tom offered after they left Travesty’s building. “I need to restock some of my supplies.” Sock didn’t respond, but followed the janitor anyway, dragging his feet. The older demon frowned, thinking hard about how to comfort the desolate looking younger demon. The only place they had yet to check was the Personal Hell Torture Rooms in the deepest part of Hell, but getting Sock down there was going to be hard. His pass was only good for the Circles, and the security down there was way tighter than up here.
He glanced at Sock while refilling chemical bottles, weighing his options, and thinking about how he’d get the kid down there. “Okay,” he started. “So, we’ve confirmed that this boy isn’t in any of the Circles, but there’s one other place we’ve yet to try.”
Sock looked up, curious, but didn’t say anything.
“Deep in this realm there’s a sector filled with trillions of rooms specifically meant to cater to someone’s worst nightmare. That’s the Personal Hell sector. Because I’m the main janitor here, I’m allowed down there to clean up the remains of tortured souls who couldn’t handle their punishment any more. We could check there, but be warned, there’s hundreds of trillions of people down there, all with their own specific punishments. Ya’ll have to think long and hard of what his punishment could be, or yer paperwork will process before we find him.”
Sock looked thoughtful.
“Yer pass won’t be valid down there. So, one of the hardest parts of this plan is actually getting ya down there, considerin’ that the amount of security they have. They don’t want anyone comin’ or goin’ that ain’t allowed to be,” Tom continued.
“Then there’s the matter of this-,” Tom reached for his keys and flipped through them until he found one that was kinda ancient looking, like someone had carved it from someone else’s bone. “This is a skeleton key that I use to get into the rooms. I can’t just give it to ya, obviously, but I also can’t instruct ya to just take it. So call it an old fool runnin’ his mouth, givin’ ya hints, ya’ll have to steal it from under my nose to get to yer friend.” He winked.
Sock just stared back at him for a moment before his eyes lit up in clarity, and he nodded. Tom hummed to himself, thinking. There was no way to hide Sock in his cart, and it not like he had any way of shrinking the smaller demon to hide him. There was no way around it but to stride down there with nothing but his confidence and a few white lies.
He placed some items on his cart and turned to Sock with a determined grin. “Well kid, nothin’ to do but bluff our way in. What’d’ya say, ya ready to lie with confidence?”
“I’ve never been the most confident, but sure!” Sock answered.
“Oh ya don’t have to say a thin’, kid, just let me do all the talkin’,” Tom assured him.
They headed on their way to a door in the back that was labeled: “Private” which was guarded by two demons. By this time the DMV lines of the building were jam packed with all sorts of people, some chatting with each other, some looking the most miserable they ever had, and some kind of excited by all of this. The clerks were working overtime to usher people out and it the direction of the other Circles, and weren’t paying attention to either Sock or Tom.
As they approached the door, the two guards’ eyes fixed on them, narrowing suspiciously at Sock, who tried his best to look as least suspicious as possible in return. Tom was prepared to walk forward, and the the guards let him, but as soon as Sock tried to follow they put their hands out to stop him. “Halt!” they said in unison. The guard to the left began speaking: “No unauthorized personnel down in the Chambers.”
Sock opened his mouth to defend himself, but snapped it shut when he remembered he was supposed to let Tom do the talking. Luckily, Tom turned around to do just that.
“Don’t worry,” the janitor said. “The kid’s with me.”
The second guard squinted at Tom. “Why would you be dragging around a kid, Tom?”
“Oh, haven’t ya heard?” Tom put on a proud grin. “I get an assistant now! Bein’ Head Janitor’s a lot of work, but I do it well, and as a reward I get a lil helper. Now ain’t that nice?”
The second guard looked unconvinced. “Okay, how come I’m just now hearing about it?”
“You’re always the last to know about anything,” the first guard replied, rolling their eyes. They knocked the second guard’s hand away and retracted theirs. “You can go on ahead, kid. And congrats, Tom.”
“Thank ya kindly,” Tom responded smugly, gesturing for Sock to follow. Once they were out of earshot, Tom glanced over at Sock who was fiddling with his scarf anxiously. “You were a natural,” he said, unable to keep a hint of pride out of his voice.
Sock looked up. “Really?” he asked. “But I didn’t do anything!”
“You did as you were told and kept your mouth shut, which made it easy for me to convince them that you were with me.” They reached the end of the hall, which was occupied by another elevator. Sock pressed the down button, and Tom inhaled deeply. “Now comes the hardest part. Time doesn’t exist, but that don’t mean we ain’t racing against some kinda clock now. Between me lyin’ about ya and yer paperwork in the process of bein’ finalized, the clock is tickin’ for which one o’ them will catch up with us first. But let’s not focus on that… have ya been thinkin’ about what yer friend’s punishment might be?”
Sock looked off to the side. “I don’t know, I don’t think well under pressure...”
“Well, try this, what was he most afraid of?”
The smaller demon shrugged. “I don’t think he was really all that afraid of anything.”
“Okay, how about, what was he most afraid to lose?”
Sock shrugged again. “Nothing. He didn’t have anything to lose.”
“‘Cept ya,” Tom said, which made Sock flush and hunch his shoulders. The elevator dinged, and the doors opened, and they entered. Tom pushed the 1st Underground floor level. Might as well start from there until they got a good inkling of where to go.
“It’d be pretty cruel to use ya as a Personal Hell punishment, and I got a feelin’ that might actually come to pass,” Tom said. “But until that happens, what’s the next best thin’?”
“Uh, well,” Sock thought about it for a moment. “He did really like sandwiches, so maybe they’d have something like that?”
“Worth a try.”
Through trial and error, they wandered through the “Fear of Not Getting to Eat Your Favorite Food” Hall which had a Sandwiches room, but Jonathan was not in it. Next they tried the “Fear of Listening to Music Worse Than Your Taste” Hall, which was pretty bad and made Sock feel like he’d never stop cringing, but Jonathan wasn’t there either.
Sock was getting discouraged, and worried that any moment someone would show up and drag him off to his own personal punishment. He struggled to think of anywhere else Jonathan might be, but he was getting discouraged.
“Right,” Tom said after they left yet another room. “How’s about we-”
“What’s the point?” Sock cut in, dropping to the floor and leaning against a wall. “We’re never gonna find him! There’s too many rooms, too many possibilities, and any moment someone could show up and take me away!” He slumped over, burying his face in his hands. “I should just give up.”
Tom looked down at him, a furrowing his brows in concern. “It ain't over til the fat lady sings kid, we still got time.”
“No we don't,” Sock whined, though it was muffled by his hands. “We don't have any time! Time doesn't exist! And I can't calm down enough to think clearly because I keep thinking that someone's gonna round the corner and throw me over their shoulder the same way Jonathan was and I just-”
“Hey,” Tom said sternly, getting down on one knee in front of Sock, though his joints creaked painfully as he did so. He put his hand on Sock’s shoulder. “I'm riskin’ a lot to help ya, here, and if I say we got time, I'm makin’ sure we got time. They're probably runnin’ all over up top lookin’ for ya. But they won't find ya. And I'm sure Jonathan has to be somewhere. Ya wanna try the ‘Fear of Losing Someone Close to You’ Hall?”
Sock shook his head. “He won't be there. We weren't that close. He was always putting his headphones on to tune me ou-” Sock stopped still, dropping his hands from his shocked face.
“...Kid?” Tom asked after Sock didn't move for a moment.
Sock looked at him. “His headphones! He was listening to music almost constantly, Tom! They blocked out sounds he didn't like and he said once that the louder the music, the quieter his thoughts were! He hated being alone with his thoughts!”
Tom stared at him. Sock reached up to grip Tom's shoulders. “His Personal Hell would be complete silence!” Sock fervently whispered.
The janitor’s bushy eyebrows shot up into the air, then furrowed in thought. “The Anechoic chambers,” he murmured to himself. “Help me up,” he said with some urgency, “these ol’ joints ain't what they used to be.”
Sock used the wall to help himself get up, then braced himself against it to give Tom a hand. The older demon groaned as he straightened up, joints popping. “Right,” he winced, voice sounding strained. “To the elevator.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Sock practically bolted out of the elevator once the doors opened on the floor with the Anechoic Chambers, Tom limping behind. He was still pretty sore from all the kneeling to give paternal pep talks that he’s been doing, and he just couldn’t keep up with Sock’s energy.
The younger demon ran from room to room, looking at the names frantically as he passed. They seemed to be out of order alphabetically, so he just kept his eyes open for Jonathan’s full name. Tom watched him dart about like a lizard and sighed, following along at a much slower pace. It was already pretty quiet in here because of how the Chambers were designed, but then he realized that something was missing in the silence. The sound of his keys jingling by his side. He slapped his side where his keyring usually was and felt nothing.
That sly kid stole my keys right from under my nose, Tom thought to himself. He didn’t know how Sock managed to do that, but he was proud anyway. He watched Sock frantically run down the hall and out of eyesight.
Well, almost. Sock skidded and fell to the floor, the keys he’d taken falling out of his hands momentarily. He scrambled to grab the keys and get up, turning to the door he’d fallen in front of, putting his hand up the the nameplate on the door.
Sock fumbled with the keys. What if it’s not my Jonathan? What if it’s someone else who happens to be named also Jonathan??? He dropped the keys. “Heck,” he muttered to himself, bending over to pick them up. He’s so anxious to get to Jonathan before someone finds him down here, he’s shaking, and he can’t get a good grip on the skeleton key to put it into the lock.
Somehow he eventually does, and he turns the key, and pulls open the door. “Jonathan?” he calls into the dark chamber, scared by how the room swallows his voice. He hears nothing back, so he dares to venture in a couple steps. “Jonathan?” he repeats to the silence of the room.
He thinks he hears a faint groaning, and he follows it but stops. The silence is too loud; it hurts. “J-Jonathan? Jonathan, it’s me, if you’re in here, please answer me, please,” Sock begs. His voice sounds so small.
“Sock?” asks a gravelly and weak voice. It’s nearly swallowed up by the room, but it’s his Jonathan! Sock tears up. “C-come here, please I can’t- I don’t know where you are, it’s too quiet in here, the silence hurts,” he cries, falling to his knees, cradling his head in his hands. A moment passes before he feels someone else’s shaky hands touching his head and cupping his face, and he looks up into Jonathan’s bloodshot eyes. They’re glazed over a tad, and his dark circles seem much darker, and pale skin more paler, just generally far worse for wear. His grip tightens a bit, as if he’s afraid Sock is going to disappear into thin air.
“It’s you,” he whispers. “It’s actually you, oh god, Sock.”
“It’s me,” Sock whispers back, tears falling down his cheeks and into Jonathan’s hands.
“I…” Jonathan coughs. “I thought I’d never see you again. All I remember is you talking about your dog and then something hit me and the world went dark and then I woke up here.”
“I watched my boss take your soul out of your body,” Sock sobs. “I got fired, but I’ve been all over Hell trying to find you. I’m so sorry. I bet you hate me for all of this.”
“No!” Jonathan wheezes out another cough. His throat is so dry, so worn away from screaming against his thoughts. “No, no, no, I don’t hate you, I could never hate you. None of this is your fault. I- I don’t know how you found me but- I’m glad you did. My thoughts have been so loud, louder than they’ve ever been. I missed your voice, distracting me… When my thoughts got too loud I tried to think about what you’d say against them and… it helped a little…”
Sock brings his hands up to circle them around Jonathan’s back, pulling him into a tight hug. Jonathan’s arms fall limp to his side for a moment before he finds the strength to do the same. “Damn,” he murmurs. “I can actually touch you now, and you fit perfectly in my arms.” He laughs a little.
The demon cries harder at that. “We can’t stay like this,” he whispers. “Any moment now my paperwork is going to process, and they’re going to drag me off to my punishment. And I won’t ever see you again.”
“Then… let me do one last thing before that happens,” Jonathan says. “Something I’ve wanted to do for a while…”
Sock pulls back, curious by what Jonathan means by that. Jonathan cups his face once more, and tilts it up as he leans down and plants a gentle kiss on Sock’s lips. Sock’s eyes widen in shock as Jonathan pulls away. “Hey,” he says, a goofy half smile on his tired face. “I love you. Sorry I couldn’t tell you when I was alive.”
Sock was still frozen in shock. “I- you-”
“Wow, the boss isn’t gonna be happy about this,” said a voice Sock didn’t recognize. Both Sock and Jonathan look up and at the doorway. A silhouetted figure was standing in the doorway, arms crossed, feet tapping. “Not only did you trespass down to this level, but you stole someone’s keys to open one of the torture rooms and began fraternizing with a soul- tsk tsk, Sowachowski. The list of your crimes grows longer.”
The figure turns to speak to someone they can’t see. “The twink next to the blonde, Chad.”
The same muscular demon that had taken Jonathan before stepped into the room and reached for Sock. The smaller demon tried to scramble away but he couldn’t move fast enough. “No! Wait!” he yells. “Please! Jonathan!”
But Jonathan just sits there, watching Sock leave, unable to get up.
“I love you too!” Sock yells as he is pulled out of the chamber. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you before you died!”
The last thing he sees before the door closes is Jonathan’s stricken face followed by the softest look he’s ever seen on such a bedraggled face, then the world spins and goes dark.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Well Sowachowski, you managed to make your situation even worse in such a short time!” Mephistopheles says in that sort of slightly maniacal tone of someone who is both pleased and angry at once. “I’m impressed. I haven’t had to throw anyone into the fire in so long ! This is gonna be fun!”
Sock was currently standing on the edge of a cliff. Down below him was a sea of green and blue flames. If he squinted, he can faintly make out some skeletons, but he’s not sure if those are real or decoration.
“Is this going to hurt?” Sock asks.
“Oh it’s going to be the worst pain you’ve ever felt!” Meph answers, grinning. “I look forward to hearing your screams as you burn to a crisp!” He shoves Sock squarely in the back, and Sock feels a bit of deja vu as he falls. The last thing on his mind before he reaches the flames is Jonathan, and he hopes they see each other again in the next life.