The first time they tried to kill me I was asleep. My office and apartment were on the third floor of a nearly abandoned building. My own coughing jarred me awake. I rolled to a sitting position from the sweat-wet bedding and continued choking on hot, acrid air. The sweat was no surprise. My air conditioner had quit. But this was more than August heat in Central City, Illinois.
A flip of the light switch near my bed did nothing to alleviate the darkness. I went to hands and knees and felt around until I found my pants and shoes, sat against the bed, squirmed into the jeans, and put on my much-used Reeboks. Heat from the floor threatened to roast my rump.
"Don't panic, Nick," I said aloud. Should I try to save anything or just get the hell out? My files, I had to save my case files. The dented metal filing cabinet in the office contained stuff from the previous owner, but I just wanted my own files in the top drawer. I crawled into the office, stood, and pulled out the top drawer. I felt my way to the office door and opened it. A swish of even hotter air swept against my face. The drawer slipped from my hands, but I kept it from falling to the floor with a knee.
What about Maggie? She might be in the office on the second floor. It was well past midnight. Why would she be there? I assured myself she was not. She was the reason why I now had a stray cat and a cracked heart. What about the cat? But there was no need to worry about it. Any cat that came and went when the office door was locked wouldn't be trapped in that old building.
Flickering light appeared as I neared the stairway. Hungry flames licked at the air below, daring me to try to escape in that direction. Fire noise rose like the vicious growl of a watch dog.
"Don't panic," I repeated.
My lungs felt as though they were melting. Heat pushed me back like an unseen hand. The fire escape! Where was it? On the side of the building at the end of the hall? Beyond my office and all that unoccupied space? I remembered rust, lots of rust. What a choice. Walk down the stairs into an inferno or risk falling three floors from a fire escape that probably hadn't been used in twenty years.
I felt my way to the end of the hallway. The door wouldn't budge. Could I crawl through the door window? I smashed the file drawer against the glass, shattering it. Hot air swished out of the building through the opening.
I placed the drawer on the floor and removed shards of glass until I figured there was enough room to climb out. I felt around outside trying to locate something solid. Nothing. Light from the fire had not yet penetrated the darkness on that side of the building. Was the fire escape really there? I picked up the file drawer and dropped it outside the window, hoping it would hit the fire escape landing, if it was there. The file drawer thudded against something almost immediately.
I used the doorknob to steady myself and raised one leg through the window. Muscles complained as I maneuvered the other leg through. Broken glass ripped my pants and scratched my legs and stomach as I wiggled out into the darkness.
I grasped the base of the window frame and rested my knees against the outside of the door. I lowered my feet an inch at a time. If my legs extended completely and my feet still hadn't touched anything, could I pull myself back up?
My feet made contact with something solid. The platform? I tested it with my weight as I held onto the window ledge in case the thing below me, whatever it was, gave way.
I released one hand from the ledge. It was sticky. I reached down and tried to feel whatever was supporting my feet but I couldn't reach it unless I let go. I took a deep breath, released my grip on the window ledge, and sank to my knees on metal--crusty metal. The fire escape landing.
The file cabinet drawer sat near steps leading down. Holding the rail with one hand, I carried the drawer in the other arm and made my way down, a step at a time, toward a glow coming from inside the building. Flickering light cast shadows on the second-floor fire escape platform. I put the file drawer on the landing and crept onto the fire escape extension straight out into the night. Would the rust give way and allow my weight to swing the extension down to the ground? About halfway out the damned thing dropped without warning. I squeezed the rusted metal railings until pain in my blood-soaked hands forced a scream from parched lips. The noise evaporated into the smoky night. The extension jolted to an abrupt halt. It was headed downward at an angle that left me about 20 feet above the ground.
I climbed back up, retrieved the file drawer, and climbed down cautiously, a step at a time, fearing the ladder would drop violently at any moment. When I was almost to the end it descended at a slow, comfortable pace and stopped about two feet from the ground. I stepped onto the blessed gravel and expected the ladder to spring back up. It didn't. Firelight made it easy to make my way to the front of the building. I ran awkwardly away from the heat and flames.
The hungry blaze ate at the building and its contents. My stuff was in there. My clothes, a couple of bowling balls I no longer bothered to keep in the rear of my car, a radio, an old wooden chair, my bed, and a refrigerator. And the desk. My good old desk. The fire would consume them all.
I'm a misunderstood soul. No one understood me when I was alive, and no one understood me once I died. I was too full of myself to care what people thought when I was alive, and after I was dead, I just assumed I would be judged by my heart. I discovered just how wrong I was when I sauntered up to the Pearly Gates, still full of myself, certain I'd pass through the sparkling gates without a hitch. St. Peter blocked my path though, and his impassive face offered no comfort as he opened the Great Book of Judgment. My swagger faltered a little when he cleared his throat and looked up.
"William Bonney, was there nothing good in your life? This doesn't look good. Not at all." He paged through the great book in front of him. A pair of wire-rimmed spectacles fell down his nose, and he pushed them up with a gnarled finger. He peered up at me over the top of those glasses, and a scowl touched his mouth. "All I see is darkness. You've committed enough sins for two men." In the light of heaven's gate, his hair glowed ghost white.
Mortification spread through my body like poison. Surely, Saint Peter wouldn't turn me away. I wasn't a bad man. I'd never once shot a man who didn't deserve it or who hadn't shot at me first. I pointed at the book. "Look again. There's got to be something good in there."
Saint Peter shook his head. "I'm sorry." He shut his book and turned away, moving slowly towards the sparkling gates behind him. "There's nothing there but pride and anger and vengeance." The gates opened to admit Peter's saintly figure and shut with a resounding bang, leaving me outside to wonder what I'd done wrong. I hadn't been a bad man. Hell, I'd barely lived past boyhood; I'd scraped by for twenty years by the skin of my teeth. And now, I only had one place to go, and I didn't want to go there. I didn't belong there. I knew that in my heart.
I shuffled toward the gates of hell, where the devil smiled a twisted smile at my approach. A wooden door led into darkness before me, but there was no fire or brimstone, and the devil himself looked almost like an ordinary man, except for his dead, gray eyes and the fine net of scales covering his flesh. In my day, the clothing he wore?a swatch of cloth around his waist, the same gray as his skin and eyes?would have caused a blush to rise on my cheeks. No one should be that exposed, but now, the yawning darkness in front of me stole all my other emotions.
The devil laughed at my disappointment, and I spit on his feet when he opened the gates. No steam floated off of his scaly skin, and I shook my head in dismay. I wanted the hell I'd learned about as a child. I wanted fire and brimstone. Instead, there was only darkness.
"And you say you don't belong here, Billy," the devil drawled. His voice sounded like a dull knife scraping across steel. A chill streaked down my back, making the hair rise on the back of my neck.
"I don't." I met the devil's empty eyes and tried not to shudder as I stepped into the barren blackness of hell. "It's the world up there that made me this way. I was a good man."
Laughter followed me through the gate. "Good men don't end up here, Billy. You just haven't realized where you belong."
"You're wrong about me," I muttered as I claimed a little corner of darkness for myself. It closed around me and filled my ears with silence. I understood the true horror of hell now. There was no true existence, no torture, none of the atrocities I'd learned of in church as a child. There was only darkness and silence and loneliness, and thoughts of hope and light and life are chased away by the raspy whispers of hell's minions. Their voices weren't true sounds, more of a caress against the mind, a vague wisp of sound, so soft, that I was never sure if I heard the whispers or felt them.
I had plenty of time to think about my life in my little corner. It had been short, far too short, and filled with violence. I still didn't remember killing a man who didn't deserve to be shot. Back in my day the world was full of assholes, and it was probably still filled with them. People's natures don't change much.
The only other thing I could do was wander the darkness. I felt like a ghost, flailing in the unending darkness broken only by the wispy white shadows of other souls. I would meet other souls sometimes, and I passed by them without glance. We never spoke or acknowledged one another. There was no point. Hell's darkness seemed to swallow sound, and I was certain my voice would be lost among the shadows if I spoke. But not all the souls felt that way, and that's how I learned about the backdoor to heaven.
I had been wandering when I heard voices. Real voices, not the ever present whispers of the shadows. Voices that sounded almost alive in a muted sort of way. Intrigued by the unfamiliarity of true sound, I paused to listen.
"What's the backdoor to heaven?" One of the voices asked. It sounded vaguely female, but I couldn't be sure.
"It's the way out of this place," replied the other voice. It was deeper, gruffer, a man's voice, I decided. "You have to be chosen to go through. Usually one of heaven's lackeys comes down to select someone. They take whoever through the backdoor. What happens then is anyone's guess. I've been trying to get picked forever." I heard something in that voice, something that I felt in my own heart.
"Why?" The woman's voice sounded confused. "This place is peaceful. I don't want to leave."
I took a deep breath, or what passed for a breath. That was the true horror of hell. Once there, it lulled its souls with the contrivances of peace and tranquility. Once trapped in hell's darkness, there was no escape, or so I'd thought. I thought I'd be left there to review the mistakes I'd made in life forever. Or would I? Was there a way out of hell? I drifted closer to the conversation. I wanted to know more.
"Well, I don't think it's peaceful. I think it's dull. I want some music and voices. Hell, I want to be able to see something other than darkness and shadows." There was a heavy sigh. I heard sadness in the man's voice and moved a little closer.
"I know there are others here, but they're only shadows. I'm sick of shadows. I want some light." The man's sorrow tugged at my own heart. I almost called out to him. I wanted to know more about heaven's backdoor.
"There is no such thing as a backdoor to heaven, Billy."
I flinched. I hadn't heard that voice for so long I hardly recognized it. "What do you want?" I cringed at my tone of voice. Chastising the devil was probably a bad idea, but so far I'd seen no sign of cruelty. I'd only seen emptiness.
If I could have seen him, the devil probably shrugged. The tone of his voice was certainly that of a shrug. "I'm just making sure you don't get your hopes up. The heavenly angels don't come here looking for lackeys to do their work. They have plenty of those already. No one leaves my realm once they arrive. You should accept that."
I felt his cold, gray eyes on the shadowy wisp of my soul. I wished I could see. I wished I could run from his hollow voice. I didn't belong in his realm no matter what Saint Peter or anyone else thought. The idea of a backdoor to heaven conjured my old convictions. I lifted my chin and spoke with as much sincerity as I could manage. "I told you when I came that I didn't belong here. When are you going to believe me?"
The devil laughed, a dry, choking sound that would have frightened me when I was alive. "Billy, you wouldn't be here if you didn't belong."
I drifted back to the little corner I'd claimed as my own. The devil followed me. I could feel him at my back. My hands ached for the cold wood and steel of a six shooter. If ever someone deserved to die...
"No one bothered to give me a chance when I was alive." I refused to let him intimidate me. "I was a victim of circumstance. I did what I could to survive."
The devil laughed again. "Survival? No, Billy, you enjoyed what you did. You enjoyed it too much or you wouldn't be here." He leaned close, and his icy breath tickled my cheek. "You wanted immortality, remember. You wanted fame. You wanted every bit of notoriety you earned. You relished in the killing and the fighting. You lived for vengeance."
I didn't bother to answer. Everything the devil said was true, except for one thing. I had never enjoyed killing anyone. I tucked myself away in my corner of darkness. The devil kept speaking, but I closed my ears to his voice until I couldn't hear his words or feel the touch of his breath chilling my soul. I suppose in life they would have called it sleep. In hell, it was called peace.