Going to Gehinnom
AT TEN YEARS OF AGE, NOAH PREISS MET HIS FIRST DEATH in an automobile accident that took the lives of his mother and twin sister, Naamah. When the nightmares began shortly afterward, his father, a prominent psychiatrist, put him on a psychotropic medication, and they went away.
At the age of nineteen, Noah went off to college. His first semester there, he returned home one night to find his father standing in his bedroom. He had pulled a suitcase from under Noah’s bed, one that contained a collection of women’s undergarments, purchased (and, in some cases, stolen) from a Victoria’s Secret at a nearby mall. Noah took one look at the tangle of frilly lingerie lying on his bed, then another at his father’s stricken face, then vomited the cheeseburger and fries he’d just eaten for dinner.
Soon afterward, Noah left college. He had little choice, when his father would no longer pay his tuition. Noah took a menial job that just barely covered his living expenses and spent the next six months of his mortal life shrouded in a fog of grief and pain. Then, one not-so-fine morning, tired of that life, such as it was, Noah tied a rope around his mortal neck and leapt from a chair. Sometime later, how much time, he couldn’t say, he woke in a hospital.
Noah spent several blissful days lying in a hospital bed, staring vacantly at the television anchored to the wall above him. The day came, however, when Noah, rising out the heavy pall of his depression, began to take stock of his situation. He presumed he was in some sort of mental hospital. He presumed his father had admitted him into it. Beyond that, he didn’t have a whole hell of a lot to go on.
The doctor had come in once to examine him, but that had been the first day. Since then, Noah hadn’t seen him. Only the nurses, who were friendly enough, he supposed. They came in and out at all hours, bringing his meals and his medicines (he had to take pills, several times a day). Twice, Noah had shuffled down to a sort of common room that contained the telephone (there wasn’t one in his room and the nurses refused to return his cell phone) to call his father, but both times he tried, Noah had only gotten a busy signal. He suspected his father was avoiding his calls. Noah supposed he didn’t blame him, but, even so, it hurt.
When Dad didn’t come through, Noah tried calling his grandmother, his cousin Cynthia, his college roommate, and the Papa John’s on East 37th Street. When he found all those lines also busy, he began to wonder just what sort of hospital he’d been admitted into.
He’d noticed quite a few unsettling things about it already. For one thing, the view from his window. Whenever he looked out, he always saw the same blue Volkswagen resting in the same parking space. It never moved. And it always seemed to be midday, whenever he looked out, even after many hours had passed. It was like looking at a snapshot. A single moment in time, he thought. He never saw any other patients or heard any noise from their rooms. His television showed only syndicated programs, more than a dozen years old. No live programs. No news. His room—it got so cold, at times. And there was a sweetish rotten odor that he at first supposed to be coming from a backed-up drain. He’d asked a nurse about that, but had only gotten an embarrassed look in answer.
All the nurses were men, none of them apparently over the age of thirty, not even the one with a white streak through his black hair. That, Noah supposed, wasn’t all that strange in itself. But why were they all built like linebackers? Correction, SMOULDERING HOT linebackers. One of them looked so much like Brett Favre, in his heyday, that Noah had been tempted to ask him if he was Brett’s son.
Noah’s particular favorite was a burly Swede with a shock of brassy blond hair. Maybe it was his thick Scand accent. Or that cute little mole on his left cheek.
No one had moles here. And no one ever had a bad hair day.
Not even Noah himself.
Since the age of fourteen, Noah had been plagued with a galaxy of angry-looking pimples on his face. Now, when he looked in the mirror, he saw a complexion so flawlessly perfect he scarcely recognized it as his own. At nineteen, his hair was already noticeably thinning at the top of his head. Now, he had a full head of soft, baby-fine yellow curls. His eyes even seemed to be a deeper blue than he recalled. But that was not all. Oh no. Before coming to the hospital, Noah had been so shortsighted that he couldn’t have gone two feet from his bed in the morning without his eyeglasses. Now, he could see as well without them as he ever did with them. He also noted that all the silver fillings on his molars were gone. And the bad scar he’d had on his right calf, where a dog had viciously bitten him when he was a kid, was gone.
He caught the nurses sometimes, speaking in whispers, and he knew they were talking about him. They had worried looks on their faces, when they did. They kept Noah so heavily medicated that he slept away at least half of his day. He began to suspect they were doing things to him, while he slept. And the things they were doing to him were NOT good.
“I would like to speak to the doctor please.”
The nurse at the station—Tom Jones, his nametag read—looked up from the spy novel he was reading and grinned at Noah. “What can I do for you?”
“I would like to speak to the doctor please.”
“Is there something you want?”
“I would like to speak to the doctor please,” Noah said a third time.
“About nothing that concerns you,” Noah sniffed.
“He’s not in right now.”
“That’s what you said last time I asked.”
“And it was true last time, just as it is now. Is there something you need?”
“I need to speak to the doctor.”
“I will relay the message to him,” the nurse promised, still smiling so hard his perfect face ought to have cracked under the pressure.
“Look, Tom—if that’s even your name. I have rights, you know.”
Noah nodded, folding his arms across his chest. “You can’t keep me in this place against my will.” He wasn’t at all sure that was a fact. “I’ve a right to an attorney, you know.”
Noah nodded again.
“And what would your attorney do, exactly?”
“Well, for one thing, spring me from this madhouse. I’m not crazy, you know. This is all just a big mistake. Really.” Feeling his face growing hot beneath Tom’s steady gaze, Noah fell silent. He looked away, embarrassed of his rising tears.
Tom put a hand over his and gave it a gentle squeeze. “It’s going to be alright,” he promised.
That night, Noah pretended to swallow his paper cupful of pills, then spat them into a paper towel, which he flushed down the toilet. Then he returned to his bed and watched an episode of Everyone Loves Raymond. He nodded off, after a few minutes. That wasn’t for show. He’d never made it through a full episode of Everyone Loves Raymond without nodding off. He didn’t dream. He never did. He fell, soundlessly, into a well of darkness as still as death. Sadly, this blissful state of nothingness lasted only a brief time.
He was roused from it by a strange, pins-and-needles feeling in his limbs, as if from lack of blood. He cracked open his eyes and looked up. A hole had opened in the ceiling panel above his bed. A kind of mist was falling out of it, which Noah felt, but couldn’t see.
He pushed himself up. A quick glance out his open door told him that his nurses were at the moment preoccupied. He slipped quietly out of bed and hunted up his slippers, because the floor, as always, was like ice. Hunched almost double, he crept toward the door and ducked out of it. Someone saw him and called after him, “Mr. Preiss. Where do you think you’re going?” Mr. Preiss was getting the fuck out of here—and fast!
Noah sprang to his feet and darted down a long corridor, passing dozens of rooms like his own, their doors sealed. He slammed into a door that led, he hoped, to a stairwell. He pushed it open and was not disappointed to find that it did in fact lead to a set of stairs. He was on the sixth floor, or so the painted red six in the stairwell indicated. He scampered down the steps toward the ground floor. By this time, two nurses, hot on his heels, were just a few paces behind him. They were gaining on him, despite all he could to shake them. He felt one of them catch hold of his gown. He twisted, pulling out of it.
Buck naked and half-mad with the fear of being caught, he leapt over the rail and tumbled—no lie—three flights of stairs before landing, battered and winded, at a door on the first level. Pulling himself to his feet, he wrenched the door open and stared, in disbelief, at what lay behind it. There was nothing there but a blank wall of coarse-surfaced black stone. Noah put his hands to it and cried out. It was as cold as a block of ice.
The nurses, reaching him, seized him by the shoulders, dragging him away from it. He screamed. So terrible a scream that just to think of it now sent shivers down his spine. It was as if a devil had been let loose inside his throat. Grasping him tightly by his bare wrist, one of the nurse said something—a strange Word—and Noah felt himself go weak at the knees. He dropped to the floor like a stone. Just before he lost consciousness, he heard one of the nurses say: “Send for Gilgamesh. Tell him we need him here right away.”
He woke sometime later in his bed. The same episode of Everybody Loves Raymond was still playing. Thinking he must have just nodded off for a few minutes, Noah pushed himself up in bed. He didn’t need to use the toilet, but he felt like stretching his legs. He looked under his bed for his slippers and pulled them on, then pushed himself the bed and shuffled to the bathroom.
When he turned, a nurse was standing in the doorway. A tall, hulking giant of a man with a tangled thatch of dark-brown hair and pulse-quickening dimples in his cheeks. His tag identified him as Vadim Kuleshov. He was one of the men who’d chased Noah in his dream. Maybe the one who spoke that strange word. But Noah couldn’t be sure.
“I brought your meal,” he said awkwardly in heavily-accented English.
“Thanks,” Noah said, giving him a shy smile.
“Do you like coffee ice cream?”
“I—I suppose so.”
“That’s the dessert. Coffee ice cream?”
Noah felt horribly self-conscious, as he stepped past the nurse. The strings of his gown had come loose while he was sleeping and his naked backside was hanging out. “Thanks—ah—Vadim.”
“You are welcome, Noah.”
Noah settled back onto the bed. Vadim, the nurse, moved the tray into position over him, then lifted the silver service. A savory pot roast, with cubed potatoes, sliced carrots, and pearl onions, rested on a piece of Sevres porcelain. And, for dessert, a large scoop of coffee ice cream, topped with whipped cream and a cherry, served in a crystal dessert cup with a silver spoon.
“I’m very fond of ice cream,” Vadim said.
Thinking he had his eye on it, Noah said, “if you like it all that much, Vadim, you can have it.”
“I don’t think I should.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Well, okay then,” Vadim said, snatching the dessert cup from the tray. “Can I sit here?” he asked, indicating the chair beside Noah’s bed.
“Sure, why not?” Noah welcomed the company. Usually the nurses kept their distance from him.
Vadim dropped into the chair and dug into the coffee ice cream with relish. He seemed to be enjoying it rather more than the occasion called. Most people didn’t groan with pleasure and suckle the spoon, when they ate ice cream. But, what did Noah know? Maybe coffee ice cream was hard to come by in Russia.
“Taking it you liked that?”
“Oh, yes,” Vadim said, giving him a dream smile. Noah wondered if the Russian had been smoking something in the breakroom. “First time I take a girl out on a date, we go to a little store and buy ice cream. Not coffee.” Vadim narrowed his blue eyes as he struggled to remember what flavor it had been. Then he thumped his head, as if to kickstart his brain. “So long ago. I forget. But it was very good. That ice cream. Afterward, I took her behind the store and fucked her brains out.”
“Well,” Noah said, coloring. “That’s a great story, Vadim. Glad you shared.”
“I don’t love Raymond.”
“Everybody Loves Raymond, but I don’t. I think he’s a dick.”
Noah switched the channel to an episode of Friends. Equally inane. “I’m not—crazy, you know.”
Vadim glanced over at him.
“I just—I was depressed. I mean, he wouldn’t let me explain. If he had just let me—explain. They weren’t for me. Those clothes. They were for my girl.”
Vadim grinned. “The clothes in the suitcase. The one that was under your bed.”
Supposing that Vadim must have read his file, Noah nodded. “I bought them for my girl.”
“I have it.”
“I had it brought here, with the ice cream. Would you like to see it? It’s in the shower.”
“What the fuck are you talking about, Vadim?”
“Come on. I show you.” Vadim shifted the tray aside and lifted Noah out of the bed, carrying him as he might an infant. Too shocked too protest, Noah let him. Vadim set Noah down inside the bathroom. Vadim pushed aside the rubber curtain. He hadn’t been lying. There was a suitcase in the shower. One that Noah recognized. The tag hanging from the handle bore his name and address.
“Open it up, Noah. See for yourself.”
“What’s this about, Vadim?”
“I don’t know word.” He hit his head again to jog his sluggish brain. “English—not easy language for me. Fad. No. Not it. Fetish. Yes.” He grinned widely. “Like ice cream. Need it to make you hard.” Then he grasped Noah’s hand and pressed it to the raging hard-on in his own trousers. “Coffee ice cream.”
“Ah, yeah,” Noah said, embarrassed, but he didn’t move his hand. Vadim had quite the package.
“Now, come on, Noah. There’s no need to be shy. We can have a little fun together, you and I. I’d like that. I can make it smaller, if you like, or bigger.”
“Is it an inflatable cock or something?” Noah said, with a nervous laugh.
“Why don’t you look and see?”
“Look, Vadim. I’m sure you’re a nice guy and everything but—” Noah couldn’t finish what he was about to say with Vadim’s cold, coffee-flavored tongue in his mouth. And, by the time the hulking Russian let him up for air, he’d forgotten what he’d intended to say. What remained of his hospital gown—Vadim had torn it off of him—was lying across his feet.
“What if someone comes in on us, Vadim?”
“No one will.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because they know I do this to you.”
Vadim nodded. He let Noah go, but only long enough to wrench open the suitcase and seize a clingy black nightie with red lace trim from among the garments. He helped Noah into this with a haste that spoke plainly how mad he was with lust. Then he seized Noah and took him, without apology. No one came in to interrupt them, not even when Noah cried out as he came. He begged Vadim to do it to him again. This time, harder than the first. And he asked for sex a third time. And got it. Vadim finished him one last time (the fourth, or was it the fifth?) by sucking him off. Noah allowed himself to be carried back to the bed. Mostly, because he wasn’t sure he could walk after that.
“I sure hope my insurance doesn’t run out anytime soon,” he said, slumping back on the bed. Spent, but blissfully happy.
“My shift’s ended,” Vadim said, bending over to kiss his lips. “But, if you like, I’ll stay with you.”
“I’d like that.”
Vadim climbed up onto the bed beside him. Though it was a bit cramped, with both of them on it, Noah didn’t mind. He liked the way it felt. Vadim reached across the bed to a control botton. He switched it on and the panel in the ceiling opened up. He keyed a series of numbers into the panel. A red light blinked, then a mist began to fall out of the hole in the ceiling.
“What is that?” Noah asked sleepily, enjoying the tingling sensation of the mist on his bare skin.
“Nothing you should be afraid of, Noah. I will take care of you. Trust me.”
“Vadim, I think I love you.”
Vadim laughed. “Go to sleep now. Okay?”
“Okay,” Noah said, closing his eyes. He shifted his head onto Vadim’s bare chest and he was asleep in moments.
He woke sometime later, alone in the bed. Vadim was sitting in the chair beside him. He met Noah’s dark eyes and smiled. “The director wants to speak to you about your discharge.”
His ears perking up, Noah said, “am I being discharged?”
Vadim nodded. He helped Noah to put on a robe and a pair of slippers. “The Director’s a good guy, Noah. He’ll help you. But you’ve got to keep a cool head, okay?”
Noah nodded. “Thanks, Vadim. For what you did—in the bathroom earlier. It made me feel a lot better. Really.”
“That’s my job.”
“Your job’s to fuck me in the bathroom?”
“Yep,” Vadim said, with a laugh.
“Well, you’re damned good at your job, you know?”
“Maybe we see each other again,” Vadim said with a wink. “Then we can play more games. You think?”
“You don’t have to ask me twice.”
Vadim laughed. “You have to have ice cream though. I can’t do it without ice cream. Okay?”
As Noah exited the room, two other nurses came out from behind the nurse’s station to join Vadim in escorting him to his meeting. Noah felt more like a prisoner than a patient. Fitting, because he was just that.
He was ushered into a waiting room, furnished in the manner of all waiting rooms, with a dozen padded wooden chairs, a coffee table blanketed with magazines, and a couple end tables with dim-wattage lamps. Some sad watercolor prints in cheap frames were hanging on the room’s eggshell-colored walls.
In one of the chairs facing the door, a man was sitting, idly leafing through a US Weekly with a photograph of Kim Kardashian on the cover. Kim was wearing a two-piece white bathing suit, evidently to prove she had dropped the weight after the birth of her baby. The caption, in bold black letters, read, “MY BODY IS BACK!”
As Noah stepped forward, the man set the magazine aside and rose from his chair. He was a tall, broad-shouldered black man, no older than thirty, with closely cropped wavy hair, a thin mustache and a narrow goatee. He was dressed in a gray wool turtleneck sweater, a black leather jacket, tight-fitting dark denim jeans and a pair of tan leather boots. He was also wearing a pair of black gloves. Thrusting a muscular, gloved hand forward, he said, “you must be Mr. Preiss.”
Noah took the proffered hand and shook it. “You are the hospital director?”
The Director nodded. “I am called Gilgamesh.”
The Director nodded again. “If you would be so kind as to have a seat, Mr. Preiss. You may see yourselves out, gentlemen,” he added to the nurses, who were hovering around the door, looking rather anxious. “Mr. Preiss won’t try anything—funny, I’m sure. Will you, Mr. Preiss?”
Noah shook his head.
“There, you see. He is as eager as you to avoid any further UNFORTUNATE incidents.” Once the door was closed behind the nurses, Gilgamesh turned once more to Noah.
“So that happened, then?” Noah said.
“By that, I presume you mean your mad dash for freedom. Yes. That happened. No one should have laid a hand on you. I do sincerely apologize. I understand that Tchort has attempted to compensate you for the—inconvenience.”
The Director lifted a clipboard from a plastic slot on the wall. He shuffled through the papers clipped to it. “Ah, yes. I believe you know him as Vadim Kuleshov.”
“Oh, Vadim.” Noah brightened. “Yes, he was very kind to me, Mr. Gilgamesh. Everyone has been really, very kind to me. I didn’t mean to cause any trouble—earlier. I just bugged out. I think it’s my medication. It needs adjusted or something. I’ve been seeing some seriously weird ass shit. Excuse me. Crap.”
“I’m sure you have,” Gilgamesh said, with a thin smile. “Why don’t you have a seat, Mr. Preiss. We can discuss your—treatment.” Gilgamesh retook his own seat.
After a moment’s hesitation, Noah settled onto a chair near the door.
Gilgamesh leaned forward, his hands folded over his knees. “I know this must all seem rather confusing to you, Mr. Preiss. That’s to be expected, particularly in a case such as yours. The hospital nurses have tried to make things as easy for you as possible.”
Noah nodded. “Sir, if I could just speak to my father.”
“There is no speaking to your father, Mr. Preiss, or to anyone else you knew in the life you abandoned.”
“Abandoned? What do you mean—abandoned? You don’t mean—am I dead?”
“No, Mr. Preiss, you are certainly NOT dead.”
Tears rose in Noah’s eyes. “I—I hanged myself.”
“So I was told, Mr. Preiss, and that was a rather stupid thing to do, all things considered, but it may yet be—remedied.”
“Remedied?” Noah put a hand to his throat. “I’ve not got any bruises. Why haven’t I got any bruises?”
“You did have them, Mr. Preiss, but they are on the body you left behind.”
“On the body I left behind.” Noah shook his head. “This can’t be—real. This has to be a dream.”
“Sadly, it’s all too real, my brother. Let me explain what has happened to you. And then we can decide what must be done.”
Gilgamesh told Noah the truth about his “situation”. He had crossed, as they called it. Which meant, died, but he wasn’t dead. The part of him that our great Lord and Master had gifted him at his first death had transformed him into a new creature, one that defied the laws of mortal men. He was deathless—eternal—but, by his new nature, at the mercy of many evils, the greatest of which was an insatiable hunger. One that an untutored Small One of his ilk would have difficulty satisfying, particularly with the mark of a suicide on him. Worse still, because, by Law, he could not remain longer than ten days in the hospital, he now had to leave the one and only place of refuge.
“Dear God,” Noah said breathlessly, when Gilgamesh had finished. “My dad was right. I was going to Gehinnom.”by