Even with his iced tea, his air conditioner turned up to full blast, and two fans blowing on him, it was too hot. Sweat dripped down from his bangs and clouded his eyes. A headache had started behind his left eye, where it always started. He knew as the heat (and the screaming) grew in intensity, it would move around to his other eyes, then his temples. Before long, he'd have a full-on, raging migraine.
He wiped his face with his handkerchief, a gift from the wardens of the third ring, shook his head and tried to concentrate on his paperwork. He was always amazed at how much there was for him to sign. His resources were theoretically infinite, but what with the squabbles between administrators, the guards and wardens constantly requesting transfers to other rings, and the requests for vacation time, he barely had time to himself.
He looked down on a report from the second ring and tried to understand it. Somehow, two inmates had conceived and birthed a child. It was theoretically impossible, but it had happened nonetheless, and now the wardens were requesting instructions on what to do with the damned kid.
His head throbbed and he reached for his tea but found it was now as warm as blood. He put it down and pressed a button on his desk.
"Miss Screwtape," he said. "Bring me another mint tea. Extra ice."
In the fifteen minutes it took her to make the tea and bring it to him, his head felt like it was splitting open. He took the drink, gratefully, but when he lifted it to his lips, he saw the ice had already melted, and the glass was steaming hot.
He cursed and threw the glass at her. It gave him no small amount of satisfaction when she yelped and sprang from the room. He immediately regretted it, partly because she was beautiful and he didn't like seeing the hurt look in her lovely eyes, but mostly because he wanted a letter typed up and would now have to do it himself.
As the screams increased in his pounding ears, he pulled out his old, manual typewriter and rolled a sheet of paper into it. His damp fingers stuck to the dry paper. One letter at a time, he hunted and pecked through the memo, muttering the words to himself as he went.
"In reference... To my request... From... June... 1780... I wish again... To ask..." he said, then paused. Gritting his teeth he typed the next word. "Humbly. For the heating... Elements... To be reduced to... Half power... With all speed."
He typed a quick, formal closing and signed his name. Then he put it in his outbox for Miss Screwtape to send up the tube. Well, she'd send it up when he forgave him. That could be a while. When she eventually did send it, there wouldn't be an answer. He hadn't received any since... Well, forever.
Meanwhile, the pounding in his head grew and grew. The screaming rang in his ears. Sweat drenched his clothes and dripped onto his work. He couldn't take it anymore.
Grabbing his jacket and hat off his coat hook, he stalked out into the lobby. He turned quickly to Miss Screwtape, who impertinently avoided his eyes.
"I'm going to do something about the heat," he said, and walked into his private elevator.
As soon as the doors closed, the heat and the screaming faded. Relishing in the quiet stillness, he pushed the "up" button.
* * * * *
Isabelle looked down at the grizzled old man, her hands clumsily working a knife over the onion. She knew there was a proper way to cut an onion, had even tried to do it right a few times, but eventually gave up. Soon, she had reduced it to a tear-inducing mess on the cutting board.
"I'm sorry, Mr....?"
"Scratch. Melvin Scratch."
"Mr. Scratch. It's just... Well, I think I'd remember hiring a detective."
He smiled and lifted a red, leather briefcase onto the counter next to the box of frozen pierogies. She didn't think he was carrying a briefcase when she let him in, but maybe she simply hadn't noticed. She was always so flustered at mealtimes.
He snapped the case open with two clicks and slid a pink piece of paper in front of her. It was an invoice (she knew because the word INVOICE was printed in big, block letters at the top) for "investigative services." Her signature was at the bottom.
Now that she thought about it, she did kind of remember. She pictured herself sitting in his office. Looking at him from across his wooden desk. The venetian blinds casting thin strips of light across his face. She cried while describing her husband's strange behavior, and he offered her a white handkerchief to wipe her tears.
Or was that a movie she saw when she was a child?
"You were right to be concerned about your husband, Ms. Penske," he said, taking a stack of photographs out of the briefcase.
She didn't want to see them. She didn't want to know. Why had she hired a detective when it was so much better to be ignorant?
There was a hiss on the stove, and she was relieved to see the pot was boiling over, the water splashing on the hot burner. She started to turn the heat down, but changed her mind. Instead, she quickly broke the box of frozen pierogies open with her thumbnail. The dumplings splashed into the foaming water and calmed it. Cooled it. She watched them settle on the bottom and wondered what would happen if she put her hand in and touched them.
Not her husband. Not Carl. He knew how much she loved him, how much she had given up to make him a happy home to come to every night. She thought for a moment about those nights he came home late. It didn't happen very often, and he said he'd been out drinking with coworkers. Still...
"Ms. Penske," the detective said. She jumped in surprise. Somehow she thought she imagined him. "You don't have to look at the pictures if you don't want to. However, you paid me a considerable amount of money to find out if your husband is cheating on you. Don't you want to see?"
She tightened her fingers around the handle of the oven door, fought the urge to turn and look, but couldn't help herself.
There was a photo of Carl. Her Carl. The man she had pledged to love, honor, and obey. Her soulmate. The man she had given up her career for, given the best years of her life to. The father of the baby growing inside her, making her fat, ugly. There was Carl on top of her baby sister Tricia.
Her only sister. Her only husband. Naked.
Mr. Scratch flipped to the next picture.
Tricia and Carl in Isabelle's bed. Her marriage bed.
Another picture. This time Carl was with another woman. An older woman. Isabelle gasped with shock.
"My mother?" she said. "But... But she's forty two!"
And the picture seemed to move, like a movie. No, it couldn't be moving. Mr. Scratch had just flipped to a new picture too fast for her eyes to see. But the pictures still moved in his hands; she could hear them. Carl was jerked over Isabelle's mother with joyous grunts, then he stopped and slid his face down between her legs.
"That can't be Carl," she said. "He never... Does that."
And a strange, gnawing hatred sprang up into her gut. Mr. Scratch's voice cut into her, making her eyes leap away from the image.
"I also have photographs of your husband in sexual liaisons with coworkers. Men."
"Men?" she whispered.
"Yes, he seems to like it when other men penetrate him from-"
And Isabelle realized she was about to become ill. No, she thought, not in front of him. She turned away to face the stove, trying to control her breathing. The pot was boiling again, the steam washed over her face.
She threw up right into it. Her stomach contorted into knots again and again until there was nothing left.
There was a cool hand on her back. Someone was holding her hair away from her face.
"There, there," said Scratch from behind her. "Let it all out."
He handed her a dish towel, and she wiped her mouth. Her breathing calmed. She sucked in the warm air. A cold determination crept into her heart.
"Get out," she said. "Get out!"
She spun around, ready to yell at him, incoherent with rage, but he wasn't there. The door was still open, but everything else was gone. The pictures, the briefcase, even Scratch himself had disappeared.
"It wasn't real," she said, her voice trembling with relief. "I'm just going crazy. It wasn't real."
She glanced down and saw the small slip of pink paper still resting on the counter, the invoice with her name signed at the bottom. Tears welled up in her eyes as she crumpled it up and threw it at the stove, where it touched a burner and disappeared in a flash of flame and ash.
There was a sound of gravel being crushed outside the open front door. The wheels of a car were coming up her driveway. Carl had come home from work.
She looked down at the stove again. Next to the bits of pink and grey ash was the pot, splashed with her vomit. It was starting to boil again. She turned off the stove and looked to the side where a block of knives stood. Carl had insisted on good iron knives, not the stainless steel ones that became dull so easily. She hand-washed and sharpened them all, every night after dinner.
She slid the largest knife out of the block.
* * * * *
The elevator reached his floor and dinged as the doors open. He felt the heat wash over him like a wave and he quickly removed his hat and coat. The screaming had grown so loud, Miss Screwtape was wearing a pair of fuzzy pink earmuffs to block it out, the strap sitting just behind her horns.
She looked up at him, and he saw she was still annoyed. He was about to motion to her to remove her earmuff so she could apologize when he heard a sound from above. It was a scream like all the others pounding at his ears, but this one was different. It was fresh. It didn't have the mundane, agonized quality of those whose screams came to him day after day. It was filled with shock and horror, with the realization of where she was.
The scream grew fainter as it fell below to join the others. Then, as quickly as ice thrown into hot water, the heat diminished. The screaming dropped to nearly inaudible levels. And a sigh of relief went up from the pits of Hell.
Miss Screwtape smiled at him and took off her earmuffs.
"Productive day, sir?"
He nodded and watched as she rolled up the letter he had typed and fed it into the pneumatic tube that went "upstairs."
"I don't know why you bother; he never answers." she said, then shot him a questioning look. "You think He's still up there?"
He tried to think back thousands of years to when he last saw Him. He couldn't remember what God looked like, wasn't even sure those memories were even real. Could he have imagined Heaven? Could he have imagined his fall from grace?
He shrugged and walked past her into his office where the piles of paperwork were waiting for him. He sighed. It never ended.
As he sat down to deal with his work, he felt the slightest trickle of sweat drip down the back of his neck. It was already getting warmer.