The Ninth Circle

This post is different. I want to share with you a story – a fictional story. You see I’ve loved writing since before I can remember. I actually remember making up storybooks in kindergarten, so my passion goes back a long way. I created a course in high school where I worked on a novel (I never finished that one) and had a teacher review it and it counted toward my high school credits. I went to journalism school – only to drop out and become a banker – talk about a plot twist. 

This year I made a promise to myself to put myself out there more with my writing. And in doing so I entered a short story contest. This contest is an international contest called NYC Midnight. Over the course of three rounds writers are weeded out of the process. In the first round over 4500 writers submitted stories based on a prompt received at midnight on the first day and had 8 days to write a 2500 word short story. The writers were split into 150 heats (150 different prompts) and the top five stories from each heat was selected to move on to the second round. That is where we are right now, the second round starts tomorrow night and I have been selected to take part in it. The second round gives us only three days to write a 2000 word story with a new prompt, and if you are so lucky to make it to the final round you get 24 hours to write a 1500 word story based on your new prompt.

The story I wrote in 8 days in a genre I have never explored before, placed 4th in my heat of approximately 30 writers. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t proud. This post is the story. I often share my insights, my personal stories, etc – and here I want to give you something different. But if I may, my insight is this – don’t give up on the dreams you’ve harboured since kindergarten, you don’t have to go big, but keep your hand in it, it feels good and is important to have focuses that help shift your mind and perspective in different ways. Take chances where they present themselves. I read about this competition on a writing group I belong to on Facebook and decided it sounded fun. 

And so with that I want to share the story I wrote. 

The prompt I got was: Genre – Horror, Subject – House Arrest, Character – A Passerby

The Ninth Circle

Travis was twelve when he left. I watched out the window as he was taken away. I watch out that window every day to see if he will come back. But it doesn’t work that way.

Virgil takes care of me. He pushes back the curtains each morning so I can search outside. The yard is fenced with a hedge of caragana, the yellow blooms inviting you to seek what other wonders may live beyond the hedge. A large rosebush with soft pink blooms threatens to overtake the door, her scent wafting through the open window. I breath in and all of my bones settle with an ease I only feel at dawn.

Virgil walks to the kitchen and runs water into a kettle. He takes a match and holds the flame to the gas. This will not be enough to warm me. “Damn lightbulb, burned out again,” He mumbles rummaging in the drawer. We both know the lightbulbs aren’t in the drawer. But this is the dance of everyday.

The lightbulbs are kept on the third shelf on the west wall of the basement. There are twenty stairs down, turn right, twelve steps forward and there they are. I’ve memorized the route, I could draw a map, for someone else, anyone else to go down there. But Virgil doesn’t have a key to the basement, and only I can make the journey.

I look out the window with a sigh. Sylvia is passing by. She is my favorite. I’ve overheard her name as she has walked with friends. She lives close. She walks by every day. Her hair glows in the sunlight, the color of snow. I never knew someone so young to have such white hair, falling down her back in waves. Her hair gives her skin an effervescence. Her lips painted a deep red, and her eyes the color of charcoal. She is odd, and I have been paying attention to her.

She often looks at the hedge. Picking at the pods when the blooms mature. Once when she was younger she ventured beyond the hedge, but never as far as the rosebush. I wish she would. I wish I could make her go to the basement.

There aren’t many other people who walk this way. The street is quiet, few cars, and only a few people a day that pass by foot. Of them, Sylvia is the constant. I think Travis would have liked her.

“Go get a lightbulb from the basement, would ya?” Virgil interrupts my thought. It is the same line I have heard from him every day. There is never a please, never a “good morning Sadie, the lightbulb has burned out”.

Every day that damned light bulb burns out and every day at 8:05, Virgil, after searching the drawer, calls to me to get a new one.

Every damned day.

I’ve tried to find a way out of the loop. I’ve tried not going to the basement. I’ve tried leaving the kitchen in darkness. I even tried killing myself.

It was a desperate day. Travis had only been gone for a couple months then. I told Virgil I would get the lightbulb after my bath. I had no intention of going down those stairs, of opening the world below our feet.

I walked into the bathroom. The large, soft-pink, clawfoot tub was inviting. I filled it with lavender oils and scalding hot water. I took the razor, the one I use for my legs, with the pink daisies on the handle, and removed the blades. And as I sat in the water, my skin turning a bright red from the heat, I cut. I cut so many places. Across the wrists, along my throat. I watched as the blood poured from me, and at first the water color matched the tub, but shortly enough poured out of me that I don’t remember anything more.

I woke the next morning, Virgil opening the curtains so I could look out, without a scratch. I can die every day and still I have to go into that damned basement to get a lightbulb. Even death doesn’t offer me release.

Sylvia has passed down the street and I won’t see her again until she comes back this way later this afternoon. I think she is the same age as Travis, but I can’t be sure about the passing of time.

I’m going to get it over with. I’m going to do what I did the first day, I’m going to the basement to get the lightbulb. Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe everything will.

The door to the basement is in the hallway. I wear the key around my neck. Bracing for the onslaught I place the key in the lock and turn.

The cold is the first thing I feel. Icy fingers crawling up my spine and resting at my throat. The harsh cold makes it hard to breathe. But this is just the beginning.

The door is heavy, it doesn’t want to be opened, and I don’t want to open it. We are both unwilling players in this game. I heave and the door opens slowly, with a large creak. There is a howl of wind that washes over me, battering me back. The basement doesn’t want me.

“Go get me that lightbulb girl,” Virgil yells over the sound of the wind. He stands behind me, barring my escape.

“Sadie, Sadie, please, where are you? Help me,’ Travis calls to me. His voice is weak, but I hear him and I try to run forward as the wind buffets me back.

“Travis, I’m coming.” I push myself past the threshold to the first stair. I remind myself there are twenty stairs. Turn left, then twelve steps. As soon as I have the lightbulb I will be released.

I force my feet to move and take the next step. Hands reach up from around the stairs and grab at my feet, tearing at my laces, and leaving scars on my legs. I break free of the hands, their nails slick with my blood.

“Sadie, please, please don’t do this,” Travis cries. I lurch forward, I need to get to him. I need to stop him from going down here in the first place.

As my foot falls to the next stair the hands pull at my skirt and my hair. I’ve tried shaving my head, or wearing different clothes. But every morning my thick black locks reappear, and only one outfit hangs in my closet.

Finally, on the third stair the hands disappear and the wind stops. The icy fingers at my throat squeeze as my feet sink into a putrid slush. I work my legs to pull myself out of the thick sludge, the smell makes me nauseous and I swallow back the bile in my throat while grasping at the invisible fingers at my neck. Turning I push myself down to the next stair which holds a simple locket, hanging on a gold chain. It is impossible to move from this stair until I pick up the locket and open it.

The task is simple, yet I am never prepared for what I will see. I take a deep breath and the icy fingers relax their hold. My fingers grasp the locket. It is hot, and burns my hand, leaving a red brand where it lays in my palm. I work at the clasp and a projection appears, as if saying “Sadie, this is your life”. We are little, Travis is 3, I am 7. He is running through the sprinkler on the lawn and giggling. I push him down. Every time, I push him down.

Travis is 8 and I am 12. We are playing soccer in the yard, he comes for the ball and I reach my arm out and push him down. Every time, I push him down.

Travis is 12 and I am 16, I am in the kitchen and notice the lightbulb has burned out. I call to him, asking him to get a lightbulb from the basement. He is scared of the basement, always has been. I bully him into going, and as he reaches the threshold of the stairs I push him down. Every time, I push him down.

Travis is 12 and I am 16, he is being loaded onto a gurney, his lifeless body gets covered by a sheet. I watch as they take him out of the house and close the door. A door that has never been opened since.

The projection ends, and tears are streaming down my face. “I’m so sorry, Travis, I’m so sorry I pushed you. Please don’t make me get the lightbulb, please let me go.”

I know I’m allowed to go to the next step, but each step produces a new punishment. Taking me deeper into the basement.

“Go get that lightbulb, girl!” Virgil yells behind me. I couldn’t move back up the stairs if I wanted to, that’s not how this works.

I take the next step and am ambushed by my parents. “You are a useless, dirty girl. We deserve better than you. Thank god we have Travis.” They are words I heard almost every day of my life before, and they are words I continue to hear in this place every day. Discounting my worth, making me feel useless and soiled. The tears come harder as I think about how innocent Travis really was, it was never his fault, I was taught to hate him.

I tear free from the stair and continue moving forward until I hit fire. Regardless of how many times I am consumed by fire it never gets better. The heat boils my skin, as blood and tears race to extinguish the flames. I fight forward through the flames until I reach the final steps, my feet come out from under me and I slide across the floor until I’m no longer on the floor but in it. The floor having turned to solid ice, I’m stuck in the ice, fighting to gain air, to gain a foothold, to push myself up. Scratched into the surface is the word Caina. I see below me are further levels of ice, others stuck trying to claw their way out. The ice should feel welcome after walking through fire, but it burns. My mind goes back to the projection from the locket.

Pushing Travis, over and over again, like a broken record. I am a dirty, useless girl. I am nothing, and he was meant to be everything. And as the dirty useless girl I am I can’t find my way out of this, out of this basement, out of this house and the prison it has become for me. I am doomed to repeat this day over and over, going down the stairs to get the lightbulb.

I need a replacement. I need to find someone to take my place. It is the only thing I haven’t tried over the years. I know that Virgil can’t take my place, he is a neutral, a facilitator, he is not meant to hold the key.

But I have a favourite, and she walks by this house twice a day, every day, and all I have to do is find a way to get her to come to the door.

I push and punch my way through the ice until I reach the surface, find my bearing and walk the final steps to the shelf. As soon as my hand touches the lightbulb the ice disappears, the stairs become innocent wooden risers.

“You created this, Sadie, this is your place, no one else deserves this,” I hear Travis call to me as I run up the stairs. I place the lightbulb in Virgil’s hand and walk to the window.

Sylvia will be walking by again soon. I set my mind to this new task.

I can’t leave the house, that is part of my punishment, but there is nothing saying I can’t call out the window.

I hear Virgil approach me from behind, “the house doesn’t work that way. This is your prison, your arrest, you don’t get to trade with another.”

“You don’t make the rules Virgil, I can do this.” I push at the window, and it is stuck. I can feel the house working against me, forcing me to stay in, but I can’t. I run up the stairs to my room, remembering that the window is open there. I can smell the roses as I reach my door, as I enter the window slams shut.

Virgil is behind me, arms crossed as he watches me pace.

“Get out of here with those ‘I told you so’ eyes, Virgil. If you aren’t going to help me, then leave me.”

“I can’t help you, Sadie. This place is made for you, I am here only to serve as your guide. I am unable to do more.” He turns and I hear him head down the stairs to the kitchen.

“Make tea for Sylvia, because she’s coming over,” I call down. I look at my bedside table, the heavy lamp that sits on it should do. I pick it up and smash it against the window pane. Nothing. Over and over again, my desperation rising. At least she should be able to see me, hear the smashing, she will come. I am willing it to be.

In the distance I see Sylvia walking down the street. Right on time. I’m desperate to get her attention. Notice me in the window Sylvia.

“Sylvia,” I start yelling. I see her white hair blowing in the wind as she gets closer.

Smash. I throw the lamp at the window, not even a crack. I dig my fingers into the window frame, prying to get the window open. “Sylvia.”

She slows as she approaches the house, turning her gaze to the yellow blooms on the caragana hedge. “Sylvia, please, Sylvia.”

I pick up the lamp and smash it into the window over and over again.

Finally, Sylvia looks up at the house, smiles wistfully, and continues to walk. “Sylvia, no, please, over here, please, Sylvia,” tears are steaming down my face. I slump against the wall. My energy drained, my arms sore from throwing the lamp, my fingers bleeding from where I pried at the window frame.

I close my eyes and fall asleep.

I open my eyes and am in my bed, Virgil has pushed back the curtains to allow the sunlight to wash over me. I smell the roses from the crack in the window, and my bones settle with an ease I only feel at dawn.

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