FILTH AND DUST

The creaking panels of the basement floor gave way. A demon emerged, maybe thirty years old, with pointed ears and sharp fingernails. This woman who arose from the filth and dust had a complexion that was a pallid, buttery gray.

I didn’t know what to make of her. I was stoned out of my mind and couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten. Maybe it was leftover pizza yesterday morning, but I couldn’t be sure.

The demon woman had short black hair that fell in jagged pieces, like she cut it herself in the dark. The hair matched her tattered robe. I say robe, but to call what she was wearing clothing would be inaccurate.

She crept toward me through the cobwebs and trash that decorated my underground dwelling. Gross, I know. I was thirty years old myself and still lived in someone’s basement.

“Stay right there,” I said. “You don’t have shoes on. You’re gonna step on something.”

She didn’t respond. She just stared at me with haunting black eyes. Then her pupils rolled back, and she fell to the floor. I stumbled forward through the mess to see if she was all right.

When I knelt down, she twitched and made these low-frequency guttural sounds, like a senile cat growling at prey in a dream.

When she woke up, I asked her where she came from.

“I escaped from hell,” she said.

“Tell me about it. I’m going through some shit myself.”

“What?”

“Never mind. Let me get you something warmer to wear.” I gave her one of my hoodies and some sweatpants. She refused to put on socks.

“You live here?” she asked.

“Hey, don’t look so impressed,” I said.

She looked around, obviously disgusted with the surroundings. “At least it isn’t Lucifer’s Palace. I’d rather be anywhere but there. Thought I’d never leave.”

The hoodie was baggy on her, but she didn’t seem to mind. Despite her crazy hair and ashen skin, she looked pretty ordinary in my sweats. Less like a minion of Satan, I mean.

“So is that like a brothel or something. Lucifer’s—?”

“A what? You don’t believe me, do you? You know, you try to be straightforward with people, and it never works.” She shook her head, now searching the pockets of her new clothes. She pulled out a receipt. “What’s this?”

“Let me see.” I grabbed it and uncrumpled the paper. “Ah, Chipotle. I got a burrito last week.”

“Burrito. Is that food?”

“Yeah.” I gave her a sideways look. “Of course it’s food. I don’t know what kind of highbrow stuff they serve at Lucifer’s whatever, but—”

“Palace,” she repeated.

“Do you want me to get you one? A burrito, I mean. I don’t have much money, but we can totally split one. They’re huge anyway.”

So we each ate our half-burrito. She wasn’t into the guac. “It’s good. Try it,” I said. “It’s from an avocado. It’s like a fruit.”

“I don’t eat anything green, especially not with that texture.”

“So what color things do you eat?”

“Red.”

“Okay …”

After the burritos, she got sleepy again. So I made up the bed for her. I crashed on the couch. When I woke up, I found her wrapped up in my comforter on the floor, snoring away at the foot of the couch.

I never met anyone who liked to sleep as much as me. My doctor said it’s part of my depression. That I sleep to escape the pain of everyday life. I think he’s right. But who wouldn’t want to escape a dingy old basement like this?

I couldn’t hold down a job. I was so broke. There was a time, though, when I could remember having it all. With each day, that memory gets more faded.

“Why are you sad?”

“Are you going to tell me your name yet or what?” I said, sidestepping the question.

“It’s Iqbal.”

“How do you spell it?”

“I don’t know. I’ve only ever heard it.”

“I’m Bert.” She didn’t say anything. “Like Bert and Ernie,” I said. “Ever see Sesame Street?”

“Sesame. Is that a food too?”

We continued to have stupid conversations like this. I’d ask her if she knew about something, and she’d act like an alien. This girl was committed, I’ll give her that. She was also kind of pleasant in a way. Her behavior, I mean. She had a calm presence about her. Easygoing, almost—as far as demons go.

She really must not have wanted me to call the authorities, because she wouldn’t tell me details about where she was from or how she got here. It didn’t matter. I wouldn’t have reported her anyway. I liked having someone around to talk to. It had been a long time since I had someone close by to interact with.

After a while, she seemed to be making herself comfortable. She started making the place her own, cleaning up and organizing. Even made up a little corner for herself. Everything was cool until one day I woke up and she was gone. She wasn’t the only thing that was gone. My bicycle was gone too.

She returned, like, six hours later, soaked from the rain. “Where were you? And where’s my bike?”

“I sold it. I rode it around for a while, and then I sold it.”

“How did you know how to ride it?”

“We have bicycles in hell. Where do you think I’m from, space?”

“Why did you sell it then?”

“After riding for a while, I got hungry. So I sold it to get money for food. Here. I didn’t use all the money. You can have the rest.”

When she handed me a wad of cash, I felt a little better. I hardly ever rode the bike anyway. And now I could pay the rest of my rent.

“Did you have a hard time selling it? The bike was kind of old.”

“Not at all.” She said, wringing out her hair.

Over the next few weeks this became a regular thing. She’d disappear and return with stacks of money, having sold some random thing that I didn’t use anymore. In no time I was caught up on all my bills with cash to spare, and my living space was miraculously decluttered. With more room and fewer disgusting pieces of garbage all over the place, the basement was actually turning into a pretty nice living space.

One day—I think we were both feeling kind of good with the influx of money and food and space—we were getting kind of playful with each other. I finally cracked Iqbal’s stoic demeanor. We had some bananas from the market, and I was going on this rant about how I kind of hated bananas, but I always got them anyway because of how utilitarian they were as a fruit. I was like, “You know, bananas are awful. They don’t really taste that good. They go bad within, like, a day of getting them. And they’re shaped like dicks. They’re, like, the worst fruit.”

She half-smiled. “Why do you get them then?”

“They’re just so practical. They’re portable—they come with their own case. They’re easy to eat, high in potassium. Even though they taste kind of whatever on their own, they mix perfectly with other things like chocolate. They’re perfect for a lot of pragmatic reasons, but literally every other fruit tastes better than them, and most other fruits don’t look like giant erections.”

“What’s so bad about giant erections?”

Anyway, you probably wouldn’t believe me when I say that this idiotic conversation led to some pretty heavy-duty flirting for, like, the first time since Iqbal arrived from the depths of god knows where. She was such a bizarre person that I never really expected to even become friends with her let alone get to touch her or do anything physical with her. But I guess I was wrong. I’m always very wrong about everything.

She wanted to have sex. And we tried. But I couldn’t. She said it was okay, that all she really wanted to do was talk anyway and be close to me. She would always say, if anything changed, she would be there, ready. But she never put pressure on me. She saw how much pain I was in. How difficult it all was for me. She understood.

She ended up living with me, pretty much. She would go out and do her own thing, and she never gave me crap about wanting to stay in. I tried to articulate that it was difficult for me to go out in public. That I was too sad and anxious and afraid of most people.

We had our ups and downs. Most of the time was good, though. I think there was love there.

In one of our quiet, intimate moments—I remember she was playing with my hair—I brought up the topic of hell. I said, “When you were a demon, did you ever hurt people or torture them?”

She said flatly, “I still am a demon.” Then she paused, as if thinking about whether she should answer the rest. “And yes. I did.”

“Did you ever have to kill anyone?”

In a voice soaked in despair, she said, “In hell, everyone is already dead. You don’t have to be alive to be tortured.”

My depression got worse and worse. Iqbal offered me temporary distraction from it. But my personal demons always returned. Iqbal was no match for them. I also began to resent the fact that the only time I ever felt content was when I had another person around. This thought scared me, and it plunged me way back into the recesses of my own afflicted mind.

Not long after that conversation about hell, I brought up the topic again, to her obvious agitation. “If you had to, would you kill someone? Like if the situation demanded it?”

She sort of laughed, thinking maybe I wasn’t serious. “Depends on how much I disliked the person.”

Following a pregnant pause, I said, “What if you did like the person?”

She saw where this was going, and she got up close to me and grabbed my face, kissed me and said, “I see you are in pain, but I know you can come out of it. We can get you help. You just have to come outside with me. You just have to leave the basement.”

“I can’t leave the basement anymore. There’s only one way I’m leaving, and I want you to help me, Iqbal. Help me do it.”

“I’ve done many bad things, but I would not do that. Not to you.”

“It would not be a bad thing. If anything, it’s the only good thing left that you can do for me.”

As my condition deteriorated, it was obvious to me that she was undergoing many changes as well. With each day she seemed to get happier and healthier. She’d tell me stories about the fun things she’d do on the outside. She was becoming adventurous. There was more color to her skin. There was more tone in her voice. She would even start trying to give me advice, like she knew what I needed, like her words could help me. She started pushing the idea of me getting more fresh air, that I should try to get a job, that if I did things, even small things, that I’d feel more competent and self-sufficient.

I’d heard it all before. I knew the inevitable was coming.

She approached me one day and said the thing I was expecting. “Robert,” she said, “I won’t be staying here forever.”

“I know.”

It was a foregone conclusion that our relationship would soon be over, and I would never see her again.

On the day she was getting ready to leave, neither one of us was handling it well. After she packed up what was left of her things, she said to me, “All right, I’ll do it. If it will make this goodbye any easier, I’ll do it for you.” She stopped what she was doing. Tears filled her eyes. She sat down on the couch with me and held my hand. “I will make you something. A drink that we make in hell. It will put you into a temporary state of bliss, and what will follow will be nothingness.”

“Nothingness?”

“What do you think death is, Robert? Nothingness. The drink is what they give people who make their way to hell by mistake. It’s for people who didn’t do anything wrong, for people whose suffering isn’t their fault. It’s for people who have been misjudged by God. People who were dealt a bad hand. People who were made to think of themselves as evil and unworthy when they are really not. See, even God makes mistakes, and even Satan can be merciful.”

She spent the next half-hour concocting the drink. She told me not to watch her. She sent me to the bed to rest until it was ready.

She entered the bedroom holding a coffee mug filled with warm liquid. It was too dark for me to see what color it was. She handed it to me, kissed me one last time, and told me to drink. I did, and not long after that, the nothingness came.

After a while I found myself emerging from that nothingness. Groggy and confused, I looked around and saw a note taped to the dresser. It said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t do that for you. It saddens me that you thought I could. I love you so much, and I hope you can someday love yourself. We will see each other again. I promise.”

— Franco Amati is a speculative fiction writer from New York. You can find more of his work at francoamatiwrites.com