Chapter no 43

Hell Bent

Alex had tried to prepare herself for the fall—the fingers clawing at her, choking her, dragging her down—but this time, she splashed backward into water. The sea was warm around her, and when the reaching hands never came, she made herself open her eyes. She saw bubbles rushing past, and saw the others—Darlington’s dark coat behind him, Turner with his arms tight to his body, Dawes’s red hair like a banner of war.

She glimpsed light ahead and tried to kick toward it, felt herself rising. Her head broke the surface and she gasped for air. The sky above was flat and bright, that murky shade of nothing. Ahead, she saw a swath of what might have been a beach. Behind her, a wall of dark clouds blanketed the horizon.

Where were the others? The sea was almost unpleasantly hot, and the water smelled wrong, metallic. She was afraid to put her head back under. She didn’t want to see something with scales and snapping jaws undulating toward her.

She swam for shore, her limbs moving gracelessly. She’d never been a strong swimmer, but the current was nudging her toward land. It was only when her feet touched bottom, when she was able to stand, that she really looked at the water. It had left her skin stained red. She’d been swimming in a sea of blood.

Alex’s stomach seized. She bent double and retched. How much of it had she swallowed?

But when she looked down, the blood was gone and her clothes were dry. She turned back to look at the horizon and the sea was gone too. She was standing on the sidewalk outside of her old apartment building. Ground Zero. She had plastic grocery bags in her hands.

Alex felt that horrible sense of vertigo, real life sliding away, coming apart like a dream—Darlington, Dawes, all of it. Just a daydream. Her mind had been wandering, spinning out stories, but already the details were fading. This was real life. The pebbled texture of the stairs. The thump of bass coming from someone’s apartment, the crash and gunfire of Halo from their own place.

Alex didn’t want to go home. She never wanted to go home. She liked to linger at the supermarket, sailing down the clean aisles on one of the big carts, even though she never filled it, listening to whatever awful music they were playing, skin pimpling in the air-conditioning. But inevitably, she had to go back out into the parking lot, heat steaming up off the asphalt, and wriggle into the cramped little Civic if she was lucky—if Len wanted to be an asshole about it that day, she’d have to go wait for the bus.

Now she climbed the steps with her bags of Doritos and lunch meat and the big boxes of cereal she had found on sale, and pushed open the front door. It was better when Hellie came with her, but Hellie had been in a mood today, tired and cranky, giving Alex one-word answers, her head someplace else.

Someplace better. Hellie came from a different life from the rest of them. Real parents. Real schools. A real house with a backyard and a pool. Hellie was vacationing here. She’d gotten on the wrong train, ended up on a terrible field trip, and she was making the best of it. But Alex understood that, one day, she would wake up and Hellie would be gone. She’d be done. Alex even wished it for Hellie on her more generous days. But it wasn’t easy to know that maybe Hellie thought she was too good for the flimsy balsa-wood life Alex had managed to stick together. Shelter, food, weed, friends who didn’t always feel like friends. It was the best she could do, but that wasn’t true for Hellie.

Alex bumped her hip through the door and entered the apartment, the smell of pot heavy, the air hazy with smoke. The noise from the TV was overwhelming, the ceaseless pound of Halo, Len and Betcha and Cam shouting at each other on the couch, Betcha’s pit bull, Loki, asleep at his feet. A bag of Cheetos was open on the table beside a blue glass bong, an empty baggie, Len’s vape pen. Hellie was curled in the big papasan chair

with the taped-together cushion, wearing a long T-shirt and underwear, as if she hadn’t bothered to get dressed, just rolled right out of bed. She was staring at the TV listlessly and didn’t even glance at Alex when she started unloading groceries in their tiny kitchen.

Alex was unpacking a jar of Ragú when she saw the bloody mass of fur near the sliding glass doors that led to the balcony. The jar slid from her hand and shattered on the linoleum.

“The fuck is wrong with you?” Len said over the noise from the game.

This couldn’t be right. She was seeing things. She was misunderstanding.

Alex knew she should get down the hall and check the cage, but she couldn’t quite make her legs work. There was a piece of glass lodged in the side of her foot, tomato sauce on her flip-flops. She slipped them off, brushed the glass away, made herself take one step, then another, felt the wiry spring of the carpet beneath her feet. No one’s head turned as she passed, and she had the eerie sense that she hadn’t walked into the apartment at all.

The hallway was quiet. They’d never hung art or photos on the walls, except for a Green Day poster they’d taped up after someone put a fist through the drywall during a party.

Their bedroom looked the way it always did. The battered old TV stand she’d stuffed with paperbacks, mostly sci-fi and fantasy. Anne McCaffrey, Heinlein, Asimov. The futon mattress on the floor, the old blue-and-red bedspread crumpled up. Sometimes it was her and Len in the bed, sometimes all three of them, sometimes just her and Hellie. Those were the best times. And by the windowsill, Babbit’s cage. It was empty. The door was open.

Alex stood with her back pressed against the wall. It felt like she had cracked down the middle. She and Hellie had gotten the little flop-eared bunny at a pet adoption outside of Ralphs. They’d lied on the application, about where they lived, how much money they made, everything. Because once Alex held that soft white body in her hands, she’d wanted it more than anything. When they’d brought him home, Len had just rolled his eyes and said, “I don’t want to smell that thing. I don’t like living in shit.”

Alex had been tempted to say she had bad news for him, but she was so grateful he hadn’t gone into some kind of tantrum, she and Hellie just scurried down the hall and shut the door. They’d spent the whole day playing with the rabbit. It didn’t do much, but there was something about being near it, about feeling its heart rate slow in her hands, knowing that this living thing trusted her, that made Alex feel better about everything.

They’d started calling him Babbit Rabbit because they didn’t have a name for him, and then it just stuck.

“That thing looks like bait,” Betcha had laughed once.

“Cheapest way to keep a bitch happy,” Len had replied. He got annoyed when they talked about Babbit Rabbit or crooned at him. “Better than getting one of them knocked up.”


Alex walked back down the hall. Nothing had changed. No one had moved. She had become a phantom. The heap of fur and blood lay unmoving on the carpet. It was unmistakable now that she made herself look, really look. A little dead body. There was blood on Loki’s muzzle.

“What happened?” she asked. No one seemed to hear her.


Hellie turned her head slowly, as if the effort cost her something. She lifted her golden shoulders. Always she looked like a sun-burnished bit of treasure, something precious. Even now, slack and dead-eyed, her voice flat when she said, “We wanted to see if he and Loki would play.”

Alex knelt by the little body. He had been torn open, and there was almost nothing left inside him. His fur was still soft in the places it wasn’t sticky with blood. Alex had loved to stroke his ears with her thumb. They were mangled now, the cartilage exposed in stringy lines. His one remaining pink eye stared at nothing.

“Don’t be shitty about it,” Len said. “It was an accident.”

Betcha looked guilty and said, “We didn’t think Loki would get so excited.”

“He’s a dog,” Alex said. “What the fuck did you think he was going to do?”

“He couldn’t help it.”

“I know,” said Alex. “I know he couldn’t.” She didn’t blame Loki.

Alex scooped up Babbit Rabbit’s remains and went to the kitchen. She cleaned off her flip-flops and shoveled the sauce and glass into a corner.

“Oh, come on,” said Len. “Rabbits are basically vermin. You’re crying over a rat.”

But Alex wasn’t crying. Not yet. She didn’t want to cry here. She took Len’s keys off the counter without asking. She could pay that tab later.

She tucked what was left of the rabbit’s body into a Ziploc bag and went out to the Civic. She hoped Hellie would follow. All the way down the steps, across the patch of dry lawn, the sidewalk, the street, she hoped. She sat in the driver’s seat a long time, still hoping.

Then, at last, she turned the key and drove. She took the 405 through the valley, past the Galleria and Castle Park with its batting cages, climbing the hill. That was what they’d always called it, “the hill.” Alex didn’t even know the name of the mountain range she was crossing, only that it was the great divider between the San Fernando Valley and the west side. You could stand on Mulholland and look west to the dream of the ocean, museums, mansions. Or east to the valley and the consolation prize of smoggy days and cheap condos. The California dream for people who couldn’t afford Beverly Hills or Bel Air or Malibu.

She got off at Skirball and took the winding road up to the crest of Mulholland Drive. She didn’t really know where she was going. She just wanted to be up somewhere high.

It wasn’t until she was parked in a big lot next to a church, gazing down at the hazy basin of the city with that little plastic-wrapped body in her hands, that she cried, big bawling sobs that no one but the oaks and the greasewood bushes could hear. She wasn’t going to bury Babbit Rabbit here. She was afraid some coyote would dig him up and have a last go at him. But she’d needed to be someplace beautiful, someplace clean, where there was no history for her to stumble over.

Alex couldn’t name what she felt. She only knew she never should have brought Babbit Rabbit home. When Hellie pointed him out in the cages, she

never should have picked him up, never should have held his small body against her heart. He should have belonged to some kid who lived in Encino, who would have given him a real name and brought him to class for show-and-tell, who would have kept him safe. Alex had stolen from her mother. She’d lied and cheated and broken a lot of laws. But she knew that bringing Babbit Rabbit home was the worst, most selfish thing she’d ever done. Nothing good belonged with her.

She watched the sun set and the lights spread across the valley.

“You could go anywhere,” she said to the night air. But she wouldn’t.

She never did.

She wiped her eyes and crossed the road and buried Babbit Rabbit in the pretty landscaped yard beside the gate that belonged to some private school. She shook him out of his plastic bag so that his body could decompose and feed the roots of the eugenia hedges.

Alex thought about lying down in the middle of Mulholland, right across the white dashes that split the road like a spine. She thought about some mother driving home with her kids in the back of the car, what she would see in her headlights in the moment before impact. She found herself floating, up over the pavement, the empty grid of the parking lot, the Civic idling with its driver’s-side door still open. She was drifting over the chaparral, the white sage and ancient oaks, over the houses built into the mountain, fearless on their stilts, their swimming pools glowing in the dusk, then higher still as the lights grew smaller, a garden of bright flowers, laid out neatly in their beds.

How long did she remain there, untethered and safe from feeling? At some point, the sun began to rise, blotting out the stars in a wash of pink light. But the city below was not one she knew, not one she understood. She smelled autumn leaves and rain, the mineral smudge of wet concrete. She saw a wide-open park, paths crossing it in star-shaped patterns, three churches, their spires like lightning rods in search of a storm. The grass was green, the sky gray and gentle with clouds; the leaves rustled red and gold in their branches.

A breeze sighed through the trees, carrying the scent of apples and fresh bread, of any good thing you could want. Every surface, every stone,

seemed to gleam with soft light.

She saw figures approaching from the corners of the park—no, the green. She did know this place. Was she dreaming again, or had she woken? She knew those people, found their names in her memories. Dawes, Turner, Darlington. Tripp hadn’t made it. That was her fault. She remembered that too.

As they drew closer, Alex could see something had changed in their pilgrim raiment. Dawes still wore the scholar’s robes, but now they gleamed golden like the loris’s eyes. Turner’s cloak of feathers was woven with coppery oak leaves. The prince’s white armor suited Darlington better than it had Tripp, but now he wore a horned helm. And Alex? She held out her arms. Her steel bracers were emblazoned with snakes.

She knew where they were meant to go. Back to the orchard. Back to the library.

Slowly, they made their way down the street that would have been Elm, past Hopper and Berkeley. There was no sense of the sinister now, no Yale scraped clean of beauty. Instead it was as if the university had been rendered by some hack painter, a scene from a snow globe, a dream of a college. She could see people eating and chatting and laughing in the amber warmth behind the thick leaded windows of the dining halls. She knew that, should she choose to enter, she would be made welcome.

The library didn’t look like a library anymore, or a cathedral, or an orchard. It rose in gleaming silver spires, an impossible castle, a palace of air and light. She met Darlington’s eyes. These were the places they’d been promised. The university of peace and plenty. The magic of fairy tales that demanded only wishes, not blood or sacrifice. The Women’s Table shone bright as a mirror, and Alex saw Mercy in it, pacing back and forth.

“Are we … are we in heaven?” Dawes whispered. Turner shook his head. “No heaven I know about.”

“Don’t forget,” warned Darlington. “Demons feed on joy, right alongside pain and sorrow.”

The doors to the palace opened and a creature emerged. It had to be eight feet tall, and it had the head of a white rabbit but the body of a man. Between its ears, a crown of fire blazed red. It was as naked as Darlington

had been in the golden circle, but the symbols on its body glowed ruddy like banked embers.

“Anselm,” Alex said.

The rabbit laughed. “Call me by my true name, Wheelwalker.” “Asshole?” Alex ventured.

The creature shifted, and he was Anselm again, human in appearance, clothed. He wasn’t in a suit this time but his casual weekend best—jeans, a cashmere sweater, an expensive watch on his wrist, a picture of effortless wealth. Darlington without Black Elm. Darlington without a soul.

“I liked watching Darlington kill you.”

Anselm grinned. “That was a mortal body. Weak and impermanent. I cannot be killed because I do not live. But I will.”

Alex saw there was a leash in his hands, and when he tugged on it, three creatures crawled forward on hands and knees. Their pale bodies were emaciated, a clattering of bones barely held together by sinew. Alex couldn’t quite tell if they were human, and then the wretched details locked into place—one older, flesh sagging, hair cut in a gray crew cut; one young and frail, his curls patchy in places, his gaunt features haunted by the memory of beauty; and one woman, breasts shrunken, sores around her mouth, her yellow hair matted and clumped.

Carmichael, Blake, and Hellie. Around their throats they each wore a golden yoke like the one that had circled Darlington’s neck, each attached to a golden chain held by Anselm.

How harmless they looked, how frightened, but they were demons just the same.

“Such sorry hounds,” Anselm said. “They will starve until they feed on the suffering of the dead. Or until they pass back through the portal to pursue you once more. Then they will eat until they are full and feed upon your friends and companions. This is the demon’s dream. A land of plenty. I would be glad to grant it to them.” He paused and smiled, the expression tender, beatific, Jesus on a birthday card. “Unless hell’s price is paid. Daniel Arlington’s soul was rightfully claimed by this place. He is one of us and must serve his eternity here.”

“I’m willing,” said Darlington.

“For fuck’s sake, at least try to negotiate,” said Turner.

“There’s nothing to negotiate,” said Dawes. “He doesn’t belong here.”

Anselm dipped his head in agreement. “That’s true. He stinks of goodness. But not all of you do.”

“You don’t need to be cute about it,” said Alex. “They all know you mean me.”

Anselm’s teeth were white and even. “You’ve heard their hearts. You’ve seen through their eyes. They’re all riddled with guilt and shame, but not you, Wheelwalker. Your only regret is for the girl you couldn’t save, not for the men you murdered. You have more remorse in your heart for a dead rabbit than for all those boys you beat into nothing.”

It was true. Alex had known that from the start. She’d said as much to Mercy the night before.

“No,” said Dawes. She cut her hand through the air. “No to all of it. You can’t have Alex. Or Darlington. No one stays.”

None go free. Alex felt an ache in her throat. Courageous Dawes, who only wanted her family whole. And Alex was glad to be part of that family. Even if it couldn’t last.

“You’ve been brave enough,” Alex said. “This isn’t your battle to fight.”

“You don’t belong here either. No matter what that … that thing says.”

“You’re so very certain, scholar,” Anselm said. “But the Gauntlet was built to bring her here, a bloody beacon, a signal fire.”

Alex kept her face impassive, but risked a glance at Mercy in the reflection. What was Anselm talking about? Some new trick to delay them, some new strategy?

“You fought to keep me out of hell,” Alex said. “All of us.” He had done everything he could to prevent them from discovering the Gauntlet and rescuing Darlington.

“I didn’t understand what you were, Wheelwalker. Oh, I understood your appeal. An interesting plaything, a collection of parlor tricks, an infinite capacity for pain. But I didn’t see the truth of you. I couldn’t understand how you escaped my wolves. Not until you took his soul into your body.”

“He’s lying,” said Dawes.

Turner shook his head. He could always tell the difference, even in the underworld. “He isn’t.”

“You know you aren’t the first pilgrims to walk this path,” said Anselm. That was when Alex understood why the Gauntlet and those who had dared walk it had been scrubbed from the books, why they’d made sure no one knew about the extraordinary gateway built into the library’s walls. For

the first time since Darlington had returned, Alex felt real fear creeping in. “They made a deal, didn’t they?” she asked.

Anselm winked. “The only thing a demon loves more than a puzzle is a bargain.”

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