Voila! The second installment of Hell and Styx’s story, gloriously out of order. This one goes back to Hell’s childhood, describing the moment she first met Styx and learned who she really was. Read their first story here or visit their page.
Hell and Styx #2 Hell’s Childhood:
At age five, Hell started hearing voices.
For the first few months, they were just distant murmurs in the back of her mind, like a static-y radio. When they started to get louder, Hell thought of them like they were an itch that she could only scratch by listening to them. And when she started listening to them, she realized they weren’t talking.
They were screaming.
Some of them moaned. Some of them begged. Some shrieked. Others cried. Some were silent, just heavy breathing, in and out, in and out.
Hell knew what it meant if you heard voices. But she didn’t feel crazy. So she kept them a secret.
She was six and she started school. She tried to ignore the voices, but they were an itch, remember? Ignoring them only made them louder, made them a physical presence in her mind, pushing against her thoughts. She went home crying the second day, but she couldn’t tell her dad why, because she knew he was afraid of things he couldn’t understand, and Hell couldn’t even understand herself.
She went to school the next day, but only had room in her head to listen to the voices. Her teacher complained that Hell never paid attention, that she was always off in her own world.
Hell was a first grader when the boy came up to her. He was a third grader, impossibly old in Hell’s mind. He asked her why she never paid attention.
Hell forced herself away from the cries in her mind and tried to focus on him. Her eye started twitching with the effort and she had to ball her fists to keep from massaging her head. “I can’t,” she said.
He frowned, the way everyone did, but with a hint of curiosity that scared her. “Why not?”
“I don’t know,” she said. It was almost true. One of the voices—a screamer—slammed into Hell’s mind and she winced, giving in to listen to his pleas.
The boy raised an eyebrow. “What are you listening to?”
“Nothing,” Hell lied, but her head hurt too much to make it convincing.
“Do you hear voices?” the boy asked.
Hell glared. “No. Only crazy people hear voices.”
“You’re not crazy,” the boy said soothingly.
“I’m not!” Hell yelled. The boy frowned at her, since she was agreeing with him while arguing.
“But you hear voices, don’t you?”
Hell crossed her arms tight across her chest. “No.”
“Why do they call you Hell?”
“It’s my name.”
“Do you know what Hell is?” the boy asked.
Hell felt tears burn in her eyes. “Of course.”
“I can tell you why you hear the voices.”
“I don’t hear voices.”
“I hear voices,” the boy said plainly.
Hell took a step back. “I don’t hear voices.”
The boy shrugged. “Fine.” For a second, Hell thought she had one. Thought she was safe. But then he said, “Do you hear screams?”
Hell jumped back. “Who are you?”
“I’m Styx,” the boy said, holding out his hand.
Hell didn’t take it. “Why are you talking to me?”
“Because you can see me.”
Hell wondered if this Styx was crazy. “Of course I can see you. You’re here.”
Styx shook his head. “I’m not. Not for other people. You can only see me because we’re the same.”
“I’m not like you.”
“You are. Different, but the same.” He paused. “I can teach you how to deal with the voices.”
“I don’t hear voices.”
“So you don’t want my help?” He moved to leave.
Hell jumped forward, grabbing his hand. “Teach me,” she begged. She knew exactly how to. It was what she had heard for the last year.
“Come with me.” This time, Hell took the hand he offered.
And then Hell disappeared.
* * *
Hell appeared in a circular room, walls white marble with grey veins, columns around the edge, just before the walls.
Styx let go of her hand and paced away, stopping in the middle of the room. “Can you see them?” he asked.
Hell looked around. The room was empty except for Styx. “No.”
“Listen to the voices.”
“They aren’t voices,” Hell muttered, frustrated that he made the agony inside her head sound so simple.
Styx didn’t seem to care. “Listen to them.”
Hell did. Slowly, they grew louder, focusing, taking on different personalities, inflections. A few familiar voices piped up, speaking nonsense as always. Everyone was mad inside Hell’s head.
“What do you hear?” Styx asked, and it was the first question he didn’t seem to know the answer to.
Hell closed her eyes. “Screams. Crying. People begging. Some of them just breathe.”
“I don’t know. Twenty? Fifty? They always change. Only some of them stay with me. Usually they leave after a few days.”
“How long have you been hearing them?”
“A year? Since I was five.”
Hell opened her eyes. “What?”
Styx had his hand on his mouth and something like fear in his eyes. “That’s horrible.”
“I thought you heard them too?” Hell asked, betrayed.
“I do,” Styx said. “I did, at least. But only for a few weeks before I found this place.”
“Where is this?”
Styx shrugged. “Not your world. It’s the place where the voices come from. It’s like—a lot of doors. People come in here, and then I—you too, I guess, now—show them which door they need to go through. But I only take certain people. And you weren’t here, and it’s so crowded—”
Styx broke off, looking around the empty room, panicked. “Can’t you see them?”
“No.” Hell didn’t want to. “How do you know you can’t take all of them?”
“It doesn’t feel right. I tried once—and it hurt. It felt wrong. Like I was breaking really big rules.”
“What are the voices?” Hell asked.
“Dead people. You’re hell, Hell. You have everyone who went to hell in your mind. Your job is…to punish bad people.”
“But it hurts them?”
“It’s hell,” Styx said.
“What about you?”
“I’m the Underworld. My name is Greek, I think. I don’t know how I know these things, I just do. Maybe you will someday. But I’m for people who didn’t do anything. They aren’t good, they aren’t bad. They just lived and died.”
“What about Heaven?”
Styx shrugged. “Some souls disappear. But I’ve never met Heaven. I don’t know if it exists.”
“I hope it does,” Hell said, needing someone to be good if she had to be bad. “How do I make the voices go away?”
“You have to see the souls. Here. This room is full of souls. The voices will fade away when you…accept your job.”
“As a sorter. Of souls. Sending people to hell.”
“And if I don’t?”
“The voices get louder. I don’t know, honestly. But this room—needs you. Please. For me. There are so many people—”
Styx’s face was red and afraid, sort of wild. Hell took a step back and felt something cold brush against her arm. She shivered and shuddered. Was that a soul? Her heart pounded, panic rising.
“I’ll do it.”
And like that—she could see.
Hell was short, being only a six-year-old. The room was packed with adults, all taller than her. Some of them looked scary, but most looked—normal. But Hell could feel clouds around them, slick, cold, evil presences. These were bad people, all of them.
And they were her responsibility.
Hell grabbed the nearest man’s hand. His cloud—black and cold—prodded at her skin, reaching out to her own, which showed itself as red. Hell stared at the redness, then got a crazy idea. She asked it a question.
“Where does this one go?” she asked.
The redness twitched, then dragged Hell to the nearest wall. The veins of grey liquefied, melting away, revealing tiny windows into hell, small as a crack under a door. Through it, Hell could see a pulsing redness to match her own, but infinitely larger—an entire world. The voices in Hell’s head shouted in unison, recognizing their master.
Panicked, Hell shoved the man at the wall. As he hit the granite, his body disappeared, leaving only his smoky presence. It trickled into the cracks, and then the cracks closed.
Hell’s own redness receded into her skin.
The voices were silent.
Hell grabbed the next soul, then the next, then the next, until the room was empty.
The voices only ever yelled when she opened the door to hell. And with every soul she added, they got louder. They scraped at Hell’s heart, leaving bruises and painful cuts.
But this time she could escape them.
* * *
Hell grew up, and he gashes in her heart healed, and Styx watched her youth fade and her innocence wilt with every slimy, black soul she touched. A deep rage simmered inside her, close to boiling. A rage at the universe for giving her such a task, and an even deeper rage at the horrible people she had to send to hell, for being so horrible that she was necessary. And as her youth and innocence melted into this rage she started to believe one thing:
They deserved it.
She was invisible to the world now, just as Styx had been when he visited her the first time. In accepting this duty, this place as a gatekeeper in purgatory, she forfeited her place in the physical world. She could still go there, still walk among the people, but she could only see one thing: Death. What had been only a shadow on the horizon when she left was now the common denominator of her existence.
She watched her favorite stores close. She watched people die and survivors mourn. She learned you could take a soul before it even reached the marble room.
She lived in a room above the marble room. There was a staircase between to columns, open and unguarded, safe because the souls never seemed to see it. Her room was whatever she wanted, created by thoughts. She left it simply furnished. She barely ever stayed in it anyway. People did nothing but die.
Styx was sometimes her friend, sometimes her confessor. Sometimes she thought she liked him in that childish way of crushes and cooties. Other times she hated him more than she hated the damned. She hated him for finding her.
Some of Styx’s mysterious wisdom saturated her. It was a strange thing, wondering a thought and then knowing the answer. Waking up understanding something that had been an idle question the night before. She never went to school again but knew numbers and letters, better than most.
There was never an answer to why she existed, or how, or who had come before, or how they had died. She learned that she had been adopted. Styx had as well. But there were no answers in that, only a severing of Hell from the life she had lived, learning it was a lie. As far as Hell knew this was the rest of her life: Styx and purgatory and the dead. Heaven never showed, though the two children romanticized him in the way of fairytales, one last hope to help them sleep at night.
Did she still hear the screams?
Technically, yes. But they no longer bothered her. Sometimes they pleased her. Most of the time, they were what they had been when they first appeared, white noise. And every once in a while, they snaked back into her mind, reminding her of who she used to be: a scared little girl who wouldn’t admit she was going crazy.