by Alicia Hilton
Satan invites all of the wraiths for afternoon tea. Single file, we process from the cemetery. The elderly corpses lead the horde that trots, walks, lurches, and lumbers towards Lucifer’s mansion, the copper-clad turrets gleaming, windows winking at us, the shutters opening and shutting, opening and shutting, as if the house is more alive than any of us.
Middle-aged corpses, like me, are stuck in the center of the pack where the air is thick and ripe, a sulfurous quagmire of humidity and decay.
Desiccated codgers in front of me wield canes, but they are remarkably agile. Centuries spent in crypts are like marvelous sleep, you waken with more vigor than you ever experienced when you were breathing.
The young tykes and infants stumble and crawl over each other as they try to keep up.
All of the dead are surprisingly civil until Gertrude swings her axe and hacks Gerald, cleaving his forehead. The skull fractures, but nothing pours out except dust.
With a triumphant shriek so loud that it smothers Gerald’s bellow, Gertrude swings the blade again—whack whack, she separates Gerald’s head from his neck.
His grey eyes are blinking when the head rolls past me.
A dead child kicks the cranium into the rose bushes, like a striker slamming a soccer ball into a goal.
“Naughty, naughty,” the child’s mother says. She snaps off a branch from a rose bush and swats her son’s bottom until he wails, but no one punishes Gertrude.
And no one except me seems to notice the cloud of mosquitoes approaching, buzz, buzz, buzzing.
The black mass swirls, surrounding us. The bloodsuckers are as big as hummingbirds.
A proboscis spears my elbow. When I swat the voracious creature, it sucks harder.
Satan’s butler strikes a femur against the dinner gong.
All of the mosquitos vanish, but I still feel their dagger mouths puncturing my flesh. Rows of pinpricks march up my arm, from the elbow to the shoulder. As the flesh is tenderized, my wrinkled epidermis swells and warms, and I begin to sweat. Seconds later, the pinpricks transform, becoming blisters, how very strange, the sensation is almost pleasant.
The butler announces, “Tea is served.” He gestures for everyone to sit on the veranda.
We shuffle forward.
After what seems like an eternity, I reach the staircase. The worn boards creak under my weight.
Lucky me, there’s one metal chair left on the southeast corner of the veranda, with a view of the melting glacier. I avert my eyes, not wanting to look at the emaciated polar bears, a reminder of how humans pillaged Earth.
Across the table, my dining companions chatter among themselves. Sunlight illuminates their decayed faces.
No one complains that the tablecloths are stained. The milk is sour, a bluebottle fly swims in the pitcher of lemonade, the almond biscotti is burned, and the scones are too hot for anyone to bite, so hot that steam rises from the currants. But why would we whine? We’re all jonesing for a fix. Mortification makes us as voracious as the mosquitoes, hungry for forgiveness, a chance for redemption from mistakes we made when blood still pumped through our veins.
A three-headed chicken with fox feet serves deviled eggs, so tasty despite the wriggling maggots.
Two Minotaurs wearing rubber aprons pour flaming shots of bourbon, but I don’t imbibe because spirits make me paranoid.
The phantom sitting to my left says, “Pass the biscotti, please.” His voice is calm, nonchalant despite the rat feasting on his intestines.
Another rodent skitters across the tattered tablecloth, dragging a sodden handkerchief.
I wrestle the hanky from the rat. Ectoplasm smells like sex and betrayal. Inhaling deeper, I sigh.
A woman that I killed materializes on the veranda.
I rub the mosquito bites on my elbow and say, “Hello, darling.”
“Miss me?” she laughs. In her left hand, she holds an aqua-colored bottle. The frosted glass reminds me of a beach vacation I took with my parents, when I was too young to realize that I was becoming a monster.
But aren’t we all monsters?
I hold out my cup, and she uncorks the bottle and pours poison in my sweet tea.
The fiery liquid tastes like regret.
My tongue bleeds, but I guzzle another mouthful. As the caustic concoction works its way down my throat to my gut, my former lover’s face morphs.
I say, “Hello Satan.”
The Dark Lord demands, “Pentagram.” The bottle in his left hand transforms, becoming a conductor’s baton. Waving the ebony stick, he directs us.
Everyone—the young, the old, even headless Gerald, links hands and forms a friendship pentagram.
Together we chant, babbling words that I do not understand.
The young man clinging to my right hand has eyes like a goat and a flat nose that is more reptilian than human, but he’s a tenor with a lovely falsetto.
The girl holding my left hand has sharp fingernails that slice into my palm, but the pain invigorates me.
I gasp in surprise as I feel my heart restart.
As we harmonize, our chant gets louder and louder, booming like thunder.
Satan shouts, “What do you want?”
I scream, “Forgiveness!” but my voice is drowned out from pleas shouted by the other dead.
Satan says, “What do you need?”
“Forgiveness!” I repeat.
The ground vibrates.
The trembling increases until the melting glacier splits, releasing an army of spiders.
Arachnids race towards us, a flowing mass of black, brown, and red—thousands and thousands of spindly legs.
My feet are frozen to the ground, and none of the other dead attempt to flee.
Even corpses know that you cannot outrun fate.
One, two, three, four, five, the seconds stretch, as if time has slowed down.
Of course time has slowed down. Satan understands the power of dread.
Spiders scamper up our legs. Higher and higher they climb.
A tarantula bites my cheek, but I smile.
In Hell, hope never dies.
Alicia Hilton is an author, law professor, arbitrator, actor, and former FBI Special Agent. She believes in angels and demons, magic and monsters. Her work has appeared in Akashic Books, Best Indie Speculative Fiction Volume 3, Daily Science Fiction, DreamForge, Litro, Sci Phi Journal, Space and Time, Vastarien, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 4, 5 & 6, and elsewhere. She is a member of HWA and SFWA. Her website is https://www.aliciahilton.com. Follow her on Twitter @aliciahilton01.