The Configurations of Hell
Chapter One: Kirsty's Tryst
Rose had heard Kirsty tell her the story a thousand times – had heard all the details about her father's death, about her uncle Frank Cotton and his manifold depravities, and had learned of Frank's ruthless paramour Julia who had stopped at nothing, not even murder, so that they might be together. They all inhabited her mind like the vague shapes of old, forgotten articles of furniture in some lonely attic, draped in white cloths and solitude, marvellous to look at but somehow never seeming quite real. She had often wondered, ever since the two had begun to live together as college roommates in their last years of graduate school, whether Kirsty had been telling the truth – whether the fantastic horrors that she had spoken of could actually inhabit any sane realm of this universe.
But every time such doubts assailed her, they instantly fled before another, colder logic – the logic of instinct: that the very infamy, the very incredulity that the images in Kirsty's tale conjured in her mind, mingled with the genuine notes of horror that were awakened in her in spite of her second-hand knowledge of these incidents, must surely point to some underlying truth behind the narrative. For what earthly writer of fictions, save one possessed of a mind infused with so brilliant a spark of divine or infernal brilliance that it must have been kindled from the frothing, magma mouth of Pandaemonium's most fiery fount – what mortal mind could have possibly conceived the simple and yet macabre diabolism that lay behind Kirsty's experience? Demons emerge from Ouija boards or from ancient, unearthed tombs – not from harmless puzzle boxes constructed by toymakers in eighteenth-century France. And yet the very improbability of Lemarchand's Box served to bemuse her still further and drive away the ghosts of skepticism that still whispered in her ear. Rose still did not know whether she altogether believed Kirsty – but she certainly did not disbelieve her.
Rose was turning all this over in her mind for the umpteenth time whilst peeling the skin off a particularly stubborn onion one October evening when Kirsty returned to their joint apartment, the door slamming with a hearty thump in her wake.
"Look what I brought!" she called, thudding into the kitchen with an armful of brown, paper bags. Rose raised an incredulous eyebrow as Kirsty proceeded to lift out bottle after bottle: first a case of Budweiser cans, then a generous helping of Dogfish Head beers. These were followed by a solid reinforcement of popcorn bags and other hefty examples of what Rose's mother would have called 'get-fat-fast foods'. Now with her hands on her hips, Rose demanded:
"You are aware that it's Thursday, right? Or are you just that excited already about Friday night?"
"Oh, come on, Rose," Kirsty said, affecting a whine past the smile that covered her face. "We've both had a rough week and midterms are over now. I think we could both do with a break, don't you?"
Rose was in a quandary. On the one hand, she had a quite hefty novel to finish by Monday – Henry James' Portrait of a Lady to be pedantically exact. On the other hand, she could do with something, anything, to take her mind off of classes, if only for an evening.
"What are you planning?" she said at last.
Kirsty raised her eyes dramatically to the ceiling as though the question required some profound thought. "Hmm, I was thinking maybe…movie night. You, me, beer, and whatever's on AMC."
Rose smiled. "Sounds good to me!"
Several hours later, the two girls were sitting on a couch in front of the battered old television set that Kirsty had salvaged from the wreck of her father's house, watching some rather maudlin black-and-white melodrama starring Vivien Leigh. Kirsty, lulled both by the beer and the movie's meandering plot, had already slipped into a deep slumber whilst Rose herself began to feel her own eyelids begin to droop heavily.
She tried to focus on the screen but soon gave up on this and glanced over at her slumbering companion. Kirsty's hair, usually a curly, auburn mess, was coiffed in a rather attractive half updo, the loose curls of which spilled over her throat, beneath her pale upturned face. Unconsciously, Rose touched the back of her own head of long, blonde hair. She grimaced; it had been several days since she'd had the chance to shampoo. Maybe a shower was in order. She couldn't help but wonder to herself why Kirsty had gone to the trouble of doing her hair when neither of them intended to go out at all that night.
Just as she stood up, however, the lights in the living room flickered and – after a moment of light and silence – gave out completely, leaving her in utter darkness. The television's screen, of course, had zapped off as well. To Rose's surprise, however, the abrupt silence didn't wake Kirsty. If anything else, she seemed to lapse into a more profound slumber than before.
Well, a shower was out of the question. Rose sat back down on the couch, her eyes gradually accustoming themselves to the darkness. Strangely enough, she heard no sound of wind or thunder outside, the usual culprits in cases of power outages. The most disturbing sound she heard was the pounding in her head, thanks to the five beers that she'd downed. Maybe if she lay down and closed her eyes for a bit, the groggy dizziness that filled her brain would dissipate and she could hit the shower afterwards and attend to her long-neglected hair. Without another thought, Rose made a comfortable pile of pillows for herself on the couch and promptly fell asleep.
She must have lain in this stupor for some time, for when she awoke it was pitch-black in that living room. Not even the wan reflection of the nearby streetlights filtered through the windows: her open eyes were dazzled and blinded by the complete purity of that absence of light.
At first she thought it was that purity that made it so difficult for her to breathe, as though that void sought with some sentient instinct to draw its breath from her. However, when she tried to sit up, she found that the pressure that forced her down again was far more solid than the pressing darkness of the lightless living room. About her shoulders, the tight grasp of fingers held her whilst next to her ear she heard the distinct sound of a man's voice whisper, "Shhh…hush now and lie still. Or aren't you uncomfortable, trying to sit up with such a headache?"
There was a peculiarly practiced quality to the voice's cajoling and as he spoke in the darkness, his fingers left her shoulders and began to caress her brow, as gentle as a reverie. They left in their wake a trail of cold dampness that lay upon her forehead like a painted seal.
"Who – " she began, her alcohol-numbed body beginning at last to tremble with something like terror.
He laid a finger instantly upon her lips – its wetness tasted sharp and heady, like salt mixed with something sweetly bitter.
"Kirsty told me all about you," he said. He had now taken her hand in his own and she could feel his lips begin to experimentally run the length of her palm – felt him smile at her every flinch. "I wouldn't be surprised if she tells Them as well."
"Them," she murmured. It was all starting to make a hellish sort of sense, but the alcohol had dulled her mind enough to where she felt less fear and more a dawning curiosity. "The Cenobites?"
"Yes," was the whispered reply. As he spoke, she felt him slip one of her fingers between his lips – felt a moving warmth as his tongue began to caress its length. She tried to withdraw her hand from his grasp, but only succeeded in softly tantalizing the inside of his mouth with her contracting finger.
"Where is Kirsty?" she demanded, her voice shaking. "What has happened to her?"
"Nothing that she didn't want herself," the man replied. "Do you know," he added in a rather conspiratorial tone. "I think she fancies one of those creatures. Sick, isn't it?"
The gloating delight with which he made this last pronouncement somehow aroused a vague memory in her – something or someone that Kirsty had described to her long ago.
"I suppose," she said, a bit caustically. "That you would know?"
"Of course," he said. "I'm her uncle, after all. Pity."
It was then that she jolted awake, but by that time he had long since disappeared. She called and called for Kirsty, but there was no sign of her – no sign that the Cenobites had come and departed with her. It was this alone that convinced her that her conversation with Frank Cotton had been more than a dream: this and the blood stains that trailed across her forehead and along her palm and finger, leaving their crimson trail of whetted lust…