Are you there, God? It's me…
Daniella Dean screams a muffled plea beneath her taped mouth.
Tears flow from her eyes. She hasn't eaten in days, and she doesn't know where she is or why he chose her. There were others that night he could have taken. Her best friend had been by her side. She recalls the fireworks and the eerie feeling she had just before he took her..
The devil is near.
Her cries are muted.
Please, God. Oh, please…
Rays of light through the floorboard cracks catch dusty specks that cloud her vision in a yellow-green haze.
She hears the thud of his boots cease, as he stands over her. There's the click of a lock before the latch opens.
Daniella can see the outline of a blackened figure. She flinches when something like a sponge bounces off her face and lands in the shadows.
"Bread. Eat," orders a deep voice.
Daniella is chained by the feet.
"Go on now. Get yer food.”
A flood of fear washes over her as he stares.
No, no, no!
The slamming of the latch door cuts all light.
Faces float past, blank and smooth as cream. The crowd assembles toward the edge of a field.
The devil is among them.
A sea of country people peer into the dark for some midnight contest to begin.
A light sputters off into the field, and a purple-tailed rocket skitters off high above their upturned faces. It bursts and sprays. Lit glycerin flares across the night and trails down the sky in loose ribbons of hot spectra that burn into nothing.
Another goes up, a wishing sound fishtails aloft. The bloom of its opening shares shadows and images of the rocket that had gone before. There are puffs of black smoke, and ashy trails arc out and down like a vast dark medusa squatting in the sky.
The light bloom outlines two men in the field who crouch over a crate of fireworks like bridge assassins.
A young girl with full lips and wide eyes is among them.
Daniella's hair smells of sweet soap, a woman child beyond her years wrapped below the sulfur glow and pitched light of some medieval fun fare. A lean skyline candle skewers the black pools in her eyes. Her fingers are clutched with tension and excitement.
In the flood of lights and colors, she sees the man watching her, and she nervously edges closer to the girl by her side. Her country denim overalls are fastened by glistening metallic straps.
Daniella brushes her hair quickly with two fingers and cautions her best friend not to point his way. When she glances again in his direction, he has disappeared somewhere in the firelights.
The devil talks to himself. His shuffling boot prints lay out the plans of lesser life, where mice or foxes have gone hunting in the night. He wears the underclothes and garments of his female victims. He appears as a gothic doll in ill-fitting clothes. His gleeful mouth floats bright and detached in the white landscape.
His tracks come from a mysterious cave with blood-red mud as if the snow had cauterized his feet, leaving dry prints in the frozen ground. Soon, false spring will come again with a warm wind, and the snow will melt off into patches of gray ice among the wet leaves.
Bats begin to stir somewhere in the deep cave during his macabre rituals. He sees them come through the tunnel and ascends through the hole overhead. They flutter wildly through the smoke and ash of soulful wafts rising from Hades.
When they are gone, he watches the hordes of cold stars sprawled across the smoke hull and wonders what stuff they are made of.
"God, if you're there, have mercy on my child and show me the way."
Carson Dean, Daniella's father, crosses the road and follows the stream towards the thin, narrow gorge. It rushes off into the darkness before him and descends from pool to pool in stone cups.
He follows the course for perhaps a mile down all its turnings and through narrows that stretch him sideways. He advances sideways, like a fencer, through a tunnel that brings him to his belly until he reaches an opening where he can stand again. He observes the underworld of a dark and cold cave and can't bear the smell.
Hell on earth, he thinks to himself.
Carson rushes to an opening where tiny doilies of snow settle and perish on the crossed arms of his coat. He watches the silent land below him grow dim in gray snowfall. After a while, he takes up his shotgun and crosses the ridge to where he can still see the road.
It takes him the better part of the morning to cross the ridge where God leads him.
The snow is gray against the sky and soft on his lashes. It falls without a sound. Carson makes his way down a slope towards what now appears to be some sort of plantation hidden in the monochrome tint before dusk.
"Where are you, you bastard?”
Carson asks both God and man.
From about a half-mile out, he sees the devil coming from a house for wood. He crosses into a barn and then disappears aimlessly in the woods. Carson moves with haste and crouches behind the barn, listening. He hears the chunk of an ax dampened by the wind and trees. He advances through the barn, and it is empty. Even the lofts are bare of hay.
Carson stands in a bay door and looks down at the fallen snow towards the gray shape of a smoking shack. He crosses through an adjacent chicken coop, and a few white hens eye him nervously through their cubby nests on the far wall.
He patiently waits for the devil to return.
Carson kicks in the door.
The devil is shirtless, and his back is covered in stripe-like scars that spill down his spine.
"Turn around," Carson says. "I want to see you."
Daniella lies below somewhere between a nightmare and exhaustion when she hears her father's voice.
Carson gasps when he observes the spectacle face to face. He's painted in makeup smears, bare-chested and hairy, adorning Daniella's torn bloody overalls. He smiles with cracked and chapped red-painted lips.
“God, what are you?"
The devil remains silent.
When he pulls the trigger, Carson doesn't even flinch, unloading the buckshot into the throat of his adversary.
Daniella kicks and screams as blood leaks through the floor and drips onto her naked flesh.
"Honey? Daniella! Hold on, hold on. Daddy's here!"
Carson moves swiftly and stands over the devil. Still intact and drenched with eye shadow, his right eye looks up at Carson. He tries to speak from a red-bubbling mouth, but he cannot utter a sound.
Daniella frantically kicks at the locked hatch door. Carson tries to stomp through the floorboards but they won’t break.
Unable to speak, the devil points to a table where the key is, and Carson instantly snatches it. With trembling hands, he unlocks the hatch and opens the door to the horror of his daughter lying there in her own filth. .
"Daddy's right here, honey."
Carson drags the devil's body out of the way, blankets his daughter, and gently sets her in the corner. His heart thumps with rage, and he turns, reloads the shotgun, and unloads one final shot.