Gaping Maw of Hell

Staring at the new patient, Sam hid behind the indoor plant; it sagged with lack of water. The new patient had arrived three days ago, and none of the other staff knew what her issue was. She walked and ate like an average person, she even seemed to understand what the staff would say to her, and there hadn’t been any sudden outbursts. The only thing Sam knew was that she didn’t speak. No amount of coaxing would get her to.
“What are you doing?” The question startled Sam; it came from his coworker Reggie.
“I was just about to water this plant,” Sam said.
“Yeah, right. You were wondering about that girl.”
“Well, aren’t you curious?”
“Not really. It’s all the same to me. What’s so different about her?” Reggie asked, picking at his teeth with his pinkie.
“She seems normal. The only thing wrong with her is that she can’t talk.” Sam said, glancing back at the woman.
“Can’t or won’t?”
“Don’t you want to know?”
“Look, the less I know about these patients, the better I sleep at night,” Reggie said as he sauntered off.
Sam looked back at the woman and noticed that she had gotten up from her chair. He searched the area and found her kneeling in front of the bookshelf near the floor-to-ceiling window. Her slim fingers trailed the spines of the dusty books. She was the only one interested in the books; the other patients would hang out in the TV room. Crossing her legs, she placed one of the books on her lap. Sam got closer and read the title: John Milton’s Paradise Lost. She stared at the book but didn’t open it.
Sam was behind her now.“You like reading?”
He expected her to be startled, but all she did was turn her head towards him. She nodded slowly.
“Me too,” Sam said, and he knelt next to her. She shrunk away.
“It’s ok. Sorry. I’ll sit over here.” Sam knelt a couple of feet from her.
The patient glanced back at the book.
“You’ve read Paradise Lost before?” Sam asked.
She nodded.
“It’s pretty tense, right?”
She didn’t move her head.
“What’s your name again?” Sam was hoping to get her to speak.
Instead, the patient opened the book and began to point at the letters. She spelled Natasha. She peered at Sam through her drab, curly hair.
“Do you know why you are here?” Sam asked.
Natasha opened her eyes wide and stared at Sam. He searched for something to say.
“Sam! We need you, man! Hugh is going nuts in the TV room.” Reggie yelled from the doorway.
Sam jumped up and glanced at Natasha; she returned to staring at the book.

Punching his time into the wall computer with his access card, Sam stifled a yawn; he had the night shift this time. He didn’t mind it since it was mostly quiet. Yet, he was disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to talk to Natasha like he had the day before. It seemed to him that he had made progress with her. When Sam returned to his apartment that day, he told his roommate about what had happened. They had a running bet on what could be wrong with her. Sam believed that Natasha had been traumatized, while his roommate thought she had cut her tongue out. His roommate, Seth, was a Goth who was into the macabre.

Sam patrolled the hallways, trying not to make a sound. One time he had made a squeak with his shoes, and it had awoken one of the patients into a sudden outburst. As he turned the corner of the vast institute, Sam yawned and almost missed the shadowy figure crossing the other way further down the hall. He stopped and stared. Is that Natasha? Sam sped, walked down the hall, and turned the corner. He recognized her curly hair and the heather gray sweats.
Gradually, Sam reached her side and stumbled back. Natasha walked stiffly with her eyes closed, her lids fluttering; and her throat glowing a fiery red. He didn’t know whether to wake her, guide her back to her room, or summon a doctor. Sam realized he was shaking; he was afraid to touch her. He couldn’t keep his eyes off of her throat. What is going on in her throat? Did she swallow something? A shadow appeared on the other side of the hallway; it was one of the doctors. She peered up from her tablet and paused.
“Is she sleepwalking?” The doctor hissed as she rapidly approached Natasha.
“I think so, but I don’t know what’s going on with her throat,” Sam said.
The doctor, a recent transfer whose name Sam forgot, studied Natasha’s throat while she slowly walked backward a foot away from Natasha.
“I don’t know what it is. It looks like her throat is inflamed, literally. That’s impossible.” The doctor shook her head.
Between the both of them, they guided Natasha back to her room. Sam gently held her body as it fell back into bed.
“How did she get out?” The doctor asked.
“I don’t know. I was just making my rounds, and I found her.” Sam said in between biting his thumbnail.
“This inflammation is not going away. I’m going to have to call this in.” The doctor said.
As she turned to head out, Natasha sat straight up. The doctor turned to stare beside Sam. Natasha’s eyes were still shut and fluttering madly. Then her mouth began to open heavily. Her mouth was almost entirely open when she woke from her sleep. Natasha clamped her hands over her mouth and turned away. The doctor reached for her.
“Go get Dr. Allister. Quick!” She said as she held onto Natasha’s shoulders. Just before Sam ran out, he noticed that Natasha’s throat was back to normal.

“So what happened with that girl the other night? I heard she was walking around.” Reggie asked Sam during their lunch break the next day.
“Yeah, she was sleepwalking. It was so weird; her throat was like, glowing or something.” Sam said and shoved a fork full of sloppy TV dinner.
“Glowing? What are you talking about?”
“It looked like she swallowed fire or a flashlight.”
“What did the doctors say?”
“Of course, nothing.”
“Yeah, it’s all just on a need-to-know basis, and we don’t need to know. But when something happens with one of these people and they’re not around, what are we supposed to do? Am I right?” Reggie said and took a chug of his soda.
Sam nodded. He wondered if Natasha was alright; she was still under observation. Reggie poked Sam with his elbow.
“Look,” he said.
Natasha was in a wheelchair and was being pushed into the library room.
“I guess she’s fine,” Reggie said.
Sam quickly finished up his meal and threw a wave at Reggie. He headed into the library, where an orderly stood by. Natasha was at the bookshelf, glancing at the titles. Sam spoke to the orderly and managed to convince him to switch places. Alone, he knelt beside Natasha.
“Are you ok?” He asked.
Natasha nodded.
“I’m glad you’re ok.”
She grabbed a book off the shelf. It was Dante’s Inferno.
“You like the classics? Sam asked.
She shook her head. He was confused.
“Why do you look at them?”
Natasha pointed at the cover.
“You like the cover?”
She shook her head.
“What are you trying to say?”
Natasha pointed at the book cover and then at her throat. Sam frowned and peered at her throat. Oh, her throat burns from whatever was in her mouth!
“It’ll feel better.”
Natasha shook her head. She glanced at the bookshelf and scrambled to look for a book. Pulling one out, she pointed at the title.
“The Curse of the Blue Scarab?” Sam said.
Natasha circled the word curse with her finger, then pointed at her throat. He didn’t know what to say. Does she think she has a curse in her throat? She frowned and turned away.

Sharing a twelve-pack with Seth in front of the TV, Sam recounted what Natasha had told him. Seth nodded and drank interchangeably. Sam wasn’t sure what he was hoping to get from telling him, yet he thought Seth might have heard of curses like that.
“Yeah, I think I’ve heard of that,” Seth said as he fiddled with his nose ring.
“Really?” Sam said.
“I read about it in one of those books about hell. I can’t remember the title. I don’t know if I would call it a curse, though.”
“She said it was,” Sam said
“From what I remember, and this was like, years ago when I read this book, that glowing she had the other night is from drinking something that originated from hell.”
“What? Where would she get that? And why would she drink that?”
“Probably from a seance or something. Maybe she was forced to, or she did it cause she wanted something in return, you know. The devil is always wanting to make deals.” Seth said.
Sam contemplated this. This sounds so crazy. I don’t even believe this crap. But if Natasha really believes that she’s been cursed or whatever, I want to help her.
“So, how do you get rid of it?” Sam asked.
“Uh, I think she has to drink something else.”
“You’re not sure?”
“No, man, like I said, it’s been years.”
“Where’s the book?”
“My friend has it.”
“Can you ask for it back? I want to read it.”
“Wait… you don’t even believe in this.”
“Well, I want to help Natasha. If she believes it, then I do too.” Sam said, crossing his arms in front of his chest.
“Sounds like you’re starting to like her,” Seth said, smirking.

As soon as Sam had the book in his hand, he scoured it for answers. Natasha had taken a turn for the worst. She had lost weight and was mostly bedridden. He overheard the doctors planning on moving her to another section of the institute to supervise her. Through all of this, Sam and Natasha had gotten close; they found a way to communicate through the books in the library room; it was a slow process, yet Sam had found out more about her life. A month ago, Natasha graduated from college with a Masters in religion and did her last semester in Europe. Unfortunately, she had gotten entangled with a group fascinated with devil worshiping. On the night of their graduation, Natasha inadvertently drank a substance she thought was simply wine. Ever since that night, she couldn’t speak. Much of these are assumptions since Sam somehow had to piece what she was pointing at together.
Drops of tomato soup fell onto the book as Sam slurped a spoonful. He tried to wipe out the drops before they settled in, but it left a bit of a smear. Reggie plopped himself next to Sam with a crinkled container of TV dinner in one hand and a can of soda in the other.
“Whatcha reading?” Reggie asked.
“It’s um, a book about hell,” Sam said.
“What? Why are you reading that? Oh, wait, for that girl, Natasha? I told you she has no curse.”
“Well, she believes it, and I do too.”
“Look, she must have done something bad for God to do this to her. It’s not a curse; it’s God.”
“She just has to pray. Pray real hard.”
“You think that would help?’ Sam asked, glancing at Reggie for the first time since Reggie sat down.
“It wouldn’t hurt,” Reggie said, taking a sip of his soda. “You know, I was thinking, maybe what she has in her mouth is hell itself.”
“She’s got hell in her throat.”
“How’s that possible?”
“How are curses possible? You believe in that, but not in hell?”
“I don’t know… I guess.”
“Didn’t you say she told you she was part of a devil-worshiping group?”
“Well, then. They probably gave her a drink that could open hell up.” Reggie said.
Sam peered at the book and realized that he wasn’t getting all of his answers. He bit his thumb. I don’t have much time left.

After work, Sam didn’t head to his apartment straight away. He remembered that to and from his job, there was a knick-knack shop for pagans and witchcraft. He planned to talk to someone there that might be able to give him at least an idea of what to do.
A tinkling sound accompanied Sam as he entered the dim shop; the scent of Frankincense wafted towards him from the counter. He stood in front of it and marveled at all the trinkets. A basket of gnarled chicken feet, a display of puzzle boxes, wands in cushioned containers kept underneath the glass top counter, and other oddities Sam didn’t know of. He glanced up and was startled by a figure that loomed over him.
The thin, frail woman stared at Sam with intense green eyes. Her skin had a milky white complexion, and black makeup covered her eyes. Stringy hair flowed past her shoulders over a tight corset and flowing skirt.
“Can I help you?” Her voice was tiny and slow.
“Yeah, um, I’m trying to help a friend who’s been cursed. I thought maybe you could help me?” Sam said.
“So they think she’s crazy, and they put her in that institute up the road?”
“How do you know? You’re clairvoyant?”
“No. I see your uniform badge, Sam, and I guessed the rest. Horror movies have it right a lot of the time.”
“Oh.” Sam glanced down at his uniform.
“So, what’s her problem?”
“Well, her throat glows sometimes, and she can’t speak. She doesn’t even want to open her mouth unless it’s to eat. Which she hasn’t been doing much of.”
“I’ve heard of this but never seen it.” The woman said, and she turned away to search her shelves of leather-bound books.
Surprising Sam with her hidden strength, the woman pulled out a wide thick book from one of the upper shelves. She gently placed it on the counter and flipped through the yellowing pages, every time she turned a page, a scent of aging paper reached Sam’s nose. She paused and ran a thin finger over the text.
“Here.” The woman said, and she spun the book towards Sam.
A dull image took up most of one page, and medieval text filled the other. Sam stared at the drawing. It was a naked, skeletal man on his knees, grasping at his neck. His neck glowed, and his mouth gaped open; it was like an underground cave with lava flowing, and it seemed some of it would spill out. In the background was a large shadow of a person with horns.
“She has a curse, alright. Was she part of a seance?”
“Yeah, she went to one.”
“No, I mean, was she part of it?”
“No. I don’t know.”
“She must have. This only happens to a person when they are part of a seance. She or whoever wanted to speak to somebody who was dead, but that person was in hell; so a portal had to open for them to speak to each other.”
“In the mouth?”
“Yupe, that’s what it says.”
“Why didn’t it close when the seance ended?” Sam asked, goosebumps racing along his skin.
“It’s probably because it was interrupted. It says that they must keep chanting these words until it slowly closes up.”
Sam chewed on his thumb; it was starting to feel raw. He glanced at the image again.
“How do we get rid of it?” Sam asked.
The woman grabbed the book and turned it towards herself. She skimmed over the words.
“It doesn’t say. But, like I said, Horror movies are right. All you have to do is finish the seance.”
“What if it doesn’t work? She doesn’t have much time.”
“What do you have to lose by doing it?”
Sam paused. “Alright, what do I have to do?”

The next night, Sam was on shift. He snuck in the shopkeeper’s book, a black candle, a potion, and Seth. His stomach was turning as if he was on a roller coaster. On the other hand, Seth had the giddiness of a child who was given his Christmas present early as he entered through the door of the wing under construction; Sam was able to jimmy it open.
“You must be very quiet; some of the patients can hear you. They don’t really sleep much.” Sam whispered.
They walked down the hall heading towards Natasha’s room. Silence throbbed in Sam’s ears as he was on high alert. On the other side of one of the patient’s door, a loud sniffing sound could be heard.
“I smell someone new.” More sniffing. “Who are you? You like a lot of onions.” The voice whispered under the frame of the door.
Sam took hold of Seth’s arm and sped off.
Taking out his access card and swiping near the door, Sam opened Natasha’s door slowly. She was lying on the bed with her back to them. Moonlight seeped through the sheer curtain from the window. He placed the items on the floor. Seth sat crossed-legged and opened the book to the incantation. Sam gently woke Natasha up.
“Natasha, it’s me, Sam.”
She rubbed her eyes and glanced about. As soon as she saw the book, she crawled backwards to the wall.
“It’s ok! We’re here to help you. We’re going to get rid of the curse by finishing the seance.” Sam said.
Natasha stared at him, her eyes glistening. She pointed to his uniform badge and shook her head.
“Yeah, I know I’ll lose my job here. But at least I saved your life.”
She touched his face.
“We should probably get this started,” Seth said.
They sat in a triangular form on the ground, with the lit candle in the middle. Seth chose to read the incantations, claiming that he knew how to pronounce the words. Sam held Natasha’s hand; they were clammy and smooth. With surprising depth, Seth spoke the incantation. Sam stared at Natasha as she closed her eyes. Blotches crept along the skin of her neck, and they joined together, creating a mass that brightened. Seth stopped reading and handed the potion to Natasha to drink as soon as her neck reached its full glow. She gagged a little as she swallowed the liquid. Sam cleaned the dribble that spilled at the corners of her mouth. Seth started the chanting; Sam stiffened, knowing this was the critical part. Natasha threw her head back, and the glowing in her neck began to throb. Her mouth opened slowly, and the light showed against the ceiling. Seth did not waver in his incantations nor looked towards Sam and Natasha.
A shadow loomed over the lit ceiling. Sam stared in amazement as a tiny, clawed hand reached out of Natasha’s mouth and rested on her lower lip. Then another hand appeared. The thing pulled itself up. Sam muffled a cry of terror as the bat-like creature glared down at Sam. He glanced at Seth, yet Seth hadn’t noticed. Thinking of the black candle to use on the monster, Sam kept his eye on it. The thing turned towards Seth and hissed. Seth’s voice wavered as he heard the sound.
“Keep going!” Sam hissed.
Seth’s voice grew louder. Sam noticed that the creature was scrambling to get out. Natasha grabbed onto the thing. It bit and scratched at her; Sam grabbed the candle and shoved it at its face. Shrieking, it fell back down into Natasha’s gullet. She clamped her mouth shut, and the glowing in her neck began to dim. Seth stopped the incantation; he breathed hard and wiped the sweat from his brow. Sam studied Natasha; as the glow diminished. She peered at Sam and removed her hands from her mouth. Parting her lips, she struggled to make a sound.
“Sam.” she croaked.


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