What Hell Divides
By Patrick M. Tracy
Martin’s face quirked and he looked back at me, his cheeks pale below his vacation tan. While walking backward, about to say something, he tripped on a tree root and went down hard. The guide stopped to look back at us, and I took a knee beside Martin.
“Wow, I really hit my head,” Martin told me, as if I hadn’t seen the incident. His tone was the weird false cheer of adults who have just taken a nasty fall and feel the need to laugh, just so it seems okay for them to have done so.
“Hold still, Marty.” I checked his eyes as they follow my fingertip. I felt for bloody spots on his scalp. “What day is it?”
“Shit. I don’t know. I’m on vacation.”
I looked up at the guide, a blank-faced old Mayan named Salazar. He seemed neither concerned nor enthusiastic to help. He folded his arms and leaned against a tree. The whole jungle seemed quieter, stranger, darker than it had been a few minutes ago. It was no longer a pretty morning in the Yucatan, though at that moment I couldn’t say why. Not Martin’s spill. Something was already going sideways before that happened.
“Who’s the President?”
“Of which country?”
I pinched him on the arm.
“Hey,” he whined. “Take it easy, Darlene. My man Barack Obama’s the president, okay?”
“You have any trouble seeing, headache, nausea, you tell me.”
I let Martin up, and he seemed to stand without any disorientation. He turned to the guide. “She acts like my mom.”
The guide, Salazar, didn’t seem to have anything to say on that score.
Martin looked back to me. “Good thing you were a EMT before we struck it rich, huh? Keep me from getting into all sorts of medical distress.”
I forced myself to nod, though I knew that, the way we were burning through money, our lottery winnings would be used up within three years, and we’d fall to earth like long-arcing missiles. I’d be back to doing EMT work, and Martin would be back to drywalling and odd jobs to make it through the week. We’ll have had our fun, though, and I suppose that’s something they can’t take away.
“What were you going to say before you had your graceful moment?”
Martin looked around, perplexed. “They said today would be clear. Looks like it’s clouding over.”
“No rain will come,” Salazar told us. “The sun is good and strong. Here, though, it is far away.”
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“You said you wanted to see real jungle, real place from the old times. Now you see it. Real jungle is dark. The weak-hearted find it fearful when it whispers its secrets.”
The sun seemed no brighter than the moon, the misty air of the jungle clotting in shadowed rivulets around our feet.
“Man, that gave me the shivers. What’s the story with this place?”
The way that Salazar laughed…I’ll never forget that rough sound. No humor in it. Not even malice, but simple, pure absence of emotion. “The trees of this place grow through a field of bones. Those who are dead yet cloud the sun. They yet yearn. There is a hunger in them that death could not cure.”
“That’s great and all, but I think we should probably scram. I’m not much for burial grounds or cemeteries or any of that spooky shit,” Martin said.
Salazar nodded. “Yes, of course you are not. You stand forever in the shallow pool, afraid of the deeper waves. Go, run!” Salazar made a strange gesture with his hands, and Martin, sure as the ticking of a clock, ran up the tiny trail. He didn’t look back to see if I was behind him, nor did he wait up. He rabbited, just like he’d always done when things got rough.
I stood there, considering what I’d just heard. “You spooked him, all right.”
Salazar turned his polished-rock eyes to me. “But not you?”
“I have a better handle on myself than Marty does.”
The guide nodded. “You have been closer to death and life. They are not so frightening to you. You have been wet with blood up to your elbows, as they old priests were.”
It’s an uncomfortable image. I get flashes of some of our bad calls, like the time when the old Jeep had flipped over on the hard roadside shale, when we’d been carrying an arm that had been pinched off by twisted metal. I tried to stop thinking about that day, but I wasn’t successful. The bad moments have a way of hanging around. “We should probably go after him.”
“He will not get far.” Salazar made no move to go. I stood there, thinking about vehicular carnage, thinking about how I was always the one putting things back together, not moving one way or another.
Martin ran back toward us, his eyes wide and wild, his cheeks dead pale and soaked with sweat. “They…they…” he whispered, putting his arms around me and squeezing me tight. “They were so…” his voice rasps. His whole body was cold, his embrace not one offering comfort, but requiring it. I pushed him back.
“What did you see?”
He put his hands over his eyes. “They said that I belonged to them, that I would be theirs forever, and that they’d eat my heart a thousand times, and that I’d never die, but suffer.”
“They speak true,” Salazar. “He is weak, and the weak are taken.”
I felt Martin ripped away from me. Figures made of shadow wrenched away at him, pulling him backward toward the impenetrable jungle. Small, sinewy men who wore but little clothing, but were hung with strange trophies of the jungle. Their eyes glowed amber, their teeth glistened like gold, and though their mouths moved, I couldn’t hear their words.
“If you are his protector, his provider of comfort, then you must go with him. You would hold his head and whisper to him in the long darkness, easing his wounds. If your love for him is great, then this is what must be. If it is weakened by time, and you renounce him, he will go to the places beyond and down alone, and you will live to consider your choices.”
Martin’s face twisted. “Please, Darlene. Don’t let them take me.”
“If I don’t want to go…” I looked to the guide. Everything seemed strangely calm, the choice rather easy. The pain had yet to set in.
Salazar grinned. “I could negotiate with them. There would be a small payment, of course, but you would go and be unharmed.”
I lifted a hand to him. A pathetic little wave, so little to end things on, such a strange goodbye. “Sorry, Marty. I never said I’d go to hell for you.”
“Darlene, please. You said in our vows that you’d be my girl forever,” Martin pleaded.
“Turns out forever just ended, sweetie. I told you I didn’t like the jungle. Too many secrets, too much hidden. I’m a desert girl and you knew that, but you had to come anyway, didn’t you? Now you get to stay, and this time there won’t be anyone to help you out.”
The spirits yanked him back, through the jungle fronds and into oblivion. The jungle was suddenly warm again, the sun bright. Salazar stepped closer, his rough hand reaching up beneath my khaki shirt and cupping my left breast. “Time to pay.” He pushed me against a tree. I could see his brown teeth, smell the musk of him.
I swallowed down the bile in my throat. “Okay. Okay, just not too rough.” I’d had to pay that way before, back when I was sixteen and there was nothing else I could do. I could relax and just let it happen again. The pain would come later, just like it always did. Other people can hurt us, but the real pain comes from all that we agree to, all we choose, and all we renounce. The world isn’t nice, and I learned that early. I adapted, and I’m not nice, either. Not when it comes right down to blood on blood. Even as Salazar pushed me to the ground and his pungent sweat dripped down on my face, I was thinking of how much longer that prize money would last, since there’d just one to spend it now. I was thinking of that little blue house in Bisbee that I could just about afford, if I was careful.