‘If we could’ve slept, then maybe things would’ve been different, but the heat… the heat was unbearable. Take off your skin and you’d still be baking, you know, what they tell you hell’s gonna be like before you actually get here and discover it’s this,’ she shrugged at the apparent nothingness in the air above.
‘This is not hell,’ the master’s voice rose only slightly, but sharp enough to cut through glass and steel. ‘Believe you me, you would know if this was hell. Besides, Mona, how could this be hell when you are not yet dead?’
Hearing her name on his lips felt strange, wrong in a way, but at the same time, close, like she’d heard the master say it before. In nightmares, in all the waking hours that seemed to drift by her, stuck inside an endless loop of numbness and morphine never just high enough to actually take the pain away.
‘Right. Well, like I said, it was something awful hot out there which was strange, ‘cause on the ride up, even in the middle of the day, it wasn’t nearly as bad. It had been just an ordinary day up till nine or ten o’clock, just when we were getting ready to drift off. I’ve always been a bit of a night owl, but Jack, he was one of those people up at the crack of dawn, never could understand it myself…’
Another raised eyebrow, another tilted warning that she was straying off her track.
‘I just kept tossing and turning. In the end, I figured I’d rather go for a walk, thinking maybe outside it would be slightly better, at least give Jack a chance to fall asleep, because I knew it was me keeping him up, I knew deep down that he couldn’t really feel the heat. I knew something was wrong and I could’ve stayed with him, but I chose not to. We figured one of us had to leave, to just quiet down. That’s what our dad used to call it, quieting down. Outside the motel, there were these… woods. I was always a stickler for the woods, what with being a city kid mostly. I never got to run out into the forest and lose myself and was always left with the impression that I’d lost out on something.’
They were leaving the motel, it seemed, and the further they strayed, the more his interest waned. The master did not care for the monsters in the forest. He’d seen monsters, he housed plenty of them right beyond those heavy doors. He did not require more man-made ones.
‘I just tip-toed on the line of the forest, you know, where nature meets… highway, I suppose. I always liked doing that, feeling like maybe I could fall in, but never quite falling, you know?’
‘I walked for a long time, until I could feel the breeze on my neck again. It was so nice out there, I could’ve stayed forever, but I could feel my eyelids getting droopy, growing tired. I knew there was something wrong about that motel and then, when I felt the night wind as I knew I should be, I just had this overwhelming urge to run and get Jack out of there, but it was too late. I ran for an even longer time, as if the distance between me and Jack was growing ever wider. And the more I ran, the slower I actually moved. Like in one of those movies that go in slow-motion, like the earth was slowly reaching its’ claws up to lap at my feet.’
There was the faintest trace of a smile on the master’s lip.
‘By the time I got there, it was too late. It was like a hole we’d slipped in, like one of those exits on the highway you know you’re not supposed to take, but you take anyway. When I came back into the room, Jack was dead. Lying on his back, just like I’d left him. He hadn’t so much as burned to death, no, everything in the room was intact, but his organs,’ her voice hitched, again for dramatic effect, ‘they just burst open inside him. Like the rook was slowly roasting him alive from the inside out, until each and every one of his organs popped like a balloon.’
‘Like a hamster inside of a microwave oven,’ the master shot her a lop-sided grin and watched as Mona’s face turned even paler than her burned hair.
‘How do you know about that?’
‘I know… just enough. It’s in your memories. In fact, it was the first thing you thought about when you saw Jack lying there, wasn’t it? Mick, the Irish hamster that your father thought would be fun to roast, just for a gag. That’s how you got the idea for all this, isn’t it?’
The girl collapsed, bit by bit, she sank into the hard bench beneath. Just like that, in under one second, she’d tragically lost her hope. The master had seen through her and this could not be a good sign.
‘Yes.’ It was the only thing she could do, tell the truth, hope to sway him with her pitiful look. She thought that the very state of her would be enough to soften any man, but the master was no mortal man and he’d seen a great many mourners looking far worse.
‘Your story was rushed,’ the master declared, even-toned.
‘I was afraid of keeping you, I didn’t want to try your patience,’ she tried to steady the rising panic in her own voice, but failed.
‘Here, you have all the time in the world, but you should have known that before arriving on my doorstep. You may not try again.’
Bleach-blonde Mona gulped, then nodded. ‘At least, tell me what was wrong, please.’
‘That only you can find out. But one thing that particularly grated my ear were all those ‘likes’ you’re so keen on using, as if you’re searching for my approval every step of the way. A storyteller does not ask, Mona, he commands. If you don’t believe what happened in your story, how can you expect me to?’
A nod. She’d expected this, deep down. After all, she was only on her first try, no one had ever made it on their first try, no one except for one.
‘No reason, you have all the time in the world to learn.’
In this strange new light, the master – up till now, so far away, so distant and aloof – almost seemed amiable. Kind, even. But then, of course, he could afford to appear kind, for he didn’t have any actual torturing to do. They took care of that for him.
‘Can I ask you one more thing?’
He was about to gesture for her to go away, or failing that, be taken away, but his hand remained frozen on the way up and after a long moment of studying her face for riddles, he conceded.
‘What’s your story? How did you end up here?’
The master couldn’t restrain the faintest of grins taking over his face. It had been a long time since he’d been asked that and I suppose a touch of practice never hurt anyone. Besides, the girl had been clever, the least he could do was admire her for that. The master licked his cracked lips and the story, once more, began.
to be continued