Don't waste another second of your life worrying about going to Hell. If Hell was your final destination, you would already know.
Evil. I'm not talking about mental conditions that lead to acts of cruelty. Nor am I talking about simple greed, or lust, or hatred. I mean evil. I am talking about a level of degradation and pain, which I have caused so often, that cannot be explained away by madness. Only evil.
I stood just outside the circle of light from his campfire, trying to ignore the mosquitoes settling on the back of my neck. You could still get malaria here in Key West, especially from these mangrove bloodsuckers that lived off hobo blood and brine from the salt ponds. I wanted to be silent. I wanted to watch, to see what Cheeks would do when he saw the dogs. They moved forward as if choreographed – three elderly rottweillers with gray in their muzzles and bullet heads strapped onto broad chests. The middle dog was slightly forward of the other two, their heads lowered, silent as the grave. They resembled fighter pilots moving in an attack pattern.
Predictably, Cheeks let out a yelp and fell back on his ass, kicking up sparks as his left leg shot forward into the fire and jerked back. He looked like he was about to have a heart attack, and I hoped he would. I hoped that old Cheeks would just clutch his chest and die right there. It would be a mercy.
But Cheeks just puffed and stared wild eyed as the rottweilers sat on the other side of the fire, staring at him. I knew what it felt like. Many a day and night I sat alone with the hounds staring at me.
“Sh…shoo! Get! Get!” Cheeks said, but the dogs didn’t move. I knew that they didn’t even blink. They rarely did.
“Cheeks.” I said from the darkness of the mangrove thicket.
“What’s that? Who’s there?” Cheeks asked, peering into the dark, then back at the dogs across the fire from him.
I stepped forward into the light. “It’s me Cheeks. It’s William Hort. I came to visit with you for a bit.”
“William? Billy Hort? You there? Why…it is you. What are you doin’ here? These your dogs?”
“Yeah Cheeks, them’s my dogs. Sorry if they spooked ya.”
“Spooked me! They damn near made me shit myself Billy. Damn you man. Ha!” Cheeks got to his feet and wiped the dust off his ass. “Where you been, you?” And Cheeks came forward and gave me a hug, as if I were an old friend. I guess to him I was.
“How’d you find me here?” Cheeks asked, and then he looked around, ashamed, I guess. “Look at me out here in the mangroves, living like an animal. I gotta tell ya Billy, I am ashamed of what I’ve become.”
I looked around. There was a pot of shrimp boiling over the fire, and back behind Cheeks was a lean-to with a few old clothes draped over the branches. “You got no reason to be ashamed, Cheeks. None at all.”
That made him light up with a gap-toothed smile. Cheeks was a good man, and it hurt me to admit he always had been.
“Why, it’s a humdinger to see you here, Billy. Hotdog! What brings ya back to old Cayo Hueso? Whatcha here for? We gonna paint the town red, like back in the day?”
I pulled out the bottle of rum from my coat pocket, and when Cheeks saw it his grin got even wider. “Here you go Cheeks, lets kill this bottle and have a hoot.”
“Hotdog!” Cheeks said, and clapped his hands, and then we sat on the dirt by his fire and had a couple pulls on the bottle each. When he passed the bottle to me for the third pull, I waved him off.
“You go ahead, Cheeks. I can’t drink like I used to. My stomach can’t take it.”
“Mine sure can.” Cheeks said, and his face darkened. “It’s about all I can do anymore, is drink.” Then he smiled again and looked me right in the eye, merry as ever. “But this is some nice hooch you got here, Billy, and it’s damn good to see you. What’s it been?”
“Last time we saw each other, it was 1956.” I said.
“Why, that’s…what is that?” Cheeks asked, and took another drink.
“That’s six years, Cheeks.”
“I thought about you a lot over those years, Billy. I wondered what happened to you. One day you was there, running the shop, and the next you was gone. We thought you died. What happened to you, Billy?”
“I thought about you a lot too, Cheeks. From the day I left Key West until this very moment, I have thought about you almost constantly.”
Cheeks looked puzzled. He let out one of his famous puffs of confused breath, and then smiled again. “You’re a good friend.” He said to me.
It was good to hear a man say I was a good friend, but it was sad for so many reasons, namely that he was wrong. I was a lousy friend. And it was sad that I had never heard a man say that to me before. And it was sad that I was about to kill the first man to ever say it to me.
“You’re a good friend too, Cheeks, you puffing old bastard.” And I gave him a friendly clap on the shoulder. I felt like an imposter. I felt like a rotten son of a bitch who was trying too hard to be a good friend. But Cheeks had already hit the bottle seven times, and he was always the trusting sort. He just smiled at me and took another swig.
“Damn glad you’re back, Billy. I sure wish it was back in the day. Us working together in your boatyard, putting them ships to right. Man o man, was that ever a good time in my life.” Cheeks face turned dark again, and a frown pulled at him. “That was the last job I ever had, Billy. When you left I never drew another paycheck.”
“I’m sorry about that, Cheeks.”
“It’s worse than that, Billy. You remember my girl, Maria? I loved that girl. I really did. But she left me. I didn’t have no job, and I was drinking too much. I just sat on my stoop, drunk as a lord, and watched her walk away. She was a damn good woman, Billy.”
I paused a bit, thinking of her. “Yes. She was a beauty.” I said.
We sat silent for a bit, staring into the fire. The rottweilers sat across the fire from us, old but still powerful, and more alert than seemed natural.
“Them’s some good trained dogs you got there, Billy. They scared the Hell out of me, but I see you got them trained, now. I see that they’d do whatever you tell them to.”
It was hard to tell in the flickering light whether the dogs were looking at me, or at Cheeks. It was hard to tell which one of us they wanted to eat. One thing I knew for sure – the dogs may have been well trained, but not by my hand. I was not their master.
We sat a while longer, the silence only broken by the crackle of the fire, and the rum sloshing in the bottle as Cheeks tipped it back.
“What happened to you, Billy? Why did you run off?”
“I ran off because I was scared.” I said.
Cheeks didn’t ask any questions. He just nodded his head, his glassy eyes reflecting the firelight. Cheeks always seemed to understand.
“I came back though. I came back to find you, Cheeks. I wanted us to get together and have a high old time, like back in the day.”
“Ha! Well, that we are! What a humdinger!” Cheeks said, and took another drink. The bottle was half empty. “But what scared you off, Billy? What made you run off like that? And why you back seeing an old bum like me? You’re a rich man, Billy. You don’t need to be seen with scum like me. No sir.”
I just looked at Cheeks for a while, remembering him back six years ago. Back then he had Maria, and he had a little house with palms growing in the yard and chickens running in the street. Back then he was a hell of a fisherman too, catching jewfish as big as himself a couple times each week. I remembered how he used to look, with his hair greased back and Maria - sweet, beautiful Maria – sitting beside him frowning at the bottle of rum that was always nearby. I remembered how Maria looked in her white dresses, with her dark Cuban locks spilling over her shoulders.
“I came back to tell you why I left, Cheeks. I came back to see you because I have to, and because I know that you’re the only man that could ever believe me. You always believed every word I ever said, Cheeks.”
“That’s right, old friend.” Cheeks said.
I held my breath a bit, trying to find the courage to say what I needed to say. It was hard to do.
“I’m going to Hell, Cheeks.”
Cheeks thought a moment, and then puffed. “Aww, Billy. Don’t be fretting about that. We all done some bad things, but if you’ve found the Lord now, that’s a good thing. He wouldn’t see it right to punish a good man like you.”
“Not after what I have done.” I said, and secretly I wondered whether God had had any say in my sentence, or whether my dark act had taken my soul out of His hands completely.
“Well.” Cheeks said, and puffed. “I guess that’s it for both of us then. ‘Cause we sure raised some Hell back then. We raised some Hell.”
“You’re not going to Hell, Cheeks.” I said.
“No. Not many do.”
Cheeks looked confused. He took a big swig of rum and puffed. “Not many do?”
“No. Nothing we ever did together was enough to send you to where I am going. If it did, Hell would be overflowing.”
“What did you do that’s so bad, Billy?” Cheeks said, looking at me in earnest.
I smiled a bit. “I knew you would believe me, Cheeks. I knew that you wouldn’t laugh at me.”
“Who would, when a man comes at you in the night, sad as you seem to be? Who could laugh at an old friends misery like that. You’re my best friend, Billy. And I want to see you happy, like back in the day. Maybe you better have another drink.” He held out the bottle, and I took a drink, then handed it back.
“I would laugh, Cheeks. I would laugh right in another man’s face. I ain’t a good man like you.”
“Why, yes you are!” Cheeks said, sounding as sincere as I knew he was. “You were always the best damn man I knew. Working for you was the best days of my life, Billy. You were always the most honest man I ever knew.”
“You better take another drink, Cheeks.” I said, and I stared into the fire until he did as I said. The middle rottweiler licked his graying chops once, and as if on cue, the other two did as well before they all fell back into silence.
“No, Cheeks. I sure did it. I sure did send me straight to the front of the line for Hades. I have committed the ultimate sin.”
“You killed somebody?” Cheeks asked.
“No.” I said.
“Because if you did, then don’t you worry. You’re secret is safe with me, and I know you are a good man. I know that if you killed someone, he deserved it, Billy.”
“Anybody live out here near you, Cheeks. Maybe some other men, nearby?”
“Not too near, buddy. I’m sorry. I’ll keep my voice down. Shit on my stupid old brain, hollering like that. Don’t you worry. There ain’t nobody near enough to have heard me speaking like that.”
“Take another drink, Cheeks. You might need it to hear what I have to say.”
“Alrighty, boss.” Cheeks said, and took a big swallow of rum. There was only an inch or so left in the bottom of the bottle.
“I am going to Hell.” I said.
“Cause you killed a man.”
“No, Cheeks. I never killed anyone. I doubt killing a person would even be enough to send you to where I am going.”
“Did you…then…what? What did you do Billy? Did you…rape a woman, steal something expensive? What was it?”
“Yeah. I raped a woman, but that’s not what is sending me to Hell. I raped Maria right before I left Key West.”
For a moment there was not a sound in the world. Cheeks looked frozen, his mouth open, his eyes bulging. Without a word he lowered his face into his hands and let out a drunken sob. It was the saddest sound I ever heard.
“I knew it.” Cheeks finally said, between hitching breaths. “I had the feeling, just too much of a coward to think about it. How could you do that to my sweet Maria?” Cheeks tilted back the bottle in dejection and killed the last of the rum, then tossed the bottle into the fire.
“You’re right, Billy. You are going to Hell for that one. Yes sir. She was a sweet girl.”
My heart seemed to turn to stone then. But in reality, I knew my heart had always been made of stone. It just took a rare moment of honesty for me to see how hard-hearted I had always been.
“She was a sweet girl, Cheeks. Too sweet for you.”
“You’re right.” Cheeks said, sobbing into his cracked palm. “Too good for an old bum like me. But you’re going to Hell for that one, Billy.”
“No, Cheeks. I’m not. It’s not rape or murder or stealing or anything else like that that is going to send me to Hell. It’s something worse.”
“You done worse?” Cheeks asked, looking at me in awe, as if he couldn’t imagine anything more terrible. I suppose in his situation I wouldn’t be able to either.
“Yeah. I did worse. Do you want to kill me, Cheeks?”
Cheeks thought about it a bit, swaying back and forth as if having trouble hanging onto the ground. He puffed out a breath between rotting teeth and stared into the fire. “I sure do want to kill you, Billy. I want to kill you for hurting my sweet Maria. But…”
“But what, Cheeks?”
“But she ain’t my Maria no more. And I am just an old drunken bum, and I ain’t got nothing. And it all…it all just hurts so much.” Then Cheeks cried. It was no longer a sob, but a full out weeping that was painful to hear.
“Is...is this the reason why you’re going to Hell, Billy? 'Cause you caused me and Maria so much pain?”
“You know how I know I am going to Hell, Cheeks? I know because of these dogs. They showed up at my doorstep the day I tipped the scales and condemned my soul. These dogs have been with me every day since then. They have followed my ever move. I can’t get away from them.”
“Them’s just dogs, Billy. Them’s just dogs, and you’re as crazy as I am. I ought to kill you.”
“They are more than dogs, Cheeks. They are servants of the devil. But if you don’t believe the dogs, maybe you will believe the demon.”
“I ought to kill you, Billy.”
“The demon showed up a few weeks later. Just like the dogs, he was there on my doorstep. He’s been with me ever since, too. I can’t get away from him any more than I can the dogs.”
“I hope you are seeing demons, Billy. It hurts me to say something like that to another man, especially one I thought was a friend! But you hurt my sweet Maria, only she ain’t mine no more!”
“I have to tell you, Cheeks, that when I saw the demon, I wasn’t even scared. The world had been darker ever since I condemned my soul to hell a couple weeks earlier, right before I left Key West. I knew I was going to Hell because I was in the dark grip of the devil. So I wasn’t scared when the demon showed up. He wasn’t even much of a demon.”
“You’re crazy. Not even much of a demon!”
“The demon was just under three feet tall, Cheeks. He’s just here to watch me, to make sure I fulfill my end of the deal.”
“He’s here is he, you crazy old motherfucker! Where is he then? What’s your end of the…end of the deal anyway? I ought to kill you!”
“Yeah, Cheeks. He is here. He’s right over there, watching us.”
I pointed off behind us, into Cheeks’ old lean-to. Cheeks swayed a bit as he turned to look behind him, and there the demon sat, crimson and black, perched on taloned feet, rummaging through Cheeks few belongings.
“My God!” Cheeks said, and the demon turned to sneer at him.
“Yes. Say your prayers, Cheeks. Get as right with God as you can right now.”
“What the hell is that?” Cheeks said, his voice rising in fright.
“It’s a demon, sent here to watch over me and make sure I do what I have to do.”
“What? What do you have to do?” Cheeks looked like he was going to have a heart attack again. He began to shy away from the demon and myself. The dogs rose from their haunches on the other side of the fire, but I doubt Cheeks even noticed.
“I have to fulfill my dark prayer. I have to get what I asked for, Cheeks. You see, I did what no man had better ever do. Six years ago, right before my world went dark as night, right before I went over to your little home and took your wife, I sat in my own house and prayed. I was…I was depressed.”
“I know depression!” Cheeks said. “I know depression alright. I been in a depression my whole sorry life!”
“I knelt beside my bed and I did what no man should ever do. I clasped my hands like a proper Christian and I prayed to God to get what I wanted.”
I jumped forward and grabbed Cheeks by his shoulders. “Do it with me, Cheeks. Get on your knees and clasp your hands.” I pulled him forward into a slouching kneel and put his hands together between us, then I assumed the position of prayer myself.
“I knelt beside my bed and I prayed to God, but it wasn’t God that answered me, Cheeks. I said this right here:
It ain’t right
that a drunk old bastard like Cheeks
gets a beautiful woman like Maria.
It ain’t right
I wish he was dead
I wish he was eaten by dogs
And Maria was all mine
For one night.
That would be the sweetest thing ever
Cheeks looked at me in horror. “You prayed that? You said them words to God?”
“I did, Cheeks. I did what it takes to go straight to Hell. I prayed for the murder of another man.”
“And Hell is what you get, William!” said the demon, right before the rottweillers lept for Cheeks, knocking me aside.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to find the humanity within myself to feel sorry for Cheeks. I wanted to at least be human enough to feel sorry for myself, but there was no humanity left inside me.
“We go now.” The demon said, licking it’s fangs as it watched the dogs tear Cheeks to pieces. “We go to de cemetery.”
“Here, on de island is de cemetery we look for. Der we find Maria.”
“In the cemetery?” I asked.
“Ya, she dead, you know. Tonight you lay wit her in your arms, William Hort. Dat’s what you do on your last night.”
The demon smiled at me. It was a horrendous sight, but I knew that there were many more horrors ahead. I walked away from the campfire, out of the mangrove thicket, to find a cool breeze blowing and the stars shining brightly overhead. It didn’t seem right, feeling the breeze against my face as Cheeks howled in agony behind me, but these are the moments you earn through damnation.