Feeling thoroughly inspired by my collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman, Smoke and Mirrors, I felt inspired to spin a short story. I like the concept but I’m not sure I really spun the tale the way it should have been spun, so I’m posting it here for you to examine and criticize. Please rip it to shreds, so that a better story comes out.
The Most Famous Destination on Earth (Working Title)
Amelia had been looking forward to this trip for her entire seventeen-year-long life. Everyone went to the mountain. Everyone who was anyone had been to the mountain, and Amelia had waited seventeen whole years to go. Her parents didn’t think travel was very important—and her father didn’t really like crowds or lines—but this year was the year. Amelia was going and she was ready. Finally, she could say that she had been to the most famous place in the country—finally she, too, could brag about basking in the heat on the mountain’s rocky outcroppings, falling for a sweet boy in the red glow of its sunsets, and being ensnared by wonder over the ancient customs of the strange, yet beautiful locals.
She was ready.
She bought a new camera for the trip, and she and her friends—Roberta and Lillian—had all bought new outfits for the entire weekend. As their airplane lifted off, they spent the entire time imagining—guessing at what they would do, pouring over tourist brochures, and snapping photographs of their eager faces.
They few into the airport and from there met with their tour guide. The whole time, Amelia had been writing down a detailed journal of the events. She wrote about how she felt and how everything looked (for she fashioned herself a kind of writer), and about her enthusiasm, and about every person she saw who walked by. (Especially the attractive young men.)
As the tour bus rounded the last of the surrounding foot hills, the girls gasped as they laid eyes on the mountain. It was dark, shaped like a thousand gnarled hands, all trying to reach up into the red, cloudy sky. The clouds swirled like a hurricane, and cracks of yellow, smoky lightning struck out through the glow. It was a perfect black citadel against a red, churning sky, invigorated by the groans of something angry at its core.
Everyone on the bus gasped at its beauty, and then immediately started snapping photos from the window of the bus.
The bus pulled into the resort hotel’s parking lot, and Amelia and her friends hurried out. Hundreds of other tourists were milling about, ready to start their weekend plans with cameras strung around their necks. The hotel was regal and white, with beautiful palm trees that danced in the warm wind. On the other edge of a decorative fence, Amelia could hear small children enjoying the pool.
They hurried up to their room, and spent the early morning looking at the various travel brochures. They ate a comfortable meal, staring at the beautiful view from their window, giggling about their potential suitors, and marking in their brochures what they did and didn’t want to do.
They decided to do the culture tour first, which included dinner, exploring, and a chance to see the local culture at its best. They changed their clothes and joined a tour from outside the hotel lobby.
Amelia opened the window of the bus and let the hot air run over her eager face. She loved the feel of the wind on her face, and as they sped up the mountain, she started to feel elated—excited, full of wonder and amazement.
The road was precarious, like a rollercoaster, with twists and turns and switchbacks that revealed statue after statue of black, scalding rock. Amelia was mesmerized, watching the strange and beautiful countryside go by. Soon her hotel was just a spec on the ground, a gleaming white pearl in the sunlight. She was now under the shadow of the mountain’s clouds, and the hot air from the window was assaulting her face with vigor and new smells. Lightning flashed around the bus, and all the girls had their faces (and cameras) plastered to the window.
The tour guide’s name was Betsy, and as they alighted from the bus at the walking trail, she shook everyone’s hand.
“Walk lightly here,” Betsy was telling the travelers. There was a long stream of walkers ascending the path, and across a small crag, Amelia could see others walking up a different path. It was exciting to be a part of something so popular—to finally see the things that everyone had talked about for so many years! And it was living up to every standard she had imagined it would.
“What’s that smell, Betsy?”
“That would be brimstone!” she replied with enthusiasm. “It’s an ancient word for one of the mountain’s prized delicacies—it’s a local word, really, but you might know it as sulfur.”
“Fantastic! It’s so… authentic!” the excited gentleman said, and began to snap photos with this enormous camera. In a moment, a young woman was asking him about the make and model—and his different lenses.
“After dinner,” Lillian was saying, “We should go sunbathing. Look up there!” She pointed to a flat outcropping where hundreds of women were basking in the heat.
“Yeah! We should do that!” Roberta nodded.
“Then we can watch the sunset from there,” Amelia said.
“Right! And do you know what happens at sunset?” Betsy was next to them, grinning happily.
“No,” the girls said.
“The boss himself comes out to take a look! Every sunset the chief parades by the doorway, and you can watch the local festivities. It is really an eye opening experience, you know—you can really see the local culture at its finest—truly ancient customs that have gone on forever—since time began!”
“The chief likes to put on a good show. You know, for eighty dollars, I can get you and your friends seats in our special interpretation section. When sunset comes, we can interpret the whole show for you, explaining the different rites, and customs, and symbols that are used in the indigenous performance.”
“Oh yes! That would be wonderful!”
They continued to ascend the mountain, and then she saw it—Amelia climbed over the trail, and suddenly it didn’t go up anymore. She had climbed to the top, and below her, on the other side of the mountain’s craggy peak she could see it—a sea of red flames, licking and flaring and screaming with the sound that fire makes. The flames roared, contorting and swirling and screeching, and in the flames were faces—so many uncountable faces—adding to the sound as they bent and howled, adding to the sounds the screams of eternal damnation.
The group gasped—their jaws dropped, stunned by the display of such an amazing view. Everyone paused to take in the magnificence—the majestic colors, the deep, angry sky and the lightning, and most importantly the smell of the sulfur—all adding to the perfection. It was, as Amelia had hoped, the most amazing thing she had ever seen in her life.
They took the scene in for a moment, but only a brief moment, before they picked up their cameras and started snapping away merrily. Amelia took a deep breath of the scent, shot several panoramas, and began walking down the path after Betsy.
“You must get bored, watching all these tourists falter at the sight of something so magnificent.”
“Not at all. Something so amazing never becomes common place,” Betsy responded. “You see, there’s always something happening. Always a different kind of torture, or perhaps a particularly interesting shape of flame—you know, for being eternal, the flames of Hell are very creative. They never disappoint the onlooker. You can never get tired of watching the locals!”
Amelia turned around to look down at the roiling flames and faces again. Smiling broadly, she nodded her agreement. “How fascinating they are!”
“They must feel like zoo animals,” said a man with a wide brimmed hat on. “Having tourists parade in front of them all day like that. Look at them. Poor things. Enduring all that and then having us tromping around taking photographs, pretending as if we really do care about their plight…”
“But it is very beautiful,” Amelia replied. “Surely they must know that it is beautiful.”
“Yes, it is quite a privilege to live in such a gorgeous place,” Betsy replied, grinning and shuffling the gripey man past her. To Amelia, she looked down her nose and said, in a quiet voice, “I always say, if you don’t like tourism—don’t be a tourist! But what can you do? A Debby Downer is a Debby Downer no matter where he ends up!”
Amelia giggled. “You don’t suppose they feel offended at the pictures, do you?”
“No, no,” Betsy waved her hand. “They love the attention from us. Makes them feel important. You know, eternal torture can be a pretty grim lifestyle. We provide them with something to break up the day. Now come along—the ideal viewing point is down this way.”
“Hey look, Amelia!” Roberta said excitedly. “There’s my Aunt Gloria!”
“Really?” Amelia gasped. “Wait, wait, I want to see!”
Roberta was fumbling through one of the brochures that she had. “Okay… so what are they doing to her and why?”
“It says here,” Lillian said—she had always been the brains of Amelia’s group of friends, and she knew everything about everybody—“that local justice requires flatterers to be showered with human excrement. For eternity, of course.”
“Flatterers? That’s a local word, isn’t it?”
“Yes. ‘According to the local dialect,’” she read, “’Flatterers are people who tell excessive lies or enlarge the truth.’”
“Oh,” Amelia nodded, raising her eyebrows. “Why do you suppose they do this?”
“Researchers don’t really agree, but some believe that this is because excrement represents the filth of their previous words.”
“Well I suppose that would make sense—my aunt ran political campaigns,” Roberta explained.
“Wow,” Amelia grinned. “What interesting wisdom the ancients seem to have.”
Just then, as they were admiring the scene of strange justice below, Amelia felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around, and faced a young man. His lips were wide and full, his nose straight, long, and his eyes were a deep, expressive blue-green. His hair was just a little too long, just a little rebellious, and he had a warm, inviting smile on his face. “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation,” he said. His voice sent flutters up her stomach. “Do you want me to take a picture of you and your friends? With the aunt in the background?”
Roberta and Lillian were watching with smirks on their faces, their backs to the flames of hell as Amelia nodded briefly, and barely whispered. “Of course—yes, that would be great.”