“Enough with the goddamn disco music,” croaked Richard.
How long had he been pedaling? Minutes, Months, Decades?
The room reeked; stale sweat and sulfur and all the funk of thirty-odd souls melting away in a confined space.
Richard could deal with the stench. It was the music that tortured him: an excruciatingly joyful disco beat that cut through the whir of the cycle studio to claw at his nerves.
“You have something to share with the class, Mr. Kempler?” asked Debbie.
As far as demonic cycling instructors go, Debbie was by far the nicest. Which, in this place, didn’t really count for much. The red sheen of her skin, polished horns atop the brow, the flick of a barbed tail; it was all an odd contrast to her colorful Lycra jumpsuit.
“The music,” said Richard. “It’s abysmal.”
Debbie laughed. It was a piercing, harpy shriek that reinforced the severity of their situation.
“That’s the point,” said Debbie. She leaned from her bike and cranked the volume on the stereo. Richard would have covered his ears if his hands weren’t molded to the handlebars.
“I’ll have you know I’m terribly important!” cried Richard, struggling to remember precisely why.
“Oh, I know,” said Debbie, in a tone that one might use to humor a child. “You’re all part of the infernal machine, powering the system with your torment and futile hopes of salvation.” Debbie increased the speed on their bikes. “Now, let’s move it, cretins. Left, right, left, right…”
The pace was frenetic. Richard struggled to catch his breath. He knew this wasn’t his real body (that was rotting in a plot somewhere “up there”), but his spirit manifested its exhaustion in once-familiar ways.
Richard felt his legs giving. He scanned the room for a distraction and his eyes found the large banner along the back wall. It read: ‘If you’re going through Hell, you probably deserve it.’
Somebody at the head of the class stopped pedaling and collapsed. Debbie spurred them on, but when it was certain they weren’t responding, the floor opened up and swallowed them – bike and all – in a flurry of heat.
“Well, that was unfortunate,” said Debbie. “You’ll all have to work a little bit harder now.”
A collective moan issued from the class.
“Ha! If you think I’m nasty, wait till Orcus arrives for his shift.”
The moans became whimpers. There were a few tears.
Richard focused on the music again and immediately hated himself for it. He pulled at where his hands merged with the handlebars, hoping to loosen their grip on him.
The door to the studio burst open. A pair of devilish brutes entered, carrying a bike with a middle-aged man attached to it. They put the bike down where the previous one had been, grunted, and then lumbered out of the room.
The man cowered as Lycra creeped into the folds of his portly frame.
Debbie read from the monitor on her bike. “Everyone, this is Milton Prescott.”
There was a cheerless, unanimous “Hello, Milton,” from the class.
“Milton was a small town mayor from West Virginia, U-S-of-A. He enjoyed playing backgammon, playing jazz flute, and playing with his nephew, Ricky… if you catch my drift.”
Milton sobbed and started to pedal.
A few bikes along from Richard, a grizzled bear of a man (was his name Ted?) eyeballed Milton.
“You really think this sniveling pederast got enough grit to help us power everything?” asked Ted in his thick drawl.
Debbie gazed at Ted in bewilderment. “You honestly believe that’s what you’ve been doing? Powering everything?” She screeched her high-pitched laugh.
Richard shook his head. “You said we were powering the system?”
“Yes, yes I did,” said Debbie. “The stereo system.”
“Stereo…” muttered Richard.
The disco beat broke through him then, exposing a part of his soul he didn’t realise was still there.
Richard stopped pedaling.
Debbie raised a wicked eyebrow.
“You know the rules, Mr. Kempler. You have to the count of three. One…”
“No,” said Richard. “I’m not doing this anymore.”
Debbie slid off her bike and slinked towards him, barbed tail waving playfully behind her.
The others in the class increased their pace, as if compensating for Richard’s defiance.
“You make it sound like you have a choice,” said Debbie.
“I do have a choice,” said Richard. “We all do.”
“Really? And what about the innocent lives lost because of your actions? Did they have a choice? Women… children… entire families.”
“I was acting in the best interests of my—“
“Oh, don’t give me your spiel, Mr. Kempler. You’re a terrible man responsible for terrible things. And you’re about to learn a very important lesson.”
Debbie grinned. She loomed towards him like a cat poised to pounce. “There’s always a deeper hell.”
The ground opened beneath Richard, blasting him with heat as he dropped towards an ocean of fire below. Desperation gave him strength and his left hand tore free from the handlebar. He grasped for the jagged walls of the chasm, made from broken bricks and mortar and the ruins of civilizations.
Richard jerked to a stop, clutching a rusty piece of rebar jutting from the wall. The metal began to twist under the sudden load.
Richard struggled to free his other hand, but the more he tried the more the rebar buckled and groaned. Savage heat from the furnace below rippled in waves around him.
At least there’s no goddamn disco music.
Richard made a choice then.
He let go.
He put his free hand back on the handlebar and pedaled; pedaled harder than he ever had before. Visions of Miss Gulch from The Wizard of Oz, riding her bicycle through a raging tornado, spun in his head.
Richard laughed. He laughed and he pedaled as he plummeted into oblivion.