By Richard Sanders
Clay and Gerald are on their phones, waiting for their meals at the Margaritaville. Their conversations started with the usual catch-up on work and hobbies. That lasts for about five minutes before turning to their phones, habits needed to fill the silence. There’s a musician in his 50’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt and cargo pants playing Jimmy Buffet covers on acoustic guitar this Saturday afternoon. Gerald loves the seafood mac and cheese, Clay would rather be anywhere else. Instead, he settles for the turkey burger.
These first cousins are only separated by a week. They grew up as best friends, playing Street Fighter together, watching Power Rangers, and teasing each other a lot. Clay would make fun of Gerald’s outbursts and his affinity towards Cher, while Gerald would make fun of Clay’s glasses and the way he ran like a mannequin. They did everything together, mainly because Clay didn’t have a choice. Gerald was always around with Clay while his mom watched them both. It wasn’t until Gerald went to college that the two of them started to drift apart. Three months away from each other, Gerald changed in Clay’s mind. When Clay started to rag on Gerald one day, he didn’t laugh along. Gerald told him to stop, which confused Clay. Gerald always seemed fine with the teasing. What’s so different now? Gerald would go on to get his B.A. in finance, Clay dropped out after one semester as a philosophy major.
Their bonding time went bi-weekly, then monthly, then once in a while when they were both free, it was usually Gerald that wasn’t free. Clay is not setting these cousin dates upon his own volition. His mom is pushing him to reach out to Gerald more. Clay is wearing the same Metallica shirt he wore back in high school with the same thick-rimmed glasses. His entire wardrobe hasn’t really changed. He contrasts with the beach bum aesthetic of Margaritaville. He’s only here because Gerald loves this restaurant. Gerald is wearing a button-up with khakis. He recently got a promotion at the local Credit Union and had to update his work attire. Clay wonders why he has to get dressed up here of all places. Who is he trying to impress? The musician thanks the crowd after he finishes his set. “If I Could Turn Back Time” by Cher begins to play.
“Oh Jesus, this song?” Clay says to himself loudly. Gerald lets out a groan and shakes his head. Clay is not taken aback by the reaction, just annoyed. Gerald would always be annoyed, but at least play along.
It’s just a joke, dude.
Clay and Gerald walk outside. A Christopher Cross song is playing. Clay can’t handle yacht rock music. He keeps his annoyance to himself, not wanting to offend Gerald again.
“So what does the rest of your day look like?” Clay asks.
“Meh, mostly cleaning the house,” Gerald responds.
“Do you wanna hang out?”
“Eh, I’m going to be really busy,” Gerald turns around to head to his car. Not even saying goodbye.
The song “Believe,” starts to play on a loudspeaker. Clay lets out a groan.
“Oh my god, this donkey again?” Clay says out loud. Loud enough for the whole block to hear.
Gerald turns around.
“Why do you that?” Gerald asks.
“Do what?” Clay playfully responds.
“That. Insult Cher. You know I love Cher.” Gerald is not playing along.
“Oh come on, you know I’m just playing.”
Clay knew what he was doing. He wanted to get a rise out of Gerald.
So you’re just going to leave without saying goodbye. Well, fine, fuck you.
“I don’t care. It gets really old after a while. You’re beating a dead horse.”
“Funny, we’re listening to a dead horse,” Clay couldn’t help himself.
“I swear to god!”
Before Gerald could continue his tirade, Clay notices an electric scooter barreling towards them. There isn’t enough time to say anything or act. The scooter crashes into the two of them. The back of Clay’s head smacks hard on the concrete sidewalk. He blacks out.
Clay slowly wakes up. He feels the back of his head, dry, no soreness. He’s no longer outside of the Margaritaville. Instead, he’s in a white room. Clay sits up, head still spinning. He looks around the white room. There are no windows, not even a door. Clay begins to panic. How did he get here? Who brought him here? Is there a way out? One object catches his eye: a maroon jukebox at the far end of the room. For a second, Clay believes they are the only two things in this room until he looks to his immediate left. He is startled by the sight of Gerald lying unconscious. Was he always there? Clay pinches himself, nothing happens. Clay crawls to Gerald and shakes him.
Gerald lets out a grunt and opens his eyes. He looks at Clay.
“Wh-what happened?” Gerald asks. Clay observes him looking around the room, taking in his new surroundings. He quickly sits up, eyes wide.
“Where the hell are we?” Gerald asks.
“No idea,” Clay responds.
Flames burst into the room. Clay and Gerald scream as the sheer force of the fiery crack violently pushes them backward. They both crawl to the corner of the room and huddle, trying to stave off the inferno. The fire stands between them and the jukebox. Gerald makes a bunch of indistinguishable noises while Clay tries to catch his breath; terror and soot choking him. Silhouette antlers rise to the top of the flames. Twenty razor-sharp points glisten in the fire. This figure is close to seven feet tall as the head and the rest of the body follow. The features are more pronounced: blood-red skin, elk fur pants, and a set of eight-pack abs.
Clay couldn’t look away if he tried. The eyes of the beast have ensnared his focus. Pitch black eyes, emotionless, cold, staring at the two of them in the corner. It almost seems too obvious, yet too ridiculous to think that it’s him standing before them. The fire begins to dissipate. The beast breaks the ice.
Clay is frozen in place, staring at the monster. In the corner of his left eye, he sees Gerald covering his face with his hands.
“I said stand up!” The beast thundered. The scream broke through them. They quickly jump to their feet like marionettes being pulled. The creature observes them, not saying a word. Clay is beginning to regain his breath.
“Welcome to Hell,” the beast growls followed by a deep chuckle. Clay’s suspicions confirmed. They’re in Hell, and the Devil stands before them. They’re in Hell…and Hell is a white room with a jukebox? Where are the demons, the tortured souls? The only fire present was for Lucifer’s entrance. Hell is just a white room? These questions weirdly calm Clay. The weirdness of the situation overtakes his panic. Even with the Devil in front of him, he doesn’t feel threatened or in danger. Clay looks at Gerald, and he’s frozen in place, but judging by his slightly wrinkled face, these questions pop into his mind as well.
“Wait, this is Hell?” Gerald asks, his voice mixed with fear and confusion.
“Yes,” the creature responds.
“And that makes you the Devil?” Gerald asks. Clay rolls his eyes. No shit that’s the Devil.
“The Prince of Darkness, Beelzebub in the flesh,” the Devil responds with terrifying pride. A few seconds of silence fill the cramped space. Clay asks the next question.
“Hell is a white room?”
“Damnation takes many forms. It’s specially made for each of my occupants.” Fear is just an undercurrent for Clay now as more questions fill his mind. Why is this room his hell? Why does he share it with Gerald and a jukebox?
“So why a white room?” Clay asks.
“Solitary confinement is true evil. Isolation rots the mind and soul.”
“I mean, I get that, but why are we here together?” Gerald asks. Clay makes note of Gerald’s annoyed patronizing tone.
As the Devil answers, more questions swirl in Clay’s mind. All of this seems unorthodox. He’s not one for religion, but he assumed that Hell would be more traditional (i.e. generic.). Clay at least thought he would spot Hitler, Ted Bundy, or Nancy Reagan. He’s not even going to see famous people in Hell? He’s just stuck with Gerald and a jukebox. Why is his Hell a white room? For that matter, why is he in Hell?
“Quick question, why am I here?” Clay asks.
Gerald and the Devil turn to look at Clay. The Devil gives an annoyed sigh, he probably gets this question about once a minute. Gerald’s eyes widen.
“Yeah, what did I do? I vote democrat, donate to the humane society, and babysit for my sister once a month. I’m a good person,” Gerald asks.
“Are you now?” The Devil asks with a smirk and a raised eyebrow.
The Devil is calling bullshit on Gerald, that’s what Clay thinks at least. Gerald always complained about babysitting, he only started voting last year, and he returned the cat he adopted only two months prior because it vomited in his kitchen. Clay knew all this stuff, and he’s not the ruler of evil. That’s not to say Gerald belongs in Hell, but Clay wouldn’t confuse him for a symbol of virtue.
“Why am I here?” Clay asks again.
“I can answer that,” Gerald interjects.
Taken aback, Clay turns to Gerald.
“You don’t tip wait staff, and you mock everything I like!” Gerald’s voice particularly rose at the third point. Clay’s mockery ranges from Gerald’s favorite songs to the science fair project that Clay once called “participation” worthy. Clay only got a participation ribbon for his science fair project while Gerald got 2nd place. It’s a button he continuously pushes. The label on the button that says “Fuck with Gerald,” is faded at this point. When he’s down, Clay knows exactly what to do to make himself feel better.
“Oh come on, I only make fun of Cher,” Clay says.
“First off, that’s a lie. Second, Cher is my favorite singer! And you do this just to piss me-“
“Silence!” The Devil yells, taking control of the room once more. “It’s funny that you both mention Cher. My first command is right in front of you.” The Devil motions to the jukebox. Clay and Gerald stare at it, completely confused.
“I don’t get it,” Gerald says.
“Both of you will listen to two songs each from the jukebox. Whatever is played will be loathed by you individually,” The Devil states. He reaches into his back pocket, pulls out a U.S. two-dollar bill, and hands it to Gerald. “These four songs will play on a loop for all eternity.” The Devil motions Gerald to the Jukebox. Clay looks at the two-dollar bill. This is just silly. Listening to bad music is our punishment? Why does Hell use U.S. currency? More importantly, why does Gerald get to go first? Clay and Gerald lock eyes, all Gerald does is shrug.
Gerald slowly walks to the jukebox. His feet merely slide across the white floor. All Clay could do is watch. He sees Gerald just staring inside the jukebox when he reaches it, what is he looking at? The jukebox sucks the bill from Gerald’s hand quickly, making him jump. Silence fills the air. More doomsday scenarios fill Clay’s mind. Is the machine just going to explode, or even stab Gerald? There has to be more than just songs. It’s Hell for god’s sake.
The jukebox plays the first song, disturbing the silence. Power chords from an electric guitar play the first two measures before being joined by another electric guitar and drums. Gerald lets out a groan, it’s “Detroit Rock City,” by Kiss.
“Really?” Clay says.
Gerald turns to him. “What?”
“You can’t seriously think this song belongs here.”
Clay and Gerald argue all the time about Kiss. Gerald always brings them up after Clay initiates a debate about how Cher is overrated. Kiss is one of Clay’s favorite bands.
Gerald walks toward him, “All Kiss songs belong in Hell. They truly make me want to die again.”
“But they’re so good!”
“They’re noise cancer, Clay, and now we’re destined to listen to this crap forever.”
“Well that’s fine, I guess this is my personal Heaven now!” Clay folds his arms as he looks away from Gerald. The Devil is in the corner observing the two of them argue. His body language mimics a spectator at Wimbledon. The two of them carry on for the entirety of the three-minute song. Gerald is the first to notice that it’s over.
“Whatever,” Clay murmurs to himself. The sound of an acoustic guitar now enters the room. Its smooth, relaxing picking makes Gerald groan even louder. Clay’s jaw drops, looking even more offended than before, how can “Hotel California,” be on anyone’s Hell jukebox.
“Well, this makes sense. This song lasts an eternity,” Gerald states, rolling his eyes.
“Man, you have shit taste in music,” Clay says, getting more defensive by the second. Two of his all-time favorite songs are on Gerald’s Hell jukebox. Sure, he makes fun of Cher all the time, and even some of Gerald’s favorite musicals like RENT, but he mostly does it to troll. He doesn’t actually despise them. These two songs playing right now feel like an attack. Clay looks over at the Devil smiling so wide. He’s pretty sure he can count all of his teeth.
“Look, I’m sorry that I don’t like your boring ass dad music, but that doesn’t give you the right to insult my taste in music,” Gerald cuts back.
“You’re insulting my taste now! Your jukebox is a middle finger to me!” Clay replies, his voice getting louder. “Plus, you’re objectively wrong. This is one of the greatest rock songs in history.”
Gerald lets out a little chuckle. “Ok.”
“I’m serious. Just listen to this guitar solo coming up!”
“Well that won’t be hard, I can’t even hear myself think!” Gerald yells. Clay begins to notice how loud the music is. He didn’t realize that he had been shouting for the past five minutes until now. “I just love how you can make fun of everything that I love for so many years, but you’re near a meltdown after just 10 minutes of this crap,” Gerald continues.
Clay has no response. He turns away from Gerald. All of his insults were in good fun, at least for him. Clay always took pride in his music taste, in his mind that was one of the few things he had over Gerald. The guitar solo begins to fade down. The song is over, and Gerald lets out a sigh. Clay rolls his eyes. He jumps back a few inches when the Devil pops up next to him with a two-dollar bill. Clay takes it from his hand and marches over to the jukebox. When he reaches it and looks inside, he notices that the interior shows no CDs or any other type of music selection. There are no buttons on the jukebox, just a slit to put the bill in. He’s eager to put the money in. Whatever comes out of that jukebox is going to piss off Gerald, and he is dying to see his face. Let’s see how he feels when his favorite songs are worthy of eternal torture.
Only a few seconds of silence pass after the jukebox takes the two-dollar bill. The theme from Jaws begins to play. Clay raises an eyebrow, why would that be on his jukebox? But then the song changes: a little faster tempo, an electric drum beat introduced, and more uplifting strings.
“Oh good god no,” Clay gravely states. As soon as those words leave his lips, “Baby Shark,” goes to the chorus.
“Oh, Jesus Christ, not that one!” Gerald yells. The two of them turn to the Devil, who looks so proud of himself. All he does is give them both a shrug.
“Why isn’t this song on my jukebox?” Gerald asks.
“This song should be on Everyone’s jukebox!” Clay says.
The Devil looks at the ceiling with a pondering expression.
“I would say maybe 40% of my occupants have this song on their jukebox.”
“Only 40%?” Clay asks.
“People have different tastes,” the Devil says matter of factly.
Gerald leans into Clay’s ear to whisper. “Maybe some of the 60% might be babies."
Clay is shocked by that statement. Why would there be babies in Hell? Who is the youngest occupant? This train of thought is interrupted by the Devil.
“I will say, for some people, the song gets longer and longer when played repeatedly,” Clay groans, “How long will this last for?”
The Devil shrugs like a rascal.
Clay closes his eyes and lets out a sigh, expecting to listen to this hellscape for an hour. He quickly opens them however when he realizes that the song ended. Did it even make it to Grandpa Shark? There’s plenty of time to torture them with that song, he guesses. Not even a second passes, however, before “Wannabe,” begins to play. Clay drops to his knees, he loathes this song to his core. He looks up at Gerald with a sudden grasp of hope in his eyes.
“What do you think now, Gerald? One of your fav songs in Hell!”
“Actually, I can see how this can be annoying,” Gerald says.
Clay’s jaw drops. A song that doesn’t even illicit a furrowed brow from Gerald. He just assumed Gerald loved The Spice Girls. Indifference somehow seems worse for Clay. He’s the only one tortured by this song. Clay stands up and walks toward Gerald.
“This is bullshit!” Clay yells. “How are these two songs on my jukebox?”
“Because they’re terrible?” Gerald asks.
Gerald is too calm. Clay thinks of two quick names he knows will piss Gerald off.
“They couldn’t put in a Cher or Dolly song on my jukebox?”
Gerald throws up his hands.
“Of course, two of my queens. Not surprised you would say them.”
“Well, your two songs were two of my favorites. I don’t even get the satisfaction of pissing you off?”
Gerald places his fingers on the bridge of his nose as if fighting off a headache.
“Oh dear god, it’s not about having songs to piss other people off, it’s about songs that piss you off. And it just so happens that ‘Baby Shark’ is on the same level as ‘Hotel California.’”
Clay puts his hand behind his neck. Why can’t Gerald just admit he’s incorrect?
“You know that’s just factually wrong! Even if you think Hotel California is a bad song, you certainly know that it’s not Baby Shark bad.”
Gerald marches closer to Clay. His stature and piercing eyes make Clay shrink a little bit.
“You have no idea what I like. You never even asked me about my music taste. Did you know that I love GWAR and Missy Elliot? No, of course, you don’t. All you know is that I love Cher, and you take that knowledge to shit all over her.”
“What’s the big deal? It’s just all in good fun! I like some of her songs, but there are songs from her that I do despise though.”
“If that’s the case, why isn’t she on your jukebox?”
Clay didn’t have an answer to this question. Why wasn’t Cher on his jukebox? Why these two songs? Sure, he hates them both, but they’re not the only songs he hates.
“It’s not just about Cher. You make fun of Margaritaville, my clothes, and you called me a sellout for taking a job at a bank. I’m sorry I’m not some snobby loser who only has music taste to make myself feel better than everyone else.”
That final comment takes Clay by slight surprise. Gerald’s voice drops about an octave.
“All this time, the trolling, the insults, just because you were insecure about me being better than you. What a sad way to live.”
Clay slowly backs away from Gerald. That voice is not his. The terrifying growl from him accentuated the final point that punched Clay in the gut. There was a lot of truth in that statement. He did love trolling Gerald, and that’s all he wanted to do? He never did ask him who were his other favorite artists. He makes fun of everything he does, particularly when it was an academic or a professional achievement. Does he even like Gerald? Was their friendship only there due to circumstance? So many questions continue to fill Clay’s brain, he hates feeling this vulnerable. Desperate to regain control of himself, he returns to the original subject at hand.
“This is ridiculous,” Clay states. “How are these songs even chosen?”
Clay turns to where the Devil was, ready to pepper him with questions about the song selection criteria, but he wasn’t there. No major fire to announce his departure, not even a goodbye. Clay briefly searches the room, but he knows it’s futile. All he can find is a jukebox, and Gerald scowling at him. It’s only Gerald and Clay in the white room. “Detroit Rock City” begins to play again.
Richard Sanders writes creative fiction, specifically horror, dark comedy, and the absurd. He lives in Columbus, OH with his partner, Jenny, and their cat, Iroh. He enjoys coffee, hosting movie-watching parties, and playing his Nintendo Switch. Richard also runs a monthly newsletter: MacGuffin Movie Club. It provides editorials on filmmakers, opinion pieces on movie-specific subjects such as the best snacks for movie watching, reviews, upcoming releases, and more. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.