I looked back to see two white suns rush toward me like hungry lions, open wide with jarring roars before consuming me whole. One moment I was there, aware, feeling, thinking. The next, I was not. And from there, I crossed both a start, and an end.
"Try to defib again!"
"Can we please get someone to check her vital signs?"
"Doctor, her mom is trying to come in. Should I tell the nurses to-- ?"
"Yes, please, this is a very urgent situation if you can't tell. I think we'll need emergency surgery-- christ!"
"The ECG-- she's flatlined!"
"I'm not losing another one! Hurry!"
I finally opened my eyes again. I expected to see a white medical ceiling and the relieved faces of doctors, but my heart sank into my stomach when I realized I had no idea what I was seeing. It was just cold hard blackness, and I was floating effortlessly, like being underwater but still able to breathe. I tried my hardest to search my brain for answers, but the wire from memory to consciousness had been cut, and my mental screen was empty. I began to move my arms aimlessly, not sure where I was trying to go or grab, but it was worth an attempt at something. My hands did obey and I was able to float around. Suddenly, I spotted something in the distance.
A tiny white dot lingered faraway. Gulping, I tried to push my body forward, and I could see the white dot expanding and growing bigger much more rapidly than I expected judging by the distance. Although my face was sweaty and my heart was racing from anticipation, I began to feel a certain warmness, like a hug from rays encircling my being. I kept pushing on, kicking my legs and thrusting my arms until the white dot had expanded to most of my vision. It was blinding and my eyes grew a little teary, but I kept trying, being motivated only by a sense of desperation at first-- but by the end, by a sense of effervescent belonging. And finally, with my outstretched hands and a smile beginning to curl on the edges of my lips as a few tears escaped my eyes and sped down quickly--
The oceanic light had drained.
Suddenly, I was falling, not just lightly or aimlessly but falling into what seemed to be a pit. The lightness rapidly escaped my vision as I continued to fall, letting out a high-pitched scream as I began to feel cold large fingers gripping at my arms and my thighs and my neck.
"No! Stop! STOP!" I screamed at the top of my lungs, thrashing like a shark in a net as I pushed forward all of my strength. The fingers, shaped like distorted, rigid spider legs of sheer black, yanked me down until I suddenly hit a cold hard floor. I knocked out instantly.
The next time I awoke, I saw something that a child would see in a nightmare after watching a horror film.
"Whoa, you took quite the fall there, darlin'." A short, stumpy looking red-- human?-- I blinked and my eyes struggled to adjust, feeling dry and tired. The smooth voice was unsettlingly adjacent to his actual form, which seemed more goofy than creepy, "Do you need some help?" I didn't know how to even began to speak. Did I need help? Well, I wasn't sure what I needed, but help didn't seem far from it. What help could he possibly give me though? Could he explain what I just saw? Could he explain how and when I was going to go back to the doctors' office? Was I actually in some kind of afterlife and if so, why hasn't this short stumpy man gone to Earth and made his presence known?
"Hello?" He asked with a touch of concern, waving a hand over my face. His fingernails were a bit long, I noted.
"Yes... hey... hi... hello. Hi." I spoke charismatically, of course, my tongue tripping over itself. I sat up and rubbed the back of my head, which was still aching pretty badly. A low whine emerged from the back of my throat as I eyeballed wearily around myself. I saw a drearily red and black environment, mostly rocky and barren, with not another soul to be found. In front of us I looked and noticed a sign. I blinked a few times, not even sure if I read it right the first time.
Hell - Level 1- Entrance
"To be honest, I haven't seen a fall like that in... well..." The man rubbed the little beard on his chin as his tail-- oh god he had a tail?-- curled up underneath him like a curious cat, "Actually, ever. But my memory may not be the greatest, I've had this job for way too long. I think I'm well overdue for a promotion." I rubbed my face and was relived that my skin still mostly felt the same, and upon looking at my hands, I did not grow spikes or turn red or have fairy wings ever. A moment of silence passed between us.
"What the hell is going on... ?" I finally asked.
The man stared at me with hazel eyes, although the area around the pupil was yellow instead of creamy white. He just stared for a few moments, and I considered maybe he didn't speak English, but wasn't his blabbering earlier in English? Suddenly, a little smile curled on the edges of his lips, and he cackled, and his cackle grew and eventually erupted into a full laugh. He swatted me on the arm playfully. I didn't appreciate it.
"Wow-- and punny too! You know, this is usually the part where someone will start to beg with me. Oh, no, please don't do this. This was a mistake. I want to be with my parents. Am I actually dead? But this can't be! I went to church every Sunday!" And he shrugged and grinned wider, "And then-- then there comes the tears." He crossed his arms and just kept on talking, "But do you know my favorite part of it all?"
I mechanically shook my head no, still not believing my eyes.
"When someone cries so hard they begin to choke on their tears. When you cry so hard that you can't breathe. That expressing your sadness-- your pain-- suddenly it becomes more important than expressing your ability to live." He chuckled, "Sounds like some poetic bullshit, eh? Nah. I just find it funny. Babies do it a lot."
"So you're telling me I'm dead and I'm in hell?" I finally said, with a hefty breath escaping my lips.
He stared at me as if I just suggested that he pull an elephant out from between his buttcheeks. "It's a shame even though you're punny and brave, you're not all that bright." He put his hands on his hips and eyeballed me up and down. "Yes, darlin', you dun died and dun went to hell. There isn't another way to get here."
I rubbed at my face in disbelief. I was trying to recollect my thoughts, but they were escaping me, and it was painful. What happened before the accident? What was the accident even about? And how long had I been in the hospital? I could only hear noises, but I thought I had some idea of time. Racking my brain for answers and being given a blank sheet of paper in return was the single most frustrating thing. It wasn't far off from my normal experience living my normal twenty one years though. Being an introvert had led me to a life of constant over thinking, overanalyzing, and a lack of actually--
"You don't talk much, do you?" He raised a brow at me. I forgot that someone was with me, for a moment.
"Okay... okay." I finally said, moreso to myself then him-- her?-- it sounded like a guy, but does human logic really still apply?-- "What's your name?"
"My-- ?" He blinked at me several times, and I realized the smile was wiped clear off his face and a look of bewilderment came over him. Suddenly, he seemed almost a little bashful, like a toddler being spoken to by a stranger. He gulped slightly and rubbed the back of his muddled, dark and matted hair. "I..." He looked down, and I was surprised at the delayed response to a relatively simple question. He scoffed a little bit as he rubbed his neck,
"Christ. Okay. My name is Drew."
"Why all the hesitation?" I asked directly, voice sharp as daggers.
"Well-- shit. I'm just not used to personal questions is all. I'm treated like-- you ever worked retail?"
I shook my head no.
"Well there goes that method of comparison. You ever work a day in your life?"
"I am-- or... was-- going to school."
"Oh man. School. Yeah, you'll forget that shitty experience soon enough."
I inhale, and then exhale. This guy.
"Well, darlin'-- did you have anythin' to ask me?"
I rubbed my temples. That was an understatement. Why couldn't I get my thoughts clear?
"Okay... let's start with this." I wrinkled my forehead as I tried to gain more composure, "Why am I here?"
He looked at me curiously, tilting his head to the side. He slowly took two steps towards me. I flinched, and took a step back, stunned and wary. His aura changed to a degree and noticed a look of compassion in his eyes, if only fleeting, and he reached one of his grubby, deep red and scaly hands towards me wordlessly. I gulped slightly, but didn't pull away this time. He grabbed my wrist and flipped it upside-down, then pulled up my sleeve slightly, and I shuddered lightly as I felt his scaly skin grace my wrist.
Then, I looked down and what I saw burned a hole into my memory for as long as memory could be. Instantly gasped, covering my hand with my other hand as I yanked my wrist again in abrupt horror.
"It says 'R'--" He began gingerly.
"I saw what it said! What does that mean?" I was shocked by how loud I got, how scared I sounded, but at the same time it was within reason. I had a letter imprinted into my arm, right above my vessels, red and jarring and deep as my blood. I didn't even notice that for the first time since everything had happened, my eyes were beginning to water. The reality was setting in. I almost didn't want to hear his response, and as I glanced up at him like a fearful deer caught in a trap with no way out, I made eye contact and I could see him looking straight into my soul-- and he could see my sudden vulnerability.
He inhaled, and exhaled slowly. He looked at me for a few moments before looking at the rocky, dreary ground. A moment of heavy silence passed. He muttered something.
"What?" I asked, my voice cracking.
"Religion." He repeated, a little louder this time.
Suddenly, it hit me. Atheism. It was the first thing I thought, my mind abruptly clearer. "I'm in hell because I don't believe in God?"
"That would be it, darlin'. That's all it takes."
"Well, shit, I believe in him now." I said in pained exasperation.
"Heh. Do you? Also, unrelated, but that was the first swear word I heard you say, darlin'." He cracked a smile, almost seeming to enjoy the step away from the heaviness-- did everything have to have some humor in it?
"I think this is an acceptable time to swear." I said somewhat sullenly, my voice cracking again as I curled in a little bit upon myself. I hated when my voice cracked. I was socially awkward enough as is; I didn't need the added benefit of sounding like a fourteen year old boy.
"Fair enough. Anything else, darlin'?"
"Why don't you give me a summary?" I suddenly said, still curling into myself from the previous horror of seeing my arm change without my permission. It felt invasive, but even moreso, it felt so much more real now. I didn't just have a sentence, but I was sentenced for a crime. Being able to hear him just talk and explain would do me a lot more good than struggling for questions that weren't tangible.
"That'd be a damn long summary, but... shit. I'll try for you, cause I find ya more endearing than the usual asshat who waltzes in here." I inhaled, and exhaled, rubbing my arms a little to console myself.
"So, I'm guessing you have a faint idea of what Hell is about. Even people who aren't Christian tend to know. But you don't gotta worry about some of the messier stuff. You won't get tortured here, or-- I mean-- I haven't seen some of the lower levels myself-- but considering your sin ain't all that bad, then I'm sure Lucifer will keep you quite comfortable here."
"Lucifer-- ?" I interpreted in disbelief, but he kept on talking. My voice must've been too quiet to really notice.
"This is level 1, which is really just the entrance. So people come down here, and are assigned to guides like myself depending on... well, age and language mostly. We don't get babies down here, of course, but once a human noggin' begins to work and begins to think, 'hey, maybe God is a thing that exists and I'm not just sayin' that cause momma told me to'-- well, at that point, they're a lovely candidate to hell."
"You're talking like this is all some big joke..." I murmured, louder this time so he would hear it.
That similar grin crossed his face. "Darlin', one day or another you'll find out that laughing at misery feels a lot better than crying at it."
I gulped, and said nothing.
"Back to what I was saying. You'll get a free place to stay, and you won't have to work, because demons like myself take care of that. Demons have either always lived here, or in the very rare, exceptional case-- demons are like Lucifer, used to be Angels but got casted here as God's punishment for rebelling."
I nodded a little, just listening. I noticed his jagged, rotting teeth as he talked, dancing in his mouth.
"But that's not important for you right now. My job is to introduce you to Hell and then bring you to your home. And you're free to take as much time as you like, because time-- time holds a lot less meaning when you don't have a lifetime at all. You understand, of course?"
I nodded again. I was feeling a little sick to my stomach.
"From there, you should be able to figure the rest out. And asking almost any demon will help you. Of course, there are some... not so nice demons, but considering you'll be on an upper level of Hell, you have nothing to worry about. It's the lower levels where all those assholes are."
"Can I ask you one more thing?" I asked tenderly, still rubbing my arms and trying to keep my composure. I was picking my words carefully, as I generally did to try to avoid mouthing some goofy nonsense.
He nodded. "'Course."
I gulped, and sighed, and readied myself. I closed my eyes for a moment and pictured the naive little white dot again, floating in the black sky so bright and so comely. I began to speak directly from my heart, recalling the experience in my mind as the words played out from my tongue, "When I first... 'died'... or whatever... I saw a white dot. And I tried to swim towards it-- I was floating-- and I was so close, and it was warm and wonderful and--" I looked down at my feet for a moment, "Well, I'm thinking, what if that was heaven? It logically makes sense. People always describe going towards a white light when they're dying or whatever. Is that normal?" I finally looked back at him and I was surprised to see he was surprised. A pit formed in my stomach. "Is... that bad?"
He bit the inside of his lip as he eyeballed his feet, then looked back at up me in seriousness, "What's your name, darlin'?"
"A little late for asking, but I'm Lydia." I muttered.
"Lydia." I said loudly enough for him to hear.
"Okay, well... darlin'--" (Why did he even ask for my name?) "I've been in this business for far longer than your human mind can even comprehend--" And he shook his head, "And to be brutally honest, I've never heard a thing like that."
I inhaled shakily. 'Please keep talking.' I thought, begging. 'Please don't be finished.'
He wasn't finished talking, thankfully, but what he said didn't exactly ease my emotional burden. "Usually when someone dies, they're immediately pulled here. God-- or-- well, I've never gone drinking with the guy, so I don't know for sure-- but I assume God has them on the good or naughty list by the time they die. He's supposed to be a sorta smart guy so it makes no sense to me why he'd go 'just kidding' and let hell pull you down."
"You're telling me that it was heaven and I was going there?" I clarified in seriousness, furrowing my brows as I looked directly at him.
He shook his head in irritation. "Use your noggin'. I just told you that demons always existed here. I've never stepped foot on Earth. Or Pluto or Mars, for that matter. That should go without saying I never died. I never lived. Now, how should I know what heaven is like?"
"You're a real smartass." I scowled.
"I try, darlin." He suddenly grinned a little, seeming awful proud of himself.
A moment passed. I realized he honestly was just helping, and my comment wasn't exactly needed. I sighed in defeat, rubbing my temple, "I'm sorry, I just..." I scoffed a little, shaking my head at how woefully absurd this entire situation was. Part of me still hoped this was some stupid nightmare, "I don't mean to be rude. It's been a rough day..."
"I can imagine." He said casually.
"What should I do?" I sighed, and looked at him again with slightly pleading eyes, "About this? About the heaven thing?"
He frowned slightly as he gave it some considerable thought. I played with my sleeves a little bit, feeling uneasy. The silence was dreadful and I wanted it to end. He rubbed his chin-beard before looking directly at me, "I normally wouldn't say this, so listen closely."
He clenched his jaw for a moment before releasing it and looking astray, "I think that might be something to ask a more... official demon. I mean, I'm pretty official myself--" I stared at him, and he cleared his throat bashfully, getting back onto topic, "What I mean is, this may be something to ask one of Lucifer's personal demons about. Or... Lucifer himself... perhaps." The last part was a bit more quiet.
"You think I should-- talk to the actual Lucifer?"
"I don't know what else to tell you, darlin'. You could ask around, but us guides have the most contact with new humans, and I've never heard a story like that." He shrugged slightly, and gave it some considerable thought. Finally some solution was formed, "... Tell you what. I'll get you established in your home and then ask around. Eventually, I should be able to get a message from Lucifer, although it'll take time--"
"Can't I just go directly there? Can't you just-- I mean, isn't there some way-- ?"
"You're damn near crazy." He shot the idea down instantly, "He's on the lowest level. The most dangerous. Not to mention the levels to get down there. No. Absolutely not. I may be an asshole sometimes, but to let you go there..." He shook his head. The thought was inconceivable.
I didn't know what to say. I really wanted to know as soon as I could, but as long as I could find out-- if there was some minuscule chance I could go to heaven or-- actually preferably, back to Earth-- I would take it in a heartbeat. Some hopeful part of me was wishing that if I went to heaven and asked some angels really, really nicely, they'd send me back to my body and I could live normally again. The possibilities were endless and yet here I stood, perplexed, forlorn, and terrified.
Drew patted my arm after my long, drained silence. "Okay, darlin'. Let's get going to your new home."