In no way was Mrs. Stevens ready to die. She had her book club meeting on Thursday, the charity bake sale at her church to prepare for Saturday evening, the sale itself on Sunday, and she was not even halfway through knitting the baby blanket for her latest grandchild due to arrive in the first week of August. The thought of those things, and a dozen others, rushed to her mind all at once, because she knew she had in fact died on impact within moments of the crash.
As she plummeted downwards in the dark, she heard screams and the screech of car tires, saw the dwindling, blood-soaked back of her own shattered head above her, and heard the key ring for everything he owned clink onto the sidewalk.
When she stopped falling, she sat up and looked around. There was a man standing nearby, leaning against a brick wall outside of a convenience store, drinking a can of beer. He gestured a half-toast, half greeting to her with the can.
She stood up and started to brush off her clothes, then realized there shouldn’t be any clothes, since she was dead. She felt the back of her head. It was intact and covered by hair, not blood. She eyed up the man standing in front of her, who had just taken a long swig of beer and belched loudly.
“I don’t understand. What is this place? It looks just like where I was before, only nicer. It should be all fire and brimstone. And I still have a body. How could that be?”
“The body is just something you’ve created from memory and imagined into this location – makes people feel better to think they still have one. As far as it looking like where you just came from, you’ve heard of hell on Earth, right? Most people haven’t figured this out yet, but there’s also Earth in hell.”
“If so, why does it look so good? Everything is standing out like it was rinsed in mountain rain. Even the air is cleaner.”
“Look – you can’t believe everything you’ve heard in Sunday school about what hell is. It gets a bad rap because that way it’s an income producer for the Church – keeps the flock gathered up tight to that churchly tit. I’ll bet you didn’t even know that there’s also heaven in hell, and hell in heaven.”
“Now you’re just making stuff up and being mean.”
“Au contraire, my friend. I am not.”
“If that’s true, which one am I in?”
“That’s up to you figure out. What makes you think you even are in hell?
“Because I went down, not up.”
“Lady, you’ve been watching too much TV.
Mrs. Stevens studied the man for a moment. He was wearing jeans, sneakers with no socks, a lightweight windbreaker, glasses, and had straight, light brown hair that fell to just above his collar. The man stared unblinking at her for a very long time.
A chill of fear crawled up her spine. “Are you the devil?”
“Do I look like the devil to you?”
“No – you look like just a regular guy. But are you?”
“That’s up to you to figure out too. Let’s take a walk.”
As they moved away from the convenience store and across the mini-mall parking lot, she noticed a homeless man panhandling on the corner. His face was covered with suppurating sores. On the street, a woman went by pushing a baby stroller that that appeared to contain a three year old with Down’s syndrome. Anther woman walked past in the opposite direction carrying a grocery bag. A teenage boy on a skateboard crashed into her hard and she dropped the bag..
“I’m guessing this is the Earth in hell section. I’ve been here before. What did you mean by hell in heaven?”
No sooner were the words out of her mouth when the world fell away and they both shot upwards in a blazing streak of light.
When they stopped, they were standing on a flowing carpet of alabaster clouds. There were people playing harps all over the place for as far as she could see, in long white robes, with vast, glowing, blindingly white wings on their backs, and there was glorious singing.
“Well obviously, this is heaven. It looks just like I thought it would. How is there hell in heaven here?
“You’ll see. Let’s take a walk”.
They traversed the space, their feet barely even touching the clouds as they floated along past the heavenly harpists.
They came to another section of white-robed people, but these didn’t have wings, or only had one. Some didn’t have legs, or were missing an arm and a leg and inching themselves along the ground on their backs or stomachs like worms.
Mrs. Morrison recoiled and backed away. “What the hell is this?”
“Hell indeed. Those are angels too, but ones that God had a few mishaps with. Even he has his bad days. I mean come on; nobody’s perfect.”
She turned away and vomited. The orange-yellow chunks of it dissipated into the clouds, then dripped out the bottom of them.
“I think on Earth they call that “acid rain”. Just kidding – a little insider joke to lighten the mood.”
“Ugh! Get me out of here.”
When they stopped falling, she found herself in a mausoleum. She walked from coffin to coffin and saw every person she had loved in life, who had already died. There were both her parents and an older brother, a best friend, a beloved pet dog, a collage professor who had been her mentor, and even the embryo she had lost in a miscarriage years before.
She wept until it seemed the tears would never stop, and then all seven dead climbed out of the coffins, looking as good as new.
She spun around joyously to the man, but before she could utter a word, the dead were dead and entombed again, then alive once more, then dead yet again.
The man was about to say something, but she cut him off. “Yes, yes. I know. This is heaven in hell. Isn’t there somewhere else I can go?”
The man grabbed another can of beer from somewhere and popped the tab. “Suit yourself.”
“What do you mean suit myself?”
Heaven, Hell; it’s all just a trick of the mind – something you weave around yourself when you think you’re out of time. Your hands, your feet, the bones of your skull the meat of your brain – just rotting stuff; they’re not you. That should be kind of obvious – YOU’RE still here experiencing things.
“I don’t believe that. My existence stopped when my body died.”
“Well, my friend, if that’s what you believe, I guess you really are in hell. See ya around!”
“Wait! Where are you going?”
I’m tired of the whole heaven and hell thing. I’m moving on – see what else might be out there. Want to come?
Mrs. Morrison, thoughtful, watched the man turn and walk away, then she reached up, grabbed her key ring, and hurried to catch up.
Ellen Denton is a freelance writer living in the Rocky Mountains with her husband and three demonic who wreak havoc and hell(the cats, not the husband). Her work has appeared in Burning Willow Press, Gothic City Press, On the Verge and many others.