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We All End Up There
The sky wasn’t red. There was no burning sun or ominous clouds. It was twilight, a cool breeze on the air. Trees surrounded him, towering over like a maniacal puppet master, vines reaching towards him as if to grab hold of him and never let go. Somehow he knew he wasn’t supposed to be there. Then he noticed he was still in his blue striped pajamas, barefoot on the forest floor.
It was only then he began to feel the sharp sting of jagged rocks on the ground, slicing into his defenseless feet. He looked down, amazed at the amount of blood that flowed from such minuscule cuts. Tiny red rivers ran from his soles to the dirt under them. Fascinated, he wiggled his toes, feeling the odd texture of the blood stained dirt between them.
Suddenly the cool breeze turned into a freezing gust, and he wrapped his arms around himself, looking for shelter. All the trees appeared to have shrunken in on themselves, as if to avoid helping him. Shivering, he made his way to a boulder at least twice his height. The large gray rock blocked most of the wind from hitting him, but still something was wrong.
It was the taste in his mouth, like he hadn’t brushed his teeth for weeks. It was the way he felt things, as if he was touching them through jell-o. It was the way everything was foggy, as though he couldn’t wipe the sleep from his eyes. It was the way his chest stood still, no breath forthcoming.
Feeling for a pulse on his clammy skin, thoughts began assaulting his mind. He couldn’t be dead, he had just been in his IKEA decorated home, sleeping next to his wife, his children down the hall in their rooms. But if he wasn’t dead, where was he and why was he there?
Was he in Purgatory? Heaven? Hell?
He heard a laugh in his mind - no that had to be the wind, rustling tree leaves, anything. All the rationalization in the world couldn’t keep him in denial when the screaming began. The sound of thousands of people begging for an end to unspeakable torture pierced his thoughts, driving him to cover his ears. Still the screams persisted, and he had his answer.
He didn’t know how he ended up in Hell. Going from a peaceful slumber in his cozy bed to the unbearable pain of death left him feeling disoriented. The lack of any familiarity about his surroundings only added to his confusion. Turning around in a circle, he saw twisted trees leaning over a cobblestone path, creating an archway that compelled him to walk over. Reaching the path, he saw a faint red tinge to the stones. He wondered what caused such a phenomenon, as there was no red sky or sun to create such a color.
The scent of burning timber startled him out of his musings. Looking up, he noticed flames caressing the arching trees. Mesmerized, he stood watching the trees slowly burn into ash. Even when the heat became agonizing, and he could feel his face burning, still he stayed, unable to move away.
Finished consuming the trees, the fire slowly died out, fighting to the end like a solider in a hopeless battle. Bending over, he ran his fingers through the still hot ash, feeling the fine grains of dead trees smooth on his fingers. For minutes or hours, he played with the ash, losing all track of time. Not that time mattered anymore.
“Have you seen my daddy?” A little girl with watery green eyes and a raggedy teddy bear asked him. She, like him, was in pajamas, a Disney princess nightgown, her blond hair loose around a round face. “I went to sleep and when I woke up I wasn’t in my bed and I can’t find my daddy.” Her voice broke on the last word, a tear escaping from one eye.
Still kneeling in a pile of ash, he straightened, brushing his hands on his pajama bottoms.
“I haven’t seen your daddy, what does he look like?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen him, but I know he’s here.”
“How do you know he’s here if you’ve never seen him?”
“Because he’s not in any other place, so he has to be here.” Utterly convinced her logic was right, the little girl looked to the man. “What’s your name? I’m not supposed to talk to strangers, so you have to tell me. I’m Lucy,” she held out her teddy bear, “and this is Michael.”
“I’m Steve. It’s very good to meet you and Michael. Now let’s try and find your father.” Steve offered his hand to Lucy, not surprised when she ignored it in favor of clutching Michael closer.
He led Lucy past the burnt trees, no longer inclined to sift among the ash. Lucy stared at everything with wide eyes, and Steve couldn’t help but wonder what this child had done to deserve Hell.
“Where are we? I haven’t ever been here before and I don’t like it.” Lucy had stopped following Steve, preferring to sit on the ground, arms wrapped around Michael. “And I want my daddy.”
“I’m sorry but I don’t have the first clue where to find your dad. And if you’ve never even met him, how will you know him when you see him? He‘s probably not here anyway.”
A harshness too mature for such a young child entered Lucy’s eyes. She stood up, glared at Steve and began walking away in the other direction. Steve yelled for her to stop, but when she didn’t he gave up. Lucy wasn’t his problem, he had other issues he needed to sort out.
Wandering aimlessly, Steve came across a pond. A very odd pond. Steam rose from the water, clouding his vision, and Steve tripped into the pond. He yelped, water flowing into his mouth. It burned his tongue, his throat, his stomach. Thrashing around wildly, Steve reached for anything to hold onto, finding nothing. He could feel his skin beginning to blister, the water too hot for flesh to bear. A giggle interrupted his screaming, and Steve looked over to see Lucy standing on the edge of the pond, Michael in her hand.
“Lucy! Please help me!” Steve begged the girl, conveniently forgetting his lack of help for her. Lucy didn’t forget.
“Why?” Crossing her arms, a pout found its way to the girl’s lips. Steve opened his mouth to reply, but more water managed to find its way inside, stopping any words that would have emerged. “I can’t hear you,” Lucy sing-songed, swinging Michael around.
Steve attempted to plead once more, but he choose to look down at that moment, seeing his flesh falling from his body, water turning red. Any coherent thought left his mind, and only pained babbling left his mouth.
“You don’t look like you’re having fun. Meanies never have fun, so I guess it’s okay.” Lucy stuck her tongue out at Steve and began walking away.
“Wait!” Desperation coated Steve’s voice. “Lucy I need you to help me or I’ll die.” Despite the heat, a chill ran through Steve when Lucy turned to look at him, disdain and malice written on her cherubic face.
“You’re already dead. No one cares what happens here. You’re body will heal, and then you can wander off finding new ways to cause yourself pain. You’re here for eternity, and nothing ever changes.” Turning to leave, Lucy shook her hair back from her face.
“How long have you been here?” Steve gasped, his throat starting to close up from the heat and pain.
Lucy continued walking for a moment, paused, then returned to stand by the pond. Placing Michael on the ground, Lucy pushed loose strands of hair behind her ears. She knelt down, dragging her fingers through the water, head bowed. When she raised her head to look at Steve, any semblance of youth was gone. The maturity only years of anguish can etch on a face replaced the little girl’s innocence.
Steve watched as Lucy stepped into the pond, skin instantly turning to red. She didn’t seem to notice, however, and swam to where Steve was boiling. Lucy extended her arm for Steve to grasp, pulling him close to her with strength no ordinary child possessed. She leaned in towards Steve, drawing in breath to speak, eyes locked with his, sharing an unbelievable truth.
“Since the beginning.”
Steve wrenched his arm away from Lucy, quickly slipping under the water once more. Spluttering as he resurfaced, he watched Lucy laugh and swim easily back to land.
“Why am I here?” Steve whispered, his voice tinged with a quiet resignation.
Lucy cocked her head to one side, looking at Steve as if seeing him for the first time.
“Everyone ends up here.”