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I've never really believed in hell.
These are my thoughts as I stare at myself critically in the bathroom mirror, scrutinizing the black smudge on my forehead that is somehow supposed to resemble a cross. Ash Wednesday seems to me more like a cult cleansing than the beginning of a religious tradition. Then again, is there a difference? My eyes wander away from my forehead to my cracked lips, cracking skin, unruly hair, and then back to themselves. It is commonly said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. I frown. I don't see much.
Sighing, I pull myself from the mirror and tramp to the front door.
“Leah, don't open the door for anyone. Okay?”
My younger sister nods dully, clearly paying more attention to the Lego set in front of her. I deadbolt the door behind me. When my parents first moved into the neighborhood, the deadbolt on the door had only been a precaution. Things have changed since then.
I shuffle down the hill, allowing gravity and laziness to lead me rather than any subconscious or mysterious force. The streets are compressed with an eerie silence. I am sure that if I scream my ears would meet solely with a muffled whisper. It is as if I have entered a new age Tower of Babble, where everyone is immersed in their own language of incomprehensible silence.
I pass a sign that warns “Slow: Children” and an abandoned basketball hoop. The hoop is attached precariously to a graffiti strewn telephone pole. The wooden backboard is chipped, and the netted chains are rusted. Bramble blocks any potential shots from making it through the hoop. Littering the ground are crumpled beer cans, cigarettes, and condom wrappers. The thing adults don't understand about kids is that we grow up a lot faster than they ever anticipate. We carry invisible crosses of our rage and pain and drive razorblades into the palms of our hands for revenge. We wear our crowns of sinful thorns with pride and scream out “Oh LORD, why have you forsaken me?” with smiles stretched wide across our faces. We die faster than we ever live.
Bright orange plastic screams “KEEP OUT,” “PRIVATE PROPERTY,” and “NO TRESSPASSING” as I continue down the street, lined with barbed wire and broken fences.
I eventually find myself in what the local kids dub“the swamp.” I pick my way along a narrow, cracked road. Tar pits bubble with decomposing trash. Dead vines and tree branches hang overhead. It is legend that kids have died on dares to swing over the pits and that their ghosts now haunt the swamp. The thing kids don't understand is that the only real ghosts are those of the living. Ghosts roam before suicides, not after.
I emerge from the swamp and find myself on Paine Street, which leads to a fork. One road leads to the bay. The other leads to a dead end. I think a lot of the time people forget that pain doesn't always make people stronger. Sometimes, it just makes them dead.
I step out onto the docks, the wind biting through my ears. The stench of low tide permeates the air. Despite this, I am immersed in an aura of calm. Tall yellow grasses rustle in the wind, and the water glimmers as if trying to paint a picture of the sun. A family of ducks clamors through the mud and swims off into the distance. My attention then turns to the yachts anchored to the shore, wires clanking like the toll of a bell. It is then that I realize that the bay is only another river Nile, turned to blood by greed.
Down the road from the docks is a golf course. Usually the road into the course is barred with a chain to keep the elite in and people like me out. Today, however, the chain is not up, so I feel no inclination to break in as I usually would have done. Instead, I turn to the American flag that looms over the course, placing my hand over my heart. The thing no one gets is that in the end, freedom doesn't really exist. The rich are bound by presentation and the poor are bound by reality. Nobody ever wins. Simply put, life is purgatory.
I start on the path back home. I notice a small family just ahead of me, and I notice how they watch me. I don't blame them. I am the teenager, a juvenile delinquent for all they know, with an army jacket, skin tight jeans, metal laced gloves, a bloody lip, smeared mascara, and wild hair. I am a wild agent of the devil, out to steal the souls of their children and increase taxes. I am almost alive.
A street from my house, I pass a father playing basketball with his toddler. Of course, the ball rolls my way.
“Hey! Pass it here!” The father yells in a friendly voice. I pick up the ball with a guarded expression. I have spent many nights listening to this man scream drunkenly at his wife. As I walk closer in order to pass him the ball (I'm terrible at throwing), he realizes his mistake and puts up a guarded expression of his own.
“Say thanks PJ,” he commands his son as I pass him the ball.
“Thanks PJ,” the boy coos.
A woman sits on the curb and smiles.
The thing I don't get is how this beautiful baby will most likely end up like his father some day. There are people who say they love each other but don't mean it. Politicians can smile when they lie. Elephants cry. Books burn. Astronauts fly to the moon and back. People say they love each other and do mean it. Being human is a sin in and of itself. And right now I am dead bolted out of my own house.