Novelette: Escape from Hell

I was dead and I knew it.

The realisation was profoundly shocking and it was some time before I could process anything beyond that bare fact.

I was dead. I had always assumed I would live into my 70’s or 80’s. I saw myself dying from a heart attack while gardening or best-case scenario drifting off to sleep and never waking up. I had never imagined that death from a long-term ailment or tragic circumstances. I would live, I would grow old and then one day I would die. I accepted that death was inevitable, I just didn’t expect it to be so soon; today.

I had assumed that death would come with a warning, a death rattle of sorts. There would be gradual signs of declining health or friends dying before me. I had never expected death to be so stealthy nor so instantaneous. At the relatively young age of 36 I had thought life had just begun, but now I had finished. I had thought I was just starting life but that was nothing more than hope-filled assumption. There was no denying the results of my last memory – an oncoming semi-trailer drifting into my lane. It had been too fast, too close. I think I got my hand to the horn and tried to pull off the road, but it wasn’t enough. The juggernaut of death had hit me with the sounds of screeching tires and folding metal and a final colossal bang. Road train vs hatchback: Game over.

I was dead and I knew it. The firm conviction I’d always held that there was nothing after death was clearly wrong. Whatever came after death, that’s what I was experiencing and I knew beyond all doubt that it was going to be permanent. I had a sudden comprehension of the permanence of death. Permanent: as in never-ever-ever-changing. I’d used the word plenty of times, but now I realised every other time had in fact been temporary. A long time perhaps, but always before truly temporary.

Instinctively I knew that my consciousness was trapped in my broken and mangled body. There was absolutely no pain or feeling of any kind and I could not move. Though seeing, my eyes had a fixed stare straight-ahead; all I could see was pitch blackness. Being completely paralysed would normally be terrifying, but I had a strange sense of peace, that I was waiting for something. The waiting gave me time to think and orient myself to this new reality.

For a brief time I thought of all of those whom I had just left behind: family, friends and co-workers. I considered their shock and sadness at hearing of my death, and of my ongoing absence in their lives. My parents and sister would mourn my absence most. There were also so many things undone on my bucket list… but none of those seemed remotely important anymore. I would swap every achievement in my life for a few minutes with those I loved, just to say goodbye.

Though there was sadness in the thoughts they were fleeting; appearing and immediately slipping away. In the same way that my death was permanent so too was my history gone. That was in the past now. Whatever, wherever I was, this was now and I sensed I couldn’t go back. The people and events of my life – even my death – were now irrelevant and evaporated as quickly as a morning mist.

In my peripheral vision I saw a bright pin-prick of light appear in the distance and I watched in awe as the light gradually grew larger. It was the “tunnel of light” as described in the near-death experiences I had read about. As the light got closer I saw that there was a Being at the centre of the light walking toward me, and the tunnel came closer with each step. The Being radiated power, confidence and strength unlike any human I had ever known. If I were a candle, this Being was a military-grade floodlight; small and inconsequential in comparison. It was not male or female in outward appearance as though gender was an Earthly thing. It looked down at me as I lay stationary at its feet, and then it spoke to me,

“Do not be afraid, son of man. I have been sent to give you a great gift.”

It paused and then spoke in a loud voice as though addressing an unseen multitude,

“By the authority given to me by the Author of Life, I command you human to be born into your eternal body.”

There was a cold tingle that rushed through my entire body and sent every atom buzzing in frenetic motion. The sensation was intense and all-enveloping, a molecular massage which filled me with a great warmth. It was an amazing feeling and I didn’t want it to end, but gradually the tingle receded. The Being reached out and taking my hand helped me to rise. No longer paralysed I felt weightless and invincible. At the peak of my fitness on Earth, I never felt a fraction as good as I did now. I was pretty sure I could leap buildings in a single bound, if there were buildings in this place. I looked downwards at my new body – it looked approximately like my body had, but glowed faintly, semi-translucent and was wrapped in a Roman-style toga. I started to turn around, curious to see what my old body looked like,

“Do not look.” the Being warned me in a voice that was strangely musical, before leading me away from the wreckage of my earthly body.

As we walked into the tunnel of light I sensed that each step was transporting us a great distance, but I felt no physical exertion or tiredness. Time and distance were concepts that meant nothing here. Inside the tunnel all I could see was brightness, but it reminded me of purity and I basked in its glow as we walked.

“Are you an angel? Some kind of ascended being?” I asked.

“I am not ascended as you would describe it. I have always been as I am. Angel is one word humans describe me by. I prefer to think of myself as a messenger and servant of the Most High God.”

“Are we going to heaven?”

“To the outer courts of heaven, yes.” the angel said. “You are going to be judged.”

“Judged for what?” I replied, instantly on-guard.

“For your actions, and your inactions; for every word you spoke and every thought of your heart and mind. For the very sum of your life on Earth.”

I wasn’t worried, not really – I’d led a pretty good life. Not perfect, but everyone always said that I was a great guy. I hadn’t made any big mistakes, just a few little ones. I’d done more than my share of good deeds, and had always lived a moral life. Besides that I’d never met a situation I couldn’t talk my way out of. Heaven was going to be amazing.

“What is heaven like?” I asked my guide.

“Its beauty is beyond your ability to comprehend. All the beauty of Earth is like a single dry crumb compared to the great feast in heaven. Think of a moment of extreme and complete happiness – multiply it by 10,000 and then realise that the moment will never ever end. That is heaven. God dwells there, and where He is there is peace, love, joy and goodness forever.”

“Do you have a name?”

The angel whom I thought would have endless patience sighed at me; I wasn’t expecting that.

“I do have a name, but more important than my name is my function.” The angel said and then continued on quickly, possibly to stop any follow-up questions from me,

“I was sent to bring you and explain what will come next. In the court case the prosecution will go first and then there will be rebuttal by the defence, and then the ruling. The outcome of the case will determine whether you can enter heaven. You are judged by God himself, there is no jury.”

“Will I have a lawyer –someone defending me – or do I have to defend myself?”

“You have a court-appointed defence lawyer.”

“Is he any good?”

“The very best. He is the Son of God.”

I felt a thrill of celebration. Surely having the son of the judge defending me, who himself was appointed by the judge, had to give me an excellent chance. I could almost taste that heavenly nectar now. The angel had said I couldn’t conceive heaven but if what I had already experienced – the feelings of peace, contentment, invincibility – if this was an entrée, I was ready for the whole meal.

“We are here.” the angel announced.

Another step and we were outside of the tunnel, which disappeared as we exited. As my eyes adjusted from the light of the tunnel I saw we were in the foyer of a court room. The foyer was beautifully carved marble and before us was a large oak door. On either side of the door stood two large burly angels, who by their size alone were clearly guards. My angelic escort opened the door and motioned for me to follow him in. We sat at the back of the court in seats that were marked ‘Reserved’.

The court was immense, the size of a stadium. At the front obscured by blinding light on a dais was God, the Judge. Before him were two tables, prosecution and defence I assumed. The defence lawyer was wearing a white toga with a deep red sash, the prosecution team impeccable Western-style suits. Angels stood around the court like bailiffs, and some sat throughout the audience. The public gallery was the largest portion of the court, and tens of thousands of humans in glowing heavenly bodies surrounded the court on dozens of balcony levels. Most wore plain togas like mine, though I could see some were embellished with gold, bright colours or intricate embroidery. High above us the roof was burnished gold. There was an engraving on it with huge lettering. Though it was not written in English, or any Earthly symbols I recognised, I could miraculously read it. It started with ‘You shall have no other gods before me’… though I didn’t know them well, I guessed they were the Ten Commandments.

It was only then that I realised my eyes were seeing far more than I should be able to: I could see the detailed embroidery on the garment of someone who was a hundred metres away from me. I could also hear far more acutely. More than that… the thought was cut off by a wave of nausea. I felt dizzy and lurched forward, the angel steadying me before I fell forward off the chair.

“It’s okay. You’ll adapt to it soon. Your heavenly body has more acute senses than your earthly body.”

That was an understatement. My five senses were all heightened, but what was most disorienting was my sixth sense. In the presence of all of these people… Beings… or whatever we were now, I was overwhelmed. In addition to the natural senses I could also perceive the emotions of everyone in the room as though they were my own. I felt their emotions and had an emotional response to them. Like a noisy room I couldn’t determine from which individuals the emotion was coming from, but I could feel a flood of emotion all around me.

The new sensation gradually dulled into background noise and I no longer felt swamped by it. I realised that those immediately around me had sympathy for me, and that the sympathy grew the more I became embarrassed by it. I smiled weakly at those who were watching me, and they smiled back warmly. I felt their acceptance and love. It was awe-inspiring to think that everyone in heaven was so intimately linked that we shared our emotions with such honesty and completeness.

“If you focus on a single individual, their emotion would come to the foreground.” My angel advised.

As I recovered from the sensory overload I became aware that the previous case was just finishing. A massive African-American was standing at the defence table with his back to me, broad-shouldered and heavily muscled, every inch of visible skin tattooed. A gangbanger, the kind of person you would not want to meet in a dark alley or anywhere for that matter. As he turned toward the public gallery so I could see his face and he was no longer intimidating; tear-stained, emotionally broken, but with a look of wonder in his eyes. I sensed a feeling of great wonder, amazement and thankfulness from him.

God, the judge spoke with a deeply resonating voice,

“Accordingly I acquit this man of all guilt.”

He brought down the gravel which was literally accompanied by a peal of thunder. The defendant slowly hugged the defence lawyer in humility and near-disbelief, and then began to hold him more tightly, as I felt the surge of thankfulness exponentially increase in him. The defendant lifted the defence lawyer from his feet in a huge embrace; the lawyer laughed out loud and hugged him back, kissing him on the cheek.

The entire public gallery exploded in unrestrained joy. The happiness in the room was infectious, and wave upon wave of euphoria washed over me. It was a sense of delight far beyond anything I had ever experienced. All around the room the audience was ‘high fiving’ and hugging each other, clapping and cheering loudly. A group of people even broke out in song, singing in a unison of praise.

The defendant put down his lawyer and dropped to his knees facing the judge with arms upraised in an act of surrender and wonder,

“Thank you Your Honour, you are both merciful and righteous. All glory to you.”

One of the angels nearby said to another,

“It never ceases to amaze me how good He is at getting people off.”

“It doesn’t matter how many times I see it, every single one is still as amazing as if it was the first time.” The other replied.

“We all feel that way.” The first said, “That’s why this place is standing room only all the time.”

My eyes were drawn to the only three people in the room who were not celebrating; the prosecution team. It was made up of two men and a woman; the men were handsome and the woman was stunningly beautiful. The taller of the men was sitting down, red-faced and clearly seething anger. The woman was trying to console him, rubbing his shoulders, and the other man was looking around angrily at the scenes of celebration. I tried to focus in on them to read their emotions. The defence lawyer looked directly at me and shook my head, a wall blocking me from reading their emotions. My angel must have known,

“It is not wise to look into darkness.” He said simply.

The cheering went on for quite some time before the judge called the room to order.

“Let the next case begin.” God declared.

An angel at the front of the court called my name and directed me down to the defence table.

The defence lawyer greeted me with an embrace, long and hard. It was an embrace of friendship even though we had just met. It was a bit weird, but if there was one person you want on your side, it’s your defence lawyer, so I returned the hug.

“Jesus, I presume?” I said, still in the embrace. I wasn’t much into man-hugs but there was something very nice about it.

“The one and only.” Jesus replied. “These kind of stick out,” Jesus said, “showing the holes in his hands.”

“If we could get underway your Honour…” the prosecutor said, rising to his feet.

“Let us begin.” God said.

“If it pleases the court, I would like to move straight onto the evidence and review the defendant’s life.” The prosecutor asked.

“So ordered.”

In the space between the defence and prosecution tables and God there was a three-dimensional holographic-like replay start. I soon realised that it was a replay of my life, beginning when I was about aged two. Not only did it show the events of my life, but it also revealed the emotions and thoughts of everyone involved. The emotions of the events broadcast throughout the stadium just like audio through a surround sound system. The court room watched as a four year-old me with a chocolate stained-mouth told my mother that I didn’t know where the cookies had gone. I felt her disappointment and frustration at trying to teach me right from wrong.

What my escort-angel had told me was true – the tape reviewed every word, thought and deed that I had ever had. We watched me growing up, getting into schoolyard fights where I felt the physical pain that I had inflicted on others. I felt the emotional hurt as I had taunted others, recognising also that those I teased learnt from me and went on to teased others. I was responsible in part for that, and it was all shown.

I was embarrassed as the entire court watched my first sexual encounter in the back seat of a car. The temporal pleasure and the feeling of conquest was quickly followed by the now-realisation that my action had been selfishly motivated. I had convinced myself that I was in love with the girl, but months later had no problems dumping her. I sensed that this was a contradiction in heavenly terms. I felt her sense of loss at not being a virgin when she was married years later. She had made the decision herself but I had certainly influenced and manipulated the decision.
“I was just a kid.” I muttered to Jesus.

Like a painful catalogue the intense scrutiny went on. My second-and-third glance at a woman walking past would be harmless in Earthly terms, but here my thoughts and desires were revealed for all to see. The whole court could see what my thoughts were and I was deeply embarrassed that I had no privacy. I couldn’t believe I was being judged for such trivialities as glancing at a woman.

It was not all bad though. I did experience the pleasure of friends and family when I was with them. I felt the gratitude of the elderly as I delivered Meals-on-Wheels while at university. I hadn’t realised just how much those visits and the few minutes of idle chit-chat had meant to so many of the old folk.

I saw my early twenties, where I had started to abuse alcohol. I didn’t get blind-drunk, but I did get drunk and say things that I should never have said. Careless words that had cut far deeper than I had ever intended.
“My inhibitions were lowered…I would never have said that sober.” I whispered.

I sold a car or two, minimising my descriptions of their problems. The old adage of ‘buyer beware’ felt hollow in the court. Intellectually I knew the process of reviewing my life must have taken a very long time. But time had no meaning here. No one got bored, tired or distracted. Parts of me wished they had, at points.

I realised that from my perspective the good outweighed the bad, but that might not be the case now that I was seeing those same events from the viewpoints of others involved. At crucial points the prosecution would stop the ‘playback’ and dissect various aspects that were not favourable to me, just to make sure that everyone in the audience saw it. I started to worry that I might be in trouble. The emotion in the room was one of sadness. I kept waiting for Jesus to stand up and object to something the prosecutor was saying, but he remained still, listening. I felt sick – I just wanted it to be over. I needed Jesus to do some magic to turn the case around like he had for the last guy.

“I think the evidence speaks for itself.” The prosecution gloated, “The prosecution rests.” They said and sat down.

Jesus stood up, holed-palms down against the table. Here it was, I thought. Waiting not-so-patiently for the impending jubilation,

“The defence rests.” Jesus said and sat down.

“Objection, your Honour!” I yelled, jumping up.

“That’s what you call a defence?” I asked Jesus incredulously.

“You may not object.” God said, “Only Jesus is recognised in this court room for the defendant.”

“He doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job.” I said. A gasp came from the public gallery.

“Sit down!” God said, anger in his voice. My body sat automatically without conscious thought.

“What about all the good things that I have done which we have seen? I have donated thousands to charities over the years. I’ve helped many people; done many selfless acts.” I protested to Jesus.

Jesus shook his head,

“Your actions are irrelevant. It is not a question of quantity. Even Mother Teresa if she came here with her actions alone, would be found guilty. I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well.” Jesus answered sadly.

“But I did know you.” I protested, “I remember my Sunday school classes about Noah… and about how you died on the cross… for my sins. I know that Bible verse they always have on the billboards, John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son… whoever believes in him shall be saved. I want to go to heaven, please.”
Jesus shook his head.

“You know of me, but you don’t know me. We never knew each other as I wanted us to.”

God spoke again, the anger was gone, replaced by compassion.

“Is there nothing that can be done for this child, Son?”

Jesus answered, “None Father. He called upon us several times throughout his life when he was in need. But even though we helped him, he did not glorify us. He did not thank us for any of the blessings that we had given him. He did not seek to serve us or give us the respect that we deserved.” Jesus paused, knowing this was the end, “He lived his life the way he wanted, not the way we wanted him to.”
God spoke with resignation,

“It gives me no pleasure to do this – and in fact I loathe it. I hate it, but wrong has been committed and there must be a reckoning. We gave you many signs but you refused to recognise them, many opportunities, but you did not take them. We did all we could have done, but you choose not to know us. I have no choice but to declare you guilty of all charges.”

The prosecution team clapped loudly, congratulating each other. A sorrowful mood filled the court from the public gallery. Several angels shook their heads in sadness.

“Thank you, your Honour. A just decision…” The prosecution offered. A feeling of anger so powerful that it must have come from God himself swept through the room. The prosecution stopped mid-sentence with a look of panic.
I persisted,

“Wait Your Honour – God. Having seen all of this… the movie of my life and now understanding how I was selfish and how it affected others, I truly am sorry for my actions. I didn’t realise what I was doing. That I was hurting everybody, including you. I wish I could take it back.” I said sincerely.

“I know you are sorry, but sadly it is too late. If only you had taken the opportunities when you had them to get to know us. I gave you a way out through my Son, but you did not choose to accept it. I am Just and the penalty of un-confessed sin has been set and applies to all equally.” God said.
I turned to Jesus,

“Can we appeal?”

“There is no appeal, the judgement is just.” Jesus said and sensing my next question continued,

“There are no extenuating circumstances that will get you off either. It doesn’t matter what happened to you, but how you reacted to it. You have made your choices in life and now you receive the fruit of them. I am sorry.”
The prosecution smugly addressed the bailiffs,

“Take him away.”

The bailiffs waited until God ordered them. One of them approached me,

“You have been found guilty and must be treated accordingly.”

The angel placed handcuffs around my wrists; they were heavier than they looked and weighed my arms down. The angel took me away from the court via a smaller rear door and we entered a tunnel of light.

I noticed that the further away from the court we were the more muted the light. I don’t know if it was because the journey was further but this time it did seem to take a long time. I spent the time reflecting on what had just happened. I had to acknowledge that I was given opportunities throughout my life to honour God. Now in hindsight I was surprised just how many there were – incidental and overt. I could see now that every time those circumstances arose, another emotion arose in me quickly to smother the small flame. I had felt shame at some of my actions, but had quickly justified or excused it, brushing aside the guilt as a foolish emotion. I now could see that those actions had been sinful, and the shame had been a sense of right conviction. At times I had been close to giving God the glory for something,  but had instead chalked it up to some nefarious thing called luck or assigned the glory to my own skill or ability. Even for the simple beauty of nature I had given the credit to ‘mother nature’ and evolution. At every chance I had substituted myself or another where God had deserved the praise. I had shunned or watered-down questions of morality; like a disobedient child refusing to accept the direction of my heavenly Father.

The end of the tunnel came before I was ready for it. Standing just a short way off were two well-dressed men, one was tall, athletic and the other was short and fat, but both of them were well-groomed. The tall athletic one was the perfect male physique, while the shorter, fatter one looked good-natured and cheeky, the kind of guy you’d enjoy a laugh with.

“Hello Abdon” the two called to my angel-escort. He did not respond and just walked me toward them, his hand at my back. I sensed Abdon was here because God had commanded it, and he would not be here of his own free will. He wasn’t afraid but despised the presence of the other two. I sensed the sadness in Abdon about handing me over to them, but also thankfulness that he would soon be away from them. The feeling of protection and peace that I had woken up with in this place were disappearing rapidly, like water leaking through the hands. A dread fell over me. I wanted my plant my feet, but against my will I kept walking toward them.

The angel stopped us both just in front of them and I noticed along the ground a thin blood line that marked the separation of the two territories: heaven and hell. I was seconds away from being handed over.

“No. Please, is there no other way?” I stammered.

“Farewell, son of man” the angel said with compassion. He shoved me lightly so that I was forced to step over the bloodline. I stepped backwards instinctively and felt an uncomfortable heat at my back. Looking over my shoulder I saw that I was now separated by a chasm filled with fire. The angel stood on the opposite side of the chasm but was almost obscured by the smoke and fire. I saw it turn and walk away without looking back.

I looked back at the demons and all deception was removed: instead of the good-looking men they had been, I now saw them as they were, terrifying creatures. They were angel-like, but were twisted; wrong. They were both physically deformed, one was thickly set like a weight-lifter but had several teeth growing out the bottom of its bristly jaw. The other was tall and thin but hairy like an orangutan with massive hands. Far more horrific than their physical deformities was the unmasked cruelty in their eyes. They were literally licking their lips with delight as they approached me, seeming to enjoy the terror as it grew inside of me. They had malicious smiles on their faces and were toying with me like a cat with a mouse.

“We’re going to hurt you more than you thought possible! You’re ours now! You don’t stand a chance!’
I wanted to run, but they were in front of me and the fire was behind: I had nowhere to run.

“No” I cried, “please”. I turned back to see the two demons approaching me slowly.

“Have mercy on me God!” I screamed.
The demons laughed aloud,

“God does not hear you here, human.”
“You are ours now and no one will save you.” The short demon grabbed my toga and tore it from my body as I fell to the ground. I looked up to see my toga, my only possession, thrown into the fire; combusting before it even touched the flames.

The tall demon grabbed my hair and pulled me to my feet. He stepped in, so that his hideous face and mine were so close I could smell the stench of his breath. He snarled at me, and then laughed as I reeled backward in fear. He kept pulling on my hair until I was lifted off the ground. My scalp tore with a sickening wet rip and pain exploded all over my head. I screamed in agony. On Earth I would have fainted under such pain, I didn’t faint – the pain just continued. The demon laughed and dropped the handful of hair and skin. I lay on the ground trying to protect my head without touching it. The short one kicked me a few times in the ribs, just for good measure.

“We’d better get him to the boss now, or he’ll be unhappy.” The tall demon said.

My wrists were taken hold of by strong hands and I was dragged into a tunnel of light; tinged red and smelled like rotting meat. I was under no illusion where I was. This was Hell. I felt the emotions of this place; billions of humans and demons, overwhelming fear and hatred: a loathing that was without limit and sickening in its intensity.

I was taken to the very epicentre of Hell – I was in Satan’s throne room. The room looked like a medieval scene, all stone and dungeon-like with Satan sitting on a throne above a dais. Curled around the dais was the largest snake I had ever seen, it was at least thirty metres long and three metres wide. The snake’s head was at the front of the dais and it was devouring a still-live woman, feet first. The snake was slowly devouring her, and had already swallowed up to her waist, its mouth inching forwards centimetres at a gulp. She was gasping softly with tears running down her cheeks and a dead-stare in her eyes. The snake was watching me disinterestedly with one eye.

Satan was looking into the distance as though thinking, oblivious to my entry. I wasn’t the only one who was evidently a new entrant to Hell. Fifty or more demons, most, but not all, ugly, had the same number of newly-dead cowering at their feet. Satan took us all in with a sweeping gaze and dismissive gaze,

“Welcome wretches! We are all stuck in this place, but I am so glad that you all decided to join us. Making you suffer will help to make our suffering more bearable.” Satan said.

It was strange but in that moment I knew what it was that Satan wanted: what he craved most was to be praised. He wanted the same praise that had been lavished on God and Jesus in the courtroom, but he would never get it. A strategy of survival would seem simple: grovel to Satan and get on his good side; only that was impossible. Even within the first moments of being in his presence his cruelty, selfishness and evil nature were plainly evident. No doubt he could project a false-image, like the two demons who had grabbed me, but in his raw-self there was nothing lovely or minutely praise-worthy about him. Compared to God there was no comparison. I hated him overwhelmingly and would never feel anything approaching neutrality, let alone genuine praise. Satan the Father of Lies, would not be fooled by any falsity, nor would it ever bring the satisfaction he craved.

My head had stopped bleeding which defied logic and the severity of the wound; I ought to have bled out. I tried to wipe the partially congealed blood from my face as best I could. Satan looked at me, which made my stomach churn.

“Some of you may have noticed that you have severe injuries but are still alive. I am the Lord and Ruler of Hell, and I have changed some of the rules under which Hell operates to suit me. I have also made a few modifications to your heavenly bodies, as is my right. You belong to me now. You can feel pain again, but you will experience in its fullness, not in the limited way you did as humans with inferior senses. A wound will either be fatal, or it will not. You will not die from any injury that is not immediately fatal. When you were humans extreme pain would cause you to faint or your nerves to die: this is no longer the case. You will be able to enjoy pain in all its fullness. I could tell you the other rules of living in Hell, but I’ve found it’s more satisfying to watch you trying to learn them yourselves. I look forward to seeing you all again real soon.”

Scene end symbolI woke up with a jolt of shock as though free-falling in a nightmare. I had somehow been transported elsewhere; the sun was glaring down at me. For a brief second I thought that maybe it had all just been a dream, or that I had somehow been sent back to Earth, but I gingerly touched my scalp and felt the raw flesh and bone where hair had previously been. I decided not to touch my head again as I groaned until the pain subsided.

I got up, not sure where I was or if I was safe. I had woken up on a dirt road, and I rolled quickly into a ditch on the side of the road. Being naked it wasn’t the most comfortable motion ever, but it was far less painful than anything else I had experienced in Hell so far. A little discomfort now might save me more pain in the future. I hoped that if there were any threats in this place I would see them before they would see me, and avoid them if possible.

After a while when nothing had accosted me I peered out of the ditch to thoroughly examine my surroundings. I was surprised to find that the environment was pleasant. It looked like Earth; not like what I had expected Hell to be like. I had expected more fire and brimstone, less natural beauty. On the other side of the dirt road was a grassy field dotted with trees. Behind me there was another grassy field and then a sheer cliff ten or so metres high. A short walk away there was a small waterfall cascading over the cliff surrounded by a large patch of yellow tulips. On the horizon, obscured by haze was the silhouettes of small buildings, the only visible man-made structures. As far as I could see there weren’t any other people or animals around. I had a vague feeling of déjà vu: I had been here before. After some time I realised that this road was one which I had travelled many times on holidays as a teenager. I remembered this stretch of road… in most respects it was exactly the same, but there were differences. There had been no waterfall on the way to the farm.

The grass was lush and soft, but the climate was hot. It felt like it was 45 degrees Celsius and 90 percent humidity. I decided it would be a good idea to get a drink from the waterfall, while I was nearby a water source. I wasn’t sure if thirst could kill me in this place, but I figured if I felt thirsty it was a good idea to drink. Dehydration wasn’t ever fun.

I headed for the waterfall, walking through ankle-length grass and then into the tulip patch. The tulips were knee-high and a deep yellow colour. The tulips were not densely packed, and so I did my best to avoid stepping on them out of a respect for something so beautiful. As I walked I noticed that the tulips began to sway, which would have been perfectly normal if there had been a breeze. There wasn’t. As though suspecting my growing sense of disquiet, the beautiful scene transformed into ugliness as the tulips started to attack me with petals that had viciously sharp edges. Their stems whipped and striked with the ferocity of cobras. Wherever the petals touched my skin they cut as surely as razors across the skin.

Despite the pain I managed to leap back the way I had come in several long and urgent strides. Whenever I inadvertently stepped on a tulip it seemed to know it was going to happen, and stood upright so that the petals dug into my foot as I crushed it. When I made it out of the tulip patch, my feet and shins had dozens of cuts, some shallow and some deep. The pain burned and radiated from the cuts more than it should have, just as Satan had said it would. Welcome to Hell, I thought.

The attacking motions of the tulips slowed and they returned to placid flowers. Had I done something to harm the tulips and they reacted, or where they just maliciously designed? I didn’t know the answer, but I could guess. To test my theory I stepped in close to the edge of the patch. The area became alive again, whipping toward my leg. This time I was ready and jumped backwards before they could make contact.

I was still very thirsty and now I had sore legs and feet to contend with. I sat down for a while to catch my breath and calm my nerves. I had to learn the rules Satan had said. Well, maybe one rule was not to trust that something as benign and beautiful as a flower was actually benign.

I cautiously approached a small tree, uncertain of what would happen. If a flower could cut, what damage could a tree limb do? I chose my target carefully, it was a small tree out on its own, not near any other tree. One small step at a time I moved toward it and then when in reach, I quickly leapt up to a low branch and used my weight to break it. When the branch broke I took it and ran clear. The tree hadn’t come to life and hurt me. Not alive then? Not this time anyway. The rules of Hell were different to the rules of Earth, and based on all I had sensed about Satan and his demons, none of them were likely to be favourable to humans. I had a new appreciation for the constancy and dependency of the laws of Earth.

Returning to the tulip field I used the broken branch like a scythe and cut a path through the tulip field. The tulips swung and attacked the branch, but their sharp-edged petals were far less effective against unrelenting wood than soft human skin. I’d be lying if I didn’t feel a sense of revenge and pleasure in whacking the flowers to smithereens.

After what felt like a lot of hot and thirsty work, I had made my way to the waterfall. I knelt down and cupped my hands, ready to savour the reward. I took one giant gulp and then threw up. I yelled in frustration and hit the water with my makeshift scythe. Salt water, undrinkable. All that work, for nothing. Technically, a waterfall should be fresh water, but that was applying Earth rules to the problem I realised. I added that rule to my internal list: 1) Even if it appears safe, it might not be. 2) Even if it appears satisfying, it might not be. Both could be summed up by ‘assume the worst’.

I’m not afraid to admit that I nearly gave up in frustration at this point. I was angry. I was upset. What was I doing here? I didn’t deserve to be here I thought. No one does, this place was terrible. It kicked you until you were down, and then just kept kicking. Still, it was far better than being scalped like I had in the first experience of Hell. Perhaps that was the worst of it? Maybe this was what Hell would be like; endless hardship? Satan had said he would see us soon, but if there was no notion of time, what did soon even mean?

Thirst got me out of my depression: I was thirstier than ever. If there was going to be water, I reasoned, it would be near the man-made structures, so I walked toward the silhouettes along the road. Realising the unexpected danger in this place, I carried my branch-club with me and used it as a walking stick. I was determined not to be taken unaware again.

I reached the outskirts of the town and I heard the distinctive sound of a woman’s scream. As I ran around the corner I saw a long-haired man pinning a woman down on the bonnet of an old rusted car. As I got closer I realised he was raping her. I felt her fear, pain and desire to die, and his delight, which disgusted me. I had to help,

“Stop that!” I yelled at him. He didn’t hear me above the woman’s screams.

I raised my club above my head, moved closer and yelled at him again. His head turned to the side and he saw me. He struck the woman with a vicious backhand and turned to face me with a smile that revealed black and rotting teeth. I had hoped that the woman would run away when I intervened but I saw she had a long deep cut the length of her thigh and probably wouldn’t be able to support her own weight. If she was to have a chance I would have to defeat the scumbag.

“New here, aren’t you?” the man said, cocking his head to the side as he pulled a military knife from his belt.

“I don’t want any trouble” I said, suddenly wondering what I had gotten myself into. I backed up, but the man kept coming at me, tossing his knife between his hands so I could see how proficient he was.

“Too late, you’ve found it.” I sensed his confidence, and I worried that he could sense my fear and uncertainty.
The man charged at me and I brought down the branch, hoping to strike his head. With the ease of a practised fighter I watched in fear-filled-slow-motion as he ducked his head and leaned into the blow with his shoulder. I heard him grunt as I struck him, but it was too late and he was too close. Slowly, ever so slowly I felt his blade going into my chest, the pointed tip working its way through my chest, lungs and then into my heart. I experienced every millimetre of it with hyper-sensitive pain. Breathing was painful, then as my heart tried to keep pumping despite the loss of pressure I felt the pain from that too. My heart beat harder to compensate for the loss of efficiency, and I my chest cavity filled with blood. As he withdrew the knife, I felt the hot blood spurting out of my body. I sensed it all in graphic and minute detail. I fell backwards with the shock and inertia of his attack. I lay their dying and he kicked me a few times. As the death glare consumed my vision I saw him returning to the woman.

I woke up in a free-fall shock to the sound of rattling of chains. I was standing spread-eagled with arms and legs chained to a stone wall. I looked over my shoulder and could see someone moving in my peripheral vision. A demon with foul breath, broken teeth and no nose moved closer,

“Welcome to your first punishment.” It said and I sensed its hate for me.

“Tell me of what you did?” It asked.

“Pardon?”

“Tell me everything that you did from the time where you woke up until when you died. I will know if you lie or withhold anything, and punish you more if you do. Did you hurt anyone in any way?”

I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to answer, but I guess given its warning all I could do was tell the truth anyway.

“No, not at all” I said. Some part of me was still hoping that this was some kind of purgatory; where you ‘do the time’ for your sin and then get back into heaven. I wanted to show that I was repentant, trying harder.

“I actually tried to intervene in a woman being raped.”

The demon shook its head. “Just to be clear, you stopped a rape?”

“Yes. Well, I tried to. I fought with the rapist, but he killed me.”

The demon shook its head again. I sensed disbelief and ridicule.

“Well it is your first time I guess; 21 lashes.”

The demon moved out of my view and came back with a cruel looking whip. The whip looked like a cat-o-nine tail whip, but the strands which were tipped with nails and glass shards writhed as though they were alive.

“Our Lord Satan created this whip.” The demon said, as though I should be proud of Satan.

“It’s named Master’s Fang, and it’s a marvellous design; specially created to inflict the absolute maximum pain you humans can endure without killing you. They say you haven’t known pain until you’ve felt the Master’s Fang.”

The demon whipped me once. The pain defied accurate description. As my body convulsed in pain I thought there was no way my body could endure this. It felt as though every nerve was suddenly exposed and then sliced open by a poisoned knife. There was no sense or concept of time, but surely each strike of the whip took days to recover from. The pain was absolute and raging until I felt as though I would be driven insane by it. Compared to the Master’s Fang, being stabbed by a knife was like a paper cut. Gradually the pain would dull, then there would be another strike of the whip. After what felt like an eternity, the demon spoke again,

“That’s your 21. See you next time.”

Scene end symbolI jolted awake again this time surrounded by buildings. My body was whole again, clean and fresh without wounds – I even had my hair and scalp back. I rolled over, stood up and then puked. The memory of the punishment was horrific even without the physical scars. From the demons comments it sounded like every time I died I would be tortured. I never wanted to go through that again; I had to stay alive for as long as possible.

This place had the look of a small city, six-story brick buildings. In front of me, closed, was a coffee shop. Again, déjà vu. My first real job had been in a neighbourhood that looked like this. It was dark and overcast and I felt the temperature drop as it does just before rain. With a clap of thunder the rain started to fall, big, heavy drops. Only it wasn’t normal rain; wherever the rain touched me I began to itch. I ran to a nearby dumpster, opened the lid and climbed in, shutting the lid behind me. It wasn’t pleasant smelling, but at least I was out of the rain. I propped the lid open with a worn shoe. In the overcast light of afternoon I began searching the bin for anything of use…clothing would be a good start.

The sound of furtive scurrying from outside the dumpster got my attention. Looking through the gap I saw an old man with a long white beard wearing a hooded raincoat creeping down the alley toward me. He moved slowly with caution and I sensed his fear at being seen by anyone. He obviously hadn’t seen me or he wouldn’t still be heading toward me. Something about the way he moved made me think he’d been here for a while, he knew how to keep from being seen, and obviously he had found some good supplies.

This was the kind of guy I had to talk to. I needed answers. If knowing the rules meant I could avoid the punishment, I had to know the rules.

The man saw the shoe holding open the lid and realised there was someone in the bin, too late. I heard him start to run. I threw open the lid,

“No wait. Please wait – I just want to talk.” The man did not stop running. Ignoring the irritating rain, I leapt out of the bin and raced after him.

“Please wait.” I called. He kept running but was older and slower than me. I caught up with him before he reached the end of the alley and tackled him to the ground. He fought with me a little, but he weaker and easily overpowered.

“Stop wriggling so we can get out of this rain.” I said to him.
He looked at me with blue eyes and asked in a strong Irish accent,

“You’ve not been here long, have you boy-o?”

“No” I said, wondering what it was about me that seemed to make that so obvious to everyone else. I had a feeling that the ‘give away’ was some kind of liability, in the same way as being new or wearing glasses in prison seemed to single you out for unwanted bullying.

“I’ll run no more” he promised, “but come let’s get out of the open before we’re seen by others” he suggested. I climbed off of him and then helped him to his feet but was ready to give chase again if he tried to run off.

“Back here, I have a place” I suggested, and we both ran back to the shelter of the dumpster.

He insisted in climbing in after me and stayed at the opposite end of the dumpster with the escape route closest to him. He kept his backpack on his lap as though it were a security blanket. Everything about him made me think that he was guarded and suspicious; cagey. I could still sense his fear, though it had diminished. I introduced myself to him.

“I’m McGreggor” he said, without any other pleasantries.

“How did you know I was new?”

“Well…” he said, pausing to choose his words, “there are a few things that show you’re green, boy. For one you’re not afraid enough.”

“I’m plenty afraid” I said.

“Oh, you might be afraid – but wait until you have gone through the torture a dozen more times, a hundred, a thousand… let’s just say it doesn’t get any easier. The pain is always intense, but the monotony of it really grinds you down. And it will have you acting differently too.”

“This is only my second cycle.” I admitted.

“I recognise this as where I first worked.” I said.

“Aye” he said, “And I travelled through this area when I first came from Ireland.”
“Is it normal that these places are from our pasts?”

“Aye” he said again, spitting. “Satan isn’t as creative as God, though he likes to think he is.” I shuddered at the words, as though hearing something like that could get me into trouble.

“Don’t worry boy-o, not much chance he hears what I say. And even if he does, I’m past caring – what can he and his stupid henchmen do to me, really? Is it possible to suffer any more than I already do? I don’t think so. As I was saying, Satan isn’t as creative – everywhere you go will be based on real Earth places, but mind- they will be distorted, more dangerous and deadly.”

“I’ve experienced a little of that already. Are you able to tell me ‘the rules’?”

“You may run into other people, like me, who have shared the same locations, but trust no one or nothing. This place changes people. We obviously were sinful when we came, and this place doesn’t improve anyone. This isn’t about rehabilitation, it’s punishment plain and simple. We’re all here permanently. There is no satisfaction or happiness in this place: not for Satan, who wants to be worshipped, but won’t be; not for the demons, who want to destroy humans, but can’t and nothing but pain for us humans. Doesn’t matter who you are – this place is Hell for all.”

McGreggor started to rummage through his backpack, “The best lesson I can show you is this.” After looking for something he said,

“Can you hold the lid up a bit more so I can get more light please?”,

“Sure” I said, moving over closer to him and using both arms to hold the lid open. McGreggor had stopped looking through his bag, and looked up sheepishly.

“Sorry, but I don’t trust you” he said, “I don’t know you. I don’t want you to see what I have in my pack… only I have to take some things out to get to what I need. Do you mind turning around?”

“I will close my eyes” I said.

“Not good enough. This will help you in the future, I promise, but you have to trust me on this.” he said. I could understand the old man’s apprehension, especially given that I had just tackled him to the pavement. I turned around with my back to the old man, kneeling and holding the lid open,

“Let me know when I can turn around” I said.

“You’ll know” he said.

I felt a tremendous blow and an extremely sharp pain at the same time in my lower back. I collapsed onto the rubbish, face down screaming. I couldn’t feel anything below my waist, I could only feel blood pumping out of my lower back as the old man pulled a homemade knife out of my back. It seemed the wound was not fatal and so I would not die. I managed to roll over by degrees with grunts. McGreggor had moved out of arm reach but I was in no shape to attack him anyway.

The pain was intense and it took my breath away. Gradually it subsided enough that I could hiss out,

“Why did you do that?” I asked. I thought we had built up a fraction of civility between us.

“Your most important lesson: the more pain you inflict on others, the less you are punished when you die. That being said, it doesn’t matter who you are dealing with; stranger, friend or your own mother… there is no one here you can trust. No one will think twice about hurting someone they used to love, if it means one less lash of Satan’s Fang. In fact, a past emotional attachment makes you vulnerable; everybody and I mean everybody will exploit it.”
He stopped to make sure I was listening,

“There is no such thing as love, trust or loyalty in this place. As soon as you turn your back on someone they will hurt you.”
I didn’t doubt a word he said.

“Now I could just kill you” McGreggor said, “but I’m not going to. The more I hurt you, the less I will be hurt. Selfishness is survival in Hell. Now I’m going to have to gag you so that you don’t draw any attention to us from others.” he said, candidly before shoving a rag into my mouth.

McGreggor went to work on me, torturing me with the skill built up with much practise. If he was careful, and I knew he would be, this would last a long time. It was, however far more preferrable than Satan’s Fang that I knew would come afterwards.

Although it was impossible to disconnect from the present and the pain, I found myself thinking about what I had lost. I had nothing to look forward to, no possibility of friendship or a modicum of happiness. ‘Life’ from now on consisted of hurting and being hurt; endless cycles of pain.

What hurt most, more than the physical pain, was the memories of God’s presence – the love, joy, peace – and I knew that I would never experience those feelings again. I had ample opportunities while alive to get to know Jesus, but now I could not.

The only way to escape Hell was not to come here in the first place. Once here, there was no Escape from Hell.

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