This story is by John Pink and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The nights were endless and the cold relentless. The four walls that surrounded me seemed like they were perpetually closing in, indulging me with an unbridled sense of claustrophobia. My body shivered, between the cold and the fear, eternally. Whoever said hell was perpetual flame was sorely mistaken. Hell must be an endless barren tundra with nowhere to go, with nothing to look forward to, not even pain.
I hovered, like a pendulum, as if I were tied by a noose dangling from a thick tree branch. I could not speak; I could not move. The only thing that kept me occupied was the anxiety of watching the black walls continuously collapsing towards me and never falling. The only music I heard was the incessant moaning of my neighbors, who I would have gladly told to shut up; but my voice was constrained by a rope I could not see. I never actually saw my neighbors, but I had never heard an animal screech with such despair, so I knew they were people; howls of loneliness, of wanting to jump from a bridge but never drop to the ground are unmistakably human. It was hard to tell how long I had been there. I assume it must have been years, though I did not know how many. There was no daylight, not even a glimpse to help me count the days. Only darkness.
Between the screams, the cold, the darkness, and the pressure on my neck were enough to make me want to die, though I already had. After tears streamed down my face once more after countless times and the salt on my lips brought memories of a life once lived, I noticed a ray of light reflecting from the ground. I had not laid eyes on a glow or a glare in what seemed like forever. I grew anxious, excited, but couldn’t do anything about it, only cry. I heard footsteps (I counted sixteen), and a booming voice began to speak very close to me, though I could not see its origin.
“Your son has saved countless souls from horrible fates. He has spread the Good Word from a position of power and has asked for the forgiveness of your soul,” the specter said. “You will now face judgement. Whether heaven or hell awaits you, I cannot tell”, the mysterious voice told a stranger.
A hard sound, of an exasperated breath, was audible. Something was happening but I could see only darkness, and I wanted to see. Something was happening to the person in front of me. I tried screaming to no avail.
I yelled: “St. Peter, is that you?” The question echoed only in the chasm of my mind. The light, nonetheless, crept closer to my line of vision as if my thoughts had beckoned it. The black walls opened like a wound and a bright heavenly figure appeared before me. “Alas, I am not St. Peter,” the figure said.
“When will I leave this purgatory?!” The question echoed in the room though I did not feel my lips move.
“You are not in purgatory. You are in limbo, where souls come to wait for judgement,” the faceless specter clarified.
“Why am I in limbo? I was a good woman. I went to church. I helped people in need,” I explained.
The specter sighed and said: “In 1976 you had a best friend, Alma. You spread uncorroborated rumors that her husband was having an affair. When she went to you for council, you convinced her to place her house under your name so she could escape her reality. When she found out that her husband was, in fact, loyal, you denied her reentry to her own home. You manipulated her and stole her household.”
“How can that be a sin?” I complained. “I did it for my children. My husband had left me with nothing and I needed a roof for my eldest daughter.”
“Ten years later you emptied the account containing your second husband’s family inheritance without his consent. Without warning, you left the house and split thousands of dollars amongst your sisters. That money did not belong to you. His father and his father’s father worked for that money so that man could help his children, not you. You used it all on yourself.”
My stomach churned with disgust. This supposed angel, or demon, was telling me that what I did for my children was wrong. My soul was appalled. “How dare you,” I said. “I am a family woman. I did that for my children. That was the only way I could tend to them without being constrained by some menial job. I had to take care of my children. The bastard never wanted to give it to me and he would have drank or gambled it all away on a whim! I saved my family.”
“When your children turned of age,” he continued, “you taught them chicanery, you taught them selfishness, you taught them hate. What did you say to your son the day he first brought a girl to your home?”
“Even in death,” I stated, realizing the event he was referring to, “I’ll defend my actions. I would rather sip my tears in the darkness than to go back and allow my son to commiserate with that black bitch. I would rather scream in silence for a thousand days than to be given another chance and allow my daughters to condone homosexuality.”
If I were truly speaking, I would have been out of breath. I would have been dizzy and nauseous to have my mothering methods questioned. My endeavors to keep my children on the straight-and-narrow had surely earned me my place in heaven. That truly must have been hell. Where is God? I thought.
“You did fight for your children on multiple occasions, admirably, as any mother should. But you lied and you cheated to do it. You stole and would have killed for it if you had the chance. That is why you are here, Ava”, the specter said.
The pressure on my neck became more intense. I wanted to choke, I wanted to spit at him, I wanted to bite my lip until it bled, but I could not move. “When can I leave?” I cried. “I don’t belong here.”
“The only way you can get out of limbo is if and when the seeds of good, if any, you planted throughout your life make an impact to people in the world. Your seeds meaning your children and your children’s children. If there was anything good from your legacy and your family asks for your salvation, your soul will pass on to judgement. I’m afraid that is the only way.”
I had lived my life without remorse, without regret. My only goal was to feed my children, to avoid at all costs that they ever felt hunger, that they ever felt need. I never wanted them to feel what I felt as a child, never. I thought I was doing the right thing. All my life I believed I was doing the right thing. Now I hung there, with the realization that my actions did not only cost me paradise, they also cost me peace.
“What about my grandchildren?” I asked, hinting that they might be the saviors of my soul, so that I wouldn’t have to keep true to my threat of preferring to swallow my tears for all eternity. I knew I could not count on my children for this. My eldest is the most selfish woman I ever met and my two youngest, who were once inseparable, can’t be in the same room together. Maybe my grandchildren were still innocent enough to have a good memory of me.
“Only time will tell, I’m afraid. There’s hope that the memories of your last days might prove of worth.”
I tried to swallow, but the pressure around my neck did not allow it. Is there even a rope there?
I remained in silence, struggling to gulp. The specter slowly vanished and took his light with him, and my surroundings went back to being lifeless and dark with the sensation of stones collapsing. I remained, waiting in the dark, with only two things to keep me company: the cold and despair.