Dying was not what she had expected. For a long time, there had been nothing. It’s not what they’d described in Sunday school. There was no light, no waiting angels or long-passed loved ones there to lead her to the pearly gates. One minute there had been pain, as her life was violently ripped from her broken body. And the next, everything came crashing back. Sounds were louder, colours brighter.
She watched the doctors frantically working around her, until they realised it was over. She sat with her crying daughters and husband in the hospital waiting room, unable to offer them comfort. She even attended her own funeral. And then there was the man who had killed her. She saw him lying in hospital too, dying. She saw his life in flashes. A little boy running, his arms outstretched, jumping into the arms of a woman with the same delicate features as him. She saw him as a teenager, a young man, lying in the grass, making shapes out of the clouds with the girl who would become his wife. They had a son, a little boy who then ran into his arms, his head thrown back in laughter. And then he was just a husband again. They haven’t invented a word for a parent whose child dies, after all. She saw it all.
And then darkness engulfed her, and she’d felt fear. It was a strange sensation, having no heart to slam against her ribs, or lungs to drag air in too fast. And yet, it was worse for these lack of physical symptoms. The body is weak, it can only feel so much, contain a fraction of the emotion a soul is capable of feeling. This new fear had been consuming. It made the darkness crushing, the nothingness sinister.
Gradually, painfully slowly, shapes bled out of the darkness. Her own shape reformed. She felt her hands first, pressed into a soft surface. She blinked, contracting her fingers and watching them sink into a carpet. She stood on shaking legs as her surroundings came into focus.
She was in a house that she hadn’t seen in years. Her childhood home hadn’t changed. The wallpaper, out-dated now, was peeling in the corner above the armchair her father had always slouched into after work. She half expected to hear her mother’s soft hums from the kitchen, but everything was deadly still.
It was then she noticed him, standing in the corner of the room. He was wearing a simple black shirt and suit trousers, which emphasised how slim his hips were, how long his torso was. He had pale skin, black eyes, and angular features. His long hair was dark and flowed behind his shoulders so she wasn’t entirely sure where it ended. He was beautiful, the single most beautiful person she had ever seen, and yet, he was terrifying. She took a step back from him. She didn’t know what it was about him. Maybe it was the way he was looking at her. It reminded her of the way a panther would track prey with its eyes. Or maybe it was his stillness. Everyone fidgets. Even bodiless, her soul was not completely still standing there. But he was.
‘Who are you? What are you doing in my house?’ she found herself asking.
‘Your house,’ the man repeated in a surprisingly soft voice. ‘Didn’t this house get knocked down. It’s now a shopping centre, no?’
He was right. And yet, here she was, standing in the middle of a room that smelled like cigarette smoke and talcum powder. The scent of her childhood.
‘It’s a construct, the mind takes you where you find the most comfort,’ the man explained, sounding bored.
He clasped his hands in front of him. His nails were long, the nail beds black. Monster, her mind screamed at her. Her instinct was to run, but it was like her legs had locked. She couldn’t move, couldn’t even look away from him and his fathomless black eyes.
‘I’m dead,’ she said.
He nodded. ‘You are, yes. You were run over by a drunk driver. He died in hospital two days after you. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. He crashed through the windscreen.’
She remembered. She’d watched it happen. She’d even felt it, an echo of everything he had felt, his despair, shame, and overwhelmingly, his regret. It was all a little too late, though. So, she was glad he was dead. Good.
The man’s lips twitched in what looked like amusement, as if he could hear what she’d thought.
‘This pleases you?’ he asked.
‘It doesn’t please me, but it’s just, isn’t it?’ she said stiffly. She had a feeling he was silently laughing at her.
‘A life for a life,’ the man mused.
‘No, that implies his life was equal to mine.’
He tipped his head forward and a lock of his hair fell forward, brushing against his slender shoulder.
‘Oh, you believe you aren’t equal, even in death?’
‘He killed me. He got behind the wheel of a car while drunk, and he killed me. I’ll never see my children again. Never hold my grandchildren. Frankly, I hope he rots in Hell.’
A slow smile spread across his face and she wished she could take another step back. He had fangs, one set at the top, another at the bottom. Hell. Is that where he’s from? She thought of church on Sundays, of the lessons about Hell and the devil.
Panic twisted in her silent chest. ‘No,’ she whispered. ‘I’ve been good, I went to church every Sunday. I gave money to charities. I raised my children with God in their hearts. I’m a good person.’
‘Yes, you did. You’re right,’ the man said mildly.
She looked at him in confusion. ‘I don’t understand then. Why am I not in Heaven? Why am I with you?’
‘You can think of this as the waiting room. It takes a while for the soul to adjust to being without its body. You were together a long time.’
He moved then, circling the sagging sofa, his hand running along the back of it, his eyes never leaving her. He walked gracefully. Like a panther.
‘Tell me, did you watch the news?’ he asked softly ‘Were you following the story of the little boy who had been abducted from the town next to yours?’ She nodded. ‘He was murdered. Five years old, and the last moments of his life were filled with pain and fear.’ The man stopped just in front of the sofa. ‘The man who killed you was his father. He was coming back from the funeral. You know this, of course, you saw it before you came here. Does that not make a difference to how you feel?’
‘He made a decision to get behind the wheel of a car, he killed me.’
‘He made a mistake, he died asking for forgiveness.’
‘Sorry doesn’t take back what he did.’
‘Grief clouds judgement. It breaks even some of the strongest of souls and leaves the deepest of scars,’ the man said.
She stared at him. What was this about? Did it make a difference that this father’s grief had caused her own family grief? No. It was devastating what happened to him, but it had also happened to the mother. And instead of being a support, instead of being a man, he’d drowned his sorrows in alcohol and selfishly killed himself and another innocent person. Leaving a woman both childless and husbandless.
And then there was her family. Her beautiful children. Their faces bloomed behind her eyelids as she closed them briefly. She would never walk her daughters down the aisle. She would never make amends with her son… It had been such a long rift. He had been a confused teenager, an even more confused man. He’d lost his way. But when he was ready, she would have helped him find God again. Hopefully he would find Him without her. He just had to leave that man he lived with, leave that perverse lifestyle behind him.
The man was watching her, his gaze flickering across her face. He crossed the room to her and the breath caught in her throat. He was close, so close she could feel his breath brushing against her lips. In everyone, even the most beautiful of people, flaws show up when they stand this close to you. But the man was as flawless close up as he was faraway. If possible, he was even more startling. His eyes were so dark she couldn’t separate the iris from the pupil. And the way he was looking at her, made her feel cold with fear. He ran a thumb along her chin, tracing the line of her lip, and she felt it tremble. He was looking at her hungrily, and she felt like he wasn’t just breathing her in, he was tasting the air for her scent.
‘Who are you, Devil?’ she asked, pleased to hear that her voice sounded more even than she’d expected it to.
He’d called this a waiting room. It meant she was not yet in Heaven. Maybe this was a test, one last hurdle to prove herself a pure soul. She would pass. She hadn’t let evil into her life yet, she would not start with this creature. Clearly his beauty was to tempt the weak, but she saw through him. She was not drawn in by his looks, she could tell something sinister hid behind it.
‘I thought your religion taught you forgiveness,’ the man said softly.
‘He took a life, his forgiveness lies in the hands of God.’
‘You are probably right.’ He let his hand drop, but he continued to look at her, staying so close she could count his eyelashes if she wanted to. ‘Do you believe people fall into just good and bad categories, then?’
‘I think it’s about being the best person you can be. Treat others how you wish to be treated. Be kind, generous, loving, and truthful.’
‘And forgiving,’ he added. ‘Souls who have been killed by another sometimes take a while to find forgiveness within themselves. It’s understandable, of course. Death is so final, so brutal.’
He moved his hand up and she flinched, thinking he was going to touch her again, but he just brushed his hair over his shoulder.
‘So, I passed?’ she asked.
He tilted his head to the side. ’Passed what?’
‘Your test. Can I go to Heaven now?’
His eyebrows quirked up. ‘There was never any question of you getting into Heaven.’
Relief flooded through her. She’d known it. She’d led a good life. Her relief was brief. The man was circling her. She looked over her shoulder as he moved around her. His hair reached his waist, she watched it ripple between his shoulder blades like spilled ink.
‘If you’re telling the truth –’
‘I always tell the truth,’ the man said quietly.
He stopped when he was facing her again, as close as he had been before.
‘Well, as I’m getting into Heaven, why are you here?’
‘I am here to keep you company. It can be disorientating, dying.’
‘I don’t need company from someone like you.’
‘Someone like me,’ he echoed.
His eyes flashed, burning like black fire. How could someone be so terribly beautiful?
‘Ah, you think I’m a test,’ he said, the fire dying with realisation. ‘A soul’s purity or darkness forms on earth. Once you get here it is, as they say, too late.’
‘And yet you’re here.’ What was he trying to say? ‘I’m a good person, you agreed.’
‘I did nothing of the sort. I merely agreed that you did everything as you listed. You went to church. You gave to charities. You raised your children with fear in their hearts.’
‘Fear? I said God.’
‘My mistake,’ he said absently.
She shook her head. ‘I won’t be confused by you, Devil.’
‘You keep calling me this,’ he said, his voice mild once more. He reached out and trailed his fingers down her cheek. ‘Tell me, would it change anything for you to know that there is no Hell, the devil, or his demons? There is only Heaven, God and,’ he leaned forward, his mouth brushing against hers, ‘His angels.’