By Breland Wooten
Rachel sat at her desk and tried to convince herself it was only heartburn, but the tingling in her left arm didn’t go away. The pain in her chest intensified while her phone buzzed with a call from her son. This can’t be happening. At thirty-seven, she was the youngest executive at the law firm. She had a loving husband, two kids in high school, and she finally finished paying off her student loans.
She reached for her office phone to call for help but fell over at her desk. By the time the ambulance got there, it was no use.
She awoke to a bright light, and after several seconds of rubbing her eyes, she was able to see again. She was lying on her childhood bed, and the smell of her grandmother’s pancakes was in the air. Sitting up, she recognized her room, the same room she had her first kiss in; his name was Danny, and she was thirteen. They had moved a year later, but she always thought of this place when she thought of home.
A gentle knock on the door startled her back to reality. She watched as the door slowly opened. Rachel wanted to be afraid, but there was something about the room that kept her safe. Her eyes bulged when she saw a man enter the room. He was over six feet tall and had long auburn hair, deep blue eyes, and a narrow waist.
“Hello, Rachel,” he said. His voice was a deep baritone and Rachel could hear music in his words.
“How do you know my name?”
“I’ve known you your whole life,” he said.
“Who are you? Where am I? How did I get here?”
“Slow down.” He smiled. “We have plenty of time to answer your questions. But first, come and eat.” He offered out his hand to her and together they walked into the kitchen. Everything looked just as she remembered it, even the tear in the wallpaper where she threw a dish at her brother for mocking her.
Without a word, she sat in the chair that had belonged to her, closest to the living room and farthest away from her brat of a kid brother. The attractive man brought her a plate of pancakes and a Nu-Grape soda, her favorite as a child.
“Are you not having any?” she asked when he sat down beside her.
“I made them just for you.”
The morning sun was coming through the window as she ate in silence. She burped after taking a big drink of the soda and blushed at what she had done. The man only smiled at her, picked up her dirty dishes, and carried them to the sink. As he was washing her plate, she came in behind him.
“How did I get here?” she repeated.
“You already know the answer to that, Rachel.”
“I died, didn’t I?”
“What is this place?”
“It’s a place I created for you. It’s your memories, combined with how you saw the world at the time you were most happy.”
“This is where I was most happy?” she asked.
“Do you doubt me?”
“No, just a little surprised. But now that I’m back here, it feels right.”
The man handed the clean plate to Rachel and she put it back in the cupboard right where it belonged. The kitchen smelled of her mother, it always did. Her mother had died of a bad heart a few years earlier. It was now no surprise to Rachel that it had happened to her. So many times she told herself she needed to get a check-up, but there was never enough time.
“Can I see my mother?”
“I’m very sorry, Rachel, but it doesn’t work like that.”
“How does it work?” she asked.
“Those answers can wait until later. It’s important to me that you enjoy this day.”
“This day?” she repeated. “What happens after today?”
“Let’s go outside to your swing.”
They exited the house out the kitchen door, which led directly to the back yard. The grass had been freshly mowed and, mixed with the scent of honeysuckle, made her feel like a kid again. She forgot her question and spun around with her arms outstretched and her eyes closed tightly. When she stopped, she was facing the swing her dad had made. It was only a sanded piece of treated cider with a hole cut out in the middle for the rope, but it was hers.
“Push me,” she called over to the man. He came behind her, placed his hands on her shoulders, and pushed. She kicked her legs out and arched her head back so she could see him upside down. He reminded her of her dad.
It was getting close to noon when she asked her questions again.
“Are you an angel?” she said.
“Yes,” was all he responded.
After a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, they went for a walk around the neighborhood. Rachel could hear the sounds of the community but never saw another person. She swore she heard cranky old Mr. Johnson yelling at kids to ‘stay off the lawn,’ but she couldn’t see him.
“I had a dog when I lived here.”
“Yes, that was his name. Lucky. Where is he?”
“Animals don’t come here,” he said.
“Will I ever see anyone I knew when I was alive?”
“What is this place up here?” he asked.
Looking up, Rachel saw the trail that led up to the water tower. It was a known make-out spot for teens. She grabbed his hand and tugged him along. Under the tower, it looked like kids had just left. There were soda bottles, a few empty beer cans, and the columns that supported the tower were covered in graffiti.
“Look over here,” she said and pointed to a spot on the column. Danny loves Rachel. She traced the words with her finger as if she were reading braille. The words were sloppy and the paint had chipped a bit, but it didn’t matter.
“Can we stay here a while longer?”
“Danny was my first boyfriend. The first boy I ever loved, actually. They say you never forget your first love. We were going to run away and get married. He was going to be an airplane pilot, and I was going to be a congresswoman slash housewife.”
“You came close to being a congresswoman, and you were a great mother and wife.”
“Will I get to see my kids again?”
“Are you ready to head back home now?”
“Please, don’t avoid this one. Please tell me. Will I get to see my children again?”
“No,” he said and lowered his head.
“Why not? I thought you were an angel.”
“I am an angel. I was the first angel,” he said.
Rachel stared at him a moment with confusion in her eyes.
“Let’s get you back home.”
The trip back to the house was less joyful. They walked in silence, but he kept looking at her. She kept her head down, watching her steps, knowing where they were leading. The porch was made of cement and was knee level. They sat on the porch with their feet touching the ground. By the look of the sun, it was late afternoon.
Rachel’s mouth started to tremble when she spoke.
“Wasn’t the first angel cast out? Are you Satan?”
“Yes, but I prefer the name Morning Star, or just Star for short.”
Rachel tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come out. The safe feeling she once had was now gone. Her stomach began to twist into knots and she felt like she was going to vomit. Star knew all the questions she wanted to ask; he also knew it would take forever for her to find the courage to ask them.
“I built this place for you. I build places like this for everyone. When He cast me out, it wasn’t to punish me. He put me in charge of Hell. No, there is no lake of fire, no burning, and no pain. Well, no physical pain. The suffering of Hell is living forever and never being able to see the ones you love.”
“But . . . but . . .” she began.
“You don’t belong here,” he interrupted. “It’s not my rules. I know you were a good person. You never cheated, never told hurtful lies, never hurt anyone. You were a good person.”
“So why am I here,” she said, finally catching her voice. “Is it because I didn’t go to church?”
“No, actually most of the people I see went to church every Sunday.”
“You didn’t follow the rules. In short, you didn’t ask for forgiveness.”
“But I died so young, I didn’t know . . .” she said, then stopped. “I guess that’s the point, right?”
“Right, you never know when death will come.”
The next hour was spent in silence. They stayed on the porch together. She leaned over and rested her head on his shoulder for much of the time.
“You don’t seem evil.”
“I get that a lot,” he said. “I’m not evil. Do you remember the time you worked at McDonald’s for two months?”
“Yes, worst two months of my life. The manager was a jerk-bag know-it-all.”
“Exactly, that’s how I felt about Him during the uprising. I believed I could run things better than Him, so I tried to overthrow him.”
“Well, because of you, actually.”
“Not just you but all of humanity. I believed every person should get into heaven without asking for forgiveness. I thought it was His ego that wanted you to bow down to him, so I went to war for you.”
“But you’re right, aren’t you?”
“No, I was wrong. But He forgave me.”
“If he forgave you, why are you in Hell?”
“You never forget your first true love. God saw in me my love for humanity. He saw the world I would make for the fallen humans, a world of pain but not a world of torture. I never like getting good people here, but it’s my job. If it wasn’t me, it would be another angel, maybe one who is jealous of how much He loves you. He offered me my place back at his side many centuries ago, but my place is here.”
The sun was setting when they went inside. He made her a dinner of favorites: steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn on the cob, and strawberry pie for desert. They ate together this time, side by side. When dinner was over, they washed the dishes together.
“What happens now?” she asked.
“I will stay with you until you fall asleep. When you awake in the morning, you will be alone.”
“Will you hold me till I fall asleep?”
They went to her bedroom and lay down together. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her in close. He could feel her tears trickling down to his arm.
“Can I ask you something?” she said.
“Has anyone ever gotten to leave Hell?”
He hesitated for a moment. Many people had asked that very question. In fact, all of them had. He always gave them the short answer. No.
“No,” he said. “But,” he continued, “That doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”
Rachel started to turn around and ask him more, but he simply shushed her and held her tight. They stayed like that until she drifted off to sleep.
She awoke the next morning and reached for her alarm clock. She remembered her dad making her use one of the wind-up ones with bells on top. It was the only one that would wake her. She extended her hand out from under the covers to shut it off but couldn’t seem to reach it. Something wasn’t right. There was something holding her down. Her bed didn’t feel soft anymore. The alarm clock stopped buzzing but was replaced by a beeping sound.
“She’s back,” she heard someone say.
Who’s back, she thought.
“Mrs. Johnson, can you hear me?”
She only nodded.
“Can you open your eyes?”
She opened her eyes slowly, the bright light hurt. She looked around and saw two young men wearing uniforms, and she felt like she was moving.
“Mrs. Johnson, you’ve had a heart attack. We are taking you to the hospital. Your family has been notified and will meet us there. Nod your head if you understand me.”
Rachel nodded her head.
“It’s good to have you back, Mrs. Johnson,” the other paramedic said. “For a second I thought we had lost you.”
She smiled weakly and looked over at the young man. A glimmer of light caught her eye and she noticed his golden name badge reflecting the sunlight. She squinted her eyes so she could know the name of her savior. The badge read simply: Star.
Breland Wooten is a recent graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and is the first in his family to finish college. He hopes to inspire his many nephews to follow in his footsteps.