Start with part 1
Dr. Wagner looked at the laptop monitor to find an image of Dana laying on a rock as the beeping of a monitor next to his right ear signaled her slow but steady heartbeat. He turned towards Dr. Jones with a smile and sheen of wonder growing across his face. He said quietly: “it’s working.”
Without any signal from his colleagues, Dr. Chan reached over to switch the IV drip to the second, lethal mixture. Before he got to it, Dr. Jones looked in horror and yelled “not yet!” as her arms lunged towards him.
Dr. Chan was confused and a little frightened before Dr. Jones immediately calmed down and apologized. She searched for the right reason and darted her eyes to the right, giving a light bite to her bottom lip. “We just want to watch the picnic play out for a minute.”
Concerned but once again politely deferential, Dr. Chan stepped back and waited. Dr. Jones had leaned over to watch the monitor with Dr. Wagner as she whispered “I can’t believe it’s going so smoothly.”
Dr. Jones walked over to the door and propped it open a bit, sticking her head out to invite Dr. Little in. “Showtime.”
He entered the room and saw Dana’s body completely still, seemingly lifeless. Dr. Wagner was hunched over the computer, with his back turned to Dr. Little and Dr. Chan, who had moved over to the corner with his arms crossed and fingers filled with impatient curiosity as they rolled across his right bicep. He looked over at Dr. Little with frightened, wide eyes. Dr. Jones walked over the join Dr. Wagner at the laptop screen.
“Are you sure this will work?” Dr. Little asked their backs in a hushed tone.
Without turning around, Dr. Jones reached over and tapped the ECG monitor in time with Dana’s heartbeat. She said “so far, so good.”
“I don’t feel good about it, but hopefully you have more success than I did.” Dr. Little had begun slowly pacing, then paused briefly to look at the ground and take a deep breath. With an overwhelming sigh, he added “This is going to be hell for her.”
“Let’s hope so” Dr. Wagner said, eyes still locked on the screen as he laughed a little. Dr. Jones gave him a light backhand on the shoulder.
Dr. Chan was horrified.
Under his breath, but loud enough for all to hear, Dr. Little said “dick,” and continued pacing.
Dana opened her eyes to a dark, overcast sky, with a cold, hard, uneven surface underneath her. She had enough clarity to wonder ‘why wouldn’t they give me a sunny day for my picnic?’
This thought renewed her anxiety as she began to get her bearings and prepared to stand up. The urge to move was increasing as a point of the rock grew more painful on her neck. She was thinking ‘Couldn’t I have woken up in the grass?’ and began to regret her trust in the empathy of these two doctors.
Once Dana managed to lift her head, she sat up, blinked rapidly a few times and looked around trying to place herself. It was certainly not Jacobson Park. She didn’t recognize her surroundings at all, but the surface reminded her of the solidified lava her family saw during a vacation to Hawaii. This sea of black extended in every direction, reaching beyond the thick fog that limited her visibility.
Questioning if this was just the equivalent of a loading screen for her fantasy, Dana reached up to rub her eyes, hoping to escape the oddly familiar setting. Upon opening them again there was a thin stream of lava slowly coming in her direction, creeping out of the fog. Once she noticed it, the stream’s speed appeared to increase until it was inches away from burning her bare feet. She rolled over quickly and climbed to her feet, continuing left to get away from the danger.
Dana didn’t get far through the thick, smoke-filled humidity before leaning over to catch her breath with one hand on her knee and another on her chest. That’s when she picked her head up again and noticed the fog was lifting to reveal the distant landscapes. The lava had come from a region containing dozens of large black volcanoes, the stark black sheen of each one increasingly covered by frighteningly bright magma flowing from the summits. To the right of the volcanoes a cliff had become visible, with a field of vicious spikes farther away that presumably began at the bottom of the large drop. Once Dana turned to the left a rattlesnake slithered through her feet, loudly shaking its tail. Suddenly it raised its head and violently hissed, causing her to yelp and run away from the snake, but towards its origin.
Quickly moving away but keeping her eye on the creature behind her, Dana saw it start in the other direction, so she slowed to a stop and looked ahead of her. The lifting fog slowly revealed the most threatening of all directions: a swamp filled with a variety of animals peeking over the water and proving that little snake was the least of her worries. A couple alligators were staring directly at her, one on the edge of the thick green water, beginning to crawl out onto the frozen lava, surrounded on both sides by three-feet-wide turtles with pointed spikes around the edges of their shells and long extended mouths. Behind them, part of an enormous python broke the surface but kept its full size an awful mystery.
A black bear suddenly emerged from the water in the back of the crowd and roared with great fury, towering above everything else and making the other creatures scurry towards Dana even faster. Immediately after the bear went silent, the sound of mosquitoes became overwhelming. They were surrounding her in a cloud that included wasps and bees of all sizes. Dana closed her eyes and started waving her arms, slapping in all directions before she felt a crawling on her leg and looked down to find an entire hill of blood-red ants quickly making its way up towards the edge of her hospital gown.
Dana screamed louder than she ever had before and started running in the fourth and final direction which was still blanketed by fog. She figured it had to be better than running towards the cliff, the lava, or the swamp. Fears raced through her head as she sped forward with almost zero visibility, debating the obvious conclusion with herself: ‘Could we really have gotten this much right? There’s no way it was a guess if that’s the case. It just seems so generic and expected. I never believed in it, but here I am. Couldn’t they have at least given me the good memory to go out with?’
It was unmistakable. Dana was in hell. There was only one thing missing. And that’s when she ran headfirst into a rock-hard surface and fell back unconscious.
The sunlight was bright when Dana woke up. She looked toward it to find an ominous figure surrounded by light, and was excited to be back in what she assumed was the hospital, being examined by what she assumed was Dr. Wagner. But the comfort of a hospital bed was missing, the ground still uneven, hard, and painful. Looking to the side, she found everything was still black. Then a large, red hand reached over right in front of her eyes. It was scaly, yet somehow wrinkled with age. Long black fingernails extended well beyond the tips of the short, stubby fingers, and the palm was filled with a void of darkness except for the thin white pentagram that was barely visible but seemed to exude light from the seams.
Rolling her head back over, Dana was now lying flat, looking up to get a better look at the ominous figure. She still couldn’t see much with the boiling sunlight in her eyes, but suspecting what to look for, she found the two horns on top of the dark silhouette.
Dana burst out laughing, grabbed her stomach and began rolling on the floor, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” She managed to get more commentary out through gasps for air “this is ridiculous! I choose to die and hell is real! But not just any hell, the exact same hell everyone expected! Seriously how the fuck?! Well, I didn’t believe so here I am. Take me oh dark one!”
A dark voice billowed down at her “Oh, I already did.”
The ferocity of Dana’s laughter grew. “and that voice! It’s the same damn voice!” She stopped for a moment and looked up. Mocking the demon’s low, raspy, all-too-familiar tone she said “Welcome to hell. You will be damned forever.”
Suddenly the hand reached down and grabbed Dana’s neck. She could feel the light from its palm burning into her skin as she was lifted off her feet, now dangling in the air with only the lightest hints of breath escaping. His fingernails dug into the back of her head, sinking deeper the higher she went. As she hanged there quickly deflating with a slow flail in every muscle trying to find oxygen, disembodied screams began to echo in the background, growing closer and more overwhelming until her head was completely and constantly filled by a symphony of frightened souls. Urine started coursing down her leg.
The terrifying yells went silent and Dana heard “Ok. I think you get the point,” before she was thrown to the ground landing with a painful crunch and shattered spinal disc. This injury would have helped numb her pain in the real world, but that relief never came, leaving her paralyzed in agony on the ground. The demon laughed, mocking her high-pitched screams: “owwww my back! I think I’m sooooooo funny!” His right hand reached up as if to twirl a strand of hair and continued “I’ll never take this seriously and I’ll lay on the ground in pain for eternity!”
Dana laid there for what did feel like an eternity, but eventually found the strength to work through the pain and ask “what am I supposed to do?”
Her captor spawned a leather recliner and began sipping a tall glass of lemonade topped off with a tiki umbrella. Wide open, bright red legs revealed a startling lack of genitalia. He continued “You wanted life to be over, right? Well this is what it’s like. Then you mocked the devil when you got here.” At this point he loudly slurped the last drops of lemonade through his straw and threw the glass out into the distance.
Kicking the recliner into an upright position the Devil leaned forward, elbows on knees and got right next to Dana’s ear to whisper: “You’re making great decisions. Off to a good start.”
“But how was I supposed to know?” Dana garbled through sobs.
Exaggeratedly exasperated, the Devil said “Ugh. You’re not supposed to know. You’re just not supposed to give up!”
“I tried… I couldn’t do it.”
“Did you try? What was so bad about it? Did you ever take anything seriously?”
Overcoming her urge to continue crying, Dana gained a bit of composure and slowly began, “my brain couldn’t stop… The constant doubt was too much for me. No one wanted to be around me because I found the worst in everything. Because I thought the worst of everything. And everyone. I figured it might as well be funny.”
Dana paused for a moment to take a deep breath prior to rapidly rattling on “I just wasn’t meant to be there. I was weird. No one thought I was funny. They were just scared of me. Work was terrible. I was alone. I was frustrated. No one cared about me. I wasn’t meant to be there. I wasn’t understood or loved or… I didn’t matter!” she screamed with all her might, “just a waste of space! I didn’t do any good, I didn’t do any bad, so the world wouldn’t miss me and I wouldn’t miss it.”
Dana teared up again and struggled to continue, “and I wanted to see my mom…”
“Bingo. I’ll start there.” The Devil snapped his fingers and Dana’s back pain subsided. Conducted by another swing of his red hand, she floated up to her feet and a gust of wind flew through her hospital gown, immediately cooling Dana’s body from the unbearable heat. The Devil conjured a sofa and lowered Dana onto it, flat on her back. Sitting in his recliner, The Devil was now wearing glasses perched at the edge of his long, pointed nose that purposefully had trouble keeping the frames in place. There was a pen and small notebook on the arm of his chair. He leaned forward with crossed legs and sharp chin held up by his dark palm.
The whole set-up was reminiscent of Dr. Little’s office, with a slightly more ‘generic TV psychiatrist’ vibe. The low voice was a bit softer now as the Devil said “Ignoring the irony in you not believing in heaven or hell, yet thinking you’d see her when you were dead, why do you think her death pushed you over the edge?”
Dana looked at the Devil confusedly then examined her surroundings. “This is really fucking weird.”
“Well you should take it really fucking seriously,” The Devil said. Another snap of the fingers returned Dana to her agony on the ground, even worse than before, “would you rather do it this way?”
Barely able to speak, Dana pushed out the word “no,” and was quickly returned to the sofa, “fine.” She sat up and stretched her pain-free back while settling into her seat. With a heavy sigh, she began “she wasn’t there anymore so I felt alone.”
Speaking with a still very deep, but now softer tone The Devil continued “when was the last time you talked to your mom before she died?”
“We hadn’t spoken for months.”
“So… how was her death going to affect your life? Didn’t you hate her?”
“Yes. But…” Dana tripped over her words, “hate? Hate is a strong word.”
The Devil was quick with his retort, “it’s your word. You said it multiple times.”
“She got mad at me for complaining and I got mad at her for not being supportive. Then we stopped speaking. I wasn’t going to ignore her forever.”
“She could have died at any time though.”
“But that’s true of everyone. It’s not like she was sick. I couldn’t have expected her to get bitten by a deadly spider in Manhattan. It was a freak accident.” Dana widened her eyes and lifted her hands in frustration.
The Devli continued his rapid responses, “does that matter?”
“No. I know I shouldn’t have boxed her out of my life.”
“I mean, even your dad was speaking to her and he hated her.”
“I know…” Now lying on her back with her arms crossed, Dana said “I should have called her.”
“Did you think you’d get to see her again?”
“Maybe. It just seemed like dying would bring us close together again. Or…” A slight tear rolled downher cheek, “I don’t know.”
“Weren’t you just trying to relieve your own guilt?” The Devil now had a much sharper tone, “for being too stubborn to call her and apologize?”
“You sound just like Dr. Little.” Dana rolled her eyes. Slapping the couch with an open hand, she yelled: “She should have apologized!”
“Maybe he had a point. And does that really matter?”
His condescension frustrated Dana, but she knew there was only one answer, “no. But it wasn’t just her. Everything else had been terrible for a while.”
“Ok. Let’s go through the list. What about the rest of your family?”
“Well Dad was mad at me again.”
“Because you were going to kill yourself.”
“Yes. But before that. He’s still mad at me for not finishing art school.”
The Devil peered over at Dana over the rims of his glasses, which were now at the edge of his nose. He didn’t say a word.
Dana took the hint and continued: “Fine. He got mad at me for not trying. He said I gave up on my talent.”
“Maybe he had a point too.”
“But Sue is broke trying to sing! I had to get a good job to support them both!”
“Did you?” The Devil leaned forward, knocking the notebook and pen to the floor, “did Sue ever actually ask you for anything?”
“Not exactly. But I needed to make sure she had a better apartment.”
“Because she was going to get attacked at some point living in that shithole!”
“After five years in the same building, she was suddenly going to get attacked now?”
“No… Yes. Well, she needed a new place.”
“She didn’t want one!” The Devil shouted.
Dana continued, ignoring him. “That’s why I bought an apartment and made her move.”
When Dana paused, The Devil looked off to the side and sighed. Bringing his head forward again he looked over at her from the corner of his eye, eyebrows fully raised. “Go on.”
“And then she got mad at me while I was going broke trying to pay it off.”
Letting his frustration out the Devil screamed again: “Because she didn’t want it!”
“That didn’t mean she had to stop talking to me,” Dana whined. “I didn’t tell her it was her fault.”
“But you DID blame her for your money problems. You didn’t say it, but she knew it.” His glasses were at the tip of his nose as he completely leaned forward linking his hands together and placing the point of his chin on top of them. “Then you used money problems as an excuse to kill yourself.”
“It’s not about the money! It’s just that I get anxious unless I have too much of it. I need to know I can survive for a while, and I never could.”
The Devil lifted his head took a deep breath and billowed “BECAUSE YOU GAVE IT TO HER When she didn’t ask! Trust me, she thinks it was her fault, and now she might give up just like you did.”
Dana huffed: “She wouldn’t do that to Dad.”
“You just did it to both of them.” The Devil said with an emphasizing nod and another look over the rim of his glasses.
Dana went silent and looked away embarrassed. She was starting to tear up.
“Giving up on yourself and giving away your money. Sounds like your fault.” A victorious smirk came over his face as the Devil sat back and moved on, “what were you always thinking about?”
Avoiding eye contact Dana said “I don’t know.”
“If you don’t want to answer…” His red hand lifted slowly to signal another snap was at the ready.
Dana looked over and tensed up: “Fine! I don’t like people. And they’re always there. And they don’t want to be around me either.”
“Ok. Why? You clearly spent plenty of time thinking about it.”
“They didn’t like me!”
“How do you know that if you never talked to anyone?”
“I did.” Dana pleaded.
“Only when you had to.”
“Well no one talked to me.”
The Devil rolled his eyes. “They tried, you just never noticed.”
“But I didn’t want to get rejected.”
“Why would they reject you?”
“Because everyone’s so judgmental.” Dana was sitting up again, warm sunlight gleaming off the tears on her cheeks, “and there’s plenty to judge on me.”
“You’re judgmental and you judge yourself harshly. It doesn’t mean other people do.”
“But other people think the same things.”
“Even I don’t want a world where everyone thinks like you do… I’d be out of a job. It would be a living hell.” He chuckled.
Dana wiped her face with her arm and let a small smile creep out before mumbling “dick.”
“I just want to make sure you don’t think I’m getting too sweet.” Lightly shaking his head with another roll of his eyes, The Devil said “people didn’t judge you like you judged them. What about Ethan?”
“What about him?” She was a little taken aback by the mere sound of his name, “we weren’t going to be a good fit.”
“How do you know that?! You hardly spoke to him!”
“Yeah, but Lisa worked with him and she told me he was crazy.”
“She was jealous. And… If you think you’re crazy, how can you judge someone else for it?” He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “This is fucking exhausting.”
“But I don’t want everyone to leave me.” Dana was now fully crying, “I can’t trust them.”
“What about everyone you visited when you were dying?” The Devil used air quotes to emphasize that last word.
“None of them were there before!”
“You think that was their fault...? You never went anywhere! You can’t get mad at other people if you never call them!” Lumbering forward out of his chair, the Devil deepened his voice and towered over Dana, growling “it’s your fault!”
Dana was sniffling as she cowered in fear on the couch, “I was scared. I don’t trust it. They won’t want to be friends anymore. Things are different.”
Now out of his chair, The Devil began impatiently pacing, still nude except for his glasses “They’re not. They love you. And you don’t have to take my word for it… They said it to you.”
“Only because I was dying.” Dana whined and aggressively fell back into the couch, slumped over, arms crossed, and a pitiful pout on her face.
“That’s the only reason you saw them.” The Devil sighed, “not the only reason they loved you.”
“Whatever, it still makes no difference that I died.”
“I’m pretty sure we just talked about all the differences. You know I can read your mind, right?” The Devil stopped, turned and leaned over to stare right in Dana’s eyes. He tapped the side of his head, hissing “I know you don’t believe that.”
Dana remained silent, and The Devil continued quickly “is that a tinge of regret I’m sensing? Do you realize how big an idiot you are? Do you realize what the fuck you left behind? The mess you caused? Even Dr. Little thinks he’s a failure now. Congratulations. You may have made your psychiatrist suicidal. That’s impressive. Maybe you’re my long-lost daughter. Honey, is that you? Why couldn’t you do what you did these past six months earlier?” The Devil paused for a breath.
Dana tried to interrupt “because…”
“Shut the fuck up! I’m talking!” he snapped back at her. “Why couldn’t you see your friends, talk to your family, see Dr. Little more regularly, take a vacation, paint, leave your shitty job and over-priced apartment, and get rid of so much useless shit!? What was stopping you?”
Covered in tears she said “I couldn’t…”
*Finger-snap* Dana found herself on the ground in an agony that was multiples beyond what she had experienced before.
The Devil returned to his initial threatening tone: “What was that?”
“I…” She struggled. She couldn’t breathe. “I wo…”
“You have to fight for it!”
“I… I wou…”
Dana went silent and closed her eyes, about to give up one more time, but gasped, opened her mouth and squeezed each letter out through the pain. “I wo… ould.. n’t! I WOULDN’T!!!!!”
“And whose fault was it?”
The pain lightly subsided and Dana answered “mine.”
“Finally.” The Devil’s tone quieted, “the right damn answer.”
Still in agony, Dana closed her eyes and heard a faint snap as she passed out from the pain.
Dana woke up and placed her hand over the light to see a bright blue sky surrounding the sun. The ground was soft, and the grass was gently tickling her back, still exposed through the hospital gown. There was a cool, but not cold, breeze. She sat up. Her fear now containing a sliver of cautious hope.
Looking across the field, Dana found the figure she had been waiting for. She found the instigator of her premature trip to the afterlife. Her mother was unmistakable in her favorite flowing blue dress that she wore to every summer BBQ. The wind pushed her trademark unkempt long blonde locks along with the light gown.
There was a familiar prick of pain right in Dana’s back that caused a cringe and brought her to her feet. Slowly creeping towards her mother, Dana felt a literal spring in her step as the soft grass propelled her forward whenever she lifted one of her bare heels. It felt like she was floating.
Standing directly behind the specter, the breeze stopped and her surroundings became silent. Dana took a deep breath then held it as she reached to tap her mom’s shoulder. Immediately after her finger made contact, Dana cringed and closed her eyes, too afraid of another Devil’s trick. But after a moment all she felt was a warm embrace. A hug. Dana relaxed, relieving all the remaining tension that had been built up over the years and feeling completely and utterly relaxed for the first time in her entire adult life.
Dana was crying as she wrapped her arms around her mom. Through the tears she said “I love you.”
Her mother’s voice softly echoed “I love you too.”
“I’m sorry I gave up,” Dana whispered.
She recognized the comforting tone of her childhood that had been missing for years, “It’s ok. I still love you. I forgive you for everything. Don’t worry about me. And don’t forget.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too, no matter what. Just go on and make me proud.” Her mom whispered in Dana’s ear “make this worth it.”
Dana was a little befuddled by this but ignored any questioning, holding tight expecting to be pulled from her mother’s arms at any second, and making every last one of them count. The sun was directly in her eyes now and getting brighter by the second.
The voice slowly faded as Dana’s mom said, “I love you Honeybug.”
A gentle shock woke Dana up to a bright light with another silhouette in it. Believing this to be the Devil, she showed appreciation for that final goodbye with a quiet “thank you. I’m ready.”
There was a light beeping in the background, slowly speeding up. She could feel a comfortable bed beneath her and the chill of aggressive air conditioning. Her eyes adjusted and Dr. Little moved the light above her, looking down with a shocked smile.
“I’m sorry” Dana rose quickly to hug him. “I’m so sorry. Thank you for everything. You were right.”
Dr. Little was in shock, mouth agape, eyes wide and staring at Dr. Jones and Dr. Wagner. They had their arms over each other’s shoulders and beamed with pride. Their risky experiment had paid off at last, even if it might never be understood. Understanding Dana’s simple existence may make them look like failures was a small price to pay for truly helping one person. They remained hopeful this momentary death would be an effective therapy for others though.
Dana pushed back from Dr. Little and stared at him in disbelief. He examined her eyes, then held onto her arms and said “I’m so happy you made it. I can’t believe you’re actually alive.”
“I don’t understand what happened. But I’m calm. I’m relaxed. I’m excited for what’s next. I’m appreciative. I’m not angry. I don’t ever want to talk about it.”
Dr. Little said “I understand,” and let go of Dana, shaking his head and blinking quickly, still unsure what to believe.
Dana looked over and saw an image of her hell on the computer screen, paused and blinking. A wire from that laptop ran up to her head and she followed it up to the electrode helmet with her fingers. Dr. Wagner noticed the screen image was still there and quickly closed the computer, afraid it would destroy Dana’s newfound optimism. Even if it was a trick, she didn’t care. It was all still true. Lying back down on the bed, Dana smiled up at all three doctors and said “I’m ready to trust. I’m ready to try.”
Dr. Chan laid flat on the ground behind them, having passed out once Dana was revived. It had only been fifteen minutes and she shouldn’t have been able to wake up for hours… if ever. But there she was, beaming with an appreciation for life and relieved of a tremendous guilt, antsy to get out of that sterile room and continue the course she began charting over the previous six months.