“Hi, Satan,” I said. “How are you doing?”
The devil turned, as if to actively acknowledge my presence, even though I knew he’d been hyper-aware that I’d been staring at him for the last five minutes (or lifetimes? Who knew how time was measured here).
He was not as ugly as I had imagined he would be. It was impossible to place his age, but his skin was smooth and unblemished, and he had fine golden hair that seemed to turn red in the ever-changing light.
The only similarities between my imagination and reality was the permanent smirk I’d always thought he’d wear. It was alluring yet terrifying at the same time- just as sin had been in the living world.
Millions of people had died in the same hour I had, forming a line in order of time of death at the bottom of the heavenly staircase. While waiting for St. Peter to call my name, Satan had wandered to the top of the staircase, calling for Jesus to come out and hang out with him for a while. Waiting by the gates of heaven, I found myself immensely curious about this man.
Now he stood before me, looming over me one minute, then shape-shifting to normal form in the next. He tilted his head.
“Hello, Crystal Duan,” he said, pronouncing my first name in perfect English and my last name in perfect Chinese. “Nice to meet you.”
“Yes,” I replied. “I want to ask you a question.”
“And what would that be?” the devil replied.
I took a deep breath. As a soul, I did feel more confident than I was as a mortal. Had I encountered Satan in some form back on Earth in my flesh, I would not have dared say what I said next: “I’m not saying I’ll necessarily stay there. But… I’ve always wondered. How’s hell? Could I get a sneak peek?”
Satan threw his head back and laughed. The sound resembled a demonic moan, humorously out of place considering the context. I suppose the fact that I had simply asked a question, rather than uttering some shaky assertion of fear, amused him.
The devil suddenly looked back up at the top of the heavenly staircase, as if waiting for someone. I looked up too, to see Jesus running down on a chariot of fire.
“Why would you want to go there?” he asked sharply, stopping in front of me.
I took a deep breath and looked at the two, the devil and the Angel. Except this time I wasn’t really making a choice in that moment.
“I want to see what I could have chosen.” I said.
Jesus and Satan looked at each other, then back at me.
“Are you sure about this?” Jesus said.
“Yes.” I said. “Only if I can come back, though.”
Jesus sighed wearily.
The devil rolled his eyes. “I’ll bring her back, bro. And if you don’t want her to make like Eve and fuck this up, come get her yourself.”
Jesus gave me a long look, then turned back to Satan. “Okay. But only for seven minutes.”
The devil grinned, then grabbed me by the arm. “Close your eyes and tap your heels three times, Dorothy!”
Before I could get over the fact that he had made a pop culture reference, I found myself in a huge empty movie theater. It was hot and humid, but not necessarily burning like the Bible had implied.
Satan sat in a seat to my right and looked at me.
“I’d imagined hell and heaven were a bit more exciting,” I said. “With structures I’d never even think of. Not reminiscent of some Biblical cliches, or modern inventions we humans have made.”
Satan arched an eyebrow. “I’m assuming you mean heaven for the former and hell for the latter.” He gestured at the theater. “Do you want me to make this less familiar?”
I blinked. The theater was now what looked like an ancient Greek amphitheater, with stadium seats framing the center stage.
Satan gave his signature smirk. “Better?”
I looked over at him. “I guess.”
Satan kept his smirk on, but his eyes changed to hold almost slight concern. “You might need a better setting to see what you’re going to see next, though.”
He snapped his fingers, and the amphitheater changed back to the dull movie theater of before.
I scowled. “But this is so bor-”
Suddenly, the screen filled with my face. I gaped, identical to the wide-eyed permanent expression I’d had when my spirit left Earth.
My scarred and bruised 18 year old body was lying on the ground, in the exact place that I faintly remember dying on. The paramedics were carrying me away. My friends were crying. Strangers looked sick to their stomachs. The scene zoned in on one little girl whose eyes seemed permanently enlarged. It must have been her first encounter with death.
The frame froze. Rewound. Played back to the minute the screen first filled with me. The same scene began unfolding, with the only difference being the volume slightly louder than before.
I turned away, feeling a little sick.
“So this is hell,” I said. “Watching myself die, over and over again. Is that it?”
Satan was quiet. He smiled grimly. “No.”
I shut my eyes. In the immortal life, you couldn’t cry, and this meant unhappiness felt like constipation, with the tears refusing to spill out, but burning in the backs of your eyes.
After a few moments of listening to the sounds, they grew quiet. I opened my eyes, turning back to the screen in dread.
But this time around, when the screen filled with my face, my eyes were no longer open, staring off into death.
After a minute or two of curious waiting, I saw myself come back to life.
The me on the screen coughed, tried to move her arms, and immediately found the crowd swarming around her, chattering excitedly that I’d survived the car accident. The ambulance carted me away, this time to help me recover, not to salvage the fragile life hanging by a thread destined to break.
The little girl now wore a smile.
And the scene closed.
I looked at Satan incredulously again. “Wait, what’s happening?”
Satan pointed at the screen. “Look.”
I… had a life. I survived.
The reward was happily living a life that had previously been cut off.
I found myself graduating college with a degree in convergence magazine writing that would eventually take me to Vanity Fair, the Atlantic, and even the New Yorker, all locations where I worked for a number of years.
I traveled the world, spending vacations in London, Paris, Tokyo, Barcelona, Sydney and Beijing.
I dated around until I found the perfect man. At the time, he was so perfect that I didn’t believe it, but eventually, after a romantic proposal that went viral, I married him. We started a family together with three perfect children, one boy and two younger sisters, just like I’d always wanted.
I went to my sister’s wedding and watched her smile at a guy we’d spent hours analyzing over ice cream and laughter in my permanent Chicago home.
I mentored young journalists as a professor after getting a Master’s from Columbia and a Ph.D from Harvard.
I tested and reported on technological developments that would eventually extend my life by 5 years. By the time my sister was older, apparently it would be able to extend life by 30.
I died an old lady, warm and happy in my bed, with cats and family all around me.
Everything in my life was glorious.
“…Crystal…” An unwelcome voice sang.
“Well, what’d you think?” Satan said cheerfully.
Although it was technically impossible to do twice, I wanted to die.
Tears streamed down my face, proving either that souls could cry after all-or that my emotions were strong enough to be the exception to that inhibiting rule.
I had asked for this.
I stood up, latching on to the only offense I could try to launch at the devil. “Didn’t you say I’d only stay in hell for seven minutes?” I screamed.
Satan calmly looked at me. “It has been seven minutes, Crystal Duan.”
I stared at him. “I swear to God I lived all of that.” I whispered. “I swear. I swear that was seven lifetimes.”
Satan walked over to me and put a hand over my eyes as I continued sobbing.
When he took them off, I was back at the foot of the heavenly staircase.
Jesus was sitting there. Everyone else was gone.
“You humans have the term, seven minutes in heaven,” Satan said as Jesus walked over. “I thought I’d modify hell to fit that. To see everything you could have had, but didn’t have a chance to achieve. For the rest of eternity.”
I rocked back and forth, crying and crying. “I wanted all that for my life,” I sobbed. “I died so young! I could have had all that.”
Jesus smiled sympathetically.
“It was your time, child. There are better things,” he said, extending a hand to me. “Want to see what heaven’s like?”
I looked up at him, offering to take me away from the unfulfilled, empty illusions hell had provided me with.
That opportunity for such a beautiful life was gone now. I could only move forward now. Maybe to better things.