Sunday, January 22, 2012


A child trembled on the edge of infinity. Her parents had died in the car crash that put her here, but somehow, her life had been spared, at least for a little while. It put the hospital in a frenzy while she stood on the brink, deciding which way to fall.

Her entire right side had been caught up in the blaze and now was covered by gobs of white gauze. Her hair had been shorn to make way for the surgeon’s scapal when she underwent traumatic brain surgery. Tubes and wires obscured a small, pinched face. A small brown eye peaked out behind the bandages, giving humanity to the otherwise foreign thing.

And that brown eye watched me closely. It was hard to read expression when her face was so obscured, but I had the sense of overwhelming childlike wisdom hidden in that gaze, along with a mature curiosity.

I looked down at the paper I was given. “Hello, Margaret,” I said, trying to affect the wise, magnanimous disposition I usually settled into near the beds of the dying. “I’m from the church down the street. Are you a christian, Margaret? You can blink twice for yes, once for no.”

She did not blink, but continued to stare.

I coughed uncomfortably. “Can you understand me, Margaret?” I asked.

She blinked twice slowly. She did not have eyelashes, I realized. They must have burnt off in the fire. I decided I would ignore the direct question of Christianity. “So, um, a nurse told me you wanted to talk about death and the afterlife with someone. Do you want me to talk about it?”

She blinked twice.

“If we turn to the Bible, God has given us much information on the afterlife. God says if you are good, you get to go to heaven,” I said, trying to figure out what level of comprehension she had as a child probably under copious amounts of pain medication. “Do you want me to talk about heaven?” The thoughts of kindly angels with harps might soothe her.

She blinked once.

“Okay, but you want me to talk about the afterlife?” I asked, feeling unsettled as I realized what direction this conversation was going.

Two blinks.

“Well, the only other afterlife besides heaven is hell, but good little girls don’t go there,” I said quickly. Why didn’t she want me to talk about heaven? Heaven always offered comfort to the dying. Maybe, I misunderstood. “Are you sure you don’t want me to talk about heaven?”

She blinked twice, followed by the smallest inclination of her head. There was no denying her response.

“Well, alright. Did you want me to talk about hell?” I asked, afraid of the answer.

That eyelash-less eyelid fluttered twice, retracting back again to reveal that thoughtful brown eye.

“Well, hell is where bad people go, once they die, so that they can realize the wrong they did while they were alive,” I started. The brown eye stared, urging me onward.

“The devil and other evil beings are there, all suffering torment because of their wrongdoing. Is that enough?” I asked, feeling intensely uncomfortable. I didn’t want to give the girl nightmares when she might soon enough die herself.

One blink.

“Well, hell is often thought to be very hot, with flames, representing the guilt that the bad people should be feeling. They don’t always feel guilty though, so that’s why the flames are there, to remind them to feel guilty,” I said, attempting to stay upbeat. This was not my usual congregation, and I felt at unease proselytizing to that singular brown eye.

She stared. Questions stood behind that eye, but I do not think she could voice them with all the tubes in her throat. Still, that eye egged me on.

“And, um, the bad people stay in there for a very, very, very long time, so they can understand what they did wrong. But, you really don’t need to know about hell. I mean, you’re a good little girl. You’ll go to heaven,” I said, trying to inch away from the subject.

She blinked once, a long extended blink full of meaning only she knew. Still, I could discern a defiant edge to it, in the purposefulness of the blink, but there was more.

“No?” I asked, confused. “Don’t you want to go to heaven?”

One blink.

“Do you want to go to hell?” I asked.

She blinked twice and stared at me for a long time as I wrestled desperately to find something to say. She did not seem delusional. In fact, she seemed to have intact mental capacities. She knew exactly what she was saying, but why?

Her eye closed and suddenly, machines started beeping in a whir. I was bustled out of the room by a flush of doctors, yelling and shoving with an intensity. She was dying, I realized, as I stood in the doorway, watching the activity within.

“Excuse me, Father, do you know where Margaret Burton is?” I turned to find two broad, short men, clothed in the uniform of a police officer beside me.

I gestured to the door where the doctors were at work.

“Oh,” one of them with a mustache said. “Well, that is a pity.”

The three of us stared for a moment. “Can I ask what you wanted with her?” I said suddenly.

“I don’t see how it matters now. The Burtons, Sandra and Marshall, those famous bank robbers that have been hitting up the Western States? They were her parents. We were hoping she might help us with the location of their money so we could return it to their rightful owners,” the second supplied.

Suddenly, I knew exactly the reason for her interest in hell. I knew why she didn’t want to go to heaven. She loved her family, even though she knew what they did was wrong. She loved them enough she wanted to be with her mother and father forever, and she was willing to face fire and brimstone to do it.

She would go to hell forever, because she thought her parents would be there.

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