In the afternoon, one of the demons who had been looking after me took me to play a game of pickup basketball.
Well, first he said, “Brian—we’re worried about you. You haven’t left the room since the Simulation.”
The gym looked just like a real one, too-brightly lit, stuffiness cut through with the sharpness of sweat.
I took the bait; I had been cooped up. Who knew hell was so boring?
We shot some baskets, played “Horse.” He wasn’t bad, but needed to work on his wrist motion, I told him when I beat him. I should have been more worried that he would pitchfork or incinerate me or something. I told him that, too.
“Brian, for the last time,” he said, “I’m Dr. Zemar, your psychiatrist. I am not a demon. This is not hell.”
This was what bothered me the most about the whole thing. Why wouldn’t they just admit it?
I woke up in this place after jumping off the bridge three days ago. Ending up in this afterlife was not what I expected. I wasn’t religious at all. The closest we got in my family was my mother, a lapsed Catholic with vaguely Buddhist ideas.
The First Thing that gave it away, that I was in hell: no one came to visit me. If I was in a hospital, why haven’t I had a single visitor?
The Second Thing was the food.
The demon who called himself “Dr. Zemar ” took me into a conference room with entities that he introduced as the resident, the intern, the pharmacist, and the social worker. I saw them as they were: the senior demon and his minions, the hungry ghost, and the poltergeist.
Oh, yes—the Third Thing—the peeling, sickly looking wallpaper in that room. Enough to drive anyone to madness.
Dr. Z broke the bad news.
“Brian, we can’t discharge you while you are still under the delusion that this is hell.”
I asked them to prove it to me: that this wasn’t hell.
Dr. Z said that I was a participant in a simulation where they made it seem as if I had jumped off a very tall bridge. They hypnotized me and gave me medications, so I would think it was real, all so that the fear of death in the moment of the leap would make me realize that I really, truly, wanted to live. It was a powerful new treatment for people with “treatment-refractory depression and persistent suicidality.” People, they said, like me.
“After all,” he said, “life is only meaningful from the vantage point of death.”
I asked them why I haven’t had a single visitor.
“You had a reaction to the sedative; it’s caused a temporary loss of memory,” the poltergeist said.” Remember, your mother died recently and you had a tough time making close friends. That’s why you were so depressed. That’s why you’ve had no visitors.”
A likely story.
But then I started to think: not a single close friend? My mother, dead?
Sounds like hell to me.
A day later, one of the minions took me to see the Head Demon. I could tell she was Head Demon from the way the minion blinked and simpered, rattled off my story promptly as if to show off, and only addressed her by her title.
The Head Demon (Dr. Alexander) looked tired, as if she had been roasting souls for a long time. She probably had to claw her way up the demon chain of command, because there were sexists down here too and maybe they didn’t think the lady demons could do as good of a job.
“Brian,” she said, “Do you still want to hurt yourself?”
“No.” I told her.
She tilted her head, like a hungry crane looking at fish under the water. “Is it really so bad here?”
“No,” I said, “actually, it’s better than I expected.”
She just looked at me with those eyes from behind big glasses.
I told her about the one good thing for lunch, that salad with the dried cherries on top. The view from the demon’s conference room, looking out onto that blooming redbud tree. I told her about the demon janitor who cleaned my room and who talked to me about his babies.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” I said, “given the reputation of the place.”
She sat back, frowning.
Then she leaned toward me, closer than she was before, close enough that I could feel her breath against my face as she sighed—was there a hint of sulfur, or was it her morning coffee? It raised the hair on the back of my head, on my arms. I clenched my hands around the chair.
Her eyes were shiny black buttons. Her face, a smooth mask. I could feel my heart slamming against the inside of my ribcage, like it was trying to break through the bars.
She said, “You’re right, you know. This place. It’s hell.”
My face felt numb.
I was standing. I was trembling with my victory: I knew it!
Then I sat, melted into the chair. I felt relief: something unknotting in my chest, warmth spreading through my torso into my fingers.
She wasn’t done.
“It’s hell, some days, but on other days, things get better.”
I chewed on that one. Hell, with the possibility of things getting better.
She would know; as Head Demon, she was the expert in this area.
Later, I asked Dr. Zemar to call another meeting. I acknowledged this was not hell. I called everyone by their official titles.
The sun came through the window at a slant, and I could see grass outside. I told them I was thinking about getting a dog (how much do hellhounds go for around here, anyway?)
Before the end of the week, they let me explore hell on my own.
Congratulations, they told me, you’re cured.
About the author:
Shiwei Zhou is a physician by day and writer by night. She lives in Michigan.
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