HEAVEN AND BACK

A charming young boy, fair-skinned, with a hypnotic stare, sat in front of a television camera and told the world about Heaven.

"Everyone goes to Heaven. And everyone is happy there, and everyone is forgiven."

Steven died a year prior, while he was hospitalized and ill with leukemia. He astonished his grieving parents by appearing at their doorstep shortly afterward, living and healthy.

Steven's parents stood with the television crew and watched their son speak. They had never made a public appearance or offered any comments to the media. They smiled, but they couldn't hide a fundamental weariness. First they lost their son to disease, and then they lost him to celebrity.

The boy continued, "No one should worry. This is the truest Gospel: We're all going to Heaven when we're dead."

Martha, Steven's mother, took her prescribed antidepressants all at once. She woke, bleary, in an ambulance. Joshua, Steven's father, held her hand tightly. Steven sat impassive in a corner that Martha could barely see. An EMT told Martha she'd be all right, and then she stopped breathing.

When she woke again, it was dark. Her clothes were missing, and the air was bitterly cold. She sat up and found herself on smooth, black rock, beside a cliff. She couldn't see the bottom of the precipice, and the horizon was as empty as a starless night. When she called out she couldn't hear her own cries.

"Forfeit your soul to me," implored an omnipresent voice. "I'll make everything better. I'll give you another chance at life. Obey me, and you will have all the fame and all the wealth you could wish for."

"Who are you?"

"It doesn't matter."

"What do you want?" Martha cried, inaudibly.

"Spread my Gospel. The Gospel of Heaven. The Gospel of a beautiful afterlife."

"You call this beautiful?"

The voice said, "It's beautiful if I say it is. Obey or remain here forever."

She had no way to track the time while she was alone on the circular rock having sheer drops on every side. Her tongue ached from thirst, and her skin was stretched taut over her starved abdomen. She smelled only her own stagnant odor.

It could have been hours. It could have been eons. And then the voice returned. "Have you changed your mind? Will you spread my Gospel?"

"Why?" After no explanation was given, "I'll do whatever you want."

"Good."

Steven and his father sat together on their sofa. They watched Steven's most recent interview on the television. Steven watched with wide, excited eyes. Joshua watched with resignation.

A photograph of Martha, flanked by withering roses, watched from a countertop.

A knock sounded at the door, and Joshua muted the television. He went to answer the door and Steven turned the volume up.

The open door framed a disheveled Martha, wrapped in a coat too large for her. She pushed past Joshua wordlessly and fled to their bathroom. He watched her go and startled when Steven appeared beside him.

Steven said, "Aren't you going to close the door?"

His father closed the door.

"Who was that?"

"Your mother."

"What?"

The noise of a shower filled their home.

Steven's parents laid on their backs on their shared bed. Neither was able to sleep, and neither dared to speak.

From the adjacent bedroom intruded the abrupt cries of night terrors. Steven's nights had become progressively louder ever since his return to them.

Joshua whispered, "What did you see?"

"What?"

"What did you see? On the other side? Heaven?"

Martha didn't answer.

"Please," Joshua said, "I have to know."

Martha willed herself to answer, "No." Instead, her lips pronounced "Yes."

That night transpired slowly, sleeplessly, and in silence except for Steven's tortured noises. In the morning the family pretended to be normal, in the afternoon they pretended to enjoy going out for lunch and shopping, and in the evening they pretended to cherish each other.

In the night, Steven screamed, Joshua feared, and Martha plotted.

"In Heaven everyone loves everyone else, and nothing hurts." Steven smiled warmly. The screens showed a close-up of his perfect face, the shadows under his nightmare-haunted eyes concealed by makeup. "And it's where all of us go when we're dead. A place where everything is right and everything fits together."

Martha sat beside him, holding his hand in her lap as the show's director had instructed. Smiling like he had instructed.

Joshua sat opposite Martha, beside Steven, and appeared lost in himself. The director's instructions had not reached him.

The interviewer turned to Steven's mother. "It must be surreal, being the mother of this remarkable young man. I heard that you had a similar near-death experience, yourself. Can you tell us about that?"

The words came unbidden from Martha's resisting lips. "I saw Heaven, too. It was the most beautiful place I've ever seen. I'm so proud of my son, of his dedication to sharing the Gospel. I only hope that everyone will hear and believe."

"What about you, Joshua? What has it been like as the parent to this remarkable young man, and as the wife to this remarkable woman?"

Steven's father cleared his throat. "It's... remarkable."

Steven cried out, tormented in his dreams by the pains of starvation, by the rancid smell of his own rotting corpse, by the rush of wind biting his face while he plummeted beside bottomless cliffs.

And Joshua slept, fitfully, while the bed beside him remained cold and vacant.

Martha stood over her son, at the foot of his bed. She watched him squirm, she watched his mouth open and close. She heard nothing but the echo of Heaven's voice. "Obey me." It added, "This is foolish. I will punish you. Obey me."

Martha stepped up, onto the bed. Steven arrived at wakefulness suddenly, and at the sight of Martha he screamed more loudly and more violently than he ever had in his dreams.

Joshua ran into the bedroom. "Martha! Martha, what the hell!"

Martha sat down, pinning Steven to his bed. He raised his arms to cover his face, and Martha plunged a kitchen knife into his breast. She removed it and stabbed him again. And again. She was still stabbing his lifeless body when police seized her arms and shoved her into the back of a cruiser.

Joshua shot himself in the temple with a handgun.

He awoke naked, on smooth black rock, underneath a sky blacker than the most merciless heart.

"Forfeit your soul to me," implored a voice. "The world must know my Gospel."

Written by Sophie Kirschner