Nowhere, that’s where I was driving. I had no home, no place to go, just the solitude of the road as my companion. I’d done bad things, hung with bad people — maybe that meant I was a bad person. But everyone’s the hero of their own story, no matter how much mental fuckery that might take.
15 Miles to Heaven
I burst into laughter as I passed the highway sign, typical southern, bible-belt bullshit. The worst towns always had names like Paradise and Salvation, as if that would bring them good fortune. These were dying towns, slowly choking on the bile of regret, despair, and self-pity.
Like most decisions in my life, I made this one spontaneously. Why not take a stroll around Heaven, I thought, maybe even save my eternal soul — wouldn’t that be fun! As the exit sign approached, I veered across several lanes and sped towards my final destination.
The city itself was about ten minutes from the highway exit, a straight shot down desolate roads. Barren dirt fields, devoid of any man-made structure, stretched out for miles in every direction. As I approached the city limits, I was greeted by an impressively large, faded sign.
Welcome to Heaven, The Crossroads of the World
Once again, I fell into a fit of uncontrollable laughter — how very presumptuous of them. I’m sure old Sally Withers, or whatever the fuck, came up with that slogan during a riveting game of Bridge with her elderly neighbors. People always see themselves as the center of the universe, and I suppose that extends to where they live as well.
The streets of Heaven were empty, not a soul in sight. The houses lining the streets were carbon copies of each other, from the wood paneling to the dull, muted colors. Planted on each lawn were frail looking weeping willows, rocking gently in the breeze. I shuddered at the conformity of it all, which I assumed was enforced by the world’s strictest H.O.A — maybe that would have been a better slogan.
I turned onto several different blocks, and each one of them the same as the last; an endless parade of tacky single-story homes, the American Dream gone horribly wrong. I smirked condescendingly at the surroundings, thanking the Lord above I wasn’t cursed to live such a life.
Already bored, I spun my car around and drove back towards the highway — but I’d find that wasn’t so easy. Heaven was a maze I couldn’t escape, every twist and turn revealing the same decaying street, over and over and over again. I tried driving in a straight line for what felt like an hour, but it was like I was in a cartoon with a looped background — I was trapped in Heaven.
The warning light on my dashboard came to life, indicating my gas tank was low. Terrified of rendering my car inoperable, I gently pulled over to the side of the road. I idled momentarily, struggling to retain my composure. My car felt safe, and a primal instinct was screaming at me to stay put — that was the first rule of survival. But these weren’t normal circumstances, so I threw out the playbook and improvised.
Carefully, I nudged open the car door. Stepping onto the cracked, weed-infested sidewalk, I walked towards the house on the corner. Dark clouds passed overhead, choking the light from the day.
“Hello, is anyone home. I’m lost and in need of some assistance.” I repeated the phrase several times as I knocked, a little louder each time. I was greeted with silence, so I moved onto the next house, but was met with the same — this continued for some time.
As I approached a house blocks from where I’d begun, I spotted a figure dart behind window drapes. Wisps of silky blonde hair quickly disappeared behind drab curtains, leaving them fluttering. Determined to find help, I marched up to the door and held down the buzzer.
“Hello, I’m in need of assistance. My car’s almost out of gas and I’m completely lost, can you please help?” I tried to mask the panic in my voice.
“You shouldn’t be here, please go away.” A woman responded meekly from behind the closed door.
Her voice was like an itch in the back of my brain that remained frustratingly out of reach. It sparked a flood of recognition and nostalgia, but I couldn’t quite place it.
“Do I — Do I know you?” My voice shook.
“Please, I can’t help you. You need to leave…now.” She was filled with anguish and remorse, almost in tears.
A sudden bolt of recognition struck me, and it nearly brought me to my knees. I was speaking to my eldest cousin, who’d taken her life almost fifteen years ago after fleeing from a court-ordered rehab center. We were never especially close, but we both struggled with addiction and ping-ponged in and out of jail, and would commiserate in our shared misery when we did connect.
“Lyla, I — how — you’re…alive?” I sputtered like a malfunctioning lawn mower, only able to string together single word fragments.
“Sam, please get back in your car — please…” Lyla trailed off, interrupted by loud sobs.
A crack of lightning bolted across the sky, the starting gun for a torrent of rain. Clothes now soaking, I began pounding on Lyla’s door with both fists. She ignored me for at least five minutes, before finally giving in.
“You don’t know it, but you’re fucking me Sam! Get in here before someone sees you, quickly!” I flung myself inside, clumsily stumbling across her door frame.
Lyla hadn’t aged a day since the last time I’d seen her, although that meant less than you’d think. Years of drug abuse had left her skin pock-ridden and blotchy, fading the beauty she once had. Her blonde hair was matted in tangled thickets, wild and untamed.
“For the love of god stay quiet!” Lyla raised her hand to shush me as I muttered a thank you through chattering teeth.
Trembling from the cold, Lyla led me into a dull sitting room, paint peeling from the walls, and sat me on a plastic-covered couch; a thin layer of dust shot into the air as I nestled into the cushions. A rusted medical device beeped ominously besides the couch, a faint signal flickering on its screen.
“Sam, be straight with me and tell me the truth,.” Lyla strode over and squeezed my arm tightly, “Did anyone give you a set of keys?”
“You’re the only person I’ve seen in this nightmare town, and you barely let me into your house,” I responded gruffly, annoyed at her accusatory tone, pulling way from her grip, “Frankly, I’m the one who should be asking questions, because if I’m not mistaken you died fif—”
“No — nope,” Lyla swatted that topic away like a fly, “Don’t even try because you’ll get nothing out of me. The less you know the better, so let’s keep it that way.”
“I’m not sure if I can accept that. This is all, too much — way too much.” Clutching my chest, my breath became shallow, coming out in choppy bursts.
“Don’t be a pussy, I know for a fact you’ve been through worse. Man the fuck up and listen to me — I think I can get you out of here…I want to get you out of here,” that was the Lyla I remembered, from fuck you to I love you in a heartbeat, “I’m risking more than you can even imagine, but….” Lyla trailed off, but I didn’t interrogate further. Whether I liked it or not, she’d set her boundaries.
“Alright, alright — I’m cool,” steadying my breathing, I rose into a full body stretch, “I’m all ears, how do I get the fuck out of Heaven?”
“Before I say anything, I need you to do me a small favor. Very quietly and very carefully, peek behind the window curtains and tell me what you see.” Very matter of fact, Lyla placed her hands firmly on her hips.
I tip-toed towards the window at a sloth’s pace. Pushing the drapes slightly, I exposed a slight sliver of the window-pane. Outside the streets were vacant, other than the willow trees, their infertile branches drooping lifelessly to the ground.
“Your block is the same as every other I’ve seen in Heaven, devoid of life and oppressively depressing — I’m not sure what to say other than that. Am I looking for something in particular?”
“You don’t see anyone out there? I don’t know, like an elderly couple walking a yappy white dog?” A slight grin spread across Lyla’s face, but it faded in an instant.
“All I see are empty streets and empty sidewalks, am I missing something?”
“Oh my god, oh my god — I was right!” Bursting into tears, Lyla threw her arms around me.
“Right? Right about what?” I couldn’t fight the urge to inquire.
“The only thing that’s important right now is that you’re still alive. That’s as much as you need to know, and truthfully, probably more than you should. But we don’t have time to celebrate, you need to take me to your car so I can get you home — before it’s too late.”
“Still alive?” I mumbled perplexedly to myself.
Lyla hurriedly gathered a few supplies into a worn backpack, most noticeably, an antique .45 Colt Revolver. Slyly peering out the window, she motioned for me to open the door — slowly.
As soon as the door was agape, she mouthed a single word. RUN.
We sprinted lockstep down towards my car, huffing and puffing like the unhealthy ex-junkies we were. Lyla wore an expression of naked fear, eyes darting around nervously. I couldn’t explain a goddamn thing that was happening, but there’s nothing like spending time with your dead cousin to put some extra pep in your step.
“I’ve done so little good in my life, and even if this is bargain-bin redemption, I’ll happily take it.” Lyla smiled at me as I slammed the key into the ignition.
Before I could speed away, a blood-red flash of lightning blinded us. As my vision returned, dotted with splotches of white, a hellscape awaited — all of the houses on the block were deluged in billows of flames. Burning branches thudded on top of the car’s hood, raining down like hellfire.
“Drive, drive, drive — fuck!” Skidding out of park, we roared down the street, tires screeching wildly.
“In three blocks go left! No — right. Yeah, definitely right.” Nerves frayed, Lyla shouted contradicting directions into my ear.
A scrum of lightning crashed around us, an arc of sparks cascading from the sky. Dirt and rock exploded into destructive plumes, forcing me to swerve to avoid the debris. Despite my efforts, a large fragment of concrete shattered my rear window, spraying shards of glass all over the back seat.
Glancing in the rearview, an outline of a skeleton key was left cut perfectly into the road behind us, the concrete still bubbling from the intense blast of heat. As we careened onto another block, following Lyla’s frantic directions, a monstrous engine revved in the distance and a black hearse shot into view. Continuing to speed down the block, the other vehicle closed in rapidly, it’s gravely motor sputtering black puffs of smoke.
“Turn left in a block, then you’re just a couple miles from freedom Sammy boy!” Lyla spoke in an excited and upbeat tone, ignoring the hearse quickly gaining ground.
“Maybe this isn’t the best time, but I’m the one who ratted you out in ’95.” I blurted out, feeling the burning shame of the moment, fully, for the first time.
Before I could follow up with an apology, a sudden force jolted the car from behind, sending us flying onto the shoulder. Gripping the wheel, I weaved back into the middle of the road, barely remaining in control.
“Something very, very bad is behind us right now Sam. And if it catches you, if he catches you — you’ll be fucked ten ways to Sunday,” Lyla sighed, lip trembling, “I hope you remember me as a better person than I was. Goodbye, hopefully forever.” Lyla pulled the gun from the backpack and dove out of the moving car, my horrified screams accompanying her.
Despite my cries, I didn’t hesitate to keep driving, not because I didn’t love my cousin, but because I loved her enough to honor her sacrifice — whatever sacrifice means for a dead woman.
Two gunshots echoed in quick succession, followed by a bellowing demonic roar, vacillating between multiple octaves. It came from nowhere and everywhere, penetrating my body at the atomic level. A sign for the highway appeared through a heavy mist, the agonized screams of a woman chasing me out of town.
Upon entering the onramp, a rush of light overtook the road, blinding me completely. Shielding my eyes, I was helpless as the car crashed into a large, unseen object. I could hear the crunch of steel and bone as the car’s body imploded upon itself — and then I woke up.
“Oh my god, he’s awake — get the doctor!” A young nurse hovering over me yelled hysterically as my eyes flapped open.
A bevy of beeping devices were hooked up to me, tubes running up and down my body. Every part of me ached mightily, including parts that I hadn’t even known existed.
“What happened?” It was the only thing I could think to say, and really, the only thing I wanted to know.
“Sir, you were in a serious car accident and, well — you’ve been in a coma for seven weeks.” A homesley nurse responded calmly.
While recovering in the hospital, I rebuilt many bridges I’d burnt to the ground log ago. I rekindled relationships with family, most importantly my son, and made a serious commitment to sobriety. I’d been given a second chance, one that I truthfully did not deserve — life’s funny like that.
It’s been almost three years since I left the hospital, and in almost every facet my life has improved drastically — except for the nightmares. I may have left Heaven, but it hasn’t left me, and every night I’m cursed to walk those streets. Lyla is tragically gone, and her absence only amplifies my hatred for the place.
One night, while wandering the decaying blocks of Heaven, I happened upon a burned down house, the willow tree in front rotted and dying. Amongst the debris, I found a photo burned almost beyond recognition, but I saw enough to know who the house belonged to — I immediately burst into tears.
If that was Heaven, can you imagine Hell?