The Line Between
Conventional wisdom dictates that there’s an insurmountable divide—an entire dimension of eternity and space—between Heaven and Hell. Lucifer managed to make the trip in nine days, at least according to Paradise Lost. That equates to a distance of about 25,920 miles, assuming standard rules of velocity.
But I can tell you it’s closer to a foot and a half. The distance of a step.
Give or take an inch.
Magnus stands near the gatehouse, shirtsleeves rolled up, collar unbuttoned beneath his brown vest. He nods to the Guardian in the booth and the industrial gate begins its mechanical slide. There’s a small door to the side of it just large enough to admit a single person, but I won’t be leaving by the Narrow Gate. My departure must be a spectacle, a warning to those assembled behind me.
I can feel their eyes against my back like hot iron. The glares mottled by anger and fear. Sadness, maybe, but above all gratitude that they are not me.
Two Guardians stand at my sides ready to forcibly walk me out in case I balk or my twenty-two-year-old legs give out beneath me. I glance at the one to my right and swear he looks impatient. Hungry, maybe; it’s just before lunchtime. I’m crossing into eternal damnation, and all he’s thinking about is an egg salad sandwich—and not even a good one. It’s Wednesday, Sabbath by the solar calendar. Rosella is managing the kitchen, and that pious sandwich is full of chickpeas without a single real egg in it.
The gate comes to a stop with an ominous clang. The road be-yond is paved with gravel, a gray part in a sea of native grass strewn with gold and purple flowers in stark contrast to the carefully and beautifully manicured grounds behind me. A meadowlark sings somewhere nearby as a combine rumbles in the distance.
I grip the plastic bag of my sparse belongings: a change of underwear, my baby book stripped of its photos, a stone the color of sea glass. Sweat drips down the inside of my blouse as I stare out at that feral scape. At that barren drive through untouched prairie that leads to the road half a mile away.
A car idles at the corner, waiting for me.
Don’t look. Don’t glance back. That’s Pride talking, a voice so faint this last decade I wasn’t aware it was still in there. Still, I turn. Not because I need a parting glance at the compound I called home for the last fifteen years or even Jaclyn, my sister. But because I need to see her.
My niece, Truly.
I scan the nearly five hundred Select assembled across the broad drive until I find her small form near the front, her hand in Jaclyn’s, curls wafting around her head in the breeze.
I’d planned to mouth the words I love you. To tug my right earlobe in our secret sign so she’ll remember me long after she’s told she can never speak my name again. To fight back tears at the sight of hers, to combat her confusion with love.
Instead, my heart stops.
She’s glaring at me, her face pink, growing redder by the instant. I open my mouth—to say what, I don’t know—but before I can, she tears her hand from my sister’s and runs away, disappearing into the assembly.
“Truly!” I gasp, and stagger a step after her. The Guardians grab my arms.
“No. Wait—Truly!” I twist against them, plastic bag swinging against my thigh. I can’t leave her like this. Not like this. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
None of it was.
I shift my gaze to my sister, where she stands beside the six Elders. Her cheeks are hollow, features chiseled far beyond her twenty-seven years.
“What did you say to her?” I shout as I’m jerked back around and hauled toward Magnus, who stands before the open gate, this side of that invisible line.
“Wynter Roth,” Magnus says, loudly enough for those behind us to hear. Which means he’s basically shouting right at me. Gone, the brown-and-gray scruff that was on his chin yesterday. I can smell his aftershave from here.
“Please,” I whisper in the space between us, trying to snag his gaze. But he stares past me as though I were a stranger.
“Because of your deliberate, prolonged disobedience . . .” His words carry to those behind me even as the breeze whisks mine away.
“Just let me say good-bye!”
“. . . including the sins of idolatry, thievery, and the willful desire to harm the eternal future of those most vulnerable among us . . . because you will not hear the pleas of the brethren and refuse repentance, you are hereby delivered to Satan for the destruction of your flesh.”
I hear the words as though from a distance. I’ve seen and heard them spoken before—I just never thought they’d be aimed at me. So this is it. There will be no good-byes. And I realize I hate him.
Magnus lifts up his hands. “And so we renounce your fellowship and cast you out of our holy number even as we pray for the restoration of your salvation, which you forfeit this day. Now, as it is bound on Earth, so let it be bound in Heaven.” He lowers his arms as the assembly echoes his words and says, more quietly as he meets my eyes at last, “You have broken our hearts, Wynter.”
He moves away before I can respond and the Guardians walk me to the line as I glance back one last time.
But Truly is gone.
I face the gravel drive before me.
One step. That’s all it takes to span the distance of eternity.
Welcome to Hell.