Kiki was driving and crying. Crying and driving. Her hands were shaking as she tried to control her sobs. Her father would have told her to pull over. Her mother would have told her that the bastard wasn’t worth the tissues she was using to blow her nose.
She had wasted three years. This was prime time to get a husband.
Hell, that’s how it was supposed to be, go to college, meet your man, marry him, and stay that way for forty plus years. Just like Mom and Dad.
She was nineteen when she had met Zack. He was her first real boyfriend. All those college years with his name and her name engraved on her heart-shaped mirror keychain, she turned down invitations to join friends at parties. Friday nights were spent on her stair stepper and doing crunches on the floor of her bedroom. Never mind that she had bought the keychain for herself. Never mind that he had sneered at it like it was a dog load when she shyly showed him her purchase.
She continued to call him her boyfriend with big, stupid doe eyes. She was heartbroken when he chose to transfer to a college in North Carolina. He never shed a tear. He never held her hand, but he was her identity. Whenever she carried her keys, Kiki knew she belonged to someone.
The phone call that had rocked her to her core was brief. Zack did sound genuinely regretful as he told her that he had found someone else. She even tearfully, desperately asked about the option of “friends with benefits.” Zack mulled it over for a few beats before he agreed, that if the new girlfriend didn’t work out, he might possibly sleep with her again.
Kiki had waited to sob between exits ten and eleven on the interstate. The sounds of her loneliness shook the inside of her car. She was crying so forcefully, she wound up just letting her mouth hang open so she could maintain her ear-splitting volume. Passengers in the cars that sailed past hers turned in their seats to stare at the silent (for them), screaming spectacle, Kiki looked like a horror movie on mute.
Her cell phone beeped with an incoming text message. It was from Zack! He changed his mind; she was sure of it! She blinked her tears away so she could focus on the font.
Hey babe, dumped the whiner, want Outback 4 dinner?
She tried to twist the words to make sense. They refused to bend into a phrase that made her important again.
Who was the whiner?
Almost immediately there was another text:
Sorry about that text. Was meant 4 someone else. Later.
Kiki tossed the phone across the car like it was a poisonous spider. The tears and guttural sobs ratcheted up a notch.
She tried to put her agony into words.
“Heee Waaanntss Outtbackk wiiith herrr!” She got violent hiccups, bringing her as close to puking as a person could get without actually vomiting. It could have been the speed, the fact that it was rush hour, or the way she let the grief loosen her hands on the steering wheel, but Kiki rubbed her car’s front bumper against the sixteen-wheeler barreling down the highway in the next lane. She didn’t have enough leverage on the wheel to try and right her wrongs.
The twisting of metal was the most awful of sounds, followed in a close second by that of screeching tires. The tires seemed to be begging for their lives. At the point when her Camry was launched off of the exit ramp, her system became confused. Because for all the horrible Twister her car had just played on the highway, she was still okay. Kiki was still okay when the sound stopped and the car was mid-air. The hang time was forever, and she knew she was going down and soon. The second the car hung she pictured her loved ones. Twenty-two was too soon to die. Twenty-two had seemed too old to be without a boyfriend mere seconds ago. Twenty-two years was all she was going to get. Gravity demanded its due, and Kiki’s stomach turned into an oily snake in her belly.
She was quiet as the inevitable came. She had cried so hard over Zack, and now, she had only silence to offer for her own demise. She gritted her teeth and waited for the worst pain of her life. The accident didn’t disappoint. The impact was a meteor hitting the earth. Her brain was reptilian as it noted the water collapsing her windows. The car had landed in the icy cold river she had crossed over every day to school on a plain bridge. This stretch of road had never called to her. It had never warned her that it would be the last sight she would ever behold. Her last thought was pathetic, even in her final gasp of breath.
Zack’s going to feel awful guilty about this accident.
Pain became her only sense, and time stopped. There was only black and she was done.
It was over. She was over.
Kiki still had awareness, though she wasn’t quite sure she had a body anymore. The next drop was more vicious than the last. She wished she could see, but she could only feel. Her soul took what seemed like the first drop on a roller coaster for an endless amount of time. She could see no bottom. She the felt the fear that should accompany a fall catch up with her and hit her in the chest.
And all it once it stopped. She looked down, and despite the trauma, what seemed like her body was intact, unscathed. She was wearing a hospital gown with a dizzying pattern that was meant to be generic. The breeze hit her bottom, and she reached behind her to cover her nudity.
She was in a cement hallway and her naked feet were cold. Behind her there was a great void. Nothingness, blackness. A utilitarian metal door creaked open, and a soft, red light beckoned her like a welcome mat. She inched forward, looking behind her. She heard a loud machine kick into gear and it spooked her. Kiki took off running as fast as she could while holding the gown together. She shimmied through the door and stopped short. The room was filled with a heady smoke. The dim lights set a romantic mood. The huge door she had scurried through slammed shut, blowing her gown up so she was forced to hold it down like an awkward Marilyn Monroe.
“Welcome, Kiki. I’ve been waiting for you.” The voice sounded sexy and lazy.
She tried to be very quiet, hiding amongst the smoke. She could not find the man the voice belonged to.
“Um. I can see you.” His voice revealed his smile without Kiki seeing his mouth.
She heard the distinct noise of someone getting out of a chair, the wooden legs scrapping along the cement floor. Kiki decided to crouch; going fetal was her body’s only defense at this point. The steady cadence of footfall became the most dominant thing in the room.
“I can still see you, even when you’ve made yourself into a tiny ball.” He sounded amused.
The smoke parted like a curtain, and she got her first glimpse at her predator. He was gorgeous. He had long, brown hair and high cheekbones. His sharp jaw line demanded that attention be paid to his kissable lips. His perfectly distressed jeans and white t-shirt made her feel even more undressed in her wimpy excuse for clothes. He was carrying a glass of red wine like a professional.
“Princess, can I help you off the floor?” He held out a hand to her.
She stayed in her ball and looked at his hand like it might bite her. “Where the hell am I?”
He dropped his hand and swirled his wine. “Right answer on the first guess. Aren’t you a peach?” He tilted the wine towards his mouth. Kiki couldn’t have been thirstier. Her throat felt like brittle sandpaper. She tried to swallow.
“I’m confused. I was in my car, and then I was in an…accident. This makes no sense. I thought I was going to die.” She hugged her knees harder.
He frowned at his empty glass and put his gaze back on her face. His deep, brown eyes were sensual. He nodded an assent and then shrugged. He crouched down so he was at her eye level.
“You did die. This is… how should we put it?” He tapped his finger on his mouth. Kiki found his every movement compelling, smooth.
He smiled showing her his ridiculously white teeth. “Well, gorgeous, this is Hell. And I’m Satan. I’ll be your host for eternity.”
Kiki looked at him for a long, hard time. He kept his serene, confident demeanor. He set the empty wine glass on the floor.
When she figured out he was most likely telling the truth, she was furious. She stood and abandoned her effort to keep her bum covered.
She held a shaking, pointing finger at him, “Oh no you don’t.”
He raised an eyebrow and stood as well, stepping closer to her as she wound herself into a tizzy.
“That would be absolute bullshit. I went to church every Sunday! Every Sunday! Father Brennean was so boring; I had to listen to my digestive system, because it was more interesting than his sermons.” She put her hands on her hips.
Satan shook his head and reached into the haze that surrounded the two of them like a cloak. He plucked out a cigarette and a lighter.
“Would you care for a smoke? I roll them myself.” He put it to his lips and took a long, slow drag. He exhaled the smoke into a ring that formed a heart. It floated right in front of Kiki’s face.
She slapped at the smoke like it was his face. Satan chuckled.
Kiki narrowed her eyes. “You can take your hand-rolled nonsense and shove it up your ass. I’m not going to Hell. I’m not.” She tried to gather the back of her gown with as much dignity as she could muster and stomped over to the door. When she yanked on the handle, it refused to move. She spun to glare at him.
He gave her a sarcastic salute. “That’s going to be locked, because we’re in Hell. You and I?” He pointed from his chest to hers. “In Hell.”
“No! Okay, enough playing around, Mr. Smoky the Bear. Seriously. Let me out.” She was slipping from angry to scared like her sanity was sliding through an hourglass.
“Princess, I’m not lying to you. I won’t lie. That you can count on.” He reached down and picked a bottle of rum up from the floor. He watched her as he took a swig.
Kiki’s tears were not the same ones she had shed in the car. These tears were from a deeper place, a younger place. She thought of her parents, who loved her with everything they had. What if they knew their little girl was in Hell?
I’m so, so sorry. What did I do that was so bad?
Satan put his bottle down, the cement protested the glass with a harsh noise. The more time she spent in the room with him, the clearer things were becoming. The room was vast and littered with dozens and dozens of empty alcohol bottles.
He took a drag of his cigarette as he walked slowly towards her. “Oh, crap. Don’t cry; I hate that.”
She looked away from him. The one way to make her cry harder was to tell her to stop. The tears were falling faster, and she started to sniffle. He was toe to toe with her soon. She looked down at his billion-year-old motorcycle boots. Satan tucked a handkerchief into her angry fist. She took it reluctantly and dabbed at her tears. Kiki didn’t want to look in his eyes this close. But when he didn’t move a fraction, she gave into temptation and locked her gaze with his. He was so, so sensual. The walloping sex appeal he had hit her between her legs.
He bit his lip. He knew the effect he was having on her, and he liked it. “There, there. See? I knew you could stop crying.”
His lips moving were pure, hot-baked evil. Kiki held his handkerchief and twisted it in her two hands. Trying to avoid him was impossible; he was so there, so vivid. Satan tossed his cigarette in the direction of the floor, but it disappeared in the hazy smoke before it hit.
“I don’t want to go to Hell. And you don’t seem scary enough to be the devil.” She said it quietly, like she was convincing herself the monster under her childhood bed was fake. His smile was deliberate. He reached out a hand and put his fingertip on her thigh, just above her knee.
He leaned in so he was just a breath away from her lips. “I might be exactly what you’re afraid of.”
Her heart pounded wildly, her instincts sensing the danger that her head refused to acknowledge. The door was locked. It was just her and him in this crazy, smoky room. She felt herself start to shake involuntarily.
He took a step back, giving her space. ”Come, let’s drink wine and talk.” He was a few paces away when he put up a finger signaling that he had an idea. “I bet you hate that get up?”
She nodded skeptically. He motioned with his hand, and she felt the change instantly. She looked down to find herself in the black, thigh-high boots, bootie shorts, and a corset.
She tugged at the tight-fitting clothes. “I was thinking maybe a robe? Or yoga pants?”
He ran a hand through his hair, rumpling it as to be more alluring. “I wanted your beauty framed in leather. Can you blame me?”
He turned and picked a path through the bottles that he obviously knew very well. Despite trying to copy his steps she managed to knock over a few bottles. An almost-full Cabernet upended when the toe of her ridiculous boot hit it. The deep red wine stain flowed so freely, she was mesmerized by it.
Her brain snapped for a moment and catapulted her into the back of an ambulance. Kiki was above her lifeless, bruised body. She could barely see past the EMT’s pounding away at her, interspersed with shocking her bare chest with paddles. The same color red as the wine was seeping through the white blankets wrapped around her middle. Her body was bleeding to death.
Kiki felt a hot hand hold hers tenderly. Blinking, she was returned to the smoky room. The devil was on one knee, peering up at her with a smile. She felt a bit dizzy, and the tall heels on the boots set her to swaying.
He stood quickly and pulled her into a tight hug. “Went back for a bit, didn’t you?”
She let his face come into focus. “I’m dead. They’re trying so hard. There’s so much blood.”
“You know what time it is?” He walked with her a little farther and helped her sit in a large, velvet couch.
She expected a lecture on the in-between, the way she seemed to be in two places at once. She received nothing of the sort.
Satan grabbed another bottle of rum from the floor, “Time to drink, Pretty Child.”
She knew this was all absurd. Kiki also had a soaring hope that this might be a dream. She took the glass he offered her and drank deeply. The rum tasted disgusting, but her throat was so dry, she couldn’t help herself. He poured a glass for himself as well and ran a finger over the rim.
“I bet you had fun in college; you drink like a sailor.” He eyed her empty glass as she took the rum out of his hands. After a shrug, she took a deep swallow from the bottle itself. He began laughing outright.
“What’re we going to talk about?” Her mind was blurry. She knew she was stupid for taking anything from him, but now Kiki’s tongue felt loose and honest.
He reached up and clenched one of her long, brown curls, “Why you’re here, of course.”
She looked at his skilled fingers and imagined them in other places on her. Kiki sighed out loud before she caught herself and covered her mouth.
He moved her hands from her lips, “It’s okay; I know I’m irresistible. You’ll melt in my mouth and my hands.”
Satan was looking at her like she was the most breathtaking thing he had ever seen. It was addicting and an experience she had never had with Zack. An old conversation came back from the dead to run over her self-esteem again.
“Don’t you think I’m pretty? At least a little?” Kiki had waited on edge for Zack’s answer.
Zack rolled his eyes, “Well, I mean you’re not model good-looking. But you’re cute, most of the time.”
She felt herself blush under this Satan’s ardor.
Maybe it’s the rum. Maybe it’s being dead, but this feels freaking great.
“Tell me, Kiki, why do you think you’re in Hell?” His gaze went from her eyes to her lips and back again.
She took a cue from him and swirled the alcohol in the bottle, “I haven’t a clue. I’ve been honest and loyal and good. You wanna know something? I took a test in religion class on the Decalogue in tenth grade, and I was wearing my Ten Commandants charm bracelet, and I didn’t even cheat.”
She was getting a buzz; her words were a little slower coming out of her mouth than they were forming in her head. He trailed a finger from her hand to the inside her elbow and across her shoulders, finally resting his hand on her throat.
He looked fascinated by her little tale. “Who wears a Ten Commandants bracelet anyway? Quite the little fashion maven, huh?”
He was teasing her while smiling into her eyes. She wanted to kiss him. His lips looked like they would treat her so nicely. But Zack hadn’t been a fan of kissing and avoided doing it with her as often as he could. She had blamed herself, of course, for not being kissable enough.
“You’re very desirable. He’s a fool; did you never know that?” He leaned in slowly and gave her a chance to back away. She didn’t take it. She should have been alarmed that he knew what she was thinking, but she wasn’t.
He touched his lips to hers, and his tasted so good. Satan put chocolate to shame. Kiki brazenly and hungrily kissed him back. He changed his grip so he was holding her close to him.
She put her hand on his chest. So intent in her pleasure, it took a while for her to notice the lack of the familiar thudding. He had no heartbeat.
He’s not alive.
Satan ended their kiss and put a hand over hers. “No, princess. It’s been so long, I feel like I was never alive at all. I’m a monster, but kissing you feels a little like breathing. Fresh. Important.” He lifted her hand and opened it, so he could kiss her palm.
That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.
He smiled at her thoughts. “That’s a load of crap. Your parents tell you beautiful things all the time.”
She closed her eyes and was flung back above her dying body; doctors had taken over for the EMTs. They wheeled her quickly on a gurney past her mother and father. They were absolutely despondent with worry, clutching each other like they were drowning.
She felt his hand on her cheek, and opened her eyes to him again. He had an “I told you so” look on his face. Before her flash, she was going to say, “My parents don’t count,” but she couldn’t now. They did count. They mattered so very much.
“I want to go back, Satan. I need to get back to them.” He obviously had compassion but shook his head.
“You need to tell me why you’re here. Time’s running out. Soon things will be settled. Things that we can’t change.” He put a distracting hand on her thigh.
She racked her brain, but could come up with nothing she had done that was Hell-worthy. He sighed and tilted his head. The answer was clear to him, whatever it was.
“A little help here? You obviously know something.” She was getting frustrated with him. It was so easy to sit here, drinking rum and acting out her passion with him. It seemed like a quicksand of lackadaisicalness was washing over her.
I could stay, I guess. Right? Do we always drink rum?
He grabbed her shoulders and shook her gently. “Focus, Hot Stuff. We don’t always drink rum. Tell me about your accident.”
Maybe she had been blocking it out. That seemed natural enough. The end had been so tragic.
“Zack had broken up with me, and I was upset while I drove. I lost control and…” Thinking about it was unsettling. She felt the need to cry again. She didn’t like it and shook it off. She leaned in to kiss him, trying to put off thinking about the freshly minted tragedy.
He moved his lips to kiss her on her nose instead, thwarting her effort. “Did you lose control? Did you? Think for me.”
He held her face in his hands and she was distracted.
I wish you were my boyfriend.
“No, you don’t. You’re not going to get it. Think. Tell me.” He looked worried now, which was perplexing.
Shouldn’t the Devil be torturing me with pain and fire?
He knelt in front of her. “Just a few seconds left, Kiki. Did you lose control of the car?” He squeezed her hands, begging her with his deep brown eyes. She could see herself reflected in them like a mirror.
And then she knew.
She knew why she was in Hell. Despite living a short life filled with perfection, she was being judged by her last apathetic decision. Satan’s eyes perked up like a fisherman getting a tug on his line.
“I stopped gripping the steering wheel because I wanted Zack to feel hurt. I wanted him to mourn for me.”
He nodded sorrowfully. “That, Pretty Child, is one of the worst sins I have ever heard. Look at you. Look at who you are. If you ever doubt what a miracle you are, ask those parents of yours.”
He stood up and held out a hand to her to grasp. She accepted it and felt such a plunging remorse.
Mom and Dad. God, I’m so sorry. To hurt you over that pussy, Zack.
“You have one more person to apologize to, quickly, Princess.” He bit his lip in anticipation.
She looked around the room wildly. She heard the sudden ticking of a loud, insistent clock.
Who? Tell me who? Please.
He leaned in and smiled. “You. And mean it.”
She took a deep breath and ignored the screeching urgency of the clock.
“I’m sorry to myself. I deserve to be somebody even when I’m standing all alone. I have to be my identity.” She was earnest. And he was right. Time was up. Their smoky room filled with the tight, clinical voices of the people that were fighting God’s battle for her life. The doctors’ were putting her parents’ love into their scalpels to save her.
The smoky room was fading, but she held tight to his hands.
“You’re not really the devil, are you?”
She felt him kiss her forehead, “Yes, Sweetheart, I am. And to prove it, Zack’s new girlfriend’s going to come down with a very contagious STD.”
She was whispering “thank you” to him as his hands disappeared. Kiki faded to the familiar dark of slumber, and it was days before she awakened. Pain was everywhere. The deep aches and the surface wounds all had their own unique brand of ouch.
When she opened her eyes to her parents’ loving eyes she knew what to say. “I love you guys so much.”
Her voice was raw from disuse. Her mother was almost boneless with relief. Her father hugged her head as tight as he dared.
“Kiki, oh Kiki. We love you too. Always. Forever.” Her father kissed the top of her hair and welcomed his wife in the love huddle.
Days later a bouquet of wildflowers were delivered to Kiki’s hospital room. Her mother read the card. They were from Zack. Kiki’s father rolled his eyes. How often had Dad done that and she’d thought he didn’t understand the way she felt about Zack?
She saw it now. Zack was a punk, and her dad had known it from the beginning. Her dad knew Zack didn’t love his daughter.
The hospital room phone often rang, and her mother would take the call. Kiki shook her head no, refusing to speak with Zack on the phone. She caught the hopeful looks that passed from her mother to her father.
The day Kiki was due to leave the hospital, she had an unexpected visitor. Zack peeked in the room looking stiff and out of place.
God, he always looked that way; how did I never see it?
She forgave herself because that’s what Satan would have wanted.
“Kiki, you look…alive. Can I have a word with you? In private.” He motioned his dumbass head towards her parents. He had been a priority over them for three years. He was used to it and expected her to ask “how high” when he said “jump”.
She nodded at him, and asked her parents for this time with him. Kiki noticed that Zack didn’t offer his hand to her father for a shake. Such simple stuff that was important, she had ignored. So many signs.
He waited until the door was closed before he sat down with a goofy smile. He dug in his pocket and pulled out a black velvet jewelry box. She lifted her eyebrow, making no move to open it. He wasn’t good at reading signs either, apparently, because he opened the box to let her to see inside. It was a pair of Tigger earrings. Kiki looked from the earrings to him and back again. A few weeks ago, she would have worn them relentlessly. Delighting in the fact that her boyfriend had given her jewelry. Now she saw it as a childish gesture from an asshole.
“Why are you here, Zack? You broke up with me.” Kiki liked how she didn’t feel self-conscious about her messy hair or the fact that she didn’t have any make-up on.
Screw him, and go, me.
He squirmed. “Well, I think the accident has made me realize you’re important to me. And you’re supposed to be with your best friend. And you’re that. So, yeah.” It was an awkward admission. It fell as flat as a pancake. Kiki pictured the Devil’s stare, how alive she had felt when she was dead.
She let Zack’s tension build as he waited for an answer. He expected her to come running back to him with arms and legs spread wide open. She tilted her head against the headboard and sighed.
Then she took a chance with a smile, “How many STDs does your new girlfriend have?”
He was in shock, she knew as he stammered. It was proof to her that her date with the Devil had been real. The tiny dancing dust in the room imitated falling snow in the stream of sunlight coming through her hospital window.
“No. I …. She… we broke up…we weren’t serious... I …”
Kiki started laughing quietly and finally looked at him expectantly. “Must be something pretty awful for you to come crawling back to me.”
Maybe it was her new confident demeanor. Maybe it was the knowing look in her eyes.
He decided to be honest. “She says it will take about six months for the scabs to crust over.” They both shivered with the mental picture.
“Dude. That ‘friends-with-benefits’ thing? The warranty on that ran out.” She batted her eyelashes at him.
He tightened his thin lips, not liking the way she was acting.
“Are you dating another guy?” Zack’s back was ramrod straight; he couldn’t imagine she would ever turn him down.
Kiki pictured sexy Satan, his white teeth and deep eyes. “No. No other guy. I just want to be alone. Spend some time with my parents. Put me first for a while.” Her answer pleased him.
“Well how long is that stupidity going to take? Because I have needs, you know.” He snapped the lid on the Tigger earrings shut. She kicked her feet so he had to get up from her bed.
“Zack?” She closed one eye, enjoying what she would say next more than he would ever know, “I’d rather go to Hell than fuck you ever again. Get out.”
He stomped out the door like the diva he was, and she snuggled down deeper in the hospital bed. Her parents settled in around her legs, her mother brushing her hair away from her face. Just before Kiki fell asleep she swore she could taste rum on her lips.