I was pretty sure there was nothing beautiful about me.
At least, below the surface.
The name's Asher Nicastro, and if you looked past the exterior, you might've just seen me for what I really was: A demon from the underworld.
I'd been in darkness for so long that sometimes I couldn't even remember if there had ever been any light in me. You might not get that, but maybe it's because you haven't lived as long as I have. Surely you know how it's easy to forget things with time? Given enough of it, even your most important memories—those with the strongest emotion, maybe—will fade. Now add a few hundred years to that brisk second mortals call a lifespan, and you can forget anything.
I was a shadow being. A corrupt soul.
No, it's not as cool as it sounds.
I mean, yeah, I could go to the "Surface" when I wanted—the common but incorrect term for the world of the living—and yeah, I could go to whichever time I wanted in human history. (I could travel to the past is what that means, but traveling to the future is actually a different story, which I'll tell you about later in more detail.) In fact, maybe those two things were the biggest highlights of my life at the time. Unfettered by my physical body, I could travel places I had only dreamed of visiting when I’d been alive.
I've definitely taken advantage of those perks.
But for me, there was a caveat to being dead. And it's just that: I wasn't alive.
I couldn't play the living game.
I couldn't interact with beings of the living world. If Heaven is the world of light, and Hell the world of darkness, maybe the world of the living is a world of twilight. I could see mortals, and follow their stories, and—although it had never happened and I knew it never would, I could even (purely hypothetically) fall in love with them—but I couldn't interact. And, being what I was, I'd never be able to.
At least, that's what I used to think.
As it turns out, Hell had only so much room.
(I'll explain later exactly how Hell ran out of room, but I don't want to overburden you with details from the onset.)
And what a shocker that is, right? I mean who would have figured that eventually, after sending countless souls to a single space for as long as humanity has existed, that same space would run out? Astonishing.
It turned out that we recently exceeded the number of souls Hell can accommodate. Turned out, God mercifully decided to give us corrupt souls a chance to finally escape our condition and enter the realm of light. It was a gracious and compassionate decision, made by the combination of his undying, eternal love for all of his creation, and his infinite capacity for forgiveness and mercy.
That's the way many saw it. How did I see it? That he had no choice.
But since the general consensus seemed to be that Heaven was a pretty great place, I decided that a chance was a chance, and this was a chance to amend my ways and find the light within myself so that I might finally—pardon the pun—get the hell out of Hell.
It was called God's Reinvention Program, with a capital everything. From the beginning, it seemed to me to resemble a plan proposed by politicians of Earth, specifically of my country and time. And actually, there were rumors going around that God could have expanded Hell if he had wanted. They claimed that the only reason he—up in his white castle in the sky—had come up with the program was that he had thought it would increase his popularity with the mortals. After all, their advances in science and technology were leaving less and less people who attributed unexplained mysteries to magic.
The rumors were only partly true, but I didn't know it then. Yes, God wanted the mortals to have increased faith in him, but only so they would be less likely to take the path to Hell. And yes, God could have expanded Hell, but he didn't want there to be any more corrupt souls.
In the program, God decided to give every soul an equal opportunity.
You know, like he forgot to do in the world of the living.
All us corrupt souls were eligible to take part in the program, free of charge. God's Reinvention Program was all about taking corrupt souls and allowing them to briefly become tangible, visible, and in all other ways detectable by the living. I'd been itching for this ability for just about forever, although for different purposes. God's purposes didn't align with mine exactly, but what could I do? I decided to take what I could get.
The program was, more specifically, about giving corrupt souls a chance to interact with the living in order to guide them to goodness. It was a pretty broad mission on purpose, so that every corrupt soul could find something to do if they were so motivated.
That also meant that I had to hurry unless I wanted to miss my window. Hell was such an awful place—thanks to Satan—that almost everybody there wanted to leave. For that reason, people were signing up to take part in the program as I spoke. Hell may have been loaded with dark souls like myself—causing you to think program registration should've been slow and that I had quite a bit of time before all the figurative spots were taken—but it was equally loaded with registration centers, all around the world.
(Yes, Hell extended all around the world. No, it wasn't actually underground.)
So, it was a race. Because the moment enough corrupt souls got cleansed and sent to the light realm, God would shut the program down and the souls that didn't make it would be basically screwed for a few hundred years or longer if they were really lucky.
That wasn't gonna be me.
I did have one advantage over many. Aside from being incredibly skilled in a wide variety of areas *cough, cough* I actually wasn't as dark and twisted as many other souls in Hell. My single crime which landed me there in the first place was tame in comparison to the many crimes others committed. What does that have to do with anything? Well, God's not stupid. He wasn't going to allow former murderers passage to his holy kingdom for helping someone cross the street. God played it smart, only allowing truly cleansed souls passage—people who had genuinely changed.
In simple terms, what you had to do to earn Heaven depended on what you did to earn Hell. Because my crime was relatively light, so was the amount of effort I had to put into my own redemption.
Which meant that I might just have a chance to make it through that window.
Souls in the program weren't limited to a certain location or even time in history. And "guiding mortals to goodness" could range anywhere from helping a student with chemistry so they wouldn't fail a college class to giving tips to law enforcement that would help them fight crimes in cities. (Apparently, souls in the program would be able to turn visibility and tangibility on and off at will, an ability which could give any police force an edge.)
Which reminds me. It's not souls in the program or even the mortals that got to choose our tasks. Only God and close members of his royal court got to decide that, and I think I have a pretty good idea why. Having been mortal myself once, I know very well that the mortal perspective is limited, and that we may sometimes perceive some things as being good or righteous when they aren't.
For example: Mortal wars. Humans can easily pick sides in such a war, whereas God would never pick a side or deem one correct. That's because God sees both sides, with what could be described as a bird's eye view. He has a perspective unlike anyone else. Whereas a soul in the program like myself might have thought it acceptable to help, say, a soldier fighting in World War I, God would not have. He wouldn't consider that "guidance to goodness."
And it was kind of reassuring, in a way. If God and the white court got to pick our missions, then we wouldn't have to question whether or not what we were doing was "right enough." We could rest assured it just was. All we had to do was follow through.
As far as I knew, God had never done anything like this before. Far as I knew, Hell had never run out of room. And God may have contacted humanity before, but never like this.
I was perhaps too lighthearted in my description. I've been lighthearted for a long time. But in reality, God's Reinvention Program was quite serious.
Even I recognized that mortals all around the world and in a great variety of time periods would suddenly know of our existence. The people of the world I remembered would suddenly know that it was never just a made-up story like the atheists arrogantly claimed and the agnostics objectively suggested.
I knew that nothing would ever be the same again, and it concerned me that God had opened up the past to interference. It made me wonder if and how that would affect the future. Maybe separate timelines would be created (which I had learned a thing or two about from TV shows such as Continuum). I really had no idea.
I'm going to begin this story with myself sitting on the steps to the left of the driveway (from my perspective) which led into the house. There were two front entrances, but you could only get to the other one by opening the garage.
I was wearing a fancy black-and-white dress, and no shoes. The dress was long and had a large slit in its side, revealing my legs. These were thin and shapely, or so my older sister used to say. She always made me feel so beautiful, and it would make me so happy. But back to the dress. It was made of a thin material, not meant to protect its wearer from the elements. The top was black and shoulder-less. It covered the collarbone and wrapped around my neck. The dress didn't billow out—having no rigid form of its own, it stayed true to the contours of my body, showing off my slim figure. My hair was long, black, and thick, and fell in curls and accidental ringlets around me.
I wasn't wearing a jacket of any kind. I didn’t have protection of any kind. And before you say it, I know this wasn’t the best idea, since I was surrounded by snow. It had fallen into a thick and undisturbed layer over the front yards and roofs of houses on this street—including my own—and then fell from the sky as if in slow motion. My hands were clasped together for added warmth, though the long, black gloves I wore up to my elbows offered considerable protection. I looked down at them thoughtfully, my bangs falling over my green eyes.
I may have been dead, but I could still feel the cold as intensely as when I’d been alive. I couldn't, however, get sick from being in it for too long, and I certainly couldn't die again. In the afterlife, you could still feel pain, but it was pointless. Living creatures feel pain to avoid damage. Pain is a warning. But when you're dead, you feel pain despite never taking damage.
My skin was freezing, and when snowflakes landed on it, it burned. When I exhaled, I could see my breath before me, as a light-colored vapor that dissipated as air molecules moved through space.
To say it was cold outside would be an understatement. Yet I was happy there. (Part of the reason was that I had a feeling it would be my last time there, and although it had been a largely miserable experience, I guessed there had been precious moments nonetheless.) I partly wanted to feel that coldness. There was something about the cold that always woke me up. It seemed to sharpen my senses and create clarity in my mind.
It was kind of like meditation. When I meditated—and I had to do it every day, for emotional stability reasons—I practiced stillness and awareness at the same time. That was a major focus of meditation. Similarly, the cold of winter always slowed my movements. It made me lazy, and movement became generally undesirable. Meaning that it forced me to be in a state of physical stillness. And at the same time, the cold increased my alertness and awareness. See the similarities?
I'll throw one last thing out there.
To me, winter has always been a picture of peace.
Close your eyes and imagine it! Picture a desolate winter landscape. Imagine the frosty, white sky, in certain regions a light blue. Like the color of solid oxygen. Think of tall, dark trees reaching upward. Pines, maybe. Think of all the evergreens covered in snow. Isn’t it almost as though life has come to a standstill? Visualize the tall mountains. See the hills draped in white veils of snow. Observe the lakes that are frozen over, the ice underneath which life goes on, because there's liquid water under the surface—even though you might not realize it at first.
The main reason I was even out there was that I was thinking about God's Reinvention Program. I knew I didn't have long—remember what I said about it being a race—but I wanted to take some time to think about it, and about the implications of actually making it through the window.
My eyes were focused on the watch I wore over my gloves, which I was planning on using to get to a very specific registration center. My eyes settled upon its thick, black band. There was silver in the center of it, which ran all the way around.
It looked like a pretty typical watch, albeit one higher up on the quality spectrum. There didn't seem to be anything digital or otherworldly about it. It looked pretty humble. In fact, most other souls couldn't operate it, because this was mine, and so to them it wouldn’t be more than a typical watch. But if I so wanted, then its watch face would change and adopt a screen which I could manipulate through touch if I wanted to be transported through space and time. (I'll explain the details of how I even got this watch later, but don't for a second think it's an uncommon thing. In fact, every soul—whether from Heaven or Hell—had a watch of their own, and watches varied wildly in appearance.)
But the watch face which hid these unnatural features looked pretty convincing. The background was black, and white Roman numerals told you the time. Blue hands moved around the center, against a background of small gold and bronze cogs and silver metal.
And then I looked up at the sky, still thinking.
(Side note. Ever since I first arrived at Hell, I had gotten increasingly used to "wasting time" in daydreams. Maybe it had something to do with me being more isolated from society than ever before and thus me feeling less pressure to be the productive human being I had once been. (Or maybe not having a social network made me feel that many things which I had once found meaningful were meaningless.) Maybe it had to do with the fact I was no longer obligated to try at life in order to survive. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that life in Hell was a lot less rewarding and exciting than my life on Earth had been, because of Satan's deliberate attempts to eliminate all sources of pleasure.
So I would lay on the couch facing the window, or across my older sister's tall and heavily-pillowed bed, and waste hours simply thinking. Lost in a dream, time would pass without my awareness of it. I would spend time imagining—and having been an avid fantasy reader in my childhood, I liked to do that a lot—or maybe reminiscing.
But truth be told, I didn't like the latter as much.)
I was reminiscing then, as I looked at the sky. In one dimension—the mortal dimension—there was nothing there. But in another dimension—the Heaven dimension—and in that same spot is God's sky castle, which drifts above the world of light. And in the last dimension I know of—the Hell dimension—there was its counterpart. In Hell, the sky looked pretty normal at the horizon, but the closer one's eye drifted to Satan's castle, suspended in the atmosphere, the darker the sky got. Dark clouds flanked the black castle, and there was an unnatural red color in the sky. Strikingly beautiful, in a dark sort of way. It was like red lightning from a storm that was never finished.
I didn't know these specifics then, but in Heaven, the sky is beautiful and always changes. Sometimes, the white, gleaming castle is surrounding by pink and blue clouds, and purple shadows from where both these colors meet. Sometimes, the clouds are a bright, almost electric blue illuminated by gold sunlight. Sometimes, the sky is black, and the clouds around the castle and shifting through the sky resemble star nurseries in outer space, with multicolored clouds of gas.
I stood up, and went inside.