Black.

The color of the purgatorial vortex that kisses your ghost and envelops every fiber of your being into its vastness.

Black is a comforting hell for the nonbelievers, the sociopaths, the alexithymics—a sort of tranquil oblivion that an atheist can only dream of after death. For those scant few with the rose-colored eyes who lived as though they were never truly alive, it's a source of familiarity, like a warm embrace from an otherwise cold concrete shadow. It's a yin within its own yang, two powerful halves of the same meaningless existence.

And black, as complex as it is in its simplicity, was the only color left in her rainbow that she could see.

ざわ

Woven neatly between the threads of reality and an uncertain beyond, Keiko Kagawa lay suspended over an infinite plane of nothingness, her body parallel to a ground she would never reach. In this curious place where time no longer ticked, she remained unconscious for what may have been ages before her mind recollected and a trickle of thoughts roused her from her rest.

"Where… am I?" She tried opening her eyes to look at her surroundings, but the most her muscles would allow was a twitch of her cheek. Assuming it was a fluke, she tried once again, this time focusing whatever was left of her energy to make the smallest movement. However, her facial expression, her arms, her legs, her fingers and toes—any semblance of her physical self refused to cooperate with her.

"I don't understand. I can't see and I can't move. I don't even feel like me." It was a troubling thought to have, doubly so when coupled with the fact that her inner voice was an eerie calm. "What's wrong with me? Why am I like this?" If she could groan, she would. "All right, Keiko, think. Reassess the situation and try to remember the very last thing that happened before you blacked out. Think.

Think.

Think."

But there was no such moment that she could salvage. In a place where all that remained were her thoughts, she couldn't recall a single thing, save her own name. Her senses were deprived, her energy was drained, and now, her memories had vanished. There was nothing—she was nothing, as though the strings that tethered her soul to her body had snapped and left her to exist – or perhaps even be trapped – within the confines of her own mind.

And just like that, it hit her.

"No. No, no, no, that's impossible. There's no way. This can't be death—I can't be dead. II don't remember dying. Wouldn't I have remembered something like that?" She paused, then, "Then again, I don't really remember anything. Is it possible to have died with no memory of it ever happening?" Her tone shifted from confusion to panic. "I know that God can be a cruel bastard, but… why? Why me? Why now? I don't want to die. I-I don't want to-"

She stopped.

The gravity of the revelation was sinking in; it was slow, but nevertheless persistent. If there was anything she could feel as she drifted into the proverbial ether, it would be the shatter of her glass heart hitting the very ground that escaped her.

"I don't want to die!"

In one final attempt to regain control over her corporeal form, she tried to muster up the strength to scream. She needed to feel that scratch at the back of her throat as the bloodcurdling cry clawed its way up and out of her larynx; she needed to hear her voice – her true voice – to silence the impending trainwreck of thoughts that threatened the last shred of her sanity. But try as she might, there was no tickle to be felt, nor a sound to be heard.

There was only death and she was cradled, unmoving, unfeeling, in its arms.

"…So this is it, huh? This is the end of the line? There's no life flashing before my eyes—not even so much as a light for me to chase at the end of the tunnel? Have You damned me to an eternity of constant thoughts with no real memories to dwell on?" She listened – partially out of hope, though mostly out of vanity – for a reply, but there was only the echo of her monologue to serve as a reminder that she wasn't alone; rather, she was being ignored. And it pissed her off.

"Is this because I called You a bastard, God? Or are You punishing me because I haven't apologized?" Oh, if only she could make a fist and scream toward the heavens! "What else did I do to deserve this? What could I have possibly done in my previous life that You took it upon Yourself to take it away? I may not remember much, but I know calling You out isn't a good enough reason to keep me here!" Her inner voice was beginning to shake the longer she thought. "What more do You want from me? Do You want me to break and beg for mercy?"

She chuckled bitterly.

"Because I will."

She wanted to break down.

"I'll do anything to go back and right whatever wrongs I've done. But You have to bring me back. Please! You have to bring me back!"

At that moment, her thoughts began to trail off. Unanswered in the subsequent silence, her new reality had finally settled. It did not matter what she had to offer to her captor. "Quid pro quo" were mortal words prettied up with hollow meaning and Keiko was a soul stripped of existence—what more could she, a wayfarer adrift in the nihility between realms, possibly offer in exchange for life reborn?

She stopped again.

What could she offer for something as priceless, as irreplaceable as life itself?

And more importantly, why?

Why strike a Faustian deal with a god who turned a deaf ear to her? How could she ever expect a gamble with a god to rule in her favor? She was, after all, nothing more than an increasing cloud of thoughts and questions.

And even if she was allowed to go back to the living world, what – or who – would be there, awaiting her arrival? While fleeting, she could still remember her name ("Kagawa—Keiko? Keiko Kagawa?"), but that was it. What sort of home would she be returning to? Would there be a loving family there, their faces wet with tears as they welcomed her back with open arms? Or maybe it was misery that she was meant to abandon? Maybe she was a horrible person, or maybe she led a horrible life. Maybe she was driven to death because living no longer held promise.

Or maybe, this was meant to happen.

Maybe, in spite of whatever fight she had left in the core of her soul, she was meant to die. Maybe the ephemerality of a life forgotten was meant to haunt her, shrouding her in an endless wave of uncertainty and fear as divine punishment.

Maybe this was it and there was nothing she could do about it.

Maybe this was it and she had to accept it.

"I… think I'm beginning to understand."

The buildup of emotions that fueled her thoughts in the moments before dissipated, an abrupt exodus that left behind a sense of indifference.

"I was meant to come to this conclusion on my own, right?"

She felt the urge to laugh again.

"What's the point in even asking? It's not like there's anyone here to answer me anyway." The silence agreed. "…So what now? What's left for me to do? Do I just fester in whatever remains of my consciousness until I fade away entirely? Or do I just wait?"

As if summoned, a white star appeared in the distance. From its center, a single beam of light shone forth to form a narrow path. She looked on – stunned, entranced, confused – with eyes not quite her own and thought, "Is that it then? My 'light?'" The star twinkled, a silent affirmation that, under better circumstances, would have made her smile. "Then there really is no other way, is there? …I'm sorry to the ones I'm leaving behind. But if I have to go, then I must."

Thus, like moth to the flame, she drifted toward the star. What seemed like light years away became within arm's reach and, as she approached it, the whiteness it emitted burst into a glitterfall of neon reds, yellows, and blues that spattered across the black canvas into a galactic swirl. The colors blanketed her with a cozy warmth, a real warmth that she could feel spreading from her chest to the tips of her fingers and toes. And, like moth to the flame, it burned.

"Wait."

It burned.

"What's going on?"

It burned like hell.

"What the hell is happening to me?!"

As quickly as they had come, the colors – and the star – disappeared as the pain worsened by the second; her rib cage rattled from the palpitations of a frightened heart, her bones trembled before congealing into a soft, still mess, and a searing headache formed as the stench of burnt hair wafted into her nostrils. She coughed to immediate regret—the inside of her mouth was dry and caked with a coppery crust, which left behind a revolting aftertaste and texture. She retched, then whimpered when the action proved too strenuous to continue.

"Why? I accepted my fate—shouldn't that have been the right thing to do?" She shifted her body a bit and deduced, from the weight on her backside, that she was lying on solid ground. With a second wave of pain rippling underneath her skin, she turned her head to the side and hitched her breath.

There were a few things that had already been established at this point; she was dead. And the dead cannot and should not feel, for physical sensations are a privilege one surrenders upon death. And on that note, death itself can not inflict pain; it's a release from such suffering. These were facts.

So why, she wondered amidst the hysteria, did it hurt so much? Why did she burn? It was just as she assumed; she had accepted this. There was nothing left for her to do, except to move on. Yet, in the afterlife, she was met with inescapable pain. Why?

"Because heaven doesn't hurt, but hell does."

Her heart skipped a beat. It was a quick thought, one that anybody might have in a state of unrest. So why did it ring especially true for her?

"Heaven doesn't hurt… but hell does."

Her blood ran cold.

"I have been forsaken."

It was the last epiphany she would ever have.

"I'm in hell."

The flatlining knell of tinnitus crescendoed in her ears.

"I'm in hell!"

In tandem with her thoughts, she felt two halves of something hard being forced underneath her. Whatever they were, she could tell they were identical in shape; they were flat enough to slide under her back without her having to move and they were rather sharp as they pinched her in various places in an effort to clasp together. It was as if they were, quite literally, scooping her up—and it terrified her.

The strength that she believed to have died along with her physical self had returned. She thrashed her head from side to side as the invisible force beneath her connected, which, in turn, created a flat bed that hoisted her into the air. She flailed her arms, then struggled when a burly pair of hands grabbed her by the wrists and pinned them to her sides. And she screamed.

"No!"

She teared up when what felt like a pair of thick elastic straps criss-crossed over her chest, further limiting her movements.

"I don't want to die!"

She bawled as the force she was bound to began moving.

"Please, don't take me to hell!"

So much was happening in such quick succession that she was overwrought from it all. If this was hell, then it was delirium in a tornado. She continued to fight against her restraints, but the adrenaline coursing through her veins had diluted. The ringing in her ears had also stopped, replaced by the sound of unintelligible whispers. While she couldn't make out any of the words, the voice was low and frenetic as it spoke. She refused to listen, instead continuing to squirm in spite of the fatigue setting in.

"Let me go!"

Then something pricked her forearm; a sharp, little thing that emptied a lukewarm fluid into her bloodstream. She gasped and tried lifting her head up, but the restraints rejected her notion. Her energy dwindled back to the emptiness it was before and, rather than fight it, she settled by gently rolled her head to the side. Tranquility manifested in the form of numbness spidering through her innards and her thoughts, her fears, her struggling went to mush.

And then, nothing.