The Millions

My Adventures in Hell

Two miles from my childhood home in Burke, Va., is a slice of shoulder along the Fairfax County Parkway. It’s an unassuming patch of asphalt, easily overshadowed by the sports fields stretching behind it, the recreation center in the middle distance where I first learned how to swim, how to keep my head above water without drowning. Still, every time I pass that simple strip of earth on the way to visit my parents for dinner, I slow down as much as traffic will allow. I look for the ghost of a busted brown Buick and, in the backseat, the ghost of a boy who’s just told his father he doesn’t believe in Hell.

Ours was a multi-religious household, which meant Sundays were often split between the area’s community churches (Methodist, Unitarian) and the Islamic community center to which my father, a Muslim who nevertheless wanted his children to think of all religions as inherently the same, was especially dedicated. It was, after all, his culture. I loathed these trips: how he’d make me—never my younger sisters—recite Quranic verses in Arabic; how he’d lecture about God, about prophets and angels, about devils and Hell, as if we were students in a seminary or madrassa. I wanted nothing to do with these conversations, not out of some fervent belief in atheism (that wouldn’t arrive

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