Will Susan break Lou's heart? Can he- must he- face Eternity alone?
|Dust blew over the endless, empty highway into town. |
I cannot be sure whether guilt, shame, or force of habit kept me hiding in this city of the lost on the edge of the afterlife. With all the secret deeds I had seen and done in life, I figured a few souls would share my fear of Heaven's judgment. Everybody else blindly followed anything the angel Morgen and his pet preacher said. Disgust and loneliness drove me to the tree overlooking the front gates, in desperate hope the universe might send me a single soul to save me from eternity. As hours turned to weeks, even years, I sat in that tree, waiting.
My heart leaped to life as I saw Susan stumbling out of the darkness like a newborn colt through the gate. I tensed against the urge to carry her over the threshold. Already, Morgen slithered toward her, dressed in navy blue, looking all wholesome and fake: quintessential Morgen. I had more interest in watching from afar, so I told myself. 'Less worry' might be more accurate. In either event, I held my position.
“Susan.” Morgen adjusted his tie. “Welcome. We've been waiting for you.”
“Where?” Susan said, confused. She swished her head about, dizzy, eyes catching nothing. “-am I.”
“What do you remember?” Morgen's gaze locked on her wandering eyes.
Every nerve in my body prepared me to jump into action, to tear that old devil apart. I missed the old days when someone would tell me whether to fire. She was safe for the moment, though, and I had much to learn. I glared at the decision to stay, and shifted to be ready to move.
“Driving. Kylie, getting loose, crawling about the car. My poor baby! Had to close the window.” She paused for a moment, held her head in her hand. “Oh, I lost control! I lost control.”
“My baby. Kylie.” She turned about. “I've got to go find my baby.”
Flat and matter of fact, Morgen said, “That's not an issue right now. Continue with your story.”
“No, really. My baby needs me.”
Morgan swooshed in front of her. “Her welfare is out of your hands now.”
Susan tried to walk around Morgen. “Why are you stopping me from looking for my baby? She could have been hurt.”
“You will be of no help to her, I can assure you.” Morgen sneered. “For reasons that will soon be clear, if you continue with your story.”
“What is wrong with you!” She tried to walk around him, but he slid in front of her.
“Clearly, you do not yet understand what is going on. Therefore, the best course of action-”
She raised her hand to stop him. “Okay, alright.” She paused to think.
Her voice fell almost to silence. “It was dark. Walking in a tunnel, a voice calling me deeper, away from the light. Your voice? Maybe, I don't know. And, oh, I get it. I'm dead. That's it, isn't it?”
Morgen's voice glowed with glee. “I'm sorry! You didn't make it.”
My fists clenched. I cursed him. She would never be happy here unless I got her away from him. Just then, a blackbird swooped in, eyes glowing bloody red, and landed on the fence.
The birds always appeared whenever Morgen got the better of me. I groaned at my loss of discipline, took a deep breath, and relaxed my fists.
Susan looked around. Softly lit mountains broke up the horizon that day. The ground was dust; the sky, glossy black; the moon, oversized and fluorescent. The air was warm, not hot, and dusty, but without any disagreeable odors. “I know one thing. This isn't any Heaven I ever heard of.”
Morgen grinned, proudly. “No, I suppose not.”
“I guess they oversold this place too.” She kicked up a little dust. “Or, did the furnace go out?”
I chuckled at that.
“You know, I admire your sense of humor, Susan.” Morgen waved his finger under her nose again. “That kind of thing will give you strength in the trials that follow.”
I groaned, thinking, here it comes.
“Yes, Susan.” Morgen ran his fingers through his slick, black hair. His voice rang with delight. “There's been an error. You're not supposed to be here: nobody is.”
“Where should I be? How do I get there?”
“Oh, Susan, if only it were that simple.” Morgen winked at me. “You have no compass, no guide. Simplistically, we might call you a 'lost soul.'”
“Oh.” Susan nodded and looked down, thinking. “But, that doesn't mean anything, does it?”
“In here,” Morgen said, sweeping his arm around to indicate the whole town, “it means you are, to put it mildly, in a world of hurt.”
“What's to be done?”
“I have no answers for you." Morgen flashed his palms, then hid them an instant later. “I can tell you, the others like to pray.”
She cocked an eyebrow. “That do any good?”
Morgen leaned back as if he expected to be flooded with a fiery halo or at least a spotlight. “Oh, it is quite meaningful. The Father hears your prayers, and help will come, if you have faith.”
I coughed with disgust. In all these years, nothing good had ever come of their prayers, unless being scooped up and taken to Hell qualified as 'good.'
“Right. I'll keep that in mind.”
“There's more. You see, others listen, including 'The Other.'” Morgen nodded dramatically.
The time to step in drew near. I took to my feet, balancing on the tree branch.
Ha,” Susan scoffed. “You mean 'the devil?'”
“This matter is serious, Susan." Morgan puffed out his chest. “'The Devil' as you call him, listens closely to your prayers. The choices you make here are all-powerful. The Devil lives to twist those choices against you.”
She cast her eyes down, nodding gently to herself, lost in thought.
“Mark well everything I have said! For you are besieged by lies in this place of untruth and unrest. Whatever truth you can divine, whatever lies you accept, will determine your destiny.” The speech he makes every time a soul arrives.
“That's nice, Mr. Morgen,” Susan said. “You got a last name?”
“Yes. It's Stern. Means 'star,'” Morgen answered, watching to see if Susan caught some inside joke. “Means, I belong in the heavens, not crawling around in the dirt with you dead animals.”
In an awkward attempt to change the tone of the conversation, Susan slapped Morgen on the back. Her hand slipped through his ghostly body. “What the- ?”
“My punishment, from The Father,” said Morgen, shrugging. “I had a bit of a 'falling out.'”
“Oh, so, the only angel God can spare is a reject,” Susan said, shaking her head. “That's a royal welcome.”
Morgen's nostrils flared and he opened his mouth for an instant. He hesitated, and took a long, deep breath. First time I saw Morgen lose his temper. I chuckled quietly.
“Truly, you have been wronged, given all the time you gave to the Father in life. You did make the Father a priority, didn't you?”
She looked down and mumbled, “Not really.”
Shameful, the way Morgen toyed with people. I shook my head, and stepped up the hill behind him.
Morgen wagged his finger under her nose. “Well, there you go. Perhaps, you will make better decisions in this life. Perhaps, you will even attend our prayer group. Certainly, you will want to avoid Mr. Seefer.” He pointed at me.
That was my cue. I stepped out of the shadows, and slapped Susan on the back. My demon blackbird cawed and flew away.
“Mr. Seefer believes our prayer group is more trouble than it's worth. Isn't that right?”
“It is for me.” I stepped up to him and looked him directly in the eye, the only way I knew to wrestle a phantom.
“And, of course,” Morgen's voice rang with sarcasm, “he has a great deal of evidence to back it up.”
Other souls gathered about, hanging on Morgen's every word. Susan looked at me and shrugged. Then, to Morgen, the question of questions: “So? Is he right?”
“Ah, that would be telling! But I will not debate the merits of your little lives.” Morgan straightened his tie and strutted. “Just mind your choices. There is nobody, in Heaven or Earth, who can put your mind right for you.”
Then the chapel bells rang, and the townsfolk headed for the hill.
Susan reached her hand out. “Hello, Mr. Seefer. Pleased to meet you.”
“Call me Lou,” I said, smiling too much as I took her hand. “My parents had a strange sense of humor.”
“Louis Seefer. Say it six times fast.”
She laughed. “Oh. Should I be worried?”
I shook my head, no. “I would,” I said with a wink.
She nodded. “What do you do for fun around here?”
“Annoy the people in the chapel.”
“Then, you don't mind if I go?”
“Might be awkward, being escorted by me,” I told her. “What will the neighbors think?”
She shrugged, and motioned for me to follow.
I hung back when we entered.
“Come in, come in. Your name is Susan? Mine's Katrin. Please, we've much to show you before prayer.” Katrin pulled Susan by the arm, over to a shelf holding several matching devices, which I knew well. Taped together lunch boxes with a lens sticking out at one end, and hoses and wires sticking at all angles. “These are the Hell Lanterns.”
I elbowed my way in front of Katrin. “They're supposed to reveal the 'true face' of anybody you shine them on. Go ahead, try it.”
Susan picked one of them up gingerly, and played with a few dials. The light flickered on. Susan's own soul appeared like black velvet, with violet wrinkles; mine seemed like black marble with red and blue streaks. The others were glowing blobs of color, except for Morgen: he conveniently disappeared when he saw the light come his way.
“It's for the angelics. So you won't be fooled!” Katrin said, nodding so hard she seemed sure to get whiplash.
“It's a toy Morgen invented,” I explained, pointing out the dials. “You pray for help, and these angels come. When you look at the angels with this, they're demons.”
Susan paused, taking a deep breath in preparation for her question. “Is it just me, or is Morgen a little, I don't know, unfriendly?”
She had a flair for understatement. I chuckled.
“Shut up, devil boy,” Father Karlen said, pushing his walker into the room. “Morgen's just a little riled. Before the war, he was an important angel. Now he's not even allowed to touch human souls til we make it to Heaven.”
“I saw that,” Susan agreed.
As the good Father Karlen made a show of using his walker to get to the pulpit, I wondered, once again, how anyone could trust in a preacher that fell short of Heaven. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome. Before we join in prayer, I want to remind you of the solemn truth that brings us here. Do not go alone. Do not lose faith. We stand to lose eternity for even a moment of weakness.”
“Each of you has one of the Lanterns of the Light, constructed according to the word of our patron angel, Morgen. I cannot stress enough how important it is to test our would-be saviors. Now, a moment of silence, as we call upon the Father above.”
All the little sheep bowed their heads, even Susan. I sighed. Nobody stays long, but I had to hope Susan would be the exception. I elbowed her in the ribs.
She shrugged. I figured she was right. Who was I to say she should not cling to hope? She probably had no reason to fear judgment. People are good at the core; few have the training to ignore an aching conscience. Of course, I had my doubts about the meaning of Morgen's movies. But, I had to admit, it was far from the first time I manipulated evidence – or people. Maybe I would not be driven back up that tree, today. I grabbed a lantern.
The angelic reapers are visionary things, visible through the walls of the chapel. Soon, I spotted the first one, and elbowed Susan.
“What!” she exclaimed. “What do you want?"
I hoisted her by the arm and pointed at our would-be attacker. “Now, we run!”
The flock flew out of the chapel, racing through the tiny one shoulder wide door like choreographed dancers – far better than a world class regiment of dancing soldiers — as if the door bent to accommodate us. Then we were off, through dusty streets, as fast as Susan's civilian legs could take her.
No matter how slow we ran, the reaper hovered behind us, a car length away. He was a shadow we could not shake until the sun went down. Today the road out of town was not only dusty but also rocky and uphill. Susan was good, and here we were literally tireless, but she tripped and fell, rolling in the dust. She looked back, apprehensively, and took her first look at that angelic face.
“He's so beautiful, Lou,” she said, reaching toward the reaper. “How can something so...”
“Don't look at his eyes!” I cried.
My rival slowed its approach.
My heart clenched. He had already ensorcelled Susan, leaving me at most an instant to break the spell. I snapped on the light, revealing Morgen's magic movie: a twisted, bubbling, tortured monster. Susan gagged at the sight, and looked away, turning in front of her.
“Oh! We're trapped!”
We had come to a cliff, a thousand foot drop before us.
I shoved her off the cliff and turned to face our assailant, planting my gaze safely on the bridge of his nose, to avoid his arresting gaze. (The things one learns in a life of cloak and dagger!) “She's mine." I dove backward off the cliff.
Maybe it is needless to say, but being dead, the worst we had to fear was the dust we kicked up. Susan brushed off her pants and punched me in the arm.
I winced, for as long as I could hide my smile.
“You could have told me,” she said.
“No time.” I winked. “Besides, it's more exciting that way.”
“Yeah. But remind me not to get on your bad side.”
“Remind yourself,” she said, giving me a playful shove.
It was almost dawn. Susan lay sleeping. Sleep never forces itself upon the spirit body, but many people like it. They think they escape the reality of the place, though the sleeping mind lacks control. It reaches out for help, attracting reapers. Many a dreaming soul has slipped away to face whatever torment fate intends. I loved to watch over Susan. I feel Heaven gather around me on these nights.
A smooth, menacing voice intruded on my reverie. “Good morning, Louis.”
“Morgen. Or should I say, 'guten morgen.'”
“Ah! You speak German.”
“As if you didn't know,” I said. “What did they say? The Morning Star shines brightly but that it can never outshine the Sun?”
“Very clever,” Morgen said, adjusting his tie. “Look, you're not going anywhere. There's no angel coming to take you, to Heaven or anywhere else – unless you invite them. Why don't you and I work together?”
“What do you need me for?”
“You are empowered to lie. A gift I greatly envy.”
I scoffed. “What good might that do? Nobody believes a word I say.”
“Which you enjoy to no end. It's a result we both work hard to maintain.”
“True. Don't like to build rapport with morons.”
“In all this time, you are the only one recognized my hint. So few people reach my level, here.”
“Morgen, you remind me of the people I worked for at the agency.” I invaded his space in an attempt to push him out. “And no, that is not a compliment. I have more in common with the 'serpent in the field.'”
“Serpents? So, we do have something in common.”
“Out! Morgen, out. For the love of...” I caught myself, drew a deep breath. 'The Father's' name, the only taboo here, had a habit of drawing unwanted attention.
“Oh, my,” Morgen taunted. “I almost thought you were going to pray there, for a moment.”
“Go!” I wished I could throw him out or at least slam a door in his face. “Now.”
“I leave you to consider my offer. Given the full force of eternity, we will come to an agreement. Unless you take a 'magic angelic ride.'” With that, he slithered away, before it occurred to me to grab the lantern for a glimpse of the old devil's true face.
“Go to Hell, Morgen.”
“Coming with?” He disappeared around a corner.
The morning bell rang, and Susan roused. As happy as I felt watching over her, relief still washed over me. “Sleep well?”
She nodded, even before she could get the dreamy look out of her eyes.
“Let's skip this one.”
“Lou, we talked about this. It's something I've got to do.”
“Really? I mean, is it so bad here?”
“Yeah. It's –" she paused, thinking, sitting up against the whitewashed gazebo wall. “No. It's just, it isn't right. I've got to try.”
I wished I could find words that would make her see how things should be. Here we were, two souls adrift on a sea of nothingness, but this world belonged to us. We needed only to want it. Of course, it feels weird to live in a place less than nowhere, but with all I had done, it seemed crazy to ask for more. Yet, here I was, about to make my pitch, the story that can turn the greatest agent against everything she believes. Skip one meeting, tell one lie, tell one tiny secret. Who we think we are defines us, and that first step reorganizes destiny. “Susan, please? Just one.”
“I'm sorry,” Susan said. “I don't want to lose you either. Join us.”
Susan could not imagine the burden that kept me out of the prayers. I hoped she never would. I laughed, a harsh little abbreviated noise, and shook my head.
“You're still welcome to run with me.” She reached out her hand.
Hoping to hide my urgency, I slowly took it. “All right.”
Karlen nodded, pushing those silly round glasses back up on his nose. Of all the souls, he was the only one that showed any sign of age. I think it must have been his wish. “Have you come to join us in prayer?”
“You know I don't want to face the Old Man, Karlen,” I said. “He and I have issues.”
Karlen sighed. “All can be forgiven, my son.”
“You don't know that.”
“I do. Morgen told me.”
This was news, or would be, if I got it first hand. I turned and gave Morgen a hard look. He just stood and gave us that enigmatic, statuesque grin that tells exactly nothing. I figured, even if Morgen could not lie, Karlen could: I had to test him. “Why would you lie about a thing like that?”
Karlen seemed startled, as if telling the truth. That, or he had been playing preacher so long, he began to believe everything he said. Holy robes work wonders for a professional liar, I knew; I had worn a few in my day. Either way, I could not be sure. Nearly everybody had taken their seats, so Karlen waved me off and started struggling toward the pulpit.
“Even as you dream of Heaven,” Karlen preached, “Please, remember that more than some so called 'soul' is on the line. Here we do battle for eternity. In case you're wondering, that's a long time.”
Everybody laughed nervously: they remembered.
“So we bow our heads and beg for mercy, and more, for entry into the gates of Heaven.”
Then, I flicked the lantern on Karlen. His soul was green moss on black stone. The third trace of darkness I had seen. I wondered what that meant, but had better things to do. “Hey, Morgen, I was thinking about last night,” I said, standing up. “You wanted me to counsel the faithful, isn't that right?”
Morgen's lips thinned, his face went white. “In a manner of speaking.” I could tell how desperately he wanted to lie.
“That's beginning to sound like a good idea. And we discussed something we had in common, something about our names.”
“This is not what I wished you to discuss,” he said, glaring at me.
“But the fact remains: your name means something very important. These fine people need to know. It means 'Morning Star,' isn't that correct?”
Karlen threw his bible at me. I caught it, and started for a moment as it was written in some ancient language. “For the love of Marduk, devil boy! Be quiet. We have a prayer service to run. If you can't respect that, then get out.”
I felt threads of power wrapping about my mouth, and I struggled to speak. I was shocked to see that a Babylonian god-name had power for the preacher. How old was Father Karlen?
“Thank you,” he said.
With that, the spell released me. I took a deep breath. Perhaps he had been using that name in vain. “And what is the Latin name for the morning star? Anybody?” The room got so still you could not hear one lost soul's breath. “That name is Lucifer, isn't it? Lucifer, bringer of light?”
One of the young men yelled out, “Get him!” and the crowd pressed in on me. They grabbed and held me. I slipped out of one hold after another. I punched and kicked in all the right places, but they felt nothing. I knocked them down time after time. Eventually, somebody got a proper hold and started to drag me out.
“People!” Morgen cried. “This man believes the words he speaks. He is no different from you. You have nothing to fear in the words of a fool.”
They dropped me like a bag of stolen money in the face of the police. As silence gripped the room for a moment, I wondered. Why did Morgen stop them? I assumed, if they knew his identity, this foolishness would end. I believed that people, living in the shadow of Hell, would not attend a prayer group organized by the devil himself.
“But you do have something to fear, listening to him!” I yelled, as they took their seats.
Everybody ignored me, an embarrassed silence, like I was telling them something they already knew. Karlen cut in, with his most flowery prayer. “So now we beseech thee, Heavenly Father, that we might gain entrance to your domain.”
My stomach lurched as the flock chimed in with their “Amen.” Even Susan joined in. I began to understand. Morgen shed light, however corrupt, in their darkness. I had forgotten how desperate, the need for light.
The first reaper arrived instantly. For the first time, I noticed Karlen did not flinch, did not intend to run. He mouthed the words, “Take her.”
I nudged Susan's shoulders and we bolted.
This run differed somehow. There was something wondrous about this run, about the wind in the hair, the rising cloud of dust. Joy took me when I let myself forget what was at stake, at least partially. I refused to allow that, for even a complete second. We leaped across gaping cracks in the earth, and ran on flaming rivers of lava that hissed and burned our shoes. Nothing was worth losing concentration.
“Do you wonder why we do it?” Susan asked.
“Do what? Call the angelics? All the time.” I only hoped that could be her meaning.
“No! Run. I mean, what do we know, really?”
“Just what we see. You want to touch those things?”
“But is it the truth?”
This thought, I could never allow. “That's not the question we need to be asking right now,” I said, ducking under a stray branch. “We have to be strong.”
“I know,” Susan said, leaping over a few small bushes and a random fence. “But does it ever bother you?”
“Please, keep running. Keep away from these things.”
“Don't worry,” she said, shoving me in the shoulder.
“And whatever you do, don't meet their eyes.”
“Who are you, my mother?”
“Guardian angel,” I shot back.
She tripped then, fell to her knees and, horribly, looked behind in fear.
“Again?” I screamed, wheeling around and bathing the angelic in Morgen's lies.
Susan remained transfixed. Too late.
Katrin, believing in the buddy system, trailed us by a few seconds. “Back off!” She screamed, leaping on the angelic, but slipping through and grabbing Susan instead.
“Let her go!” I threw a stone, but it sailed through the angelic and ricocheted off Katrin like a marshmallow.
“For the love of God, will you take me?” Katrin yelled: the magic word.
Then the spirit spun about to face Katrin. I don't know how she avoided locking eyes with Susan's captor, but she slipped away and ran, now chased by two winged ghosts from the heavens.
As the two spirits chased Katrin away, I approached Susan. “What is wrong with you? Do you want to be captured?”
“That was amazing,” Susan said. “I never felt so safe, so wonderful. Not in my entire life.”
“That is crazy talk, Susan. You know what those things are.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Susan said, looking down and kicking a rock. “I remember thinking, 'Oh, man, what would it be like, if the real angels came for us? How would it be different than the angelics?'”
“I don't know, Susan, but I can't lose you. Please, don't flirt with disaster.”
“I can't help myself." Her copper hair flickered in the moonlight. “I want it to be over.”
“The whole campaign goes to this.” I traced my finger about and finally pointed to her heart. “You make peace with this place. It's the only way.”
Susan's eyes simply locked on to mine, like I were an angel of death ready to take her, as she considered my words. My hands trembled as we lingered, until the pressure became too much, and I kissed her.
Her laughter delighted me. My skin burned; she must have felt the fire on my lips. I vibrated with this thought: thank you. I felt the chill of it in my hair and in my toes, in the rocks and the bushes.
Susan had settled down to prepare for her nighttime nap when Katrin stamped into our little gazebo. “Where were you?” she yelled at me.
I met her gaze gingerly, favoring my conscience but unwilling to let guilt fester.
“I was alone on that run!” Katrin yelled, stamping her feet. “What is wrong with you?”
What could I say? I listened.
She strode up to me and pushed me back. “I do not want to go to Hell!” she screamed in my face.
“I saved your precious Susan when you were just, what? -dumbfounded! You couldn't pick up the race and run with me?” Tears welled up in her eyes.
We had been comrades in arms, whatever our personal feelings; she had risked herself to save us. I owed her more. I had acted like an amateur, a common civilian, more concerned with the moment than the war. All my skills, painstaking years training to be a monster, slipped the mind like a dream.
She broke, looked down, giving my shame far more credit than it was due. In a softer voice she said, “I wanted to sleep tonight, and you're the only one smart enough to watch over me.”
Cross legged, Susan patted the boards beside where she sat. “There's plenty of room, join us.”
Katrin found a spot on the boards. Even solid oak feels soft as a velvet couch. As the women fell to sleep on the weathered planks, I looked about for something to occupy my mind. This situation called for music. The agency demanded I learn to play; the knowledge of melody would inform my martial art. I needed a guitar.
Around here, when the mind focused on what it wanted, things had a way of turning up. Like real life, but much faster. I looked around in the grass, in the empty windows of the cardboard buildings. When that failed, I had another trick few people understood. Prayer works, here. “Please, Father?”
I looked around for a moment, found nothing. “God?” I said, turning around to head toward the gazebo.
I nearly tripped over it, a black and silver acoustic instrument that hummed with power as I held it. I walked back up and knelt down in front of the sleeping girls, strumming a soothing tune that brought to mind the softness of the morning fog and the dark blue of the evening sky. Everything came together, and the blue eyed raven appeared on a light post.
Morgen's voice rang with irony and approval. “Aha! You've the gift of sorcery!” he said from behind me.
“Well, be careful, my friend,” Morgen said, stroking his blood red tie. “You may not be the 'pied piper,' but music does things.”
“Then why don't you–"
He raised a violin, black with red highlights.
“Accompaniment? “Something with a less heavenly pedigree?”
“You're not welcome here.”
“You don't have to trust me; we share a purpose, keeping these sheep from the dogs in the sky.”
I noticed his choice of words, thinking that 'wolves' might be more appropriate, if the reapers had such hostile intent. “Go away, Morgen.”
“Have it your way,” Morgen said, lifting his fiddle and positioning it on his arm. “Gone, but not forgotten. Say hello when they pick up your girlfriends.”
He drew back the bow, and played deep, resonant notes full of warning and seduction: a siren song.
My head swam, and his music infected my own. “Out!” I cried, then carefully strummed the girls back to sleep.
It could not have been long after that when I heard Katrin mumble in her sleep. “Take me!” she said, and started to rise, ever so slowly, off the ground: Morgen's warning coming true.
“Hey! Knock it off!” I knew what Susan would think if I let Katrin go–not to mention what I would think.
Katrin shook for a moment, but failed to wake up.
Susan coughed. “What is it?” she said, alarmed.
“They're taking her, in her dream!” Katrin's face had the blissful expression of one who had met a reaper's gaze.
“We've got to wake her up.” Susan tried to jump on her but slipped off.
“Katrin! Wake up!” I screamed.
No noise could break the spell.
By now Katrin had floated up above her heads. Susan flashed the Lantern on Katrin, to see her green soul struggling and thrashing. Katrin's fingers clawed at her throat as though she were choking. A pang of guilt engulfed me, and Susan was on her knees, coughing and gagging.
I shut off that terrible lantern. The words came to mind, but I would not say them: 'For the love of God, come to me instead.' Instead I stared at Katrin as she was dragged into the stars: strategic cowardice. Instead of helping Katrin, I set down the lantern.
The next day, I picked up my guitar, right where it landed. “You sure you want to do this?”
“No, Lou. Don't know anything, anymore,” Susan said, sitting down at her sleeping place.
“What happened? How'd they get her? You were supposed to wake her up.”
The blue eyed crow cawed and flew away. I forced myself to take a deep breath. “Never saw it coming. I guess it came in her dream.”
Susan shook her head, agitated. “They can do that?”
“How do I know? All we have is guesswork and Morgen's word. Secondhand.”
“How can they do that? It's supposed to be fair.”
“You get what you ask for. That's how it goes, in the stories.” And, in life, it seems.
Susan nodded, choking back tears. “I never got to know her. The woman risked eternity for me, and...” Susan sobbed into her hands.
I strummed a soft rhythm. Susan leaned back, and let her sentence trail off, staring off into space. I kept at it, not knowing her intentions. Let her make her own decisions, whenever permissible.
After a time she closed her eyes, and I continued to play in rhythm to her breathing. I saw her twitch, her eyes rattle beneath closed lids: dreams. Though my fingers continued to move they slowed down, as did her breathing. Hours seemed to pass between each note as I went, invisibly, to attention, ready to spring into action at the first sign of trouble.
After an age, I saw it: a tear. Then, she moaned in horror.
“Susan! Wake up!” I grabbed her by the collar, jolting her head to rouse her.
She struggled, still asleep.
My heart cramped. The dream reapers had come, and I had no idea what to do. I picked her up by her shirt and shook her.
Her eyes opened slightly, rolled back in her head.
“Come on, Susan! Stay with me!” Panicking, I shook her more violently, knowing that it would mean nothing – she would feel only the slightest movement.
Then she woke up fully and pushed me away, running to hang over the wall of the gazebo, coughing. “Took long enough,” she said.
“What was it? Were they coming for you?”
“No,” she said, still leaning awkwardly over the rail. “Everybody else. Everybody I loved. Little Kylie, my father, all dragged kicking and screaming away from me. Nothing I could do.”
I put a hand on her shoulder, and she put hers on it. “I'm here for you.”
“We're all alone here." Tears flowed over the corners of her full, brown lips. “We can take comfort in each other, but there's nothing anybody can do for us.”
I turned her around and set her back to a pillar. “At the Agency, they told us, relying on our fellow agents made us weak. But individualism didn't make us powerful; it made us vulnerable. To the enemy, to all our enemies.”
Susan knitted her eyebrows together, but they rose at the center. Th stern set of her jaw came with clenched teeth.
Susan faked a hard look, but only managed to show fatigue. That state either hardened an operative, or drove her into disaster. I wanted nothing more than to take that away, to chase away her demons, deliver her home. In that moment, the words formed in my heart, against my will, even as I denied them: Please, God, take me instead.
“I will follow you into Hell itself.” I touched her shoulder to stop her, as she reached the first stair in front of the chapel. “But I am begging you: abandon this quest.”
“I can't.” Susan brushed my hair out of my face. “It would kill me to give up now.”
Giving up false hope is a terrible process. I have been there many times. “But I can bring you back from there.” The hardest part is admitting that it needs to be done.
“I'm sorry.” She laid her hand on my cheek. “I don't have your faith, and I'm about to break. I have to be rescued.”
“It's easier than you think. You're just scaring yourself.”
She paused, staring into my eyes. “You don't have to come with me, Lou.”
“Yes, I do.”
“I know.” With a sad smile, she dropped her hand, turned and walked in the door.
Karlen nodded as we sat down. We were the last to come. Nobody said a word. The parishioners all bowed their heads, and mumbled their petitions, then rested, looking about. The first angelic had fiery ginger hair. As we ran, the door bent wide open for us all to pass at once and we were off, gazelles ahead of wolves.
Sheep herded by dogs.
We ran like mad, all to our own private corners of this world, leaping over giant boulders and scrambling up sheer cliffs. The run had an eerie feel as I chased Susan, spurring her on. I felt none of the ordinary rules applied—a crazy thought in a world of smoke and mirrors. My nemesis seemed stronger, more certain than any before. Each step brought us closer to the teeth of our fate. I lost all sense of time as I focused on each passing second.
At last, Susan faltered. It looked like a stone grew up out of the ground and sent her sprawling, rolling in the shimmering red grass, face to face with her hunter. I was probably ten feet past her before I turned to see. The angelic hovered above her, passed over her already. Her eyes seemed riveted to mine, but still, I had to be sure, had to take action.
The words formed in my mouth before my head. “By God, you will take me instead!” I locked my gaze onto hers like a fool, and stood, ready to embrace whatever punishment God had in mind for me, rather than let Him take the one gift He ever sent me. I was not enchanted, not ensorcelled or enspelled. It felt like I had hypnotized the angel that came for me.
I didn't flinch as she swooped into me, lifting me in her sweet, soft embrace, away from Susan and through the roiling, orange clouds above. I looked down with regret as I realized the truth. I saw Susan grab the lantern, point it in my direction, and dash it to bits. She never let it shine.
When the angel set me down, I saw a doorway. A golden veil of neither water nor fire, with properties of both, sat in a wall of pearly bricks with golden mortar. Knee deep in clouds, I stood in midair, weightless. Behind me, the white river of mist continued for several yards before dropping off. I shook my head in disbelief.
Turning back to the edge, I looked down to see Susan, on her knees, crying. I could hear her, despite being so far away. “Lou, I'm so sorry. If only I hadn't been so selfish, if only I had honored your one request. Well, I will now. No more runs for me.”
“Oh, no,” I mumbled. “What have I done?”
A deep, resonant voice answered. “All is as it should be. You have begun your journey.” The veil in the gate rippled as the voice spoke.
I stared at the gate.
“Now, you must enter.”
“No! I can't leave her. I've got to tell her, help her, bring her with me.”
“She will rise in her time,” the gate replied. “You must now honor your own journey.”
“I'm going back down there.” I never looked away from Susan, still kneeling in the dust. “I will bring her back, kicking and screaming.”
“You cannot,” the gate stated. “She is sovereign. The decisions must be her own.”
I ran to the edge, only to find that the cloud continued to hold me even as I ran beyond where it should end. “It's hopeless,” I cried, slamming down on my hands and knees and rolling about for a moment before finally righting myself.
“Hope remains, always.”
“You have to say that. You're on the side of the angels.”
“Your hope lies forward, beyond my veil.”
“No. You can't make me,” I said.
“You are right,” The gate replied. “I cannot; would not. You only benefit by choosing the veil.”
I neither understood nor cared about the voice's preaching. “How do the angelics get down there?”
“They await the call.”
“If Susan prays for me, then I can visit her?”
“You must not. Think how the angels have frightened her. Strangers. How much worse might you do, if you answered her call.”
“'Must not.' That means, I can.” I nodded, smug in solving the riddle, and crawled to the edge, looking down on Susan. “Then I wait.”
“Peter's right, you know.” Morgen appeared from nowhere. This time, I could see the horns, tasteful little brown and black thorns nudging his hairline.
“Peter?” I asked, thoughtless.
“Don't be a rube,” Morgen said, indicating the door. “Congratulations on solving the riddles.”
He was leaning against the wall, so I balled up my fist and eyed him.
“Ooh, yes,” Morgen said, nodding at my fist with genuine approval. “Maybe this isn't the gate you really want? There is a dark door, a path of vengeance. I would be delighted to deliver you there.”
I forced my fist to relax. “I didn't solve any riddles. I just couldn't lose her.”
“Well, you lost her good,” Morgen said, disappointed. “She's determined never to see this place. You can't make her. You can't even talk to her. Why don't you just mosey through Peter's veil before I lose my lunch?”
“That's what you want me to do, isn't it?”
“Oh, Hell, no,” Morgen said, slapping me on the back. “I love to see a soul in misery. It's my only joy.”
“Then what do you want?” If he could slap me on the back, then could I hit him? My knuckles itched to find out.
“I came here to expedite this fool's errand you've got in mind.” He smiled like a crazed clown, and stood there.
“I'm hurt you wouldn't help me down there, but I forgive you. Say the word, and I'll tell her to make the prayer you're waiting for.”
“I must protest,” the portal guardian said.
“Can it, Peter,” Morgen said. “This is between us.”
My stomach warned me to listen to Peter, but it might be the only way. “I don't know.”
“You don't know when this offer might be revoked. Then where will you be?” he taunted. “I'll guarantee five minutes... after that, it's whatever I feel.”
“Lucifer's advice surely warns you away from his plan,” the gatekeeper stated. “Remember, you are sovereign; nobody can tell you what to do.”
I scoffed in disgust at both of them, but Morgen had the only game in town. “What are you going to say to her?”
“I'll tell her she can pray for you, and that she will get you.”
“What's the catch?”
Morgen laughed, a frightening tone. “It's going to be me that tells her.”
I knew then that Peter the Gatekeeper was right; my mission was doomed. But I still believed one lesson the Agency taught: many the day has been saved by a doomed agent on a hopeless mission. “Do it.”
“Gotta love you self-destructive sons of Belial!” Morgen smiled, pushed the horns back into his forehead, and vanished.
“You don't have to answer,” The gatekeeper said.
“Stuff it, Pete,” I said.
“You cannot lift her up, if you let her drag you down.”
I count only two ways to mark time at the gateway. I could track my footsteps, which soon became like the drips of the water-torture routine, so I decided to stay still. The better measure was to count the daily flights of the angels. A thousand missions of mercy for each soul rescued. I maintained my stakeout in stony silence as two hundred sixty seven souls walked, or were carried, past the gateway.
One day an old man stood at the doorway, and he looked at me.
“You're Lou, ain't you,” he said. “That fool what got his self saved throwing in Susan's way.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Stubbornest jackass ever I saw, that girl. You know, she built a statue to you.”
“You don't say.”
“I do. Preaches against the run with a passion like none you ever saw. Got quite a few converts, too. But we all slip away, sooner or later.”
“What you think you're going do? The only going is forward...”
“I can't. It's against everything I stand for.”
His big, dark eyes stared at me for a moment. “Reckon you gotta do what you threw in for,” he said, sadly.
After a few moments, he walked in closer and whispered, “This punishment: it as bad as you feared?”
I looked away.
“Well, each his own,” he huffed. “Be seeing you, when you rejoin your senses.”
The old man walked into the fiery veil.
Twenty seven souls later I saw a face that burned my nerves to the core. Her face resonated like only one other. Her hair curled madly about and covered her eyes, but they were the same. She had her mother's eyes.
“Kylie.” I said.
“Lou.” Susan had told her about me. She looked at the portal. “Is that Heaven?”
“I guess so.”
“Why didn't you go?”
“I can't give up on her.”
“You must have loved her very much.”
In answer, I touched her arm at the elbow. She returned the gesture. There seemed nothing to say. “Goodbye, Lou.”
Kylie stopped, and waved at me, or motioned me to follow, before disappearing into the veil.
Another fifty one souls passed before I heard the gatekeeper's voice. “Lou.”
“Can you feel it? Your bridge is ready.”
I reached out with my feelings. I do not know how many times Morgen hounded Susan's private moments, but it worked. I felt it. She had prayed for me – silently, in the quiet sectors of her heart, never out loud; her vow had been far too important for that. I would have heard. But in time, her heart's desire had reached out to mine and formed a bridge.
“Leap. Make the decision.”
I walked to the brink, looked down on that strange world, and decided. As I did, something within me moved, and I fell. I felt, for an instant, like I was riding in the heart of my blue eyed raven, and then I landed, softly, before Susan.
“Morgen told me you would come,” she said. “Thought he was lying.”
“I don't think he can lie.”
She ran up and hugged me. “I'm so sorry. What did they do to you?”
“It's not like that,” I said, holding her in my arms. “The angelics, they're the real deal. Angels, bona-fide angels of mercy, not judgment.”
She pushed me away, a look of horror on your face. “Oh, my God, you're one of them. An angelic, sent to entrap me.” She grabbed a lantern, then thought better of it.
“No, Susan, please.”
“It's so beautiful, to see your face, even if it is a lie. Will you stay, for a while?”
“Susan, please. Come with me.”
“You don't understand the guilt. It's more than one soul can carry."
I stood there, my heart filled to overflowing.
She turned her back on me. “If only I had listened, if only I hadn't been so....”
“It was me that was selfish. I couldn't bear to lose you; the thought was so harsh that I threw myself...”
“Well, I'll never make that mistake again. I will stay here; I will hold the line against Morgen and his horde of avenging angelics. I will do what is right, just like you did. Like, uh, Lou did.”
“Oh, Susan, no–you don't understand. All you have to do is trust, and we will help you. If not me, another. Just ask, just take hope.”
Then she flicked on the Lantern, and saw me in my soul's pattern, black with blue and red streaks, a small reflection of her statue. “So, it just shows what Morgen wants us to see.” She pounded it against the statue until it crumbled to bits.
“It is a lovely statue.”
She dropped her head, and bit her lip. “Really? What are you trying to do to me? Soften me up?”
“I'm trying to help you.”
“That's nice. Can you bring Lou back? Can you ease my guilt or give me some kind of closure, some kind of meaning?”
“You have nothing to feel guilty about.” I put my hand on her shoulder.
She knocked my hand away. “Don't touch me!"
I stepped back a half step.
“It won't work!” She took a deep breath, and calmed herself. “I've been sparring with Morgen for, I don't know how long. You can't even compare.”
“You really have nothing to feel guilty about. The angelics are the real deal. You have got to believe me!”
“I do, do I? What I have to do is remain strong, to save these people from temptation, like you – like Lou did.”
“Susan, I mean it. You're in a very dark place, but I, if you let me, I can bring you back from there.”
For an instant, her features softened, then she bristled with rage. She fought my words with every fiber of her being. She shoved me. “Get out of here,” she said, slapping me in the chest. “Get away from me. Leave me alone! For the love of God, get out of here!”
The entire world shimmered. I felt the wind rise around me, as the connection crumbled. It was like looking at her through a wavy glass, and she seemed farther and farther away. My feet left the ground and I floated helplessly to the sky.
As her decree pushed me away, I could see her fear shift focus, from the fear of trusting me, to the fear of losing me. “Come back soon!” she cried.
“Pray for me!” I said, floating farther away. “I will come when you call!”
Each time Susan dismissed me, by the gateway I waited, for her to call again. I could no longer tell if she called me for comfort or torment; at times, I thought she must seek both. Morgen had twisted our own personal power against us. Yet each time I remained, to wait for her. I lost count around the time of the ten thousandth soul to cross over in front of me.
That final time.
“Deny her call,” Peter repeated. “No good can come from this misplaced faith she has in you, until you do.”
I looked down, and I looked at the veil. “What awaits me on the other side? How can it be Heaven without Susan at my side?”
“I don't know,” Peter said. “Only when you arrive, will anybody know.”
“Even God doesn't know?”
Peter, for once, failed to answer a question. I walked to the veil, felt its cool, rippling touch. “Can you guarantee that I will be happy on the other side?”
“Free will. No guarantees.”
I looked back, one long last look. “What is there, then?”
Again, silence. I had to make the decision, and I made it, plunging past the veil.
What I saw shook me to the core: Susan, in front of me, crying, at the foot of her statue. She looked up, and away, afraid to meet my eyes. She blinked away the tears. “I thought you weren't coming. That's not fair. You're supposed to come when I call; you're supposed to torment me in person when I ask for you.”
“This is different.”
“It's no different – just another way of tormenting me.”
“I made it,” I said. “I crossed over. This is supposed to be Heaven.”
“Oh, shut up,” she said. “In the Father's name, I banish thee!”
Nothing happened. “Don't you hear me? God, take him away!”
She walked up to me and touched my face. “Is it really you?” she said, tears filling her eyes. “No more of Morgen's tricks?”
I wrapped my arms around her and held her tight. “No tricks. That I can tell.”
She let her chin sink deep into my shoulders. “I gave up on you,” she said. “When you didn't come, I couldn't wait. I called, I prayed for an angelic.” She held me as tight as she could and cried, for what must have been an eternity. At this point, I do not know if I am supposed to take her to the gate.
I no longer care.