The First Day
I am no neurochemical engine simple and clean
no jellied goo of cells and molecules, impulses and streams
for I am the gaunt spirit in the haunted house
the doomed ghost in the mortal machine
“Go, Drew, go!” Joe Bob shouts from the padded sidelines. He pumps his fist in the air to the tune of Billy Ray’s Achy Breaky Heart, which makes his belly wriggle under Scully’s face on his ‘X-files, The Truth is Out There” t-shirt.
It’s Friday night at the Wilshire. I have a mechanical bull between my legs, a beer in one hand and a stirrup in the other. The crowd is a rolling sea of cowboy hats and bleach blonds, shouting and cheering me on.
“Okay, Bessie,” I slur, patting the leather side affectionately. “You’ve thrown me every Friday since I popped my cherry, but not this time. Not tonight. Do you hear that?!”
“Are you ready?” the pimply bull operator asks in a tired voice.
“Let’r rip!” Joe Bob bellows, smacking the bull-guy on the shoulder. The operator shrugs and turns a little dial. Bessie starts to spin.
“Ride bull, drink beer!” I shout. The first buck is easy, slow. I relax my hips and roll with it. This is going to be cake. A little beer slops out of my glass.
“Ride bull, drink beer!” Joe Bob echoes.
“Ride bull, drink beer!” I repeat like a mantra. I bring my beer to my mouth when the second buck slams into my rear. The mug catches me on the nose and splatters beer all over my face.
“Beer shower!” Joe Bob shouts.
“Beer shower!” I mime, spluttering through blood and beer. I hope my nose isn’t broken.
“Ride’r, Drew. Ride’r hard!” Joe Bob yells.
The third buck throws me a little sideways, but I’ve still got my beer and my bull. A sloppy part of me notices there’s one last slug in my mug. I aim my lips for it. A small part of me realizes this is one of those moments that I shouldn’t be thinking like a drunk. The rest of me aims for beer.
“Ride beer, drink bull!” I shout happily.
“Ride beer, drink bull!” Joe Bob shouts.
“Ride beer, drink bull!” the crowd replies.
Bessie turns and reverses her spin. My stomach flip-flops and threatens to cut loose but I’m not paying attention. My lips reach towards my mug. With a exultant thump, Bessie hurls me into the air. A few bitter drops touch my lips and I smile in triumph.
The air is so clean, so cold. I have only a moment to swallow my victory. Then the ground smashes into me.
The crowd roars in laughter. Everything is spinning as I lie on the padded sidelines, blood running from my nose, beer in my hair.
“It was so worth it,” I mumble into the nougahyde.
Joe Bob lumbers out onto the pads and hauls me to my feet. Joe Bob’s six feet tall and at least two-fifty of towtruck-driving meat and blubber. He has a Mac truck baseball cat, bushy black sideburns and moustache. He studies rocket science at the community college because he have the money to go to Nashville or a real university. When he’s not drinking with me he’s staring at his telescope imaging life all the way out there, and he’s been my best friend like forever.
“Ride beer, drink bull, buddy,” he says, chuckling. “Good try.”
“One more time,” I reply. “One more time.”
“No way, Drew, you’re done for the night,” Joe Bob says. He uses my shirt tail to wipe the beer off my face.
My cell phone rings. I try to get it out of my pocket a few times, then Joe Bob sighs and fishes it out for me. He puts it to my ear.
“Adrien?” A smoky voice says.
“Call me Dr. Sanborn,” she hautily replies.
“You should come to the hospital right away.”
I look down at my legs. I don’t think they’re getting me anywhere anytime soon. Joe Bob shakes his head.
“Sure, why not?” I slur.
The Neurology Intensive Care Unit at East Tennessee Baptist is white and cold, even though the room is always kept at twenty degrees Celsius. It’s no longer called the Coma Ward, but that’s what it is. Rows and rows of people hooked up to softly blinking machines, waiting to wake up. And me.
I have a towel around my neck and an icepack on my nose. Sobriety is creeping up my legs and infiltrating my brain. It tells me I’m gonna be one gigantic hurt in the morning.
The plaque on the door says Dr. Mila Sanborn, MD. Chief of Neurology. Mila sits back in her leather chair and flips opens my file. The file is filled with consult forms, CAT scans, EEGs, MRIs. Every test known to man.
“Your psych profile,” she says, pulling out a typed sheet.
Dr. Mila Sanborn is regal and sluttish, with long loose greying hair and a strong jaw. I first saw her on the back cover of her book Magnets and Memory, number seventeen on the NY Times Bestseller list. I have a problem with memory. If it’s one thing that could get me out of the Wilshire on a Friday, it’s an answer to my memories.
She reads the consult through bone-rimmed glasses. She pushes her glasses up her nose and clucks her tongue in that annoying way she does when she’s frustrated.
“Hmm,” she says.
“I’m not crazy, am I?” I ask in a nasal voice.
“Your…extraneous…memories are not internal dissociations or psychosis,” she replies.
“Mila, this is Adrien. I don’t speak Martian.” I say.
“You’re not crazy. You may be receiving transmissions from little green men.”
I hold my head. “Arrgh.”
Mila flips my file closed with a flourish, gets up, and leans across the desk from me. Her face is inches away from mine.
“The brain is a strange thing, Adrien dear. Its not just a lump of grey meat that transmits electricity. It’s more.”
If only she knew.
I remember hot lights burning down on me. It was the Lighthouse Café in San Francisco, and the crowd was jazzing to the cool honey tones of my tenor sax. Jack Kerouac smoked a cigarette in the back row. He wore a dirty plaid shirt, and his eyes had the lazy sheen of morphine. I finished my set with a twitter and a honk and bowed my head, sweat pouring down my face.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the MC shouted, “Give some love for Cameron Grey, the hottest sax in nineteen sixty eight!”
Which is impossible because my name is Adrien Priest. I’m a file clerk from Kentucky, and I was born in sixty nine. I live in a tiny house with pink plastic flamingos in the front yard, carpool to work with the same guys I happy hour at the Wilshire Pub, and fish on the weekends. I can’t have those memories but I do. I’m pretty sure I’m not crazy. So I’ve been seeing Mila as a patient for the last few months.
Mila crosses around the desk and stalks towards me. I back up, back way up, because I know what’s going to happen next.
“Now I get it. You didn’t call me on a Friday night to go over test results, did you?”
“Clever boy. Come here my dear,” she beckons me with a crooked finger. Mila is as fascinated with my body as she is my mind. Something about abnormal brains turns the greying doctor into a feral Siamese.
There are bloodstains on my shirt and I smell like sour beer.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Grr,” she purrs, making little cat claws with her hands.
“Aw, don’t do the cat thing, jeez.”
Mila stalks forward. I step back into a patient’s bed.
“What about her” I reply, feeling a little bashful next to the crinkly little lady in the white sheet, attached to tubes and wires.
“Oh, Mrs. Lubowski? She can’t hear you,” Mila says with a dismissive wave, unbuttoning the top button of her blouse. “She’s been coma for the last forty years. Just look at her.”
Mrs. Lubowski is a white body in a white sheet surrounded by white machines and white walls, the only color a tiny gold heart-shaped locket around her neck. A plastic tube in her neck feeds her breath, and IVs snake in her arms to give her fluids and nutrients. She’s a local legend, a woman who’d been in a coma in the same bed for forty years. She’s our own little Rumplestilskin who will never wake up. She is a woman with no hope.
But her eyes are open.
Ice blue, cataract-stained eyes, rimmed with gelatinous discharge, stare boldly up at me. I jump back in horror.
“I am looking, Mila. And she’s looking back at me,” I stammer.
Mila looks down and sputters. “Mrs. Lubowski?”.
Mrs. Lubowski sits up with a creaking of old bones. Monitor wires pop off and machines scream their alarms. Mila steps back, awash in shock.
Mrs. Lubowski turns to her, and then to me, her eyes wild with freedom.
“Mrs. Lubowski, you must lie down.”
Mila tries to push Mrs. Lubowski back in bed, but the little old lady resists her efforts.
“Adrien, could you give me a hand here?,” Mila pleads. “Adrien?”
Who is Adrien?
She is talking to me, but I don’t recognize the name.
I look around the room with new eyes. A hospital with white walls. Rows of patients hooked up to machines. A stately doctor in grey and a beefy nurse in green wrestle with an old woman. A strange tableau to wake up to.
I look down at my hands. They are brown and young and strong. My body feels loose, unhindered by age. A good body. I run my hands through my hair as if for the first time.
Whatever awakened Mrs. Lubowski seems to have awakened something in me as well. I am seeing my own life as a biopic on late night television. Adrien Priest, early thirties, college washout, lacksidasical file clerk and perpetual friend, enamored of greasy spoon cuisine and mechanical bulls, loved by many but known by few. I might as well be reading a chart on myself. Whatever I am, Adrien is only a small part of it.
A Twix candy wrapper pokes out of Mila’s bag. I snake it, peel it open, and pop a chocolate covered cookie in my mouth.
“Mrs. Lubowski, you need to sit back down!” Mila bellows. “Hey! Dennis! I need some restraints here.”
Dennis, a sweaty armed dude in inappropriate pink scrubs, pulls out some leather cuffs and tries to put one on her arm.
Mrs. Lubowski refuses to comply. Her entire body trembles with the effort of moving. Her right arm flaps out like a living thing with a separate goal, and that was to escape the emaciated body it was attached to. The left still lay limp. She speaks, or really forms her cracked lips around silent words.
Mila, Dennis and two other nurses surround Mrs. Lubowski. Each have a leather restraint in their hand.
Dennis pins her left arm. Like a snake, it slithers away. The part of her brain that controls its movement had been destroyed years ago by the stroke. It is a creature of its own.
She pushes against them with the right side of her body. Dennis flies back and tumbles over an IV tray. Mila bounces off a wall. Ms. Lubowski’s strength and will are amazing. She keeps the staff at bay with half a body while summoning the concentration to finish her sentence. The left arm continues to flop around like a fish.
Her rheumy ice-blue eyes darken. Blue shifts to violet.
When someone moves towards Twilight, the eyes change in a different way. Ice blue darkens to hard metal indigo. Soft brown hardens to black. A Doppler shift. When a celestial body is moving away from you, the waves appear longer, so they shift towards the red. When a body is hurtling towards you, the waves seem shorter and thus towards the blue. Twilight is a blueshift.
She is not moving away. She is coming closer.
I casually perch the second cookie stick between my teeth like a cigarette while I amble over to the chart rack and open Ms. Lubowski’s chart. It reads like a library of death and disease, thicker and bloodier than a Tolstoy novel.
The first page was from 1969, when she collapsed during a demonstration. She was put in the hospital for a stroke. Her hospital stay was complicated by pneumonia and sepsis. Five months later, she had another stroke and was completely paralyzed.
She fell into a persistent coma. During her vegetatitive state, she had suffered from infections of her lungs, kidneys, and heart. Each time she was meticulously treated and cared for until she recovered, but she never awoke. Her bowel had been obstructed and then atrophied from lack of solid food. Her muscles dwindled away, her bones brittle. Bedsores leaked pus onto the sheets.
Her doctor had done everything he could, except let her die. He was one of the old school that didn’t believe of end-of-life rights. He had the power to keep her body alive so he did so, without real thought of the consequences. He had retired three years ago to a beach in Fort Lauderdale. She had no living family, no friends that could be contacted, so her care fell in between the cracks. She had been waiting to die, and refused to comply.
Mila had inherited her a few years ago. For the first few months she had tried everything. Amphetamines. Cold water baths. Electroshock therapy. Then she gave up, like her predecessors before her.
A ventilator inflated Ms. Lubowski’s lungs every four seconds. A tube in her stomach fed her nutrients. She was like a plant, a vegetable in the purest sense. She was fed and watered and hoped to die. We had the power to keep her alive but not the wisdom to let her go.
Her right arm pushes away a skinny resident. He stumbles backwards and knocks over a cart full of medications. The staff scrambles away to help him up. Meanwhile, Ms. Lubowski sits up completely. With her right hand, she grabs the trach tube in her neck and rips it out. Blood runs down her gown as she looks up at me.
I lock her gaze and her history spills out in my mind’s eye. Before the stroke, she had been a schoolteacher. One the first to try to end segregation in Tennessee. The KKK burned crosses on her lawn, kids threw stones through her windows, fellow teachers avoided her as she were possessed. Both her sons had died in wars: first WWII, then Korea. She had always been a pariah, a woman of vision. She looked right at me and I saw the fire that had sustained her for almost a hundred years.
“You. Help me up.” She says.
I wipe cookie crumbs off my face and help her to her feet. She is a little wobbly. The trembles in her left side ceased. Slowly, surely, with her left hand, she touches my face.
Mila looked at Ms. Lubowksi, then at me, aghast at the sudden calm.
“What is your name?” she asks.
“Don’t worry about that, Miss Lubowski,” I say. I have had many names, Adrien and Cameron and others, but I sense none of them are the truth.
“Call me Victoria,” she asserts, and shakes my hand.
When she learns my real name, she might not be so friendly.
I get home late to an empty house. The flamingos look like their sleeping in the dark. I crack open the front door as if for the first time, flip on the light and look through the ruins of a life.
Dirty socks on the floor. Unwatched Netfliks DVDs on the TV.
Inside the closet is a shoebox taped with duct tape. I pull the tape off and photos inside fly everywhere like escaped doves.
I let them lay where they fall, standing in the middle of a life. Photos of fighting fires as a reservist with Joe Bob. Sailing on the lake with Eileen. On the bull at the Wilshire.
I flip open Adrien’s cell phone and press 911.
“Hello?” the operator answers.
The gas can burbles as I spread gasoline liberally across my former life. I drop the phone in the middle and light a match.
“Hello, are you okay?” the operator calls out.
I drop the match.
The Second Day
…I remember standing in front of a microphone at the steps of Sproul Hall in Berkeley. Banners of tattered cloth, young men and women in tie dye and full of hope stand in front of me. “Out of Palestine”, “Free Lenny Miller”, “No troops in Cambodia”
The microphone squawked feedback. National Guard troops stood at the edge of Bancroft, rifles in their hand. A woman with cornstarch hair whispered in my ear.
“Just talk to them, Cameron. Make them understand.”
“Don’t be afraid. They’re people, just like us,” I said into the mike, trying to catch their eyes, soothe their fears.
Then the tanks rolled forward. The water cannons started to spray, then the screams…
I try to hold onto the memory but it leaps from my fingers like a half-forgotten dream.
This morning I found myself drawn back to the ICU at Eastern Baptist. I have spent the morning sitting at Ms. Lubowski’s bed, watching her sleep. The staff bustles around me, oblivious to my presense, because I won’t let them see me.
Mila had warned Ms. Lubowski that going back to sleep was dangerous. She pleaded with her patient take stimulants in order to stay awake until they could safely determine that she would not drop back into the coma. Ms. Lubowksi refused and slipped into graceful rest.
Three specialists have come in from Nashville, a neurologist, a neurosurgeon and a intensivist. They form a tribunal in the corner of the room. They pore over her chart, her CAT scans, her EEGs, trying to determine the nature of her miracle. They pull at their beards and use big words to try to decant order from mystery. She frightens them.
She frightens us all.
Her skin is looking pinker today. The bedsores stopped oozing. Perhaps it is a trick of the light, but her flesh seemed fuller. The valleys between the bones of her hand seemed as if they were filled again. It is if she had awakened from her own decrepitude.
She speaks without opening her eyes. “Don’t think I don’t know what happened. A woman knows.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“About the coma. That I’ve been sleeping for forty years,” she says, opening her eyes and turning towards me.
She laughs and pats my hand with a trembling arm. She seems so peaceful.
“It must be a hell of a thing, Miss Lubowski—“
“—Victoria, to wake up like that after thirty years,” I say. “If I were you I’d be in shock. I’d scream. I’d cry.”
“Thirty years…I can’t believe it. They kept me alive just because they had the power to do so, not because it was the right thing.”
I nod. Power and wisdom do not always coexist.
“I feel like it’s still 1969. I know it’s not, but I feel like if I turn on the television I will see reports from Vietnam, or JFK’s face, with Nixon behind him.”
…We waved our banners and shouted, “We will not give in!”. I heard a rumbling which sounded like a division of cavalry but instead it was tanks with water cannons knocked us down. We crammed up against the walls, being pulverized by the water. Then they fired tear gas. My eyes watered but I vowed not to run away. A rough policmean’s hand laid itself on my shoulder, and I remember looking down at a puddle in the wet asphalt, seeing the glittering sun cut into a hundred shards…
“Everyone I’ve ever known is gone now, either dead or moved on. I’m alone.”
“How do you know?” I ask.
She doesn’t answer. She runs a hand through her hair. Thick grey strands fall off in her fingers. “It is a horrible place.”
“The ICU?” I asked.
“No, the coma. It’s a room with no doors or windows. Sometimes, I could feel time passing. I could hear conversations, of doctors, of nurses. One day two of them made love right over this bed, as if I didn’t know. I can still remember the feel of her skin against mine.”
I raise my eyebrows.
“It was probably twenty years ago, dear,” she says, answering my unspoken question. I redden. Mila and I had christened that bed only a few weeks ago.
“I don’t get. Your treatment hadn’t been changed in ten years. Why did you wake up? Why now?”
“I don’t know. I think I’ve come to a sort of a conclusion. An answer. Perhaps I’ve walked all the green paths that we go to when we lay down and I’m tired of walking. Perhaps I’ve simply slept long enough.”
She sighs. “I need to get out of here. To go home. Help me up, will you?”
With the popping of joints like dusty twigs, she sits up in bed again. She leans over and gracefully puts the silly grey hospital socks on her flaking feet.
I turn to look at the ICU staff, expecting the shouting and the melee that would follow. They all seem to be swirling, suspended in slow motion, like cream disappearing into coffee. Time has shuddered almost to a halt.
“What the…” I say, flabberghasted.
“Let them feel what it’s like for a change,” she chuckles, and then coughs up a wad of dry grey phlegm.
I take her hand, and she slips her arm in mine. We amble slowly down the hallway. The hospital staff, the patients, the world is frozen. A bald headed child in the chemo ward throws a ball which hangs midair. A nurse washes her hands, water beads like crystal, suspended in time.
Her easy power is incredible.
She talks as she ambles, “The coma was like that. At times the world would be like a movie, flickering in slow motion. Then it could speed up, and it took years just to get through one day. Then, at times, I would freeze into terrible immobility. I couldn’t tell if days, years, weeks, it was as if time just left me alone for awhile. And yes, there were the dreams.”
“I dreamt of strange things, of donuts with wings, and angels made of old tires that burned with strange fires. I guess that sounds silly, doesn’t it?” she blushes, and immediately looks twenty years younger. “It was a another prison, a horrible prison of colors and sound.”
“I can’t imagine,” I say sympathetically.
We cross the street and made our way down the boulevard at a snail’s pace towards the house on the end of Mulberry Street. Time has found its way again. Onlookers stare over their sunglasses at a young man leading a old woman in a hospital gown.
She cocks an eyebrow at me. “Maybe I’m just a silly old lady, but I think you do understand.”
Indeed I do. Adrien Priest doesn’t, but I do.
Time is the most terrible weight imaginable. To live thousands of years with the same guilts, memories, fears and lusts is simply too much pressure for the mind to cope. We are limited, in a certain sense, by our consciousness. There is only so much that can be experienced, and after awhile, Time’s weight simply overwhelms us.
Some call it the Dreaming. It is an extended madness where we lose ourselves to the demons within us. All of us eventually fall into the Dreaming, sometimes spending centuries wandering in delirium. In that state, we have been called prophets and madmen. Rasputin and Nostradamus, Caligula and Cassandra, to name a few.
The Dreaming doesn’t have to be a delirium. It can be a delight.
The first time I felt the pull of the dreaming I had been conscious for nine hundred years. I was tired. I regressed deep inside myself, in a state of partially suspended animation. My subconscious created a new personality, grew a new person within me. That person lived its life without knowledge that it lived in the body of an immortal, and carried the seed of milennia deep within its subconscious.
My consciousness was suspended in the infinite sink between microwave and infrared. I was just a virus on an electromagnetic wave, a plasma ghost unhabiting my old shell. Like watching a movie. Like birthing a child.
I have seen Adrien Priest grow out of his ‘birth’ as a young man, with prefabricated memories, into the man he is today. He made friends, lost others. Bad choices and good. Picked a life and tried to live it. I’m always nostalgic about seeing them go. In this way, I have been generals and soldiers, constables and thieves, shepards and scientists. I have been the man behind the curtain for so many lives…
There were other advantages. My shell personality had it’s own unique aura. My enemies could not use their powers to find me. The Summers had reason to fear, and the Winters retained hope.
I can no longer count all the people I have been. It’s impossible to describe the feeling, to have been so many people, to have lived so many lifetimes. What was it that the Buddhist said to the hot dog vendor?
Make me one with everything.
The Third Day
Morning light splashes across dusty tiles of the dilapidated kitchen in the haunted house at the edge of town. This is Knoxville, and so when Victoria went into a coma the house was simply left to rot. The family fortune was funneled into the machines that had kept her alive, eventually dwindling away, but the old house was never sold. They just called it the old house on Mulberry Lane.
The timbers, long eaten by termites, groaned and creaked with each changing of the seasons. Windows had been broken long ago. Sparrows chittered in the overgrown willows that surrounded the lot. Like Victoria, the house had aged while Knoxville had grown up around it.
This morning I had swept up the broken glass, cleaned up the kitchen a little bit, restarted the old refrigerator, did a little shopping, and tried to make the place livable again. My cellphone kept vibrating while I was playing house. Joe Bob left four messages, Mila three. I didn’t bother to check them.
Victoria ambles down the main staircase with cantankerous grace and a radiant smile.
“Let me cook you breakfast, my dear,” she says. “As a reward for your chivalry.”
Victoria is a terrible cook but a charming hostess. Her eggs are wet, her toast dry, and her coffee tastes like bark. She uses far too much salt. Worse, every time she spills salt, which was not infrequently, she would toss more salt over her shoulder.
I read from the paper to her, brushing salt out of my hair. She doesn’t
listen to me so much as she watches me, the wrinkles of her face softened through the coffee steam. Her presence keeps me here, vibrating, blue shifting myself into the hot infrared. I am sucked in by the magnetic pull of smothered passion.
A Palestinian suicide bomber killed fifteen in a pizzeria in Jerusalem. The Israeli response was to capture the Palestinian headquarters, the Orient House, killing soldiers and civilians in the process. The Palestinians were enraged to see the Israeli flag flying in their territory. Fifty more swore to be suicide bombers on the spot.
NATO approved a partial deployment of peacekeeping troops to Macedonia. Ostensibly, they came to disarm the Albanian rebels, who had been fighting against the Serbs to stop the ethnic cleanings that had taken place in the former Yugoslavia for five years.
In her world, JFK and Jackie sip Mint Julips in June springtime in Camelot. Demonstrations rage across Berkeley demanding free speech for all. Kent has been desegregated, Korea has been liberated, the Cold War and Vietnam are hot and Afghanistan is not.
In her world, Smallpox has been eradicated and all infectious diseases are going to be cured. In our world, Tuberculosis, hepatitis and AIDS are on the rise.
I try to explain to her so many of the good things: the rise of the Internet and global consciousness, environmental protection, civil rights for gays and minorities. She doesn’t understand. She doesn’t want to understand.
In her world, when something isn’t right, you change it. In our postmodern world of infinite interconnections, we realize that to change one thing means changing everything, and meddling usually causes more trouble than it solved. Making new antibiotics creates resistant strains of bacteria that were nastier than ever. Throwing out one dictator means another one took his place.
“Nothing has changed,” she says. She folded her wrinkled white hands on the table, peppered with liver spots.
“I have spent my entire life trying to bring right to the world, but I’ve never been strong enough,” she says. She looks down at her hands, the hands of an old woman.
“You were always strong, Victoria. You never gave up, and you were an inspiration for your students and everyone around you…You remember little Ricky Konstandikos? He’s a senator now in Milwaukee. Your students have gone on to become doctors, teachers and leaders….”
“Also car thieves, lawyers and alcoholics, I’m sure.”
“You can’t win them all. But you tried, and you cared, and in the end, I believe that’s what matters.” It is hard to imagine such strength in such a withered body, just a bundle of sticks that smells faintly of molded flowers.
“Most of them are probably old or dead by now. Dead, and all their enthusiasm is dead as well. My sons are dead, my ex-husband long dead, all of my friends dead and lost. My house is empty. I have a new life, and no one to share it with.”
I butter a piece of dry toast to within an inch of its life to give it flavor, then hand the knife to Victoria.
“You have me,” I said.
She looked down at my hand. “Giving someone a knife can cut a friendship. You should know that.”
I laugh, pure and strong.
“You must think I’m a superstitious old lady,” she chuckles.
“So give me a penny for it and I’ll stay.”
“Not for long, dear. You won’t stay long. You’re on the run.”
I don’t ask how she knew, or try to deny it. I just nod.
“I’ve awoken in a new world, alone,” she says sadly.
“I know how you feel.”
“Of course you do. I see your light. You can use that light to change the world. Make people understand what a gift that this life is. Make them love each other.”
“You can’t make people do anything, Victoria. What you’re talking about is exactly the thing that I’ve fought against my entire life. People have the right to choose.”
“There has to be a way.”
I can’t do anything but look at her face. Her tiny, sticklike body is lit with emotion and energy. She is reborn, and she wants to share it with the world. She reminds me of myself, so many years ago. I am in love. I know it, and I think she knows it as well. She is a relic of the past, frozen for an age and then revived again fresh and rejuvenated. Like me. She is a hundred year old woman who had lived for only sixty years, and I am a three thousand year old plasma phantom living in the body of a meat puppet.
A magpie lands in a treebranch outside and cawed raucously. She glimpses it and then looks back at me with mischievous eyes.
“One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl,” she intones.
“Four for a boy,” I say, against my better judgment.
“Five for silver,” She replies.
“Six for gold…”
“Seven for a secret, Never to be told,” she answers. “You still haven’t told me your name.”
My name is unimportant. It changes from time to time, in different places and different guises. I'm not so arrogant as to think of myself as eternal, but I've been around for a long time. I was born when mankind just started to crawl out of his tents and take a fresh look at the world.
I’ve been called a god, an angel, and a demon, but I’m none of those things. I'm not immolated in fire or living on Olympus or racing around the underworld on a chariot of shadow. I am a creature of blood and bone and desire. I spend most of my time in libraries and cafes, in hospitals and hotels and offices. I make mistakes and I learn from them. I've been on the battlefield and in the bedroom, and I'm smart enough to know which to prefer.
I am not all-powerful as you might think. I understand how to use the Light, but I prefer a nine millimeter to summoning fire, and I’d rather use Internet than a scrying pool. My race does not grow decrepit with age or disease, but we can be killed. Mostly by each other.
My race calls itself the First. Millennia before Einstein, Bose and Heisenberg descovered the quantum nature of reality, we had learned to tap the Light for our own uses. Matter and energy were games we played as children, time and causation were tools for contemplation. We broke the curve of spacetime to suit our needs, bent geometry and used sacred math to weave the world in our image. We were arrogant enough to believe ourselves to be gods. We certainly convinced Man. There have been thousands of holy books written about us. Even me.
At the dawn of civilization we ruled man by influence, by signs and portents and omens. Holy men interpreted our messages and spread them to the people, rulers waited breathless for our signals. With our benevolent guidance, we helped the young race get on its feet and learn about the world around it. We were the invisible hand that crafted a society from scattered tribes of barbarians in the forest.
However, eventually every child must learn to survive on its own. Three thousand years ago, I tried to convince the First that mankind had grown into adulthood, and should be free to set its own course of salvation or destruction. Free will.
Many of the First disagreed with me, and believed that mankind still needed our help to stay in an eternal Summer. The others that followed me were called the Winters. Disagreement became anger, and words quickened to action. There was a mistake, as all wars are started, and we turned against each other.
We lost the battle, myself and the Winters. Our rebellion failed, and we were cast from the fold. As is the case with all losers, we were written as the villains of history. Now I’m a guerilla fighter against the Radiant Host, a revolutionary hymn in the Worldsong, a thorn in their side that prevents them from moving with impunity. Mostly, I’m just a scapegoat for all of the evil that happens in the world. When a child dies, when a crop goes bad, whenever evil is done, I am blamed. My name is spoken as a curse in a thousand languages.
Now I remember everything. I know who I am.
To the native Americans I was Coyote, Raven, or Snake. To the Europeans I was Reynard the Fox. In Africa I was called B’rer Rabbit. I have been Loki to the Norse, Enki to the Sumerians, Socrates to the Greeks. I have been the Monkey King and Saint Sebastian. So I don't go by those names anymore.
Just call me Lucifer.
The Fourth Day
Sun glancing off the floorboards tickles my eyelids. I get up off the couch, stretch, and pad across the floor to the kitchen. Pour a glass of orange juice, take a big sweet gulp right from the bottle, and stretch enormously. I love to feel the muscles warming up for the coming day. Love the tang of orange across my tongue.
I grab a big handful of birdseed from the cupboard, pad out to the porch. I plop down in the rocker on the porch. I scatter birdseed, sipping at my OJ. Sparrows and pidgeons swoop down. Their little heads bob up and down happily.
A magpie lands on the bannister, too arrogant to join the feast. He eyes me. Something’s wrong. The magpie flaps away, cawing.
The moment is over. I raise my hand against the early morning glare. An engine roars and tires screech.
Joe Bob’s F150 tears around the corner. It’s white and peeling in places, with old oversized tires. It hops up onto the curb and grunts to a halt on the lawn. I hear the crank of the emergency brake, and the creak of the shocks as Joe Bob steps out.
I should have known this was coming. He’s too smart to fall for my little pyro trick.
“Drew, what the heck has gotten into you?” he shouts across the unkempt lawn.
“Good morning to you, Joe Bob,” I reply.
“Everyone thought you were dead. I finally figured it out,” he says with a wistful chuckle. ”People still talk about when you stole the governor’s toupee in Nashville. But burning down your own house? Stealing an old woman out of the hospital?”
I fold my arms across my chest and shrug.
Joe Bob climbs the steps to the porch and towers over me until he’s eclipsed the sun. His tepid breath smells of last night’s whiskey. There are black rings around his eyes. For most people around here, that might a fight last night. For Joe Bob, it meant he spent the entire night with his eye plastered to his telescope.
“What’s gotten into you?” he repeats. “What are you up to?”
“I’m okay, Joe Bob. There are some things I’ve got to do.”
He squints his eyes and looks down at me, trying to pry out the truth. He sighs.
“All right,” he slurs, laying a heavy hand on my shoulder. “All right. You just take care of business, Drew.”
“I will, buddy. I will.”
Joe Bob walks back to the F150, shoulders slumped, and drives away. I walk back inside, climb the steps to Victoria’s bedroom.
Victoria has disappeared, and I see a young woman lying on her bed in a bank of new-fallen snow.
When I look closer, I can see that the beautiful girl is Victoria reborn. Her recovery is complete. The hole where a tube had penetrated her neck is gone. Underneath, her new skin is pink and smooth as a baby’s. Her face has lost all of the lines and creases, and taken on its original shape.
The withered old woman that had gone to sleep in that bathrobe has disappeared, the beauty from inside had surfaced and returned to her flesh. The snow is actually flakes of old skin and coarse grey hair, the crysalis of her former self. She is a sweet sixteen reborn.
“Good morning,” I says.
“Every morning is a good morning,” she says, getting up and kissing me on the cheek. She stretches like a cat. I try not to stare at her long bare legs underneath the short nightshirt. She is short, but for some reason she does not look small. Her waist-long golden hair runs down her back and shoulders like a waterfall of dawn sky. She has a fresh open face with a slight nose and rosepetal lips.
“I’m not in the mood to cook. Go out for breakfast?” she asks.
Thank all that is holy.
We walk to a little café I knew a few blocks away. She takes my hand, and leans her head on my shoulder. I feel my heart race, and my mind fumbles for something to say.
Victoria gawks like a tourist at the new storefronts and sleek cars. A man passes who seemed to be talking to himself. I have to point out the Bluetooth reciever on his ear and explain cellular phones.
“The town is completely different now.”
“That building,” she points to a warehouse, “used to be the firehouse. That’s where I met Matt. He looked so handsome in his suspenders and helmet. But we never married, even when I had Lauren. Living in sin was the last straw for me. I was an outcast in Knoxville. So I never tried to fit in after that.”
“About Lauren--” I say.
“--I know. Car accident.” she nods with ancient sad eyes.
She sighs. I don’t bother to ask how she knew.
We turn a corner onto a side street. On the corner is a school of bright red brick, with white columns at the steps. St. Vincent’s Catholic School.
Victoria’s mouth hardens. “And that was the school I used to teach in. Back then, I had first through third grade in the same classroom. After Kent State, I thought I would be brave and try to desegregate my classroom. The whole town flew into an uproar. I wasn’t just an outcast, I was a troublemaker. The kids broke my windows. I got threatening phone calls.”
“This café used to be a truck stop. Maureen was a waitress there. She was one of my only friends.” Victoria sighed. Of course, Maureen was probably dead, or if she were alive, she wouldn’t recognize my beautiful Victoria.
“Now, it’s a yuppie cafe.” I say.
“Yuppie? Is that a kind of dog?”
I laugh. Victoria is wearing my old sweater and shorts. She smiles brilliantly, her eyes laughing with me. She puts her hand on mine, and it feels right. Too right.
“They’re all gone. They’re gone, and I’m here.”
“I have to believe you’re here for a reason. You woke up for a reason,” I eye a waiter passing by a steaming plate of eggs and bacon.
“I’m famished. Want to stop here?”
Victoria looks up at me with those too-bright blue eyes. “Sure.”
“See, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you—“ I say, and then freeze.
I spy Mila’s grey-crowned head in the back of the café. Her body is taut, alert. She turns up her head to look at me, and a spark passes between us. Something more than jealousy. Something older.
I take Victoria by the shoulders and turn us both in the opposite direction.
“On second thought, maybe we should eat in,” I whisper in Victoria’s ear.
I can feel her smile on my cheek.
The walk home is quick and breathless. As soon as I close the door she is already unbuttoning her shirt. I can’t help but stare as she glides towards me. She moves as if she never really needed to touch the ground. I can’t help but notice the subtle movement of her hips beneath the nightrobe, or the rocking of her breasts.
She grips me with frantic strength, her fingers bruising even my protean flesh. Her thighs are like a vice, her need unstoppable. Something about her aching vulnerability unlocks the passion in me. Her kisses are violet sunbursts to my bronze fire, her embrace diamond to capture my ambergris and water.
As we make love, the vines in the garden writhe like a bed of snakes. Soon we are covered in green and living things. I finish quietly, shuddered against her as she murmurs sweetness into my ear.
We lay in the bed, the setting sun sending rays across our naked bodies.
I turn to watch Victoria sleep. As her chest moves in and out, her hair lengthens growing like a vine. The fine down of blond hair becomes a pool. I untangle myself from her, and walk towards the window.
I can see a transformation unfold over the old house at the end of Mulberry Lane. The dirt on the porch clears away. Oil paint peels off to reveal a shiny white coat underneath. The leaves are blown away by a strong wind.
The vines grow everywhere, climb up the walls. They cover the bed and surround Victoria’s sleeping body with a hundred embraces. The Garden of Eden has returned. I pick up an apple from the counter and flip it over in my hands.
Victoria is bright, too bright, a shooting star that can not smolder but must burn across the night quickly and be gone. But even shooting stars have their uses, and I have been waiting for her for a long time.
I look at my reflection in the apple’s shiny red skin. My front teeth crunch into deliciously cold flesh. What role will I play? Will I be Adam, or will I be the serpent?
The Fifth Day
I nurse my morning coffee daydreaming of lives past.
…Cameron Grey became one of the youngest tenured professors in the English department at the University of California at Berekeley. He first got involved in the Free Speech movement to try to pick up girls, but ended up being a key part of the movement.
Cameron used to play the saxophone from his fire escape on Friday nights while the moon raged overhead. The haunting melody shook complacency from his students, who would stare at the ceilings and dream of better tomorrows…
Victoria’s hands on my shoulder bring me back to the present.
“You’ve always been behind their eyes, love, watching and waiting through so many lifetimes. Waiting for the right time.”
I looked up at Victoria with alarm.
“Now I understand what you were trying to tell me yesterday.”
She slid her narrow hips around me and sat on my lap, wearing only one of my shirts that barely fell midthigh.
“I can see inside of you. Lucifer. The morning star, the lightbringer. Greatest of the Radiant Host. Cursed because of pride and love of humanity. Lover of freedom.”
“You’ve been waiting for something. A sign. A gift. Well, I think your prayers have been answered.”
I smirk. “Delusions of grandeur don’t become you, my dear.”
“I can restore your dream. For years I fought against old mores, old traditions. Now I have the power to break them all.”
She takes my head with both hands and turns my gaze towards the garden. The weeds grow in lacy patterns enfolding everything. Life crawls and calls, warbles in the trees, spreads among the fallow. “Like this, the world.”
“You don’t know how many times I’ve heard that, Victoria.”
“Here. Let me show you.” She grabs my hand. I try to pull away, but she is too strong. Keeping her eyes locked with mine, she puts my finger in her mouth, slowly, erotically. A sharp pang of pain, almost like that of regret, and blood wells from my finger. Victoria bites her fingertip; a tiny drop of blood grows.
She puts our fingertips together, and our blood merges. In the swirling reflection of that tiny drop I can see an entire universe being born.
My perceptions shrink down to atomic size. I can see electron probability clouds around nuclei of atoms. Then our focus narrows into an individual electron. I can see an entire universe inside. We shoot into a spinning galaxy of light, shrinking further, until we’re approaching a blue planet orbiting a yellow sun.
Victoria flies beside me in a gown of shimmering white. She reaches out for my hand. I pull away.
“Did you create this?” I ask.
She shrugs childishly. “I’m not sure. Perhaps. Perhaps it always existed and I’m just looking at it.”
She spreads her power and I see a strange green fire flashing across the surface of the planet. Genesis. She is creating a new world.
“Stop!” I shout, “Stop it. This is crazy! You have no right!”
I can’t stop her. I’m not sure she can stop herself.
We are no longer looking into an electron in a drop of blood. Victoria and I fly down to the surface of the planet, watching the plants rise up and the seas fill barren rock. Flowers and trees stretch towards the sun. Animals emerge from the sea and walk on land. I start to see a familiar pattern.
She isn’t making a new world.
She is recreating Earth.
I watch animals growing and changing, adapting to thousands of centuries of new conditions, Darwin’s evolution as a one-act play. Pseudopods become fins, then become legs. Four legs change to two.
As the Earth flashes underneath us, we see modern history reenacted. Civilizations arise. The Mongols charge across Asia. Rome swells and then falls. The bubonic plague ravages, and then the Renaissance springs forth. I see the great societies of the day, the brash and blustery Americas, sedate Europe, tangled and passionate Middle East, contemplative Asia.
We continue to tumble downwards, shooting stars burning on reentry, until we stand on a cloud overlooking New York City. The UN building is a ugly grey slab directly underneath.
We stand on top of today for a sheer still moment.
“Are you ready?” she asks.
A golden flash emanates forth from the center of the UN.
“A moment of clarity, a lifetime of plenty. All have what they need and desire. Leaders step down. Corruption ends. All fields bloom. Hunger ends, disease is forgotten. Possessions become meaningless.”
I shake my head.
“Beware of your wildest dreams, Victoria. I have seen this foretold before by the Summer Host. You want to bring the Rapture.”
The golden light spreads outward like a wave across the world. In its wake is change. Ruin and pain disappear. The air smells of honey and wine. Trees hang heavy with fruit.
“You think you’re the first to try to save the world, dear? Old hatreds will not die easy. Brother will kill brother, and the cycle of death will continue regardless of cause. Even in a perfect world, where everyone has enough, there will always be those who want more. They will form new governments, juntas, crime rings. You can’t excise darkness by getting rid of the reason. Human weakness doesn’t need reason. It’s the curse of free will.”
She counters. “Even the greedy ones can get everything they desire. I will give it to them.”
“Thus the old Chinese curse: may you get everything that you wish for. You try to push them into peace too quickly. You make yourself into a tyrant, a monster.”
“Your way is too slow, old man.”
Suddenly we are sitting in her living room again. Sunlight falls on hardwood floors, the willows creak gently overhead. Her eyes are sad.
“So, this means nothing to you. After all of those years.” She relaxes her fingers, and lets the drop of blood fall to the ground.
“No!” I shout. I thread of Power to stop it’s fall. It hovers in front of me, my own face mirrored tiny in red. I crystallize it into a tiny marble, and put it in my pocket. Safe.
I lock eyes with her. “You little…child! You can’t create something and then just throw it away. You are forever responsible for it.”
Victoria looks stunned. “It’s only…”
“A drop of blood?” I shout. “No, not anymore. Not after what you’ve done.”
Then I feel it. A strain like a migraine shoots across my head. The Radiant Host carrier wave focuses on me. I feel like I’m in the crosshairs. They’ve found me.
“Victoria, we have to go,” I say.
“I don’t have time to explain.” I can feel the static building behind my eyes. They’ve got me pinned like an insect. They’re trying to block me from translocating. They’re coming.
“Well, I’m not going anywhere until you do,” she says, crossing her arms.
I scan around the room for weapons. No machine guns, holy swords or nuclear warheads. Nothing else is really worthwhile in a fight between angels. This is not going to go well.
“Fine. It’s about time you learned of the truth.”
“Yeah,” she replies sarcastically, “What ‘truth’ is that?”
“The world is more than at war with itself. It’s not just the plotting of white-haired men. The greed of humans is not the source of the world’s evil. It is the Summer Host.”
Victoria raised an eyebrow. “I’m listening…”
“The old gods still rule from within. They manipulate, they wait for their turn to enslave humanity, Yahwe the worst among them.”
“Yahwe? You mean the god of the Old Testament.”
“It is only because she still rests in the Rock of Ages that we can even have this conversation. They will come after you. You may threaten everything they believe in.”
I still remember Yahwe’s placid smile. She was naked, arms spread out welcoming, frozen at the tip of the glacier at the tip of the world. Underneath her a thousand Winters trapped in the ice, their faces twisted in silent screams, their wills capturing hers, keeping her in the Dreaming. If she were ever to escape…
“Just because I played Rasputin and came back from my coma. Stranger things have happened…”
“And stranger things will come to pass. I won’t lie to you. I had plans for you, big plans.”
“I know, my dear,” she says. “But I have plans of my own.”
A slender leg kicks the door in. It spins lazily in the corner. Mila stands in the doorway, magnificent in her anger. She has a shotgun cocked on her hip and ancient gunfighter eyes.
“Lucifer, step away from her,” Mila commands in a dark voice.
“Mila, I’ve never seen this side of you before,” I say, eyeing the back door. “I think I like it.”
I should have known that Mila would be involved in this. The Summer Host have always had their syncophants.
“Your honeyed tongue won’t get you out of this one, Lightbringer.”
I knew that her gaze looked familiar. How is it that I hadn’t known for so long? My blood, my brother, my enemy ever since the failure of my rebellion. The hunter.
Gabriel, the archangel who had brought Koran to Mohammed, Gabriel who had been the right hand of Yahwe, stands there in the body of Mila.
“We…you…naked….ew! You’re my brother!”
I shudder. “ I’m open-minded and all, but that’s a bit much even for me.”
Mila restores her self control. “Yes, Lucifer. I don’t know what brought us into the Dreaming together, but somehow we have come here to the same place, for her.”
“Her? You’re not here for me?” I ask. “I’m hurt.”
“Get over yourself, peacock. I’m here for her. The one.”
“No. I don’t believe you. She can’t have escaped.”
Mila shakes her head. “Not in the way you imagine. Before you captured her in the Rock of Ages, Yahwe pulled off a single eyelash and placed it in my keeping. That eyelash grew into a part of her. She was only a shard of the great one, but she has been growing into so much more.”
“I have been watching her for centuries. She grows and dies in the Dreaming like we do. After your last confrontation, she passed into the Deep Dream. Something happened while she was there.”
Victoria clears her throat, hands on her hips, indignant.
“Excuse me, folks, but I’m in the room, you know. You can talk to me.”
Mila turns to Victoria. “Yahwe, my lady, come with me.”
“I’m not Yahwe, Gabriel. My name is Victoria Lubowski and I’m not going anywhere. I have work to do.”
I don’t think I’m going to like this.
“I’m going to save the world,” Victoria says simply. “From idiots like you.”
Mila snarls. “It is as I feared. She has become corrupted living with you. In order to preserve the integrity of the Host, she must be destroyed.”
Mila’s stomach bulges. Victoria and I take a step back.
Mila looks down in horror, and lifts up her shirt. An enormous eye looks up at her. Another eye bubbles out of her chest. She screams until feathers force themselves out of her mouth, extending into enormous wings.
Gabriel has shed his physical body. He is a whirlwind of a thousand eyes and a thousand wings, and he is growing. When he reaches his full magnificence he will be as tall as the sky, with an eye and a tongue for every man and woman on earth, and when one of his eyes closes someone will die.
I can feel the carrier wave grow taut as the Radiant Host arrives. Energy shells expand and invert themselves as sungates open. They boil in pure indigo light, dripping with warped timethreads and cracked probability.
Gabriel. Azrael. Uriel. Greatest of the Seraphim. My brothers, my enemies.
Azreal is a stitch in the world, a black aching rift, a crack into the heat death of the Universe.
Uriel, the Fire of God, is a towering tempest of burning sand. Billowing flames arced out from the blistering rock of the deserts where time began.
“She is too dangerous, brother,” Gabriel broadcasts on the upper cosmic.
“She threatens Summer,” Azreal’s voice is deeper into the ultravoilet, barely visible on the edges of human vision.
“She threatens everything,” Uriel finishes in quick radio pulses.
I reach sideways with my right hand and withdraw Malagar, the ruin of a thousand empires. The black, etched blade had been forged by the Cold Ones aeons before recorded history in a method now lost. My left summons the pale fire of the Withered Sun, a fragment of the words Yahwe used to destroy Soddom and Gomorrah.
“Stand back, brothers. This can only end one way.”
“The Dreaming has unmade you, brother Lucifer. You still are trapped in the flesh. Open yourself to the Light and remember.”
Remember? Remember what?
“Remember,” Gabriel says, and shows me what I have been trying to see.
San Francisco, 1906. Our greatest confrontation, the one that set all of the city alight in its fury. Being with wings crowded the skies. Lightning clashed as Summer was set against Winter.
I absorbed the nascent energy of humanity and stood in front of the fury that was Yahwe. Incredibly, I managed to defeat her. Together, we set Yawhe in the Rock of Ages. Many of my brothers sacrificed themselves to keep her trapped in stasis.
1969, seeing the sun broken as a thousand glittering shards on the wet pavement. I was at Sproul Hall. Winter was reaching the peak of its strength. The concepts of civil rights and free speech were becoming part of the global vocabulary. Summer had been waning ever since the McCarthy era.
The tanks and troops attacked the crowd. I locked eyes with Victoria and through her to the essence underneath.
“I can stop this,” Victoria said.
“You can’t. You have to let it happen,” I said.
“I won’t—“ she said.
She raised a hand glittering with power, and I prepared my defenses. Her first strike lashed out--
Victoria waves a hand and the memories fade.
“I can feel your power,” she says. “I can also feel your fear. You don’t want change. Well, you don’t have a choice anymore. Lucifer and I are going to make the world right.”
The Radiant Host pauses. Victoria looks at me expectantly.
“What?” she cries. “I thought you wanted to change things?”
I shake my head gravely and take a step backwards. Victoria’s eyes flew open in shock.
“I’m sorry, Victoria. I am old enough to remember the ranting of Yahwe as she wanted to enslave the world to make it perfect,” I turn my head to the three perfect storms. “I’m also old enough not to pick a fight I can’t win. Make it easy, brothers.”
The Radiant Host turn their terrible gaze towards Victoria. She takes a step backwards, eyes wide. They shred her nascent shields, wrapping time and causation like a fist.
Victoria screams, clutching her head, as the Radiant Host tries to unmake her. All of the windows in the house shatter at once. My eardrums burst. I fall to the ground, stunned.
Victoria is a newborn sun of energy. I can see now that she is Yahwe reborn.
Victoria shakes off their causal spike and steps forward. She reaches into a single eye of Gabriel, ichor squirting down her arm to the elbow, and twists. With a snap of everything, Gabriel is nothing. The shadow of his presence edges like hot lightning afterimages on the retina of my mind’s eye.
Azreal turns his mind into a spear. He blasts out a stream of horrific images, like an octupus spilling ink. Delicate water lilies and bloated fish corpses in a pond filled with chemical waste. Paint smeared across a canvas by the bodies of young lovers. The bite of a sword through the belly, delivered with the hatred of a brother to his only sister.
Victoria steps bodily into the heart of entropy and forced a crack into it. Reality splintered as her light razed Azreal’s darkness. With the tinkling of shattered glass, the Angel of Death was no more.
Uriel blossoms to twice his former size. My skin cracks at the volcanic fury. He becomes a lava tornado, twisting mean and fast. He turns towards Victoria with a howl of vengence and dove.
Instead of driving him away, she sucks him in. She breathes in the fires of the rock and eats them. The cloud funnels down into her mouth and disappears.
Three of the greatest of the Radiant Host destroyed. Victoria turns her gaze to me.
“Is this what happened forty years ago?” she asks. “Is this how we got where we are now?”
First heartbeat. I open my hand and the shotgun flies into it. I fire three shots, one in the neck, and three in the heart. Each shot a sure kill, yet I was unsure that she could be killed.
None of the pellets reach her. In between milliseconds, the gun had turned into a solid block of crystal. I open my hand to let it fall.
Second heartbeat, I leap forwards and bring Malagar down in a cruel arc. Its sorcerous program was designed to disrupt energy patterns. The runes on the blade drink magic and kill gods.
Victoria catches my wrist in her hand. With a twist of her arm, the bones in my arm shatter.
Third heartbeat, I block the pain and unleash the Withered Sun. Fire burns in my belly. The flames lick up from my mouth and nose. I belch a torrent of lava at her. The inferno plays across her skin like delicate fingers, dancing along her flesh. Her clothes burn off, leaving perfect naked skin.
“That’s quite enough, Lucifer,” she says with the tone of an angry schoolteacher. “I’ve known fear and I’ve known hatred, and sometimes they aren’t one and the same.
“I can feel Yahwe inside me, beating, but I am not her. I can feel the kingdom that you once shared. I can also feel you will never, ever again see the way that I do. You break my heart.”
She kicks me in the chest. I fly backwards into the wall, boneless. My ribs snap like dry twigs, spine twists.
“Now I’ll break yours.”
She walks up to me, glorious in her naked beauty and power. She lifts my limp body with a bittersweet smile. Her tiny hand curls into a fist, and she rams it through the center of my chest.
My heart explodes. The Dreaming finds me again.
The Sixth Day
The city of Knoxville is surrounded by green dark Smoky Mountains. A mist comes up from everywhere and settles across the trees like a great quiet carpet. It hides the secret sounds of fish wriggling through rocky streams and echoes of children playing in the shadows of giants.
Joe Bob rolls his pickup on the lawn again. He jumps out angry. The sun rises hot behind him.
“I’ve had enough of this crap, Drew. Come out of there.”
The house on Mulberry street is quiet. The willows creak in a subtle breeze. The front door is missing.
“Buddy?” Joe Bob says cautiously as he walks in the empty doorway. He sees the door half-broken across the room, and catches the smell. Blood and shit. The smell of death.
He finds a broken body laying on the hardwood floor of the house on Mulberry street. It’s neck is twisted at a horrible angle. There is a hole in the center of it’s chest. The bladder and bowels had loosed themselves. Effluvium oozes across the floor.
Joe Bob picks up the body. The head rolls to the side bonelessly.
“Oh, shit, Drew. What did you get messed up with?”
Joe Bob pulls out his Blackberry to call 911, but he knows instinctively that there’s nothing that the paramedics and doctors can do. He blinks back a tear, wipes it off with a greasy hand. It falls down onto Lucifer’s corpse.
A code is unleashed. A pulse sounds in the void. From somewhere within, a spark ignites. Flames leap across the body, consuming flesh to the bone.
Joe Bob steps back in awe. Instinctively he clutches the cross at his neck with one hand, beer forgotten in the other. A greasy smoke stains the ceiling as the body burns bright red and orange. Ash piles on the floor.
A mouth opens inside the ash. It screams as flames shoot from its mouth. A head emerges, then arms lifting upwards towards heaven. The body straightens itself, makes a cry like a cat, filling its lungs for the first time. At full height the body looks like a bird, with beak open and wings of flame outstretched.
The flames die away, leaving a naked me. I shake off the ash and look at myself. Reborn from the ashes again. Hurts.
My real heart is hidden away safely in a granuloma in my right tenth rib. It is a semi-aware regeneration kernel a few microns across, compressed with all of the information required to recreate my physical body. I’m pretty sure Victoria knew she couldn’t kill me this easily. I hope she knew.
“Drew?” Joe Bob whispers.
I crack my neck and hack out a wad of bloody phlegm. Thankfully there is a pair of pants thrown over a chair in the corner. I pull them on and smile up at Joe Bob.
“No, Joe Bob, not Drew. Not anymore.”
He shakes his head in disbelief.
“Something’s come over you, Drew. Somethin’ fierce. I’ve never done seen you like this. Abducted? I’ve been seeing lights in the skies. Followin’ them, them UFOs. They got you, didn’t they?”
I shake my head. We lock eyes. I can see him searching me for something familiar. He can’t find it.
“That crazy doctor woman did it. I’ve heard what they can do with those MRI machines.”
I look up at his eyes and find hot fear, fear of the loss of his best friend. I almost wish I could be that friend for him. A thousand easy lies come to my tongue but are left unspoken. I let my head hang.
“It was the memories, wasn’t it?” he says sadly.
“Remember Mitch? Ma Geldoff called you, Adrien and Mitch the three musketeers. Remember Tukesegee lake the summer of 05, the rowboat incident? Adrien said he’d never forgive you for putting fish in his underwear.”
My eyes get misty. I can remember it in bits and flashes, but I can see Joe Bob reliving every moment, and I want to live it with him.
“He did, buddy, he did.”
“Then remember what happened to Mitch after the War? He got back from Iraq and you were afraid to look him in the eye. He jumped at every car, watched every corner.”
Joe Bob nodded slowly.
“Everyone changes, Joe Bob. Everyone changes. Adrien isn’t dead. He just isn’t here anymore.”
I flash him a bittersweet smile. You don’t live thousands of years without getting a little sentimental.
“I’ll miss…him.” Joe Bob says.
“No, you won’t,” I reply.
“You’re not going to…” he whispers. “Kill me?”
I grab the beer from his hand, drain it with a single long pull, and crush the can on my forehead. With the other hand I pull a vial of Lethe water and pour it over Joe Bob’s head. Water from the River Styx, water of forgetting.
I pull the memories of Adrien from Joe Bob’s head. The memories turn into butterflies. The cloud of butterflies flutters on silken wings, then disperses. Joe Bob blinks at me with new eyes.
I open a sungate, give Joe Bob a wink, and step away.
I step out of the sungate onto the wadi. I’m standing on the edge of a dusty highway, surrounded by thousands of miles of sand, somewhere in the promised land. Israel. I know what I’m looking for is around here somewhere.
An ancient produce truck rolls up the road towards me. I raise a hand and the farmer pulls over to let me in.
“Salaam Alekum,” I say.
“Alekum Salam,” he says in Arabic. “Are you also on your way, pilgrim?”
"Allah has struck a blow on the terrible Israelis, and given us a new garden of Eden."
"Have you seen it?" I ask him in Arabic.
"I have seen it in my dreams."
We drive as Abdul rants about his dream. A land of paradise. As the sun sets, I can see the immigrants as a black mass on the horizon from miles away. Tens of thousands, I guess.
It’s less a forest than a jungle. Thick with fruit trees, orange and pear and banana, all thrown together in a crazy patchwork. The ground is filled with plants from all over the world. The air is like a mist, thick and hot.
Pilgrims have gathered at the edges and were wailing and praying that their prayers had been answered by God. Unfortunately, I know who had answered their prayers. Victoria.
I walk among them, a cynic among believers. It didn’t take long to hear the stories that would become legend and myth. She had walked among them, healing the sick. Blind men saw light for the first time, cripples got up and danced. She had given them a new messiah, became a new religion.
I look out onto her paradise I also see what they could not see. What they did not want to see. I had been witness to the first Garden of Eden. I know what happened, what must happen.
What must never happen again.
I close my eyes for the last time, and attune myself to the music. Bright and shining off the Van Allen belt, a brass timbre of electromagnetic trumpets. The low keening of infrared waves rising hot off of the cooling earth. Then deeper melodies boil up from within, sweet and silver and blooded from the fires of creation. I listen past the cosmic noise, past the cold sharp waves of causation, brittle shards of spacetime, onto the Worldsong. The Deep Dream.
The body of Adrien Priest dissolves into dust, then into atoms, subatomic particles and bosons. I have become the light once more, the light that must be darkness in order to quench her. I became one with the carrier wave and let myself be carried away.
The sun sets on the sixth day.
The Seventh Day
I meet Victoria for the last time in New York.
I feel her like an ache. She is the precipice. Everything that had stood for thousands of years threatening to fall.
Victoria stands in front of the UN Grand Assembly in Manhattan. Lights reflect hot off her shimmering hair. In her a grey chiffon Gucci suit and serene smile, she is a study of shadows.
“We can end it all now,” she says, her voice unnaturally loud and clear in the ozone-charged air. “Forget the old ways. We can all live together in peace.”
“What is it that you propose?” the delegate from Sierra Leone asks, fingers steepled in front of pursed lips, sensing that the compass of power was changing.
“I can end all wars, all strife. We can all live in peace.”
I slingshot myself around the sun, wavelength flattening at post-relativistic speeds. That which was Adrien Priest is now a distributed intellect cloud of matter-energy cycles a million kilometers wide, a carnivorous dream of pure purpose.
As I gain momentum, I feed. I suckle on the hero myths of the Bedouin, the revolutionary songs in Havana. A chamber choir in Chicago. An artist’s desire in Tripoli. Lights snapped out on the Eastern seaboard as I draw power. I guzzle cycles from the Internet, psychic power from the combined dreams of humanity of now, past and to be.
I compact myself into a white core of hyperdense matter the size of a grain of rice. I gain speed, flattening myself against time.
On the floor of the UN grand assembly, the delegate from England stands up. He arranges his glasses, buttons up his jacket. “A wonderful dream, young lady,” he looks down his nose at the new goddess. “We have seen what you have accomplished in Palestine. We are convinced of your power, young woman, but not of your intent. What you’re asking for is unacceptable.”
She shakes her head sadly. Grey storms boil in her eyes.
“You misunderstand me. This is not a request.”
The guns of the guards turn to blocks of crystal. The dignitary from Pakistan shrieks as his portable phone has been replaced by a golden beetle. Radios become butterflies. Money becomes dust.
The ripple spreads out across the world. The rich and the poor are suddenly equal. The blind find themselves able to see. The lame get up and walked.
“It is done,” she says.
The world has changed forever. Money is worthless. Greed is now futile. The sun shines on a new tomorrow. It barely feel the shadow that hurtles down the gravity well. Prophets sweat and rant in nightmare. Psychics rave and poets cry, feeling what is to come.
The Earth actually curves slightly towards the my gravitational ripple. I have become a light cone of directed probability at speeds approaching c. I am heralded by a gravity wave like an avalanche, with a virtual mass that dwarfs the Sun.
“Victoria. I’m sorry,” I project softly, lovingly, before my thoughts turn to teeth.
My projectile kernel, now the size of a single human hair, hits the Earth’s atmosphere with such force that it is set aflame. Fires carried across the stratosphere in a ring of destruction.
I plummet through the atmosphere and enter Victoria at one percent beyond c. She boils away in nanoseconds. All that remains of Victoria is a radioactive crater on the UN floor, smoking with a few remaining proteins.
The shockwave follows, traveling at twice the speed of sound. The UN building ceases to exist. North America and most of Europe are flattened within seconds. The skies are sound and fury, flame and ash. The soil is seared of all life.
Victoria’s physical body is destroyed, but her essense remains. Forsaking a new body, Victoria strikes back with fluid spaceflow. My quantum cloud is shorn in millions of pieces. Each of the shards self-organize and surge at her as a swarm.
The stars themselves bend and shrink in our battle. The basic rules of the cosmos are rewritten with each clash. Essential math screams. Pi inverts itself. Every straight line becomes bent. The universe screams in pain. It had not felt a battle such as this since the egg of creation cracked. It cannot withstand this onslaught.
Something hears. That which once was Lucifer retained enough of its original viral programming to remember its purpose. It activated its final directive, collapsing once into a zero-point field.
Victoria and I reform on a hilltop in Kfar Saba, overlooking the Victoria’s creation. We stand at the edge of a shantytown that had appeared overnight at the edge of the garden. A rickety shwarma shack made of corrugated tin stands a few yards away. The proprietor smiles with no teeth, as if he sees people appear out of thin air every day.
I have become myself again. I suck in a breath of sweet, sweet air. I look down at my flesh and pinch myself.
“Whew,” I say. “I love being meat. I mean me.”
Victoria looks down at herself, and promptly fells back on her bottom. She chokes a cry. She stares at her hands, scraped with dust and blood, in the shock of being real once more.
“Lucifer? What happened?”
“You killed me, dear. Don’t worry, I forgive you. Then you tried to remake history. I couldn’t let you do that.”
Victoria stood up, regained some of composure. She looked at the clear sky which was not burning. She vaguely remembered the battle that they had fought.
“When are we?”
“A few minutes before you are going before the UN council. Before we destroyed this half of the galaxy. Give us a chance to talk before we did it all over again.”
Victoria scowls. “I don’t understand why we’re fighting, Lucifer. I thought we wanted the same thing.”
I beckon over the hilltop down to the verdant garden that Victoria created. Green vines slither through proud trees. Exotic birds warble. A fertile mist dusts the treetops like cotton candy.
“Look at your creation.”
“I am looking.”
“No, look more closely,” I say. “Look past the beauty.”
I can see her face change with realization.
“No insects to pollinate or eat dead vegetation,” I say sadly. “No animals to spread seeds. No water source. Not enough room to host all of the fauna. Within weeks, it will be dead. In a few months, just a pile of mulch.”
“Ultimate power doesn’t necessarily mean you can fix everything. I learned that a long, long time ago.”
Victoria’s hair is playing in the breeze, and there is a bittersweet smile on her face. She sighs.
“This is why you brought me here.”
“Actually, Ali here makes the most amazing Shwarma.”
Ali smiles and cackles. He slices ground lamb into a metal scoop, and pulls the pita bread directly off the grill.
“Spicy?” Ali said in heavily-accented English.
I nod hungrily. Ali piles a perfumed mass of roasted lamb into that pita. With his tongs and an experienced hand he shuffles in pickled carrots, hummus, tomatoes, lettuce. My eyes grow larger as the pita fills. He hands it to me. I bury my face into it, take a bite and let the flavors wash through me.
“Bite?” I ask Victoria, holding it out to her.
She folds her arms and turns away from me.
“You’re too big for this world. Humanity has outgrown us. They have become their gods.” I take another bite and wipe hummus off the side of my face.
“But they’re destroying themselves.”
I shrug. “They’ll learn.”
“What if I can’t wait that long?”
I let the question hang there, unanswered, while I chew my shwarma. I’ve already died today defending my world. Hopefully I won’t have to do it again.
Victoria looks up at the stars.
“Very well,” she says, resigned. “There’s an entire galaxy out there. I will start my own world.”
“But you already have,” I say, rummaging in my pocket. I pull out the drop of blood, and the world within that Victoria had created, let it glisten in the sun.
She looks down at her creation.
“First you have to finish what you’ve started. When you’ve made a paradise in here, then come back and talk to me. Maybe you have the answer. I won’t risk my world until you do.”
“Why am I letting you tell me what to do?” she asks.
“Because you know I’m right.”
She nods, and takes my hand. “Come with me,” she says. “We’ll do it right, this time. We’ll have a world for ourselves. Somewhere where you aren’t always on the run from Yahwe and the Radiant Host.”
It would be so nice to live, just live, not to be running and looking over my shoulder. Even with the loss of Gabriel, Uriel and Azrael, the Radiant Host would still be hunting me. But alas, I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep.
I let her hand fall.
“I can’t. My place is here. My kids need someone to look out for them. Goodbye, Victoria.”
“It’s bad luck to say goodbye, Lucifer. Let’s say something else.”
I say the only thing that’s honest. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she says. She touches my face gently, her eyes already lonely. “See you again.”
Her body twists and flattens, disintigrates into light, and filters down into the blood marble.
The world is safe again. For a little while.
“Ali, I’ll take another.”
Years later I find myself sitting at the bar at the Wilshire. I’ve got three empty beerglasses on the mahogany in front of me. I fish into my pocket and pull out the little red marble that I carry around with me whereever I go.
Sometimes I remember what the marble means. I think about Victoria and her perfect world and I wonder if I could ever join her.
Joe Bob sits down at the bar next to me, his stool creaking. He has a black ring around his right eye.
“Hey, stranger,” he says.
“Hello,” I say, not even looking up.
“What brings you to Knoxville?”
“Just passing through,” I say the same way I have a thousand times before.
His eyes find the blood red marble in my hand, and he stares into it. Patterns swirl in the surface. He seems hypnotized.
“That? Nothing really. Keepsake.”
“A lady, eh?” he asks. “I bet there’s a story there.”
“Very perceptive,” I reply, flipping the marble into my palm and shoving into my pocket. “Get you a beer, stranger?”
“I’ll do you one better. I’ll buy you one if you’ll ride the bull. None of these pansywaists seem to want to ride it, and my doctor tells me I can’t throw out my back again. Seems a shame to let it go to waste.”
I look over over at the empty ring with the mechanical bull. The smile starts at the corner of my mouth. I nod to the bartender, point to my empty glasses, and motion for another.
“Sure, why not?”