Friday, December 21, 2012

Found Wanting

Fire next time. The Good Book said so, and of course, that’s exactly what happened. The whole world blindsided, too busy with fists pressed to flesh, Western powers and third-worlders alike, blindsided by an asteroid bigger than New Hampshire. It announced the end with a fountain of fire taller than the sky, and as if bumped by the impact, nearly everyone with a nuke lit theirs off. Almost like God said so.

For Tomas, it ended in 30 breathless seconds seven miles over Barcelona. One slow moment he was licking Bloody Mary off his middle finger, watching the stewardess’ skirt tighten as she leaned—then the row of seats in front of him exploded away into hard sky, sucking the wind from his lungs as it went.

He tried to scream, but only succeeded in soiling his britches. A little yellow bag popped from the ceiling and began to beat him mercilessly about the face and neck. The bright blue sky and dark limb of Earth flickered rhythmically, like a time machine set to fast-forward.

They fell from the sky, a metal snowstorm, no two pieces alike.

Tomas gulped at the thin air, desperate to save up enough for a good, solid scream. Dear God, just one, he thought. Just let me scream once Padre, don’t let it go like this, without a sound—

He couldn’t see, it hurt to blink; he reached up with liquid hands and wiped the ice crystals from his eyes—and saw it through the flashing of sky and ground.  The grand splayed flake of a wing fluttering to and fro, falling with them; it cut sharply right, banked, then beelined right for him. He was suffused with understanding, peace, love. Warmth. Padre, I answer thy summons.

The wing stuffed itself into the passenger section, slippery.

It brought with it a tunnel of light. Tomas unbuckled himself and swirled upward toward the infinity of—

Naked people.

Naked people pressed nuts to butts, chafing. Naked strangers; naked among strangers. Everyone was there. The people held themselves in shame, men with hands cupped over flaccid members; the women with their forearms pressed against their bosoms, lone hands shielding variously furred deltas of Venus. Those few stunned and bold who walked naked did so not from innocence.

Tomas was jostled from behind, from the sides, by flesh; he forcefully rubbed up against the woman in front of him and stiffened involuntarily. She turned her head and gave him a look like a slap. Tomas blushed. “Ma’am,” he managed. Though tall, he was somewhat ugly and awkward with women; but because the Lord is merciful, he had a large and well-formed penis. He wrestled it with both hands. “Sorry,” he said to the woman.

His view of the throng of humanity was better than those of average height around him. A lumpy sea of hair spread out in all directions, fleshy arcs of faces peeping up like choppy little waves. The predominant color was a dark, tousled brown. Rising out of that tide of humanity, above it like a breaching whale, was a massive Throne. It stood empty, the seat and back glowing a deep, fading red like cooling steel. The sky beyond looked like snow.

Everyone was there. Tomas, and the whole of humanity seething, stinking, crying, huddled, some singing, occasional fistfights. Not as many people holding each other as you might expect, or hope for. They were moving slowly forward, shuffling, toward the Throne, around it. Tomas’ heart burst with sudden understanding; hope.

“Excuse me,” he asked the man next to him, “Is this the line for—”

The man punched him, bloodying his nose.

“No!” the man yelled, flecks of spittle flying, “This ain’t the fuckin’ line to get into fuckin’ Heaven!”

Tomas’ face was numb. Blood ran into his mouth. He stared.

“What he means to say,” said an old woman at his left shoulder, “Is that we’ve been judged.”

Tomas squeezed his nose. “Not me.”

The old woman frowned. “Yes, you.”

Tomas shook his head. “No. I just got here.”

At that moment they rounded the foot of the Throne, the near leg like a skyscraper, and saw the doorway with the hastily hand-lettered sign: SATAN’S RENDERING PLANT #417.

“Fuckin’ newbie!” yelled the man.

The sign stirred up a beehive in Tomas’ head. “But I didn’t, I mean, I haven’t—oh, God!” he shrilled.

The old woman was apoplectic. “Shut him up or he’ll attract one of them!”

The man grabbed Tomas in a vicious headlock, something he was obviously very good at, and enjoyed. He clamped a meaty hand over Tomas’ bloody mouth and nose. Tomas struggled, but the man dragged him forward, toward the sign, the door, with the rest of them. Tomas began to give in, by degrees, overwhelmed and drowning in a sea of surprises. It’s all just like you’ve been taught, but nothing like you had hoped... Then he saw his father, at the door, his father, the doorman, holding open the door. Tomas started, and renewed his efforts to break loose. The man bore down on him, squeezing like he knew it was the last neck he’d get to squeeze, ever. Tomas bit his hand, to the bone, and hung on. The man screamed and flung him away, threw him forward through the crowd toward his father, the doorman.

“Father,” Tomas cried, “father!”

“Ah, me! Tomas!” They embraced.

His father pushed him away, at arm’s length, and sighed. “Let me have one last look at you.” His eyes glistened.

Tomas took him in. He was naked but for a fresh smelling T-shirt with the words MY PEOPLE WENT TO JUDGMENT DAY AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT printed on it. Pinned to the shirt was a little gold badge of wings, like a pilot’s medal.

Tomas’ face twisted. “What?”

His father touched the badge, smiled. “I am a Helper. This is so the others will know me. And the shirt—” he hesitated, “—the shirt is from the... Lord of Darkness, just someplace to put the pin. Considerate, I suppose...” He grimaced, then brightened. “We have to get you a job! You and me, we can be together for a little bit before, well, you know.”

The doors swung open and closed, open and closed as the people pressed through them, into—

Tomas felt his body receding from him, falling away, a dead leaf from a tree before the coming winter. “A job?” he said distantly.

“But not that one,” his father said, pointing behind him, under the Throne. “You don’t want that job. They’re getting put into new bodies, reincarnated, to go down and mop up the stragglers.” He shuddered visibly. “You don't want that job.”

The new bodies were huge, bipedal and insectoid, eyes everywhere, with scything rows of claws. As Tomas watched, several helpers dragged a "volunteer" over to the twitching body and got to work; it was like stuffing a corpse into a sleeping bag. Bright portals winked from nothingness and spun open. Screaming, the men with skins of beasts leapt through the portals back to Earth.

To Tomas, it was suddenly very funny. He wanted to laugh loud and long, slap his thighs and bare his teeth, barking. Instead, his breath hissed from him.

“Father,” he said, barely audible, “Why?”

“Why?”

“Why Hell?”

“Oh, my son. This is not the way to Hell. There is no Hell. And they aren’t going to bother building Heaven, either. God is reclaiming all, to start over. Fresh.”

Tomas snapped into his body. “But the beauty! The humanity!”

“I know. We had the greatest potential—that’s probably why we were given the opportunity. But we failed to live up to that potential."

“Father! I haven’t had my say—”

“We all have.”

“But not me! I haven't been judged yet!”

“Son,” he intoned, then pressed his lips together, “We’ve all been judged, and been found wanting.”

“But—” His father slapped him, stunned him cold. His face began to flush hot and he held it with his hand.

“We have been judged. The Lord God judged us as a whole.”

“A whole.” Tomas’ voice was flat, a dead flower pressed in a family bible, its fragrance spent.

His father’s face softened. “We didn’t make it,” he said quietly.

The crowd jostled Tomas and he was caught up in the wave of flesh, carried forward through the doors and into a short, dank hallway, his hand still pressed to his stinging face...

Judged as a whole.

The hall smelled warm and somehow comforting; it was not the warmth of brimstone ahead, but the warmth of blood-friction; the heat of beating hearts.

Found wanting.

He got occasional glimpses through the swinging doors as they shushed ceaselessly open and closed, open and closed like a chewing mouth. And inside, strobing shots of more helpers, in rubber aprons, their feet stained as if from stamping grapes.

There is no Hell; they’re not even going to bother building Heaven...

Hell is just this little hallway, the hallway before entering SATAN’S RENDERING PLANT #417. Because Hell is just knowing. Even if only for a little bit.

He squeezed his eyes shut, squeezed the tears from them, and stumbled through the doors blindly—just like everyone else.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Old Like the Sun


You can’t have a Bible nestled between a tampon and a diaper. That’s why we exist. The Company, I mean. THE BEAST. Wait a minute. Let’s back it up. Sometimes I spill the milk before there’s a cow and not everybody gets that. 

Mr. Florentine has to make sure I get my meds at the start of every shift—it’s the only way I can keep my job. And unlike the others I actually like this one. I want to work here. I have to work here because this is the only place where I work. The meds do nothing but make me sleepy, but I suppose in truth they do more than that. They prove to me that what I experience is not mental illness but a new way of being, a lightning-licked path directly to God. I see things with a clarity most will never know. 

The meds are slow motion, the constant detonation that is reality slurring until I can see the dance of Creation, a step-by-step minuet of equilibria. Like watching Kennedy a frame at a time, his head bulging because there’s a bullet in there, slowing down. 

Kieran’s driving the forklift tonight, loading shiny-wrapped pallets of flags, bibles, money into the maw of THE BEAST. Back and forth he zips to irritating guitar rock, cranking the wheel, nearly toppling like there’s a hurry to fill the belly with massive brown cubes. But there’s no hurry—we have all night.  All night to be inside it, the only place where I experience awe.

This is where it happens.

Beneath these ceramic cathedral beams, this is where the things we cannot countenance with the idea of destruction—not personally, anyway—are brought to corruption as everything must. We just do it suddenly. THE BEAST—a Rapid Sublimation Plasma Furnace—drinks juice from the dam on the other side of the mountains, dimming all the lights in its path, in reverence, as holy relics die. Flashed to nothingness in this world, pressed beyond the veil, their energies released into unknown dimensions. It’s mostly magic. We would load it up, fire it, and when reopened, days later and still red hot, it was empty. Clean. Wonderously purified. Flags done waving, bibles misprinted or discarded, too much money all converted in a singular convulsion onto writhing plasma, white hot, the idea of power unleashed as a physical thing.

And what did these oblations bring? Angels? Demons? The Mouth of Satan to unspeak God’s Word? What dread portals spun open in here where no material thing could exist? I know the Company is variously owned by the Pope, the Illuminati and the billionaire Antichrist of the week; surely they know the truth. 

“Clear out, you fucking retard,” Mr. Florentine yells without echo just beyond the threshold. He is tiny in comparison to the vault door behind him, the megaton Hand of God poised to swat.

Kieran nearly runs him over, tipping up on two wheels just like in the safety video. “He’s not a retard, Boss,” he calls over his shoulder as he deftly sets another block into a house-sized wall of pallets. “He’s just what my Grammy would call ‘pie-headed’.” The forklift pirouettes with a whine and darts back out.

“Fuck your Grammy.” Mr. Florentine holds me with an uncompromising gaze. “He’s a state-certified retard. He takes retard pills and works a retard job.” There is more but there are three of him now, one pleading on his knees, apologetic, one with his mouth shut, one saying the hard, cruel things. I can’t pay attention when this happens. Like bees in my head.

Then there’s four of him but it’s just the New Girl even though she isn’t new anymore or even really a girl, I mean not a girl-girl but more like somebody’s mom. She hands Mr. Florentine The Clipboard and when she turns to walk away it’s like the fruit Adam bit into, juicy and dripping down his chin, sticky-sweet, and the world never the same since.

I got a woman, not one of the blow-up ones, but the foam kind. With the moveable eyes. It was nice until one of them got stuck and now I can’t bear to look at her when, well, you know. That’s why I have to put the pillow over her face when she does me. I wanted to call her Eve, but on the outside it scared me what God might think. It’s probably blasphemy that something so wonderfully mysterious as a woman should be rendered like this. So, outside, I call her Katherine. But inside, when she’s doing me, I can’t help but think of her as Eve. My Eve. Blasphemy, I know, but I can’t help myself. And even though it’s wrong, it puts me where I am. 

Mr. Florentine waves me out with The Clipboard—tonight we’re expecting some of the Special Bundles, carpet rolls all wet and heavy, the ones that make the muffled thumps and bangs when THE BEAST lights up. It has to be their souls, the sound they make hammering the innards to get out, terrified as their bodies burn in words, bound in words, burning. Words the smoke from burning skulls. 

Kieran clips the inside edge of the door with a hasty maneuver and tears open one of the big brown cubes, spilling Bibles everywhere. One of the Special Bundles bobsleds down the pile and into THE BEAST, as eager as I am.

Mr. Florentine turns red and shows his teeth. “Get the retard his shovel.”

I feel an ecstatic chill at the words and start to take off my pants. I’m allowed. It’s in the contract. I don’t have to wear my clothes when I shovel. It’s a big wide one, like I suppose they’d use for snow, but I get to do Bibles. Old Bibles, mold Bibles, Bibles that are done speaking the Word and gone hoarse with it, all the lowercase stuff still there but stripped of Power like a drained battery or a movie you’ve seen too much. New Bibles, wrapped in plastic and ready to go except some robot in China garbled the Word at like a million vowels per second as the paper whizzed by, a giant roll of toilet paper wiping a factory’s ass. Not the Truth anymore, just some dangerously subhuman version of it. Can’t read it, can’t sell it, can’t burn it—nothing between skin and air but sweat—I put my back into it. 

“Dammit, Boss,” says Kieran, dismounting the forklift, “I’ll make it right.” He tries to take The Clipboard from Mr. Florentine but Mr. Florentine smacks his hand with it. 

 “No. Retard’s gonna do it. He always gets it exactly right. He has to get it exactly right. Isn’t that exactly right, retard?” 

“Ten steps,” I sing in time with the ringing shovel, “Not seven not five not three not one it’s one two three four five six seven eight nine ten ten steps.” 

Kieran notices my erection before I do.

“Dude,” he says, “You really need to get out more.” 

 •  •


The Clipboard’s too hot tonight so I write it down on my forearms in Magic Marker: 

1. Sound klaxons, 2 short blasts.
2. Call over PA, “Clear out, clear out. Pre-ignition check.”
3. Walk THE BEAST and check the shadows.
4. Sound klaxons, 2 short blasts.
5. Call over PA, “All clear, all clear. Ignition countdown.”
6. Use key with fuzzy monkey keychain to pop panel with Hello Kitty sticker.
7. Raise cover, flip switch, thumb button, watch door close.
8. Wait for 3. Green. Lights.
9. Sound klaxons, 1 long blast.
10. Use breaker bar to short panels on either side of console, where wires stick out.

THE BEAST wakes with a whine that vibrates everything between everything, I can feel my soul shaking loose, and it starts happening in there, Hell blossoming behind yards of weird metal and a thin veneer of understanding. What is it, what is it, I ask pressing my face, my body, my self against the warming shell. I hold on until I can smell it burning me and then I have to go, spent.

This one time I was in a parking lot, a man with a gaping hole in his chest, trying to plug the gushing crimson dyke with white fingers, he staggered into me, grabbed me with bloody hands, whispered fiercely, “God is not the god of man—” When I blinked he was gone, his bloody handprints evaporated. He wasn’t real after all, but the message was. The message was.

On my way to get out more I coast in darkness behind a tractor-trailer rig hauling an identical trailer atop itself. It is confusing and natural. The end of a strap flares in my headlights, rises up in a languid sine wave, then down and into the spinning, hungry wheels beneath where it pulls startlingly taut and blinks out of existence. The trailer shifts, hesitant, and a corner kisses the engorged river of asphalt flowing rapidly past. In that instant I don’t want to jerk the wheel. Nothing is coming apart in front of me, it’s just everything following the rules. Rules that must be obeyed.

Before the second hand can cross the void between hashes I jerk the wheel. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.

Kieran gives me meth, and a beer like soda pop for ugly children, so we’re all in the same place. Too many of us in a different car, speaking in unknown octaves like the chirping of birds we’re going too slow, too slow past the crowd when the guns come out. Then the pop-pop-pop like you wouldn’t expect, shell casings ringing against the fenders and sidewalk, little bells the crowd can’t hear the crowd like an animal you hit with a stick three, four, five times and ask yourself why won’t it move? And then it does, all at once, flowing away as nature intended. The backs of heads and limbs and dear items discarded.

In the woods I ask Kieran why? It’s just rules and nature to me, but I genuinely want to know what he’s thinking. He chugs the last of his beer and hurls the bottle beyond the headlights.

“Fuck, man. It just sounded like a good idea.” He pauses and the words reverberate in my head like a child screaming underwater. “It was either that or get laid.”

He calls for another beer and is presented with one. I notice that he has a gun in his hand.

“You didn’t pull the trigger, man, but you were in the car.” He sighs and looks at the gun. “You can’t just be a passenger in this life—at some point you gotta do something.”

He presses the gun into my hand, heavy and warm with body heat. The weight of it coagulates the bees in my head. He’s right. So I shoot him in the leg.

It takes longer than any of us expected for him to bleed out, even though I know the bullet went through the femoral artery even before I pulled the trigger. It’s no coincidence that old-people clocks are round—cause and effect have a way of looping back on themselves that’s obvious if you know how to look at it. Everything’s a feeling—the crack of bone, the kick of the gun, the weight of the unfired cartridge, Kieran’s thumb pressing it into the magazine, the boredom of the Mexican lady who tamped the round at the factory. All the pressing, pulling, pushing that brought us to this moment: we all squeezed the trigger, we all severed the artery. There was no other possible outcome.

He passes with only a little effort at the end—his breath involuntary and agonal before ceasing mid-gasp—I strain to see evidence of his fleeing soul. He was wreathed only in nothingness. 

I bury him with the others.

 •  •


There’s an unhealthy weightlessness that comes with undoing your safety belt and leaving the passenger seat; you float down the aisle and open the cockpit door only to find there’s no God or dog or Chewbacca in the copilot’s chair. It’s just you, the yoke, and 900,000 pounds of metal and jet fuel hurtling toward the ground. You can dart away like an astronaut and try to buckle back in—or you can take the stick in both fists. Either way, the world only loaned you to the sky. It wants you back. It’ll have you back. Because while it’s fun to talk about, you don’t actually know how to fly a goddamn airplane.

THE BEAST is beyond the whine, beyond the low growl that raises hackles in a 10-mile radius—it roars, now, its throat wide open to swallow a little bit of our reality and take it only God knows where. 

Ten steps. Ten steps to get there. The heat squeezes my bare flesh, threatening to press me in pieces through the sieve of another world; it’s hard to be here. It’s taking all of me to be here. The razor makes a line weeping crimson beads of dew and it’s nine steps, then eight, and the steps peel away, bright and shining, a purity of sensation like sunlight on the naked soul.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Ilsa and the Death of Doubt

Beneath the thumping floorboards, Ilsa hugged the hatbox and shivered, eyes squeezed shut. She tried to make herself as small as possible, pulling her knees up to her chest, collapsing inward, crumpling her consciousness into a tiny, infinitesimal wad. The final, fearful refuge of a prey animal, retracting into the crevices of the mind. I'm not here, I'm not here, I'm not—

Above, the Ukrainians were making a mess of the Professor's lab. Drawers yanked from desks bounced hollow and metallic, papers fluttered like her heart. Something heavy crashed into glass again and again. Strange liquids began to seep and smoke into the crawl space. The sting in her lungs yanked her out of her mind-hole and a wave of panic gushed after.

"Here!" an accented voice bellowed, "There's a trapdoor under the table! The old man was lying! You two, move it!"

More crunching glass, grunting and a low scrape vibrated the boards above her head.

Ilsa looked at the hatbox. "I have no choice," she whispered. But the Professor said—

Another scrape, longer this time. A sliver of light slashed her face.

"Forgive me," she breathed. Ilsa upended the hatbox and the pearlescent garment spilled out, finer than silk, unrolling like liquid moonlight. She peeled her own dress up over her head in the cramped space, kicking her shoes away. Her bra came off with the one-handed trick, the envy of all man-kind, and she briefly bridged to peel her panties down over her pear-shaped ass and rolled them off her legs and gone. She gripped the second skin, oily and vaguely luminescent, hesitating for what could very well be the last time.

Above, more boots now, more grunting.

"I want her alive!" the voice barked. Scattered laughter followed.

Ilsa's hesitation broke and she thrust her feet into the legs, feeling the thing snug about her toes; she pulled it up, over her hips and cool across her tummy. The impossible task of finding the arms in an everyday bodysuit was absent—the thing wanted to be worn. She didn't so much slip into it as it slipped onto her. All that was left was the hood. What will it be like, she wondered, will I ever come back?

Another scrape and more light.

She yanked the hood over her head and it swallowed her face, her self, whole. The Insanitard claimed another rider.

Black was white, the moon was made of kittens. And knives, knives came alive in throats.

So close, so close, grown men struggled with a mere table.

"Hurry it up!" Ilsa growled, flexing against the trapdoor.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Puppet Show in an Empty Theater

The day after the Singularity, everyone woke up feeling just fine.

CODA


When the gods speak to you in the quiet moments, alone with Gutspiller, your sword, it's in the voice of roaring flame, crying babe and creaking bones. The name they use for you is not familiar—though if it be applied by the gods it must be yours.

YOU ARE WASTED HERE, they burn, screech and crack. YOU WILL JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF ALL THINGS AND DO WHAT YOU MUST.

You pause mid-whetstone-stroke. Always, you think, with the obtuse. The last time the gods tasked you to do what you must a kingdom burned, and that had angered them. How were you to know the Virgin Concubine was reserved for Athnas' crippled avatar alone? One sock to the Old King's grey head and the avatar broke open upon the flagstones; then the 43 murders—kingsmen all, and in furious combat, but that's not how you prefer to think of it—and a harrowing scene of a Death-amusing swing from one Impossible Tower to its twin on a rope spun from the Concubine's song as she clung to your back in a parody of the moment five minutes hence when she relinquished her title upon your surging member.

The Pillars of Creation shook that day. But then they did on most days when you were sober enough to tumesce and hold a sword.

"Gods," you grumble, "What use have I for gods? Does the foe leap upon my sword, the maid upon my member, the wine and meat upon my palate by whimsy alone?" Still, you rise.

As is usual, the gods are not content to simply open a hole for you to walk through... it is a myriad of black mouths that dial open in reality, all swirling, sucking, tearing at the scenery and tugging you, screaming with rage, in all directions at once.

DO THIS THING AND IT'S GNORTHLAX THOUSANDLEGS' STORIED HAREM FOR YOU; FAIL US AND... IT'S GNORTHLAX THOUSANDLEGS' STORIED HAREM FOR YOU.

And so your boots are set upon The Path.

There is a swamp with a lowly hut, really no more than a mound of offal and detritus wherein dwells hideous conjoined twins, one impossibly old, the other a pouting toddler; this did you smite.

There is the four-space labyrinth of the Dread Pfeffnorg, where hallways branch back into themselves and the blindfold does nothing for it is behind your eyes the Pfeffnorg lurks; this did you smite.

There is a village of Golden People who worship the idol of a squat frog-god and keep a library of life-effacing technology as well as the Chronicle of All Peoples and Times; this did you smite, burn and partner for a time with the Golden King's daughter, whose smirk and sword were as wicked-cool as her heavy breasts.

There are others, and crowns looted from severed heads, wheelbarrows of swag and burning castles. This is The Path, and though you share it now and again with sidekick and warrior princess it is in the end yours to stride alone and so you do, more often than not... as is your fashion.

When The Path terminates, it is at the Center of All Things. The World Beast rages, beset on all sides by ranks of heroes; sword and spell flash against hide and will as the thing bellows and swats cohorts of them dead with each lumbering step. An ensorcelled catapult fires a volley of sainted skulls into the thing's 37th eye—it roars soundlessly and shifts to the left—

There is a Seal at the end of Creation—a Great Key that locks Everything in its Place; the wretched to their swamps, pfeffnorgs to their mazes, golden kings to their thrones—and Gutspiller in your fist.

And the World Beast has just lifted its hindmost foot off of it.

While the gods could have been more explicit, they could not have lined up a better shot. There's a break in the legions of heroes, a surging zig-zag course that opens between you and the Seal. It is The Path. Sheathing Gutspiller, you run. Through carnage and din, past exploding wizards and eyeless clerics, de-limbed warriors and bandy-legged thieves—you run. The beast rages and rears, a mountain walking or stumbling all over the world's finest. Its shadow is everywhere.

The Seal is a stride-wide plug, a keystone set with a massive ring of eldritch metal, impossibly cold to the touch. You set yourself over it, take one last look at the chaos that roils at the Center of All Things, spit on your hands and seize the ring. The cold is stunning and you almost cry out; instead you bear down and pull with everything the gods gave you. Sinew and bone compress as muscles bulge. You can feel the strain in your teeth as they begin to crack. Veins stand out on your glistening tan, making you look for all the world like an angry, man-sized penis—

Once upon a time, a philosopher-king said that flesh is but the shadow of will. Wary of tricks, you disemboweled him.

In this moment you're almost sorry as the plug comes loose with a final shout and The World drains ou—