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.