The Continuing Adventures of Ill-Mannered People, and Others Who Are Now Dead
January 4, 2012 § Leave a comment
To the man who let his child fill a basket with products and then leave it, toppled, in the middle of the aisle: why?
To the woman who asked if her son was a lunatic, like “the man on the subway” for wanting a toy that we sold: why?
To the people who treat a store, which is private property, like a garbage can and leave coffee cups carefully hidden under product (which other people have to pay for), despite being no more than five feet away from one of those said garbage cans: why?
To me, who has no right being confused at the boorish behavior of people like that at this point: why?
In other news, have the next portion of Lovers. I’ve found that titles come to me much better at the end of the story, when I know what actually happens in it. For example, I re-named House of Glass and Iron to The Fighter, which I think is far better. Think of Lovers in a Dangerous Time as a place holder, and we’ll go from there.
This isn’t finished to my absolute preference, but it’s more than finished enough to be put up here. I got ahead of myself writing, but didn’t have time to clean it up as I would prefer. I’ll probably update it in a few days, but it’s already quite long, so we’ll see. Oh gods! The suspense! I know it’s killing me!
Vasily Reshetnikov staggered from the ruined fuselage of the plane. Although it had collapsed in places, crushing whatever lay within under sheets of aluminum, two seats had collapsed on top of him and served as both tent and bomb shelter. Before he fought his way out, he had spent a few hours gently snoring among the wreckage, sleeping off his drunkenness. Once he woke up, however, he figured that he needed to get up and do something, go somewhere.
Once he exited the cracked shell of the plane, the wind cut right through him. He had lost his coat back in the plane, and hesitated to take one from the dead. It was bad luck, not to mention that most of them were on fire. In fact, the pressing nature of the flames suggested to Vasily that perhaps it was time to call it a night and vacate the premises. The flames waved goodbye at the shambling Russian as they devoured the plane.
He moved away from the wreckage into the shelter of some trees nearby. Vasily managed to, unlike several others who were on the flight, keep his head and realized that he couldn’t stay up here. The mountaintop was far too exposed, and although it was high summer, the wind and the coming dark would be enough to kill him as dead as the crash should have. But all the same, his body raised a few reasonable requests, including that he stop moving immediately. Everything hurt. He could feel each individual bone in his feet as he walked, and even his inner ear was giving him grief.
Vasily, out of breath, slumped against a rock for a moment. He had stopped smoking years before at the urging of his wife, Maria, but he desperately wanted a Sobranie Classic. Hell, he would settle for a filthy Marlboro at this point. He did not share his country’s distrust of the U.S., but he certainly viewed their tobacco products with suspicion.
Comfortably out of the wind for a moment, he stretched his arms out and cracked his back. His elbow came into contact with something warm and furry. It was at that precise moment, when Vasily looked over his shoulder, that he met Isabella the bear.
Isabella had climbed over the Alps from the Brenta region of Italy, and had spent a long few weeks making her way north. Something within her sang of salmon and cold and companionship. It rumbled in her bones. Each time she looked north it filed itself into a point, urging her on and on. She had been climbing for weeks and the few tiny rodents, red berries, and discarded trash she found were barely able to sustain her.
The humming in her bones did not stop. It cared nothing for her ability to find food or rest. It pulled her north and north and north, until she collapsed into the grove to sleep. It was a miracle she had come this far already. Bears had not been seen in this part of the Alps for many years, and now she was far away from others like her. The creatures of this region, even though they had not seen one of her kind in generations, heard the singing of terror in their blood and ran from her. In all senses of the word, she was alone.
It would be difficult to say who was more surprised. Vasily, to find he was almost lying atop a bear, or Isabella, who found that she had a human on top of her.
He ran, and she ran after him.
Cheron would not stop talking.
“Then, one time, I ferried the wrong guy over. You should have seen the look on Peter’s face, καλοσύνη was he mad! Poor soul just stood there, confused, until Peter got it sorted out.”
“Oh, was he let in in the end? You know, for his trouble?” Patrick asked. He was draping his imaginary fingers into the light as though it was water and as though he was actually in a boat. The wooden craft, which to Patrick looked about three bad waves from falling into matchsticks, creaked and groaned as it pushed through the light. Cheron was right in his element and talked as though Patrick wasn’t there. Patrick wasn’t interested in most of what the skeletal boatman was saying, but this last bit caught his attention.
“Nope! Peter got Michael and sent him straight to Hell, screaming all the way! Got to be in the Book to get in, no exceptions. We’d have Chaos otherwise, and he’s not welcome anymore.”
A peculiar chill made it down Patrick’s non-existent spine, tingling each of his imaginary vertebrae. “What do you mean when you say, “in the book?” What does that mean?”
“Not book. Book. Say it like you mean it, like the capital “B” isn’t a mistake.” Cheron dipped the oar into the light, scattering drops like liquid rainbows. “It’s the Book of Life, written in fire and ink by the Lamb himself. Cor, but it’s a sight to see. Takes a bloody legion of angels to open it up, all huffing and puffing while the thing shouts out names left and right. I’m not in it, no, but I got a dispensation from the Father. He’s a businessman, make no mistake, and he knows a good deal like me when He sees one!”
Patrick turned to face Cheron. The skeletal face was grinning and entirely unconcerned with the bits of hair that clung to the papery flesh. Patrick was long past-revolted, but the empty eye-sockets still concerned him. He tried to avoid the eyes, but like any good statue, Cheron’s sightless eyes followed Patrick’s view. Just as a joke, Patrick darted back and forth like a snake, trying to avoid Cheron’s gaze.
The skull frowned. Somehow. Patrick had not yet given up on his old friends Physics and Biology, even though he drifted across a sea of light pushed by a skeletal boatman. The human mind is a strange thing all of the time, but sometimes it surprises even the one using it.
“Hey, keep it down there. It’s hard enough to see you from here, wi’out all that bobbing around. Enough to make a bloke seasick, it is. Don’t be an γάιδαρος, eh man?”
Patrick was suddenly shamed. He never dealt well with authority figures. Mrs. Brock, his teacher from the third grade, had placed in him a fear of all people who you were supposed to behave for. Brock’s ruler was never far from her hand, nor from Patrick’s knuckles. He unconsciously rubbed where his knuckles ought to have been. He wasn’t much better with police officers or anyone in a suit, really. It wasn’t that he was a coward, it was that he hated confrontation. There’s certainly the possibility that he would have been well-suited to combat and debate, it was only that he found himself a thousand kilometres away before that combat could happen.
There had been one incident with a Swiss police officer. The gendarme had pulled Patrick over, likely as a result of his obvious speeding.
“I told you you were going too fast.” Amira said stiffly, trying to look unconcerned and gloat at the same time as she checked over the map.
“I wasn’t, I swear it. That sign back there, it was in miles per hour, right? That’s what they use, don’t they?” Patrick tried to surreptitiously look over his shoulder without looking like he was staring at the car parked just behind him on the A1. The white and orange car looked quite ridiculous, like a little European turtle with wheels, but the man who climbed out of the car did not in anyway resemble a turtle.
“No, Patrick. Only the States uses miles.”
“I could have sworn it was the Swiss, too. The Swiss and the U.S., and everyone else is sane, right?”
“Honey, the speedometer is obviously in kilometres. Look,” she said, tapping on the dashboard of the rental car, “it says it right here.” She was enjoying this, despite her husband’s obvious discomfort. He was an intelligent man, quite similar to herself, but sometimes he was as dumb as two bricks taped together and thrown off the overpass. As dumb as eating spicy food on an airplane, and almost as dumb as her when she also had her moments of forgetfulness.
She hid those from him religiously. He must never know.
The gendarme tapped on the window. Patrick swallowed uncomfortably, suddenly reminded that gendarme meant, essentially, “man with gun.” He would never be this nervous in Canada, but this was Europe. Weren’t some of them still Communist? Out in the dark corners of that forbidden land “Eastern Europe”? Switzerland bordered Russia or something, right?
“Je m’excuse, monsier, mais ouvrai ton fenêtre, s’il vous plait.”
“What did he say?” Patrick asked, half-panicked. His high school French was years behind him, and hadn’t been very close at the time, anyways.
“Oh, roll down the damn window.” Amira shook her head as she leaned across the seat. She hated French like a good Algerian girl because her parents hated the French, but the language was beautiful and it was a useful tool when her husband was being an idiot. As was basic math and the ability to say “I’m sorry”. That was perhaps why their relationship had lasted so long.
“Je suis désolé, monsieur agent, mais mon mari est un peu stupide. Il pensait que la limitation de vitesse utiliés les miles et pas les kilometres. Aussi, il ne parle pas Français. Parlez-vous Anglais?”
The officer’s eyebrow arched sharply. “Tourists?” He asked.
Amira smiled sweetly. “Oui, monsieur.”
The officer, who would have had the figure of a Grecian God had they been in Greece (“figure of a Swiss banker” didn’t have the same connotations of rippling muscles. Rippling bank accounts were nice, however, in or out of Switzerland), smiled and chuckled.
“I think you are the first tourists who make that mistake without being American, but no American drives with someone who speaks French. English?” His English, Patrick noted, much like his teeth, was perfect.
Patrick huffed. “Canadian, thank you.”
“Ah, Canadians. Well, do not make that mistake again, and I will let you off with a warning. The day is too nice to ruin your visit.” He was right. The sun sparkled off the Alps like they were made of glass, shining gently on the picturesque villages that dotted the mountain like specks of moss. It was warm without being unpleasant, like the best kind of European summer. You could taste lunch in the wind a few hours before you had it. It was, as they say, a good day for getting fat.
The officer tipped his cap to Patrick and smiled at Amira. “Monsier, madame. Take care, and enjoy your visit.”
Patrick nodded stiffly, but Amira smiled with all her teeth. “Merci, monsieur. Bon jour a toi.”
“A toi aussi, madame.”
Patrick stared at the man’s behind as he walked away. As perfect as the Alps in spring, and a little bit unlike Patrick’s right then. It stung. Irrationally so, but all the same.
They drove off while the gendarme followed them for the next few kilometres. Patrick fumed until his capacity for fuming was up and he just had to say something to his wife.
They had gone about twenty metres. For the sake of Patrick’s pride, that’s a little under 66 feet.
“Handsome fellow, that man.”
“Oh stop it, Patrick.” Amira knew exactly where this was going. She had always been beautiful, even as a child, and age had only given the final gloss to an already stunning appearance. Her black hair was naturally glossy and wavy, her skin was a pleasant olive that complemented her emerald eyes, and she had a smile that could light up a dark room. Patrick, though no troll, was excruciatingly aware that there were many, many men who were more attractive than him. The fact that Amira was married to him, had been married to him for years, and quite enjoyed every bit of him shirt on or off, was sometimes lost on him.
“Stop what? I’m just saying he was good looking.”
“You try to act dumb when you’re mad. What’s up?”
Patrick was silent for a moment. Their rental car steadily lost ground to the Mercedes ahead of them.
“You were very friendly with that man. And I don’t like being called stupid, especially in front of police officers, and especially by you.”
“Well, you were being a little stupid. I mean, of course they use kilometres! You just wanted to speed because we’re late.”
“We’re late?” Patrick fumed again, indignation in his voice. “I’m sorry, that’s incorrect. There needs to be other people late in order for it to be “we”. I think you meant to say “you” were late, because “you” took an hour getting out of bed today! I was ready to go at 10!”
Back and forth it went as they traversed the A1. It had annoyed Patrick immensely at the time and was reflective of the difficulties they still had with each other, even after all the years. But now, as he lay listening to Cheron yammer on about famous dead people he’d seen (which was all of them. He’d been employed for a long time, and it was a good thing that God was paying into his 401k), he dearly missed Amira, even angry, pissed-off Amira.
The light took on a particular glow as they neared something. Cheron whistled softly.
“How did you do that?” Patrick asked, quickly interrupting. How on Earth did a skeleton whistle?
“Do what?” Cheron asked, innocently.
“Never mind.” Patrick knew how. They were no longer on Earth. “What’s that?” Patrick pointed to the glow. It was red and golden against the sea of shimmering light, warm as flame but somehow sharp. It cut a line in the light, subtly indicating there was something ahead and something behind, and a very fine but dangerous line cut between them.
“That, my friend, is the gate to Heaven. Ol’Pete’s there, and he’s gonna check you in the Book.”
“What happens if I’m not in the Book?” Patrick asked, nervously.
“Oh, not much. I just take you back and throw you down the well. Eternal fire and torture, or sommat down there. Don’t you worry though, this is mostly a formality. He won’t ask you to weigh your heart or anything.”
“Oh. Well that’s nice, I suppose. I don’t think I have my heart anymore.”
“Nope. Not much of you left, that’s right.” The boat ground up against something invisible but solid. “Well, here we are. Out you go then.”
Patrick climbed out of the boat. Moving was strange for him, because though he no longer possessed a body, he still went through the motions of moving. He raised an imaginary leg and made sure to clear the gunwale with it. He even stumbled when he thought he caught his other foot on the vessel.
A sudden thought occurred to him. He turned to Cheron, “Don’t I owe you something?”
“Nah,” the boatman shook his head, “you’re paid for by the disaster fund. I mean, y’can’t be properly buried if you’re blown to bits, can yah? And it ain’t proper less you get buried with a coin for the boatman.”
Cheron paused and waited for an answer. A second passed. Patrick wished again for pockets.
“No, no I guess you can’t.”
“Exactly! So the big fellas with the robes and the halos decided to put away some dosh to see you folks across the sea, just in case. Wouldn’t be fair now, would it, if I just left you on the other side? But wouldn’t be fair for me if I didn’t get my dosh. I need my pay just like anyone else, and you folks need to get here. Win-win, eh?”
Patrick couldn’t resist asking. “What do you need that money for?”
Cheron winked his eye socket and tapped his face where his nose would be. “Now don’t you worry bout that. A chap on this side of the fence still has a right to his secrets, καταλαβαίνω?” He looked up to the sky as though checking the position of the sun. “But I best be getting along. I only have to bring you here then you and me are through.”
He dipped the paddle into the light and pushed off from the “shore”. Patrick raised his voice and shouted. Belief in something is very powerful. This close to Heaven the rules of physics obviously didn’t apply. Things like matter and gravity were gently encouraged not to come too close to the Heavenly realm, or they would have to answer awkward questions about just how many angels actually could dance on the head of a pin at once. Not looking forward to the headaches involved, and surprisingly, most angels hate dancing, the material and heavenly forces agreed to keep their distance.
But belief often takes over even when the evidence strongly disagrees. For Patrick, so recently divorced from his mortal body, a body had to draw in breath to yell. It had to work it’s lungs like bellows to cry out. And when Patrick did so, despite the fact that he had no body and no breath, and certainly no lungs, his voice rang loud over the sea of light. The light quivered and the sea shook, and Cheron’s head whipped around as Patrick’s voice rippled the very light he rode on.
“How do I get back?” Patrick yelled. He did not know why he asked this question. As far as he knew, Heaven was a one-way trip. But even so, something within him, perhaps his latent terror that he had got on the wrong bus and could only get back by retracing his steps, awoke and demanded an answer.
“How you get back?” Cheron was already drifting away and his scratchy voice drifted away into silence. “Cor, I go both ways! It’ll cost you though! They won’t pay both ways! But why would you want to leave?”
The boatman disappeared into a tiny speck beyond the horizon.
Patrick thought about the question as he turned and walked towards Heaven, carefully lifting each foot to be sure he cleared the low-lying clouds. Why would he ever want to leave?