The Lovers, Parts 4.5 and 5
January 11, 2012 § Leave a comment
Technically, part 4.5 and 5. This is going to be a long post because part 5 is a doozy. I like it, but this story is growing and growing quickly. Again, I’m splitting part 5 into two pieces, but I’ll update again either tomorrow or Friday.
Remember, if you want to see all the parts in order, check the “Categories” on the right side of the page, under “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”.
Patrick turned and walked towards Heaven, carefully lifting each foot to be sure he cleared the low-lying clouds. Distance meant preciously little here, and he was suddenly in a sunny meadow, far far removed from any seas of light. Surprised, he looked down and saw he had his body back, now wrapped in a delightfully airy white toga. The sun shone down on soft grasses, and the fragrant scents of lilac, sunflower, and rose filled the air. Birds sang sweetly in the trees nearby and deer poked their heads out through the curtain of foliage. An old man, bald and Arabic-looking with a thick black beard and wearing a blue tunic and long robe, sat cross-legged leafing through a book.
Patrick walked towards him, as there was little else to do, and relished the feeling of walking barefoot through the grass. The earth compressed pleasingly beneath his feet and were soon stained black and green and smelled of broken grass. It felt peaceful. It was.
The man looked up at he approached, and his dark face split into a smile. His eyes were warm and inviting, and his voice even more so.
“Hello, Patrick. Welcome.”
“Uhh. Hello?” Patrick did not mean for it to come out as awkwardly as it did, but that was Patrick for you. He was, however, pleased to find that his toga had what approximated pockets. He buried his hands in them.
“I am Peter. Please, sit. I can only assume this is difficult for you.”
“Well,” honesty came easy to Patrick’s lips, “it is a little. I mean, I’m dead right?” Peter nodded. “And this is…well, seems like Heaven, right?” Peter nodded again. “So that means…” the rest of Patrick’s conscious waited eagerly for Patrick’s brain to catch up with his tongue, “Oh balls, you’re St. Peter.”
Peter broke out into hearty laughter, and slapped his knee. “Indeed I am. And you’re Patrick O’Flanagan, you mealy-mouthed rascal. We’re in Heaven, don’t you know? There’s no swearing, no drinking, no fun and all that!” He winked, and Patrick couldn’t help but smile. “I’m sure you have dozens of questions, but do not be afraid. We have plenty of time for all that. First, however, a little formality.” Peter flipped his book open to a seemingly random page and ran his finger down a list of names.
Patrick tried to crane his neck and look at what was written there, but the words seemed to swim across the page, always just out of his grasp. With a flourish and a laugh, Peter stabbed his finger down on one of the names. It burned into being on the page with letters of fire that spelt “Patrick O’Flanagan” in every alphabet that ever existed.
“Aha! There you are! I knew your name sounded familiar, even before Cheron brought you over. Yes, you can count yourself one of the elect.” He flashed his white teeth again. “You’re in, son.”
Relief flooded through Patrick, releasing unnoticed tension like a hot shower in the winter. He hadn’t dwelt on it, but he had been terrified this was all a big mistake and he was headed right downstairs, only after embarrassing everyone and wasting their time, of course. To hear, from the man himself, that everything was alright, finally made him accept it.
He was dead, but he was in Heaven, and Heaven seemed to be real. If metaphysics had a lottery (which some devas were still bitterly disappointed it did not), then Patrick could have counted himself lucky that he seemed to have won it.
Peter fished inside his tunic and pulled out two heavy-looking, iron keys. He handed one, the smaller, to Patrick. “You go on ahead now. You’re home now.”
Patrick took the key, which was weightless despite its size. He remembered his manners at the last second and shook Peter’s hand. Peter’s felt old and callused but strong. Solid.
Peter smiled and winked again. “Don’t worry. It’ll all come in time. Right now, it’s fine to just feel relieved. We mortals never kicked the fear of the black nothingness that comes after. It’s normal to be overwhelmed. Right now, I’d suggest you go on in there, eat as much as you can, then run until you’d throw up if you still had a stomach. We might not have actual bodies any longer, but these are a fair imitation, and eating and exercise still do wonders for the mind.”
Patrick nodded, but was still slightly baffled. “Sure. I guess? That seems right. But, where to now?”
Peter pointed at Patrick’s chest. Patrick followed the finger with his eyes and recoiled. There was a large iron lock implanted in his chest. It ought to have surprised and terrified Patrick, but he reasoned that considering what had happened before, this was par for the course.
He put the key in the lock and turned it. A second later, he was in Heaven.
A great many things happened in that second.
Amira had to concede that Mr. Saturday’s house was fabulous. He resided on the top floor of a flat that overlooked a city street, much like New Orleans on Mardi Gras, and that seemed to be in constant revelry. People drifted by wearing fantastic and impossible costumes, while sober black men in black suits blasted jazz from trumpets at the top of their lungs. Laughter and shouting filled the streets with noise as people were jostled back and forth in a good-natured, and drunken, dance.
She stood on a balcony and leaned against a white wooden railing that had been artfully carved into roses and naked men and women. Her hand idly rubbed something inappropriate until she realized what she was doing and blushed. She held a drink, a Sazerac, in her gloved hand. Gloved, because Mr. Saturday had procured a fabulous dress that swept from her bosom to the floor. It was accented with a lace collar and choker and elbow-length black gloves, and gems sparkled on her ears, around her neck, and from her hair. He had said that it simply would not do for her not to be dressed for his guests.
Amira, her finger removed from the railing, toyed with the diamond around her neck. It was a gift, as Mr. Saturday repeatedly said, but she couldn’t shake the feeling of wrongness that came with it. There were voices, muted compared to the revelry that filled the streets below her, that drifted out from the flat. Mr. Saturday’s guests, she supposed, had arrived. Briefly, she considered staying where she was and sipping her Sazerac until the morning came back, but he had been polite to her since they arrived and had made only this small request of her.
The walk from the pit to Mr. Saturday’s neighbourhood had been surreal, in that her brain could not comprehend it. In just steps they crossed deserts that burned beneath the sun, cities filled with the bustle of life, farms filled to busting with food, volcanic plains that sizzled and smelt of bad eggs, and vast wastelands of sheer nothingness until they came to this city that seemed perpetually at twilight. It was obviously modelled to look like New Orleans, but as if someone had only been there during Mardi Gras, and had only stayed at the swanky French District.
She had been numb the entire time. Emotions tried to peek through her outer shell, but they were blunted by the facts as she encountered them.
One: she was in Hell.
Two: she was alone.
Three: she was in Hell.
Those facts sufficed to make any thoughts beyond blind panic or ecstatic hysteria practically impossible, and it took all of her strength just to maintain her composure. Someone called to the madame! Madame sur la balcone! But she ignored them. She was in no mood for drunken revelry, and had no intention of showing anyone her lady parts as many in the crowd were presently doing. A woman who looked like she had just stepped from a Roman fresco was completely naked but for a golden collar, and danced with a rough-looking man in a soldier’s uniform and an English gentleman wearing nothing but a codpiece. Amira let it wash over her and didn’t even acknowledge when the crowd started cheering.
Mr. Saturday, dressed in the same suit and face paint (Amira, at least, hoped it was face paint), appeared beside her and waved to the crowd. They exploded into ecstasy at the sight of him, clapping and screaming and shouting. Amira felt that some of those screams sounded like terror before they were lost in the cheers.
Mr. Saturday slipped his arm around her shoulders. “Cher, it’s time to meet my guests. They came a long way to see little old me. Do you like the party? I made you my guest of honour tonight, and called this fete in your honour. What happiness, no?”
Amira allowed the arm to hang around her and steer her around inside and away from the fete. “Your city is quite…exuberant.” She managed. “Do they always celebrate so?”
“Of course!” His smile was the smile of the hunting tiger and Amira smelt blood. “Tonight is special, for you and my guests, but we just love a good fete down here. Laugh and sing, cher, for tomorrow we dead. Today we dead too, but it’s tomorrow that we don’t care for.” He chuckled at his own joke and slid open the balcony door for her.
Amira stepped back into the flat and marvelled at it. Animal skins covered the wooden floor and despite the low ceiling, a full chandelier sparkled above them. Stark wooden furniture, the padding made of zebra skins, supported the guests, and finely carved French tables groaned under the weight of food and drink. Animal heads, most from Africa, stared down, their faces frozen in taxidermic frenzy.
The guests rose as they entered, and Amira felt the irresistible urge to curtsy. She lowered her gaze demurely, because this allowed her to look somewhere else. To say that the guests frightened her was incorrect. To say that every second she looked at them weakened what little will she had to avoid dissolving into a puddle is far more correct.
“Good evenin’, all. Thank you for coming to my little fete. This here little lady is Amira Mehenni, ain’t she sweet? She’s the lady that’s got me so wound up I can’t hardly sleep, not that I sleep much anyways.” Mr. Saturday was a consummate businessman. His voice flowed like wine to the ears, selling something even though no-one was buying. His movements were filled with easy grace and charm. The twirl of his fingers punctuated a sentence and the angle of his hat accented his words. The room took on a friendly air, as though they were all pals and not horrible monsters sitting in Hell.
“Let me introduce you to my friends, Amira. This here is Brimir, one of Surtr’s boys. Fire giant. Don’t let him scare you, he’s just a big softy.” Brimir was an enormous man, easily ten feet tall and broader than two Mr. Saturday’s side by side, and who had never heard of being soft. He wore archaic-looking leather clothing and a long red cloak over his shoulder. Fire crackled in his mouth and his eyes glowed red from beneath his long black hair. His head barely inclined to Amira, and his fingers drummed on the sword he wore at his side.
They turned to a goat-faced man with a tail of peacock feathers and fine brown slacks, and who sent shivers up Amira’s bones. “This here is Adramelech, President of the Demonic Senate himself!”
Adramelech chewed his cud and spat in a silver bucket on the floor. “And supervisor of the Dark Prince’s wardrobe! Takes a keen eye to dress the Lord of Lies.” His goat-eye fixed on Amira. “And well met to you, Amira Mehenni. We know all about you. Shame what happened on the plane…but that’s life, is it not?”
“Charmed, I’m certain.” Amira managed. Brimir was at least somewhat human, but Adramelech was despicably wrong. It hurt her psyche just to consider him in the same room as her, so she turned quickly to the next guest. It was a beautiful woman with flowing blond hair and icy-blue eyes. Her skin was pale, as white as milk, and she seemed so thin that she would be blown away by a passing breeze. In every manner, except for her flowing, diaphanous blue gown and raven perched on her shoulder, she resembled a perfectly normal human. She lowered her head to Amira and smiled prettily.
“Good evening, cher.” Mr. Saturday bent low and kissed her hand. “Madame Ala, I do declare you grow finer every day. What’s your secret?”
She laughed politely, and her voice was the soft tinkling of chimes in the wind and accented like Eastern Europe. “Why, Mr. Samedi, if I told you, it would no longer be a secret, and you know how my mother is with her secrets. She would flay the flesh from my body, leave my bones out for the dragons of the field to crack with their teeth, and boil my organs for soup if I so much as told you my name.”
Mr. Saturday chuckled, but there was an edge to it that spoke of anger. “Of course, cher.” With that, the anger was gone and the businessman was back. “This is the mysterious Ala, ambassador for the venerable Baba Yaga. I’d say don’t get on her mother’s bad side, but I’m not sure she’s got a good side!”
They all tittered politely, but Amira noticed the raven squawk and dig its talons into Ala’s flesh, drawing lines of blood across the pale skin. She seemed unconcerned but patted the raven on the beak, softly murmuring to it in a strange tongue.
“And last, but certainly not least, we have the mighty Humbaba himself! Can I say that you coming, all the way from your cedar trees, is the best favor you could give a fellow? I’ve been fixin’ to come by your den, but business, non?”
The last thing was also an enormous man, though not nearly the size of Brimir. He had a lion’s head and a man’s body, and was naked from the waist up. He wore fine silk pants over his enormous legs, but sat with his arms crossed and a scowl on his leonine face.
“Enough flattery, loa. We have business tonight, let us be about it.” Humbaba growled.
Brimir nodded. Although the giant’s chin hardly came closer to his chest, it was a motion filled to the brim with violence. Amira wondered what would happen if violence did indeed break out. Could she be hurt? Could she die again? She was, after all, currently in possession of a physical (or what passed for physical in Hell) body. Would it, could it, be destroyed?
Her mind preferred not to think of such things.
Mr. Saturday ignored the slight and clapped his hands. Amira nearly shrieked as bow-tie wearing skeletons came through the door, each carrying a silver tray with a simple tin cup and small chunk of bread. They clacked about awkwardly and held them out for the guests. One came close to Amira and thrust a tray at her. She recoiled, and Aya tittered from where she sat. Her face blushing with the perverse desire not to look foolish in front of legendary monsters and demons (pride, after all, takes more than death to kill it), she quickly grabbed the small cup and piece of bread and nodded the skeleton.
Taking no more notice of her than the fact he lacked flesh and eyes, the skeleton shambled away. The other guests each took the offered cup and bread. Aya looked distinctly uncomfortable around the silver tray, and carefully picked up her cup and bread without touching the metal.
Mr. Saturday raised the cup and bread. “Peace, brothers and sisters. No harm intended, no deception passed as truth, no traps laid, and no gifts carelessly given.”
With that, the guests ate and drank. Brimir threw both cup and bread in his mouth and swallowed them whole. Adramelech daintily sipped and nibbled, while Aya let the raven worry the bread and dip its beak in the water. Humbaba only ate and drank after everyone else, including Amira, who was suddenly ravenous. She finished the meagre offering but hesitated to take anything from the tray. Although the food, most of it delicacies from the American south, looked delicious, no-one else made any effort to take the offered food. Amira had no reason to feel awkward to be the first, but she also had no intention of taking food from that table unless someone else did.
She went hungry.