Monday, September 29, 2014

The Three Stages

Lucifer rested his elbows on the edge of the table and leaned forward with an earnest expression.  “So the basic idea was this,” he explained.  “There would be three parts to each human’s life:  mortality, punishment, and reward.  Life is the part you already did, with the whole birth and development business.  You didn’t make it all the way through adolescence, of course, but it happens.”

Thanks for the sympathy, I thought.  I didn’t dare say it aloud for fear of incurring Lucifer’s wrath over a simple sarcastic interruption.

“Stage two, punishment, is where you are now,” he went on.  “Although you got a pretty good deal out of it because all the other dead people are subjected to stuff that is far less pleasant than being the devil.”

He paused, and for a few moments the only sounds we could hear other than “Kokomo” on the radio were the disgustingly loud chewing noises God was making as he went to town on the rest of his burger.  God was a very messy eater.  His behavior up to this point did not befit his status as a creator and an object of worship—and his table manners hadn’t done anything to break that pattern.
Hoping to keep Lucifer talking so I couldn’t hear the way God was inhaling his greasy sandwich, I said, “And the third stage?”

“The third stage is the reward.  The idea is that in life, you operate blindly and hopefully learn the differences between right and wrong on your own, because it’s more meaningful that way.  The second stage punishes you for what you’ve failed to learn, in varying degrees for varying offenses.  And the third stage is where everybody lives happily ever after, with all the learning and the suffering behind them.”

God wiped his sleeve across his mouth and added, “As creators of this universe and all life within it, I care very much about what happens to each and every one of you.”

“We both care,” Lucifer cut in.

“And that’s why we have to fix the system,” the sweating overweight ruler of the infinite cosmos said.  “Because no one is progressing from stage two to stage three.  The punishment is eternal and the reward is nonexistent.  That’s not what we wanted and that’s not what all of you deserve.”

Friday, September 26, 2014

Genesis

"Okay, you know what?" Lucifer interrupted.  "If we need this kid's help, we probably shouldn't bore him to death.  Maybe it would be better if I told him the story."

God frowned.  "Why?"

"Because I'm afraid that two hours later, you're still going to be in the middle of your needlessly detailed epic narrative about the first day of creation and by the time you get to the point he'll be bleeding from his ears."

"Harsh!" God whined.  "Why would you say that to me?"

Lucifer clapped a firm hand to God's shoulder and said solemnly, "Because friends tell each other the truth."

"Your beard looks stupid," God replied instantly.

"There," Lucifer said soothingly.  "Wasn't it nice to get that out?"

"Hey," I said cautiously. "I'm still here and I still have no idea what's going on."

"Right, sorry," God said.  "Go ahead and tell him the abridged version, Luce."

Lucifer nodded appreciatively.  "So in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."  He chuckled.  "Naw, man, I'm just kidding, there was tons of stuff before that."

If I wasn't almost positive that I was in the presence of two beings who were both infinitely more powerful than I was, I probably would have been losing my patience.  But I didn't dare throw a temper tantrum here, and it wasn't because I liked the French fries.

"Okay, so really, in the beginning, it was just me and God, right?" Lucifer continued.  "Super-awesome timeless beings frolicking around in space.  Two young friends with their whole eternities ahead of them.  Anyway, we decided to create our own universe together."

"Both of you?" I interrupted incredulously.  I guess I was still struggling with the concept that God and Lucifer were so friendly with each other.

"Yep," God confirmed.  "Both us.  We created this universe as a team."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Three's Company

"Lucifer?" I echoed nervously.  "Why is he here?"

God shook his head.  "He's not what you think," he assured me.  "We're old friends."  It wasn't very comforting coming from him.

A tall, thin, and strikingly handsome olive-skinned man in a dark suit sat down next to the creator of the universe.  He flashed me a brilliant grin, causing the thin goatee around his mouth to stretch comically.  "How ya doin, man?" he said, extending a hand.  "Name's Lucifer, good to meet you."

I shook his hand mostly because I didn't think it would be a good idea to offend him.  As I limply slipped my fingers into his firm grip, I noticed he had a pair of gold cufflinks that had a pitchforks engraved on them.  I wonder if he got those custom-made.  "Jason," I replied, hearing my dry voice crack a little.

"Alrighty, so here's the scoop," God said, pushing his sandwich aside and leaning forward earnestly.  "We need your help."

"We?" I asked.  "As in, both of you?"

"This kid's sharp," Lucifer whispered semi-confidentially.  "He's already picked up on the nuances of plural pronouns."

God chuckled and slapped him playfully on the arm.  "Luce, be nice.  He's probably a little bit in shock right now.  You'll have to excuse him," he added for my benefit.  "Sometimes he just can't resist the urge to crack wise."

"It's a gift and a curse," Lucifer agreed apologetically.

"Why do you guys need my help?" I said. 

"Because Hell is broken," God told me.  "And you're the first good chance we've had in ages to get it fixed."

"I don't understand," I confessed.

"He doesn't understand," Lucifer told the balding deity. 

"Maybe you need some background, then," God said.  He rested his chin on his palm again and stared off wistfully into space. 

Lucifer rolled his eyes.  "Get ready for a flashback," he warned me.

God gave what was probably a nostalgic sigh.  "It all started when I was creating the universe…."

Monday, September 22, 2014

Introduction

“So,” I said, my voice dry and raspy.  “What did you want to talk to me about?”

“Oh, lots of things,” he said.  “But for starters, I figured we should get to know each other a little.”

“But…don’t you know me already?” I asked.  “You know everything, right?”

“Well,” he said modestly.  “Not everything.  But you make a pretty good point.  So maybe you should get to know me a little.”

“Okay.”

“So,” he began, “I’m God.  I’m several billion years old—I kind of lost track, to be honest.  It doesn’t help that even if I knew exactly how old I was, I’d have to convert it into units based upon the length of your particular planet’s orbit around your particular sun, and that’s a lot of math that I really don’t feel like doing right now.”

“Okay….”

He put his elbow up on the edge of the table so that he could prop his chin up against his palm.  “Let’s see, what else?  I’m a huge Cubs fan.  Not many people know that.  It’s usually pretty surprising to most people because my favorite team hasn’t won a World Series, in, well…just about forever, but I think it’s more exciting to watch the team progress without giving them any kind of divine help.”  He paused, apparently thinking.  “I also really love just about any kind of food with barbecue sauce on it, which is why I come here for the Baron’s Bacon Beast Burger.”  He punctuated his sentence by picking up his half-eaten burger, taking a slow, deliberate bite, chewing thoughtfully, and swallowing with a smile.  He flashed me a thumbs-up.  “What do you think?” he asked.  “I could do commercials for these guys, right?”

I could not believe this babbling dork was actually God.  I kept expecting the big bearded guy in the white robe to walk out of the bathroom and thank Pudgy McTalkative here for saving his seat.  “Yeah, sure,” I said lamely, mostly because there really wasn’t much else that I could have said.

“Okay,” he said with a sigh, using a napkin to dab a spot of sauce from his lip.  “I guess maybe I tried too hard with the introductions and the pleasantries.  Would you like to get down to some business?”

If that meant he was going to bring the real God over, then I was definitely on board.  “Sure,” I said.

The man turned around and yelped toward another guy seated a few tables away.  “Lucifer,” he shouted.  “We’re ready for you.”

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Meeting Begins

The first thing I did when I entered the restaurant was scan my surroundings for anyone who might immediately stand out as some kind of deity.  Nobody fit the bill. 

Business seemed to be slow for Burger Baron.  A meager few customers were seated in the dining room and there was only one more waiting to order at the front counter.  It was warm and cozy inside, which gave it a sense of shelter from the chilly, gloomy weather I’d just left behind.  Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps” was playing from the speakers in the ceiling.  It was a jarringly inappropriate song to be hearing considering that I was about to meet the creator of the universe.  In that respect, this place reminded me a lot of my initial arrival in Hell’s waiting room.

A heavyset, balding man who appeared to be in his mid thirties gave me a wave.  “Jason!” he called out.  “Over here, buddy.” 

I moved cautiously toward him.  This was God?  A jolly, ruddy-faced guy who was dressed like he could be an accountant?  Granted, the devil hadn’t been what I was expecting, either, but this was way off.  On the plus side, God had just called me “buddy” without any trace of sarcasm.  That was encouraging.

“Hey,” the man said, grinning up at me from the booth.  “How are you? Have a seat.”  He motioned for me to sit down across from him.  “I’d get up to shake your hand, but I have barbecue sauce all over mine.”

I numbly slid onto the vinyl seat and stared at him. 

“I’m not really that big on ettiquite,” the man said.  “I mean, I started eating without you, I haven’t offered you any, I didn’t shake your hand because I’m all messy, and I didn’t even stand up when you arrived.  It’s okay, though, because most people are so scared shitless by me that nobody ever complains about my bad manners.”  He paused and leaned forward.  “Come on, kid, that was a joke.”

“Oh!” I said awkwardly.  I let out a weak chuckle.

“Lighten up,” he said with a winsome smile.  “I don’t bite, I swear.  I’m cute and cuddly.”

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Meeting Place

The wind definitely was whipping at me harder than a swarm of angry yellow jackets.  I’ve never been swarmed by angry yellow jackets before, but I had a hard time believing they’d be able to hit me at a hundred miles an hour or generate these kinds of G-forces.  Salabas liked to fly fast and low and he took his turns sharply and even threw in a couple of unnecessary flips.

Luckily, however, we didn’t seem to have far to go.  He stopped abruptly in a parking lot a few miles away and eased me down to a feathery landing as though he hadn’t just rocketed me through my hometown at breakneck speed.  Taking a moment to catch my breath and recover from a bout of dizziness, I looked around slowly at my surroundings.  “Burger Baron?” I asked.

Salabas nodded, which was when I realized that his enormous sombrero had inexpicably remained mounted firmly on his head through that chaotic flight.  “We needed a neutral meetin’ place,” he said apologetically.  “Everybody loves a good burger.”

“I guess I was expecting some kind of grand throne room in the clouds,” I admitted.

“Naw,” the angel replied with a chuckle.  “Gettin’ you into Heaven would be harder than gettin’ a pig snout out of the feedin’ trough, and getting’ you back out would be even harder.”

I frowned.  I guess that made sense, since Conrad seemed to have implied that my presence in Heaven following each of my deaths was unusual and tenuous.  “So God’s inside?” I asked.

“Straight shootin’,” he confirmed.  “Go on in, son.”

My legs felt all wobbly, and it wasn’t just from the berserk joyride I’d just been taken on.  “How will I recognize him?” I asked.  “I mean, white beard, glowing countenance, that kind of thing?”

Salabas gave me a wide grin.  “Oh, you’ll recognize him,” he assured me.  “He’ll be the one who recognizes you.”

“Okay, whatever,” I said apprehensively.  “You’re not coming in?”

He shook his head.  “I ain’t invited.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Uh, thanks for the ride, then, I guess.”

“My pleasure,” he said graciously, sweeping off his hat to make an elaborate bow. 

I walked up to the front door of Burger Baron, steeled myself, took a deep breath, and pushed it open.  I’d never been this terrified to walk into a fast food restaurant.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Nothing to Wear

"God?" I stammered.  "God wants to talk to me?"

"Heck," Salabas smirked, "I reckon there's lots of people he wants to talk to, but right now, you're topping the list."

I felt my stomach quivering with nerves.  Ruling over Hell was a pretty daunting thing to face, but I'd kind of gotten used to it.  Now I was expected to have a little chat with the guy who rules over everything?  The Creator?  The Man Behind the Curtain?  God? 

"Do I need to, like, change my clothes or something?" I stammered.  I could probably find a tux in that massive closet in my devil's bedroom.  I didn't want to show up to a meet and greet with the most important being in the universe in a bloodstained t-shirt. 

"Naw, man, you ain't gotta change nothing," Salabas assured me.  "God won't sweat the particulars of your wardrobe, he's a real down-to-earth kind of guy."

 An unexpected silence elbowed its way into the conversation.  I glanced around awkwardly.  "Oh, I get it," I said.  "It's like a pun or something, right?"

Salabas blinked.

"God?" I said.  "Down-to-earth?  Cuz he…you know…?"

"Oh," Talamur said helpfully, appearing confused.  "No, I think I get it."

"I don't think he was joking," Sylnie whispered to me.  Jaelin rolled her eyes.

"I sure as heckfire was not," Salabas confirmed.  "But if you're ready, sir, it is probably for the best if we don't keep our Lord Almighty waiting."  He offered me his elbow like he was about to escort me onto the ballroom floor.  I reached out for it and gripped him by the forearm.  "You'll want to hold on tighter than that," he told me with a smile.  "The way I fly, you'll have the wind whippin' at ya harder than a swarm of angry yellow jackets."

I looped my arm tighter into his elbow and said meekly, "Did you say fly?"  And then we were off like some kind of psychotic derailed bullet train.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Always a Threat

"So," Sylnie said, "Now what?"

"I don't know," I admitted.  "I'm pretty sure we scared them off for a while but I have a feeling our favorite little cult isn't just going to quit trying to overrun the world."

"And we didn't kill them all, which bears mentioning," Talamur pointed out.  "As long as one of them who has been to the Realm of the Living has survived, there will always be the threat of an invasion."  Jaelin murmured in agreement.

"So we still need to figure out who's in charge, right?" Sylnie asked excitedly.  "Hunt 'em down and take 'em out!"  She smacked a closed fist against her open palm.  "Bring the hurt, right?"  Apparently she was enjoying the rush of our recent victory in battle.

"Yeah," I said somberly.  "If only we had some information to go on."

"Salabas?" Talamur asked.  "You have anything to add?  You've been on the quiet side."

Salabas had been quiet.  Ever since Kezin had left, our resident angel had appeared to be lost in thought.  He perked up distractedly at the mention of his name.  "Hmm?  I'm very sorry, there, chief, but I'm afraid I wasn't listening just now."

"We have a slew of demons who've formed a secret society bent on taking over the Realm of the Living and we don't know who they are or how to stop them, but you go ahead and tune out if you want to," Talamur said.  I was pretty sure that he was teasing, but I didn't have a good grasp on the relationship between the two of them yet.

"My apologies again, sir," Salabas said, tipping his ridiculous sombrero in Talamur's direction.  "I was receiving a message."  He turned to me.  "God would like a few minutes of your time."