The end of the first book in the Death and the Maiden Trilogy and a hint of the second novel. I had far too much fun writing this.
The Gaia hypothesis states that the Earth functions like a living organism – upset the balance, and everything hangs askew. As a biology major, I was intimately familiar with the theory. Scientists said we had exacerbated the planet, accelerating climate change. Zealots said it was the End Times. For the first time in history, the fanatics were right, and the rationalists wrong.
Natural disasters increased tenfold – each week, a hurricane, a tsunami, an earthquake. The death toll climbed and climbed. Wars broke out over resources. I read the papers, numb.
It had been easy enough to lie to my parents. Samael had bound the horsemen in my twin’s comatose body, but when he had wanted to keep Mo under the archdemons’ watch in Hell, I had exploded. And so we’d staged a car crash, wrecking Mo’s car, with my brother behind the wheel, limp like he’d had a head-on collision with a tree. I had called my family from the passenger seat, faking panic, when all I could feel inside was nothing. Nothing but bitter cold.
The ambulance had arrived, sirens wailing like the cries of a banshee. They had carried Mo out in a stretcher. He was a prisoner in his own body – brain activity raging, trapped immobile in his own limbs. I could only imagine what war burned on in his undead mind.
I was beside him in the hospital, reading him his favorite author, Stephen King, in the hopes that he might hear.
Mo’s heart rate spiked.
His eyes shot open. He began to seizure.
“Mo? Mo! Doctor, doctor, he’s awake!”
The hospital staff flooded in. Nurses ushered me out of the room. And so my dead brother rose, soul trapped in his body, Samael’s binding not strong enough to stand up to the horsemen.
“I’m fine, Shannikins. Stop watching me.” Mo tried to move from his bed. He lost his balance and fell onto the mattress, clutching his temple. “Ugh, my head. Man, I feel like I ran skull-first into a tree. Wait – I did.” Mo grinned.
“Don’t joke about that,” I said, secretly relieved he didn’t remember what had really occurred. He was pale, so pale, almost the same shade as Samael. I set a breakfast tray on his nightstand.
Mo’s recovery had thawed my heart. For the first time in weeks, there was a flicker of hope – Samael’s binding had contained the horsemen in my brother, and for all intents and purposes, Mo was alive, with no knowledge that he was a vessel for Pestilence, Famine, and War.
Things weren’t as bright in the celestial realms. Michael, Heaven’s foremost archangel, was possessed by God’s Word, forced to act out his role as Heaven’s general in the final battle between Heaven and Hell. At his side were countless angelic drones, unthinking vessels of God’s wrath.
The other archangels, their free will still intact, had sided with Hell to prevent a premature Apocalypse. Forced out of Heaven by Michael, they had taken refuge in Hell, much to their chagrin. It was an awkward family reunion, especially considering that a third of their siblings had been disowned.
The only angel who seemed happy was Raphael, whose joviality wouldn’t deflate even if he was a balloon with a pin pushed in. He had taken over Samael’s kitchen, treating me daily to a world of cuisine – Creole recipes, Thai curries, Mexican innovations. Tonight was his famous gumbo. Demons and angels lined up with bowls, stretching out into Samael’s parlor, waiting for the archangel to ladle out gumbo by the liter.
I stood between Uriel and Izrail, salivating at the scent of the stew. Uriel’s tattoos shone on her dark skin. Izrail, the angel of souls, was busy studying one of the butterflies that she carried on her shoulders. The subject of Izrail’s fascination was a blue Morpho, just like I had seen on my trip to the Amazon.
“Shannon, hold out your finger,” Izrail said, voice like wind chimes.
I obliged. Izrail coaxed the scintillating blue insect onto my hand.
The butterfly crawled onto my wrist. “It’s beautiful. Like a slice of sky.”
Izrail smiled. “Butterflies are symbols of the soul. Isn’t that right, Beelzebub?”
Beelzebub glanced over his shoulder. “Flies are better,” he grumbled.
Uriel snorted. “Flies eat crap, Beel. They’re disgusting. I hate bugs. Bugs and worms.”
Samael sidled up to me, glass of absinthe in hand. “Did someone say worms?”
I rolled my eyes, handing the butterfly back to Izrail. “Thanks, Izzy.”
“Someone said worms, right?” Samael repeated, clearly drunk. Alcoholism was his coping mechanism for the Apocalypse.
Uriel ignored him, holding out her bowl for Raphael. Raphael gave her a hearty serving of shrimp-and-sausage gumbo. It was my turn next. Samael hovered beside me.
Raphael grinned. “If it isn’t my favorite human.” He held his hand out for a fist bump. I pounded it.
“Hey Raff,” I said. He filled my bowl to the brim.
Samael reached for my spoon. Raphael swiped his hand away.
“Sam, back of the line,” Raphael chuckled. “You can’t mooch off Shannon.”
Samael narrowed his eyes. “I’m the eldest, Raphael. I should eat first, especially before a mortal.”
“Hey!” I said, punching him in the side.
The gumbo was delicious. I ate it in the courtyard, which had been converted into a mess hall. The archdemons’ dwellings, including Samael’s, had become living quarters for the angelic host. Hell’s cramped capital, Pandemonium, already overflowing with immigrants from the otherworlds, had little space for Heaven’s inhabitants. The angels sat with the angels and the demons with the demons, still uncomfortable with their forced closeness.
Samael was a drunken heap at the head of the archdemons’ table. He leered at me as I bit into a sausage chunk.
“What?” I said.
Samael looked at his empty bowl, then back to my half-filled one. He pursed his lips, pleading.
“No! This is my dinner.”
“Stop bothering her,” Beelzebub said. “You’re irritating everyone.”
“Irritating you?” Samael said. “I’m not the one who’s been a pill since two-thirds of our family gate-crashed the underworld.”
Beelzebub narrowed his eyes. “No, you’ve just been an alcohol-ridden slob.”
Samael blew air through his teeth. He surreptitiously reached for my spoon. “Give me a break. It’s called the demon drink, after all. How else am I supposed to blow steam in this hellhole?”
I wrestled my spoon from Samael’s grip.
“Maybe by relying less on absinthe and more on your supposed wits to plan our next attack,” Beelzebub said. “Michael’s forces are making advances into the Sixth Heaven, moving down the celestial ladder rung by rung. We have little time for dinner parties or flirtation.”
“We’re not flirting!” I said, anger red on my cheeks.
Samael laughed. “I am.” He released my spoon without warning and it went flying across the table, into Astaroth’s champagne.
The demoness smiled and delicately removed my spoon. “Remember when we were young, Beel?” Astaroth said to her husband.
“Beel wrote me poetry, Shannon – sonnets, villanelles, ballads,” Astaroth teased, taking Beelzebub’s hand in hers.
Beelzebub adjusted his collar. He said nothing, eyes burning holes in the ground.
“Crappy ones, if I remember,” Samael said. “A Shakespeare Beel is not.”
“I thought they were lovely,” Astaroth said.
Someone cleared their throat. I looked behind me to see Asmodeus, bowl in hand.
“Any room for me?” Asmodeus said.
“Sure.” I slid over on the bench to make space for him.
“How’s your brother?” Asmodeus asked, carefully eating his gumbo.
I sighed. “Mo’s doing better. He doesn’t remember anything. We’re getting ready to go back to college, and he’s pissed he can’t play football. Maybe all this sitting around on his butt will turn him into an intellectual.”
Samael snorted. “That kid has about fifteen brain cells, maggot. Probably less now that he’s the Horsemen’s vessel.”
“Hey!” I said. “Mo’s smart in his own way – a way that doesn’t involve school. He’s people-smart. A lady-killer.” I shook my head. “God, why is he dating my roommate?”
The demons laughed.
“Probably to torment you,” Samael said. “I’ll need you to keep an eye on your twin on campus and make sure he remains stable. The closer Michael’s forces get to Earth, the more likely the horsemen will act up.”
I nodded, nervous. “Okay. And what about Metatron? Where is he?” I asked, referring to the Watcher’s ally, the angel that had made it possible for Raziel to start the Apocalypse.
Samael’s face darkened. “We don’t know, not yet. After the chaos of the Ark of the Covenant’s destruction, the Watchers fled, supposedly to wherever Metatron is hiding. They’re biding their time, waiting for the chaos to begin.”
“We can’t let that happen,” I said.
Asmodeus gave a throaty laugh. “You don’t have to tell us that.”
Dinner passed and I found myself on the outskirts of Samael’s practice field, in a section that had been converted into a shooting range. Angels and demons ran drills around me. Having already mastered Samael’s scythe and Asmodeus’ swordstick, my training with the shards of the Lapis Exillis had progressed to Beelzebub’s revolver. The compound-eyed demon guided my arm into the right position. I aimed at a target’s bullseye.
“Get ready for the recoil, Shannon,” Beelzebub buzzed, letting go of my arm.
“Okay.” I pulled the trigger.
The bullet ripped loose, faster than any manmade weapon. Smoke that smelled of brimstone rose from the barrel of the gun. I missed the target by a foot, further proving I was a lousy shot.
Beelzebub sighed. He crossed his arms. “It’s about perspective. You have to have a feel for your target. Samael tells me you’re an artist. Apply that eye for detail to your aim.”
I stared intently at my sneakers. “I just can’t do it. Every time I fire a round, it’s like my vision goes wonky. I focus so much on the target that I miss it, if that makes sense.”
Raphael, done jogging laps with his regiment, smiled toothily at us as he came running over. “Go easy on her, Beel. You were always the best at marksmanship. Living up to your legacy is hard.” Raphael ruffled my hair. “God knows I’m a lousy shot.”
“We don’t have time for anything less than perfection,” Beelzebub said. “She’s obstinate – like she’s not even trying.”
My patience snapped. “I am!”
“Beel, relax,” Raphael said. “She’s only human. Not a war drone. Shannon, have you tried closing your eyes?”
My lips opened in an O of surprise. “What do you mean?”
Raphael grinned. “Exactly what I said. Trust in the weapon. It’s a shard of the Lapis Exillis – it’s alive, in its own way. You might be surprised.”
Beelzebub narrowed his eyes. “You know, that sounds ridiculous, but might possibly work. It can’t make her any worse than she already is.”
I looked at the revolver and shrugged. “Here goes nothing.” I raised the gun, focused on the target, and closed my eyes. The weapon was hot in my hands. It seemed to hum. Curious, I slightly lowered, then lifted, the gun, until the humming was near constant.
I pulled the trigger.
The bullet cracked out of the barrel. I heard Beelzebub draw a sharp intake of breath. I opened my eyes to see a perfect hole in the center of the target.
I gaped. “It worked?”
“Told you,” Raphael said, slipping his headphones back on, humming along to rap music, and running like a gazelle into the night.
Beelzebub smiled, a rare sight. “Perhaps I misjudged you.”
“You think?” I handed him the gun, which he slipped into a holster at his belt.
I smelled alcohol. I turned to see Samael stumbling towards us. “My maggot, lethal as always,” he slurred. He collapsed against a fence, a dopey smile on his face. Samael reached for a flask from the pocket of his robe and drained the remnants of absinthe within.
Beelzebub cursed. “You git.”
Samael gazed at the stars. “Please, spare me your lecture. I’m just trying to enjoy the fact that my home has been turned into barracks.”
Beelzebub muttered to himself and left without a backwards glance. Samael slumped to the ground, yawning.
“You smell like a bar,” I said, leaning down to help him up.
“It’s my aesthetic.” Samael burped.
“Being an alcoholic?”
Samael hooked his arm around me, pulling me unceremoniously down into the dirt, wrapping his arms around me. “Don’t judge me. I was ancient before atoms were created. I was millenia old before you were a figment of God’s imagination. I have been to the outer boundaries, seen the face of existence, and laughed. Laughed at the folly of being.”
I pried his viselike grip from my shoulders. “You’re ranting again. I think you should go to bed.”
Samael mumbled and tried to kiss my neck. I grabbed his hands and hauled him to his feet. He stumbled after me into his mansion, up the main staircase and into his room. It was more cluttered than usual, which was saying something. I shoved a heap of laundry off his comforter – all black reaping robes that smelled of cigarettes – and forced Samael onto the bed. He protested half-heartedly, squirming as I drew the blankets over him.
I dimmed the lights.
“Don’t I at least get a goodnight kiss?” Samael said.
“Fine. Just one. I have to go, it’s late – hey!”
He caught my wrists as I was leaning down over him and pulled me on top of him. Samael burrowed his head into the crook of my neck. “You’re not going anywhere.” He hiccupped.
I struggled to rid myself of him, to no avail. “Yes, I am. You’re plastered, and I’m moving back to Hortense tomorrow. I need sleep, and if I stay here, I won’t get any.”
He smoothed the hair on my forehead. “But I have to show you something. Something beautiful.”
“If this is you trying to seduce me, I’m going to castrate you.”
He twined his fingers through mine. “No. It’s more important than that. Close your eyes.”
“If you’re trying to fondle me-”
“Okay, okay.” I squeezed my eyes shut, humoring the addict.
The air cooled, and I opened my eyes to see that we were in the Cave of Souls, the candlelit repository of spirits at the base of the Tree of Knowledge. I was calmed by the lullaby atmosphere.
Samael released me, and I rolled off him, staring up at the roots far above us.
“Why did you bring me here?” I asked, mesmerized by the candles’ slow burn.
Samael smiled. “To show you this.” He flicked his wrists, and the stone pews of souls shifted, parting like a curtain to expose more tapers. The gulf of candles widened, leaving a stretch of darkness. A single candle emerged, high above the others, three-quarters full. Its flame, unlike the soft yellow of the others, was a bright blue.
Samael sighed. “Gorgeous, isn’t it?”
I squinted, trying to see what made it so remarkable. “Umm, not really – it looks like something I could buy at the Yankee Candle Factory in Williamsburg.”
Samael lightly squeezed my arm. “It’s your soul, Shannon.”
My skin crawled. “Oh. Why… why is it blue?”
“Blue flames are the hottest. Your soul and Adam’s, as the first humans created, are closest to the Source. They’re the brightest of them all.”
He snaked his arm under my waist. “You, me, God – we’re all just emanations of the Source, the force that binds Creation together. It’s what makes up your atoms and my ether. It’s what joins us. Angels call it Shekinah – the Holy Spirit.”
I thought back to Sunday school. “I thought the Holy Spirit was God – part of the Trinity.”
“It’s more complicated than that. The Shekinah has no personality. It’s the eldritch mother of all, the faceless Source from which we spring. Think of the Venus figurines ancient man carved. Gods, angels, mortals – we’re all just dancers on the Shekinah’s stage. If we were actors, the Shekinah would be the theater our lives played out on. My Father fancied Himself one with the Shekinah, but He’s no more one with the Source than I am.” Samael scoffed. “My Father is a fool.”
“Why is God letting the Apocalypse happen?”
“My Father tends to be very laissez faire with humanity – He lets free will play its course. You chose to start the Apocalypse to save your brother’s life, and so it came to pass.”
I slumped. “I didn’t mean to. I wasn’t thinking, Sam – I just couldn’t let my brother die.”
Samael hushed me. “It’s alright. No one blames you. Fine, maybe some do, especially Beelzebub, but I don’t. And you’ve met the angels. They’re a very forgiving lot. Raphael has nothing but glowing things to say about you.”
I rolled onto my side, facing away from Samael. “But Raff likes everybody,” I muttered. “The world might end, and it’s all my fault. Look at all the wars that I started. The outbreaks of disease. The natural disasters. They’ve all been exacerbated by my… my decision.”
Samael ran a finger down my spine. “Shannon, you’ve been kicking yourself in the gut ever since the Apocalypse started. Go easy on yourself. We’ll fix this.”
August heat beat down on my back as I hauled my belongings up three flights of stairs to my new apartment. Rosanna, Divya, and I had lucked out in the housing lottery, securing a spot in an on-campus apartment complex right near the dining hall. With three bedrooms, a living room, and communal kitchen, we were living large.
“You’re not putting up that god-awful David Bowie poster, are you?” Mo teased, carrying a box of my clothes. He dumped it on my bare mattress.
“Be careful with that!” I said, watching dresses spill from the container and onto the floor.
“Sorry. Ever since the accident my hand-eye coordination has gone to crap,” Mo said. He helped clean up the mess.
“Sorry,” I said.
“It’s fine,” Mo said.
“Hey, kiddo. Where does your chair go?” my dad said, entering the room, trailed by my mom.
“In the corner near the window,” I said.
“That’s the last of your things,” my mom said, gently putting my printer on my desk. Within the hour, my room was cozy as a clam. I hugged my parents goodbye and lounged in the living room, reading a travelogue by a turn-of-the-century naturalist. Mo rigged our TV so he could play a first-person shooter. My page-flipping was interspersed with screams of virtual characters meeting untimely demises.
I finished my book and looked up to see my twin, still absorbed in his game.
“Hey Mo?” I said.
He cocked his head over his shoulder. “Yeah?”
“You’d tell me if you started to feel off, right?”
Mo’s temple throbbed. “Shannon, would you do me a favor?”
Mo flicked the controller. “Stop treating me like broken glass. Ever since the accident, you’ve been walking on eggshells around me. It’s like you think I’m a different person or something.”
“I don’t. I’m just worried. I know how much football means to you, and – and if I were in your position, I would be pissed at the world.”
Mo shrugged. He gave me his signature crooked smile. “Don’t sweat it. To be honest, I’m kind of glad I’m not playing football this season. I’d rather spend more time with Rosanna and my friends, maybe get in some practice on the drums.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Drums?”
Mo smirked. “Yeah. I’m taking drumming lessons. Rosanna and I were thinking of starting a band. She sings like Amy Winehouse, but you knew that already. Baxter is a bassist, and I figured the three of us together would make a kickass group.”
I grinned. “That sounds like a great idea. Maybe you’ll actually learn how to keep tempo.”
There was a knock at the door. “Hey, Shannon, it’s me. Unlock the door!” came Rosanna’s voice. I jumped off the couch and welcomed her family in.
We hugged hard, and she pecked Mo on the lips. “My two favorite twins,” Rosanna said, one arm around each of us. “Mo, I was so damn worried about you. The minute I leave, you become a reckless driver.” She shook her head and mussed his hair. “I’m glad you’re better, cariño.”
We helped Rosanna unpack. She talked our ears off about her internship at a literary agency in New York City and the hundreds of romance novel queries she’d had to read:
“Really, guys, these women have never had sex in their lives. The way they described anatomy made me want to stab myself with a pen.”
“Why romance novels?” I asked.
Rosanna smiled. “I thought they would be more entertaining than highbrow literary fiction.”
Divya arrived soon after, with boyfriend Seth Yoon in tow, and the five of us went to our usual hangout, the Golden Dragon.
“I can’t believe we’re sophomores already,” Divya said after taking a delicate bite of a bubble pancake, the Golden Dragon’s specialty, which deflated when she poked it with her fork.
“Yeah, crazy,” Mo said. “So much has happened since last year. I even built up my alcohol tolerance: I can do keg stands now without puking.”
“Heck no. I’m not letting you drink anymore,” Divya said. “You crashed into a tree. If you were intoxicated you would have driven straight off a cliff.”
Guilt flared in my gut. I hadn’t told Divya, or even Rosanna, that Mo was the horsemen’s vessel. I didn’t want Rosanna worrying that her boyfriend was a puppet of the apocalyptic squadron.
I stared at my chicken feet, which I had ordered on a whim. I wasn’t really sure how to eat them.
Divya took pity on me. “Put the chicken in your mouth, suck off the skin, chew the meat, then spit out the bones. I promise you won’t turn into poultry.”
Mo snickered. “Shannon’s real good at putting her foot in her mouth.”
Rosanna ribbed him. “Play nice, Solomon.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell my brother to shut it.
Seth looked at my appetizers. “Hey, I’ll eat those if you can’t handle them. We can get you dumplings or some other white chick fare.”
“I’m not that pathetic.” I put one of the chicken feet in my mouth then subsequently spat it out. “Oh god. I’m a stereotypical American, aren’t I?”
There was laughter. I smiled weakly.
The first day of classes drew close, my practices in the shooting range with Beelzebub intensified, and Samael was still drunk as a wino. I took to jogging in the College Woods to relax, the tried and true method of a runner’s high helping to settle my mind.
I kept worrying everything would blow up in my face like it had in New York. That I would fail at mastering the Lapis Exillis, at saving Michael, and stopping Metatron. That my brother, already technically dead, would have to be put down like a rabid dog. Images of Mo’s comatose body were imprinted on the black of my eyelids, always there when I lay down to sleep. No wonder Samael drank. We, specifically me, had royally screwed things over.
The night before classes, I went on my longest run yet, exploring a forgotten path in the woods. It was overgrown with roots and moss, with outcroppings of stone it was easy to stub a toe on. I sprinted until sweat drowned me, trying to evaporate the miasma from my skin. I imagined my sins pooled in my veins, screaming to be released through my pores. Crazy talk, probably, or just PTSD.
I pounded the ground hard, desperately trying to forget everything but my movement. I entered a primal state, becoming one with the dirt I crushed relentlessly underfoot. I was running away from everything, seeking solace in a place beyond the reach of disaster.
Your brother’s a walking corpse, and when the time comes, you’ll have to kill him. Only mortals can kill an immortal.
I took turns: a ragged right, a jolt to the left. Like a hart pursued by a hound. My petersword necklace burned.
Everything’s gone to hell because of your selfishness. You should have let Mo die.
I tripped over an outcropping, falling head over heels down into a gully.
You can’t handle the Lapis Exillis. You couldn’t save your twin. What makes you think you can stop the end of the world?
I kept rolling, keeling over as sharp rocks tore at my skin. I didn’t even bother to fight gravity. My failings had voices, a chorus of those dead at my hands, taunting me with my every screw-up.
Come at me, I wanted to scream. I’ll take my punishment as it comes.
Finally, my body came to a stop, bruised and bloody at the grassy bottom of the ravine.
I let out a mad laugh, fracturing. This is where I belonged, low as dirt.
The petersword continued to feel like a spill of piping hot coffee. I laid on my back, staring up at the emerald canopy. The air smelled like flowers. Crimson, pink, and white blooms fluttered in the breeze.
“A bed of roses for the ruined,” I muttered, as overdramatic as Samael. Maybe he was rubbing off on me. Now that was a scary thought.
“Or a bower for renewal,” came a child’s voice.
I was so far gone that I didn’t care if some kid saw me in my extremely pathetic state. “That’s poetic. Why don’t you let me wallow?”
Laughter. An olive hand plucked blossoms just beyond my line of vision. “You don’t get Purgatory, do you? This is a place for beginnings,” the mystery boy said. “Sure, you can lay in the mud all you want, but this land shifts so often that you might find yourself swimming in the sea.”
“So I’m in Limbo. Perfect. I could never bend backward enough for that stupid pole at Rosanna’s quinceañara.”
No wonder the petersword was acting up. I had unlocked the unlockable through my desire to escape. A place beyond the reach of angels and demons: the repository for souls, where the original apple-picking ditz had disappeared to for millenia, only to be reincarnated as me.
Mystery kid picked more roses, then deftly wove them into a garland. He had wild curls of black hair and a tan my ginger complexion would kill for.
Dark eyes lit like sparklers. With a hop, he joined me in the ravine, then placed the flower crown on my head.
I guessed he was an adolescent, twelve at most. However old he was, the kid didn’t know when to shut up: “How pretty. I’ve been waiting for you for a while. A lot of people have forgotten me. Sure, they remember my name, but they don’t remember me. Like Dad, I’m a wanderer. Maybe it’s my fault that my words have gotten twisted – I’ve been away for ages. Enough time to turn water into wine.”
I groaned. “You are not who I think you are. I can’t deal with any more revelations.”
I sat up. Kid offered me his hand. He was one of those saplings that shot up on the cusp of puberty, too tall for his lanky body.
The kid grinned. God, that smile: he could charm a lion away from its kill. No wonder he was holy.
“You don’t have to call me Jesus. Just Yeshua. I know you have hang-ups over religion. Remember, I hear people’s prayers. You sure did pray for BLTs a lot during services. As a fellow sandwich lover, I can respect that. Anyways, fact is, Dad’s missing. He’s the only one that can stop the Apocalypse. And we’re the only ones that can find him. You have the keys, and I have the map. So what do you say, Shannon? Want to find God?”
Against all common sense, I said yes – yes to a road-trip with tweenage Christ.
“Great,” Yeshua said. “You’re driving.”
The land of Nod wasn’t so hard to find with Jesus behind the wheel. Well, technically, tweenage Yeshua was sitting shotgun, doing Sudoku. With my petersword wedged into the ignition of Christ’s favorite 1985 Yugo, which were apparently plentiful in Limbo – a repository for forgotten things like horrible cars – we were cruising down the celestial highway. Yeshua periodically reassured me the Yugo’s engine wouldn’t explode:
“See, I tinkered with it for a couple decades, blessed the wheels, then got myself a solid vehicle,” he explained. “When it comes to cars, there’s nothing more poetic than a Yugo.”
“Will I be back in time for classes?”
Yeshua kicked his feet up on the dashboard. “Time is inconsequential when you’re riding the galactic freeway. Don’t worry, Shana. I can call you that, right? Means beautiful. You look just like my favorite disciple. Bloodline of Solomon and all.”
“Um, I guess?” I took a left at a neutron star, then, after the highway narrowed to two lanes, sped past a nebula. “This is what I imagine an acid trip would be like: me cruising the galaxy with Christ.”
“Yeshua, please.” He scribbled something onto the newspaper puzzle he was doing.
“Right. So who are we looking for?”
“The bearer of the Mark. The Mark will point us in the direction of Dad. The Mark’s owner is a bit of an asshole. He got all the bad genes from his father.”
Mark? Like Mark Zuckerberg? Were we using a social network to stalk Yahweh?
Wait – land of Nod? Something sounded annoyingly familiar.
I screeched the Yugo to a halt. “We are not finding Cain. He’s the first murderer!”
Yeshua looked at me with honey eyes. “Huh. A pity. I told him you were coming. He’s already started making salad. Even cleaned his bathroom, which is surprising, considering how disorganized he is.” Yeshua rummaged through the globe box and pulled out sunglasses to fend off the glare of a supernova.
“Cain’s like the Biblical definition of asshole.”
“Nah, he’s only as bad as his father. They both have a roguish charm. Oh, park here!”
Despite the exploding star, I pulled over to the side of the road, by a run-down joint that boasted “Milky Way’s Best Burgers.” I pulled my petersword out of the ignition and looped it around my neck, glad to have a sacred weapon in my possession when confronting the world’s worst brother.
The celestial highway was what I imagined the love child of the Great Plains and Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy would look like. Rolling hills of grass and wildflowers on the ground, astronomic monstrosities of black holes and dying stars above. Everything was washed in psychedelic colors from galactic combustion.
Yeshua led me to a recently mowed path behind the burger joint. Sunflowers tall as saplings bordered the freshly cut grass. “Cain dwells in the wilderness. When you’re cursed to eternal exile, you kinda have to like liminal backwaters.”
“At least he can get his cheeseburger fix?”
“Cain hates meat.”
“Sure he does.”
I glanced at the resturant: the burger place was hosting what looked like the Wild Hunt motorcycle gang, complete with helmeted valkyries. I was pretty sure I saw one-eyed Odin sweet-talking a waitress. With its greasy windows and broken neon sign, it was a dive, but if the Norse pantheon, who were licked out of ice by a cow, dined there, it probably had good beef.
The breeze carried the scent of lavender and my own summer sweat. The Border, as Yeshua called the supernatural highway, sure was pretty, in a kind of forgotten way. Maybe Cain’s taste in a podunk nowhere wasn’t so bad. All it needed was a trucker strip joint, maybe a casino, and it would have a definite vibe going on.
The farther we got from the highway, trees started creeping up from the plains, until after wandering for a while, we were in a picturesque forest, hung with vines. The sunflowers gave way to shrubs, and everything looked lovingly tended, as if someone had clipped the pungent brier roses and trained the wisteria to artfully drape from the willows by the stream. Round a bend, a wind chime made of bird skulls and river-smoothed glass clinked in the breeze. I felt like I was meeting the village witch.
I turned a corner to find a certain ghostly menace bathing in a bend of the stream, where it eddied around jutting rocks. Black hair spooled down his back, veiling his face from my view.
Man, he had a nice butt, despite it being paper-white. His perfect, sorry ass was probably on a bender again.
“Samael?” I called. “What are you doing here?”
Only it wasn’t Samael: he had grass green eyes, with a constellation of freckles over his face, just like me.
Not-Samael covered his well-endowed nether regions and, to my surprise, blushed. “Mother? Um, you weren’t supposed to be here yet.”
“Did you call me mom?” I stuttered. “You’re older than me, freak!”
I looked to Yeshua for help with the confused nudist.
The Son of God had stripped down to his boxers and, with a definitive plop, cannonballed into the stream. He surfaced and treaded water, a serene smile on his face. “Cain, Eve doesn’t remember. Recall how reincarnation works.”
Crap. I was Eve. I felt like barfing.
Cain’s face softened. He pulled a green towel from a rock and wrapped it around his waist. “Right. Well, I suppose this is awkward. You look just like her. You are her. I thought that, if you saw me, you would remember. I just wanted to see you again. After what father did to you, to us, I never thought I’d see you again.”
I squelched my shoe in some mud. “Um, Henry and I, er, your father and I aren’t really a thing. Like at all. He’s kinda a jerky Harry Styles lookalike.”
Cain’s lips, who had the same dramatic Cupid’s bow as mine – urgh – parted.. “I wasn’t talking about Adam.”
“Uh… okay then. Look, sorry I look like your mom or whatever, but you’re a stranger, and whoever your mysterious father is, if he’s not Adam, I’ve never met him.”
Cain laughed. All dark and earthy. God, he sounded just like Sam. Why?
The world’s worst brother squeezed water from his long, luxurious hair. How the hell did he bathe and not get a rat’s nest of tangles? “I’m sure you two are very close.”
Dread gripped my stomach. Yeshua was busy blowing bubbles.
I sat down on a boulder, dizzy. “Wait, no. That’s not what the Bible says! Sam doesn’t have a fatherly bone in his deadbeat ossified body.”
Cain deftly changed into a black and green cloak that hung from a clothesline. “Apparently you haven’t been reading between the Biblical lines, or the Kabbalah, for that matter. That John fellow even calls me ‘son of the wicked one’ in the New Testament. I never did like the apostles.”
Yeshua was sunbathing on a rock. “John liked to exaggerate.”
“But Sam hasn’t mentioned you once!”
Cain gave a wild laugh. “He inherited his parenting habits from his Father. Both like to sacrifice their sons and ignore their cries for mercy.”
Yeshua rolled onto his stomach and sighed. “Dad’s not all bad. Just consumed by his Work. I served my purpose.”
Cain rolled up the sleeves of his robe. “At least your Father cares for you, Yeshua. Mine? He’s an idiot.”