Authors: Joshua Ingle
“Was leaving your wife worth it?”
Thorn spun around at the inquiry, and was surprised to see that the woman was Lexa, wearing a purple front-tie camisole top and deep blue form-fitting jeans.
doing here, with
She was only nineteen, and he was at least twenty years her senior.
“If that’s okay for me to ask? I didn’t mean to be awkward.”
Thorn guessed that Joel’s cocky grin and polite snicker hid a deep fear of Lexa’s question, but after a moment, Joel simply said, “No. It wasn’t worth it.”
Lexa tilted her head and furrowed her eyebrows. Thorn saw that her trademark chewing gum was absent. “Why wasn’t it worth it?”
Joel shrugged. “Isn’t every relationship a compromise between our need for adventure and our need for security? And the grass is always greener on the other side? When you’re married, you crave adventure. When you’re single, you crave security. You crave someone to open up to.”
“You can open up to me.” Lexa took a suggestive sip from her martini. “And maybe I’ll open up to you.”
Joel failed to smile at her double entendre. He gulped deeply from his drink. “I do have a secret or two.”
He said the word “secret” flippantly, but Thorn wondered if he could use this situation to force the truth from Joel: that his acclaimed journey to Heaven was a lie. Perhaps with a little more alcohol in him. “Tell her,” Thorn whispered. “Tell her you made up your trip to the afterlife.” If Lexa told people, Joel would meet public disgrace, forcing him to make some much-needed internal changes. Even if Lexa told no one, Joel’s admission could at least lead to catharsis for him. This was exactly the kind of positive change Thorn now longed to make in his charges’ lives.
“I have… a secret,” Joel said again, this time with much more gravity. Thorn was astonished. Might this actually work?
Lexa appeared unsure of herself after Joel’s pensive response. Usually so powerful and poised, she seemed insignificant in this place. Thorn had never seen her look so small before.
She tried empathizing with the man she was trying to seduce. “I have a secret too. I have a boyfriend.” The doctor looked up from his drink and smiled at her. “Does that scare you?” she asked.
“No. No, I understand. I went out and about when I was married, too.”
“All my boyfriend and I ever do is argue. I figure I deserve a little adventure.”
Joel laughed again. “Fuck security.”
She leaned close to him. “Fuck me.”
Thorn leaned in too, the invisible third member of the conversation. “No, Joel. Tell her.” Joel gazed downward, swirled his drink around in its glass. He cleared his throat.
Half an hour later, Joel stood outside his old house, rapping at the door and rubbing his arms for warmth. His breath misted in the cold night air.
Having left his followers behind, Thorn couldn’t guess at what sort of outcome this trip would bring, but he was at least glad that Joel had declined Lexa’s offer. “Tell someone,” he kept repeating to Joel, now that he knew what was on his mind. He hadn’t told Lexa. Possibly, Joel had decided to tell his ex-wife.
In her nightgown, Angela opened the door. Joel just stared at her. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“Can I come in?”
After hesitating, she said, “Sure.”
The house slept in darkness and quiet, save for the crackling fireplace. This late, the kids would be asleep too. Thorn floated beside the former couple as they walked toward the fire and sat nearby. “Thank you for letting me in,” Joel said. “Thank you for being willing to talk with me.”
“Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
Firelight danced on Joel’s face. Thorn hoped that a life-changing decision danced in his mind as well. “Tell her the truth,” Thorn prompted again.
Joel said nothing for a long minute. Ash fluttered up from the flames as red embers fizzled below. The house’s gloom seemed to press in on them. Thorn huddled near the light just as much as the humans, but for internal rather than external warmth.
“Do you want to get back together?” Angela asked, an edge of frustration in her voice.
Mesmerized by the fire, Joel avoided eye contact. “Maybe,” he said.
Angela exhaled sharply. “Has God given you another spiritual epiphany?”
“Just because I had a spiritual epiphany doesn’t mean it was from God.” Joel was shaking, Thorn saw. His breath came in fits and starts, and his hands trembled. He started a story abruptly.
“I woke up that night with this unbelievable pain in my back and my head. I knew right away that it was meningitis and I needed help, and I’m glad you were there or I wouldn’t have made it.”
Angela nodded and crossed her arms.
Where is this going?
Thorn was no longer sure.
“I remember seeing you. You were so worried. As I was blacking out and you were reaching for the phone, I thought, ‘This is it. This is how I die.’ So I told you I loved you, and then you were gone, and it was just blackness. Just dark, like when you’re asleep, and there was nothing there.
“Until…” Tears flowed freely from Joel’s eyes. The terror in his voice frightened Thorn even more than his unsteady breathing. “The light in the house was all wrong. Red and dim. I saw our kids, Angie. Ethan was… he was hanging from a noose in the kitchen, right over there. His face was swollen and his arms and legs were all stiff. And Tyler’s head was in the kitchen sink. His body parts were all over the countertops and there was… Oh, Angie, there was blood all over. My children’s blood.”
Angela gently rubbed Joel’s back as he spoke. From the mortified expression marring her face, the motion served more to calm her than him.
“And when I went into the bedroom, you were there, only you were sick and in pain and… there was a man there, with tattoos and cuts all over his body. A man with no eyes, but he had the worst, most hideous smile you can imagine, full of rotted teeth and bugs and black blood and he was—He was raping you.” Angela withdrew her hand at this. “Then the house collapsed and I was in this—this sea of rats and snakes, and they were on fire, and they were all trying to burrow inside of me. And then there were… there were others. Other people, millions of them, all bloody and burned, with fire all around them. And the pain was unfathomable. Unmitigated agony. More than I ever thought was possible. I gritted my teeth so hard that they fell out, and the other people said… They told me, ‘Welcome to the Void. Fear all that you see here. Everything you do will be punished. You are loathed and unwanted, thoroughly, forever.’ And as they closed in around me, I knew that I would be there, in that place, for all time. I was in impossible pain, but the pain didn’t compare to the mental and emotional… Angie, words can not describe what I felt. Terror. Panic. Using these words is like trying to recreate the Mona Lisa with finger paint. It felt like dying over and over again. Not just the physical pain of death, but the sorrow that goes with it. I felt hopeless. And I knew no one would ever save me.”
Angela’s hands covered her mouth as she drank in the truth of Joel’s near-death experience. The fire no longer seemed so inviting to Thorn, and the shadows seemed to creep closer.
“The worst part, Angie, was that we weren’t alone down there. The men and women were all heinous and violent, but… but there were worse things. There were demons, Angie. Dead demons. They had lived their lives on Earth and they had died. Some had killed each other and some had been killed by angels, but now they’re down there, creeping through the depths, waiting for people—for new people—to come down, so they can terrorize them. Consume them. Pick them apart piece by piece. They eat us, Angie. And they eat each other. And they die, over and over. The agony and the immeasurable fear just go on and on and on and on and on.
“And just before I woke up, the man with no eyes came back. He said he knew that I came from Atlanta, and he knew I was going back, and he had a message for me to deliver. I didn’t get all of it, but I think he wanted me to tell someone that he’s waiting for him down there. That Gnaeus is waiting.”
Thorn could take no more. He fled from the house as fast as he could.
A modern gargoyle keeping watch over his city at night, Thorn huddled alone beside a small gothic spire atop One Atlantic Center. The luminous copper pyramid on the building’s roof glowed down on him. The dead demons could never touch him way up here in the night’s lights. He tried to shake Joel’s jarring confession from his mind.
Now Joel’s playboy lifestyle made more sense to Thorn. Rather than atoning for past wrongs after his brush with death, Joel had just assumed the fire at the end of his life was inevitable. Knowing the horror that waited for him, he’d resolved to take ultimate control of his life while he still had it, to spend every moment left on earth enjoying himself.
Maybe I should do the same thing.
No. No! There must be a way out of this quagmire.
If only Thorn could connect the dots, or see a little further into the mysteries surrounding the Enemy, perhaps he could avoid the same fiery fate that awaited his peers. Perhaps he could even save a few of them in the process.
Many demons dismissed the concept of Hell as a human invention, or as a lazy falsehood the Enemy had concocted to scare demonkind into submission. Other demons accepted Hell as Bible truth. Thorn had always avoided passing judgment on the idea, but Joel’s confession had frightened him deeply.
“Where you go, Thorn?” Thorn jolted at the intrusion, but it was only Shenzuul. “I with Amy, trying make her depress like I promise you, then I see you from street, wonder what you doing up here. No people up here to hurt.”
“I came here to think,” Thorn said, because he didn’t know what else to say.
I came here to be alone
, he nearly added, before realizing he didn’t crave his regular solitude tonight. The memory of the fireplace impelled him to let Shenzuul stay.
“What you think about?” Shenzuul huddled next to him, and together they observed the late-night traffic far below: glowing ants creeping over urban trails.
“The past. Things I should have done differently.”
“Even great demons like you have regret, huh?”
“Yeah. Me too.” Shenzuul lowered his face and frowned. “Weird to think Marcus almost take Atlanta from you, only few months back.”
“If he did take city from you, wouldn’t you do anything to get it back?”
“Anything? At the time, yes, I suppose I would have.”
A screech in the night. Close by. Both demons turned to find the source of the shriek, and saw a family of bats nesting in one of the tower’s flourishes. The mother had just returned and the babies were clamoring for milk. “Why do we do all this, Shenzuul? What’s the point of any of it?”
Shenzuul scowled at what he likely considered a display of weakness, a lack of resolve. “Obvious, no? To become greatest demon of all time,” Shenzuul replied, seriously. When Thorn frowned at him, Shenzuul sighed and offered a textbook answer straight out of Thorn’s teachings. “To deprive humans of their purpose. Give them wrong purpose in its place. Make them obsessed over be accepted like Amy, or sex and success like Joel.”
“Or power, like Jed.”
“Exact correct. Wrong purposes hurt Enemy, because Enemy love His humans.” He paused a moment before adding, “Or you just kill them. That good too. I like that one best, as you know.”
Thorn snickered darkly at this. “But I’ve taught you better.”
“Ha ha, yes you have. And I am glad for your help.” The mother bat took off again, fluttering past Shenzuul and through Thorn, then downward, back on the hunt. “Can I ask a question to you?”
“I have been wondering. Remember back in December, at that club, when Amy see you?”
Ah, finally, this.
Thorn had expected Shenzuul to bring it up much sooner. “Yes, I remember.”
“I know Judge not believe us, but I was there. I see you go into human world.” Thorn rose as if to leave, but Shenzuul rushed to block his path. “No worry! You no worry about me, I keep shut up about it. I tell no one your secret. I just want know how you did it.”
“I did not enter the physical world, Shenzuul. I don’t know what everyone saw, but—”
“I saw her bump you. You touch.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Thorn tried to arc up and around him, but Shenzuul cornered him again. Thorn didn’t want to resort to entering the building to escape, but was nearly ready to.
He couldn’t blame Shenzuul for his interest, though; Thorn himself would once have reacted similarly if he’d seen another demon enter physical space. The ability to touch a human also provided the ability to kill a human, without the standard months of whispering that such an act normally required. If a demon were able to physically interact with humans, the deaths he could cause would give him enough prestige to rule the demon world. Shenzuul was naïve and desperate to ask for even the possibility of such power. “Please!” he begged. “You can trust me.”
“I have no idea, all right? I have no clue how I did it. It just happened.”
Shenzuul stopped flitting about and hung motionless in the air above the skyscraper. “Maybe if you think about it more you remember—”
“I’ve thought about it constantly since it happened. I’ve tried and I can’t repeat it. It was a one-time deal.”
Shenzuul’s whole demeanor changed then. His shoulders hunched further than usual and his eyes grew sullen. Even his clothing appeared more tattered in Thorn’s eyes. “Oh,” Shenzuul said. “That too bad.”
“Ahoy!” A small black blip in the distance, the Judge was crossing the expanse between the Four Seasons and One Atlantic. Thorn threw Shenzuul a warning glance, then drifted out to greet the Judge, who was his usual chipper self. “Peace be to you, my broskis,” the Judge greeted them. “My followers and I just caused a drive-by in Vine City. It was awesome. You guys should have been there.”
“I regret my absence,” Thorn said.
The Judge raised his fists in a boxing pose and mock-punched Thorn several times. “You’re a killer, Thorn, you’re a killer. A mood killer, that is. So I hear you wanted to chitchat. What’s up? How’s the edumacation going?”