Chapter 16: Itchy Pants
“Well, that was awkward,” says Sabonis, staring after Bianca. As the wind scours us with grit, we watch until she is only a pale smudge high on the ridge.
Doubt and guilt erode my resolve. It has become apparent that I will not just slip through the cracks here. I will be held accountable for this excursion.
Apart from the whole distasteful business of Clearing, I wonder if I might be better off Ascending. Would I at least shed this preposterous female body and have my true male self re-emerge? Or would I just turn into a girl jellyfish thing like Bianca? An angel? If that was what she was. What else could she be?
“Come on. Let’s go,” says Sabonis.
I hesitate. Am I really on my way home? Or am I just assisting some quixotic madman on his futile quest?
I am torn, but somehow I follow and we head across the gravel flats to a long bank of pumice and consolidated ash. Occasional boulders of black volcanic glass mark the way like mileposts.
I think of angels. My earliest childhood impressions of them were stoked by the fake frescoes on the vaulted ceiling of my old church. I remember their flabby Ruben-esque bodies, thinking it truly a miracle ladies so chunky could fly. Though, I had no trouble at all imagining someone as sleek as Bianca with wings. Was she perhaps, an angel in training?
I wonder how much my prior lack of faith has contributed to my present predicament. Though Sabonis insists that this place isn’t Hell it sure isn’t Heaven, either. It has to be some sort of middle ground, a Purgatory of sorts, for flawed souls like mine. A last chance for redemption kind of place. A reformatory of sorts. Not that I had much chance of reformation hanging out with the likes of Sabonis.
If I was an atheist when I was alive, what am I now? For one thing, I believe in existence after death, though I wouldn’t exactly call it life. I believe as well in entities more powerful than me. As for an actual God, that’s still an open question.
Would a truly omnipotent being have botched my transition from life to death? Of course, a true believer might say it was God’s will for me become a girl in the afterlife. But I don’t buy that. There are too many things off about this place. That accidental child in Gihon. The hordes of stranded souls on the beaches. Maybe some of this dysfunction can be blamed on the help, but something tells me that if God once had a business plan for Lethe, he was no longer minding the store. I suppose a true believer could find a rationale for any disaster or boondoggle.
So here I am, no longer an atheist, but still a skeptic. I probably have too much contempt in my heart to ever get my soul Clear enough for Elysium or whatever place those Ascendants wind up. Heaven? I doubt it.
How did I get this way? My atheism certainly started young. My dad would make me slicken my hair with gel and put on scratchy wool suits to go to church. The jacket had an unlined collar that scoured the back of my neck. It was so uncomfortable and distracting that I had a hard time fading off into the daydreams that made school bearable. If I prayed, it was for fire. Something, anything to make us evacuate the church and get me home and out of those prickly pants.
I never paid much attention to the mumblings of the guy in the robes. If the Catholic Church had reverted back to the Latin Mass in those days, I wouldn’t have even noticed. I used the missal as a timepiece, thumbing the psalms and homilies in sequence the way a prisoner carves notches in his bunk to count down the days.
My eyes would wander to pass the time. I would stare at the ceilings and walls, losing myself into the statues, the stained glass, the fake frescoes—anything to take my mind off the itching. My visual catechism included Satan tempting Jesus right above our heads on the inside of the biggest vault. The King of the Jews lay on some kind of shaved-off peak watching as two of his Apostles dangled in midair, reaching out their hands to him.
Everywhere I looked I found unbelievable stories. Virgin births. Loaves to fishes. Resurrections.
On a sunny day the Heaven depicted in stained glass looked like a South Pacific island. It residents all wore hundred-watt halos. When it rained those mud-colored panes may as well have been New Jersey.
There was even an intriguing bit of horror here and there. Grotesque cherubs looking like limbless mutant beach balls with wings. Demons, as well. Lurking in corners. Peering around window frames.
If it wasn’t for that suit, who knows, I might have actually enjoyed it. But I would never be a true believer, never mind a good Catholic. As if regular mass wasn’t enough to deter me, the psychic torture of the confessional did the trick. I would nearly pee my pants in fear waiting to go see the priest, concocting imaginary sins to not disappoint him when I was good, conjuring less embarrassing ones when I was bad.
Though I had no taste for organized religion back then, I had no reason yet to doubt that God existed. How could I? What fool would spend so much time sculpting and painting all this stuff if it were all just a hoax? And it wasn’t just this one church, there were thousands of them, millions maybe, across the globe. I saw them on TV, in movies, in every little town my parents ever drove me through. A good half of the world was Christian. How could one billion people be wrong?
Once I got past high school, the façade of religiosity I had maintained completely crumbled. All I saw was two thousand years of hypocrisy. Good people dying of terrible diseases. Horrible disasters. Stupid inquisitions and persecutions. I became convinced that nobody could be in charge of such a mess, and that the only traveling one did after death was to the bottom of a six-foot hole.
I was wrong, of course. But it’s still hard for me to say which human religion comes closest to the truth. As far as I can tell, they are all wrong. Maybe I was correct in rejecting all earthly religions, but my vision of the cosmos turned out to be just as misguided as theirs. Someone or Something is up there. I can’t deny that anymore. Someone knows me and sent someone down here specifically to fetch me.
We top the bank of pumice and keep climbing a slant of lava smoothed by millennia of sand blasting by the wind coming off the ocean. Good thing it’s smooth, or my bare feet would have been torn to shreds.
“You ever met this Paxson lady?” I say.
Sabonis bugs his eyes at me. “Victoria? Fuck no. And from what I hear, I never want to.”
“Why not? I guess she’s kind of my aunt, a couple times removed. Nice to know I’ve got connections here.”
Sabonis expels a puff of air. “Kid, this isn’t some nice auntie asking you over for tea and crumpets. This is a beast who feeds on souls. It just wants to add you to its collection.”
“Trust me. It ain’t human. Not no more. I’ve had beasts of my own after me. And I’ve been. I’ve seen.”
“Trust me,” he says. “I’ve been.”
Been what? Been where? But I’m afraid to ask. Too much information too fast might only freak me out more than I already am. I accept his words and trudge behind him along the lava ledges.
A horrendous screech rents the air. My spine freezes. Sabonis stumbles over a rock and drops to his knees.
“What the hell was that?”Sabonis’ eyes are wide and serious. He scans the air overhead as if the scream had come from the sky itself.