Time passed, or something like it. It was hard to tell. Leslie crossed her arms on her knees and put her head down for a while. I thought she might have been asleep. Then, her head still down, she said, “Beckett or Ionesco?”
“I’m sorry. What?”
She raised her head. “No Exit. Beckett or Ionesco?”
“Ah. Neither one. It’s Sartre.”
“Oh. Really? Huh. Anyway, I saw it once. In college. It was excruciating. But at least I could leave the theatre if I wanted to.”
“Did I what?”
“Leave the theatre. Before it was over, I mean.”
She smiled. “No. Stuck it out.”
More time passed.
We talked. About everything and nothing. Movies. Books. Her ex-husband. My unfinished novel. Why she became a nurse. Why I still hadn’t grown up. Yet somehow I never found out her last name.
We checked on the other two survivors again. No change in the girl; she seemed to be resting comfortably. The guy had also rallied a bit, with a more steady pulse and better respiration. Neither seemed inclined to wake up. As we settled back down, I wondered out loud if they—whoever “they” might be—would expect us to perform somehow.
Leslie looked at me, a little blush rising to her cheeks. “Like Billy and Montana?” she said.
I was slow on the uptake. “What?”
“Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack. Public sex on Tralfamadore?”
I remembered. “Slaughterhouse 5. Right.” Now it was my turn to blush. “No, I was thinking of a zoo. More specifically, SeaWorld.”
“Hey, really? I used to love SeaWorld.”
“Sure. Practically everybody used to love SeaWorld, once upon a time. Me too. In fact, I even worked there, summers in college. Played drums in a little combo called the Beach Band.”
“Oh, yeah! I remember you guys! You were great.”
“Thanks. Anyway, I was sitting here thinking about Shamu. In those days before anybody ever got killed by a whale, it seemed kind of, I don’t know... innocent. Seems like everybody thought of them as big wet teddy bears. Almost all of them called Shamu. Anyway, I used to go over to the whale stadium on my breaks, between shows, and just sit and watch them swim around the pool. And those are some big pools, right? Millions of gallons. But they’re still just pools. Concrete sides, big steel drains, maybe some fake rocks, but compared to the ocean?”
“I know what you mean. I can’t even bear to keep a goldfish in a bowl.”
“Exactly. Well, I used to watch the whales and wonder, what did Shamu think on his first day in the pool? Thinking about it, you know, from his point-of-view. You’re out in the world, master of all you survey. Top of the food chain and all. Then one day some scrawny little alien from above shows up and scoops you up in a big net. Next thing you know, you’re plopped down with a couple of strangers in a big boring room. To Shamu, it must’ve felt a lot like this.”
“You really think we’re in some alien zoo?”
“Well if we are, they really suck at it, because I’m pretty sure on Shamu’s first day they threw him some food!” I shouted out loud. There was no echo.
I took a breath and went on. “But here’s what I’ve been thinking: they toss Shamu food all right, but pretty soon they start asking him to do tricks, touch this target thingy, swim this way, jump this high. And Shamu—even though he’s a killer whale, weighs about a zillion pounds, could snap a trainer in two in a heartbeat—Shamu says, ‘Sure, why not?’ That’s always amazed me. Until that one whale started drowning people, it seemed like they really were teddy bears. Or just really big dolphins; Flipper on steroids. And even that one killer killer whale didn’t exactly go berserk or anything. Apparently, he was just having a bad day, and that poor trainer was in the wrong place at the wrong time...”
“So, tell me, why hasn’t every killer whale ever captured killed the first human being he could sink his teeth into?”
“Well, they’re pretty smart, right? Maybe they’re smart enough to be afraid of anybody powerful enough to capture them. Or they know that’s where the food comes from, and they don’t want to bite the hands that feed them.”
“Maybe. But my brother used to say if he was in that situation, some skinny midget creep has kidnapped him; he’d pop his little head off the first chance he got. I always said that just proved Shamu was smarter than he was, or at least had a lot better sense of self-preservation. Didn’t he know he’d only get himself killed? Gareth said he didn’t care. That the sure and certain knowledge that he’d had that last act of defiance would be worth it.”
“He may have a point.”
“Sure. But you know what I think? Why all the Shamus don’t jump up and eat their trainers?”
I looked at her. She was really quite lovely. I remember little crinkles at the corners of her pretty, mismatched eyes. “Because, Scarlett, tomorrow is another day. I think just about every Shamu has always believed that one day he’ll get to go home.”
“It’s the only thing that makes any sense to me. ‘Hope springs eternal.’”
She thought about that for a moment. “My grandmother used to say that all the time. ‘Hope springs eternal.’ Of course, her name was Hope, so she may’ve been trying to be funny.” She shifted her weight a little, pressing closer to me. She went on more quietly: “Gran used to read these tracts to us kids, about the End Times. The Rapture. The Second Coming.”
Almost reflexively, I whispered, “‘We shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.’”
“Yes! Yes! One of Gran’s favorite tracts was called ‘The Trumps of Doom’! You heard them, didn’t you, before we came here?”
“Absolutely. But I’m not sure—”
“And you saw the sky, right? Before it went all gold, there was… an angel—miles high. I saw it.”
“I saw it, too. And I saw through it. I think it was just a projection of some kind. A giant hologram.”
“Yeah?” She thought about it. “Okay. Maybe. I don’t know. I sure was scared. Terrified.” She took a breath. “So. You don’t think we’re in the middle of Armageddon?”
“Who knows? It’s been the better part of two thousand years since most of those prophecies were written, and nobody’s ever really figured it all out.”
“Weren’t you quoting the Bible just now? Isn’t that the whole point, that it’s all a big mystery? No one but God really knows?”
“Sure. That’s what prophets do. Keep it vague, make it sound dramatic, say ‘I told you so’ when the right things happen, say ‘You didn’t understand’ when they don’t. So Paul wrote a letter trying to shake things up in Corinth. A few verses later he was passing the plate.”
“You seem to know your Bible pretty well.”
“Yeah; a couple of years in Seminary will do that for you.”
“You studied for the ministry?”
“Yep. Was gonna be a priest.”
“Oh, yeah. You shoulda been at the dinner table when I made that announcement. My father just stared at me. My brother got up and left without a word. My mother reached across the table—stood up, knocked over dishes—reached across and slapped me. Hard. About broke my jaw. And my grandfather; he shook his head, his face turned red, and he burst out laughing. Laughed and laughed. Laughed till he cried. And you know the funny thing? When I dropped out of Seminary? Almost exactly the same scene. Except this time my mother wrecked the table reaching over to kiss me.”
“So. What happened? What is it they say? ‘A loss of faith’?”
“More of a lack than a loss. I kept thinking the epiphany would come.”
“And you don’t see God behind… well, everything that’s happened today?”
“Not really. I see power. Lots of it. But God? I don’t know.”
“Sure. Mostly I’m skeptical.”
A few minutes quietly passed. Then Leslie said, “I wasn’t even supposed to be here today. Disneyland, I mean.” I made an encouraging noise. “The nurses on my floor set this trip up months ago. I didn’t sign up. But there was a last-minute cancellation, so my friend Joyce twisted my arm and I got the last seat on the bus.” She sighed, and her voice got quieter: “When the sky split apart she was standing right next to me. We collapsed together. By the time I came to she was dead.” She was already managing some distance from it; her eyes were dry. I knew how she felt. She looked up at me. “And then, this.”
“Whatever this is.”
“Feels like purgatory to me.”
“Yeah, well, it feels like a holding cell to me. Although I guess that could be considered the same thing…”
“What’s going on then, Graham? Why are we here?”
“I don’t know. We’re dropped in here naked, sick, some of us dead. It’s confusing and humiliating and frustrating. It’s passive torture is what it is, and whoever, or whatever’s responsible is either purposely doing this to us, or doesn’t know or care how it affects us. And that sure doesn’t seem very godly.”
She was quiet for a moment; then she leaned her head on my shoulder. “I’m still scared, Graham.”
I touched my cheek to the top of her head. “So am I, Leslie. So am I.” We sat that way for a bit. Then I remembered something. “Leslie? Did you ever read any J. Hal Merriman?”
She lifted her head. “The Scientificism guy? No. Until movie stars started waving his book around I never heard of him.”
“Oh, he’s quite a character. A pulp fiction hack who flat-out invented a religion.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’ve gathered…”
“A religion based on angels returning to Earth.”
“Really. My brother did his Master’s thesis on the guy. Merriman claims that over a period of twenty years or so an angel named Zagzagel came to him in dreams. Among other things, Zagzagel taught Merriman the true history of angels on Earth, and predicted that they would return.”
“You’re making this up.”
“No, I’m not, but Merriman was. Wrote his main book, Eudynamics, back in the ’60s. It’s full of all kinds of wacky crap, but it claims that angels are essentially an extremely advanced race of aliens who fathered humanity and intend to come back some day to check on their experiment.”
“Now that would be ironic. Of all the religions in the world, the one whose prophecies come true is the one that the prophet admits was fiction. He must be grinning like the Cheshire Cat right about now.” Then I had a second thought: “On the other hand, if the same thing’s happening in Vegas that’s happening in Anaheim, he may be running for his life.”
More time passed, or seemed to. It was hard to tell. I must have dozed off. I started awake when I heard Leslie stifle an odd little groan. Her face was red, and tears were welling up again. “You okay?”
“I really have to pee,” she said between clenched teeth. “Really, really have to pee.”
Come to think of it, so did I. “Me, too,” I said. “Why don’t you go ahead—walk a little ways away and go for it. I’ll keep my back turned, I promise.”
“No!” She looked at me like I had two heads.
“I’ll even plug my ears and go ‘la-la-la.’ Don’t worry about the floor; it’ll take care of itself, I think. Your puddle of puke disappeared ages ago.” This was true, although I don’t know when I noticed it.
“Okay, I’ll go fir—”
“NO! You promised you wouldn’t leave me again!”
She was terrified at the prospect of even the slightest separation. Finally, we settled on a solution: we walked hand-in-hand a few paces away from the others and came to an area of especially uneven floor; we found an awkward way to hold hands while turned partly away from each other and relieved ourselves. Even considering everything that had happened, that may have been the strangest part of my day.
When we turned to go back, Leslie burst out with a startled yelp. Just like when I’d gone exploring before, we weren’t as far away as we’d thought. The others were just a few feet away. And there were only two of them. The dead bodies were gone.
As we walked up, the girl sat up and looked at us. She held one arm across her breasts and the other across her lap. Her long, pale hair was draped across her like a shawl; give her a lush garden background, and she could’ve been a Victorian portrait of Eve. She looked up pitifully with bleary, colorless eyes. She opened her mouth, maybe to speak, but she didn’t say anything.
Then the man stirred. He rose to his hands and knees, his head hanging down. He was a hairy little guy, with the exception of the top of his head. He was feeling around on the ground; I realized he must have been looking for his glasses. “Help,” he mumbled. “Somebody help me.”
Before we could respond, everything changed. From one instant to the next, the light became almost blindingly bright. A moment passed. Just as our eyes began to adjust, a shadow fell across us. We all turned to its source.
Framed in a massive arch that hadn’t been there before stood a creature out of primal myth: towering nearly eight feet tall, clothed in shimmering light, iridescent wings outstretched, an Angel stood before us. It was, to use another hopelessly inadequate word, beautiful. Literally breath-taking: I don’t think any of the four of us remembered to breathe for a while after that first involuntary gasp.
The Angel’s skin was a dark, sparkling bronze. Its long, flowing hair was almost the same tone, touched with gold. Its eyes were dark and intelligent, and seemed a bit hard. Steely. The wings were magnificent; as they shifted and folded, their color was prismatic, shifting in the light, as if composed of scales instead of feathers. Its perfectly proportioned arms hung at its sides, long, elegant fingers twitching, like a gunfighter ready to draw.
Then it opened its mouth to speak. A startling, beautiful voice sang in a multi-tonal language beyond human understanding.
The voice seemed to affect the others immediately in some way that was lost on me. The hairy little bald guy, having just made it to his feet, cried out “Holy shit!” as reverentially as that phrase allowed, then fainted like a melodrama ingénue.
The girl, still primly posed on her knees, went completely catatonic, her eyes as unfocused and her mind as undone as any deer that ever faced the headlights.
And Leslie burst into tears as she pulled her hand from mine and collapsed to her knees, clasping her hands before her.
The Angel went quiet. I saw a flicker in its eyes that looked to me like contempt. It raised a hand in a casual gesture of dismissal. The man vanished. Another gesture; the girl was gone. It raised its hand a third time, and I tried to reach for Leslie, to warn her, when she disappeared as well.
I didn’t realize until that instant how much I had begun to care for her. Was she dead? Back on Main Street? Tucked away in some pocket universe? I had no way of even imagining. But I think even then I suspected I’d never see her again.
I looked at the Angel, looming before me only a few feet away. Its eyes looked impassively into mine. I had the feeling it was trying hard to read my mind. I could feel the heat rising on my face. Then I thought of my brother; if Gareth was here, this would be his chance—leap across those few paces and wrap his big gorilla hands around this arrogant bastard’s neck. I may even have smiled a little at the thought.
Then the Angel’s eyes flared, and a disembodied human voice boomed out, or possibly just manifested itself directly into my brain. “You will know me as Gabriel,” the voice thundered. “You have been Chosen.”
I felt goosebumps rise. This creature had just communicated with me in a voice that was undeniably awesome; the very definition of terrible power. Just like it had been in Star Wars.
Because it was the voice of Darth Vader. James Earl Jones, in all his perfectly intoned, basso-profundo glory. Not just similar, either; it was exactly as if James Earl Jones had spoken inside my head. I half-expected him to say, “I am your father!”
Now, under stress, some of us break out in cold sweats, some run off at the mouth, some are struck speechless. Some physically collapse. Some break down in tears. As for me, when the tension is really ratcheted up, I find myself teetering at the edge of hysterical laughter. In those high-stakes moments in life, if something strikes me as even remotely funny, I laugh.
So I couldn’t help it. I laughed. I mean I burst out laughing. Laughed my ass off. I kept trying to stop; I’d wipe away the tears and see the storm clouds glowering across Gabriel’s eyes, but I couldn’t stop myself. I was so hysterical I could hardly breathe.
Gabriel raised a hand. I managed to catch my breath as I held up my own hand, signaling, I hoped, that he should hold off sending me to oblivion.
He lowered his hand. The voice returned: “You will—”
That was all I heard. My hysteria hadn’t retreated nearly far enough for me to successfully deal with Darth again.
And once again I was pitched into a deep, dark abyss.