Old City, Damascus, Deadside.
Doorway of Sighs . . .
. . . And suddenly everything was silent. The ground stopped shaking. The rumbling ceased. The screamers were even quiet, now. A dusty haze, that had come from what I thought was an earthquake, it made everything look hazy and distorted . . . like a Ridley Scott film. There was a rose tint to the air. What I’m seeing is what it looks like right after a tornado.
As this dust started to settle, I noticed Kristen and Rupert. I saw their friends and comrades picking each other up off of the ground. And beyond them, I could see the tens of thousands of desperate souls.
Seconds were beating by like hours.
Time wasn’t linear.
All of them, their curious wanting eyes, staring past me. For the first time in this cold dead world, I felt heat on my back. That golden heat that was only small fragments of choked light, now I was being bathed in it. I looked at my shadow, cast hundreds of feet across the darkness.
And as the souls looked past me, squinting at the blindingly bright light, I turned to see what I had accomplished. The giant door was open, the wall having slid to the side. It was magnificent, and it took a minute for my brain to process what I was seeing.
This door wasn’t just an opening in an old wall. This was a passageway cut out of their world. All around the passageway, the color of the time between dogs and wolves and sharks and prophets still prevailed.
But in that section of wall where the door was, it was different. Where the door was pushed aside it revealed a sky of red and purple and gold streaks. Beyond our cold Land of Sorrows were fields of brilliant orange and violet flowers. Green grasses so vibrant it looked like oil paint.
The colors were too perfect.
Overwhelming in their intensity.
And as I sat there in awe of this, they began to walk by me, into the light. Into this new freedom. This land of light and life. And I realized that I had given this to them. One by one they passed me, quietly nodding as they approached the line between our frozen oblivion and this new perfection.
I wondered to myself if that was Heaven. If that was the dream that we are all chasing throughout our lives. The magical land of hopes and joy and eternal bliss. There was a sweet smell coming from that place—way better than my aromatherapy soaps, even.
And, as I am lost in the emotion of this wonderful moment, I see Kristen and Rupert walk by, heading into the light. And now, I want to know my forgotten past. I want to remember my life with Kristen. It is time for my enlightenment. All of it.
Once past the threshold of our grey and blue, her skin became full of life and color again. She is the girl in my dreams, now. The girl I’m in love with. The beautiful soul that I risked everything for.
Kristen, she turns and looks at me, Rupert and 21 others behind her. But something is strange. I feel like I’m the only one who’s not in on it. Whatever it is?
I look back at the other souls. For some reason, they’re not following us into the light of the passageway. Instead, they are retreating, looking for cover as fast as they possibly can.
“Are they . . . scared?” I say under my breath. “Why don’t they want their freedom?”
“What were you expecting, Jack?” she asks.
Jack? She called me Jack. Why would she do that? And her tone, it’s no longer one of passion and understanding. She is cold and distant . . . indifferent.
Where she was the only bit of warmth in this cold dead place, now she is in a land of golden heat . . . and her words are like ice, frozen and empty. I don’t understand this metamorphosis.
“What’s going on?” I say. What is this? Why are they afraid to be set free? Why do the slaves not want to leave their dungeon?
These 23 souls, they just stare back at me. Their eyes, there’s something peculiar about them. A kind of sinister quality. I look to Kristen and to Rupert. To Thomas and Stewart, and all the others.
Kristen, her face is full of life and energy, but she is not the girl that I remember in my dream. Something about her face is suffering and there is contempt in her eyes.
I ask her, “Weren’t we in love?”
She reaches to Rupert and they lock hands. “We were, Jack . . . but you destroyed it.”
What do you mean by that? I destroyed it? That doesn’t make any sense. I opened the door. I freed all of the trapped souls. What do you mean, I destroyed it?
And all at once I get this overwhelming feeling that I have done something monumentally wrong. I’m no genius, but I know when I’ve been duped.
“The other souls are not leaving,” Rupert says lightly, “. . . because they are scared of an uncertain future. They would rather live there, in the place of constant fear and decay because they are worried about what He might think. His judgment is what they are all waiting for.”
He snorted, “Those of lukewarm faith.” His words, he was almost spitting them out, as if they disgusted him. “We write our own destiny. Not God, nor anyone else. We chose our path.”
Rupert is no longer the nice English librarian I remember. He’s gotten a real mean streak about him. Borderline evil.
And then it all hits me like a load of bowling balls. “. . . I’m not a savior, am I?”
Kristen laughed like I’m just the most pathetic thing on the planet, “You? Saint Jack? Divine? No. Not even close.”
I look at all these faces, seeing something in them that I probably should have noticed from the start.
My heart is being stomped on by a giant golf cleat as we speak. “Kristen, I thought we were in love. The dream? The kiss? That was love . . . wasn’t it?”
Her voice, it seemed to soften, her words much calmer and compassionate. “I did love you . . .” and then I see tears gathering in her eyes, welling up with each word she speaks, “. . . but you killed me.”
“You killed me,” she whispers again.
What is she talking about? I saw the dream. The way we touched each other. That was real. “I would never hurt you. I risked my life for you.”
And now, as she’s speaking, I’m numb to her words. As if they’re not even in a language that I can understand.
“. . . You killed me when I was so young. I had my whole life in front of me. You robbed me of that. You stole my life away from me, Jack. And then I was sent to the Land of Sorrows. Why? Because my faith was not strong enough?! I was twenty-three years old!”
I’m not hearing this. This can’t be real. It’s a tumor and schizophrenia and degenerative brain decay all at once. All rolled into a big mental meltdown. I’m going to wake-up and Dr. Monica is going to be fanning my face with my psychological profile folder.
She continues, tears rolling down her cheeks, “What kind of jealous God . . . what kind of monsters would allow my life to be snatched away so soon and then condemn me to the place of forever night? That is no God I can ever love. That is your God.”
I think I have done something more than wrong. This is colossal. This is the blunder to end all galactic blunders. I am the king of the tards.
The group of souls—escapees, as it now seems—they backed away from the door and I had this feeling that there was something closing in on me. The girl I love, she’s walking away and I begin to shiver. Never mind the warm golden heat. Forget the awe of the moment. I’m cold like a lonely dead planet in the farthest reaches of the universe.
And Kristen is leaving.
The girl I loved.
The girl I killed.
I yell to her, “I am not that man! The one that hurt you, that’s not me! I can’t be the kind of . . .” And as the words escape my lips I remember our driver, Nasser, and his story about Saul of Tarsus. And I’m not sure which one I am.
Saul, or Paul.
I am the me of now, not the me that died.
As the 23 souls turn and walk off into their colorful new world of opportunity and life, I look around and see them everywhere. The screamers—the flying monsters—they are much bigger up close. They might be dinosaurs or creatures designed and bred on the Deadside. Their eyes are liquidy black. Their teeth translucent and sharp as razors. Their claws as jagged as shards of broken glass.
They’re as big as cars, and they are perched on the Old City Wall like gargoyles. But they’re no longer screaming or attacking. They just sit there, shuffling and fidgeting about, studying me. Only me.
And then I realize, they’re not even the ones that I should be afraid of.
Kristen and the others are gone.
These giant monsters, they’re waiting quietly.
All the other souls are watching this unfold from the safety of their hiding spots in the darkness.
And then this deep voice calls to me, “Jack.”
And all of these tall black figures, they surround me. And I know that what must follow can’t be good for me.