Doorway of Sighs.
Moments later . . .
These shadowy forms, they walk closer and closer to me, and for a moment I consider running through the passageway. I don’t know where that will lead me, but it might be better than what I have coming. I feel like I’m about to get mugged. Mugged by shadowy dead beasts . . . great.
A large figure approaches me. These things are taller than me. With red eyes to accent their black forms. I can’t see through them, like with the Gatherers. These shadow creatures, they’re dense.
This is going to hurt, I just know it. I’ll try to head butt as many of them as I can, but I don’t like my chances. Kicking them in the nuts is out of the question because I don’t have the faintest idea where to aim. The smart bet is on me getting my ass kicked.
One of them, the one directly in front of me, he looks down on me with his fiery red eyes, and then his arm lifts to his head as he pulls his face off. And right about the moment I’m ready to scream like a girl, they all begin to remove their hoods.
Their faces are like, perfect. Smooth, symmetrical. Angelic, even. They look like monks, with their shaved heads. Their eyes are brilliant blue, with golden specs—like glitter, almost. And . . . they have color in their skin. They look human. More human than I do in this place.
The one in front of me, he shakes his head slowly. “Jack Pagan.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. I couldn’t think of anything better.
“Do you have any idea what you have done?” he said flatly, but with a kind of force behind his words. He looked back at the door, and at the Book of Sighs sitting in the center of it.
“Close it!” he ordered.
When a big human-like cloaked guy asks you to do something, you pretty much do it. I carefully walked by, letting them see my hands were empty. I don’t know why, but I’m doing what Ricky says I should do when being interrogated by the police. No furtive gestures—that’s what gets you shot. Let ’um see your hands.
I went to the section of the wall where the book was, and I reached into the corners to free the book. And like two oppositely polarized magnets, the book about jumped out of that keyhole. Quickly the large section of wall slid closed with a large explosion of sound.
The Book of Sighs in my hands, I walked back to them—these angry men—and extended my arms to offer them the book.
The one who was talking to me, he nods to another large guy who takes the book from me. And then they all stared at me for the longest time. I hope they don’t like the flavor of me. I do not want to be dinner.
“I think I made a huge mistake, sir,” I try explaining.
Nobody answers. They just keep staring at me. And me, I’m old enough to know when I’m in big trouble. And this is it. This is like being at the principle’s office times a million.
And then the leader, he says, “You have been lied to. Played like an instrument from the very beginning.”
“Who are you?” I ask. My hands are nonchalantly stroking my necklace . . . just in case.
There’s no sense cowering down, now. If they’re going to rip me to ribbons, there’s probably not anything I can say to sway it one way or the other. Todd Steele says to play your cards like they’re a winning hand, even if they’re not. At the least, Steele says, you’ll go down with some dignity.
“My name is Uriel,” he says. “We are all angels . . . and it is our job to keep things like this from happening in the Land of Sorrows. All of these souls here, they are waiting for judgment from God. They will have their time, when the End of Days arrives. And they will have their chance. But not until then. Their choices on Earth led them to this place. They have only to blame themselves.”
I glanced up at the giant flying monsters, “. . . and them?”
“They help us do our job. There aren’t many of us in this place. It’s not an assignment that many apply for.”
I caught myself almost wanting to smile at that, but quickly straightened-up.
“And the spooks and Gatherers . . . what about them?”
He squints at me, not sure what I’m talking about.
“The shadowy things that pull you out of your chest? You know, with the knives and creepy little fingers?”
He nods, now understanding which particular monsters I’m referring to, “They are all parts of an intricate machine.”
This, I realize, is the darker side of religion. They don’t sing songs about this in Sunday school.
“What you have done, Jack, is to go against the will of God. That door was never to be opened. That you have been continually lied to, and played like a fool, is the only reason your soul still exists.”
“Where does it lead, this door?
“. . . It opens a doorway back to the Earth plane that was not to be opened until the End of Days.”
“So, what you’re saying is that I’ve made a super-huge mammoth mistake.”
“The other two saints who attempted to do this were dealt with by our,” he looked over his shoulder, “. . . assistants.”
“I was told that I was the chosen one. That I was St. John the Divine’s reincarnate. A savior.” I glanced around the group of perfect faces, “. . . I’m not a savior, am I?”
Now it was this Angel, Uriel, who was almost smiling. “No, Jack. You are in no danger of ever being anyone’s savior.”
“They said that I was going to save all of the souls that have ever lived. That nobody had ever gone to Heaven. That’s what they told me.”
“Jack, look around,” he says. “Do you see billions upon billions of souls, just waiting to be freed?” He extends his arms, “They would be stacked to the sky, standing on each other. When you first crossed, did you not wonder where everyone must be? You’re lack of common sense borders on mental retardation.”
“But,” I countered, “I read the book. It talks about it in the book. I translated it word for word.”
“Not all of it,” he reminded me.
I’m so busted.
“There were pages cut out of it,” I say in defense.
“. . . and that didn’t sound an alarm within you? Did you not feel as though a book with missing pages might be misleading in certain aspects?”
I shrugged. Stupid doesn’t often know he’s stupid.
“The missing pages spoke of the things one is never to do. And opening the Doorway of Sighs, that is the biggest of them all. You were toying with a power you cannot comprehend.”
“So,” I said, “is the Book of Sighs real?”
Uriel nodded, “Yes. It’s real. And there has been an effort to find and secure that copy for many years . . . many centuries. It was something that the original writers scripted at the time of Constantine to destroy the foundations of Christianity. They were bitter and jealous.”
“Why would they do that?”
“The universe is filled with many wonderful, quite unimaginable, things. And within that there is life. And life gets to make its own choices. Just like you, Jack. They were unhappy. They wanted the course of humanity to go in other directions . . .
“. . . You make your choices, and you must live with them. Consequences are what guide our lives. This is the universe that you don’t know. The magnificence and beauty must be experienced through trial and error. For in failure are the lessons learned.”
“Well then,” I said, “I’ve certainly learned a lot of lessons. I will not open that door ever again. You’ve got my word on that.”
I don’t think Uriel finds me the least bit humorous.
“Tell me why you partook upon this journey?”
I thought about his question, and I realized that I needed to be honest with him and with myself. “I did it to find out who I was. I thought that Kristen was a part of that past. My missing memories . . . and I fell in love with her. With the idea that she was a part of me. They promised me my forgotten past if I helped to save them.” And then, lowering my head, I added, “. . . and they said that I was their savior. It felt nice to be special. To have a purpose in life.”
“. . . You are not the same person you used to be, Jack. And your memories, they cannot be restored. They are gone, save for fleeting pictures here and there. You may stumble upon the occasional glimpse, but nothing more.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your life led you to your change. Your memories, and the past that went with them, they no longer exist. You are a different person than before. You are not the monster you used to be.”
“Monster? What do you mean, monster?”
Uriel walked closer to me, his charismatic eyes studying me like a unique object. “Your past is not something I think you should continue to search for. I believe that it is best if you focus on what you must do now.”
“Who was I? I need to know.”
“What you need to do,” he said forcefully, “is listen to my instructions very carefully. You have done a great injustice to the will of God, and to the flow of life through its cycles. Now you must make amends.”
Oh, no. Here comes the fire and brimstone stuff. I’m going to be tied down while little creatures with three eyes rub pig shit in my hair, and stuff pine trees up my . . .
“You are going to be given a second chance. A chance to make things right.”
“How can I do that, I’m just a mortal? A mental patient. An anti-saint.”
Uriel lowered his face to mine, just inches away, “You are not like them, Jack. While you are not a savior, you are also not average. You are very special. And you must use your gifts to fix what you have done.”
“You want me to go and chase them?”
“You will hunt each and every one of them down. All twenty-three of the escaped souls. And you will bring them back to the Land of Sorrows.”
How do I do that? Bring them back?
“. . . You do what you’ve always been good at, Jack . . . you kill them.”
The shivering is starting to come back. The aches of my freezing body, they’re—all of the sudden—starting to drain me. I feel sick to my stomach, and I’m not sure I even have a stomach in this place.
Uriel put his large firm hands on my shoulders, squeezing just enough that I understood that he wasn’t asking me. He was telling me. “You work for us, now, Jack. You will be our agent on the Earth plane. You can do something that even we are not allowed, you can walk among both the living, and the dead. That is a powerful gift if used with caution and respect.”
I want to tell him that I’m the wrong guy. That I’m only five-months-old. That I’m not even licensed to drive a truck with more than two axles. I want him to realize that I eat frozen pizza and McDonald’s, and haven’t even got a job. That I’m too lazy to finish crossword puzzles. That I leave my shoes tied and just slip them on and off.
But I don’t think he’d care about all that.
“When you need us, we will be there.” He looked at me, up and down, something behind his eyes. “. . . You need to go, now, Jack. You’re not looking so good. A little cold.”
I turned, trying to remember where the truck is with my body in it? “Ms. Josephine?” I call out. “Can you hear me?”
“. . . back . . . quickly . . . not . . . time . . . left . . .”
I asked Uriel, as my eyes glanced up at the large winged monsters perched on the wall, “If . . . if I turn around, are those things going to attack me?”
He ignored my question and pointed to my necklace, “You might need that.”
My arms started to pull to my chest and stomach, my legs feeling weak and powerless. I took a few steps and fell to the ground. My body is dying. For real dying.
In front of me was my necklace, dangling back and forth.
Uriel knelt down, “We can’t save you, Jack. You have to do this on your own. You must live or die on your own.”
I took the necklace from around my head and tried to steady it in my trembling hands. I was shaking so bad, now, that I was the thing vibrating.
The angels watching me, I emptied the contents of the small pouch into my right hand. There was a large red centipede with about a thousand legs, several curled-up black widow spiders—their red hourglasses clear to see. Some bits of a shriveled pink something, and a bunch of what look like tiny eyes.
This is, in case you’re wondering, not advisable unless you are stuck on Deadside and on the brink of death. Please consult a physician before walking among the dead and eating bags of horrible voodoo shit like this!
I shoved the bugs and bits in to my mouth and found, to my surprise, that they weren’t dead. They seemed to come to life, picking and prodding. Stinging and biting the insides of me as I tried to swallow.
And then my throat began to swell as their venom coursed through me. My breathing started to constrict until I got so dizzy I couldn’t see straight. I rolled to my back, my hands clasped around my throat.
I’m dead . . . dying, again.
I’m drowning by my body’s own defense systems. I’m killing me from inside. And that Ms. Josephine, somehow she’s found a way to bring me back. By facing my worst nightmare . . . in reverse.
The burning pain in my lungs can’t be sated. I can’t breathe, even if I wanted to. My eyes are on fire, my stomach feels like it’s being ripped apart from the inside. This is the most terrifying thing I could never imagine.
I want to scream for them to help me, but I can’t. I am silently dying, here on the Deadside. My new dead body is rolling around on the cold ground of the Land of Sorrows, for all to see. The thousands of souls, they’re paying attention.
I am their lesson.
Their constant reminder of what is not supposed to happen.
And at the point when it cannot be any more painful and frightening and utterly horrifying . . .
Old City Wall, Damascus, Earth Plane . . .
. . . I open my eyes, and there is Ricky, pressing up and down on my chest to circulate oxygen.
Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation! He’s counting to himself, a syringe between his teeth that he looks poised to use. Apparently he’s been alternating between shocking my heart and squishing me for the last few minutes. Probably a lot more traumatic from their perspective.
I open my eyes, and between the tears I cough out the words, “. . . it’s . . . over . . .”
Ms. Josephine is beside me, rocking back and forth, talking in some language I can’t even guess at.
And I realize, that Ms. Josephine beside me, she is the opposite of a spook. Ricky, working furiously on my chest, he is the opposite of a Gatherer.
“Welcome back, Jack!” Ricky says, salty beads of sweat dripping off his forehead and chin. “I feel like I’m in some children’s book,” he miffed between breaths. “See Jack run. Run, Jack, run. See Jack die.”
Ms. Josephine reached down and kissed me on the forehead. “You need to stop dyin’ for a while. It really ain’t no good for you.”
I’m as cold as a body can get, even in the morgue. I don’t know who I am. Or who I was. But I have the biggest urge to laugh. Maybe that’s better than the other option . . . which is to cry. Really, I’m a total mess.
A real nut-bag loco.
My river of life, it leads to a gutter . . . to the sewer.
I reached out for Ricky’s hand, and then took Ms. Josephine’s, “. . . I love our dysfunctional family . . .” and then I passed-out.