He crept through the darkness with one hand in front of his body, fingers outstretched. It was most likely a subconscious reaction to the thoughts racing through his mind. The attack would be quick. He would sneak in then disappear.
His eyes widened in the darkness as he tried to make out the shapes at the end of the hall. A figure stood at the entrance to the sanctuary, his back to the hallway and the stalker. It was almost too easy. The preacher had no reason to expect an attack, especially now.
The stalker bit his lip and savored the feeling. He could only experience this when he was here. There was something so beautifully primitive about the way this world was constructed, and the closer he crept to the preacher, the stronger the feelings became. The world was the product of hundreds of minds agreeing to believe one lie. Deep down, every single one of them knew the truth. The afterlife could be anything.
The stalker inhaled sharply as his heart came to life, beating urgently, begging him to move faster. He could feel it pounding in his chest leading him closer to the end. He placed one hand over his heart and tapped his fingers to the rhythm pulsing beneath his skin. A chill ran down his spine and his entire body shuddered. He exhaled, grinning.
These feelings were a product of succumbing to the same lie as the rest of them. He stopped near the edge of the hall, careful to stay in the shadows. He could hear everything; from the gasps to the scattered mutterings of “amen” as the congregation watched, spellbound in the moment.
The preacher gestured to a stained glass window and gazed knowingly into the eyes of his audience. He bowed his head and the room fell silent.
“Let us begin,” he whispered.
A man stood at the back of the room, his hands in his pockets. He lowered his head with the rest of the followers, but kept his eyes on the preacher. The sermons were becoming more sincere and less clumsy and the people believed. It was essentially harmless. These people needed something to believe in; they were new and this place was familiar for most of them. The man at the back watched as the preacher raised his head, lowering his hands to grasp the sides of the podium in front of him. His followers opened their eyes and waited.
The preacher took a deep breath and held his arms wide like a magician preparing to attempt the impossible. “This is the beginning of the end,” he said. “The way forward is clear. There is no path but this one. The way of the lamb is illuminated by your good deeds, and those who turn away from the light will be eternally damned. Our way is the truth.”
The man at the back felt a knot twist in his stomach. He’d seen this performance before, but that didn’t make it any less unnerving. This preacher was not the only one educating his congregation about the inevitability of damnation. At that moment there were countless revered individuals speaking to countless masses in countless sacred halls. Some spoke of peace, some taught enlightenment, some prepared for war; so it had been and so it always would be forever and ever.
The man at the back stopped listening; he was not here for the preacher. Something was about to happen; something he could not stop. He watched and waited, hoping he was wrong.
“We have dark days ahead,” said the preacher, “but rest assured the things you do in the name of righteousness will be forgiven.” The preacher paused and slowly lowered his arms. He stared past the gathering, appearing to center himself on some deep inner reverence. “As long as your heart is pure and your intentions are true, you will find grace.”
From the shadows, the stalker patiently observed his target. He had only a minute to wait for his cue.
The preacher raised his hands. “Forget your sins and I will forgive you,” he said. “Through me, you will be saved from the fires of eternal damnation.” As if on cue, the podium burst into flames. The crowd screamed as the preacher stumbled backwards in an attempt to avoid the fire.
The stalker snickered, and quickly retreated to his hiding place.
The man from the back made it to the front of the chaos in time to see a dark figure disappear into the shadows. He watched the flames die with a hiss as the fire was extinguished. The man from the back faded into the shadows after the stalker.
The stalker crouched behind a large chair trying desperately to control his laughter. He knew better than to insight chaos but the opportunity was too good to pass up. He smiled to himself as he replayed the scene in his mind. He was too distracted to notice the sound of footsteps as someone entered the room.
“I know you’re in here, Lucifer,” said a voice.
He adopted a dazed look, and stood up from behind the chair. “Jesus?” he asked. “Is that you? Is this heaven?”
Jesus rolled his eyes. “You know perfectly good and well where you are and what you did.”
“I didn’t do anything he didn’t deserve.”
“An eye for an eye–”
“Creates a level playing field,” finished Lucifer.
Jesus shook his head. “
“He deserved it.” Lucifer moved out from behind the chair and leaned against the wall.
“We should leave before he finds us,” said Jesus.
“Why? I’m sure he already knows it was me.”
“True. You are predictable.”
“What do you think he’d do if I did it again?” asked Lucifer.
Jesus sighed. “I think you’ve done enough.”
“Well somebody has to do something.”
“No,” said Jesus. “This is their choice and their path. We have no right to intervene. They’re not hurting us.”
Lucifer sneered in disgust. “But they’re wrong,” he said, “and they’re mean and stupid.”
Jesus began to speak but Lucifer stopped him.
“If you say ‘blessed are the meek’ so help me, I will start another fire.”
“That’s not what I was going to say.”
“You could at least pick a different God to harass,” said Jesus. “This one isn’t even the worst. If you’re just determined to bother the Christian gods, there’s one in one of the evangelical heavens who’s doing something weird with snakes and virgins.”
Lucifer crossed his arms over his chest. “But this one is my favorite.”
Footsteps echoed down the hall as someone else approached.
“Uh-oh,” said Lucifer.
God burst into the room. “You,” he shouted. “Both of you!”
“What?” asked Lucifer.
“Don’t ‘what’ me. I cast you from Heaven an eternity ago.”
“Why do you say the same thing everytime we do this?” asked Lucifer.
Jesus shot him a look.
“I will not have the devil–”
“I’m not the devil. Just like you’re not God.”
“Don’t start that,” said Jesus. “You know he doesn’t understand.”
“This is heresy and treason,” said God, stomping his foot.
“It’s not treason if we don’t live here,” said Lucifer.
“Technically I think it was sabotage,” said Jesus.
God rounded on Jesus, turning away from Lucifer. “You’re supposed to be on my side.”
“All the gods say that,” said Lucifer.
“There is only one,” growled God, “and He is me. I dare you to step foot in my domain again, It will be the last thing you do.”
“I dare you to be reborn,” said Lucifer. “It will be one of many things you do because we’re all spirits and we can’t die.”
Jesus threw up his hands. “I’m out,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“Wait,” said Lucifer. “That’s it, that’s the deal. I’ll leave your Heaven alone if you live one more life on Earth.”
“Dammit,” said Jesus. “Stop trying to make deals with people.”
“I refuse,” said God. “It’s not even possible.”
“Then I’ll see you tomorrow,” said Lucifer.
“Leave him alone,” said Jesus.
“Yes,” said God. “Leave me alone.”
“Lilith is Baptist this time around,” said Lucifer, ignoring God.
“We’re not going to stalk a heaven waiting for Lilith. Look, God’s upset. We should leave.”
“She seems pretty devoted,” said Lucifer.
“She’ll find us,” said Jesus. ”She always does.”
“I admire your faith,” said Lucifer. “But I think I’m going to wait here.”
“This is Michael all over again,” muttered Jesus.
“Michael was different,” said Lucifer. “He left.”
“Michael is a good man and you will leave him out of this,” said God.
Lucifer made a face, mocking him. “Michael is a good man,” he sneered.
Jesus grabbed Lucifer’s wrist and tugged. “We’re leaving.”
“Think about my offer,” said Lucifer.
“What offer?” asked God.
“One lifetime for an eternity of peace,” answered Lucifer.
“Never,” shouted God.
Jesus dragged Lucifer away.
“They really went all out for this Heaven,” said Lucifer, looking around at the cobblestone streets and spacious houses.
“I’m partial to the Dragon Ether,” said Jesus.
“Who built that?”
Jesus shrugged. “It was a New Age group effort I think.”
“Kudos to them.”
Jesus huffed. “How many times are we going to do this?”
“Bother God. Specifically this God.”
“Until he stops bothering me,” answered Lucifer.
“He’s not doing anything to you.”
“He converts people.”
“They all convert people,” said Jesus.
“This one specifically sneaks into other afterlives and converts people.”
“You can’t stop him from doing that.”
“Yeah, I can,” said Lucifer. “His freewill ends where someone else’s freewill begins. He can’t force people to believe his bullshit.”
“Everyone believes in some kind of bullshit,” said Jesus, “and they’re free to change their minds if God presents a more appealing idea.”
“He’s taking advantage of people.”
“People are gullible. If he is able to convert them it’s because they weren’t terribly loyal to their own beliefs in the first place.”
“Michael was different,” interrupted Jesus. “God is his friend. He converted so they could stay together.”
“He gave up everything he was.”
“So did God.”
“I remember when he was Joseph, not God.”
“I don’t understand their relationship,” said Lucifer.”
“Sometimes friends make sacrifices for each other. You’d do the same for me.”
“No,” said Lucifer. “If you developed a God-complex I’d find a way to put you out of your misery.”
“I’d do it for you,” said Jesus.
“Really?” asked Lucifer. He sounded unconvinced. “You’d give up everything you stand for and convert to an entirely different philosophy just to stay with me?”
“In a heartbeat.”
“That’s ridiculous. Freewill includes the freedom to fuckup without being responsible for your friends fucking up with you.”
“And freewill includes the freedom to follow someone into a different madness if you so choose.”
“Lucifer snorted. “Whatever. At least God won’t be bothering anyone anymore.”
“He’s got a gambling problem. Or at least he used to,” answered Lucifer. “He’ll take my deal.”
“He thinks it’s impossible.”
“Doesn’t mean he won’t try and accidentally succeed.”
“I’d be very surprised if he takes the deal.”
“He will. And he’ll end up believing someone else’s nonsense then he’ll fall from God to follower and Michael will fall right behind him.”
“He’s not going to take your bet.”
“I guarantee you he will. He literally thinks I’m the devil. God always takes bets from the devil.”
“I bet he’ll stay God and ignore you,” said Jesus.
Lucifer laughed. “You should know better than anyone not to make deals with me.”
“I know better. I just know I’m right.”
“What do you want to bet?” asked Lucifer.
Jesus was silent for a moment.
Lucifer nudged him. “Come on. Make a deal with the devil.”
“Give me a minute,” said Jesus. “I’m thinking.”
“How about,” began Lucifer, “the winner gets to pick the next lifetime. And we have to go together.”
“You mean we’re born together, live together?”
“Deal,” answered Jesus.
“So if God is reborn, I win. If he stays safe in his little Heaven, you win.”
“We need to find Lilith and Gabriel so they can keep score.”
Suddenly they heard screaming. They turned to see people flooding out of the church. Amidst the shouts and panicked voices, one cry rang out, “God is dead!”
Lucifer and Jesus hurried through the throng of souls and pushed their way into the church.
Michael was kneeling next to the podium. He looked up when he saw them. “You,” he said, voice raw and bitter.
Lucifer put his hands up. “All I did was start a fire.”
“He’s gone,” said Michael. “Where is he?”
“I think he reincarnated,” said Jesus. “He must have done it by accident.”
Lucifer shot him a look. “How the hell do you reincarnate by accident? That maniac took my deal.”
Michael got to his feet. “What did I tell you about making deals?”
“You said don’t do it,” answered Lucifer. “But I don’t care so it’s kind of irrelevant.”
Michael pulled his sword from its sheath and pointed it at them.
“What are you going to do?” asked Lucifer. “Kill me? Stab me?”
“You and I both know I can kill you here,” said Michael. “You have to play by our rules in this Heaven.”
Jesus stepped between them. “Put that away,” he said. “Yes, we made a bet with God. But it was his decision to follow through. And like I said, he probably did it accidentally.”
“You can’t reincarnate accidentally,” said Michael.
“Then he did it on purpose and he did it in front of everyone to make us look bad,” said Lucifer. “Oh, damn. That’s probably exactly what he did.”
Michael clenched his teeth. “I’m going to find him,” he said. “And when I get back I’m going to make sure you never come near us again.”
“Oooh scary,” said Lucifer.
Jesus grabbed him by the wrist. “You’ve done enough damage for one day. Come on before Michael stabs one of us.”
Lucifer let Jesus drag him from the church. He glanced behind them and saw Michael turn, sheath his sword and slowly disappear.
They left the Godless heaven and arrived in an afterlife that was entirely composed of an island surrounded by crystal blue water. The soul that created it got lost many lifetimes ago. Jesus and Lucifer stumbled upon it and kept it alive.
“You shouldn’t push Michael like that,” said Jesus.
“If I die in his heaven, I’ll just reincarnate and come right back here.”
“But you won’t get the choice to remember. How will you find your way back? How would you find me?”
“I could find you with no memories, blindfolded and with one hand tied behind my back.”
“So am I. I’ll never lose you.” He grinned. “By the way, I believe I won the bet.”
Jesus sighed and hung his head.
“I get to pick our next life,” said Lucifer.
“Do we have to go now?”
“Can’t we wait for Lilith and Gabriel to get back?”
“Gabriel is going to die soon,” said Jesus. “We don’t have to wait long.”
“Lilith isn’t going to die soon though. Why do we need to wait for them? Let’s go now. We’re not doing anything else.”
“Fine,” muttered Jesus. “Where are we going?”
He didn’t make it beyond the front porch that morning. He’d barricaded himself inside the house and skipped school. He’d locked all of the doors and double checked the windows then set up camp in the living room. He was armed with a kitchen knife and a walking stick.
He was going to get detention for skipping. Miss Jeanie wouldn’t excuse him. She was a foster mom in legal title only. She was away on a business trip. She probably wouldn’t answer the phone much less return the call.
Nabil crouched behind the couch, knife in hand. The Event, as he decided to call it, occurred when he opened the front door that morning.
It was raining; it had been raining for several days. The weather was often damp and gray in this part of North Carolina. The day started off wrong when Nabil woke up before his alarm and couldn’t get back to sleep. He’d stayed in bed until his clock finally rang and he’d silenced it with more force than necessary. He’d gotten dressed, collected his things for school, and prepared himself for an average day. However, when he’d opened the front door he was greeted by a set of fresh wet footprints. They stained the wooden porch, leading to and then away from the door. The prints directly in front of him seemed to stare. He’d slammed the door, locked it then proceeded to secure the house.
He felt safer now, though Jeanie’s gun would certainly improve his chances of winning if a fight occurred. Unfortunately she kept it with her at all times. It didn’t matter. If it came to a shoot out Nabil would lose. He had miserable aim and suspected he lacked the will to actually pull the trigger. He knew of several people who would want to scare him like this. Number one on the list was Jonathon, his nemesis.
Jonathon Rose grew up in North Carolina as did his father, his father’s father and his father before him. They came from a long line of Roses. Their family was the kind that honored the oldest son born to the oldest son. They had a confederate statue in their front yard. It was commissioned to honor their relatives who died in the Civil War. Jonathon had blond hair and blue eyes and a very genuine accent that Jeanie thought was “charming.”
Nabil was an orphan with black hair, olive skin and brown eyes. His family died in Lebanon. His mother’s last act was fleeing to America with Nabil. They were poor. She was sick. She didn’t last long and he didn’t remember much. He didn’t have any relatives in the U.S.
The staff at the children’s shelter did their best to find someone connected to him, but apparently Nabil came from Mars and the Earthlings could not trace his lineage. His foster families lived on the other side of numerous burned bridges which he’d ignited after each member rejected him. It was like a ritual, a sick routine of hope, family, and conflict, finally ending with Nabil standing alone with a match, lighter fluid, and no reason to look back.
According to his latest tally, he’d lived with five sisters, three brothers and six different foster parents. Older children were less appealing than sweet smelling babies. Babies and toddlers were precious and pure. Parents could bring them home and raise them in their image without worrying about the child’s past or any preinstalled behavior. Babies were gently used, or like-new. Some of them were even pre-owned, but still sold in the box from a nice clean pet-free smoke-free home. Nabil never was one of those like-new children.
He was pre-owned, out-of-box and used when the first family adopted him. He hopped from family to family until Jeanie came along. With no previous history of collecting, she adopted him at 14. After three and a half years, she seemed satisfied with her purchase. He basically required no work, which was good because she was barely home enough to see what he needed. After the habitual month long stints of staying home alone, he began to suspect he was more of a cheap security system than anything else. Security was not his intended use, but he assumed she read something in his description that gave her the idea. He didn’t mind. She was not his mother and would never be family. Once he turned 18 he’d probably never speak to her again.
His real mom was gone and he needed to remember that. He had vague memories of her when they lived in Lebanon. He tried not to dwell on them. They always led to memories of the violent struggles in Beirut. He’d looked for her a few times, trying to trace her using Fahim, his real last name, but he always came back empty handed. His searches were not thorough. A small part of him was afraid to find the woman from his memories. A small part of him knew she was dead. A small part of him remembered.
He imagined his mother with deep brown eyes, warm olive skin and cascading, wild black hair framing her soft face. She matched him. She was dark like him. People would hate her as they hated him, but it wouldn’t matter because he loved her darkness and it justified his own.
His mother was not bothered by insults like sand monkey or camel jockey. And when those taunts echoed after him in the school hallways, he could hear his mother saying “Ignore them. They’re ignorant.”
She wore scarves and painted her eyes with kohl. She would tell Nabil he was too good for these people; too good for Nighton, NC. He belonged with her some place far away, eating figs and enjoying the sea.
Nabil spent the rest of the day hunkered down behind the couch. He left only to make a sandwich for dinner and to grab his pillow and blanket from his room. If it was Jonathon who wandered onto his porch, he probably did it just to scare Nabil.
No one had hurt him in Nighton, not yet. He considered himself lucky. He wasn’t a fighter and he certainly wasn’t much of a runner. He didn’t have any allies at school. Olivia, one of the popular girls, was kind to him. She’d even eaten lunch with him a few times, but she was Jonathon’s friend first and pity was probably the only connection she had to Nabil.
The only other person he spent any real amount of time with was Kelly. They worked together at a hotel not far from Nabil’s house. Kelly worked full time as a housekeeper and Nabil worked with him part time. It didn’t pay much, just enough to cover his phone bill. He didn’t need a phone, but it made him feel connected even if his contacts only contained Jeanie and Kelly. Maybe he was spoiled. Maybe wandering from home to home had turned him into something rotten that no one would ever want to love. Maybe he’d been left outside of the world for so long he’d turned sour. Maybe he didn’t belong here.
He fell asleep on the floor that night with the knife and walking stick within reach.
* * *
“He’s got lint on his clothes,” whispered Aubrey. She snickered and wrinkled her nose.
Mrs. Deaton scrawled another equation on the board, oblivious to the lack of interest in the room.
“I can’t imagine going out like that,” whispered Aubrey. “Look at that hole in his shirt.”
“Look at his hair,” snickered Jonathon. “I bet there’s all kinds of stuff in there.”
Nabil heard him tear a sheet of paper from his notebook followed by more tearing and finally a crinkling noise.
“Aim for his head,” hissed Aubrey.
Nabil kept his eyes on the board. He imagined being brave enough to turn around and punch Jonathon in the face.
Jonathon snickered and Nabil saw a small white ball of notebook paper land on his desk. He picked it up and turned around. Jonathon sat two seats behind him with a small arsenal of paper wads on his desk. He and Aubrey were still laughing.
Nabil glared and threw the paper back. Jonathon ducked and the paper landed on the floor. Jonathon laughed louder.
“Mr. Fahim,” said Mrs. Deaton, “is there a problem?”
The words Jonathon threw a tiny scrap of paper at me ran through Nabil’s mind. He scowled. “Jonathon was throwing paper at me,” he said. The room filled with giggling.
Mrs. Deaton eyed the paper wad on the floor. “Jonathon, don’t throw paper at Nabil. Nabil, don’t throw paper at Jonathon.” She turned back to the white board and continued explaining what happened as x approached infinity.
Nabil stared at the front of the room and tried to ignore the whispers behind him. Lunch was only a few minutes away. The other kids would either stick to the cafeteria or take advantage of the school’s open campus policy and wander somewhere more interesting. Nabil considered going home, but he knew if he left he’d stay home and he did not need another detention. He already had detention for skipping yesterday.
The lunch bell screeched over the speakers and broke his train of thought. Nabil threw his things into his backpack and hurried out into the hall. He pushed through the double doors and followed the breezeway past the cafeteria and to the computer lab. Jonathon and Aubrey were far behind him. They were probably going to the Chicken Coop for lunch, away from campus and away from him.
The computer lab was the designated detention zone and an ill-tempered, white-haired lab instructor guarded it. Mrs. Bowe was infamous for yelling at students and not knowing how to use the computers. She watched him with beady-eyed anticipation as he entered the room. She clicked her tongue and shook her head but didn’t say more.
Nabil picked a computer at the back of the room. He opened his notebook and pretended to do his homework. To his surprise someone took the seat next to him.
Olivia smiled as she set her notebook on the table between them. She wrote What’s up? on the top line.
Detention, wrote Nabil.
She giggled. Yeah, I got that. What are you in for?
I skipped yesterday. Why are you here?
I skipped English last Friday. Why did you skip?
Nabil considered answering honestly, but thought better of it. I didn’t feel like going to school.
I don’t blame you. It’s so boring here!
As mundane as their conversation was, it made the time pass much faster. At the end of the period Olivia gave him her number and told him to call her the next time he was bored. He wasn’t sure what it meant, but it made a cold, forgotten part of himself flutter. He wondered if this counted as making a friend.
A voice inside told him no, she wasn’t his friend. It reminded him that people’s interest in him was fleeting. There wasn’t a point to his sad little life and he certainly didn’t have a purpose. He didn’t fulfill any worldly need and probably would never make a difference in the grand scheme of things.
At night, when the voice was loudest it told him he was wasting his breath. His body was a waste of cells and oxygen. It reminded him that the only reason he was alive was because he couldn’t think of a way to kill himself without making a mess. There was a time when he didn’t think these things, when the voice was quiet, but that was long ago. It was part of him now. Olivia gave him her number because it was what people did. She didn’t want to get to know him and even if she did it was only out of naïveté. If she really knew him, if she ever saw his raw, bleeding soul, she’d run. Any sane person would. Nabil was a gaping wound of a human being. He bled onto the nice clean world around him. Olivia was sweet. She wasn’t built for blood.
When the day finally came to an end he took his usual route to the front parking lot. The sky rumbled above him and he wondered if he could beat the rain home. The clouds behind the school were heavy and black. If he wanted to avoid being caught in the rain, he needed to cut through the woods using the trees for shelter, but the woods were Jonathon’s territory. He and a few friends would stalk through the trees doing God knows what. Nabil had been fortunate to hear about his routine instead of experiencing it first hand.
He stopped at the edge of campus and looked around the parking lot. Jonathon usually had some kind of practice after school, so he was most likely busy. Nabil wasn’t afraid, at least that’s what he told himself, but he had no desire to endure whatever insults Jonathon had prepared. Sometimes he imagined going through the woods and letting Jonathon beat him to death. But he was a coward at heart. He couldn’t even muster up the nerve to die.
Once he had covered his bases; he turned his back to the school and headed to the tree line. His phone rang in his pocket and he retrieved it.
Every time he called, Nabil newly regretted giving Kelly his number. What were the consequences of answering? He flipped it open. “Hey,” he said. He could always come up with an excuse to get off the phone.
“Nabil, I need your help right now.” Kelly’s voice was higher and whinier than usual. “I’m serious. This is so bad. Where are you?”
“I’m going home,” Nabil answered. “But—”
“Ok. From school? Are you still on campus? Stay there. I’ll get you.”
“Yeah I’m still here, but—”
“We’ll talk more when I get there.”
“Kelly, I have homework.”
“I’ll help you with it. Just stay there. I’m not even joking. I really need help.”
Nabil groaned. “Ok,” he said. “I’ll wait in the parking lot.”
He hung up and wandered over to the brick wall surrounding a small wilting garden in front of the school. He had to be at work at the hotel later for the evening cleaning shift with Kelly anyway. He was looking forward to some time alone between school and work, but that clearly wasn’t going to happen now.
He pulled a half-empty water bottle from his backpack and poured it out onto the ground where something soft and green was trying to grow. Upon closer inspection it looked like a dandelion. The thunder growled above him and he realized the pointlessness of watering the garden.
He shoved the bottle back in his pack and looked up in time to see Kelly flying into the parking lot. He came screeching to a halt next to Nabil and rolled down the window.
“Get in,” he said.
Nabil opened the passenger side door and threw his backpack in the seat behind him. “What’s going on?” he asked, shutting the door.
“Rachel’s coming,” answered Kelly.
“Rachel,” he said again, half shouting. Little beads of sweat ran down his face. “I told you about her, right? My girlfriend?”
“Oh. Ok, yeah I remember.” He lied. He rarely remembered the details of Kelly’s personal drama.
“Yes. And Joanna wants to come here, too.”
“Yeah. I’ll show you the emails.” Kelly blistered through a yellow light and turned abruptly down the little street leading to his house.
“You don’t like Joanna, right?” asked Nabil.
“Yes.” Kelly was half shouting now. “That’s why I broke up with her.”
“Sorry, just checking.”
“If Joanna comes here when Rachel is here I might lose her forever.”
“Lose Rachel?” asked Nabil
“So you’re trying to keep Joanna from coming?”
“Have you been listening to anything I’ve said?” He parked in the lot in front of his apartment complex and was halfway up the stairs before Nabil was out of the car. “Hurry up.”
Kelly was an unfortunately proportioned man. His gut sloshed over his belt and his bulbous balloon-shaped head lolled about on a neck that was almost entirely concealed by his chins and a sad attempt at a beard. His boney legs did not seem strong enough to keep him standing, yet somehow against all odds, they prevailed. Nabil imagined it was a daily struggle.
Nabil grabbed his bag and followed Kelly. This was, admittedly, more entertaining than sitting home alone doing homework.
“Ok,” said Kelly, sitting down at his computer. He put on his glasses and began scrolling through messages.
Kelly didn’t need glasses, but he bought a pair so he could have them during important moments. He wore them all day when he first got them. He’d put them on saying “I look like I belong on CSI or something.”
“Ok, it starts here,” he said. “Joanna says she’s sorry we had to end things.”
Nabil leaned over his shoulder to make sure Kelly was reading and not interpreting Joanna’s messages. So far so good.
“She wants to make it right between us.”
“She says she wishes she could make it right,” said Nabil.
“Yeah. Anyways, here’s Rachel’s message saying she’s coming out to visit.”
“Kelly, that says November at the earliest.”
“That’s months away.”
Kelly held up his fingers and counted. “What’s your point?” he asked.
“You made this sound urgent. You’ve got plenty of time to figure this thing out.”
“But Joanna,” he began.
“Ok, when is she coming?”
Kelly scrolled up to the most recent message.
Nabil leaned in and read it out loud. “Maybe one day we can see each other in person. I’ve always wanted to visit the south. I hear it’s beautiful, especially the coast.”
“See?” The urgency was still strong in his voice.
“Yeah, maybe someday. That’s not soon. I thought you said they were coming at the same time.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I—well I thought—” He frowned.
Nabil took pity on him. “You panicked.”
“Yeah, I did a little bit.”
“Do you want Joanna to come to see you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I have feelings for her anymore, but just the thought of seeing her again—it’s complicated.”
Kelly lost speed with his first drama, but he was quick to recover with a new, more emotional dilemma. Nabil sighed and stepped away from Kelly’s computer.
“What?” asked Kelly.
“I should probably go,” he answered. “I really do need to get some homework done.”
“Oh. Ok,” said Kelly. “Well thanks for coming over.”
Nabil grabbed his backpack and headed to the door.
“I guess I should offer you a ride, huh?” asked Kelly.
Rain was just beginning to fall and the thunder was growing louder.
“No, I can walk.”
“Are you sure? I mean, it’s too early for me to leave for work, but I guess I could take you to your house.”
“I’d have to come all the way back here, though. Or we could just hang out at your house. Do you have internet?”
Nabil shook his head quickly. “It’s slow.”
“Oh,” said Kelly. “Are you sure you can walk?”
“No, I should give you a ride. I mean, you are within walking distance, but you probably want a ride, right?”
“Nope, I’m good. Really.” Nabil opened the door and started down the stairs. “See you later.”
Kelly groaned and followed after him, keys jingling. “Yeah, I’ll give you a ride. I’ll feel bad if you walk.”
Kelly continued his relationship monologue in the car. They pulled into his driveway and Kelly waved as Nabil got out and bolted for the front porch. This time, the only damp footprints were his own.
Albert lay on the flat of his back on the shore, the saltwater pooling around his almost naked body. His shoes would wash up later and the police would speculate they belonged to a male, 25, with mangy blond hair, gray eyes and numerous scars on his forearms. His jeans wouldn’t be found. He tied weights to his belt loops to make the sinking process easier.
It was cloudy and the beach was empty. He tried to pick a day when no one would be out. He didn’t want to startle anyone.
He jumped from the end of the pier. He was quick, but Gabriel must have already known the plan because just as he began to sink beneath the shadow of the pier, an arm wrapped around his waist. Gabriel wasted no time and quickly removed his shoes and jeans. As Albert slipped into unconsciousness, at the edges of his mind he noted Gabriel’s improved rescue strategy. The last time he jumped, they struggled beneath the water for a while, the heavy clothes weighing them down. This time, it only took a few seconds to bring Albert back to the surface. Now, Gabriel sat next to him on the shore panting, but triumphant.
Albert’s death was almost a success.
He heard the sirens in the distance. They were close.
Gabriel spat a mouthful of water into the sand and glared at Albert. “I’m letting you die next time,” he said. “You want to drown, fine, but it’s not going to change a damn thing.” He swept his thinning brown hair from his brow. “You got about a minute before they get here and I’ve got a mind to shoot you in your damn foot and let them catch you.”
Albert stared up at the clouds. It was going to rain soon. “You won’t let them catch me,” he said.
“The hell I won’t,” snapped Gabriel. “For Christ’s sake don’t just lay there. At least make it look like I tried to chase you down.”
Albert breathed deeply through his nose and exhaled through his mouth. His throat still burned from the salt. “There’s nothing here.”
“You can’t go back,” Gabriel said, standing. “You’re not ready.” He nudged Albert with the toe of his boot. “Go on; they’re already in the parking lot.”
Albert looked up at the soggy, disheveled man standing above him. Gabriel was in his 50s, but age never slowed him down. Albert wondered if it was health or obstinacy that kept him going. Albert did not remember Gabriel at first. The only name he remembered was Lucifer. However, as his encounters with Gabriel increased, bits of memory returned. Albert had asked him for details about their past. Gabriel claimed he couldn’t help. Albert knew it was a lie.
He knew there was the option to remember past lives. Gabriel claimed some chose to remember everything and carry the secrets of their spiritual existence with them as they tried to create a future in their new lives. He said others remembered nothing, preferring a clean start in case preconceptions prevented them from learning something new. Some chose to remember fragments. They lived a new life, but kept their most sacred memories. Whether it was part of their identity, knowledge of a significant physical place, or the memory of someone they loved; they carried these things as they tried to live. In most cases, Gabriel said the memories were good and acted as a bastion of hope in the misery of life. Sometimes memories were shameful and that burden of knowledge haunted them as a kind of self-inflicted punishment for wrongs committed in the past. Sometimes, the memories were simply a clue.
Albert only remembered Lucifer. Whether his memories were good or bad, Albert couldn’t tell. He only remembered the presence of his friend and knew in this life, his absence felt wrong.
The sound of doors slamming echoed down the beach. The EMTs probably hoped Albert was dead. They were hoping for a body.
“Maybe don’t call them next time,” said Albert.
“I didn’t,” said Gabriel. “You’re just that predictable.” He nudged Albert again with his boot. “Go on Suicide Man, they’re coming.”
Albert groaned and got to his feet. Gabriel always found him, no matter how covert he tried to be with his plans. Were people posting his location now, or was Gabriel always behind him? He heard the wooden sound of footsteps on the boardwalk, his cue to take shelter. He stumbled away from the shore and crouched behind a clump of tall grass and dug his feet into the sand to dry them.
The EMTs looked disappointed when they saw Gabriel alone.
Albert crept back to the parking lot before they started combing the beach. Gabriel shook his head and pointed down the shore. They’d follow his footprints until he lost them on the pavement.
He stopped in the men’s restroom, checking to make sure it was empty. He slipped into the third stall and retrieved his backpack from behind the toilet; a backup in case he lived. He changed into dry clothes and tucked his hair underneath a gray baseball cap. He smeared sunscreen on his cheeks and nose and stepped out to check his reflection. His disguise was good enough for now. He tightened the straps on his sandals and stepped outside.
The police were still trying to determine his location. He slipped around to the back of the building to avoid being stopped for questions. Behind him, an officer was talking to a young couple.
“He’s about 25, blond, about six feet. He was last seen wearing a pair of black and green striped boxers—you seen anybody like that?”
He was lucky this time. He didn’t see anyone standing around with a camera. No one filmed this one. He was getting better at avoiding Watchers. His obsessive following was getting out of control. A few months ago, Gabriel informed him that he was viral now. Videos of Albert jumping, running, drowning, or choking circulated around the internet and a cyber community watched them religiously. In a way, it was good. It forced him to consider other consequences whenever he felt the hopelessness returning, whenever the knowledge of his friend was not enough. His death should be private when it happened.
Albert found his car still parked in front of Dean’s Crab Shack. He climbed in the front seat and turned on the heat. The waters of the Oregon coast were chilly even in the summer. He waited for his hands to warm up before driving to the nearest crowded parking lot. Gabriel was responsible for describing his vehicle to the police. He was confident Gabriel would give a fake description, though he probably didn’t know what Albert was driving this time. He switched cars every few weeks, trading his current one for something less recognizable.
He found a place in the back of the parking lot where the RVs parked. He pulled the keys from the ignition and stuffed them in the glove compartment. He crawled into the back seat and curled up inside a green mummy bag. He’d leave for California in the morning.