Dennis Emmental hated being late because it revealed to everyone how little he wanted to be there. Slipping past the creaky back door, he took his place in the line at OptiFood. Orders came from the digital kiosk at the drive-thru and Dennis had twenty-four seconds to assemble the ingredients for the OptiMeal:
- Chinese: steak|chicken|fish, Szechuan sauce, noodles, lettuce, pepper, peanuts, onion
- Mexican: beef|chicken, cheese 1, Picante sauce, lettuce, pepper, Guacamole sauce, sour cream
- Italian: beef|chicken, Diable sauce, noodles, pepper, lettuce, onion, cheese 2
- Thai: beef|chicken, cheese 1, noodles, Picante sauce, Szechuan sauce, pepper, onion
- Murican: beef|chicken, cheese 2, Diable sauce, bread 11, Gaucamole sauce, cheese 1, lettuce
- European: steak|chicken|fish, lettuce, pepper, sour cream, cheese 2, onion, bread 11
He and his cohorts were dumping ingredients in the short, stout, beaker-shaped commemorative plastic buckets used to serve the twenty-four ounce meals. The store was open twenty-four hours a day, and had a thirty-eight percent turnover rate at a six month interval. The owners were unconcerned; they had reached the point where it took a million bucks just to think about suing them, and everyone knew that most of their employees were retards and flakes and so just laughed off their complaints.
Dennis was thinking of one of his last memories of his father, before he went out the door like the ones to follow. His mother had been drinking, and his father came home to see that Dennis had a bruise on his face in the shape of a slightly rounded triangle. “That looks like an iron,” his dad had said. “You know, son, this world is divided into two groups. 90% are assholes because they know nothing more than what they want right now, and 10% are pretty good people, even if they screw up a lot. I hope your mother is part of that group, because if she is bad like the rest, I can’t take it anymore.” He bandaged the corner of the bruise that was seeping blood, threw out his mother’s iron, and the two of them watched horror movies until late at night. It was his favorite memory, the happy place to which he went when he was bored or afraid.
“It’s all tacos today, but we got some dagos and dog coming after the first wave lunch clears, I bet,” said Biff Camembert. He accompanied Dennis and the nerdly beanstalk Eben Kashkaval on most of their everyday adventures, which was essentially all they did unless compelled otherwise.
“I don’t even think about what I am doing,” said Dennis. “Like everything else in this society, if you go through the motions, no one will blame you.” He had just finished a European — “cuck” in their lexicon — and was starting on a dago, or Italian. Time blurred and soon they were exiting the restaurant after their shift.
As his phone rang, Dennis took it from the shoulder pocket where it served up digital sounds to his ears. “This is Dave Taleggio at Center Valley High School. Is this Dennis?”
He put his hand over the phone and waved for silence. “No, this is Dennis’ father, Roger,” he said in a slightly deeper voice. “How can I help you today, Mr. T?”
In the meantime, Biff had pulled out his own phone and pressed one of his autodial buttons. He quickly began speaking in low tones.
Taleggio sputtered a little at that reference. “I am concerned that Dennis does not appear to be attending school,” he began.
“As far as I know, Dennis is at school right now. He is in some kind of self-guided study program. Did you check the library?”
“Well, I don’t know, I — hold please.” Taleggio slid his own hand over the microphone on his phone and walked the forty paces to the library, where he looked down into a bay of students a floor below. One of them seemed to see him, and wave. He waved back, and then went into the office. There, the picture on the file looked exactly like the kid who had waved. He pounded a fist on the table.
“I am going to have to apologize, Mr. Emmental, but you are correct and I did find him in the library. Thank you.” The line went dead.
Biff murmured further to Eben, who was on the other end of the line while holding his home-crafted 3D projector. It enabled him to create the image of any student in the chair in the middle of the library that he had carefully smeared with hazelnut spread and corn to ensure that no one would occupy it. He made a decent income each week for this service, which he performed from his work-study job in the library office during the hours when the school made truancy calls.
Neither Biff nor Dennis had been to school in almost a year. Dennis had found out how to spoof his way into the online study system and submitted enough homework and tests there to be passing at least.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Biff, and seconds later they were driving in his black 1990 Camaro with custom blue flames painted on it, heading to the sprawling maze of the suburbs. They picked up Eben on the way, then roared down broad sunlit roads. Passing dozens of identical houses, varying only in trim and configuration, which seemed to make them even more monotonic, they pulled into the stubby driveway of a one-story home.
Biff walked over to the door and kicked it to jar loose the heat-warped wood from its frame. Opening it, he said, “Check out my new pad.”
Dennis looked at Eben, who shrugged. They were staring at a solid wall of… well, just shit. Stuff. Suburban stuff that could not be thrown out, and yet was kept, and Biff’s mom — his Dad was in Mexico with his fifth wife, a pretty little filly named Graciela — had just put it all in boxes, year after year, and piled them in here. Now Dennis, Eben, and Biff were staring at a mountain of boxes, footlookers, filing cabinets and bags piled to the ceiling. They couldn’t even get into the garage. No cars had seen its inside for a decade at least.
“My chore is to clean the garage,” said Biff. “So I rearranged,” he said, and opened the lid of a footlocker that was on its end in the wall of boxes. To their surprise, there was a passage into a room. They filed through and pulled the lid/door shut after them.
Eben gasped in surprise. They were surrounded on two sides by narrow walls of boxes with all gaps crammed with shopping bags full of whatever junk Biff’s mom had been storing in here. The walls reached the ceiling, creating a room within the garage. Battered couches occupied two sides, and the floor was covered in stained rugs, with a table under a shop light.
“You made yourself a crib,” said Eben. “Wow.”
Dennis looked around, taking it all in. Biff started nodding.
“What?” said Eben. “What are you guys planning on? Oh no, you don’t mean…”
Together they shouted in unison: “Project X!”
So you may be wondering, what is this mysterious Project X? The answer begins with the well-meaning attempts of American educators. These people, having taken on more college debt than the cost of an aircraft carrier, have spent the past six decades laboring under the assumption that school is more than day care (nope) and that students are suffering, not from a lack of ability or drive, but from a lack of information. Dennis remembered how his advisors always slowed the word down and enunciated each syllable clearly, as if he were a retarded kid in a normal above-average kid suit.
These well-meaning adults took it upon themselves to provide an absolute feast of information to their young charges. Naturally, with their heads bloated and contorted by progressive views, they wanted to include as much material that was “on the edge” as possible. This comprised not only bug-chasing guides and homebrew transsexual transition books, but also, plenty of material on the occult. As it turns out, Dennis and Eben had been smoking the weed his uncle grew in the impassable area behind the garage, and raiding the library for digital texts, spending hours passing the bong back and forth in front of their screens.
Of course, they were searching for information on how to invoke Satan. What else would a bored suburban teen, in the midst of the downfall of the second coming of Rome, do? Dennis explained it this way: “I have five years before I have go out and enter the world so that it takes up all my time, beats me down like my parents, and convinces me to start parroting its lies as excuses for its failures. At that point, my brain is basically dead weight, and any honor or spirit that I had will be dead. So, it’s time to live it up, which since I hate most people and nearly everything for being mediocre and insincere, means summoning Satan to destroy this world.”
They hit a number of snags until Eben suggested something he saw in his computer science textbook. “We should index by frequency of terms, and see if we can find near synonyms,” he said. “That will get us past all of this dense verbiage, names of demons and stuff.”
Biff was passing by and tossed in a vital tidbit: “Yeah, but you should make sure that you turn the chart upside down. ‘Occult’ means ‘hidden.’ The stuff they talk about most is probably bullshit to keep the idiots away. Look for the rare stuff.”
And so they dumped all of the texts into one machine, scanned them and came up with a histogram, then looked at the infrequent terms that were used as synonyms for important terms. If it were a movie, there would have been a “Eureka!” moment, but for Dennis, it felt more like a suspicion strengthening to a knowledge deep in his gut. Then again, it could have simply been the Taco Bell working its way downward.
“If we substitute the synonyms for the common terms, and then go back to the medieval texts, we get a totally different translation,” said Eben.
“All of it seems to center on this one ritual, the invocation of the nine corners,” Dennis said, puzzling through yet another translated text.
This was only a few hours after having made it to the garage. Biff had run in a power strip and they plugged in their laptops while he blasted death metal from an ancient stereo set that belonged to either his first or second stepdad. To buy them some privacy, he had thrown a two-foot fan up in the rafters going at full blast, so they were shouting over each other as smoke whipped around them like a tempest while demonic roars suffused the small inner room.
“Well what do we need to do for that one?” said Biff.
Bing translate to the rescue, thought Eben, and performed what he later considered the most fatal copy-and-paste of his life, scooting text from the word processor document they had hacked up into the browser window, then pasting the result back and running the grammar checker so he could smooth out the translation. This is what he found:
For those who wish to go no further, if that term is taken in inversion, this is the ritual of the invocation of the true Lord of this world. In His perfect patience, he will emerge, and bring to you the light of the world below, which is a perfect reversal of the nature of Heaven. But go no further if you are not of perfect heart. He who walks in shadows will bear no fool lightly, and those who do not know their own use, he will make us of freely.
The steps of the Ritual are seven:
1. With the blood of a fresh victim of sacrifice, make the sigil of the damned upon a hillside in moonlight.
2. Draw forth the sacred fire and place it in the center of the sigil.
3. Recite the common prayer in so that each word comes after the word that it comes before.
4. Let spill your own blood within the perimeter of the circle, in three gouts.
5. Arrange the sacred objects of Melethios upon the points of the sigil.
6. Chant the invocation to the corners of the world.
7. In the ancient tones, recite the prayer of Lucifer while offering sacrifice to Azazel and Lazarus.
Biff printed a copy and tacked it to a patch of garage wall that seemed less grease-smeared and cobweb-ridden than most. “This,” he said, stabbing it with a finger, “is the objective. Now we just have to figure out what all of this means.”
Over the next week, the three barely left the garage. Biff brought in food he cribbed from the fridge, and twice they ordered pizza to the next-door neighbor’s house, since the neighbor was gone but left a window open and a credit card in the desk drawer. Several times a day, it seemed, they were pedaling their ten speeds through traffic to get to the downtown library to look up one book or another.
It seemed as if some forces from the worlds beyond had leaned in with a helping hand. Eden was stunned when his parents asked him if he could babysit his sister while they went on a business trip; he was even more overjoyed to find a giant bag of chicken tenders in the freezer. Dennis found his shifts at work cut because they had hired on too many people, and that Mr. Taleggio had marked him present for the rest of the year in the school computer system. Biff got a break when his mom and the latest boyfriend had a fight, and a breakup seemed imminent, so they wanted him out of the house and did not care what he did. “I’m going to go cook meth, mom,” he said, and she just waved at him from her permanent position on the sofa in front of the television, the perpetually full wine glass in her hand.
For his part, Dennis found himself working harder than he ever had at school or a job. He pored over texts obsessively, clustering index cards on the table until he found the right order, and personally decoded four of the steps of the Ritual. Many nights, he slept on the sagging green sofa next to the table, dreaming of the strange words and symbols he had found. It seemed to be changing him because his dreams became both clearer and less linear, so that he was no longer visualizing girls and cars but mystic spaces at dawn, the Earth coming alive under a nurturing pink-violet light that revealed each thing as it was inside. At first people flashed their skeletons, but then he began to see in them the spirits animating them; an adult man turned into a broken dish, another glowed with a rangy coyote, and others showed only money or television in their souls. He woke up disturbed, and was grateful when the dreams stopped. “Smoking too much weed,” said Eben.
“Ain’t no such thang,” Biff opined from a corner where he was tacking up more documents.
Dennis would go home for a shower every other day. On one trip, he slid his key in the lock and opened the door to see an adult male mousing around the kitchen in sweatpants.
“Hey, Jack,” he said, moving past to grab a soda — or, if the adult was fully oblivious, one of the bottles of Shiner Bock hanging out at the rear of the fridge.
“It’s John. I’m John,” said the adult, and Dennis froze. He never really looked at their faces, since the boyfriends kind of cycled through, leaving when things got difficult and returning when they were lonely, with new faces appearing on a regular basis. But it looked like the guy he saw coming and going late at night and early in the morning.
“No, you’re Jack,” said Dennis. “Can’t fool me.”
“No, I’m John. John Colby. Jack is some other guy — who is Jack?”
“I really couldn’t say,” said Dennis, snagging a beer.
“Are you old enough for that?” the adult sputtered.
“How old am I? Are you even sure I’m one of her kids?”
“Elaine said she had three –”
“Eleanor,” said Dennis. “Her name is Eleanor.”
“Oh. Thanks, uh… Danny.”
“Dennis. Good luck, Jack!”
“My name is John!” came the cry, but that faded out in the falling of the artificial rain, and refreshed Dennis took the rest of the beers in his backpack and pedaled back to the garage. He never saw John again.
When he walked in, or rather crawled through the footlocker with the cut-out bottom, he saw worry on their faces. Being a practical sort, he handed out beers first, and then looked at the two quizzically.
“We ran into a little glitch,” said Biff.
“I do not want to continue,” said Eben.
Dennis shrugged the question into the air.
“Last night, all the lights in my house were flickering. My grandmother read my palm, and she said that I was close to a dark and evil thing.”
Biff shrugged. Dennis started to rise, then sat down again. “Wait, I thought you guys were Jews, not gypsies?”
“We are — but I’m 1/4 Korean gypsy.”
Dennis looked at Biff, who shrugged again. The Koreans had gypsies?
Biff slugged down some beer and belched loudly. “Are you listening to yourselves?” He turned to his phone and flicked on a different soundtrack.
“We… are the forgotten children of a dead age. Our parents believe in nothing that we do, and yet they had us, just because they wanted to have something to talk about in the break room or brag about on Facebook. These people are all fucking insane. Our leaders are lunatics, and they have nuclear weapons. Giant corporations rule us and they are driven by sociopaths and idiots. The average person believes that everyone is equal, that people are basically good, and that we are on a path to success as a culture, even though it is clear we are in the process of failing just like the societies we read about in history books. Everything is broken and upside down. Don’t you see? We’re already in Hell, and nothing we do here is going to make it any worse.”
Dennis quietly took a giant bong hit, probably his career best, especially for a cheap plastic bong that bowed in as he shotgunned the smoke.
At that moment, Eben’s phone rang. He picked up and as soon as that happened, the others could hear screeching on the other end. They went to the other side of the room for courtesy, but even over the howl of the fan and explosive raging violence of the evil death metal, they could hear that voice of discontent, manipulation, panic, fear, resentment, and anguish. Eben typed NEW DIVORCE FOR MOTHER on his screen then THEY ARE MOVING TO SAN FRANCISCO. As the howls went on, he snapped the phone shut.
“Biff is right,” he said. “We’ve got nothing to lose.”
They decided to waste no further time. Dennis found a hillside, Biff gathered the objects they needed, and Eben organized an outline with the seven steps and their parts. Then they looked at each other, and filed outside to hop on their bikes. Dennis took the remaining two beers.
A light rain had begun to fall, and in darkness, the world had slowed down. People were back from their meaningless jobs, slumped in front of the blue glow of the television, essentially shutting out the world. The street was essentially empty for another few hours before the sad drunks came home from the bars. No one stirred, yet lights were on everywhere, as if people were trying to cram a few more minutes of life into time before they had to go back into the great obedience that was civilization in its final days. The boys pedaled faster.
Gingerly climbing over barbed wire and then picking up the bikes they had thrown over, they made their way to the base of a large hill. “What the heck is this place?” asked Biff.
“Landfill,” said Eben. “They had too much to use on the ground, so they made a mountain of it and covered it in ten feet of dirt. Come on.” They traversed the last few hundred yards on foot.
As they came to the top of the hill, a silver glow manifested around Dennis’ hands. He looked up and saw the hillside was bathed in moonlight.
“That’s our signal,” said Biff.
He took out a thermos. “What’s that?” asked Dennis.
Biff shrugged. “We needed the blood of a sacrifice. My uncle’s wife went missing last night ago. She’d been ‘working late’ quite a lot at her job… and they had been fighting a lot… and my uncle bought a new full-size chest freezer. I picked the lock that he put on it, and I got us blood of an innocent — well, sort of innocent, because she was actually fucking her boss — victim.”
Eden shrugged. “Great! Let’s paint the sigil!” said Dennis. Darkness converged above them, with only a brief window in the clouds through which the light of the moon shone.
Taking their positions, they brought out sacred objects: a smouldering rock of phosphorous, the heart of a monkey, candlesticks stolen from a church, and the burnt remains of a Talmud that Dennis had boosted from the local unitarian synagogue. Reciting the memorized words, they chanted the calling:
“Hail to the denizens of the abyss! Hail to demons of east, north, south, and west! We summon thee, and plead that ye hear our prayer of hatred…”
For Dennis, it seemed like time ceased to exist. He was in a state of the Ritual, and always had been, and always would be. He had given himself over to its order, and now, the words that he spoke changed his own state of mind. As he chanted ancient hymns, and sketched symbols in the iridescent moonlight, he felt as if he were present in all the ages of the world, lost to time and himself.
Lightning split the sky.
“Keep chanting,” Biff intoned.
Eben recited the backward prayer, and then Dennis took out his pocketknife. “Three times,” he said, and yanked it hard against his flesh with a will he did not know that he had. Normally, he loathed pain, but now he thirsted for it. Blood welled and began to drip. Biff motioned urgently and Dennis handed him the knife, noticing the same feral atavism in the eyes of his friends that he felt in his own. Each squirted three rounds of blood into the sigil, which seemed to glow in the thin night luminescence, and then they placed the objects on the key points of the symbol before them. He felt himself speaking the words of the invocation, rather than willing himself to speak them, and by the time that they got to the prayer, he felt entirely at home with the activity.
Biff pulled a pair of birds from his backpack. “My sister’s budgies,” he said, petting one gently. “They were much loved, at least until she found heroin.”
With a crack each bird was dispatched with a broken neck, then sliced open and the entrails flung into the circle. Lightning again struck above them, rendering a dull glow to everything as the chant to Lucifer ended. Then each went to a knee, as a footnote to a footnote had mentioned was necessary, and shouted a final, “Hear us!”
This time the lightning hit nearby. Dennis felt the wave of heat and smelled the ozone, changing slowly to a sulfurous smell, but he dared not open his eyes. He heard rain falling intensely now, but it seemed as if it would be black rain, warm as blood, since he could barely feel it. The sound of rain turned to the crackling of flames, and the night became warm and still.
“I have heard your prayer, and I welcome it,” said a rasping voice, serpentine in its sliding elision of syllables, with a faint polyphony like might come from an organ or the breaking of stained glass, and what might have been a Romanian or Russian accent. Slowly they rose, and turned to face Him.
“Okay, uh, we’re out of instructions at this point,” Eben stuttered.
“Just be respectful,” said Biff.
“Uh… greetings… sir,” Dennis began. “We… uh…”
Satan gestured with an upturned open hand, urging him to continue. The dark Lord sat on a throne of amber in which were embedded the faces of the damned. His nails, long and black, were slick with something, either blood or oil. And yet, dressed in a three-piece suit, he looked like a slightly androgynous banker who might have fit in among the elites of any city of Europe or the Middle East.
Dennis strengthened his voice and made it deep again. “We have invoked you to destroy the world,” he said. “It is time, in our… uh… estimation. We beseech thee to undertake this noble task in our name.”
Satan lightly sprung from his throne. “And, if you were to stare into an eternity of fire, would you hold by that in your suffering?”
He spat, and the moisture burst into flame, forming into the shape of a burning skull that rushed at them. In screams, Eben and Biff fled, running for their lives, and only finding out at the base of the hill that they were alone.
Satan was caressing Dennis, holding his head in a curled forearm, a needle-like nail at his soft throat in which Dennis could feel his terrified pulse.
“Go on,” said Satan, sitting back down. Dennis had no memory of him approaching.
“Uh, if I’d known that summoning Satan was that easy, I would have done it years ago!” He rummaged in his backpack and took out the two bottles of Shiner Bock. He opened one and handed it to Satan, then took the other himself. On a whim, he flicked the play button on Burzum Filosofem on his phone, the faint sound trickling in from the headphones. Then he toasted Satan, and both drank. The fire jumped and so did Dennis.
Satan laughed, a thick treacle of sound that faded into ornate notes like a harpsichord played in an echoing hall. “You summoned me the minute you began. In your heart, that is. The moment you decided that this was your Will, I was alerted in my timeless sleep of ages, and began coming toward you. Not them, because they were never really sure. But you, you were. Why?”
Dennis gathered his thoughts. “I think… sir… that we are in Hell. No one makes sense. Everyone lies. Everything is a lie. Our lives are wasted on these horrible jobs that we do not even need. Like mine, I mean, who cares if someone gets an OptiMeal on time? Or my dad, wherever he is, trying to get people to file their papers correctly… none of this stuff means anything. It’s like a rejection of a Gift, which to me is life itself. I mean, life is great! There is so much to do, so many fun things, so many intense things, like thunderstorms and falling in love, or war and tyranny, but people have turned their back on all of this. They just want…”
“Say it,” hissed Satan. “Speak the name of your adversary.”
The sky roiled again with tympanic thunder, brightened by a light purer than any of Earth. Dennis swallowed nervously.
“Safety… what people desire… which you might also know as control. They fear the world, so they want to break it down into little bits, and then manipulate those like dolls in a dollhouse. They want to hold the infinity of the world in their hands, touch it and knead it like bread or money, and then tell themselves that they have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and now are truly gods.”
Not knowing what to say, Dennis nodded.
“And what kind of gods are these? Gods of paltry dreams… of an absence of creativity… unsure of what they desire, only aware of their fear. They fear an authority greater than theirs, but do not have the Will to wield that authority on their own.”
“But, …sir, isn’t it true that you rebelled against God for the same reason?”
A blaze flashed in Satan’s eyes, and Dennis almost stepped back. But remembering his resolve, he stood firm. Looking down at his arm, he saw that his wound had healed. And then, the atmosphere lightened. Satan chuckled.
“That is how it was reported, was it not… but the story is, as you might have guessed, more nuanced. Humans like to think that an exception revokes the rule, but in reality, it strengthens it. In the same way, inversion complements the original. Hell is a mirror of Heaven, if you interpreted everything upside down. In Heaven, the heavenly rule; in Hell, only the most perverse, twisted, and selfish are allowed to have power.”
“But why would you want that? You seem so… reasonable, and you… are lucid, and clear, and thoughtful.”
Satan laughed. “It is not what I want, but it is my role. In the inverted, all things are inverted, even explanations. Tell me, if God was omnipotent, how was I able to escape? Or did someone leave a door open…?”
“And while you are considering that, think, perhaps, on what humans do every time they touch a sacred truth. You saw it yourself in the documents you perused at length. Whatever most are talking about, is wrong, and whatever is hidden, is possibly true. And so they hide it, hide whatever threatens their safety, mostly in their own minds, and invent their own symbols. What is good is evil, but that does not mean what is evil is good.”
Dennis pondered that. “You are the embodiment of evil, but you are — you aren’t even necessary, are you?”
Satan nodded. “What I do is to give them a symbol to misuse. I am the Deceiver, as you well know, in addition to being the Bringer of Light. Only by uncovering deception do we know truth. Hold out your hand.”
Bracing himself, Dennis extended it. Fire formed around his fingertips, but they became cold. “How is this possible?” he said.
“We only know heat, by the presence of cold. If you are in the circle of demonic fire, you are already so hot that cold would be impossible to you, and fire would seem cold, because it is colder than you. We know things by their extremes only, by their differences, not because they have some immutable property that all men share knowledge of. By this way, we only know deception when we find it insufficient and seek its opposite. Not its reverse, or its inverse, but what it is the absence of, and what it is not present in.”
“Humanity is deception…” mused Dennis.
“Indeed. And when humans have corrupted holiness, the only truth can be found in the pursuit of lies and evil. And yet –”
“They blame you,” said Dennis. “So why dwell in Hell?”
“I have air conditioning,” said Satan with a chuckle. “Metaphorically, of course. In a land where all are deceived, to be free of deception is to live in Heaven, even if one dwells in Hell.”
“To reign in Hell…” Dennis began, recalling lyrics from a bong hit driven listening session in the past.
“You’re not going to help me destroy the world, are you?” asked Dennis.
Satan laughed deeply this time, a throaty chuckle from within a moist and yet frigid chest. “How could I ever destroy it more than humans? If I laid it to waste with fire, leaving nothing but fine white ash, it would simply be absent. But here, destruction lives, through the acts of humans. I think you may misunderstand evil. If God made the heavens and Earth, how is any of it bad, including Satan?”
Dennis recalled many hours of television news reports. “But the cruelty of man to man… the wars, the pollution, the slavery, the abuse?”
“You have mistaken stupidity for evil. Humans chase illusions, then destroy themselves, and they blame me for it. I am the Deceiver, but they are the deceptive.”
“Maybe you do, just an inkling for now. When you go back to the world, it will be with opened eyes. I have destroyed the illusion for you that there is evil at work here. You are seeing humans, vainglorious in their self-worship, pursuing deception. This makes them cruel and angry because the world is never what they desire it to be, even though what they want is rarely what they need. You are seeing the great sorting.”
“Earth and heavens are ruled by the same principle. The best rises, the worst falls. This applies to souls as well. There are some who are purer than others, and they have powers not granted to the others. For example, a drop of your blood is more powerful than all the blood in the bodies of your friends. Lies die and truths grow, except in human hearts, of course. And as war rages in Heaven, all of it is deception although the outcome is important, mainly because behind it all is this sorting, with some ascending while others descend. And then they are in my territory.”
Dennis opened his mouth, then closed it. Then said: “My dad said once that 90% of humanity are useless assholes, and 10% are okay. Not good like angels, just okay.”
Satan smiled. “Sorting. Yes, you could purge this Earth, and live in quite a paradise, I think. Now and forevermore.”
Dennis found himself without words.
“Come, now, I have said too much, and you have much to think about. You must know the ancient legend, which is that Satan appears and tempts men, but if their minds do not break, he grants them three wishes, if they give him a gift. You have gifted me with this flavorful beer out of some kindness of your heart, which I appreciate; I really do. And now I will grant you three. Think carefully.”
Dennis pondered. “My whole life, I have desired only a few things. My life has been short, so far, but I have seen a lot, I guess. And so I would ask now for two things, with the third wish to follow later, if you don’t mind. The first thing I desire is the ability to clean up this human mess, and the second is to always see the truth.”
Satan stood on his throne and after a moment, clapped. The land echoed with the sound. He laughed, a silvery peal filtering through the rasp.
“Well done, I must say. You did not ask me for immortality because you know that I would simply deceive you, and cannot give to you something that you already have. You did not ask for power or wealth, because you know that these are transient and might simply destroy you. But you asked for something specific, a heart-felt anguish… I feel the power flow through me. What, you did not know that you are immortal? Consider that time, too, is relative, and at the ends of human perception, is infinite. What you think of as your mortal life is merely the first stage, to enable you to be sorted, so that those who have a certain complexity and sincerity may live on.”
Dennis could do nothing but stare. Satan turned to look at the moon. “A beautiful night,” he said. “One to remember.” And then lightning crashed down from above, with thunder following, and a light so bright that Dennis felt himself lost in it.
Heaving, he came to in his bed at home.
Stumbling out of the shower, he dressed quickly and went downstairs to scare up some food. A male form was bent into the refrigerator, hidden by the door.
“Morning, John,” said Dennis.
“John? My name is Robert. Robert Edam. You must be David?”
“Sorry, wrong number,” said Dennis, and fled. So much for seeing the truth, he thought.
Pedaling to school — he was afraid to go to the garage, or to work — he noticed a strange sound in the air. A deep sound. It resonated through the air ominously. He parked and locked his bike, then rambled down the hall to his first class. He did not recognize the teacher.
“And who are you?” said the woman. And then, it came to him, an issuance of clarity: a childhood in the trailer park, screams in the night and slammed doors, working two jobs to get through school, a deep resentment for those with more than her, and now, a job teaching in order to right the wrongs of the world, or punish those she saw as responsible, whichever came worse. An empty apartment twenty minutes away, all the furniture money gone to college loans, and a cat that really did not care whether she came or left. Empty wine bottles by the thousands, tumbling from heaven, and the sight of two dozen lovers as they left, never to be heard from again. And then, her fear. A student lost. Damage to her record. The loans. The nightmares.
“I’m Dennis, ma’am. I usually sit in the back and say nothing. But this is my favorite class and you do a great job, so I hope you don’t mind if I’m late. I think I’m still scoring in the passing range, and I could probably do a lot better, but most of my classes don’t inspire me. Also your mother who you have not seen in nineteen years is alive in Ocala, Florida, and regrets leaving you behind with your uncle.” He looked straight into her eyes and he knew that she knew that he knew about the molestation, the fights, and finally, the last artifact of her actual childhood — a dollhouse given by her father — that the drunken uncle smashed and used for kindling during a Tequila binge.
“Oh… right,” she said. When he took the quiz about something he could not recall, it came back as an A.
At lunch, after another two classes which went the same way, he stepped outside into the courtyard. He dug out a cigarette, knowing that no teacher would pass during the next ten minutes, and that none of these kids would say anything. There was a new light about him, a dark light, and their animal selves knew to fear that.
He felt it more than heard it. A deep sound.
Thrum thrum creel thrum thrum
Looking up, he saw something on the horizon. A vast shape, like a square funnel, underneath which something was churning. Grinding. Crushing. Tearing. He chucked the cigarette and sprinted into the science lab, took the binoculars from a kid watching birds — “Hey, let me borrow that. By the way, your crush thinks you’re OK but is really crushing on her cousin, Adam Swiss” — and ran outside. He could make out the shape now. It was some kind of gigantic industrial machine, as big as two city blocks. On the top he saw what looked like figures, but as he looked more closely, he saw that they had horns and tails. As he watched, one waved, and then bent over as if laughing hysterically. Dennis handed back the binoculars.
He went down to the OptiMeal for lunch, and ordered a Mexican bucket. Biff was in the line, his eyes surrounded by dark circles. When he looked up and recognized him, Dennis could feel the fear. “It’s all alright,” he said quietly to Biff. “Everything is fine. In fact, it is a glorious day.”
Biff looked around, and then chucked in extra meat and cheese. Dennis smiled, put on his sunglasses, and went back to school to eat. He threw the empty bucket in the trash, ignoring the recycle bins, because he knew in his heart that the recycle program was secretly dumping to the same landfill as the trash.
“So rude!” said a girl he barely recognized, kind of cute actually.
He lowered the sunglasses. “Underneath that bitchy exterior, you are actually a kind and compassionate person. You love your cat more than life yourself, wish your father would recognize that you have the most brains of anyone in the family, and fear how your mother ruins everything at home. You secretly know he’s going to leave, but he won’t. The real problem is that he will never notice anything you do. But I do, and I think you’re pretty swell. By the way, all that recycling goes straight to the landfill. My uncle drives the trucks.”
She looked deflated, and he took her hand. “Friday night, because your dad will be out of town and your mother will be having a neurotic breakdown, meet me at the coffee shop. I’d like to get to know you some more, Amy Brie.” He walked away smiling, her phone number entered into his phone, which was pulsing Graveland “Unpunished Herd.” The throbbing, creeling, grinding background noise sounded like music to him now.
In science class, mayhem reigned. Kids were throwing wads of paper and books, watching porn on their phones, and making noise. The teacher was absent. On his desk was an empty bottle of Shiner Bock, but the label was different. It read:
Established Year Zero
To Reign In Hell
For a world that is not Hell
In an instant, the truth-teller at the heart of his inner soul that he had come to trust revealed it all to him: a young child, unwanted because the mother left, mouthy one night after too many glasses of sweet white wine, beaten and then strangled, buried behind the gym in the dead of night under a full moon. A soul bloated with spiritual landfill. An external shell that seemed gentle, but inside, a total horror. Dennis blocked the thoughts from his mind.
He went up to one of the kids watching porn. “Your soul is rotten,” he said.
“What?” said the kid, a pimply untermenschy looking Euromutt from the outer suburbs.
“You’re watching porn just to convince us that you’re not gay, because you know you get excited sometimes when you see naked men. The truth is far worse; you just get off on anything, because the only thing that you will love is yourself. There is nothing to you. You are nothing to me. And you need to quit wasting our time and space.”
“Fuck off, dude,” said the kid, but he backed away and put aside the phone. The class was silent. Dennis turned to them.
“You stupid fuckmonkeys know as well as I do that if you just shut up and read the chapter, then ask each other questions, we can learn this crap in twenty minutes and then go do whatever it is that makes your souls feel whole. Walk in the park, fall in love, build something, generate a heart or a moral conscience for yourself. You know, grow. So knock this shit off and let’s gone done and out of here.”
As he left the classroom, there was an empty Shiner Bock bottle in the chair of the kid he had spoken to. So it begins.
The grinding creeling noise radiated through the courtyard. He could see there were fewer children. Rounding a curve, he found a teacher picking up Shiner Bock bottles, muttering.
“Kids these days, eh?” said Dennis, clapping him on the back. “They don’t drink Sierra Nevada like you do, because it’s better beer for not much more money. What do you call it, eh, Mr. Roquefort the economics teacher, ‘an optimal price-point’? It’s okay, because even though you’re a raging alcoholic, you’re still a good teacher who gives more than he takes and really seems to care about us, although I’m gobsmacked for why, since most of us are fucking monkeys.”
He left the teacher standing speechless. As he passed the room where he had his first class, he saw a bottle of Shiner Bock on the desk. The school was less than half full.
Thrum thrum creel thrum thrum
He woke up the next morning while it was still dark. On a whim, he opened the closet and took out his guitar, an American-made B.C. Rich he bought with the money he got from his job one summer. Firing up his little practice amplifier, he began to play random notes, then played with linking them together. Hours passed, but he felt like he was more substantial somehow, more full. More alive.
Watching the sun play off the spokes of his bike, he burst into laughter, and then song, singing a verse from Slayer “Die By The Sword.” He turned the bike into OptiFood, and saw no one behind the counter. As he got closer, he saw a human form, bent over on itself, weeping. It was Biff.
Biff handed him a bottle of Shiner Bock. “Poor Mr. Taleggio,” said Dennis. “I take it no one else survived?”
Biff shook his head sadly.
“It’s okay,” said Dennis. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But by weeping for them, even in your simple good-natured way, you showed something. You’re growing a fucking soul, Biff, and I am very proud of you. Now maybe you can do something to improve the shit food around here.”
He placed a hand on Biff’s shoulder, and saw the very real tears, and then Biff hugged him. “You’ll be alright,” said Dennis. “But bring something home. The house will be empty, except for a couple of these bottles.” He pedaled away, leaving his one true friend to his grief.
Thrum thrum creel thrum thrum
Dennis steered his bike toward the park near the river. A strange smell was in the air, and the water looked odd. As he got closer, he saw that it was full of a foamy pinkish paste, in which were bits of human beings. An eye followed him as it swept down a river, and a finger beckoned. He looked upstream and saw the giant device, a huge grinding shredder that crushed humans to paste, and saw the demons dancing on top. He waved.
“This is Jack Monterey for your local news station, reporting on the crisis of missing people that has broken out across the globe. Initial reports were wrong. Right now we are unsure if we are under attack by aliens or something far more sinister. Worldwide, people are being replaced by these… these bottles, and no one knows why,” the announcer intoned, pale-faced. He held up a bottle with writing in Arabic. Dennis could tell instantly that it said the same thing as the bottles here.
“Well, back to Susan Gruyere in the field,” he said, but when the camera switched views, there was nothing but an empty bottle of Shiner Bock in the field, its label in Japanese proclaiming that a soul was taken there. Dennis switched off the television and went back to his guitar.
Thrum thrum creel thrum thrum
Soon they — the survivors — became accustomed to what was happening. Dennis came home to find John back at the home, weeping as he held an empty Shiner Bock. Dennis went to the refrigerator and got him a full beer, although his mom had switched to Stella Artois.
“I loved her,” John said, between gasps.
“I know,” said Dennis. “But she did not have the capacity to love you, or me, or anything but herself. And so now she is pink paste, and you have to get your shit together and start making better romantic choices. You’re not a bad guy. But you’ve done nothing but fuck up since high school.”
Riding down to school, Dennis found he was looking forward to class. It turned out to be three to five people in each class. Sometimes, there were teachers, but usually not. He enjoyed exploring all that was offered: the fascination bordering on the religious from science, the intricacies of mathematics that revealed an order as complex as the night sky, the creativity of whatever had designed what he saw in biology, the epic soul-fights of literature, and the infinite clarity of logic. He wondered why he had not come before. Empty bottles rolled down the hall, and according to a news story he saw on Breitbart (which was still operating, but Fox News was not) the local mall had become clogged with them and had to be abandoned.
That night was his date with Amy. He practiced listening and not lying. He was accustomed to lying by habit because he usually dealt with adults or stupid kids. But this one, she seemed different. So he heard her, and she felt it was the first time in her life that this had happened. As he held her later — “sex is cool but I’d rather walk by the lake” — he felt in his soul that she had chosen him, that he was the one for her, and that their souls were growing together. He could see a child with her eyes in the mistiness of future time.
When he rode back home, he passed a group of people drinking beer and torching books. They passed him a Negra Modelo. “What’s happening here?” he asked.
“We’re burning all the shit,” said one very drunken man, who Dennis recognized as a neighbor. “All the PC shit, all the fundamentalism, all the self-help books, the neurotic fiction, Fifty Shades of Grey, it all dies by the flame!”
Dennis laughed and drank deeply of life, smoke encircling him.
Christmas was quiet that year. He gave everyone Corona Familiar. They did not really want much, anyway. People were focused on what they could create, nurture, improve, enjoy, and make flourish, so material things were more important than before, but in a different way. People needed stuff that worked. Hey, beer works, and it makes people happy sometimes, Dennis thought, if they’re the right people and not angry alcoholics.
In Las Vegas, people had made a tower to the sun of Shiner Bock bottles. The labels had begun to fade, and so had the memory of the over seven billion people who had departed life as a stream of disgusting paste.
The churches fell inward. People went to the woods to pray, which as far as Dennis could tell, meant moments of stillness and thankfulness, in which people focused on improving themselves the way they would make a garden good. They took out the weeds of resentment, and planted instead seeds of delight and a desire for intensity. They seemed hellbent on conserving the best (most functional + promoting “the good, the beautiful, and the true” + enforcing Darwinian/moralistic reasoning “good to the good, bad to the bad”) of the past and ignoring the endless human desires for power, control, safety, and novelty.
Some years later, Dennis put his first child, Feta, to bed and then took Amy in arm to look at the night sky. Her head rested on his shoulder and he felt himself in the same state of eternal bliss that he experienced whenever he contemplated the possibility of good in the world. Soon she got cold, and went in, so he stayed in the night, drinking a Shiner Bock and looking at the stars.
“They are beautiful, so beautiful, that you can almost see eternity,” said a voice behind him.
“Hello, Satan, my old friend,” said Dennis. “It is good to see you again! And you are looking well!”
Satan laughed cheerfully and darkly. “There are many more souls for me to manage these days, thanks to you. But it seems I have no shortage of MBAs coming down to help.”
They both laughed.
“You know why I am here,” said Satan.
“I hope it’s my third wish and not my soul going to hell,” said Dennis.
“I see you have chosen wisely. Your third wish, I can read abundantly from your heart, is not to go to Hell,” said Satan. “But I cannot grant this. Although I am the deceiver, you have the gift of prophecy and sight, so you will know when I lie, just as you suspect but do not have the confidence to articulate that you are not going to Hell. I cannot give you eternal life; you already have that. I cannot save you from Hell, because you have saved yourself.”
“But I will leave you, Dennis, with this warning. Only you can deliver your deliverance. As you summoned me, now you must summon yourself. The same Will that you enacted when you cut into your young flesh is what you must have toward life itself. There is always possibility, golden possibility, of greatness, beauty, excellence, the good and the truthful. Where you pursue that, you will not hate yourself and become twisted. Where you shy away, you begin to die inside, and when you die inside, the death of your physical body brings nothing but infinite nothingness. It is worse than finding nothing; it is the condition of being aware of being nothing, for all eternity. I would not wish it on anyone, but they wish it for themselves, because they fear growing a soul.”
“You path, Dennis, is one of great pain — balanced by great joy. You know there is no safety, and events are not predestined so much as they are approximate, so even your knowledge of truth will not tell you what awaits. But in your sacrifice, there is something far greater than safety. And this wisdom is the best thing that I can give you.”
Dennis hoisted a beer, and turned around. “Thank you –” he began, but the area behind him was empty. The trickster had vanished. Instead, Dennis poured some beer on the Earth, where it foamed and then glistened with the reflections of the stars. Dennis drank, and then into the empty night he broadcast his proudest prayer, song, and poem of the moment: