Laila and Anthony stand in the guts of the Lord, at a part of God’s spiritual processing where He carts His chosen souls upriver, adding them, once rendered and refined, to the single point of infinite heaven He has under construction there. Laila and Anthony missed the rapture; having tried to break in to the party over a chain-link fence, having tried to add themselves to the spiritual process, they now find themselves stuck on the shore, surrounded by thick, hymnal swathes of raptured soul-stuff that is, they have discovered, extremely corrosive to the touch.
“At base, I guess you can’t beat the disgust of it,” says Laila. “Like, instinctive recoil.”
Anthony shrugs. “I think you’ve come at it from the wrong angle. It’s actually just the same as anything you might do with a man yourself, except, well, I’m in the picture.”
“What I’m saying is – most people find it physically repulsive.”
“I just don’t think it’s a good reason not to let me in, that’s all.”
“Most people agree, but realistically speaking who’s going to argue with the rules. Are you going to march up there and tell whoever that they’ve made a mistake? Hey, you missed me off the list! You know that thing I do with other men – well, it’s pretty common, pretty normal! Bacterially-speaking, I’m in the clear!”
“Well, maybe they did make a mistake.”
“Why won’t you accept the facts?”
“Do you feel honest today, Laila? Do you feel you can set it all out? I’m Laila, and I want to be honest. Here are some of my home truths,” says Anthony, wagging his finger. “Here’s my feelings on this, and here’s my feelings on that. Bacterially-speaking, you’re in the clear. Oh, but you didn’t get in to heaven, because God doesn’t like –”
“– now listen,” she says. “Don’t be stupid. It’s not about me; it’s you that’s got the problem. No recoil from me; I could happily imagine any two men getting up to – whatever. But I don’t make the rules.”
The river glows. If you look hard enough you can make out the shape of the souls within it – long, stretched-out versions of the human bodies that held them, most of them the age at which they died. Yes, you have that to look forward to: eternity crammed into a single 0-dimensional point with a billion other bags of papery skin, all their prolapses, corns and bad teeth – if you’re lucky enough to make the cut.
“It might be something else. Timothy Lawrence was raptured, and he’s a hairdresser.”
“Not all hairdressers are gay, Anthony.”
“You sound like my mother.”
“Your mother? Jesus fucking Christ –”
They both look at each other. Does the river suddenly glow, does it flare up? No, but Laila has nevertheless clapped a hand to her mouth. Can they risk angering the river? Can they risk discovery by the flashing wings and hundred-eyed-torsos of the cherubim who patrol the outer brownfield landscape of God’s digestive tract? The question, formulated by both in the ensuing silence, answers itself.
“You know, I’m bored,” says Anthony after a while.
“I’m bored too.”
But there is nothing to be done. They came all this way, and there must be something useful to do; both of them feel this. Take a picture, at least. Up north, the point to where the river of souls is drawn like the extracted blood of some slain titan slinking back toward its body, you can see the pinprick in which God is supposed to be remaking the universe. In fact it’s surrounded by clouds; all you get is a storm. Lightning lights up a layer or two. Other rivers run into it. Industrial machinery – moonsize, unknowable – does stuff to the rivers neither Laila nor Anthony can understand or begin to explain. It is picture perfect, this steelworks, ripe for the kind of photo where it looks like Anthony, stood just right, is wearing the storm’s seething eyeball on his head, somehow weirdly close to the fruit-stacked hats worn by carnival dancers. He tries to get Laila in on it, teams a solid marimba impression with some samba footwork, but gives up once her disinterest is clear. “I miss wine,” he says. “Wine. Wine’s what we need to get through this.”
“What kind of wine?” says Laila, finally.
“Oh, every kind. Red, white, rosé. Pinot Noir. Chardonnay –”
“I hate Chardonnay.”
“We used to have such soirées, you know. Soirées that went on and on –”
“Soirées?” she says.
“Well, yes. I always feel that a soirée is an evening with a wine focus. One evening would be about twenty different kinds of red wine – Sancerre, Merlot, Beaujolais, Pinot Noir” he repeats, tweaking his pronunciation “and what have you – another evening we might focus on a single flavour – tonight is Apricot notes, next month it’s oak – ”
“That’s just a party.”
“Not if it’s only about wine –” says Anthony.
“I suppose there were nibbles, yes –”
“Food, wine, guests. A party. Who calls it a soirée?”
Anthony skips a stone into the soul-river. It makes three hops before the light consumes it.
“Don’t do that,” says Laila. “You’ll piss it off.”
Anthony does it again. Three hops, tok tok tok, before the pebble slurps beneath the water, sinking, he notes, right through the mouth of a stretched-out old man in a tweed suit, briefcase clamped to his side.
“Don’t, Anthony. You never know what will happen.”
“Come on,” he whispers, pressing the next pebble to his lips. “More than three. More than three. More than three.”
He curves his back and flicks his wrist. The pebble spins, looks like it will come in at the right angle, sinks without a single measly skip.
“Damn!” One hand over his mouth, the other held up, wait, wait, I haven’t finished speaking, let me finish “… is built. By beaver.” He steps back from the river’s edge.
“Did you say… dam is built by beaver?”
“Dam is built by beaver.” He repeats himself, nodding. The river is unmoved, either by his curse or its repair. “Dam is built by beaver.”
“Pushing your luck, aren’t you.”
“It’s my phrase,” he says, “my lucky phrase.” Grinning, Anthony finds a pebble the right size and shape for Laila’s hand. “Come on, then. Here. See if you can get a skip.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Go on. Angle your wrist. Tilt.”
“I don’t – oh, okay. Just one.”
Laila throws the pebble – literally just launches it in a fat, uncomplicated parabola until it plops like you’d expect it to right through the stretched-out shin of an obese Chinese nurse.
“Well, there we go. Look at that,” she says. “I told you it was a bad idea.”
“Come on, Laila. Best of five. This one’s got your name on it. Use my lucky phrase, if you like.”
“What if the angels see us? If God sees us? If the souls come out of the river –”
“Come on. Bend your back like this.”
“Maybe just one more.”
“You have to arch your back as you flick,” he says. “It’s sort of a double-movement – yes. Okay. That’s getting better. Okay, now curve your back. Like this, with your finger. Now say, ‘dam is built by beaver’. Dam is built by beaver, dam is built by beaver.”
“Dam is built by beaver.”
“Louder, Laila. Dam is built by beaver!”
“Dam is built by beaver!”
“Dam is built by beaver! Dam is built by beaver!”
Laila flicks the stone from her fingers. You’d have thought some luck might transfer through the secret phrase, but alas, no skip; it sinks beneath the surface. This time it seems the river takes umbrage at their game because the whole strip swells upward with froth, luminous and angry, and spatters itself onto the shore. Crude fizzy soul-matter burns into Anthony’s arm, eating through his clothing as if it were tissue paper. He yelps, falls back, scrabbles up the bank. Laila tends to his arm as best she can but the soul-matter has gone right through in a couple of places. Thankfully, God’s rarefied fuel has also cauterized the wound (and bacteria don’t survive long in the divine industrial belly for some reason); as soon as Anthony weathers the pain he’ll have the worst of it out of the way, but nevertheless, as Laila knows, weathering pain is no easy feat. Once she tried Ashtanga yoga. Master your ego, came the instructor’s command, and let the pain pass. No, she replied. I shouldn’t have to. I shouldn’t have to.
“Don’t tell me,” says Anthony, a little while later. His teeth clench and unclench.
“Tell you what?” She strokes his forehead.
“I d-deserved it,” he says.
“I threw the pebble.”
“Yes, that’s true,” he says, clutching his arm. “You’re right, actually. It’s your fault. The whole enterprise.”
“Eh, I’m used to blame.” Hands to the sky. “It’s me, Eve. You caught me. You found me out.”
“And what, the stone was an apple or something.”
“Yes, that’s it. The stone was an apple.” She drops her head back. She can see the earth’s old stars in the distance; the sky otherwise dark, rippling with unlit machinery and the occasional flare of liturgical overspill, exhausts and pollutants mingling with the free air, drawn in on complex, invisible currents, like everything else, towards God’s infinite stormy pinprick.
“Look,” she says, “at the end of the day –”
“– which it is, by the way. The absolute end.”
“- at the end of the day… I’ve done you a favour.”
Laila looks away. “Neither of us were going to get into heaven before. But now, I reckon you’ve a good enough chance.”
“You know what?” He stands up, after a moment’s silence. “You know what? I don’t even want to get in, if I’m honest. To heaven, I mean. I don’t think I’m bothered. Look at that stuff. Bloody, stupid, d-damnable substance – ”
The river lies placid, old naked men and women stretched out in the glowing liquid like strips of cooked pasta.
“What do we really know about it, that isn’t just g-guesswork? What happens to identity? To personal experience? Does everything special just get boiled off, smudged together, blended into a big soup? And that’s no fun if it does. And what if it doesn’t; what if it stays and you r-remember everything. What if you run into someone really detestable, like a hedge-fund manager or – worse. A publicist. I don’t think I could bear it.” Anthony is talking fast, the pain running from nerve to nerve, sloshing around his skin like apple juice. He’s almost breathless. “And what? F-f-fuck you, frankly – not you Laila, the rapture, fuck the rapture – for choosing. Sheep and goats? Please. But then again, that’s life’s running joke. For our team we’ll have… anyone but Anthony. The kids that said I wore face-cream, w-women’s shoes. Christ, this kills…” he clenches and unclenches his teeth. “And the guys who left me after a few dates. Heaven for-f-f-end. Did I ever tell you about that one guy who just upped in the middle of a date and left? He was so straight, I thought it was a big score. We sat down in a normal pub, normal people drinking, and to be honest I think he was a bit embarrassed to be on the date, sometimes you get guys like that, guys who feel ashamed just to be on the date itself as if even the idea of it ruined something. I don’t remember his name. D-d-dickhead. He stayed for half his pint, then got up and left. There was no point to it for him, no point in softening the blow. And plus he got a public statement out of it: I’m n-n-normal! I’m not like Anthony! No. I don’t think I could go near him; in heaven I’d have no way to shut him out – I’d have to see inside his head, f-f-forgive…”
Laila squeezes his hand. “You’re meant to say, ‘why?’ You’re meant to say, ‘why, Laila, do I have a much better chance of getting into heaven now?”
Anthony returns her look. “Why do I have a much better chance of getting into heaven now?”
The raw bubbling slough of the soul-waterfalls fizzle and burp as people are pulled and pushed from one part of God’s factory-body to another, the liquid churned and refined until it’s sent up some massive piping somewhere to be tipped into a tiny 0-dimensional point.
“Do I have to spell it out for you?” She holds his damaged arm in front of his face. Through the new-formed perforations she looks at him, half-grinning. “Holes, stupid. You’re holey now.”
With a roll of his eyes and a blush, he follows.
“Very good, Laila. Very good.”
James Hodgson has short fiction published in Spoke anthology, the Cro Magnon, the JJ Outre review and Typehouse Literary Magazine. He is Fiction Editor at Avis Magazine. Find him at hodgsonson.wordpress.com or on Twitter.