Three compressed vertebrae. A broken hip. A shattered femur. Four years have passed since then, and it’s a miracle I can even walk. That fall devastated my body, but at least bodies can heal. The real damage, the questions: those will go on far longer than my lifetime.
Here’s the way I see it. I got the questions from Danny. Danny got the questions from Sarah. Sarah got them from some other unfortunate soul, and so on and so on, going back through history. Lao Tzu and Confucius, Plato and Socrates, even Jesus Christ and his apostles; every generation had people who were looking for answers, and when every generation failed, they handed the scraps of their understanding to the next. All hoped that someday there would be answers, but there aren’t. It’s been aeons since Bebel, and still all we have are the damned questions.
Before he died and before Greece fell, Socrates shared the extent of his answers with one simple phrase: “I know now that I know nothing.”
After an exhaustive legal battle over Daniel Kennedy’s last will and testament, combined with a solid year of physical rehabilitation, I needed somewhere to come to terms with the fact that I knew as little as Danny and Socrates and the lord. I needed somewhere faraway, somewhere I could remove myself from any and all obligations. I needed somewhere to think. For months I searched for such a place. First in Ireland, then in the rest of the British Isles, then in the rest of Europe. The search was fruitless until I set foot in California. Maybe it was the worldwide acclaim of the place, or maybe it was the lord trying to kill me, but some notion told me I’d found my thinking grounds.
I used a small fraction of the Feldtmann fortune to pay for a penthouse in San Samarra. Warm weather, isolation, and a view of the ocean; everything about it held a sheer pleasantness. On the day I arrived, I could tell the landlord wasn’t expecting me. He was expecting someone, but that someone wasn’t a towering Irishman whose beard and posture were equally gnarled. I frightened him. I could see it in his soul, even if his body had clever ways of hiding it. He shook my hand as he told me his name was Clarence Holland.
After instructing someone to take my baggage, he led me to a lift and pressed the topmost button: thirty two.
“You will no doubt become infatuated with the ambiance of this residence,” he assured. “The atmosphere has been tailored to—”
“We’ll see it soon enough.”
I had to interrupt before his sophistication killed me. Everything about him was false. He was a pathetic soul wrapped in expensive clothing, using grand words to mask his unimpressive thoughts. His mouth did remain silent for the rest of the ride, but the small courtesy was nulled by his racing mind, which scrambled for something with which to amend the situation. When the doors slid open he might as well have dove from the lift.
“Here we find the entryway, which is connected directly to the lounge. You may leave your cane beside the coat closet if you would like.”
“I wouldn’t like to leave this cane anywhere. This might be hard for you to wrap your mind around Clarence, but some people actually use these things because they need them.”
His thoughts betrayed his calm face, and I concealed a smile. Toying with his delicate composure provided all the entertainment I’d been craving. He was the first person I’d properly met in San Samarra, and already, I could see that the city wouldn’t disappoint.
Clarence swallowed at the nothing in his throat. Desperate to fill it back up, he began explaining the room we were in. “This is the lounge, spacious enough for a multitude of people yet comfortable enough for only a few. Against the east wall is an extensive home bar, and the west wall is composed entirely of—”
“Is it stocked?”
“I’m sorry sir?”
“The bar, is it stocked?”
“Yes, it should be,” he said, and with that I made my way behind the counter. Clarence followed, prattling on about the features of the room.
He mentioned the fact that the west wall was one massive window, which looked out over the terrace and the sea. He talked about the vaulted ceilings, and the relaxing colours, and a laundry list of other things that didn’t need attention drawn to them. I poured myself a drink while he poured out commentary on the other rooms in the house. The master bedroom and the guest rooms in the north hallway, the kitchen and the office in the south. He described every nook of the place as though I didn’t have eyes of my own.
When he left, I could finally crack a smile. I glanced through the shelves behind the bar, picked another bottle at random, and stepped out onto the terrace, where I sprawled out on a cushioned chair, set my cane to my side, and brought the bottle to my lips. For the first time since being cursed with the lord’s divine vision, I was truly happy.
I didn’t leave my penthouse for weeks. I didn’t want the feeling to end. Food was delivered to my door. The bar’s stock was plundered, and the view from my terrace was drunk just as rapidly. It felt that life’s bastardhood was finally at an end.
But of course, the life of sloth and gluttony couldn’t last forever. One morning, I awoke with a strange memory. I recalled a visitor. I couldn’t remember who, not exactly at any rate, but it had been someone familiar. At first I dismissed it as a dream, because it shouldn’t have been anything else. Still, when I woke up that morning, it didn’t feel like waking up alone.
Nobody was in the master bedroom. I stumbled down the hallway, and looked in on the two guest bedrooms. Just as empty. Shaking my head, I staggered past the lounge and into the kitchen. While I ate, I tried to clear up the memory. For once, there was a less than existential question stuck in my head; who was with me last night?
I didn’t finish my breakfast. Before I was even halfway through it, I heard a skittering behind me. Turning in my chair, I spotted something curious: nothing. The kitchen was vacant aside from myself. Everything was still. Scratching at my beard, I pushed aside my food and lowered my head. Who was with me last night?
My eyes clenched shut as I grasped at the vague memory of a person. Nobody had told me they would be visiting, and regardless, nobody would have a reason to visit anyways. For weeks I’d scarcely shared a word with another human being, until last night. Who was with me last night?
I opened my eyes, and there at my feet was a grey haired rat. Thirty two floors off the ground, and I spied a bloody rat of all things! I grabbed my cane and took a swing, but the cane collided with the ground, cracking a tile in the floor. The rodent had scurried away and moved to the kitchen doorway. It looked at me with its black, soulless eyes. How long had this rodent been there?
I braced myself on the table and stood up. It didn’t move. Even as I limped towards it, it just stood on its hind legs, staring at me. Only when I threw my cane did it dash away. Cursing, I followed the creature, retrieving my cane along the way. Could this rat have been my company last night?
The pursuit led me to the lounge, where the rodent was running in circles. As soon as it saw me it stopped and stood on its hind legs once again. It only stared at me. I snatched a vase from a nearby table and hurled it at the rat, but again to no avail. Again it fled, and again I followed. It was a nimble creature, yet it only ran just out of sight before pausing. Every time I pursued the rat it would run again, and then again it would rest just out of sight. Why did this pest mock me?
I threw decorations and furniture at the grey haired beast, and while the walls became littered with scrapes and holes, the rat went unharmed. It stood in place on its hind legs as if to imitate me, and its black, soulless eyes continued to stare! Why did this nuisance torment me‽
It ran to the terrace, and I followed. There on the terrace was a grey haired rat on its hind legs, standing on the railing and staring at me with its black, soulless eyes. There on the terrace was a grey haired man in a black jacket, sitting on the railing beside the rat and looking out over the sea.
“I suppose it’s been a while.”
No! “You’re dead!”
“I think a fairly solid case can be made that I’m not.”
“But I saw it! Titim gan éirí ort, I felt it!”
“Well see again—feel again.”
There was no denying it; his soul was right there. If anything, it was more vibrant than when I first saw in on the rooftop. Rather than an immense cloud of doubt, there was a tenacious beam of hope shining through him. It was unbelievable, yet there it was; my friend Danny, back from his second trip to the grave.
“Come on, we have work to do,” he announced. As he did, the grey haired rat leapt from the railing and scurried into the lounge. Danny followed it inside, noting, “Clever thing, isn’t she?”
I did my best to keep up with the two. “Does she belong to you?” I asked.
“If anything, I belong to her,” Danny said with a laugh. “This is Apollyon.”
I stopped walking as ice crept up my spine. “The demon?”
First the flood, then Babel, and eventually Sodom and Gomorrah—the lord has shown that he has no problem with taking destruction into his own hands. But no matter how vast the destruction, he always let something slip by unharmed. There was always some survivor afterwards: somebody who could carry on and tell others what had happened. The lord always left someone. His wrath was never total. Apollyon was total. Apollyon was there for when the lord finally decided it was time for the end of days. Apollyon was the apocalypse.
“You know as well as I do that Apollyon was once an angel,” Danny remarked. Evidently he hadn’t lost his ability to read souls, nor had he lost his comfort in doing so. But his sentiment was of little worth, and it didn’t get me to budge.
Instead, I reached for the cross on my necklace. The grey rat stopped and stood on her hind legs, staring at me with her black, soulless eyes. Danny sighed as he gave up on convincing me to move ahead.
“Look,” he said, “I don’t know why I’m here on Earth, but I do know that redemption is possible. All of the second chances I’ve been given should prove that. So if humans can be redeemed, why can’t angels? Maybe this is a test. If Apollyon, as a female rat no less, can lead my stray soul down the path of righteousness, then she can return to her place as an angel in heaven.”
“I don’t know Danny. It’s quite the leap.”
“And the fact that I’m alive at all isn’t? You don’t have to believe me, but please, don’t let me face the gates of Hell. Not again.”
As soon as he said that, I realized something about him. The beam of hope in his soul wasn’t hope at all; it was obsession. Similar in nature, but far from the same. He wasn’t striving for something because he believed he could, but because he believed he had to. He was terrified.
I unfastened my necklace. Apollyon stood in place as I took a few steps towards her. Then I hurled my wooden cross at the grey haired rat, and as before, she ran to dodge it. But afterwards, something new happened. She didn’t flee to another room. Instead, she walked to the cross. First she inspected it, sniffing it from several angles and nudging it with her paws. Then she picked it up with her teeth and brought it back to me.
I bent over slowly, in part due to my crippled back, and in majority due to my crippling apprehension. As soon as I had a firm grasp of the cross, Apollyon released it from her grip. I stood up as the rat scurried off to the north hallway. She stood on her hind legs just within sight, looking at me with her black, soulless eyes. Danny walked towards her, and asked if I was willing to give Apollyon a chance. I didn’t give him an answer, but I did follow the two of them, and I suppose that was answer enough.
Apollyon led us to a guest room, adjacent to my master bedroom. I lingered in the doorway while Danny did a few laps around the space, inspecting it. He examined the upscale furniture, looked through the sole window, and ran his fingers along the white walls.
Nodding, he said, “Alright, this will do. Let’s clear it out.”
“We’re answering the questions: all of them,” Danny asserted, gripping my shoulders. He pushed me into the room. “Now help me move this desk.”
We set about moving everything from the guest room into the lounge. The smaller appliances such as clocks and lamps we could each get by ourselves, and most of the furniture could be carried between the two of us. The bed had to be dismantled to fit through the hallway, but even without tools, we made it work. We spent hours tearing that room to shreds. We even got the carpet ripped out. By the end there was an unsightly heap of odds and sods at the center of the lounge, but the guest room was cleared, and that’s what mattered.
Next, we got a black marker from the office and brought it to the emptied room. We wrote down the questions. Any query that Danny or I could come up with got a spot on one of the walls. It was nearly morning by the time we finished, but finish we damn well did. As the sun’s light began to show itself through the window, there was only one question which remained. Danny handed me a knife from the kitchen and I slid its edge along my palm, feeling nothing but satisfaction. I rubbed my hand against the back of the door, the only blank spot left, to create bold, red letters.
“Why is life a bastard?”
I woke up on the uncarpeted floor. My hand felt cold, and my head felt light. Both could be explained by the pool of red to my side. Apollyon was lapping at the puddle while Danny sat against the wall, watching.
“Let her do it,” he instructed. “I don’t know why she has a taste for blood, but let her do it.”
“You never did explain why you’re here. You mused about why she’s here, but you never explained yourself,” I said, not getting up from the floor. My vision went in and out of focus between the angel and the ghost.
“You never did ask. I’m just here to answer the questions, and that’s all I know.”
“But why you?”
He shrugged. “Maybe God was plastered, because I have no idea. But whether this was a gift or whether it was a mistake, I won’t squander it.”
I tried to read the walls, but my head only spun. “So you really believe we can make a dent in all of this?”
He grinned. “I don’t know Aidan, but past experience has shown that if it comes down to it, we can always die trying.”
“Then what’s next?” I asked, grinning back.
Danny gestured at the walls, which were effectively grey as my eyes tried to distinguish between the blurred black questions and their empty white background.
“But there are so many!”
“Well pick one,” he insisted, nodding at the nearby knife.
I reached for the blade and Apollyon dashed away, finding refuge in the doorway. My fingers wrapped around the knife’s handle. I worked my way up to my hands and knees, then onto my shaking feet. After finding a suitable stance, I twisted around and launched the blade at the opposite wall.
Pain shot through my crooked spine and I collapsed onto the hard and bloodied ground. Apollyon stood on her hind legs in the doorway, watching me with her black, soulless eyes. While I reeled in agony, Danny strode over to where the knife had been embedded in the wall. A smile flashed across his face. Unable to stand, I squinted up at the words until they became familiar.
“What is the distinction between the body and the mind and the soul?”
Apollyon ran down the hallway, and Danny followed her. As they left, he instructed, “Get some food and get some rest. Tonight we begin the journey of boundless miles.”
© Ray Underscore Thompson, July 2015