David snapped his fingers and used the spark to light the cigarette. Waved away the little fire that was like a will-o’-the-wisp and took a drag.
“You oughtn’t to do that,” Morris said.
“When did you start being bothered by smoking? Not as though a sense of smell helps us out any.”
“I don’t care about the smoking but shouldn’t light a cigarette that way.”
“Because it’s doing a whole lot to do very little. There’s an asymmetry to it, or a lack of symmetry which I suppose amounts to the same thing.”
David took another drag.
“Forgot my lighter.”
“You’ll end up like these poor damned idiots.”
The bodies were, well, they could be loosely described as being bodies. Sprayed across the walls. The chalk pentagram was still visible in some places on the floor where there weren’t pooled blood or viscera. The smell was unpleasant and David thought he had the right idea smoking.
“I get eviscerated for lighting a cigarette, suppose I deserve it.”
“That you would.”
“You really mean that, don’t you?”
“With all my soul,” Morris said.
“You did get unforgiving somewhere along the line.”
“I took something from my experience.”
David shook his head and trailed smoke as he stepped over the nearest mass of organs that looked like a body might having been pulled inside out.
“Shame is they likely enough went straight to hell.”
“Well, they might have accepted Christ into their hearts at the very last possible second, but I wouldn’t count on it,” Morris said.
“Sold their souls and didn’t even get the sum of earthly knowledge and riches for their damnation. Just went right to the being ripped apart stage of a Faustian bargain. Where’s your symmetry there?”
“Second Part of Faust’s never been popular for a reason. Not emotionally honest, even if there’s a theologically valid point to it.”
“That might be true, but it doesn’t say anything about symmetry.”
Morris shrugged and was looking at the wall which was an apartment-rental shade of beige and had various posters for college bands beneath the blood and brain matter.
“Deal with the devil, or something very much like the devil, think it’s an entirely reasonable assumption that you will end up dead and the process of dying would be quite unpleasant.”
“Horrifying, even,” David said. Flicked ash in puddled blood. “Think that’s what did this, devil or something like him?”
“A something did this. Not a better word in the English language to describe it, other than a something.”
“A scary something.”
“A something with parts that don’t really make sense to it, and teeth and claws and I would gamble on too many eyes.”
“Well,” David said, “I wouldn’t criticize anything for having too many eyes. Might be stepping on some of our betters.”
Both of them had forgotten the better language for describing what had done what they were looking at.
Morris used a small portable camera that was useful because the film was silver nitrate and held up better for the task than digital. Took shots and made sure to document the face fixed in a scream in the mirror and lacking eyes or a double for the mirror to be properly reflecting.
“These college students,” David asked.
“Always college students.”
“Now, that isn’t true.” David wasn’t used to knowing he was right when his partner was wrong and decided not to be gracious about it. “Sometimes have high school girls read too many books aimed at them and written at a comfortable third grade level about deep-kissing vampires and get to thinking it sounds romantic. Or watching the television version if they aren’t even half-way literate. Either way ending up pretty viciously dead.”
“I suspect supernatural soap operas have killed a decent number of people,” Morris said and wondered if he was getting wrongfooted, distracted by what he had seen more often than he ought to. Was paying off debts and wondering when he would get down to the principal.
“You hear when Barnabas Collins got on Dark Shadows this started happening weekly,” David asked.
“Who do you know who’s old enough to remember Dark Shadows turning into a show about vampires? Like saying you know someone remembers the invention of the Gothic novel and vampire stories getting serially published in the broadsheets.”
It was a running affectation between the two of them that they were younger than they were. Course, their memories didn’t always treat them right, sometimes they found themselves remembering lives other souls would have had to have lived like they were temporally diagonal to themselves, and time distant in the past like when He was born were clean as remastered videotape and times more recent like whole centuries were blurred and fuzzy like the tape had been run too many times and partially exposed and burnt by the light.
“Think we will ever get out of here,” David asked.
“I don’t know if it has been given to me to know that, or even to know if I might know that,” Morris answered and both of them felt old and wore out.
David extinguished the cigarette on the table that was heavy with incense-burners and cheap reprints of esoteric books that wiser times would have burnt and this one mass produced. Left a small circular burn in the varnish.
“Wonder who among us is winning,” David said and wasn’t a question and they both agreed without saying anything to let the conversation die which they kept returning to like following the branching corridors of some vast labyrinth and always winding back in the center.
In the smaller of the two bedrooms was a woman’s body lying in bed and missing a head and was presumably related to the woman’s head on a platter on the bureau like a suburban imitation of John the Baptist. Was a man’s body besides the woman’s body. He had a stake run through him and the point through his mouth.
“Roommate?” David took back his usual role of asking obvious questions and relieved them both. Were ultimately creatures of eternally recurring habit.
“Wages of sin and all that,” David said.
“Though wasn’t so much the sin that killed her as the decision to save a little money by splitting the rent,” Morris said.
“Might have been that the sin was what killed her and the decision was the instrument by which she was struck down.”
“Would imply all of this serves a retributive purpose.”
“Doesn’t it occurring and the Boss Man being good imply that it’s got to?”
“Might be a redemptive one instead, and besides …” and Morris trailed away ruminating over how this being the best of all possible worlds was sound abstract logic and only conflicted with a soul’s observations of its world, and how that paradox might be a demand from the Boss Man that a soul reconcile itself to its own occlusion. Rejection of the pride that is necessary for judgment, and He had something to say about casting judgement too.
Morris had been having this conversation with himself for quite a long time and the language had changed but hadn’t been able to get much farther with it than he had the first couple of years after having convinced himself he was joining the winning side.
“Suppose,” Morris said and was partly picking up his train of thought and partly responding to what they found in the bathroom, where the mirror was wrong again this time because a face was nailed to the mirror and the body was in pieces in the tub and the tub was full of rotting spoiled fluid, “we are here to observe that which we cannot change as much as we are here on a mission of redemption.”
David nodded like he was half-listening while he was standing in front of the mirror so the face nailed to it was superimposed over his.
“Wonder where they got the nail? Whatever they are.”
Didn’t sound as though he was making the statement with any intention of an answer and Morris didn’t oblige. Was a good question, whatever they were, would have had to either bring the nails with them or find them around the place. Was an iron nail and was tricky making those out of thin air. Why He had to be an internal affair, they couldn’t have supplied the nails.
Morris took his photos and they opened the mirror because there was a cabinet behind it. Was a single candle that was a fire-hazard on the middle shelf with black wax melting down and a small flame that didn’t need air to feed itself.
“I worry if that candle goes out all the light in the world goes with it,” Morris said.
“Is that a serious concern?”
“I’m not, well, I suppose not,” Morris stumbled trying to choose his words. “I would be surprised.”
David asked what they ought to do with it and Morris said what could they do.
“We are those who are doomed to observe without changing that which we observe.”
“At least it’s not the hand of a hanged thief,” David said and wondered if he was trying to make a joke.
“Hanging has fallen out of fashion. Creates a supply problem.”
Morris closed the cabinet and the light didn’t go out of the world and that felt like a victory.
The second bedroom had no bodies in it and that felt like another victory. More books, none of them healthy to have around but none which implied the damned had made any great individual and idiosyncratic breakthrough in the field of demonology. Only had been destroyed by something run-of-the-mill had destroyed plenty of souls before them.
“What would we do if there was something here, say something like confirmation of the Mark of the Beast, something real heavy like that?”
“What I already said and have said every time you have asked. We only observe and let the world continue as it must.”
“Whether that is possible or not, has always struck me you were the Calvinist of our little group of two.”
“I believe the term for that is a duo. Or a pair.”
“Lots of ways of saying the same thing.”
“And what do you mean,” Morris asked because it was a rare novel statement between them, “whether it is possible or not?”
“Meaning, whether it is possible to observe something without changing it. Observing something is participating in it. Plenty of things wouldn’t be around if there was nobody looking, like football matches or television shows.”
“Think that extends as far as this,” Morris said and extended his hands to encompass the massacred living room they had walked back into.
“Well, suppose there are sins a person can commit entirely in private but a lot of them demand an audience, at least need more than one solitary soul and maybe feeling like you are performing for an audience can make a solitary soul act like it’s in a crowd.”
“Don’t draw pentagrams or act out because you don’t imagine anyone will ever pay attention to it,” Morris said and wasn’t asking because he saw the point.
“Or other things,” and David realized had started talking about the two of them.
“Or other things,” Morris agreed and knew they were talking about the same old subject between themselves.
Shut the door behind them on the dead and had managed not to trail blood. Was a talent developed over long years, most substantial forensics wouldn’t find a trace of either them. Was late into a night with a new moon, and those stars were out which could survive the light pollution.
“Think this will ever end? The two of us, those poor damned souls managing their own damnation,” David asked looking at Orion’s belt and he had been told once that Betelgeuse was likely a dead star, that it had exploded a long time ago but only the light hadn’t reached the Earth yet and so in the interim there was no way to tell with certainty.
Morris stood with him. Had been ruminating on the subject in carnal houses and while walking among the dead in fields bloodied by massacres and while standing on the rim of mass graves. He had done a great deal of meditation among the unquiet dead.
And had a moment of clarity in the new moon night with the house of the dead behind him and told David what had come to him.
“Even the Boss Man too will pass, and the heavens and the hells. But, from another way of looking at things, this will remain for eternity and so will everything else, moments in time hardened like amber and strung together like jewelry, a necklace worn around the universal consciousness that is God.”
“Jewelry made out of the dead?”
“And everything else. And all of it somehow beautiful, if only can find the right perspective of it.”
“I don’t think I’m with you there,” David said, “but I suppose I’d like to be. And all this reminds me of how you once talked me into doing something very stupid.”
Was the first time that had been mentioned in a great long time and was without resentment. Both recognized that was something, least something they now possessed between them which was the absence of resentment that had followed them since they had taken their fall together.
“Well,” Morris said, “being easily persuadable was the original sin, looked at from a particular perspective even if the theologians always search for a root cause which makes for a better sermon.”
“Suppose I’ve always been enough of a fool that I could do something so goddamned stupid.”
“Well, you are the one of us who didn’t bring a lighter and lit your cigarette anyway.”
“We’ve both gotten burned chasing after a flame out of proportion to what we needed. Think we’re both still trying, after our fashion, to get more than we’re supposed to have.”
“But,” Morris said, “perhaps having been sent here, we’re supposed to get something, at least learn something. Something that might reconcile us to our station.”
“Might be gets us a bit more than reconciled, might be gets us back where we started. Resolved and peaceable,” David said and was still looking towards the star he’d like to see again to see if it had died, his memory wasn’t clear on the subject how it wasn’t clear on lots of things and had been nagging at him every night for a great long time.
“Might be we end up redeemed,” and Morris said he hoped that was so but it was not given him to know and they stood under those stars which survived the light pollution and looked like jewels.
© V.N. Ebert 2022
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