Laughing At Nemesis

A look at the World to come, from the perspective of a slightly unorthodox Fundamentalist.

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Location: Houston, Texas

We make nothing of our own, even our greatest deeds are only loaned to us for our time. The sounds and glory of even the smallest storm belong to the Creator and to no man. We know only Stolen Thunder.


Reditio Soteri -12-

Monday morning, Bruce dressed quickly and hurried to school, sensing that this would be another difficult day. He was correct, but in a way he did not expect. Waiting for him at the door was the Assistant Principal, Mister Garrett. Garrett was ‘old school’, which for him meant that no one was ever completely innocent, so that if something happened involving Bruce, he must – it seemed – have had something to do with it.

“Mister Decus”, snarled Mr. Garrett. “What - dare I inquire – were you doing Friday after school in my halls?”

“Nothing”, murmured Bruce, knowing no one would buy it but unwilling to tell the fabulous truth. “I just went home”.

“Just went home?” sneered Garrett, disbelief written on his face. “After attacking three of my students with whatever animal you brought – what was that thing, anyway?”

“What animal?” asked Bruce, trying to keep his face blank.

“What animal?” repeated Garrett. “What, you have more than one animal that leaves bloody trails, chews through steel chains, and scares policemen?”

“Huh?” was all Bruce could think to say.

“My office, right after first period”, directed Garrett. “Your memory better get more complete, mister.”


Reditio Soteri -11-

The watcher returned to the city and again found himself across the street from Bruce’s apartment. Once he returned to a physical form, the pains returned, a reminder of the power of his enemies. The watcher had been careful to avoid churches as he came back; he could not be sure where more of the hounds might be, and as much as he hated the hounds, he had no desire to meet them on their turf and terms.

At least the killing was easy and fast in this place, thought the watcher to himself. Strange, how so often those who thought themselves strong and fearsome, were never ready to face something stronger and more fierce than themselves. The watcher prided himself, that at the least he knew his limitations and watched his course when in his enemies’ place of power. It some ways, it was his own fault, watching for pretty sights and hoping for the old blessing – the watcher knew well those days were long gone, as far lost as his old allotted place at the beginning.

The watcher sighed to himself wistfully, then shook off his despair. What’s done is done after all, he told himself, and anyway there’s work here to do. The watcher licked blood of his forepaws and focused on the apartment across the street, determined and calm.

Reditio Soteri -10-

At the apartment that evening, Bruce and Stevie were preparing for the next day. In Stevie’s case, that meant a book report for reading, and rehearsal of basic multiplication. For Bruce, that meant Algebra homework and Literature. This would not be bad on a normal night, but Bruce’s mom was determined to have Bruce memorize the Bible, apparently by the end of this week. As he plowed through the riveting plot in the book of ‘Numbers’, Bruce also wondered how he would face the bullies who had locked him up on Friday. Bruce was sure they would not be pleased he had gotten free and spent the weekend at home.

After finishing his assigned reading, Bruce again was allowed to read a part of the Bible of his own choice, and again he let the book open itself, hoping for a nice Psalm or Proverb, but instead the book fell open to an early part, to Genesis 14:10 –

Now the Valley of Siddim was full of tar pits, and when the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some of the men fell into them and the rest fled to the hills.

This passage did nothing for Bruce, so he again set the book on its spine and let it fall open. Again, the Bible most unnaturally ignored the middle sections, and fell open to Deuteronomy 7:10 –

those who hate Him He will repay to their face by destruction; He will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate Him.

A bit vengeful, that seemed, though Bruce felt he could identify with that up to a point. Once again, Bruce set up the Bible, and this time it fell open to Psalms 55:13 –

But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend,

An odd verse thought Bruce, especially in the context of betrayal by a friend – one nice thing about not having any real friends, was that the friends you did not have, would not desert you.

Bruce put away the Bible, kissed his mom goodnight, and went to sleep. He did not sleep well, but dreamed of violence and pain.

Reditio Soteri -09-

The hounds landed immediately, flanking the watcher like a pair of police officers. They could be taken for collies, if it weren’t for their exceptional size, obvious intelligence, and a most-uncollie-like aggressiveness and predatorial inclinations. They took up positions to either side of the watcher, close enough for him to see the size of their clean, white, sharp teeth. For a moment, the watcher was struck with the sense that these hounds must floss – their teeth were perfect. Without thinking, the words came out:

“Wow, nice work. Who’s your orthodontist?”

Compliments about dental hygiene, it turned out, did not improve the mood. The one to the watcher’s left stepped forward, pushing the watcher back a step as he demanded,

“You were at the church. You. What were your intentions, imp?”

“Hey, the sign said ‘all are welcome’ “ replied the watcher, “Perhaps they should be more specific in – oof!”

The second hound had kicked the watcher hard in the chest. He glared down at the supine watcher, who knew he had to be silent and still.

“You,” began the hound, “You are not welcome. You know this. What were you planning?”

The watcher remained silent.

“Answer me!” demanded the second hound, while the first peered intently at the watcher, as if he was trying to read his mind.

“Say ‘please’, first” replied the watcher. For this, he was punched hard in the flank, and as he skidded across the grass and careened off one tree into the trunk of another one, the watcher wondered just how a dog, even one from Heaven, could throw a punch. The watcher never saw it coming.

“Ow” said the watcher.

“Again, vermin” said the second dog, as the first hung back, “what are your intentions?”

“You’d better answer,” said the first hound, “I think he’s enjoying this, and we’ve got all day.”

Swell, thought the watcher to himself, I’ve got hounds from heaven playing out a bad scene from ‘Starsky & Hutch’. Good dog,/bad dog, even. For crying out loud, where’s Lassie to show these guys some manners?

“Uhhhh, they had free chicken?” suggested the watcher. He expected the kick that came, but it still hurt a lot more than he expected.

Things went that way for a long time, the watcher lost track of just how long, and somewhere along the way he lost consciousness. He came to some time after sundown, sore all over and with nothing for his pains but a warning that he would get more if he was seen around a church again.

The watcher shook himself, considered his position and options, and with a movement vaporized his material form and flew through the air back towards town. He needed to hunt, to take his mind off the way his day had gone. Something needed to die to make him feel better, and if he couldn’t kill something from Heaven, something on Earth would have to do.

Reditio Soteri -08-

The watcher raced through the city streets, but he already knew the run was hopeless; the Hounds always found their quarry. Even so, he needed time to think up something for his defense, because while they were relentless in their pursuit, the Hounds would always listen to a plea. The watcher wasn’t sure if they were pursuing him in the belief that he represented a threat, or whether it was just long habit. For now, it hardly mattered.

The watcher had initially tried to run with speed appropriate for the form he held, but as the hounds gained steadily he gave that up for something faster, and pelted off the side of a building into the air, shooting like a rocket. The hounds made a similar movement, yet managed to retain most of their form, which the watcher felt was just a bit unfair, but he was hardly able to argue the point to anyone.

The watcher gained speed, shooting skyward and desperate to put distance between him and his pursuers, as his mind raced to come up with something to keep him from suffering once the hounds caught up, as they inevitably must. Of its own whim, the watcher’s mind pondered whether the chase would show up on radar, and if so whether he was going to mess with someone’s flight patterns. Oh well, he thought, he wasn’t trying to cause trouble on that point, but there was nothing he could do if that was the case, and worrying about being taken for a UFO was not going to tell him how to keep from getting thrashed by those hounds.

The watcher dived suddenly down through a thunderhead, hoping the hounds were depending on sight and might lose him for a while in the cloud cover. As he saw them shoot away, ahead and above him, the watcher thrilled with delight, but when they banked around and came back down after him, he knew it was no use. The chase was just wearing him out, and he couldn’t think straight while flying, anyway. The watcher looked down and chose a remote wooded area for the meeting, wondering how badly he would get hurt.

Reditio Soteri -07-

Bruce had come to regard church-going as a waste of time, something he had in general commonality with his watcher across the street. His mother and brother, on the other hand, took strength from church, and their life energy was restored by the predictable traditions and doctrinal banality of the RBCR and Reverend Sheely.

Ezekiel Sheely was not your normal minister. His grasp of doctrine tended to suit his personal mood, but what made Sheely more unusual, was his sense of pastorship. Sheely considered himself very much the shepherd of his flock, and he took quite seriously his duty to meet their needs and concerns. And nowhere was this character more in evidence, than when Pastor Sheely convened the prayer circle after the mid-day meal on Sunday. Sheely passed around a list of the community members who had prayer needs, names a brief request for reference. There was a brief silence as everyone prepared their spirit for the prayer, and speaking for the group, Pastor Sheely opened the channel and prayed out loud to God:

”Holy Father, we come to you in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord in praise, in reverence, and in supplication, for these our brothers and sisters …”

Across the street, the watcher sensed the essence of the prayer going up, for it was strong. The watcher considered the prayer critically, and approved – it was a good prayer, strong and selfless. A nice mix of humility and love, adoration and confidence in the God to whom they prayed. The unity of spirit added to its strength and clarity, thought the watcher, this one was really quite unusual, not even a hint of a single selfish request in it from any of the supplicants; you didn’t see that very often, especially in these large American cities. Yes, the watcher was sure, this one would get a clear answer, and soon.

He was right; almost immediately the place began to change, the air becoming fresher and the mood subtly altered becoming, well, cleaner - the watcher was amused to notice that even those people driving cars through the area were suddenly more careful drivers and more courteous. The watcher waited with eager anticipation for the next part.

And it came directly, a strong atmosphere of love and joy and belonging, the very family of God affirming the authenticity of the believers’ identity as children of the Most High God. The watcher sensed this with a wistful awe; so long, it had been so very long since he had been privileged to experience the pleasure of God, even in this extended way, to sense the approval of the Lord and to know that you were wanted. It was something truly wonderful, and only the Lord’s children knew it regularly. Them and – the watcher suddenly froze, then ran from the church with all his speed. What a fool he was! Prayers were always heard by God, and always answered, but not only were such prayers as this answered quickly and boldly, the Lord tended to send ministering angels to carry out His Will. And that meant the possibility of other Guardians, as well, who would search out those like the watcher, and they would surely find him for hanging about the church, and might well consider him a threat. His only hope was that they would not see him, a desperate hope with no real chance.

The watcher was right. Even as he turned to flee there came from the clouds two Guardians, fierce and vigilant, who noted the watcher and set after him. The watcher was pursued from the church by two Hounds of Heaven.

Reditio Soteri -06-

Bruce woke up early Sunday morning. Then again, he always woke up early on Sunday, because his mom and Stevie would never let him miss church.

Church for Bruce was an all-day affair at the Reformed Baptist Church of the Redeemed, which was a long way of saying the ministers were a bit different from anything you normally connected with a church. Well, they dressed the part, with fine suits and styled hair, and they talked the talk, with lots of emphasis whenever Jesus was mentioned, as if they went into mild delirium every time the Savior was mentioned – and they mentioned Him a lot. Jesus was summoned to pass blessing on pronouncements of every conceivable sort, from baptisms and confessions, to upcoming elections (which it seemed was the Devil trying to destroy the world by getting his minions elected, usually characters whose style of dress and speech was suspiciously similar to the good reverends), to corporations and evil forces luring around every corner. Bruce sometimes wondered if the church should stick the word ‘paranoid’ in its name somewhere.

He didn’t do well in the sword drills. Despite his mom’s confidence that it would be Deuteronomy this week, the class worked on 2nd Timothy. Stevie teased Bruce about it all day afterwards.

Lunch was chicken and salad. It was always chicken and salad et the Reformed Baptist Church of the Redeemed; maybe that thing Jesus did with the loaves and fishes in Israel, this church had worked out with old chicken and limp salad.

Bruce didn’t see much purpose in going to church all day on Sunday, but Stevie loved it, and it seemed to be the one thing his mom could depend on, so he toughed it out, even the mix of church ladies who either considered him an angel if he would just not talk so much, or a future hoodlum who needed a beating to get him set straight. That second group always included several of Bruce’s teachers.

Across the street from the church, the watcher peered intently at the congregation, as he nibbled on the body of a stray cat, taking care that the remains would look like the work of a dog.

Reditio Soteri -05-

Bruce woke up with a strange buzzing sound in his ears, and a feeling of unexplained guilt. Over by the window, he saw Stevie drawing.

“Sup, little man?” he asked.

“K”, answered Stevie, his attention focused on the strange dog he was drawing. Well, a dog or a pig or a well-fed ferret, Bruce couldn’t tell, but Stevie was working hard at it. Seemed like it was laughing at something. Maybe that meant Stevie was happy.

Bruce went to the kitchen, where his mom had left a note. She’d gone off to work, but left breakfast in the oven for Bruce and Stevie, along with a list of chores for Bruce to do. Bruce sighed, and started on the laundry.

As the laundry was going in the washer, Bruce scrubbed at the kitchen floor, wondering – again – how the floor got scuffed and dirty when neither he nor Stevie did anything to mess it up. Strangely, Bruce hardly hurt from yesterday’s beatings; maybe that meant he was getting tougher. And if he got tougher, maybe those jerks would start to leave him alone. Yeah right, and the laundry would start doing itself …

That evening, after his mom got back from work, she set Bruce and Stevie to Bible Study. Tomorrow was Church, and that meant Sword Drills in Sunday School. More Deuteronomy, but after he got his passages memorized, Bruce was allowed to read another part on his own. For some reason, Bruce found himself in the book of Job, and his eyes fell on Chapter 2:1 -

On another day the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them to present himself before him.

Something about that passage bothered Bruce, and he quickly closed the Bible, almost slamming it shut.

Bruce felt silly about that, and opened up the Bible again. This time it fell open to Numbers 22:26 –

Then the angel of the LORD moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left.

Again, Bruce felt a strange forboding and this time he did slam the Bible shut, earning a sharp look from his mother. Embarrassed, he opened the Bible yet again, and – as if someone else was turning the pages, it fell open to Exodus 23:20 –

See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared

This time, Bruce was strangely reassured, and he closed the Bible one last time for the evening, this time quietly and calmly.

Across the street, the watcher was annoyed. He felt prickly and itchy, as if he had touched something to which he was allergic.

Reditio Soteri -04-

The watcher sat unmoving across the street from Bruce’s apartment, oblivious to anything else until he sensed that Bruce had gone to sleep. A few moments sufficed to assure the watcher that the immediate area was secure, and the watcher loped off to satisfy a deep need.

The neighborhood was a bad one, so it was only after a few blocks that the watcher found what he wanted. A young man sat at a red light in his car, with the window down. Worse, the man was talking to someone on the phone, and so was paying no attention to his surroundings. But it was not that man who the watcher found interesting. The watcher peered intently at the other young man coming round the car from behind and the side, who raised his pistol and put a shot into the shoulder of the driver, before opening the car door and throwing him to the ground.

Stunned by the surprise and the hot pain in his shoulder and chest, the driver paled in fear as he saw the carjacker aim the pistol in his face to finish the job.

Then the driver saw the gunman stop, stand bolt upright with a look of terror at some unseen monster, then raise the gun to his own head.

Three quick shots, and the gunmen fell to the ground, dead by his own hand. Writhing in his own pain, the driver did not stop to consider how strange it was that the gunman could shoot himself three times in the head.

The watcher smiled grimly at his game, and moved on to find more amusement. Before the sun came up, a would-be rapist would cut off his own genitals before a terrified young woman, a burglar would use the acetelyne torch he carried for breaking into a store on his own face, and an executive who had meant to carry out a perfect embezzlement of his company would wake to suddenly realize that he had instead e-mailed evidence of his plan to the CEO, the local newspaper, and the district attorney.

The watcher settled back to watching Bruce’s apartment with some satisfaction.

Reditio Soteri -03-

Bruce reached the door to the apartment as his lungs screamed at him to stop. Besides catching his breath, however, Bruce felt he had to stop and think. His mom was going to be furious with him for being so late, and he needed to come up with an excuse, but his mind was blank. Trying to get a sense of the mood, Bruce listened at the door, but all he heard were pots being moved in the kitchen. Suddenly, Bruce steeled his nerve and plunged in, deciding to brave whatever he had to face in the apartment.

But his mom was not home. Instead, Stevie was standing on a stool by the stove, and by the look of things he planned to cook his own dinner, with water heating in two pots and a box of Mac-n-Cheese nearby. Bruce smiled in spite of himself. For a seven-year-old, Stevie had a lot of confidence in his ability.

“Momma’s gonna tan you for turning on the stove, Stevie” said Bruce.

“Nuh uh” retorted Stevie. “Cuz if you tell her I turned on the stove, then I’ll tell her how late you are. Wazzup, anyway?”

“Same o” answered Bruce. “Ight, let’s make a deal. I’ll make you something to eat if you stay away from things that will get us both in trouble. Deal?”

“Deal” smiled Stevie, and he turned on the TV and sat down in front of it.

An hour later, Stevie was fed and washed, and Bruce had cleaned up the table and kitchen. But his mom was still not home, and that was bad. Bruce began to worry.

A while later, Bruce heard a commotion in the hall. It was his mom and someone else, a man, and drunk by the sound of him. His mom was saying something quietly, but with a sense of urgency. Bruce knew from experience not to stick his head out and see what was happening, because this often meant embarrassing his mom, and that always led to whippings for Bruce. A few minutes later, his mother entered, alone.

“Hey, babe” she said to Bruce. “Stevie asleep?”

“Yeah” answered Bruce. “You’re late.”

“I know, sorry” answered his mom. “I got a chance at some overtime, and God knows we need it.”

For some reason, Bruce didn’t want to talk about what had happened at school. Well, it never did any good to complain, and he’d seem like a total wuss if he admit he was freaked out by some strange sounds and a bad smell. So he let his mom take his mind off that by doing a half-hour of Bible Study, which was boring enough to make him sleepy. Bruce suspected his mom used Bible Study to get him to go straight to sleep, which seemed to be what the book of Deuteronomy was made to do.

Bruce fell asleep and dreamed of a cockroach uprising.

Reditio Soteri -02-

Then there was silence, long enough that Bruce started to think he had imagined the sounds.

Then that skittering came again, approaching the locker like an overgrown cockroach. Bruce heard something sniffing just outside the locker door, and a strong unwashed body odor, but with a sense of rot about it, and Bruce found himself trying hard not to vomit on himself.

Them with a loud clunk, the lock broke, almost as if someone had cut the lock with a bolt cutter. Bruce waited for the door to open, but there was nothing. No sound, no sense of presence, even the bad smell was fading away, like a fart passing through the ventilation system. Bruce pushed gently against the locker door, and it swung open.

Bruce crawled out and peered down the hall in both directions. There was no one there, though where the bullies had run there was a puddle of something on the ground, as if one of them had spilled a thick drink. Bruce stepped that way, careful not to step in the liquid, and he realized that it was blood. Not a huge amount, but more than you’d lose in a nosebleed, or come to that more than Bruce had lost in any of his beatings. Had the bullies turned on each other with something like a knife fight? Or whatever that bad-smelling animal had been, could it have been responsible? Bruce was almost immediately sure that wasn’t it. Whatever that thing was, it seemed small for taking on three apelike brutes. Then again, Bruce wasn’t sure what it was, and the combination of its smell, sounds, and strange behavior creeped him out a lot. The best idea seemed to be to just get out and get home. The halls were dark, dark enough that Bruce realized, with a groan, that he’d be in trouble when he got home. Again. No one ever believed him when he tried to explain what happened, so he’d given up trying to explain. Hanging his head in dismay, Bruce walked to the end of the hall towards the exit. He stopped when he realized that the janitor had already bolted and chained the exit door – Bruce wasn’t getting out this way. And that meant all the other doors were barred, as well. There was bound to be some way out, but Bruce was sure they would involve setting off an alarm or talking to an adult, which meant getting trouble with his mom. Bruce loved his mom, and he knew she worked hard to take care of him and Stevie, but she always got angry when Bruce got in trouble, and like everyone else she never understood it wasn’t his fault. He’d be yelled at and get punished for it, and it was just so wrong.

Bruce didn’t care who saw him now; he fell to the ground and cried.

Time passed, Bruce neither knew nor cared how long, but he started when he smelled it again. That same unwashed-and-rotting smell, and he heard that same skittering sound, coming towards him. Bruce was mildly curious, but at the same time he felt a strong impulse to not be there when whatever it was arrived. Bruce ran for the nearest classroom and threw himself under the teacher’s desk.

Once again, the sound and smell suddenly vanished, and again Bruce began to wonder if he had imagined it. Bruce began to worry that the bad smell was his own body; had he smelled his panic and fear? Bruce resolved to take a shower when he got home.

Then a heavy sound fell in the hallway, something metal. Bruce waited a few minutes, but heard nothing more, and curiosity moved him to see what had happened.

Not only had the chains holding the door shut been chewed into pieces, the push-bar itself lay on the floor, the door slightly open, the night breeze blowing in. Feeling a surge of emotion, a mix of hope and fear, Bruce took his chance and plunged into the night, running the three miles home without once stopping, ignoring the stabbing pain in his side from the lack of oxygen as he ran pell-mell to the only place he considered safe.

Running headlong as he did, Bruce never saw the companion who followed him home, easily keeping pace while remaining just out of sight, setting up camp just across the street from the haggard building Bruce and his family called home.

Reditio Soteri -01-

Bruce sat quietly inside the locker, hoping his pursuers had lost his trail. As he sat, he reflected on an article he had read somewhere, which claimed that the body did not remember pain. Reflecting on past encounters with these boys who were looking for him, Bruce was pretty sure that the writer of that article did not know what he was talking about.

He had done nothing to get his tormentors angry at him, Bruce was sure. It just seemed that just being there was enough to make him a target – that and the fact that everyone knew Bruce was a perfect victim, he never fought back, not very well at least, and he never told on his attackers. In return, they only bruised him and left him a bit bloody; they had never broken a bone – yet. Musing to himself as he waited, Bruce wondered why they never seemed to change their routine. Surely they would get bored of this?

At that moment, the locker down flew open and Bruce started with the shock of once again being found. The same three brutes who always made sport of his pain leered down at him, and Bruce silently cursed himself for choosing such a vulnerable place to hide. Without a word, but smiling grimly to each other, they set to punching and kicking Bruce, but seemed to tire after only a couple minutes, and they laughed at each other as they slammed the door on Bruce. Bruce could hardly believe his luck. He was hurting, but already the pain was receding a bit, though his mouth was bleeding and his ears rang from blows. Then Bruce heard, with dismay, a padlock being placed on the locker, and the brutes walked away, laughing and clapping at each other, Bruce realized that as this was Friday, he’d likely be locked for days before anyone knew where to find him. Bruce groaned as his attackers walked away, delighted with their cleverness.

As he sat alone in the dark, Bruce felt like he needed to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. He couldn’t decide if this was because he was afraid the bullies would hear him, or that he was just too used to this treatment for it to have the same pull on his emotions. He was tired, hungry, hurting in various places and furious at himself, yet again, for not doing something to have stopped what happened, not that there was ever much hope of escape, let alone victory.

Then a sound caught his ear.

Long practice at evading his enemies had trained Bruce to keenly sense any sound out of place, and he realized that the three boys who had locked him in the locker had indeed hung around to see how he would deal with the situation. But something has changed. Bruce heard gasps of surprise, yells and a curse, as if they had been attacked by someone or something. There was a yell as in pain, and another curse shouted, and then the unmistakable sound of flight – the brutes had come across something they couldn’t scare or defeat. Bruce was intensely curious to know who or what that was.

Or was he? It suddenly occurred to Bruce, that whatever had chased away the brutes might, in fact, be worse than they were, and in that case it was very bad for Bruce to be locked where he could not get away, as he began to sense might indeed be very necessary.

Whatever it was began to approach the locker. Bruce heard it approach, almost a skittering kind of step, though the steps seemed strangely to grow softer as they came closer.

Then, just outside the locker, something chuckled quietly, as if at some private joke.


Laughing At Nemesis

A lot of people have strong opinions, on the matter of how God will handle Judgment Day. Among the interesting comments which come up when this topic is raised, is the assumption that this group or that will be in a bad way, because they didn’t sign up with the right group.

I am a fundamentalist Christian (a name which has sparked its own debate, primarily on the lines of whether I get to say what I am, or whether I must cede the name ‘fundamentalist’ to the nether regions of social approbation), which in my small mind means that I hold to certain key definitions and rules when considering God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and myself (who does not, of course, belong is such lofty company, but I have a long history of getting into things where I don’t belong). It seems to me, that a simple consideration may illuminate the matter, and I mean to explore this question in this story, named according to my mood and métier.

I also hope to make it entertaining.

Chapter One: Waking Up

It began with a sense of hope. I felt as though I was waking up, the way you come out of a deep sleep when you are called, not yet able to move, yet slowing realizing where you are and feeling life return to cold limbs. Not comfortable, yet there was purpose and mission, if I couldn't tell yet what those were. As I came to realization, I found myself laying on the ground, which strangely was not as cold as my body. The ground was rough but even, no grass yet not dirty or muddy. Because it felt strange to lie down and be aware, I rose and stood. I found myself standing in a fog, between two places which faintly glowed as cities do from a distance. Somehow, I sensed that one of the two was a welcome place, bright and glad, and the other dark and foreboding, so I walked to the first, drawn by the hope which had revived me from my rest. As I walked, I tried to recall where I had been and what I had been doing. My clothes yielded no clue, just common pants and shirt, socks and shoes, and there was nothing in my pockets. Looking back where I had lain, it was as if I had simply appeared there; there were no signs of anything around me, except for light footprints in the dirt where I walked.

I saw a crowd of people ahead, and I joined them, as they waited expectantly at the high gates surrounding some place too far or too shrouded in mist to see. There was an air of expectation, a mix of happy hope and dread.

Behind me, I heard a distant noise, as of old rusty gates opening, followed by a distant but growing howling, a threat as yet unseen yet recognized by nearly all of us present. I became very anxious that the brighter gates before us should open, before that approaching terror should seize us from behind.

I suddenly recalled the darker warnings of the 25th Chapter of Matthew, as if a portent sent too late. Those who claimed to be Christians, but who had no love for others, especially those who would not do anything to help people in need, or to be gentle when their brother was in pain, or to be kind when explaining something, or otherwise to bear any sort of fruit in true imitation of Christ, are snatched away by the angels, and hurled into a lake of fire in the midst of the pits of Hell. At that moment, something plucked at me, and my heart jumped, but it was just Wohali, pulling my leg. Wohali was an old friend and in another place, I would have begun to catch up on old times and events passed since we last met. Here, I stood silent while Wohali snickered at his jest. I began to notice a few more details in our surroundings.The place where we were was vast. What had seemed to be a park or meadow outside the gates of Heaven, was revealed to be a great plain, with Heaven's gates near to us, and Hell's domain far from us, but faintly visible.At first, I had also thought the terrain was simply empty, but as my eyes adjusted ( to the light, actually), I began to realize that a mist was covering the ground, and was now beginning to recede in some places. I also realized we were not on the Earth. I could see our globe floating off to my left, and even at this great distance, it looked tired and spent. I wondered how it could be restored.

The terror passed in an instant, and when it was gone, so were many who had stood with us, and I realized that my fears were sound, yet I had been spared, if only for the moment. Also, as the mist began to recede, I began to notice other things about this place. First, I was able to recognize people at greater distances, and I was surpised to find some still in our group, whom from my experience I would have expected to be in the joyous company of our Lord Jesus Christ, and others whom I would have thought surely would be regretting their sins as they roasted. I rebuked myself for judging the second group, but all the same, it seemed strange.I also began to see little cracks in the ground, which I was certain had not been there when we arrived. Maybe the weight of 18 Billion people, give or take, was getting to be a problem. I wondered, if we were already dead, would this be something I should worry about? As time passed, further details emerged, some fascinating, others not very encouraging.I had thought, since the frightening angels who had seized the damned (were they through already?), were no longer around us, that the angels were no longer active, but I began to realize that the colorful streaks of light and thunder were not weather, but passing angels, impossibly fast. I confirmed this when one of those bolts of light suddenly appeared at my side, as a smiling man slowly walking, but then he approached Wohali, spoke quietly to him, and without anything more, they turned and left me, but not before Wohali stopped, smiled quirkily and assured me "it'll be alright - really". Then, in a flash, he and the man were gone, and it was only in that instant, that I somehow realized Wohali's angel was Comanche. I puzzled for another while, trying to recall how it was I could tell tribes by sight. I realized as I watched, that everybody seemed to have someone coming to see them, and not everybody was happy with that fact.Then I started suddenly, as I realized another angel was coming, this time to me. I started again, when I realized I knew her.Yes, I knew her. And suddenly, I was afraid, not of danger or some evil, but of how I must seem to her.Because the woman approaching me had been a girl with whom I was once deeply infatuated [note: no real names, just in case some of you are wondering later]. Beth Allison had looked like the perfect girl to me then, and frankly, she still did. It wasn't just the way she looked, but how she acted, always pleasant to everyone, always able to like everybody, to see the good when no one else could. Tall, willowy, always gentle, always kind, she had seemed unattainable when I knew her in school, and my heart did a skip every time I saw that face. I still trembled to see her, but somehow the reason was different now.And as she approached, I suddenly realized that she had been in that first group which had entered Heaven. If she was coming out to see me, I figured I was going to be a real disappointment, which I desperately did not want to be. "Hello Dan" she said, and smiled as if she had been looking forward to meeting me for a long time. In that moment, I wanted to rush up and hug her, but I didn't dare. For one thing, I suddenly realized she had changed from the girl I knew. It's not that Beth was old; somehow, we were all in pretty good condition, though some of the people were children, some adults, and some you just couldn't be sure. Beth had that Audrey-Hepburn purity to her, that added a dimension of charm to any age, but that wasn't it. I suddenly realized, for example, that if I was my normal height, Beth was now a good 6 and a half feet tall! I mean, she had been tall in High School, maybe 5 eleven, but never 6'6"! And she was proportional to her height, like a bigger-than-life scale model. I also realiuzed she was in all-white clothes, but a dazzling white like I couldn't imagine, but there she was. I felt dirty, like my clothes were too old, like I was too... too... too something, but less than acceptable, and it wasn't a good feeling. But Beth took my hand, and we started walking. When we stopped after a few steps, we were in a completely different place, still outside the gates of Heaven, but there were a lot less people.Maybe I'm not as pure as Wohali, because I still wasn't sure things were going to be all right.Beth smiled, grinned actually, and laughed "Oh, it's good to see you again, Dan. Isn't this great?"She must have caught my worries from my look, so she said "OK. I bet you have lots of questions. Go ahead""I'm not in Heaven." I observed. "Does that mean I'm going to Hell?"

"You mean the Lake of Fire? Probably not."I wasn't really comforted by 'probably', so Beth went on.

"Look, Dan. You know we are judged by God alone, and He judges us on one of two measures: Grace or Justice.

"As a Christian, you know that God has chosen to extend His Grace to whom it pleases Him to receive it; that's Pre-Destination, and for all the human arguments, that's always been up to God."

"But" I interrupted her, "If not everyone receives Grace, isn't that unfair?"

Beth shook her head."No, and you should know that, Dan. Nobody deserves Grace, so it's no unfair if you get Justice instead. It's not as if anyone will be punished or rewarded for something they didn't do if they receive Justice from the perfect Lord instead of Grace.

"But you have to think about why someone will not receive Grace." Back in Genesis and Exodus, we see two different Pharoahs, remember? The first Pharoah received God's favor, His Grace if you will, while in Exodus we read that God hardened Pharoah's heart against the Hebrews, so we can say that Pharoah did not receive God's Grace. [ Exodus 4:21 ]

"But notice how Pharoah was, before this happened. He held the Hebrews as slaves for no cause [ Exodus 1:8-11 ], he tried to kill all the male Hebrew infants [ Exodus 1:22 ], and his son was just like him. By the time Moses spoke with God through the Burning Bush, Pharoah had quite made up his mind. God did not harden Pharoah's heart unjustly; Pharoah chose the course, and God simply locked in the direction Pharoah had already decided.

"Compare that to the first Pharoah in Genesis. He cared enough about his people to dream about his responsibility [ Genesis 41:1-8 ], even though he would be fed and comfortable, no matter what happened. He sought an answer, not only to the mystery, but to finding a solution [ Genesis 41:33-40 ] which would take care of his people and reward honest men. So, it is hardly surprising that God looked with favor on Pharoah. On the one hand, yes, Pharoah did not deserve God's Grace to know ahead about the coming famine, or to have a capable, trustworthy man made available to him, but his acts showed his heart. Like the other Pharoah, this Pharoah chose his course, of duty and love, and God encouraged his choice.

"I can't promise you will go to Heaven, Daniel, because I cannot see your heart. You have made your choice by now, and God will have established the consequences according to His wisdom and mercy. I do not condemn you to Hell, for the same reason."I can remind you, however, that God is good, that His will is perfect and shall be done. If you hold to God's will, then everything will be alright."

All this I digested, and Beth sat with me while I tried to find consolation. I believe in Jesus Christ, of course, but when you are up against the matter, it becomes easy to doubt and worry. As I was trying to decide what to say next, a disturbance caught our attention.A group of men had surrounded a pair of young women, and their intent was unpleasantly obvious. Apparently, some people had quickly overcome their awe of angels, especially given the delay in deific presence.I rose to intervene, but Beth grabbed my hand and said, "No, it'll be OK. Wait and see."

I realized pretty soon after that, what she meant. When the men tried to grab the women, their hands passed through the women, as if the girls were only holograms. What's more, when one of them lowered his trousers, the equipment he apparently intended to show off or use, was not there!His resulting scream of fear and embarrassment was the first real comic relief I had enjoyed since arriving, and presently everyone but the attackers was laughing at their inability to do any harm.The men were angry now, and it seemed they hadn't quite caught on that this place had ways to prevent evil, and for a moment my worry returned.But Beth put her fingers to her lips, and blew what I thought was a silent whistle. After a few moments, however, the baying of hounds became clear, and everyone was immediately aware that a pack of dogs was on the way, and space cleared quickly around the men. For an instant, I was concerned about whether the approaching hounds would be able to tell the bad guys from the good ones. I became intently aware that there were no trees available to climb.

Suddenly, there were more than a hundred hounds, big powerful monsters, and they were somehow well aware of who their targets were. The men ran off at top speed, with the canines in pursuit. I glanced at Beth, half expecting a satisfied grin or relaxed relief, but now she seemed concerned, although she had not been worried when the girls seemed in danger. Beth looked over at me, and said,"When they can act like that here, I do wonder how they will give an account of their words and deeds?"

I shrugged. Then a question came to me.

"If we're outside both Heaven and Hell, where are we right now?" She smiled faintly.

"If you were Catholic, I might tell you this is Limbo."But to be serious, this is a sort of way-station.

"As you've noticed, the ground is not really stable here. That's because this place is going away, once everyone has had their judgment. But for now, it's a place for preparation, for waiting, for rest, and for decision."


Chapter Two: Gates

Beth continued:
"You saw when that villain lowered his pants, he was, well, missing something he expected to still be there. That is just one of the changes here.

"People live their time on Earth, and everybody says this or that isn't really important, but it's so easy to get caught up in things which are not important. People say they don't care about money, but worry all the time about having enough. They say looks don't matter, but people have trashed their marriages and reputations, just to chase a pretty someone. They say everyone is equal and they respect diversity, then surround themselves with people who are just like them, only they make sure that a certain percentage of them say how great they are on a regular basis.

"So they don't like it, when they get to Heaven, and they find out there's no money here, there's no sex, there's no claims that one person is better than another-"

"Wait a minute" I interrupted. Look at you, and look at me. Of course you're better than I am, and God Himself said so. Isn't that right?"

Beth laughed for a long time, and grabbed my arm to calm me down and keep me from stomping off.

"Dan, I'm sorry, I'm not laughing at you. Really. What you see here is how you perceive me, and really, you are controlling that. It's flattering, but it doesn't really change what's so.

"Yes, I've received favor from God, but that makes me fortunate, not better. It may be, that later on you will be as great or greater than I am or will be.

"Besides, look at the angels. There are Cherubim, Seraphim, Guardians, the ArcAngels, all sorts. Do any of them seem unhappy or feel resentful because they are not another sort?

"No, each serves as they were made to be. In fulfillment of God's will, we will be exactly what He means for us to become, and there is very great joy in that.

"Yes, I have been to the King already, and by the Grace of My Lord I have found favor from Him. But look at me closely, and I will show you a secret."

Well, to be honest, looking at Beth had never been something I wanted to avoid, so I looked at her, and after a few seconds, something occurred to me.

I had already known that Beth was especially good with children suffering from Down's Syndrome, but as I watched her, I was now able to feel her joy at meeting each one of them, back when she first began, her compassion for the families, and her determination to make a difference for the better.

Looking deeper, I realized I could explore her life, and I could see all her experiences - except there were places where it seemed something should be there, but instead there was a separation, like a seam between two parts which had been joined together after something between them had been removed. So I asked Beth about those.

She blushed and looked at the ground for an instant.

"Those were my sins, Dan. Jesus removed them, so they are not there anymore, but I have to always remember that those were also places where I could have done the good thing, chosen a better way, but did not."

It shocked me to think that Beth had ever committed any sort of sin, and I almost made a joke about how easy and simple it must have been for Christ to forgive her one or two trivial sins, when the rest of us had done so much, but I caught myself. Whatever Beth had done, it was significant to her.

Then I wondered what she had seen when she looked at me, and I couldn't look her in the face. Beth's reaction suggested she knew my thoughts:

"Don't be afraid, Dan. Because I have been freed from sin, I also do not see yours."

"So," I asked, "I have had a lot of people ask, so I want to know:

"Is forgiveness of sins only from Jesus?"

"Yes, Daniel" answered Beth, "but He makes that forgiveness available to anyone who will accept it."

"You mean everyone will accept Him as Lord, right? So what happens to the non-Christians?" I asked.

Beth shook her head again.

"That depends on what you mean by 'non-Christian'" she said.

"Remember the Bible: "I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin." [ Mark 3:28-29, cf Matthew 12:31, Luke 12:10 ]

"God wants us to live. I mean, think about it. Everybody who is born goes through a long and detailed process for months, and it is difficult and painful for the mother. And even after you are born, your parents have a lot of work and effort to keep you healthy and growing. You only become an adult if you have folks you care about you, and that begins with God.

"Everybody knows John 3:16, but how many people read the line right after it: "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him [ John 3:17 ]."

"OK" I replied, "but it still sounds like you gotta be Christian to enjoy that salvation. I mean, what did Peter mean when he said "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under Heaven given to men by which we must be saved" [ Acts 4:12 ]?"

"Jesus is our only Savior, Daniel" explained Beth, "but He came to save everyone."

"So now I'm confused again" I said. "We need the Grace of God to enter Heaven, as well as the Salvation from Christ to hope, but if we don't have to be Christian, why worry about it?

"And if we don't need to be Christian, then what are all these evangelists going on about, and why did the disciples make such a big deal about it? Couldn't they have just told everybody 'Don't worry, we'll all be fine'?"

Beth sadly shook her head again.

"There's a lot more than that to it, Daniel" she said. "To begin with, different people have different needs. Some are trying their whole lives to do right, and they need very little poking to want to find God. But others need something to remind them daily, and still others are in very real rebellion against God, and will not turn from their sin, even to save themselves, without something very special presented to them.

"Christ did not die on the cross, because a bloodthirsty god demanded human sacrifice, and would only be satisfied with a divine price. He died because it was necessary, in many respects, for Him to pay that price, for our satisfaction. He died to show He was willing to bear everything we had to bear, that He was fully involved with us, not only to die in payment of our debt, but to be able to show His power, even over the sum total of all sin and death.

"Some even still doubt what he did today, as if resurrection made death by crucifixion a thing of no great pain or loss, as if God somehow deserved to suffer for what we ourselves did.

"So He endured a life of poverty and deprivation, that we would understand the power of humility and a poor spirit.

"He endured persecution for telling the truth, to show us how it was worth doing, even at the cost of your life.

"He endured loss and pain without cause, to show us the courage and valor of those who bear such cost among us.

"And He taught us His way, that we could not only be saved from destruction, but become greater than we imagined possible."

I sat and thought about what Beth said for a while.

"Beth", I finally asked, "Are you saying we are all saved?"

"No, Dan, I am not" replied Beth. "You saw yourself, how some have already been compelled to Hell.

"And there will be more. Many people will refuse to be reconciled with God, for whatever reason.

"Some blame Him for everything they wanted to be different.

"Some rebel against Him, because they want to be their own god.

"Some cannot let go of the things of the old world, even though they are poison to their own soul.
"But God has made provision for anyone who will accept it. God knows what choice we have made, even before we are born, so while it seems strange, unfair even, in truth no one will be judged unfairly here."

Beth got up, and as she walked away, I realized she was leaving me.

"Where are you going, Beth?" I asked.

"It is time for me to go" she answered. "Another is coming."

"But I still have questions. For one thing, where is my wife, Mikki?" I cried to her departing form.

"Don't worry" answered Beth, from what seemed a great distance. "All the questions will be answered, which need one. And your wife is not here, because it is not the time for you to be together again, not yet.

"But don't worry. It will all be all right."

And with that, she disappeared into the mists, which seemed to have risen again.

I stood there alone, wondering about questions I had suddenly thought of, and where the people I knew had gone, and where those dogs might be now.

As I stood there, I became bored, which surprised me a little. I mean, I was standing at the end of the universe, with no confirmation that I would have an existence beyond the next short piece of time, and yet I was bored.

So I took a walk.

At first, I worried about the dogs, or meeting up with a gang or something like that, but after some thought, I decided Beth was right, and whatever was waiting for me in Judgment, a short walk to stretch my legs wasn't going to be a risk.

There were two glows visible in the mist. One was red and the other golden, and it wasn't hard to figure which was which, so I strolled over to the Gates of Heaven to see what was up.
The first thing I noticed, was that there were people trying to climb the fence. Not smart, I concluded, as I observed that every fence pole which had a climber nearby, was increasing in height as the person shimmied up. I quickly realized no one was going to be able to climb over the fence. I also observed that no one was going to dig under it, either. Anyone digging down, simply found that the poles went down farther than they could dig.


I peered more closely at the Gates themselves. They were open, and while the space was only big enough for a couple people to go through at a time, they were open, and there was nothing like a guard there, so St. Peter, nada.

So, I decided to stroll on in and see what Heaven was like. I figured, if I wasn't supposed to be there, I'd find out soon enough. I walked up casually to the gateway and right on-

I woke up sometime later, flat on my back, the gates some 50 paces ahead of me. They were still open, but something had happened. I thought for a while, and decided I had lacked the element of surprise, so the second time, I walked along the fenceline, nodding to people as I approached the gateway, casually, casually, - NOW-

Again, I woke up sometime later, flat on my back, the gates some 50 paces ahead of me. They were still open, but nobody was going in or out. Obviously, stealth wasn't going to work, so I chewed on the problem for a little while, and then I had another idea.
I walked away from the gates until I was a good 200 feet from them, then tore towards the gates at full speed, hoping that my velocity would-

Once Again, I woke up sometime later, flat on my back, the gates some 50 paces ahead of me. I had learned my lesson by now, and the back of my head was letting me know how foolish I had been.

I decided to be a good little boy, and just lie there for a while.

After some time, I heard a voice call out "Hello, Daniel. I brought you some medicine."

The voice belonged to an old acquaintance of mine, Robert Pallon. But Robert had been a little guy when I knew him, maybe 125 pounds and all of 5'3". This guy, with the same quiet voice, had to be 6'8" and 290. I mean, this guy looked like he could stop Shaq. And he was wearing the uniform of the day, that blinding white suit that looked like Armani got together with Mr. Clean.

"Sorry about the thing with the gates. We didn't realize you would get curious so soon, so we forgot to tell you. How do you feel?"

I began to feel like I was living Dicken's "A Christmas Carol" without a script.

Robert helped me sit up, and produced a small flask. Whatever was in the flask was strong but not unpleasant, sort of like syrup with a kick, like Formula 44 before they took out the chloroform.

I looked over at Robert, who grinned at me. I noticed that although I was dirty from my fall (er, falls) into the dirt, he was still immaculate, even in a white suit. Dirt didn't stick to him! I also noticed he had a small pink carnation stuck in his lapel buttonhole.

"Medicine? I didn't think they had medicine in Heaven."

Robert shrugged.

"They don't need it in Heaven, but you're not the first guy to try to get through the gates like that, and it takes a lot out of you.

"Feel a little better?"

"Yeah" I said and I started brushing dirt off me, as I got up. I also noticed the cracks on the ground had gotten a lot bigger, and not just where I landed; they were more than half an inch wide now. I made a mental note to watch my step, or I could trip.

I cocked my head at Robert.

"So, looking at you, I guess you've been in to see Jesus."

Robert smiled broadly.

"Yes I have, Dan."

"What's He like?" I asked.

"You're the Bible reader, Dan. Don't you know?" asked Robert.

"OK" I said, "So He's big and shiny and very clean. What is He like as a person?

"And why is it every time I see someone who's been in to see the Boss, they're all about 7 feet tall and wearing white?

"Nice carnation, by the way."

"Thanks" replied Robert, "But you should know He's gentle and kind and compassionate. And as for us, well anyone who stands in the presence of God, grows by the experience, and He has removed all our iniquities. Even our appearance is made perfect."

"Uh-huh" I answered.

"So, why is there the big 'Smoking Section' over there?" I asked Robert, pointing my thumb over at the distant red glow as I shook dirt out of my sneakers.

"It seems like not everybody enjoyed their little visit to the King."

Robert chuckled for a moment, then put his hand on my shoulder.

"I think I see the problem, Dan." said Robert. "Let's go to Hell and see for ourselves, OK?"

He laughed as I pulled away from him at that suggestion.

"It's OK, Dan, nobody gets sent to Hell just for taking a look." explained Robert. "Besides, I believe you have questions I can answer while we walk."

So, in a move I could only consider as foolish as anything I had ever done in my life, we turned and walked away from the promise of Heaven, heading towards the angry wrath of Hell.

Robert chuckled as we plodded along.

"So, what's on your mind?" he asked.

"OK, for starters, why are we going to Hell?"

"Well, Dan" answered Robert, "You asked who was going to Hell, and I can just see in your eyes, you're concerned about someone you know and love ending up there. I could just tell you it's all going to be fine, but even if you believed it, it wouldn't really tell you what's going on, which is your real worry, right?"

I stopped and looked at Robert for a while. He stood there, a faint smile on his lips, but patient.

"Ok, Robert" I said. "I talked with another friend of mine a while back, and her answers were kind of hard to make sense of. Are you going to tell me straight?"

"I'll do my best, Dan" answered Robert.

"OK" I replied. "So, first thing: I thought everybody was going to get judged at the same time, but all I've seen are the first-teamers like you, and the guys who are probably doing great impressions of charcoal bricquets right now.

"Why didn't everybody get judged?"

"They will, Dan" answered Robert, "But not everybody is ready yet. In fact, some won't be ready for a long time.
"Have you ever heard of the Millenium?"

"Sure" I answered, "That's where Jesus reigns on Earth for a thousand years, and it's all good, and then Satan is released for a little while to trick a few, and then it's all over for Earth as we know her."

"Well, that's partly right" said Robert, "You see, lots of Christians read bout ruling with Christ, but I wonder if they have ever thought about who will reign, and over whom? And why?
"In Heaven, God reigns, so it's very clear. Why would a human reign, when God could? It's not about ego, or God forgetting, or anything most people have thought about. You know that Jesus accomplished Salvation for everyone, right?"

"Of course" I answered immediately.

"And you know that everyone must accept Christ to be saved, right?" asked Robert.

"Yes, but -" I said

"But what?" asked Robert

"That messes with my head" I said. "First I hear how everybody is saved by Christ, now I hear how you have to accept Him. I heard all my life how that made Him sound petty, and I think I understand. I mean, what about the people who grew up before Christ? What about the people who grew up in a part of the world where Christianity is suppressed? What about the people who only knew the false Christ taught by liars and money-hungry false prophets?"

Robert smiled again, and shook his head. "Dan, you know God is good, don't you? That He is just, that He has a plan for each and every one of us, do you know that?"

He paused as I just nodded.

"Fine. So you also know, He has provided the way for everyone who will take it. And part of that is the Millenium. The chance to see God as He is, to know Christians without fakery or false illusions, like pride or greed or lust to foul the picture.

"Everyone will be able to choose mercy or justice, as they will."

Chapter Three: Decisions

“But what about the non-Christians?” I pressed. “How can a Muslim or a Sikh, or a Pagan or a Hindu properly choose after a lifetime of the world they knew?”

Robert laughed.

“Look, Dan.” he said. “All the people you saw so far, have you seen any who was Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, or Pagan, or Sikh?
“Everyone will be judged properly. Do you think God is a trickster, that He would allow Satan to take away His loved ones? I mean, even the animals will be judged according to the plan He has for them.”

“So every road leads to God, after all?” I asked. “Or are you saying that we will all be segregated? Hey, I have friends who aren’t Christian, you know!”

“No, Dan, not every road leads to God, and they all have to go through Jesus Christ.

“But when you see them again, and you will, understanding will also be there for you to find.”

Robert smiled and waved me to follow. I muttered to myself as we set out, “Suuuure, real plain and straight!”

But I watched the Earth as we walked, and I began to notice a shiny lump on it, and I added it to my long list of things to ask about.But for now, we were getting closer to Hell, or Milwaukee. I could tell by the smell.

I wanted to know more about what Robert meant about being judged “properly”, so I asked

“Robert, you still haven’t explained how it’s just for people who never knew Christ, to be judged by Him”

“Well, Dan” answered Robert, ”What do you think Judgment is for?
“God doesn’t need anything to be holy and pure, right? And He is not hurt or diminished by even all the evils ever done by any one and everyone everywhere, for all time. So, the consequences, the rewards, the wages, if you will, all happen because He chooses to make them so.
“And since God is good and loving, He does all this for our benefit. He made us because He loves us, we live our first life on earth, so we can learn before we commit to eternity, He sent His own Son to live among us, to teach us, even to die on our behalf, and then to rise again for our hope and solace.
“So each of us lives in the life granted by God, and we grow as we will, choosing this or that for our values and works. Even the Hindu meets and acts in relation to someone who was Christian or like Christ. Even the Muslim who is taught the Bible is twisted away from Allah, learns right and wrong, and decides what pleases his heart. Even the name is varied. You know, Jesus never said a word of English, nor Latin, so much we attribute to Him, even where it is true, is not true insofar as we have changed the language, and sometimes meaning is lost in that translation.
“So it is, that people who do not believe in the Christ pronounced by a denomination, or the Annoying Screaming Preacher Network, yet have the opportunity to know Him, and to have Him in their lives, as they choose.
“Everything we do, say, and think counts, you know. And the good all counts to reward and growth. None of it is lost. A lot of people do good all the time, and never think twice about all the treasure they could be storing up.”

“That all sounds great” I said, “but if it was that wonderful, why did Jesus say that some have received their reward in full, and why is anyone in Hell?”

Robert stopped and shook his head.

“Dan, you know how 401k’s worked? You put your money in, and as you saved it built up. But if someone takes out the money they put in, it’s gone, OK? The principal is gone because you used it, and you can’t grow interest where there is nothing to build from.“It’s the same thing here, but much more important. If someone does a good deed, then brags about it, he’s getting his good right back so he can enjoy it, right? So, he good he did is consumed by his desire to please himself, and so he has already received his reward.
“As for Hell, that’s a sad thing, but we can’t make people choose well or against their heart.”

“That sounds awfully pat for eternal damnation” I retorted.

“Aha.” Said Robert “The light dawns.“You think everybody sent to Hell is there forever, huh?”

I answered him with Scripture:“Matthew 25:46 – ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life”

Robert smiled“Are you worried, Dan?

“OK, how about this: Isaiah 25:8 “He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces”

“Sound like God’s confused, or maybe we can talk about it?”

I shrugged, and we plodded on.

I looked over at Robert in some annoyance.

“What, now you’re a psychologist? I’m sure you don’t mean God got confused!” I said.

Robert grinned.

“OK, Dan” answered Robert, ”You know the Bible pretty well. Let’s review about punishment, since we’re headed that way.“You’re right about that line saying ‘eternal punishment’, but that doesn’t mean ‘torture’, necessarily. If your daughter acted up when she was little, what did you do?”

“Usually, she got a ‘time-out’ or no dessert” I answered.

Robert nodded.

“Right. And that was punishment for misbehaving, and intended to teach her a lesson, right?”

“OK” I interrupted, “but I didn’t give her ‘time-out’ for forever. What’s the lesson in “eternal” punishment? You know, that was a real problem for a lot of people I knew, the idea that a limited sin, even a mistake, could result in being punished forever.”

“Ixnay” said Robert.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“I mean think about it, and don’t forget we have to take some things on faith, Dan” answered Robert.

”In the first place, God is good and just, and He’s not going to send anybody to eternal punishment just for an honest error. But there’s more. I can’t tell you why a thing may merit a permanent punishment, although I would guess it’s because some folks just can’t bring themselves to let go of their sin. Remember those guys you and Beth saw, chasing those women?”

Startled, I just nodded.

“Think about their problems, now. They lusted so much and so deeply, they can’t stop, even when the physical tools are gone, even when there is no satisfaction for them, no matter what they try.” said Robert.

“These poor souls are just like the rich people who can’t get over the fact that no one uses money here, or the politicians who are just now beginning to see that they have no power over any other person. If you can’t make yourself let go of the old wicked ways, you can’t begin to get ready for the greater life.”

I nodded and laughed.

“And it gets you chased by a pack of big, angry hounds, too” I said.

We paused, and I pointed out the shiny bump on Earth. “By the way, Robert” I asked, “What is that?”

Robert smiled and said ”New digs, my friend. The shiny part is New Jerusalem, about 1400 miles across if I remember, with walls and streets of gold”

“So who’s building it?” I asked.

”Angels” replied Robert.

”did you see all the blurry traffic? Gabriel is waaaaay busy, these days.”

“Huh” I replied, a snappier answer refusing to present itself.

“OK, I think I understand more about punishment, Robert” I said after some time. “We get what we deserve, huh?”“Maybe” answered Robert. ”Remember Mercy, always remember Mercy. If we don’t get Mercy, we get Justice, but God said ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.’

“And to answer your earlier question about non-Christians, it’s kind of like pulling over a car and finding a child at the wheel. You don’t ignore what he did, but you don’t forget it’s a kid, not an adult who has taken the test and knows the law.
“Christians enjoy a special relationship with God, through Jesus Christ. But the Christian can’t keep sinning, or they haven’t really accepted Christ at all.
“And as you may have noticed, we have work to do here as well. If you accept the place with Christ, you accept his will and command as well.”

“So anyone who isn’t Christian is like a little child?” I asked.Robert smiled.“We all are, if we’re going to enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

“I’m confused again” I admitted. “It sounds like there’s no difference in being a Christian or not, after all.”

“Oh, there is!” Robert assured me.

We reached a place where rocks were arranged, almost like a sofa, so we sat.“You see, Dan” said Robert, ”we were all made for a purpose, and God knew early on how we would respond to His will. So He knew the choices we would make, and he planned His work around them, so that everything would work out to accomplish good.
“That has several effects. One is, even if we succeed brilliantly in what we do, it’s only because it suited God to favor us; we have no business getting a big head, because we didn’t deserve the success. On the other hand, if we fail, it was never going to work anyway, since it lacked His approval.”

I frowned and asked “So, why even try?”

“Exactly!” cried Robert. ”What matters is we try. We cannot change God’s will, and we cannot hope to control the course of His work, but we do decide our own course, and how we try, and what we do within our own hearts, is allowed us by God. “God judges us by our choices in such conditions, whether we enjoy good times or suffer bad, whether we have advantage of position or are dispossessed.
“Ultimately, there is a range of choices and decisions we make, and the end result of them determines our reconciliation with God. He is Sovereign, yet we enjoy free will.”

“So how” I asked “does all this work into the Christian/non-Christian thing? There are some people who say you must accept Jesus Christ, or you go to hell. Others say we all go to Heaven, there is no hell. Still others… well, you get the idea. What’s the story?”

“Christ came to save the whole world” said Robert. ”He brought forgiveness for all sins, save one, by His death in our place on the cross. Heaven is real, and so is Hell. Frankly, what gets lost in all of this, is that the Gospel is “Good News”, precisely because it not only saves us from Hell if we will have it, it gives us the “abundant life” of living in love and freedom from the old hard ways of laws and penalties. Most of all, it makes any good thing possible for us, if we willl have it.
“Now, you know that after His resurrection, Jesus ascended into Heaven to stand by God the Father. The reason He didn’t start His kingdom right away, is the same reason He sent disciples out to preach the Gospel while He was still among us:
“We are meant to be involved in God’s work. And the role for Christians is, we lead the way for others to follow. If we do it right, we receive all manner of reward, not the kind men know, like money or rank, but we are given authority by God according to the fruit we bear.“Everyone gets that choice, no matter where they come from. And anyone who thinks, for example, that more Christians will come from “Christian” nations, well, they don’t see how it balances out. America, for instance, allows freer worship by Christians than, say, Iran, but you also have a lot more distractions, like churches which call themselves “Christian”, but love money, or all sorts of sinful temptations. In the end, the decision is made against similar, if not exactly the same, difficulties and obstacles.”

I thought about that.

“So, are you saying the Christians get better rewards than the non-Christians?” I asked.

Robert chuckled.“Depends on what you call ‘better’ “ he answered. ”Christians are part of the family of God, and like the older son in the parable of the Prodigal Son, some aren’t real happy to see who will be forgiven, after all their deeds are known.

“And like the Centurion, some people will be surprises to everyone but Christ.”

“By the way, Robert” I asked, having thought of a question nagging at me, “Beth told me I would see Mikki later, but not now. How come?”

Robert smiled.

“Don’t worry, Dan” he said, ”You’ll see her when it’s time, but this is not the place.“Don’t you see how barren it is here?” Robert said, waving his arm around so I would notice the dirt and rocks, the utter absence of plants or people around us.
“After all, you don’t see Bruce with me right now, do you?”

“I meant to ask you” I said, “He “made it” too, huh?”

“Yep” answered Robert, ”and his assignment now is tougher than mine.

“He’s talking things over with our old boss, Mr. Willden.”

“The guy who wanted me to fire you for wearing a pink suit?” I laughed.

“The same” laughed Robert. “I know now, though, that he was under a lot of pressure from the Head Office.”

“Still…” I said.

“Yeah, he did yell a lot” admitted Robert.

”Later, I’ll see how that went, and maybe I can fill you in later.”

We must have been getting closer. I could now make out the distinct smells of sweat, urine, beer, and sulfur as we proceeded through the renewed mist.

As we got closer, and the stench of Hell was joined by the ugly apparition of the place, as if a city had been made of a landfill, then drenched with sewage and defecation, with all semblance of artiface and beauty stripped from it, so that one could look anywhere and see the same dismal view. Every sense recoiled from the place. As we grew near to the great city of filth, I saw movement amongst the debris, and realized the place was teeming with vermin and insects.We stopped and gaped. Well, I gaped. Robert produced a sack from somewhere, and removed two sets of rubber-like overalls, and bandanna-like masks to cover our mouths and noses.“Whew! Yeah, we’ll need waders!”A funny think happened, then. Both sets of ‘waders’ and their masks, were a nondescript grey, but when Robert stepped into his and pulled them up, they became the same crisp, clean white that his suit was, although his waders also sported a silver trim along the seams. I checked my waders. Still drab and grey. I shrugged and followed Robert into the mire.As we entered the ring of mud and trash which surrounded Hell, I noticed a sudden increase in the volume of shouts, cries, a funny grinding noise, and shrieks of pain. I looked around for little guys with pitchforks, or big guys with cloven hooves, but so far it was just me and Robert. While I could smell sulfur, it didn’t seem to be connected with anything like burning. In fact, so far the place seemed cold, dank, sullen.

“This, uh, doesn’t seem like the stories make it out” I commented.

“No” answered Robert, ”but it’s as depressing and ugly as I expected.”The ground sloped downward as we walked further, and the sky seemed to darken.Up ahead, we saw our first denizen of Hell, a small (very small, actually) man covered in mud and filth. He seemed to be stuck up to his shins in the muck, and we was waving frantically at us.

“Hello! Hello! Come here!” he cried.

“How can we help you, friend?” asked Robert, as we stepped carefully through the mire.“Help me get to where I belong” replied the man. As we came closer, I could see that his clothes, before they had become so soiled, had been of fine quality and high price. His glasses, still stuck in a chest pocket of his suit jacket, were gold-rimmed and obviously custom-made. His high forehead suggested an intellectual lean, and suddenly I recognized him.

“Bishop Dake!” I cried

“Ah. It’s good to be recognized” responded the Bishop, as Robert and I reached down to pull him up form his muddy hole. Then I remembered something else about Bishop Dake: Despite a large, urban, progressive ministry, Bishop Dakes had no tolerance for gays. I remembered an old newspaper photo, which showed Dakes yelling at the partner of a murdered gay man, during the funeral, no less. I looked over at Robert, but his quick nod told me he knew who this was, but was going to help anyway. But pulling Dakes out of his hole was harder than we thought

“Sir, you seem to be stuck on something” observed Robert. ”Are there any branches or obstructions below the surface?”

Dakes shook his head. “No, I don’t know of any”

So we pulled harder, and very slowly, Dakes began to come up.As he did, I suddenly realized that one of Dakes’ arms had been down in the mud. Robert had been pulling on his shoulder, while I had his other arm. As we raised Dakes further, we saw why.Very slowly, as we raised the minister, we saw a small reptile, like a gecko, clinging to Dakes’ arm. Another, still below the mud, also held his hand. As the first one’s head cleared the mud, it peered at us with bright red eyes (OK, now it didn’t look like a gecko anymore!), and it scurried up Dakes’ arm, and quickly whispered something into his ear. Dakes looked at me, then Robert, and went pale, then red with anger

"Unhand me!” he demanded, and he shook his arm loose from me. I heard a chuckle from one of the lizards still under the mud.

“I thought you wanted out” I said.

“Not to be with men like you two” retorted Dakes. Robert rolled his eyes behind Dakes, and grinned at me, like ‘I’ve-heard-this-before’, but he didn’t let go, as Dakes wrestled from below.

“But you’re stuck in a mudhole in Hell” I replied. “Don’t you want to get out?”

“Monsters!” boomed Dakes, “I know what you are. You think you can take me where you want, so you two can do what you want, make me just like you. Well, I’m a man, not a freak!
“Let me go!”

“OK, sir” said Robert, and he let Dakes go – - plop –back into the mud. The little lizards or whatever chucked as the man sank back into his hole. There sure sounded like Dakes had a lot of them in there with him.

“You do know where you are, right?” I asked Dakes.

“You go to hell” rebutted the minister, which told me enough.Robert and I trudged on, down, and further into the dark.

We stomped along in the dismal pallor of Hell, and I watched with fascination, as the muck from the mudhole simply began to disappear from Robert. I glanced down, and saw that my muck was still there. Well, at least the mask was good for keeping out the smell.

“Is everybody we meet down here going to be that much fun?” I asked Robert.“Oh yeah, remember how some people say all the really interesting people are all down here.”Robert stopped suddenly, and laughed loudly for a few seconds.

“Private joke?” I asked.

”I’m sorry.” said Robert. ”But I just remembered how my first girlfriend told me she just knew, that on Judgment Day I’d go to Hell. I bet she didn’t mean it this way, is all.”

I laughed at that, too.

Ahead in the distance, we saw three men arguing. They appeared to be quite agitated about something. Given the difficulty we’d had with a man pinned by mud, I wondered how we would handle these fellows, if we couldn’t reason with them.As we came closer, I realized that the three men were each being assailed by tiny insects. But somehow, the men couldn’t see the insects, and were blaming each other for the bites and cuts they suffered, adding blows and insults to the damage. I also realized, as we came closer, that the men were so beaten and injured by their blows, that they could not hurt us much, though they could suffer. In any case, like Dakes, they also were smaller than I expected, as if they had shrunk when they arrived in Hell. Robert stepped forward, swatting away insects and calling for the men to

”Stop! You don’t need to do this.”The first man, bleeding from a hundred cuts and bites, turned to Robert and yelled

“As if you knew anything!“This one” – he pointed at the man to his left, who obligingly tried to bite his finger and snarled at us when he missed – “has tormented me for years, and now I finally have forced him to stand and take it, he brings his friend here-”

“Friend!” interrupted the second man, who appeared to have broken or bruised most, if not all, of his bones, “I don’t even know this guy. You two set on me like a pair of muggers-“

“Muggers!” yelled the third, whose body seemed to have been burned by a thousand tiny hot needles in every place, “First old wheezer here stalks me like his whole world revolves on doin’ me in. Now you think that just because you show up, you’re the show?!?”

“Gentlemen” began Robert, ”I think my friend and I can help you resolve all this, and-“

The three men interrupted Robert with cackling laughs. “Oh yeah, biiiiiiig guys gonna help us out, huh?”
“What if we tell you to go beat it, huh? Think we can’t take you two?”
“Hey, nobody asked you, alright”

“I don’t think you understand, guys.” I said. “You don’t see everything that’s going-“

The men started in on their cackling laugh and taunts again, as Robert and I realized that they were enjoying their feuds, and didn’t want our help.“Is this whole place going to be like this?” I asked Robert, as we moved on. Robert shrugged.“I hope not, but I don’t know.”

As we walked along, the light got dimmer, the ground more slippery, and the smell even stronger. Robert seemed to be having about as much fun as I was, although his immaculate appearance kept him easy to follow.

“Tell me again why we’re here?” I asked Robert.

“Well, you wanted to know how a person could end up in Hell.” replied Robert, “Getting any good lessons?”“I guess” I said. “Hey, I just realized everyone I’ve met so far has been American, whether saint, or, uh, these guys. Why is that?”

Robert shrugged.“I’m not controlling it, so I don’t know. But I guess it’s a communication thing; you see what you can recognize, you meet people you can talk with.
“We’re here to help you, you know.”

I stopped, looked at Robert for a few seconds, then started again towards a group of boys I saw sitting in the mud.

As we approached the boys, a few foul-smelling drops of warm liquid fell on my shoulders, and I pulled my hood up just before a shower of vile something began to fall, making the ground even slicker, and the smell worse than before. For some reason, the five boys just sat in the mire, getting wet with what I now realized was a rain of something like vomit and urine mixed together. I was careful not to look up; I wasn’t sure what was delivering the ‘rain’.The boys, as we reached them, turned out to be much older, full-grown men, but they were so small in size and build, that I had taken them for boys. They sat in a small pond of slimy muck, surrounded by things which swam just below the surface. I remembered the red-eyed reptiles and shuddered.

“Hello, do you need help?” I asked the men. But they just sat there, although one slowly turned his head towards me. As he did I saw an insect of some kind, like a scorpion with teeth, which was chewing on his face just below his eye. I tried not to stare.Robert looked pale.

“Does that hurt?” he asked the man.

“Yeah” responded the man.

“Would you like me to remove the thing?” asked Robert.

”Naah. S’Okay.” Replied the man. “It just comes back anyway.”

I was amazed at the apathy of these men.“Do you need help?” I asked one of them.“No” he said, without moving a muscle.

“I’m good.”

“Don’t you want to get up?” I asked. “You could leave her for a better place”

“Naah” two others replied. “Why bother?”

Robert and I looked at the men, then each other, and we left them to their inanimate rest.We walked for a while with nothing to say. Then Robert stopped, and said“I think I know what that was all about. But let’s wait until we see the next group.”

Puzzled, smeared with mire and stench, we pressed on.


Chapter Four: Walking

I became a little confused as we made our way ahead and down. I had gotten used to the growing darkness and stench, but as we headed towards the next group, there seemed to be a brassy glow ahead, and the smell changed, though not for the better. Now, we became unpleasantly aware of more human odors, sweat and excrement. I wondered if Robert was as sensitive to the smell as I was, but when I saw him uncomfortably adjust his mask, I realized, with some comfort, that he was also aware of the change in olfactory presence.I was getting used to “little” people in hell, so I was not surprised to see that the children I expected, were in fact small adults. But I was surprised by what they were doing.The group of seven were haggling over piles of feces and pools of urine, bargaining loudly over how much their pile was “worth”. I stopped and my jaw dropped.One among the group turned, saw us, and chuckled.

“Yeah, pretty impressive, isn’t it?” he asked. “Took me awhile to put it together, but there it is.”I just turned and looked at Robert, who shrugged.

“Uhhhh, mister” I began, “you do know you’re building a pile of crap, don’t you?”

“Yes indeed, you catch on quick” remarked the man. “Or do you?”

“You see” said the man, “We here were all very prominent financial experts, so we got together to see what we could make of the place.
“We’ve laid claim to a hundred acres around here, and of course, we needed a currency reserve, so we thought to ourselves, ‘what can we produce, that will do the job?’, and here we are.”

Robert grimaced.“Nobody wants to buy feces!” he cried.

The man grinned.

“Not now, sure” he said, “but later, when folks realize that’s all there is here, and when they realize that we’ve laid claim to the property, they’ll do business with us.
“Besides, we found a use –“ the man winked - “for the stuff, as well”

“But if you already have a pile of crap, what will you be selling, and what will you be buying?” I asked.

“Services, for now” said the man. “Then we’ll see.

“Hey, there’s still time to get in, on the ground floor, if you have the vision to see a great chance” offered the man.Somehow, the opportunity to build a financial empire from feces and urine didn’t excite me, so Robert and I just shook our heads and moved on.

The light went away again as we left the west bankers behind, but so did the smell, so it was a trade-off. But the further we went, the harder it was to see where we were headed ahead, and I was very glad to have Robert nearby.

Naturallly, that’s when he surprised me with bad news:

“Dan, I have to leave now” he said, “Another is coming to lead you where you are going.” I was able to discern a murky movement – away .

“Wait! Robert! Don’t leave me here!”“Don’t worry, it will be all right” called back Robert, and then somehow, I knew he was gone.I was getting real tired of hearing how everything was going to be all right. I also realized that if I didn’t get some help, I had no idea how to get out of hell. For just a moment, panic seized me and danced over me, as I wondered if God might have decided to just let me sit where I was. After all, hadn’t I chosen to go to hell? The irony of my own words coming back to condemn me was chilling.

Sitting in the dark alone, with cold wet winds of urine raining down on you, is depressing enough by itself, but to be abandoned by your friend, with no way home, and the uncomfortable feeling that you belonged in your misery, was almost beyond bearing.But after a long time of sitting in the fetid mud of waste and my self-pity, I decided I had to move on. The dark had grown, and I was not entirely certain which way I was going, although I wasn’t sure it mattered, either. I stumbled ahead, reasonably sure I was continuing as I had before, and aware that the ground continued to descend, a fact which I like not at all just now.After a while, my eyes began to adjust to the dark, enough to make out murky shapes in the dank and dreary domain. I thought I could make out some movement, and maybe just a bit more light off to my left, so I made my way in that direction. Partly from habit, I muttered a short prayer, asking God to watch over me and protect me from harm. I could have sworn I heard a quiet chuckle off in the distance when I concluded with “In Jesus’ name, Amen”. I stopped, and listened for a few seconds, but there was nothing more.As I walked, I heard what sounded very much like a party! This was different enough, that I decided I should check it out. At that moment I felt a breeze in my ear, like someone had blown in it, but there was no one there. I shivered for a moment, then moved ahead.I was sure that I had heard people’s voices, and as I approached I saw forms like humans and their shadows, but as I entered a cave and left the rain of stench and feces behind, I could not find the guests.As I moved about the cave, I felt hands caress me in private places, and quick snatches of words I could almost, but not quite, understand. A vague unease crept over me, and I decided there was something very wrong about this place, and my best course would be to leave. At that moment, as I stepped towards the mouth of the cave, I felt my feet yanked out from beneath me, and I hit the floor of the cave, face-first, and was stunned by the blow.The foul smell of some kind of animal filled my nose, and those unseen hands began to pull away at my clothes, as those voices spoke again, and tried to soothe me into compliance. In a panic and sure things were getting seriously bad, I resisted the hands, but was slowly losing the fight.From the back of the cave, I became aware of a man. He was naked, and realizing his intent I was glad from my memory of the plains before Heaven’s Gate, that his equipment was no longer there. But this fellow had put something in its place, somehow grafting something where his genitals used to be, and his intent filled me with horror. As he grew closer, the hands tightened their grip upon me, and I realized I could not escape. I also realized that the dark thing at his crotch was alive, and as he approached, it chuckled and showed me sharp teeth.I recoiled in horror, or tried to, as the man and that thing laughed...

A Word was spoken.

I don’t know how else to describe it. A simple word was heard in that place, which I cannot repeat now, and with it a bright flash of light filled the room. There was no force like heat or an explosion, yet everyone fell to the floor.I was not stunned like the others, although the light was hard to bear. Looking away from its source, I saw that the forms which had held me could now be seen, shadowlike but visible now, and they trembled in terror. I felt pity for them for just an instant, then I remembered what they had been trying to do, and I stepped away from them quickly.

The bright one spoke to me, and I knew her voice:“Dan, are you OK?”

It was my sister, Jean, although taller and stronger than I had ever seen her, and she shone like a potassium flare, though with a beauty and power no mortal creation could match. As the light faded or my eyes adjusted, I could now see that she was dressed mainly in white, in something like a bio-suit (appropriate to our location), but with green trim and in her fashion from years before, decorated to look like a Hereford cow. I chuckled in spite of myself.

“You don’t know how happy I am to see you, sister” I said, and we hugged.

Jean grinned at me. “This your idea of a party?” she asked, ”These your buddies?”

“Not hardly” I answered, “Let’s go”

And we moved on, although I was depressed to see we were still descending

Is this trip really necessary?” I muttered to myself, as we walked, but Jean overheard me.

“Yes, of course” she answered, ”and I’m gonna be nice, and not ask what you were up to with your buddies, there.”

“Oh, come on!” I shouted “I’m glad you broke in there and stopped it, but that’s not even funny!”

Jean grinned. "I thought it was pretty funny” she said. ”Besides, didn’t you read the sign?” , pointing to a small wooden sign I didn’t recall seeing before.

I hunched down and peered at it. I recognized the letter style, but not the words.“It’s Greek to me” I said.

Jean laughed.“Not knowing your classic languages has always gotten you into trouble, Dan.”

I muttered my response, but made sure it was sotto voce, to prevent further rejoinder.

As we made our way, the ground seemed to become a little more level, and it was dry in places, but as the smell changed again, becoming worse if not stronger, I saw Jean stop for a moment, look around, then point to a pass between two ranges of mud range.“This way”I followed. She seemed to know what she was doing, and since she was still glowing somewhat, it was easy to follow her, and I was afraid of the dark now, for good reason. Looking back, I could also tell that things were following us, to what purpose and consequence I did not know.

The right mud range moved, and I expected a mudslide, so I wasn’t surprised when Jean yelled “Run!”In the twilight murk of this netherworld, something rose up where I had thought a hillside lay, and I realized it was a man. A grotesquely fat man, not unusually tall, but so wide in girth, that his belly had spilled out onto the ground, covering nearly a quarter-acre of ground. In its middle, the man waded through his own skin and fat, dragging the greater portion of his own body behind him.As I regarded this grotesque spectacle, I suddenly realized he was not alone, and we were being approached on all sides by similar creatures.I ran again, hoping that we would make it.As we ran, I wondered at this strange chase. None of the creatures was moving with any speed, and I was sure if it were a few, we would easily lose them.But there were so many of them, and their size made it easy for them to block escape by simply getting into our way, that I began to worry.

We caught a break, however, when the things which had been chasing us came into view.Scurrying little reptiles and insects, I found them repulsive, but the sluglike dwellers of this place quickly fell on them and began to scoop them whole into their massive mouths, which seemed far too large for any human face.But we were able to escape from them by this diversion, and found ourselves quickly in the dismal but familiar piss rain and feces shower.

Jean grinned at me.“Having fun yet, Dan?”

I had the bizarre feeling she was enjoying all of this.

In spite of Jean’s glowing appearance, the world around us remained dark and dreary, and the contracts was making it hard for me to see what was out there. I wasn’t curious, but I also worried that not knowing would invite unpleasant surprises. Jean, however, continued to enjoy the jaunt, fairly jogging through the slop as we progressed.

“C’mon, Dan” she called out from ahead of me, ”only one more stop we have to make on this level.”

‘On this level?’ I thought to myself. I really didn’t like making this venture any longer than it had to be, and I really didn’t like the idea of other levels. Somehow, I knew the other ones would be in the wrong direction. Jean caught my mood, and grinned again.

“Don’t worry, Dan” she said, ”I’ll make sure you’re okay.”

Since my sister was now eight feet tall, and looked like she could take out Arnold on his best day, I didn’t argue. I did envy her spotless suit, while mine – let’s just say I wanted to find a hose. Soon.

“Just so I don’t have to repeat this lesson later” I said, “how about clueing me on what I’m supposed to be learning?”

“OK” said Jean, ”Just remember, it’s supposed to be you learning, not you cribbing off my observations, alright?”

I nodded, and she explained.“So far here in HappyLand, we have seen people in a variety of situations, all Americans so far, since that’s our cultural reference. Have you noticed what they have in common?”“Their fashion sense, their common appreciation of freedom from any need for hygiene?” I suggested.

“No points, especially for that kind of humor” Jean answered, ”Seriously, what did you notice?”

I stopped and pondered.“Well, they aren’t exactly happy” I said, “but the people here aren’t really being tormented, like I’d expect.”

“Partly, that’s because they just started” said Jean, ”And it will get much worse later, especially when this rain stops, and the fire starts.”

The way she said “fire” made me shiver, and it had nothing to being cold. I had not thought that this rain of urine and crap could be considered a good thing, but I realized that it might be holding off something very ugly.

“OK, what else?” prodded Jean.“Well, everybody here seems to be short” I commented.

Jean nodded.”Yes, they are diminished by their sin. Some further on are so weighed down, you have to watch your step, so you don’t step on any of them”

“So, by your logic” I quipped, “Lilliput was a very evil place!”

“Ha ha.” deadpanned Jean. "Just remember, Dan, a judgmental attitude stunts your growth”

And with that, we both fell silent for a time, as we trudged into the murk and mire.

It’s a very strange thing, to walk in a place where all around you people are suffering, but you are not, and to not be able to identify with them the way you normally would in the human world. I wondered about why I wasn’t more moved, as we passed people rooted in their own indifference, apathy, hate, lust, envy, gluttony, and every other wrong but human deficiency, and I stopped, wondering how I could not feel the compassion I believed I should in such a case.Spying one fellow off by himself, and seeming particularly more miserable than the rest, I decided I was going to try. Behind me, I heard Jean call out to me:“Dan! Where are you going? It’s this way!”

“I’m going to help, if I can” I replied, “Come with me or not, as you want.”

Like everyone else here, the man appeared smaller than normal, and I could see him shiver in the cold rain. I approached the man, and put my arm around his shoulders to shield him somewhat from the rain. Surprised, the man rounded on me and shoved me away.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“Sorry, just trying to help” I answered. “You looked cold and tired, that’s all”

The man sneered at me.“Ohhhh, I’m not strong like you, I’m not able to take care of myself, is that it?” he demanded. Before I could answer, he continued;“I can do very well, thank you. It’s people like you that have always been such a pain!
“You think you have all the answers, you have all the ideas, and folks like me should just do what you say, eh?”

“Actually, no, nothing like that” I said. Then an idea hit me. ”But I think I know how we can leave this place.” In that moment, I realized that I could leave, and so could this guy, if he would come with me. But I could see in his face, that instead of hope, he had found rage.

“Nothing like that?” he asked. “Then you tell me to come with you, if I want to get out. Yeah, right!”

“Really, I can help” I said, but the man had turned his back on me, and as he did, I saw him sink a foot or so into the mire. I suddenly realized, that things for this guy were going to get worse if he didn’t move.

“You really need to leave here” I said, but the man became very angry.

“Maybe I like it here, OK?” he demanded. “Maybe you can just go off and -“and the man named several unpleasant acts most people would find offensive.

Jean came up on us then.

“Who’s the glowstick?” asked the man.

“My sister” I replied. “If you won’t listen to me, maybe she-“The man cut me off with an expletive, involving placement of a lightbulb into an orifice, and I finally gave up.As Jean and I walked away, the man continued with a torrent of words and insults. Jean looked at me, and seemed to read my thoughts, as she answered.

“Dan, no one is here unjustly, even the ones who think so. Does that help?”

“But why don’t I feel compassion for them?” I asked. “There’s something wrong in that”

Jean shook her head.”No, Dan, there’s nothing wrong with you in that.” she said. ”If you could have done any good, you would have known before you tried. But these have rejected hope, some just for now, some forever. Unless they turn, you cannot make them.”

We walked on, and the dark grew deeper.

As we walked, I wondered what lay ahead. It seemed a useless effort indeed, to come to a place where you could do no good, to see people suffering. Some by their own choice, some in denial of their own pain, others in denial of their chance for relief and healing. I shook my head.Jean turned to me, and we stopped.

“Dan, in a little bit, I’m going to have to go, but not before your next guide arrives.” she said. ”I want you to understand, you’re going to come back here, but not before you are better-equipped. For now, I want you to remember what you saw here, and think about what purpose may be served, even yet.”

As she turned and I followed her, my thought just then, was that Jean had never been so firm and authoritive before, when we had been siblings in the old world. I also wondered just how dark and messy this place was going to be. Certainly, this place had no landmarks or architecture to see where you were. I wondered, idly, if GPS would do any good here.In the distance, I saw a glow, but remembering the last glow I had followed, I waited until Jean started that way, and I wondered what lay ahead. To my surprise and pleasure, the ground gradually became firmer, drier, and little by little, the smell receded, until I realized that I stank more than my surroundings.

Given everything I had encountered up to that point, this made me suspicious as all get-out.We were approaching a shining figure in the distance, a really big guy. I realized this was another being sent from Heaven, but bigger and brighter than anyone I had seen so far. Maybe ten feet tall! I began to wonder if Heaven was into Basketball, and where the nets might be placed.As we approached, the light became so bright, it hurt my eyes, and I couldn’t look at the shining being directly. I averted my eyes, and noticed that his feet seemed to be floating motionless about a couple inches from the ground.

Jean ran up to the being and hugged him. As they did, I saw his wings for the first time.“He’s an angel!” I exclaimed.

Jean laughed.“Yes! I’m glad you two can meet. Daniel, say hello to-" A Word was spoken, and I fell face-first into the muck from the force of it.

The Angel picked me up, and I trembled.“Do not be afraid” he instructed. ”For here, you may call me Asena. It won’t set off any after-effects like my true name.“I will be your guide for the next stage. I hope you will enjoy this next part, but please tell me if you become weak, and I shall minister to you.”

I suddenly realized the angel had strengthened me when he picked me up.Asena turned to Jean.“Cherished friend, the Master also sent me to tell you the City needs your skill and attention”Jean nodded, smiled at me.“Bye Dan, be good.”

She blinked and disappeared, and I had visions, just for a moment, of an old television show.

Asena looked down at me, covered in filth and grime as I was, and smiled.

“Daniel, are you ready to meet the Master?” he asked.