The pulpit never hid Longinus well enough for his liking. The crowd of churchgoers — finally, a crowd of Episcopalians, would wonders never cease, and in Argentina for God’s sake! — seemed less a mass of humans than a lump of flesh with a thousand eyes watching him, their arms and legs knotted together in the manner of a rat king. Did it seem that there were too many eyes, too many mouths, too many of every limb for the head count?
He suppressed a shudder and instead launched into his sermon on the grace of God in difficult times. Always a lovely sermon and given the looming war with the States, he felt that the people might have needed it.
“Grace is undeserved,” Longinus said, “and yet it is so necessary for us to function. What is a human without the grace of Jesus? What are hard times without the touch of His presence?” From there he brought up again the parable of a man who builds his house on shifting sand. “Faith in God’s grace will preserve us when the flood comes.”
And then Longinus spotted him, hiding in the crowd. The other eyes and mouths were open and receptive, vacant for the coming of God’s word. Yet his eyes were red, full of tears, and his mouth pinched tight like a petulant child. But this wasn’t a petulant child, at least, not in the time Longinus had known him.
This was Gabe, sitting for the first time ever in one of Longinus’ pew. A broken man. Torn apart by wolves, it seemed to Longinus. Beset on all sides.
Already submerged in the flood, his house of sand dashed away.
The service ended in the usual way with a benediction, a long line of faithful asking for advice and prayer in their lives, or perhaps just sharing gossip that Longinus offered a smile over, but Gabe lingered in the pew. Even after all the parishioners had left, Gabe remained alone.
Normally, Longinus would have felt fine approaching him. But something in Gabe’s expression terrified him, something in the man’s countenance that spoke of a fury on tight leash. How he reminded Longinus of Julian! That was the face a man wore while his legacy swallowed him alive. Longinus, who previously had done nothing but watch while his brother whirled further and further down, needed to intervene this time. This time he would not let it happen.
“Lovely sermon,” Gabe said as Longinus sat next to him. He choked the words out, but through anger or sorrow Longinus couldn’t tell. Likely both, likely the boy never felt sadness without some rage to accompany it. The emotion sounded familiar in Gabe’s voice.
“Yes, well, it’s one of my favorites.”
“Do you really believe it?”
Longinus, taken aback, scoffed at the mere suggestion. “I’ve done a lot in my life, questioned many of my choices, but I’ve never questioned that.”
“Never?” Gabe’s eyes, oh God his eyes! Behind the glasses they burned and burned, a fire that would not rest.
“I mean… I can’t say never,” Longinus said, truthfully. He recalled some nights where he stayed awake and stared at his closet, worrying the lurking darkness would manifest and eat him alive. He’d often wondered why a just God would allow the Fear to exist. That maybe this universe wasn’t divinely ordained.
Sometimes that doubt was better than the alternative: that God had created the Fear. That God did not make this universe for man, for the glory of Jesus Christ, but as the feeding ground of a predator that haunted Longinus’ waking and sleeping.
“Your sermon. Difficult times.” The act of speaking just a handful of words at a time exhausted Gabe. Each sentence left him shuddering at the end. “Does God… allow that? You say the flood comes. Isn’t he in charge?”
Theodicy, age old beast. Longinus knew this line of questioning, he’d asked them himself in seminary. He’d seen so many others struggle with the weight of evil in the world. He struggled now, even behind the pulpit. What Gabe was really asking was, “Why do bad things happen to me?”
So Longinus set about answering that. Or rather, he set about letting Jesus Christ answer it, because he was not so arrogant that he thought any platitude he wove would do the trick. “Once, Jesus was was walking along and came across a blind man with his followers. The man had apparently been blind from birth. Christ’s followers asked him, ‘Who sinned that he was born blind, this man or his father?’ But Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man or his father sinned. This happened to that God’s work might be revealed through him.’”
Longinus trailed off, remembering the rest of Jesus’ statement.
I must do the work of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is approaching, when no one can work.
“So God let that man be blinded so he could have glory?” Gabe asked.
“No. Sometimes, bad things happen in this life, and it is God’s call to fix them and restore them. The glory of God is the glory of man, too, Gabe. Don’t mistake it for ego or arrogance. His glory is our healing.” Longinus stood up, the words night is approaching still echoing in his head. Gabe looked up at him and again, reminded Longinus of Julian so keenly that he was drawn into the past. To both Gabe and Julian, he said: “You did not sin. Neither did your father.”
Gabe turned his face away from Longinus to look upon the cross. “I don’t think that’s true.” He stood, too, and left without saying goodbye.
Longinus watched the boy go, dwelling on the damned words from that verse. God’s voice spoke into his soul.
Night is coming. Soon, no one will work.
VOLUME SIX: THOUGH GUILTLESS
ARC 20: THE MAN OR HIS FATHER
I am surrounded by a tidal wave of humanity. I am standing atop a building, which they crash into, rising further until they reach the lip. They threaten to drown me in their number, to make me join the bloated mass. I climb higher, onto an AC unit, and try to take off into the sky. My power leaves me there on the rooftop, with only a baseball bat to defend myself.
The wave of people reach the unity. I see faces I know in the mass: Epione, Meltdown, Maisa, Archimedes, Longinus, Mr. Gold, more and more and more, and worst of all, Ruby. Ruby fills this horde, her face screams up at me no matter what I do. “You let him take me!” her clones scream in unison. The horde chants together, one maddening voice: “You let him take us!”
This is a dream. I am not here.
I’m NOT HERE!
A claw squeezes my ankle. I panic. Swing my bat. Swing swing batter batter, swing swing. Break a face, break an arm, hell, break two. I kill a Mr. Gold, I cave in Maisa’s face. Survival at all costs. They’re Doppelganger’s, they aren’t my friends!
The lines are blurred, aren’t they? Clone, original, friend, foe. Life was much easier when I was toppling governments and fighting ancient deities. Well, not easier, but it made more sense.
Crunched faces, broken bones, burning lungs. Doesn’t make much sense anymore.
I step down into a sea of the dying and dead. Those not quite gone fumble with twitching, busted hands, blood foaming in their mouths as they squawk for help. Flashfire clutches his severed leg like a baby. Maisa groans and cries, “Gabe, Gabe.”
“Gabe,” Ruby says.
Her voice snaps me out of my stupor. It’s the real Bedevil, it has to be, it has to be my wife. This all is a nightmare, from before I met Doppelganger to now, just a cruel dream. I dig through the corpses, desperate for her to be alive.
She is only just. Her eye popped free of her socket, dangling by her ear, and her nose is crunched in. She spits blood. Accusing finger raises, points at my heart.
A beam of light from the tip of her nail cuts through my heart and the dream dissolves away in a heap of busted-mirror images, showing my life like stained glass. I lift my bat up above my head, still dripping with blood.
A hand snatches me by the scruff of my neck and lifts me up into light.
The rooftop and corpses are replaced by a small living room, a perfect replica of Epione’s McMansion game room that the Underground used to watch movies in while planning our excursions. Epione and Flashfire sit on the couch, waiting patiently in their mask costumes.
I wear my old costume as well, goggles, black ski-mask, and leather jacket. The icons of Home Run, not me, not anymore. I’ve rejected that old self, put him behind me, but Epione has conjured him up again.
“I take it this is real,” I say.
Epione nods. “You were having a bad dream.”
Flashfire leans on his arms, staring at the TV’s black screen. He is haunted by wherever Epione pulled him from. “Me too.” He turns to face me but his eyes can’t meet mine. He offers me a meager smirk.
Epione rises and walks around the room, her hands caressing the furniture, from the couches to the TV, to her collection of video games. She holds up a make-up box and smiles at it, fonder than any of the smiles she gives to people. “Just as I remember. Welcome to our first meeting, Gabe. We’ve got to discuss our game plan for the next few weeks.”
“I don’t like feeling surrounded like this,” Flashfire says with a shiver. “Why don’t we just make an announcement and deal with whoever starts screaming about their father or whatever?”
“Because we don’t know where he took our friends yet,” I say, thinking of Ruby. I can’t lose her. If she’s still alive I’ve got to do everything I can to get her back. “Once we know that—”
“We still can’t just announce this.” Epione sets her make-up box down and rejoins us at the couches, though she looks like someone tore her from nirvana. “We can’t let a bunch of clones lose into the world, Gabe. No offense to you. These aren’t… what happens if two Bedevils wander around? What happens when two Meltdowns exist? We can’t let these copies just go into the world.”
“What about me?” I ask. “These are people, the same as you and I. They’re brainwashed but we proved we can break them free of that.”
Epione lays her hand on mine, a gentle touch, but for all the gentleness I feel like she’s breaking my hand. “Gabe, if you think like that, we’ll lose.”
“We can’t just kill them.”
“No. We can’t. Not because it’s immoral but because it would cause us more problems. We need to grab them all in one fell swoop, so they can’t scatter and tell Doppelganger we’re on to him.”
I hate this. It’s against everything I stand for. Clones are people, no matter who made them or what commands are in their head. I don’t want my first option to be killing them, especially since they have no control over it. I can kill people like Nero, Carnality, and others that are aware of what they’re doing. I don’t want to do the same to these clones, not if we can give them a chance to get free. I fought so hard for Paul, so hard for Kassandra… “We can trust Kassandra.”
Epione chews on her lip. “Yes, we can. But we can’t exactly talk to her, she’s under lock and key.”
“Can you bring her into this dream? Not now, but maybe tomorrow?”
Epione nods. “I can bring anyone into this place. They can leave whenever they want.”
“You’re sure Kassandra is good?” Flashfire asks. “We’ve got no idea if we can trust her beyond the fact that you pulled that weird thing out of her Affect. Maybe she still wants to serve Doppelganger?”
“She doesn’t,” Epione says. “I watched her mind for hours with Cynic’s ring.”
“Where is the ring?” I ask.
“In my pocket…” Epione fades away, her eyes widening. She bolts upright. “Wait.”
“Wait what?” From her expression, this can’t be good.
The dream collapses the same way as the others do, my last image being that of Epione bolting upright in panic. I snap awake in my bed. My first instinct is to lean over and see if Ruby is sleeping next to me.
She isn’t. Our bed is empty.
I get up slowly, so as not to alert her if she’s in the apartment. I don’t want her to think I’m freaking out.
Our bedroom door is open, and from here I can see she isn’t in the apartment. Maisa’s door is closed. Isabelle sleeps in her little bed underneath our coffee table, but I can’t see Pawpaw, who usually sleeps wrapped around her bed like a guardian dragon.
The door of our apartment opens and closes, and not-Bedevil walks into view, Pawpaw on a leash. From our clock, it is around 5 a.m. “You’re up early.”
“Pawpaw was whining for a walk,” not-Bedevil replies, grinning at me. She’s a little out of breath. “I figured I wouldn’t get back to sleep.” She unleashes the old dog, who takes his place by Isabelle’s bed. Two of the cats, Tim and Lyle, sneak out from behind our couch but retreat when they see not-Bedevil. I bet they can tell, too.
Don’t worry, animals. I’ll get your mom back.
Not-Bedevil enters our room, stripping her running clothes off. God damn it, I wish the sight of her didn’t thrill me, that the curves and her legs didn’t make me want to take her now. I’m a hot-blooded young man, okay! And she looks… she looks just like her, and it hurts.
Please, don’t be unkind to me. This hurts too much.
Not-Bedevil joins me on the bed, kissing me passionately. She breathes into my neck. “I want you.”
“Maisa might hear us,” I say, trying to gently push her off me. Her skin, her lips, her eyes, they repulse me.
“Mmmm, she won’t, she won’t.” Not-Bedevil strokes the inside of my thigh, working her way up. “Please, I’ve been thinking about it all morning. I want you to plunge inside me. I want you to cum in me.”
Fuck. I need an out, right now. I can’t ever have sex with this woman again. I say the first thing that comes to mind, the least sexiest phrase I can think of:
“I’ve got diarrhea.”
Not-Bedevil pulls back from me, a strange look in her eyes. It’s not… disgust. It’s not anger, either. It’s a guilt of a kind. “Oh.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry, I feel awful. The whole works, runny and—”
“That’s—” Not-Bedevil interrupts me, cutting off what would have been as long a description I could manage. “…okay, baby.” She gets up, not breaking eye contact the whole way. “Do you want me to go to the store and get you something?”
A reprieve. I know I should keep my eye on her at all times, but I need her out of this apartment ASAP. “Yeah, that would be nice.”
Not-Bedevil goes to get me some medicine, which I find to be a testament to Doppelganger’s ability to recreate someone. The real Ruby would be out the door the minute she thought I might be sick, and she’d come back with three boxes of crackers, tomato soup, and tums.
God, I miss her already. I know this isn’t her.
My phone pings. I’ve got a text from Epione.
Cynic’s ring. Snapped in half.