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She’s wandered the purple landscape for days . . . she thinks. She can’t be sure because the sun never rises or sets and she never gets hungry or thirsty. She’s seen no sign of inhabitants, no roads, fences or buildings in the distant rolling hills. Not even wildlife. No twittering bird or sound of a scampering rodent. The silence is unbearable. There isn’t even a breeze to stir her hair or brace her cheeks. Nothing. She drops her gaze to the ground, which resembles a pointillist water colour of a field with flowers and grass.
Maybe she’s caved in on herself and is seeing the universe through a fractal lens, visualizing the Planck nodes of spin networks: space and time made of discrete pieces.
She feels like she’s in limbo and supposes that she is. That’s what this place is, after all, she reasons. An in-between place for those like her. She bites down on her lip and draws in a long breath. Did she make a mistake in her choice? No, she concludes. No mistake. She deserves this. Besides, the alternatives are unimaginable, she thinks, recalling the horrible scene . . . .
“Have a seat, Miss Cross,” a pleasant male voice from behind startled her and spun her around. She stood beside a long table in a spacious but ornate room that smelled of oak and lemon. She had no idea how she’d gotten here or who the fair-haired, clean-cut gentleman standing in front of her was. She’d initially thought that she was alone in the room. Tilting her head slightly, she studied his pleasant features: tangles of curly blond hair fell to his shoulders as he eyed her with kind eyes and an honest mouth. He stood dignified in a white smock, coattails and breeches, white leather boots and gold jewelry. Impeccably groomed, he looked rather like a dandy or perhaps a regal version of Mr. Clean. “How about there,” he pointed with a kind smile to one of the ornate oak chairs to her right. “That’ll do, don’t you think, Luce?”
“I told you not to call me that,” a basso voice growled behind her and she spun around again to where a rakishly handsome dark-haired man slouched, brooding, in a chair at one end of the table. This was spooky; he hadn’t been there a moment ago. His scruffy face sported a goatee and his eyes flashed with mischief. He looked unkempt in a black leather jacket over a grey t-shirt and tight jeans. He crossed a leg over his thigh and ran his long fingers through his unwashed hair, smirking at her. “Sit, sit, Lara,” he said, flicking his hand to the chair impatiently, and flashed her a predatory grin. As if answering her silent question, he added, “You’ll find out soon enough.”
Lara dropped into the indicated chair and sat stiff with worry. Not that the sight of these two incredibly handsome men, who seemed to covet her with their eyes, wasn’t entirely unpleasant. It was just that she couldn’t remember how she got here, or, in fact, where she’d been just prior.
The two men exchanged a knowing look and in a sudden plummeting moment she recalled the disastrous scene that had brought her here. She gasped and fell from her seat, clamping her eyes shut to the horrible vision of shooting her brother and then herself. Lara found it too much to bear.
“No!” she cried out in despair, rising to her knees and grabbing her head. “This must be a nightmare! I-d-didn’t kill him — did I? Oh, God!”
“Yes?” The blonde man was instantly at her side. He encouraged her to lean her head on him and stroked her hair. “It’s all right, Lara. Let it out. Let the healing begin.” She found his soft voice very comforting and let the tears flow.
“Oh, cut the crap, Yahweh,” the dark-haired man snarled. “It’s not all right. She’s dead. And she did do it. You always take advantage of them when they first come here.”
Lara blinked and rose to her feet with the other man’s help. Slow understanding gripped her as the fair-haired man took the seat opposite the dark-haired man. She sat back in her chair, between them, and gazed from one end of the long table to the other. “You’re not — I mean, you and you,” she looked from one to the other: Mr. Clean and Mr. Dirt. They both gave her an awkward, almost embarrassed smile. As though they’d been caught doing something they weren’t supposed to do. “But you don’t look like—”
“Satan and God?”
“God and Satan?” they said together.
“This is how you pictured us, though,” God offered, looking embarrassed again. Satan shrugged and gazed at the ceiling.
Lara contemplated the consequences with a thoughtful frown. “That means I’m either in Hell or in Heaven—”
“Not so fast, chicky-pop.” Satan waved his hand at her. “This is where we all decide where you go.” He turned brusquely to God with a determined look. “And I say she comes with me.”
“What? You’re kidding!” said God and Lara at the same time.
“She killed a man, Yah,” Satan insisted. “She’s mine.”
“I told you not to call me that!” God said, suddenly looking undignified and pouted. “It was an act of altruism,” he went on, leaning forward and resting both hands on the table. His eyes grew intense and they flashed like lightening. “She saved him from his own torment and from raping more women. The man was a schizophrenic, Luce. Heard voices telling him to hurt people — probably your voice.”
“Don’t blame your biology on me, Yah,” Satan scoffed, swinging his long legs onto the polished table, black leather cowboy boots hammering the surface with a loud bang. “You gave him schizophrenia in the first place. And we all know, thanks to neurological biology, that those ‘voices’ come from the abnormal functioning of the basal ganglia in the brain, which leads to insufficient glutamate signaling.” He grinned out of the side of his mouth, very smug.
God looked flustered. Then he took in a deep breath and continued in a controlled voice, “Miss Cross shot her brother out of compassion. She knew Kelly would kill again. She also knew that the drugs weren’t working and he’d break out of the asylum again. He begged her to do it, Luce.”
“Not compassion, Yah. Passion. She killed him out of violent anger, the dark side of her psyche, and that’s my department. Sure he begged her to kill him and gave her the gun to do it with. But she committed the act only when she found out that he’d just raped her best friend then shot the girl with that very same gun. Besides, since when did you countenance suicide?”
“We make exceptions. And she’s totally penitent, as you can see. She doesn’t deserve your form of punishment.”
“You always say that. Truth is, she’d probably prefer it to your sappy forgiveness schtick. She wouldn’t stand it; she’d go crazy. She killed herself, for Hell’s sake. Pointed the gun to her head and pulled the God-damned trigger because she couldn’t live with what she’d done.”
“You know I hate it when you use my name like that,” God grumbled. “Hell would only encourage her to continue feeling that way. In Heaven she’d learn to let go of her misplaced guilt.”
“God! That’s so stupid!” Satan yelled to the ceiling, leaning his chair back on two legs.
Lara swung her gaze in horrified silence between them like she was watching a tennis match. She couldn’t believe this debate. They’d reduced her to pieces of an argument. Pixels in a pointillist painting. As if they were discussing some theory like quantum loop gravity, like she was a loosely assembled mosaic of fluid particles and fields to be quantified, arranged and directed. To Heaven or to Hell.
“It’s no more stupid than your useless argument that she wants to be punished!”
“Okay, I say we play for her,” Satan said with a sly grin. “A good game of cards. Like Black Jack—”
“That’s not fair,” God objected. You always win because you cheat—”
“Maybe I should choose,” Lara interrupted.
The two men stared at her. Satan frowned and gave God a withering look. He’d obviously concluded that she would choose Heaven and thought it an unfair judgement.
Lara decided to surprise them both. “And I choose to remain in this place, in between the two. Neither here nor there. Nowhere.”
“What?” they said in unison, mouths open in disbelief, and Satan almost fell back on the floor with his chair. He had to jerk forward and grab the table as he lost his balance. For once he looked dumbfounded. God looked haggard. He said wearily, “But why, Lara?”
“I don’t think I could go to either place,” she said honestly. Lara didn’t add that her decision was based on her disgust with their behavior. She felt more miserable than before and just wanted to be alone.
Lara sits down on the soft pixelated surface and gazes at the vast purple landscape that undulates into infinity. She’s always liked the color purple. Maybe that is the reason for the color: perhaps this is all her imagination, after all. Only, if it is, where is she? Perhaps in death, the soul grabs a ride on the “collective consciousness” of the universe, like some great autopoietic network woven into the fabric of space-time. We’re all just particles and fields, Lara contemplates as she leans her elbows on her upraised knees and leans her head in her hands. Is she part of a host of dark matter now, zinging along as a high velocity cloud to be gulped down by some cannibalistic galaxy that is tearing apart its neighboring galaxies and eating their stars as it grows and breaths? Might she meet Kelly and would she recognize him if she does?
She feels the hot sting of breaking tears in her eyes and her throat closes at the thought of her brother. What a sad life they had: he in and out of institutions and getting into trouble; she taking care of him after their parents died in that car crash and spending half her life doing damage control. She never managed to keep a partner — Kelly always seemed to chase them away; or keep a job for long — they had to keep moving. There weren’t too many positions for a physics major so she quit school and waitressed. There was Brad, the brain surgeon. He stuck it out with her long enough for her to drop her guard and dream of a normal happy life. Then the rapes and killings began. Now it’s all over . . . Or is it? Life and death. Perhaps they are just two sides of a similar phenomenon. Maybe the string theorists have it right after all and she’s just entered another dimension, yet to be imagined. Her own personal version of Hell. No. There is no God and no Devil. She’s just imagined it all and perhaps, like she’s so many times feared of herself, she too is schizophrenic and this is all a massive hysterical hallucination and she’ll wake up to a brief lucid moment in an institution—
Lara straightens. Her eyes have been unconsciously tracking a faint movement on the horizon as she was brooding. She springs to her feet and squints her eyes to get a better view. It’s a person!
Lara shouts and runs toward them, totally unheeding caution. It was her wish to be alone but she’s been alone for long enough. The other figure spots her too and she inhales sharply, halting in her tracks with a fearful thrill as the person runs toward her. She realizes he’s a man, about her age, in his early thirties.
“Hi!” he calls, a little out of breath, as he closes the distance between them. He is rakishly handsome, with wise eyes and a kind mouth that looks strangely familiar. A tangle of chestnut-colored hair tumbles to his shoulders as he bows to take her hand. “I’m Kristos Amagiasus,” he says in a tenor voice with a slight accent she does not recognize. Perhaps he’s Greek.
“Lara Cross,” she offers with a tentative smile, feeling the warmth of his hand. It sends a glow to her face. She lets go first. “How long have you been trapped here?”
“Trapped?” He tilts his head in bemusement then smiles with his eyes. “I’m not trapped here.”
“What do you mean?” she asks. “You can leave any time you want?”
He nods still smiling. Only now the compassionate smile seems wizened with years far beyond his age. “You don’t really know what this place is, do you?” he asks softly.
Lara’s throat swells with longing. “It’s a place between Heaven and Hell, isn’t it? Where we — they — make up our minds about . . .” her voice breaks on the emotion rising up like a tide as his glistening eyes reach into the deepness of her. “And if we can’t,” she gasps out between swallows of threatening tears, “then we deserve to stay in this place that also belongs nowhere.”
He clasps both her hands now and a thrilling warmth embraces her like the heady scent of roses. “Maybe Heaven and Hell live inside every one of us and the rest is choice,” he says in a quiet voice that reminds her of a robin’s exquisite song and the wolf’s haunting call mingled. “Lara,” his blue eyes sparkle like an infinite sea. “You can’t hide from yourself forever. You must decide.”
She lets him lead her in a direction she has never taken, toward a strange pure light, and she notices for the first time that Kristos is surrounded by a halo of that same radiating light and that he isn’t really walking but floating as the light envelopes them and an infinite staircase spirals upward before her . . . .
Lara finds herself alone, climbing the stairs. She climbs, not quite sure why, until she is so exhausted she stumbles and falls—
. . . Brad’s face focused in a haze of fluorescent light and antiseptic smells mingled with roses as she forced her eyes open. “It’s okay, Lara,” he said gently. “It’s all over and you made it. You made it.” He stroked her hand and she lost herself in his eyes. They glistened warm like a tropical sea. “You grazed yourself and the bullet missed any vital parts of your brain. I operated on you and you’ve been in a coma for two weeks. We thought we were losing you for a while there, but, thank God, here you are.”
This story was previously published in Natural Selection.
Edited by Marie Ginga
NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit Nina Munteanu for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water" was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book "Water Is…" by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.