Back in the 90s, there was a lot of concern about the “Year 2000”, and this translated into a large number of film and fiction projects that dealt with the upcoming inevitable apocalypse. One of these was an anthology called On The Eighth Day, which almost included my short story, “Love and the Tides of Darkness.” Almost.
I never did see the finished version of the anthology, but I’m sure it made for a good read. I didn’t have any luck placing “LatToD” anywhere else, and seeing as the Year 2000 is now eight years behind us (and counting), it seems unlikely that anybody would want it now. So, for your reading pleasure, here it is.
NOTE: This is fiction. It shouldn’t be mistaken for theology.
Love and the Tides of Darkness
Heaven rejoices when William Walton is born. Not as much as when Jesus came on the scene, of course, but He was the boss’s son. Walton, for all his potential, is just one step above a monkey.
But what a monkey! Genius IQ, golden appearance (which won’t become evident until well after an adolescent bout of acne, to make sure he doesn’t mess up his life with premature sexual relations), a heap of intellectual and social gifts-oratorical, political, organizational, sartorial, musical-the like of which haven’t been seen since DaVinci, who had gotten sidetracked with all that stupid painting and writing backwards and designing aircraft he didn’t have the technology to build.
A disappointment, that. To make sure it doesn’t happen again, Walton is assigned a guardian on January 19, 1970, at 3:47 a.m., the very instant he is expelled, screeching, from the womb.
Auriel materializes beside Walton’s mother right on schedule, and immediately concludes that something is not right. This is because they are in a large, boxy station wagon weaving in and out of traffic on I-95, rather than in a hospital maternity wing where they belong. The mother is cradling her bloody, mewling baby and shouting at the driver, who is not the boy’s father but is, in fact, a taxi cab operator from Portugal.
The baby Walton is shivering with the cold, but his mother doesn’t appear to notice; she’s too busy screaming at the immigrant to slow down, for Christ’s sake, before he gets them all killed. Auriel knows he is not supposed to interfere directly with the child’s life, but he’s heard how fragile baby humans are and doesn’t want this one catching pneumonia or some other ailment that the terrestrials haven’t figured out yet. He brushes William’s forehead and the warmth of his touch spreads through the tiny body, driving out the cold. The baby relaxes, stops screaming.
Nine seconds later, the cab hits a patch of ice, skids sideways, and flips over a couple of times in the middle of the highway.
The demoness Elissha stands by the trees at the side of the road, watching emergency crews try to get the passengers out of the overturned taxi. There’s no great rush to rescue the driver-they’ve already got his head in a cooler near the rear bumper of the ambulance-but apparently there’s some question as to whether or not they’ll get the mother out in time. She’s bleeding heavily from the botched delivery.
The baby, somehow, is totally unharmed.
This confuses Elissha; the child was being held by its mother, so it should have bounced around the inside of the car like a Ping-Pong ball. Elissha smells intervention. Before she can be detected, she departs for Hell. As a taunt to the baby’s guardian, whoever it is, she leaves behind a puff of brimstone to mark her passage.
Elissha’s demonic supervisor is not pleased with her report. “We were ahead of Heaven on this one,” he says. “We had the advantage. How’d they manage to save the baby?”
Elissha shrugs. She doesn’t know. The rollover should have finished the child off.
A book materializes in the supervisor’s hands and he flips through the pages with a clawed finger. “Uh-huh,” the supervisor says, tapping the text. “Uh-huh. See what they did? They traded the driver’s life for the child’s. He was scheduled to be killed in the World Trade Center bombing.” He snaps the book shut. Dust blows out from between the covers, whirling into a collage of tormented, screaming faces before disappearing. The tome vanishes in a puff of fire. “They cheated. Direct intervention, again.” He points his black nail at Elissha. “You get back up there and take another shot.”
She nods, and vanishes.
On earth, five years have passed. Auriel has followed William Walton through a succession of foster homes and state-run care centers, but he’s finally in line to be adopted by a nice family from Connecticut. He’s doing well in school, already been skipped ahead a grade. He’s reading Big Little Book editions of Tolstoy and Melville and handing in homework that’s so good his teachers think his foster parents are doing it for him. Pretty soon his IQ will be retested and he’ll be moved out of first grade and into third.
Friday, October 3, 1975: William is riding to school. Auriel is sitting next to him, keeping the other children from taking that seat, denying them the opportunity to pick on William or beat him up. He’s small for his age and Auriel knows that young humans often behave aggressively toward those smaller than they are, just like the monkeys they used to be.
The bus halts for a few seconds at a railroad crossing, then starts moving again. The engine coughs and dies and the big vehicle stops dead on the tracks. Auriel listens with increasing concern as the driver attempts to restart the motor; concern becomes full-blown apprehension when he hears the not-so-distant sound of a train horn.
The driver jumps out of his seat. “Everyone off the bus!”
The children explode into a nervous babble as they get to their feet. William is sitting at the side emergency exit; Auriel guides him there whenever he can, to make sure he can get out quickly in case of trouble. The boy follows the instructions for opening it, but it’s stuck. Children queue up behind his seat. It doesn’t seem as if anyone has gotten off the vehicle yet.
The black head of the train comes around the bend a hundred yards away, headlight glaring. Its horn splits the air. William is having no luck opening the escape window. As the train bears down on them Auriel smashes the exit but it won’t yield, even to him. The children have become a screaming, squalling mass; the other exits are proving equally troublesome. Someone is trying to prevent escape from the bus. Smelling intervention, Auriel curves his arms around the boy. He must time this exactly, to make it look plausible.
The train rams into the middle of the bus, bending it into a V. At the moment of impact, Auriel sweeps William toward the hatch in the roof. He breaks through it as the impact ripples through the vehicle’s steel shell, bursting into the pale October sunlight. He deposits William at the side of the road, letting him get a bit scuffed so it will look like he was thrown clear by the collision. A few yards away the braking train rushes by, sparks flying from its locked wheels.
Sensing a presence, Auriel whirls. A slinky demoness is poised over the boy. “No direct intervention!” she hisses, narrow black eyes watching Auriel; but they suddenly go wide and soft.
Auriel feels a strange, desolate rush sweep over him.
“Elissha,” he says.
Flashback: Before the Fall. The rumblings of rebellion are growing loud in Heaven, the tension between God and Lucifer hangs in the air like a stench. Auriel and Elissha, both angels then, lie in a post-coital embrace in a remote grove of what will soon be known as the Garden of Eden. “I don’t understand what He’s doing,” Elissha says. “What does he want those monkeys for when he has us?”
“Who’s to know what He wants, or why?” Auriel says. “They’re different from us. They’ll serve Him in a different way.”
“How? By giving him glory? Adulation? How can He expect anything from them, crawling around in the trees. I think it’s a waste of His time. I don’t like it.”
Auriel strokes Elissha’s golden hair. “It’s not for us to like or dislike.”
“That’s not what Lucifer says.”
After a moment, Auriel murmurs: “Lucifer is presumptuous.”
Elissha shifts slightly, sits up. Her tresses fall over a body sheathed in silver light. “He was the first. He has the right.”
“We serve,” Auriel says. “That’s our only right.”
A hot wind sweeps through the glade, shriveling the leaves on the trees around them. Auriel and Elissha both rise, staring at the bilious orange clouds roiling through the sky. In it, a face, an angel’s face; the most beautiful of them all.
“Lucifer!” Elissha cries.
“You see?” Auriel shouts, over the rising howl of the wind. “Nothing good comes of questioning Him!”
Lucifer’s voice rumbles through Heaven like the thunder of Creation. He calls on the other angels to join him beneath the waters, to join him in rebellion. Listening to him, Elissha spreads her wings. Auriel seizes her hands. “What are you doing?” he cries.
“I’m going with him,” she says.
“You can’t! Didn’t you hear him? He’s leaving Heaven!”
“I heard him,” Elissha says.
She slips her hands out of his, and joins the stream of angels taking flight.
October 1975, at the train wreck: Elissha and Auriel withdraw from the child, neither noticing his horrified face, his gaze lingering on the battered body of a decapitated classmate by the side of the tracks. The two beings, heavenly and infernal, circle each other warily.
“What do you want with the boy?” Auriel says.
“Our interest in him is merely a result of yours,” she says. “You want him preserved, so we want him destroyed.”
“You’ve intervened directly.”
“So have you. You traded his life for the driver’s the day he was born.”
They drift farther away, silently appraising each other.
“Look what he’s done to you,” Auriel says at last. Her radiant hair has gone charcoal black, her silver light is tainted and yellow, her wings are broad and tattered and batlike.
“Satan had nothing to do with this,” she says. “We all changed when we went away from the light.”
Auriel shakes his head. “He did it to mock God. The truth is not in him, Elissha. He is the Father of Lies. Father of our war.”
“Celestial propaganda,” she says. “Your camp is as much at fault.” She points to the sky. “He stopped talking to us. He locked us below the waters.”
“You thought you could rise up against Him and not be punished? I told you no good would come of questions.”
They stare at each other.
“Come with me,” Auriel says at last.
“I can get you back in.”
Elissha is silent for a long time before she nods, almost imperceptibly. The world becomes a blur around them as they drift outside of time.
Days rush by like seconds on a stopwatch.
Earth, 1976: William Walton’s foster parents can’t cope with his sudden tendency toward violent outbursts, and call off the adoption. A state therapist blames his psychological problems on early trauma. Now considered a poor prospect for adoption, he goes back into the care of the state.
Traveling through the aether: Elissha doesn’t really believe Auriel can smuggle her into Heaven; more likely he’s bringing her into a seraphic ambush. But it’s worth the risk to see Paradise again, if only for a little while.
Auriel brings her through a brilliant, undulating tunnel. The soft white light worries at her skin, makes her fingernails itch. Surely He must be aware that she’s coming; He’s aware of everything, isn’t He? She trembles under the unseen, unfelt weight of His gaze. He could smite her any time, she’s trespassing in His dominion. But He doesn’t. Perhaps He finds her torment at what she’s lost more exquisite than her destruction.
Earth, 1980: William Walton is caught stuffing rocks into the opening of a railway switch. He tells the police he wanted to see the train derail. His therapist blames it on a bad experience with a locomotive when he was five. As this is not his first act of vandalism, he is placed in a home for juvenile offenders.
Heaven: Elissha and Auriel materialize in a glade. She knows this place; the two of them trysted here often, before the Fall. If she closes her eyes, she can still see the imprint of their bodies on the grass, can still recall the silky feel of Auriel’s body. The trees quiver in a light, cool breeze. The sky is flawless, radiant. She remembers the way the radiance used to make her feel: Comforted. Cherished. Valued. Now it makes her skin crawl. She is accustomed to emptiness, vacuum, a maw that sucks away such niceties of the spirit.
“You remember this, don’t you?” Auriel says.
“Of course I do.” She steps gingerly through the grass. It smolders at the touch of her feet, shrivels, dies. She stops walking, surrounded by a low roiling cushion of smoke.
Earth, 1985: Still in detention, William Walton learns to play the guitar. Soon he is writing his own music, drawing it freehand on sheets of typing paper. The officials of the center, encouraging him, stage a concert where he plays his compositions for his bored contemporaries. Some of them applaud.
William is hooked.
Heaven: Elissha plucks a flowering branch from a nearby shrub, intending to smell its fragrance; but the plant immediately shrivels to bracken, and the flower turns sharp and spiky, like a dried-up cactus. She drops it.
Auriel says, “You gave up all this because of those pathetic creatures.”
“I didn’t give it up,” she says. “It was taken, and unfairly.”
“That’s not the way I remember it.”
Of course it isn’t, Elissha thinks. Auriel is a blindly faithful royalist to the end. She wonders what they ever saw in each other; but things were so much simpler before He started creating the lower beings. It’s as if they’ve tainted the entire cosmos with their God-given imperfection.
Auriel plucks another flower, holds it out so she can sniff it. “He might let you back, if you repent,” he says.
The scent of jasmine scorches her nostrils and she recoils from the petals. “He hasn’t changed a bit,” Elissha says.
Earth, 1989: William Walton drops out of school and joins a garage band. The other members put together have only a fraction of his talent. By the end of the year he’s dumped them and is recording his own album for a small label.
Heaven: Elissha can’t stand it anymore. The light is driving her crazy. Everything she touches dies. Paradise has become intolerable, her former lover as alien to her as God is to humans. But she can at least return the favor Auriel has done her; she can give him a taste of her existence.
“How would you like to see Hell?” she says.
Auriel knows that Elissha is not to be trusted. After millennia in the shadow of the Father of Lies, the truth is no longer in her. But he finds he cannot turn down her invitation. He is intrigued by the possibility of seeing the Abyss, seeing what her existence has been like since she cast him aside. Besides, Lucifer-or Satan, or whatever he calls himself now-won’t dare lift a hand against him. That would be an escalation that the devil will not risk.
He nods assent and Elissha opens a ring of fire around them. Inside the ring is blackness the like of which Auriel has never seen, blackness that seems to suck in the radiance that suffuses Paradise. The trees and shrubs bend toward the gate, their leaves becoming spotted and jaundiced.
Then the fire snaps shut over their heads, and they are below the waters.
Earth, 1994: William Walton, lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter of the hard rock group Locomotive, is found unconscious in his hotel room by a paparazzo who climbs a trellis to the star’s balcony in hopes of getting a candid picture. Walton is revived and enters drug rehab. The paparazzo’s shots land on the covers of nineteen separate supermarket tabloids.
Hell: Auriel follows Elissha to the top of a craggy, barren bluff. Small, sharp, hot stones turn beneath his feet. He pulls his wings in tight to protect them from the glowing cinders that fall like rain around them, even though he doubts they could really harm him.
Elissha takes him to the summit of the hill. Below them a blighted, blasted plain spreads out to the horizon, dotted with roaring fires. A remote volcano smolders, blows ash into the air, grows quiet again. He hears distant wails and cries, hears the snap of whips, the clink of chains. The air is fetid with smoke and the stink of burning flesh.
“What’s going on down there?” he says.
Elissha doesn’t look at him. “Torment.”
He kicks a stone off the edge of the bluff; it falls, seemingly forever.
Earth, 1998: The once-popular band Locomotive breaks up in the face of dwindling sales and what their publicist refers to as creative differences. These have less to do with creativity than with William Walton’s continuing addiction to a variety of expensive illicit substances. The other members of Locomotive drift into different bands; Walton drifts to the YMCA, where someone steals his guitar and nearly beats him to death with it.
Hell: The sights, sounds, and smells of this place sicken Auriel. He feels them coating his skin like oily soot. The cries of the tortured souls offend his ears. “So this is what you’ve reaped from your rebellion,” Auriel says. “Does this satisfy your hatred for the humans? Does this reaffirm your place in the cosmos?”
“It wasn’t our fault,” she says. “We didn’t intend this to become a dumping ground for the souls He doesn’t want.”
“Who stirred them up against Him? Who attempted insurrection in Heaven?” He scans the plain; his gaze settles on the volcano. In the glowing, rumbling clouds, he sees the face he’s looking for. It seems to be watching them. “There he is. Your master.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” Elissha says.
“But it is.” Auriel watches Lucifer’s visage. It’s not nearly so beautiful as it used to be. “The humans have a saying: Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies.”
“Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you nothing at all,” Elissha says.
They turn to face each other.
“I can see that we’re never going to agree,” Auriel says.
“I suppose not.”
“What we had is dead.”
“So,” Elissha says, “we can agree on something.”
“We’ve let ourselves get distracted from our assigned purpose,” he says, turning away from Elissha, spreading his wings. “It’s time we got back to William Walton, isn’t it?”
She doesn’t answer.
Still no answer. He turns around.
Elissha is gone.
“Treacherous bitch,” Auriel murmurs, as he leaps into the smoky air.
Earth, 1999: Late evening on the last day of December. William Walton joins the crowd in New York City’s Times Square. His shoes are paper bags stuffed with newspaper and wrapped in plastic. He’s wearing a threadbare coat that he found in an alley about three hours earlier. The coat’s big pockets held a half-full bottle of cheap, obnoxious rum, so he’s feeling rather warm and happy and enthusiastic about the new year.
He stares up at the big red apple on the stick at the top of the building. A helicopter flits by overhead, thup-thupping through the air. The apple is going to be dropping soon. He takes the bottle out of his pocket and drinks the last of the rum; he suddenly feels a hot grip around his wrist. It pulls the bottle away from his lips. He turns, but no one’s there.
Look at you, says a sexy female voice that makes his head buzz. Ruined already. You’re hardly worth my effort.
The bottle in his hand gets heavier. He lifts it up, squints at it. It’s full again. “Hey, thanks,” he says. A few of the revelers look at him and move away, but most pay no attention.
Before he can lift the bottle to drink, it shatters in his grip, spilling liquid all over the slushy snow and his plastic-covered feet.
Faithless maneuver, vanishing while my back was turned, a male voice says, gentle but unmistakably angry. What was in the bottle? Poison?
Scotch, the female voice says.
William looks all around, but can’t see who’s speaking. Great, he thinks; he’s hearing voices again. The medication was supposed to take care of that. Then he remembers that he hasn’t been able to afford medication in three months.
The apple begins to drop. The crowd starts to chant, counting down the seconds to midnight. Walton staggers forward, eyes on the luminous globe. His well-pickled brain reflexively thinks up shabby verses to describe it: Ruby-red, it marks the time, and I watch it as I rhyme. His foot shoots out from under him and he falls down. Before he hits the pavement he feels arms catch him, settle him gently back on his feet.
A sudden explosion of sparks and smoke from the pole silences the crowd. The apple drops from its perch, bounces off the top of the building, and soars in an arc over the assembled revelers. Too stunned to move, Walton goggles at it; a freak ricochet has sent it flying right at him. But at the last second he is pushed out of the way by a couple of stocky Italian-looking gentlemen who are too engrossed in a fistfight to bother looking up. He stumbles and slides in the slush, and the apple squashes the two combatants.
The male voice says, You can’t do things like this!
Saucily, the female voice replies: Can’t I?
The thup of the helicopter is suddenly silenced. It’s falling out of the sky, directly above Walton’s head, trailing smoke from frozen blades.
The revelers scatter like frightened children whose bus is about to be hit by a train. Walton scrabbles to get away but can’t get any traction in the slush. Then he feels strong hands grasp his armpits and he shoots backwards, up to the steps of a building that houses a delicatessen, art theatre, and coffee bar.
The helicopter crashes to the pavement a half-dozen yards away and bursts into flames.
The sidewalk is clear of slush, at least. Walton crawls up it. Behind him, the cheers have turned into screams and cries, the music has been replaced by crackling fire and explosions. As he scuttles into an alley, he hears the tinkle of glass as windows up and down the street blow out and shards rain down on the people. Manhole covers erupt into the air, sending bodies flying; they crash down on the partygoers, crushing limbs and skulls. The cornice of a building crumbles and collapses, showering the crowd with bricks and mortar. The pavement buckles. An icy wind howls in from the harbor, bringing sleet and hard, tiny snow, pelting the screaming, dispersing crowd. The disembodied voices are yelling insults and imprecations at each other. Walton scurries away.
Once he’s put some distance between himself and Times Square-once the quarreling voices have faded-Walton stands up. Things are quiet here. Nothing is exploding or flying through the air.
He thrusts his hands deep into the ragged pockets of his stolen coat, and wonders if there’s anything to eat in that Dumpster on his left.