Now, the Simpsons competed with reruns of Buffy. Anne left the food in pots on the stove -- saved on dish washing, anyway. She called upstairs, 'Food's ready...' and stood eating meat loaf, mashed potatoes, peas, carrots by the sink.
Mark came downstairs first. His father took advantage of the commercial to stop in the bathroom. When Paul came into the kitchen, he asked, 'Well, how'd it go today?'
'Fine,' Anne said.
'Heard anything about that job you applied for?' Paul asked as he filled his plate.
'I'm not expecting to hear much,' she said. Fifty year old women don't expect too much from job applications.
'Oh well, just keep looking...something will turn up.'
They disappeared upstairs; Anne remained by the sink. 'There's no point getting angry,' she thought, 'no point getting angry, no point, no point, no point...'
A little while later, she went to collect the dirty dishes. As she picked them up, her husband said, 'Don't worry about the job. At this point, we don't need the money. It doesn't matter.'
'Doesn't matter, doesn't matter,' she thought as she washed up. 'Well, what does matter? Rice instead of mashed potatoes to go with the meat loaf?'
She went into the hall, picked up her purse and keys and slipped on her raincoat. Got into her car and put a cassette into the tape player before driving onto the freeway. 'There's not a lot' she thought, 'that can't be improved by driving very fast, in the dark, listening to the Beach Boys playing at top volume...'
'So what does matter?' she said aloud.
After awhile, she noticed she was on the interstate leading to the state park, Keely Mountain. She and Paul had taken their son there for picnics when he was very small. Later, Paul and Mark had gone fishing in the lake created when the dam was built.
She continued up the mountain, passing the scenic overlook of the town below. At the end of the road, she got out, walked past the picnic area, and took the narrow trail leading to the summit. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness; the trees were thinner, and she was surrounded by black shapes against the pale blue background of moonlight. She could again see the stars.
She sat down on the pine needles and looked up, thinking, 'What does matter?'
'God,' she said conversationally, 'I wish you would tell me, just let me know for sure, if this is all there is. I've done pretty much what I've been told to all the days of my life. Got married at eighteen, had a child and went to work at a boring job when he started school. Never been unfaithful, tried to be thoughtful and kind...I admit I quit going to church after I started work. Sunday was the only chance I had to sleep in.'
'I've been a wife for thirty-two years, a mother for twenty-five, worked in the billing department of the gas company until I was laid off six months ago...all these things, I was...' she hesitated, trying to think of the right word. She wasn't the best, maybe, but she was good enough. As good as she could be. She remembered old school reports: 'I was conscientious..." But none of this was enough. 'There must be more, God.'
She waited in the moonlight.
She felt a presence in the clearing. She'd never anticipated talking to God, but if she had she would have expected to feel awe, or joy, or just overwhelmed perhaps. Not pain. The presence was too big; she felt too full, as if she would explode.
It was cold as ice and hot as fire.
A bored voice asked, 'Are you calling Me to account?'
'No,' she said hastily, 'not at all. I just want to know...is this all there is?'
Anne was no longer sure she wanted answers. The voice was like shards of glass. She was not sure she could bear hearing it again.
'All there is? Shall I send a few plagues, a hail of toads, to make your life more interesting?'
'No, no,' she gasped, 'please...I just wanted to understand.'
The pressure lessened slightly. 'What is there for you to understand?'
'Is this,' she repeated, 'all there is?'
'For most,' the voice answered indifferently. 'Except for the special ones.'
The voice made no comment.
'Heaven, Hell...after death, what then?'
'The physical elements are be recycled.'
Anne heard the voice's amusement at her question, sly pleasure at its answer.
'Then why am I here?'
'To make up the numbers.'
The presence abruptly disappeared. It grew warm again. Anne leaned against a tree and sighed, trembling. She hoped that God would never, ever notice her again.
'Sadistic bastard,' someone said. 'Just be glad you don't matter. Remember Job.'
Anne looked around and saw the demon. Like Christmas card cherubs, he/she was a child, but a child resembling the newspaper photos of famine victims. Large head on a spindly neck, large swollen belly on a skeletal frame. Dark eyes, mournful, hairless. No genitalia, she noticed.
'We don't fuck. The Old Beezum thinks its for reproduction, not fun. So we don't need it. Besides, we might jerk-off and get a little pleasure out of life. Can't have that.'
'Did you come with God?' She wondered if all she'd heard about the competition between God and the Devil was false. Everything else she'd believed appeared to be.
'Naw, I didn't come with Upstairs. I sneaked. He came down for an inspection tour, heard you babbling and decided to pop over. I just followed.'
'He's not what I expected.'
'Should have been. Didn't you read anything about Him at all? Leviticus is very clear. He goes ape-shit over mixing cotton and linen, and chewing cuds and hooves, and all the rest of it. Those tele-evangelists get a real shock when they arrive in their Armani suits, shrimp cocktail on their breath. We've had to open a special room for them.
'They didn't know...it's not fair.'
'...geez, you people. All the same, obsessed with fair. Why do you think it would be so simple? Let me clue you in: it ain't a ball or strike until after the umpire calls it. So, sports fans, you're fucked from the beginning.
Anne thought about what she had been told. 'I never looked at it that way.'
'So now you look. Let's take another perspective. In this case, mine. Now who am I? Right now, a rather minor little fellow, stinking of sulphur...in another now, a graceful lassie with fetching curls and in yet another time a splendid it with a wingspan of eight feet.
'When I was the pretty little blonde, shaking my curls, I was a kind person. Did all the things virtuous young women were called on to do, and ignored the siren calls of those things that are the speciality of bad girls. I got my reward: A fairly long and painful illness, followed by death. (I could have used my current vocabulary, I tell you.) But then, Heaven! That's when I was the angel with the wide wing span. Sang hosannahs for awhile, then went to steer a planet in its orbit, then ended up guarding the gates of hell. I was a good girl, and I was a good angel as well.
'Then, downfall. One of those wretches below was gasping for water, and that little girl just sat up in my soul. Oh my goodness, I thought, the poor fellow's been there, how long? So I just kind of dipped into the heavens for a little spot of rain (nothing that would be missed) and dropped it on the wretch's tongue.
'Mercy in an angel is sin, my friend. Justice, that's what's called for. I had sinned big time. Very big time. So my change in form.
'Here I am, with my own personalised trident for poking the deserving while dodging bigger tridents. I've got a girl's charity, an angel's justice, and, added to the witch's brew, a devil's cunning.'
Anne felt overwhelmed. She wondered how long the little fellow had been without someone to talk to. His ugliness had a kind of pathos to it.
'None of that little fellow stuff,' he warned. 'I'm low on the list of demons but way above you, sweetie.'
He paused and inhaled. Anne saw his belly swell, like the throat of a frog. She wondered if the size of the belly allowed the torrent of words.
'Everything sins,' he continued. 'Different forms of creation are forbidden different things. That's the first of the new lessons you're learning. Let's assume that this is a rule-driven universe:
1. Some Creator has created a limited number of forms.
2. This same Creator has specified allowed, obligatory and forbidden behaviour for each form.
3. A change in form is the result of performing allowed, obligatory or forbidden behaviour.
Corollary 1: Nothing is universally allowed, obligatory or forbidden.
'It's all arbitrary, whatever the flipping Creator wants.
'Anne, a semi-coup-de-tÍte is called for. That Old Beesum upstairs, he/she/it shows fuck-all charity or justice. That's been apparent for centuries. He/she/it is also thick as a brick shit house. Nothing with the brains of a fart would give us a predisposition to do something and then punish us for it. Let's demand a world that makes sense! Screw condemnation, unscrew the inscrutable. Intelligibility for All!'
The little demon had grown excited.
'So you want Fair, too,' Anne commented.
'I want Reasonable,' the demon corrected.
'Fair, unfair, reasonable, unreasonable, so what? Since he is supposed to be all-powerful and all-anything-else-you-mention, the chance of a coup succeeding isn't very good,' Anne said.
Anne watched the demon's belly deflate. Maybe it was less like a singer's diaphragm and more like a human's facial expression, showing the emotion beneath.
The demon rallied.
'OK, let's make some other assumptions instead. Let's assume there aren't any rules. Just chance. We've got changes in form and we've got things called sins. let's try a statistical model: Form is the independent variable, sin the dependent variable, and the association holds at the 99.9 level with one degree of freedom. That's one fine association, approaching infinity, which is what we're doing.
The demon looked at her: 'Just chance, geddit? The Old Beesum doesn't really call the shots. If this is a formal system, we're screwed; if on the other hand, we're living in a statistical universe, we have a chance -- namely, chance. We can get out. There's luck, luck and chance. Maybe it is a statistical universe and we can just sneak off.' The demon looked hopeful.
Anne looked at him blankly.
'Let me explain it another way.' The demon tried again. Let's try flipping that flipping coin. Heads or tails, fifty/fifty shot either way. We all know that. Let's assume we've flipped ninety nine times and it's heads every time. We all know that the hundredth time, well, the hundredth time, it's still going to be fifty/fifty, heads or tails.'
Anne shook her head. 'If I flipped a coin ninety nine times and it came up heads, I'd assume a loaded coin -- somebody cheating. Even if it were honest, the smart money would bet on heads.'
The demon nodded its head in agreement: 'At least, if you're a gambling form, heads is the bet to make. The odds here aren't good, I admit. We've got mercy, justice, not to mention good sense, on our side. Up against power. But power's trump.' The demon looked discouraged. 'It's not just up above, I admit. There's down below against us too. (The Big Enchilada or the Big Prick, depending on whether you're looking at him or his backside. They're in cahoots, you know.) Not good odds, as I said.'
Anne and the demon sat watching the sunrise.
'I haven't seen this,' the demon said wistfully, 'since I was an angel. And it's cool. Not too hot out here. Got any water to drink? It's been a long time...'
Anne said, 'Back in the car. I think I've got some bottled water there.'
They kept sitting.
'What's your name?' Anne asked.
'Don't have one. Demons of my rank don't get names.'
The sun was fully up, and Anne remembered Paul and Mark. They'd wonder where she was. She kept sitting.
'When I was a girl, I was named Lucy. I was Azmaliel when I was an angel. Now, I guess I could be Luke Azmiel. Sound good?'
'A good name,' Anne agreed. 'So you're planning on staying? What are God and the Devil going to think about that?'
'The Devil won't notice... It would be beneath his dignity to notice. As for the Other, He has a lot of planets to look in on. It was just chance He noticed you.
'Right,' Anne agreed. She got up to go back to her car and home and the demon trailed after her. They walked down the hill. Anne unlocked the car, and the demon got in the front seat.
'Think you could give me a ride somewhere?'
'Sure,' Anne said. 'And we'll get you some clothes while we're at it. Just what is it you're planning on doing?'
'I'm not sure, I need to think on this. Hunker down and hide, I guess. I'd like to go to California. I want to have some fun, go to Disneyland.'
Anne stopped at the K-Mart. While Luke waited in the car, she went in and bought some boy's jeans and a couple of teeshirts. She got him a baseball cap to hide the ears. She picked up a couple of coffees to go and some sweet rolls.
After Luke put on his clothes, Anne looked him over: 'You still don't look human,' she said.
'I'll cloud their vision,' he said. 'Like I say, I've got some tricks.' He thought a minute. 'If worst comes to worst, I can always turn them into a pile of ash.'
Anne drove him into the city and dropped him at the bus station. She gave him a card with her name, address and phone number on it. 'Keep in touch, you hear?'
He nodded, 'I'll call. What are you going to do? Now you've talked to Him Upstairs and all.'
'Think a lot about the present,' Anne said. 'A whole lot about the present..
She bent over and gave the demon a kiss. 'You need any money? I don't have much, but my bank's around the corner and opens up in a couple of hours.'
The demon was touched. 'No, that's fine. I can make money, easy-peasy.' He demonstrated, and handed her a stack of twenty dollar bills.
He turned to go into the bus station, turned back, and said, 'Good-girl kindness and consideration can be improved considerably with a sense of justice and a dollup, a large dollup, of low cunning.' He kissed her on the cheek, 'If you need me, holler.'
Anne watched him go into the building. He was right, nobody noticed the little figure with the big belly and drooping ears.
Anne drove home. Mark had gone to school, Paul to work. Apparently, they hadn't noticed her absence.
That night, she set the table in the dining room. When Mark and Paul came home, she told them they were all eating together. They could tape the Simpsons.
They were puzzled and anxious, but obedient. There was a big salad on the table.
Paul looked at it: 'Weeds for dinner?'
'You're getting fat as little pig, Paul. So am I. We're losing weight.'
After dinner, they started to go upstairs to the television.
'Wait,' Anne said. 'I took some money out of my savings account today and bought a round the world ticket. I'm leaving for New Zealand tomorrow. I'll be back in around six months.'
They looked at her, stunned.
'We can't afford that,' Paul said.
'Yes we can. Or I can. It's my severance pay.'
'I thought we were going to buy a boat.'
'You wanted a boat, for fishing and water skiing. I didn't. It's my severance pay. You want a boat, borrow or save...'
He might be inconsiderate, but he was fair. At times he was boring, but then so was she. She looked at him affectionately.
Paul decided on caution. He wasn't sure what was going on. 'Isn't this a little sudden? Why don't you and me go to Florida for the weekend? I could take a couple of days off work, call in sick...what do you say?'
'Paul, I see Florida every summer, and I didn't like it much the first time. I got you an early Christmas present -- a plane ticket of your own. You're flying to Paris for a week and meeting me for Christmas.'
She collected the dishes and left the dumbfounded men at the table.
She heard Paul say, 'It must be the change...'
'Paul,' she called through the door, 'Don't be silly. You know I had a hysterectomy eight years ago. I just decided I'm going to travel while I can enjoy it.
'Oh, Mark, can I borrow your backpack?'
Six months later, Anne and Paul had a pleasant Christmas in Paris. She decided to fly back with him. She opened the copy of the Herald Tribune the stewardess gave her, and saw a picture of Luke. A mitre concealed the ears, a surplice, the belly.
'Divine Claims' the headline said, and under it, 'Blind See, Paralysed Walk in spate of miracles at Church of Reasonable People.'
'So he decided to be his own God,' Anne thought fondly. 'Not a bad idea.'