(NOTE: Read And Everyone Gets a Robot Pony for the genesis of this story.)
“Cleanliness is next to goodliness,” he said, chasing with the broom a tumbleweed of doghair across the floor. “At least, that’s what Lazarus claimed.”
My arms and legs ached, deep in the joints and muscles. Something at the center of my skull slowly inflated, squeezing my brain out my eye sockets. Jesus peered at me in concern. “You might want to have that looked at.”
I asked, “Didn’t you just do that?” I recalled he had.
“So I did! It looks like it hurts, and I’m glad it’s not me. You might want a second opinion, though.”
“Right,” I said. “What’s your opinion now?”
There is something about dying that defines your life. Until that very moment, you are dynamic, a self-writing novel in which you are the hero. In other people’s novels, you’re a supporting character, or a bit part, or completely unmentioned. In all cases, you are still potential. Your very living existence means your part changes, evolves. Your part can change from lover to nemesis at a careless word.
Death changes that.
The thought comes to me that I am dying. I remember bits of those last frantic moments before unconsciousness. Esme tells me, “Dad, I love you.” Then she slips me into the metal and ceramic grotto of the scanner.
A musician, a physicist, a biologist, and a computer programmer walk into a bar. The biologist says, “Ow.” The physicist says, “I didn’t see that.” The musician says, “That’s short.” The programmer says, “It’s not going to be an exact copy of the brain, but it’ll be close for a while.”
Esme says, “This might hurt a little, Dad. I’m sorry.”
The ache flares into a conflagration, and I am on fire.
In England, they set rabbits ablaze in celebration of Guy Fawkes Day. They dowse them in kerosene and strike a match, and Parlaiment goes up in flames singing, “Throw your hands in the air, wave ’em like you just don’t care.”
That’s not right. They just dowse me in kerosene. Not hares. They split hares.
“Please, Dad,” she says. “Please don’t cry.” She removes the rock from my tomb. “Father,” she prays, “come forth.”
The fires disipate as the kerosene burns out. I realize I have no limbs. They have burned completely away.
I’m not sure why Jesus is with me. While I was a preacher before the cancer started growing in me just like a fetus in the womb, I had realized long ago the god of the Bible could not exist. Indeed, if He did exist, he was truly evil. Whether sending his guileless shepherd warriors to massacre neighboring tribes, or pettily smiting an olive tree, He is tirelessly and petulently destructive.
It was in the teaching of the Bible I realized my lack of faith. Finding goodness to preach became harder and harder. Much of the book I taught was tedious and vile.
I remember perfectly the moment when I understood I did not believe in God. I stood in front of my congregation. The elephants were in the back, meek and quiet and vaguely restless. The mules and yaks and other working animals sat aloof and distant. The cows and sheep sat in front, and behind them were the slavering alligators, ridden cunningly by the cheetahs.
No. That’s not right. I was the alligator.
Esme sat in the front row with her mother. We didn’t know it at the time, but my wife’s brain was about to explode. At least, a blood vessel in her brain was about to explode. The very next Wednesday, I would wake up to my wife convulsing on the bed next to me, blood seeping from her nostrils.
I am glad my realization came before my one and only love died, or I might doubt myself. As it was, I had the Bible in my right hand, held above my head. I saw my daughter sitting there, peaceful and wide-eyed and gullible, and it occurred to me that, should I sell her into slavery, she could not go free as a man sold into slavery might.
I understood then that what I taught was toxic, and not at all a basis for moral living.
And yet I taught. I worked to turn what little good I could find into honorable morality, to redeem myself.
I don’t recall my wife’s face. At this very moment, I can’t even recall her name.
Jesus says, “It was Madeline.”
“Dad.” Esme calls to me, her voice metallic as it rings the walls of my cell. “Can you see God?” she asks.
She has asked this question before. I can almost remember. Every nerve in my arms and legs are light with pain. I am used to it. It’s easier to ignore once I remember I have no arms and legs.
“No,” I say. Jesus glares at me in judgement.
“What?” I say. I don’t mean to be defensive, but I am distracted by the pain.
Esme asks, “What?”
But I am silent.
Jesus dusted with a flaming bunny. “Hares collect dust,” he explained.
“Why is it on fire?”
He turned to me with pity in his eyes. “Tradition,” he said. “It’s Guy Fawkes Day.”
I am almost completely burned away. The fires oblate me. The wind blows the ashes. I am scattering across the cosmos, a vast, tenuous nebula.
“Is she there?” Esme is crying again. I can tell by her voice. But she is still in control. Her voice comes from very far away.
But I don’t know what she’s asking. “Who?”
She starts to ask something, but stops short. I hear nothing for a while, and I wonder if I am dead.
I say, “Please.” The pain is unbearable. “Please, end this. Let me die.”
I think I hear Esme from far away. She is crying. Then, nothing.
Finally, Esme is there again. Her voice would break my heart, if it hadn’t been burned away by the fires.
“Is Mom there?” she asks.
I want to answer, to tell her the truth. There is nothing here, just my own mortality. The tunnel opens up before me, and light blares out like a jazz trumpet, jangly and welcoming. Jesus says, “You see?”
There is no-one there, just the light.
This is not the first time I have seen this. This is not the first time Esme has asked me those questions. Esme can’t let me die. I am already dead.
A musician, a physicist, a biologist, and a programmer walk into a bar. They buy me a beer. The biologist says, “We’re sorry. This isn’t what immortality was supposed to look like.”
The pain is unbearable. I have been through this many times now. I can’t do this again.
“Yes,” I say. “She’s here. She says she loves you, and she’s very proud of you.”
Esme makes the same sound a parishoner makes when eaten by an alligator, full of love and fear and astonishment. “Thanks, Dad,” she says. “I love you.”
She says, “Good-bye,” and she pulls a plug, and I