The last thing I remember before he shoots me in the face is that I still haven’t told Tammy. Then everything goes black, the alleyway and the air and the rest of the world, and for a while there’s nothing, not even darkness. At some point I regain feeling in my legs and arms and head and the world bounces back in full color, the brown tinge of the alleyway and the silvery clouds and the glittering blood all over my clothes, and then high above there’s a light, blue as a propane flame, and it streams down in a huge cylindrical beam and sucks me up like a UFO’s abduction ray except without all the anal probing. I don’t realize that I’m dead—just figure that the bullet grazed my temple and knocked me out, and this is all some radical hallucination—until the beam carries me through the atmosphere and into space and drops me off near the sun, where a man with a pale face and a bit of a paunch is waiting.
“Hello, Gabe,” says God in a dramatic, echoing voice, his arms outstretched and glowing in the sunlight.
Shit. He’s real. Guess my parents were right all along. But to be honest, the guy looks and sounds more like a discount Julius Caesar with a cheap megaphone than what I’d consider an all-powerful deity. I mean, he doesn’t even have a beard.
“I know you dislike clichéd iconography, so I decided to do away with the facial hair,” God reads my mind.
There’s a fat, irritated zit—or a wart that he’s been picking at—under his mouth. You’d think the guy who shat the universe into existence would be able to tidy himself up with half a whirl of his finger, but then again, who is he trying to impress?
“Clean-shaven doesn’t really suit you,” I say, far more defiantly than I would’ve expected in front of the literal creator of everything.
He doesn’t look very offended. Probably because I’ve had a bone to pick with him for a while. I make that pretty clear most days, taking his over-respected name in vain and demanding practically aloud why he screwed me so hard in the birthing lottery.
“Well, Gabe,” God sighs, “I’m sorry you think you had to say that. But we’re not here to exchange witticisms or grievances.” He knots his hands behind his back and starts to drift closer to the sun, whose surface is bubbling and bursting with all kinds of nuclear belches. “Follow me, please.”
And I thought only humans were passive-aggressive, I think. I’m sure he hears that, but he doesn’t say anything, just keeps going. Which is when I notice that I’m not actually moving, and that, looking down, there’s a mess of dead-white vapor where my legs used to be. I’m about to cry out for help and a new pair of legs when God gives a bored wave of his hand and I zip up to him. He smirks with all the self-satisfaction of a very human jackass, but he smells so nice—like the tea-tree shampoo and coconut body wash my father used to use, though in a way that doesn’t burn your eyes—that it’s hard to stay irritated.
“You know, Gabe,” God shakes his head, “I’m wondering how someone with as much promise as you could deign to squander it all.”
I leer. “That’s an incredibly shitty thing—”
“Gabe, please. You were just killed by a rival drug dealer. You can’t tell me in the same breath as that happens that you think you’ve lived a fulfilling life.”
I guess he has a point, but he says it in a priggish way, which pisses me off, because the only person in the world who has the right to nag me with that kind of attitude is my mother.
“I do have a point,” he says, and he puts a big, sparkling, club-like hand on my shoulder, which feels more degrading than comforting. I’ve been here for a little over a minute and he’s already trying to get buddy-buddy with me? Where the hell was he all of the times I actually needed him and he didn’t drop even a hint that he gave a shit?
“Listen,” he says, and now his voice is almost deceptively smooth, “I know you’re angry with me. Which is why, when the time comes, I’m willing to respond to any questions or critiques that you have. But first—” He looks directly at the sun, which is now a foot away, and sticks one of his arms into it so nonchalantly that I nearly forget it’s a couple thousand degrees. As he withdraws, blackness spreads through the flames and takes the tall, narrow shape of a door. Because of course it would turn into a fucking door.
“You’re even grumbling about that?” God mumbles, then floats inside, shaking his head. I glide in behind him. When my eyes adjust to the darkness, I notice that we’re in some sort of a room. A room inside of the sun. Jesus Christ.
“You’re fond of expletives, aren’t you?” God comments.
I’m too busy wondering why the room is only slightly wider than a dining table, and why the only thing of note in here is an old fireplace flanked by two older rocking chairs, to respond.
“Come sit,” God says, and he chooses one of the chairs and starts to sway. He should look ridiculous—I mean, imagine the most powerful being in existence giggling in a fucking rocker—but he looks so comfortable and self-assured doing it that I end up feeling like the idiot. Trying not to blush, I take the chair across from him. Unsurprisingly, it’s pretty uncomfortable.
“There’s no reason to feel like you need to maintain some sort of an appearance when you’re with me,” God says. “Just be yourself. I’m fond of you, you know. Despite the many questionable things you’ve done during your limited lifetime.” He snaps his fingers. The flames in the fireplace spark and swirl yellow and purple, and mugs of—I wish I were lying—hot chocolate appear in our laps. He takes a swig, licks away the dollop of whipped cream smeared over his mouth, and stretches his dusty feet out toward the fire. I’m disappointed that I can’t do the same until I look down and see that I’ve got my legs back, and that my feet have been pedicured. I’m so relieved that I almost launch them into the fireplace trying to warm them.
“Be careful,” God laughs. “We have much to talk about, and I don’t want you to start screaming before we’ve even begun.” He gulps his drink, lifts his chin at the fire. I look between him and the flames, expecting something to happen, but nothing does.
“Uh, what’s supposed to—”
The fire hisses like a viper, and the flames rise and pop and spill out onto the floor. I stand up, but the fire reaches my toes before I can escape, and it rushes up my knees, my body, swallows my head. I can feel my skin melting off and the muscles and nerves beneath spasming and charring, and I yell out to God for help, but he doesn’t do anything, just sits there watching, and I curse at him, spit and swear until the smoke chokes my voice out and I start to see all sorts of images, each of them familiar, no, real, visions of every minor and major thing I’ve done and experienced—praying with Dad every night because he thought God would smite us if we didn’t, sucking on a mystery-flavored Dum Dum Mom had stolen from the drugstore, telling Sarah Lingenberger I liked her at recess, listening to Dad babble and scream about the fast-approaching rapture from his pulpit, lacerating my knee on the roof of the same drugstore Mom stole the Dum Dums from, jacking off on the living room carpet because Dad had forced me go to church that morning when all I wanted to do was sit in bed and read, watching Mom sob when she told me that I would go to hell for doing that, losing my virginity to Sarah Lingenberger, flushing the gold crucifix Aunt Martha got me down the toilet and telling Mom and Dad that I’d lost it, going to college, making good friends and losing them, shitting and vomiting in the streets when I got evicted that one March, beating David Rigel half to death because I was rocked on speed and he was bad-mouthing Tammy, and Tammy, with her big pretty eyes and her wild hair and her little square teeth that look like Chiclets, and that leather belt she always wears, the black one with the three extra holes in it, and that one night when we were at Bill’s place and she’d just broken up with Andy and she told me that she was glad she had me, I knew she didn’t mean it in a romantic way, and I told her that I was happy to have her, too, but I meant it in a very different way and she didn’t catch on, and Tammy, God, that one night when we were out camping with Yvette and Paul and you were tucked all warm in your sleeping bag and I couldn’t stop watching you because you looked so peaceful and you never look like that when you’re awake, is it really that hard to be at ease when someone clearly loves you even though they’ve never told you because I’m afraid that if I do you’ll say you won’t feel the same and then I’ll go back to being a sad and boring and hateful guy who just wants something to hold at night besides his pillow, and are you listening, Tammy, are you even listening?
“I’m sorry, Gabe,” God mutters, “but she can’t hear you right now.”
And the fire fizzles out. I feel no more pain. From what I can see, my skin and my muscles are still intact, as though I wasn’t choking on my own ashes a couple of seconds ago.
“What,” I catch my breath, my hands shaking so much that some of my hot chocolate spills in my lap, “in the fuck just happened?”
“A comprehensive review,” says God. “A refresher for you, and yet another opportunity for me to put your life into its proper context.”
“So you’re judging me right now,” I say, honestly somewhat scared.
“In a sense, yes.”
My parents always said that this would happen. That it was a guarantee. I should’ve listened to them. Been a good Christian for my whole life instead of just for part of it. “Well, if you’re gonna send me to hell,” I sigh, already resigning myself to eternal doom, “just do it, already.”
For some reason, he chuckles. “Oh, no. No, there’s no such thing as hell, Gabe. Nor is there any such thing as heaven.”
Wait, what? “So my parents were wrong, then?”
“They were both wrong and right. Just like every religious person.”
I just gape him, his pulsating wart-pimple.
“I’ll put it this way,” he says. “Every human-concocted faith is correct in some way. But none—through no fault of their own, I should add—has been able to completely unearth the nature of reality. The absolute truth is simply so much larger and stranger than any human can comprehend, and I imagine that things will stay that way.”
If I had more patience, I’d probably ask him to try to explain that truth to me, but I’m so worried about my own fate that I blurt, “So what’s gonna happen to me?”
“Well, that’s simple. You’ll be reincarnated.”
Oh. I guess that’s not so bad. “So the Hindus were right?”
“To an extent, yes. As were the Buddhists, in that regard.”
I nod for a long time, digesting. “Okay. I think I can deal with that. What am I gonna be brought back as?”
He purses his lips, like he knows I’m not going to like the answer, then grins with huge, white, perfectly-straight teeth. “Forgive me, Gabe, but I’m considering reincarnating you as . . . something like a bush. Or a nice, idle shrub.”
A . . . shrub? A fucking shrub?
“Please, Gabe, try not to swear so much while we’re—”
“Why in God’s—why would you reincarnate me as a shrub?”
“From your perspective, I imagine my decision seems unfair, but from mine, it’s actually quite—”
“Just get to the point.”
He stares down into his mug, takes the longest sip he has yet. “The simple answer—which I’m sure you’re already aware of—is because of the choices you’ve made. For years, you filled your life with negativity and disrespect. You renounced your senses of faith and decency to spite your parents, you flushed a representation of universal harmony down the toilet, you almost killed a man with your bare hands . . . the list goes on. Though I don’t want to call the act of reincarnating you in the form I’ve chosen punishment, I’d say it’s meant to be instructive—a decade without the ability to act on negative impulses, I think, should do you some tangible good.”
I try to take what he’s saying into serious consideration but fail in the first three seconds. “Have you ever considered,” I gnash, “what would’ve happened if you didn’t stick me in a family of dirt-poor religious nuts who cared more about you than they did about me? Fuck’s sake, I knew more about you than I did about being full by the time I was five. It’s not my fault that I turned out like this. You made me the way I am. Take some responsibility for it.”
He smirks again, and it’s probably the first time I’ve ever wanted to punch God in the face. “I think,” he says, “that you’ve fundamentally misunderstood the character of my power. You’re correct when you say that I created the universe, that I brought all life into being, and that my essence is one which radiates love and goodness and advances them not as commodities, but as inalienable virtues. But you are not right when you claim that I caused all of the misfortune of which you speak, because I had nothing to do with any of it. See, when I created humans, I didn’t do so with the intention to render them my subordinates; I simply don’t feel that I deserve unending praise for a series of acts I carried out as an experiment. Therefore, I installed in humans the capacity for free will, giving them full reign over their thoughts, actions, and emotions. This includes granting them the power to fall in love and procreate with whomever they wish without any interference on my part. Subsequently, I tried my best—to mixed results, as we can agree—to separate myself from your kind in more practical ways: I would issue no direct orders, would offer no help, and would foster no direct communication with any being until their death, and thus far, I’ve kept true to that intention.
“In theory, this all seemed perfectly sound, but there’s a complication that I, for some reason, didn’t foresee: that unadulterated free will knows no bounds, nor does the uniquely human need to believe in something, which explains why so many of your kind have not only formulated innumerable creeds, faiths, and religions that say very similar things about love, death, morality, and grief, but why they’ve also convinced themselves that the free will they possess does not actually exist.”
I stay quiet for a while, not quite sure how to feel about any of this information, partly because it’s so complicated and partly because it’s completely alien to me. Eventually I respond, “So what you’re saying is you’re just as clueless and misguided as we are.”
He circles the brim of his mug with a finger. “That’s a rather pessimistic way of putting it. I’d prefer to say that I’m just as flawed as my creations. Perhaps even more so.”
I stare at him. This guy who my parents and billions of others have spent their lives venerating and fearing and looking to for answers that even he doesn’t have. It’s a demented joke without a punchline, one so bleak and pointless and disturbing that I can’t help but laugh really hard. So fucking hard, in fact, that my lungs tingle and burn. God cocks his head for a moment, then starts to laugh, too.
“I know it seems ridiculous,” he says. “And in some ways, it is. But this is simply the way things have always been.”
When he says this, though, and the finality of my life begins to metastasize, I stop laughing. Because in a minute or two, he’s going to shoot me back down to Earth as a pale green plant that can’t do much more than fart oxygen into the wind. And I can’t let that happen. Not with all the things I still haven’t done. So I say, my voice hard yet pretty clearly terrified, “You have to give me another chance.”
He stops laughing, too, thins his eyes at me. “I’m sorry?”
“You have to bring me back. I don’t care if I’m . . . if I’m fucked in the head for the rest of my life. Just bring me back. Please.”
He looks like he’s unsure whether I’m joking. Then he shakes his head slowly. “I’m terribly sorry, Gabe, but I can’t do that. What’s done is—”
“Don’t give me that old cliché. It is not done. You’ve been—I guess alive is the word—for an eternity, and you still don’t know what the hell you’re doing. So how could you expect me to have done any better in only thirty years?”
He opens his mouth, closes it, nods me on.
“You keep pushing this big idea that your whole business is love and compassion, but you’re showing neither of them right now. All I see is that you’re judgmental just because you can be. Yeah, I admit that I didn’t do as well with the hand I was dealt as either of us was expecting, but it’s not fair to erase me just for that. Especially because if you were to give me another shot, I’d be a lot better than a cynical douche who’s too disillusioned to care.”
He leans back in his chair, which squeaks.
“Just—if you admit that humans have free will,” I keep on, “then I should have the right to decide what I want for myself, which is that you let me go back home so I can internalize what we’ve talked about and live the rest of my life with Tammy and—” I swallow. “Look, when I die for real, you can bring me back as a bush, or a shrub, or whatever plant or flower or rock you fucking want, and I won’t give you an ounce of grief. I swear to you that I won’t. But this one time, I’ve got to beg, because otherwise, how will I know if any of the things you’re saying are actually true, or if any of this . . . life shit actually means anything?”
He keeps rocking for a long time. Then he finishes his hot chocolate, flicks the mug out of existence with a wag of a finger, and says, “Well, Gabe, you’ve certainly said your piece.”
Shit. “Hear me—”
“And you’ve successfully proven me wrong. So I will do right by you and send you back to Earth.”
I close to jump out of my chair. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I end up doing both.
“You’re welcome,” God says. He clears his throat. “Though I must admit that you didn’t convince me of your position with your arguments. I could have refuted every point you made in less than a minute.”
Well, that properly deflates my ego.
“You convinced me with your will to live,” God continues. “You’ve never acted this way before, and it would be truly terrible of me to deprive you of the potential you’re finally accessing by denying your request.”
I nod and nod and nod, still laughing and crying, and without really registering what I’m doing I start to sign a cross on my chest, probably for the first time in close to twenty years, but God puts a hand up and says, “There’s no need to do that, Gabe. I don’t expect you, or frankly want you, to devoutly reassume your religion after this. I only want you to refrain from taking this opportunity for granted. Try to do and be good, and not for my sake.”
I wipe my face. “Okay,” I say. “Okay.”
Then, with the moan of an old, arthritic man, God gets out of his chair, leans against the fireplace, and motions me to do the same. I’m afraid that l whatever he’s about to make me do will cause a lot of pain, so I hesitate to stand up.
He smiles. “I promise it won’t burn this time,” he says.
What a relief. I get up and stand across from him and stare at the orange, green, blaring white flames. God grabs my shoulder with his shiny hand, gives it a squeeze, and says, “But it might hurt a little bit.”
Before I can react, he throws me into the fire, and the room peels away from my body like a picked scab, and I’m tumbling through a cold, black, sludge-filled pit that only gets darker as I near the bottom, wherever the fuck that is, and I’m screaming and cursing and clawing at the air, and then I slam back into my body at close to the speed of the bullet that ended me, and I open my eyes to a hospital room with white walls and white floors and brutal white lights, and Jesus Christ, my head aches like a motherfucker, and every other part of me is stiff and brittle, and I can already tell that it’s going to be a while before I feel normal again.
“He’s awake,” a woman whose voice I don’t recognize says. And then that woman and a dozen other masked people crowd around and start interrogating me.
“What year is it?” they ask.
“Who’s the President?”
“How old are you?”
I answer everything correctly, which they’re amazed by. They tell me that I’m incredibly lucky to have emerged from my coma—which had apparently lasted a week—and that even with all of the life-saving surgeries they performed, they weren’t sure that I was going to make it, which I gather means that Bill did a pretty efficient job boring a hole in my head. Then the nurses and doctors pump me full of all sorts of fluids and pain medication and monitor me for another hour before they leave the room, at which point my parents, who I’m strangely happy to see, scurry into the room like a pair of coke-addled muskrats.
“Oh, thank God, my boy,” they fawn, leaking tears and snot, their crucifixes dangling from their wrinkled necks. “Thank God you’re alive. Thank the Good Lord above.”
Which I can’t really fault them for saying.
For the next few hours they linger by my bedside, telling me that I look just as handsome as I did before, that I weirdly don’t even look like I got injured, and asking about as many questions as the medical personnel did, which irritates me until I realize that they’re also trying to see if I’ve lost any cognitive functionality. I expect them to at some point quit the pleasantries and address the fat fucking magenta elephant in the room—that I was shot by a man I’d screwed out of a couple grand in drug money—but they don’t, which, upon some consideration, I can’t blame them for. Or maybe they just don’t know the truth.
Exhaustion hits hard once the conversation passes the four-hour mark, and I’m starting to close my eyes when Dad says something that I kind of already knew but am still shocked to hear:
“You were clinically dead for twelve minutes.”
So I actually did die. And, although I wasn’t exactly doubting it, I suppose I really did meet God. Or whoever the hell he was.
With this new information swimming around, Mom asks perhaps the most Rachael Samlin question she can ask: “Did you . . . did you see Him?”
Well, I can’t tell the truth. Can’t imagine how they would react if I were to tell them that the God I met wasn’t the God they’ve devoted their whole lives to, or if I were insane enough to reveal that I was a few strokes away from being reincarnated as a fucking bush. So I try my best to look enlightened, and say, “I was walking in this long, dark tunnel with a bright white light at the end of it, and when I got to the other side, I saw Jesus, and he had this curly brown beard and these beautiful white robes that smelled like roses, and he told me that he was going to take me to heaven, and then he took my hand and brought me to the pearly gates, and right as Saint Peter was opening them up, Jesus turned to me and said that I had to come back, because my work on Earth wasn’t finished. And so here I am.”
That makes them swoon. And I’m glad it does. They deserve it after all the shit I’ve put them through.
Later, after Mom and Dad have fallen asleep in the spare cot by the window, a nurse steps into the room holding a wireless phone and says, “Mr. Samlin, there’s a Tammy Walsh calling. She was wondering if she could speak to you.”
Normally, the idea of speaking to Tammy over the phone would make my heart pop out of my ass, but now, I don’t hesitate.
“Hey,” I say, putting the phone to my ear.
And she says, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe you’re alive.”
She asks a dozen questions. I answer all of them. Tell her about the whole incident. About how I’m feeling. Then I tell her that I met God.
“Holy shit,” she says. “You . . . you met Him? What—well, how’d that go?”
I say, “Well, you’re not gonna believe it, but he’s kind of an asshole.”
And she laughs.
And then I say, because I’ll never have a better chance to than now, “Listen, I’ve been meaning to ask you this for a while, but—well, do you wanna go out with me sometime?”
For a moment there’s only static on her end. Then there’s a long, loud laugh, a classic Tammy cackle with all of its wheezes and hiccups and snorts, and she sighs and clicks her tongue and tells me, “Well, Gabe, all I can say is I’m disappointed you didn’t ask me earlier.”