Follow the Devil / Follow the Light

Part One: Hell Is Other People

This is part one of nine chapters of a short novel written by Jeremiah Webster, an English Professor at Northwest University and an ordained deacon in the Anglican Communion. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals and his book of poems, After So Many Fires, was published in 2018. Follow the Devil / Follow the Light is his first novel. 


 

Note to Readers:

Can the reality of Imago Dei eclipse the failings of an unlovable protagonist? Can the Christian imagination speak to a generation captivated by Stranger Things, Squid Game, and the Marvel universe? Can the means of pop culture advance theological ends? These were just some of the questions I wrestled with during the creation of Follow the Devil / Follow the Light. 

What follows is a supposal, a work of fiction, a dark vision for dark times. There are fits of allegory throughout, but nothing to advance the tradition of Plato, Dante, Bunyan, Hawthorne, etc. I have no unique access into the provinces of the hereafter: infernal or beatific. Fortunately, neither do my readers. This side of the veil, we can only speculate “what dreams may come.”

***

Seattle, Washington2015

Hell Is Other People

 

Joe Muggeridge had read that in college. French philosopher. He couldn’t remember which one. Joe didn’t know if it was true, but it felt true as he rode Seattle Transit from Scion Digital (the startup where he worked) to his apartment on Capitol Hill. The bus made a jolt to stop for another round of commuters. Blue collars. Drifters. Down-and-outers. Joe watched them, passengers all, shuffle to their respective seats. Humanity, beautiful in the abstract, paragon of animals, was all well and good. Having to sit next to actual souls on a poorly ventilated bus, smell their lunch, worry one might strike up a conversation, was another matter entirely. 

A man, disheveled and in need of a shower, sat next to Joe and belched into the open echo-chamber of the bus. His pronouncement obliterated the invisible shield Joe had manufactured with headphones and a Nintendo 3DS. Joe resented the man’s demeanor (tattered baseball cap, flannel, Walmart chic) but had been trained like all good Seattleites in the ways of tolerance. 

“Headed home?” the man asked. 

Joe pretended not to hear.

“Not a talker?” 

Joe pretended round two. 

Link Between Worlds?” the man asked looking down at Joe’s device. “Murder on the eyes. Used to play but kept getting headaches. None of the new ones are as good as Ocarina. Never been a Twilight Princess or Windwaker fan. How long you owned the 3DS?” 

Joe turned up the volume on his headphones. The man must have heard the audio coming from Joe’s earbuds because he didn’t speak to him again. Had Joe looked up from his screen, he would have seen the man’s eyes go distant. Mind under ether. Despondent. Backpack in tow, the man got off at 19th and E Thomas St., scratched an armpit with his right hand as his left dug for the smartphone in his back pocket. Joe wouldn’t see him again. Not a regular. He was sure of it. 

Hell is other people.

The bus lurched to resume its route, and the thought of Hell brought an array of medieval images to Joe’s mind. Adamantine chains. Parasitic fires. Devils in red spandex. Pitchforks. Always the pitchforks, as though a simple farming tool had gotten a bad rap somehow. Was Hell any worse than the bus he was on? Joe couldn’t decide. Twenty First Century America seemed Hell enough without the Abyss that had so inspired the residents of antiquity. The death of Satan, and its promised emancipation, had merely conjured up new devils in Joe’s lifetime. Modern devils. IRS. Identity theft. Cancer. Malware. 

Joe’s daydream was interrupted by another jolt from the bus. His stop this time. He exited using the back doors. One less encounter that way, even if Heather, the driver, was reliably kind. 

It began to rain as Joe walked the five blocks uphill from the bus stop to his apartment. Joe thought of owning a car every time he walked home, but city life was prohibitive to such a luxury. The affluence of his youth (suburbia, two car family, getaways to Leavenworth) was an unattainable past in the present economy. Between school debt and rent going up every year, he’d have to find a cheaper place eventually. 

Anything but the east side, he thought. Single men walked their dogs. Hipsters hit the bars early. A woman pushed a cart of hodgepodge uphill as a bearded man played harmonica. Not a single umbrella among them. Umbrellas: the “tell” of every tourist in the Pacific Northwest. Joe basked in the bustle of his neighborhood. He acknowledged no one and appreciated the fact that Seattle culture encouraged residents to return the favor. It was a paradise for introverts, a sanctuary for rebels and recluses. He passed Empyrean Coffee and the E-Z convenience store. Miriam, the owner, was sweeping the aisles. She looked at him through the front glass, offered a nod, but did not wave. 

Joe had missed the 5:20 on account of Matthew, his boss. Missed deadlines meant mandatory meetings scheduled late in the day, a form of corporate penance resented by everyone. Matthew was a Harvard grad Gen-Xer who mentioned his chance encounter with Bill Gates at a tech conference in the early 90s (along with detailed reports of his latest Tinder hookup) on a weekly basis. Joe had adopted the habit of cursing him under his breath every time he walked by the six felt-lined cubicles that passed for office space. It didn’t bode well for promotion. 

Hell is other people. 

If Joe had known the potential for grace that resided on bus #405. If he had perceived his neighbor’s empathy. If he had talked to Belching Man and learned his name, given him a morsel of attention, he would have discovered a shared love for Mystery Science Theater 3000 and JRPGs. He would have learned that they both studied computer programming at the University of Washington and were Linux devotees. Both carried private griefs that haunted them still. Both had lost a parent young. 

But no, Joe had cloistered himself from such possibilities a long time ago. Besides, Sartre was right. The philosopher’s name came to him suddenly. Hell is other people. There it was. In the acute loneliness he felt in a crowd. In the bluster and boredom of parties. But as Joe Muggeridge would soon learn, Hell assumed other forms as well. Solitary forms. And on a rainy April afternoon in Seattle, Washington, Joe found a Hell of his very own, setting its teeth, priming its claws, waiting for him in the dim isolation of a one-bedroom apartment.

Summons

 

Joe Muggeridge was late. Late for another frozen pizza in an apartment where no one waited to welcome him. Late for My Sonic Delusion, a livestream ever an episode away from cancellation. Late for DM81overLORD to summon him on his computer to the RPG world of Cannibal Cave. Late for onanism by rote before Sleep — that Dark Emperor — simulated death for six dreamless hours before leaving Joe Muggeridge to compose another day identical to this one. 

Joe was running so late for his evening rituals that he did not notice the demon squatting on his IKEA kitchen table until after he had removed the laptop bag from his shoulder and placed it on the counter. He was texting when the intruder caught his peripheral vision. Joe looked up from the life of his smartphone as terror coaxed his lungs toward a scream.  

The demon sipped herbal tea from a cup Joe’s mother used on rare Sunday visits. It had also pissed on the linoleum. Liquid sulfur. Marking territory. Vulgar, to be sure, but not uncommon. Let the record show that, though omitted from Milton’s survey of perdition, Lucifer’s minions are never housebroken. 

The demon’s chalk-white skin pulled tight against its skeletal frame. Stick-like fingers and toes blossomed from gnarled stumps fashioned into hands and feet before growing into spindly branches for arms and legs. Its torso resembled an antique birdcage and every now and then undulations beneath the skin suggested life, as though small birds were trying to prod and peck their way out. Its nakedness revealed the absence of genitals. So repellent is the idea of reproduction among the damned that even if it had had them, the demon would have volunteered for castration. There is, of course, sex in Hell, but it bears little resemblance to the ecstasy Adam and Eve knew in paradise. 

The face was coherent in the sense that it possessed a mouth, nose, and eyes, but even these looked as though they had been fashioned by an amateur. The mouth gaped like the orifice of a worm as pin-like teeth encircled a parasitic tongue. The eyes were nearly shuttered: thin slits with no iris winking beneath. The face was consumptive, false, a remnant of the face that had once looked upon the face of God. 

The phone fell from Joe’s grasp to land on the kitchen counter as the demon set its cup down like an Austen lady. It then shifted its weight on the table with a turn of the hips and pounced, pushed Joe across the room until the twenty-something was pinned against the refrigerator. The impact forced the scream from Joe’s lungs, but (to the demon’s disappointment) was nothing more than a rush of air when it finally emerged from the O of his mouth. A terrible paralysis took hold of Joe Muggeridge. It prevented retaliation. It muzzled the inborn instinct of fight or flight.

Victim restrained, the demon carved Peter’s inverted cross onto Joe’s forehead with the nail of its middle finger.[1] The warmth now emanating from Joe’s cranium could only be blood. And then, with a voice as normal and unassuming as any soul you might meet on the street, the demon said, “I curse you in the name of our Father, and in Sin, and for the pleasure of Death the Spirit. Amen.” 

The demon’s grip allowed Joe to breathe, but little else. Scarification complete, the creature used its right hand to pull a scroll (as old as the ones from Qumran) from thin air. Joe couldn’t decide what was more miraculous: a demon violating his person, or a scroll emerging ex nihilo in a kitchen of Formica and particleboard. The demon unfurled the scroll (it was made of some sort of skin) on the counter next to Joe and began to chant in guttural tones. Joe tried to move, fight even, but the demon’s grip was its own law, as fixed as gravity. 

“This isn’t real,” Joe said aloud, attempting to escape and failing. “No. Stop it. No!” Joe insisted again to the reality before him. But the demon was real. As real as the blood that ran down Joe’s face. As real as Joe’s stomach gone sick. A few more lines of liturgy and the demon stopped to examine Joe’s left arm. 

“Do you mind?” the demon asked with clinical detachment. “Squirm like that and I’m liable to hit an artery.” It then surveyed the geography of freckles on Joe’s arm, stretched the arm out over the scroll, paused for a moment, and with the same nail employed on Joe’s forehead, punctured the hinge where humerus and radius meet. This time, Joe’s scream found its voice. 

Drops of blood formed a perverse Rorschach on the once blank scroll. The demon released Joe’s arm to examine its handiwork. 

“Men and women float on a dead sea,” the demon said. “All drown but cannot drown. Pandemonium. Your sister among them.” The demon drew six runes in the blood. The letters glowed like small embers as thin flames of yellow light outlined each contour. Joe writhed. The demon ignored him. Madame Sosostris[2] would have killed for this bit of divination.

Sister.

He hadn’t thought of Nora in years. Twins: born on St. Michaelmas Day.[3] His mother, a devout Catholic, had reminded them each year with a statue of St. Michael on the cake they shared until birthday number seven. Number seven. The last “happy” birthday in Joe’s mind. Number seven. The year Nora died. 

Stupidest thing. A fall on the steps leading up to the entrance of the brick elementary school. A slip in the rain, and a tumble backward so comical the other children had laughed. Laughed at Nora in her blue sweater and tan pants. Laughed as her body crushed the cheap backpack she was wearing. Laughed when Nora’s head hit one, two, three descending steps. Laughed even when there was the audible snap of her neck, and the body went limp. Laughed when Joe, helpless, could not find a grownup to help his twin sister for one eternal minute. If death was inevitable, Nora deserved a better death. A death with some discernible purpose. A death to match her life. 

“Let go of me,” Joe said brazenly. “Now!”

“Certainly,” the demon said. It released its hold to lessen the turning screw of oppression ever so slightly. The claws of the demon’s feet clicked impatiently on the kitchen floor. “Ready for the journey.”  

“Journey?” Joe asked, clutching his left arm. He searched the kitchen for a dish towel to mop the remaining blood from his forehead and create a compress for his arm. “I’m not going anywhere.” 

“We’re going on holiday,” the demon said, “and you’re coming with me as sure as souls exist in Hell.”

“I don’t believe in Hell,” Joe replied. “I’m not even sure I believe in you.”

“Give it time.”

There was a knock on the apartment door. A neighbor. Joe’s scream had caught the ear of a Samaritan, but he couldn’t imagine who it might be. Fred the retired veteran wasn’t walking his terrier this time of day, and Sarah, Joe’s sometimes girlfriend, hadn’t responded to any of his texts after the round of monotonous sex that had transpired between them a week ago. 

“You okay in there?” a man’s voice called from behind the door. Jim? Or was it Bill? The guy who never made eye contact or said a word when Joe passed him in the hall. “I heard screaming. Should I call the cops?”

“Lie, or I remove the tongue from your mouth,” the demon vowed. Joe hesitated, but a display of teeth reinforced the promise.

“Sorry,” Joe managed, trying to make his voice normal-loud enough to pass through the front door. “My bad. Nothing to worry about.”

“You sure?” the neighbor persisted. “You alone in there?”

“Yeah …,” Joe said, “Ah, new video game. Makes Vile Vixen 2 look tame. Sorry. I’ll turn it down.” 

“You do that,” Jim / Bill said. Joe heard the man shuffle down the hall and close his apartment door. 

“Quaint display of charity,” the demon said. 

“At least he doesn’t assault strangers,” Joe shot back. 

“Stranger?” A large undulation grew where the heart should be on the demon’s chest only to pop like a soap bubble. “I’ve known you your whole life, Joe Muggeridge. The day you lied to your mother about the twenty-dollar bill. I was there. Skipping class with what’s his name? David? Yes. David. Rebellion alone wasn’t enough to vandalize that retirement home, so you and David took swigs from a stolen bottle of vodka to finish the deed. Pushing drugs behind the high school library.” Fear took hold of Joe as the racing thump of his heart threatened to give him away. Could this creature possibly know? Overdose at a party. Underage sophomore. Bainbridge law enforcement on the scene. Months long campus-wide inquisition. Hearsay upon hearsay. Inconclusive aftermath. Obituary on KOMO News 4 at 6:00.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Joe lied. He had sold amphetamines and oxycodone to countless individuals over the years. What they did with the pills and inherent risk was their own business, but he had never forgotten the girl’s face. 

“I encouraged you to watch that soprano undress during the high school choir tour, teenage loins aching with guilt,” the demon continued. “Rationalized the pornography you pant over in your bedroom with enough Epicurean reasons to satisfy any bachelor. I’ve cultivated a garden of sublime maladies in your life, Joe Muggeridge. I even watched Nora die.” 

The air went cold.

“Laughed among those children. Attended the funeral. Saw your parents conceive the two of you on that couch in your mother’s house. She still has it, doesn’t she? Red pillows. Brown upholstery. Pedestrian business. A mercy your father died when … ”  

Joe managed two weak syllables. “Nora …” he said. The name, wingless, unable to advance a coherent thought, tumbled to the ground.

“I’ve only begun my work on Joe Muggeridge,” the demon said, tilting its head in animal-like appraisal. “The cross can save your life,” it said, pointing to Joe’s forehead, “but the talisman is my own business.” The demon made a glance at the scroll on the counter and Joe watched it dissolve like candy floss into thin air.

“God.” Joe said. 

“Careful,” the demon spat, “are we praying or cursing here?” It then moved without a sound to the middle of the living room to perch like a plucked bird on the coffee table. “And what god are we invoking today? Hmm? Kali? No help there, as she would only commend my efforts. Moloch: pederast devourer of children? Don’t worry. I won’t tell the authorities you uttered his name. Some minor god not yet named among the pantheon, perhaps? Certainly not the Nazarene. Not from someone of your persuasion,” the demon said, glancing about the apartment. Modern icons adorned the room: a pinup of some buxom blonde, an homage to the film career of Quentin Tarantino, an ensemble of collectable action figures on a bookshelf, and an Arcade Fire poster from the Neon Bible tour.  

In addition to this array of pop decor, Joe’s living room was a near respectable museum of retro computer hardware and video game consoles. For as long as he could remember, Joe had been fascinated by the evolution of technology. Kilobytes to terabytes in a generation. He started collecting in high school, beginning with a Commodore 64 with no monitor in mint condition from a local Goodwill. A year later he acquired an Atari 2600 with three games and a working controller from a store in the University District. Two yellowed 128k Macintosh computers sat like solemn nuns, one sans keyboard and mouse. Five obsolete mag tapes from an old IBM reel-to-reel drive acquired dust next to a Nintendo Entertainment system with ten games hooked up to a VHF input television from the mid-80s that worked until it didn’t. He even had a photograph of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey taped to the monitor of a Tandy 1000. The “holy grail,” the relic Joe desired most for his collection was an original Apple I. Not because he was some sort of Apple fanboy, far from it, but the historic significance was undeniable. Wozniak and Jobs had only made two hundred of them in ’76. Working models auctioned for hundreds of thousands of dollars online. An unlikely dream, but a dream nonetheless.  

Eyes fixed on his adversary, Joe hobbled over to the kitchen table and sat down. His smartphone vibrated on the counter, each Pavlovian buzz demanding compliance. It danced on that counter, declared its preeminence, and for the first time in his life, Joe ignored it. 

“So, I don’t have a choice?” Joe asked. “I’m going against my will?”

“By no means. Say the word, and I disappear into the drywall. The path I offer was created by your own indomitable will. I am merely the guide, here to illustrate the futility of your present dispensation.”

The smartphone vibrated once more. Voicemail.

“What are you?”

“I am Morte Magari,” the demon replied.[4] “Your misplaced desire manifest. Your inviolate and incarnate vice.” 

“For God’s sake, just leave.”

“Dante had Virgil,” the demon continued, ignoring him, “and for the medieval mind you so detest, Reason was enough to guide all contrite souls to the halls of divine love. You and your generation have no such luxury.”   

A vision came to Joe’s mind.

Human corpse in a wheelbarrow. Face covered — maroon tarp — legs protrude crazily out the front end — right hand missing. Bruised left foot of corpse scrapes black earth every now and then as the wheelbarrow negotiates rough terrain. The demon walks beside him. They leave a harrowed field. Creatures scream beneath the ground like living fossils. He struggles with the wheelbarrow. Up a ridge. Dead sky. At the summit they look down upon a vast gray sea. Waves churn bodies caught in the tide: human bodies, dolphin, squid, thousands of birds, LEVIATHAN,[5] Flotsam, and jetsam. “Home,” the demon says.

The vision ended.

“You have no right to judge me,” Joe replied, voice breaking. “I have no idea how you know these things, my past, but you have no right to judge me. I’m no criminal.” He began to cry. Great sobs. He cried for Nora, his widowed mother, and the sundry horrors that seemingly awaited him. Through his tears, Joe felt the demon move from the coffee table to reinstate its dominance, the blanched white body and anemic limbs more repellent than ever. 

“Judge you?” the demon whispered into Joe’s ear, “O, I do. And in an age as judgmental as yours, I must. Let’s tour the sins against love, shall we? The ones you condone. The ones you don’t. Curious. You insist your sins are minor, and yet you appear incapable of forgetting them. Tell the truth. The twenty-dollar bill still haunts you to this day. Admit it.” 

“It does,” Joe confessed. “Stupid.” 

“And the girl you watched undress,” the demon continued, “you remember every seam of the black lingerie she wasn’t wearing for you.”

“Yes.” 

“And you cannot bring yourself to admit culpability in the opiate death of a fifteen-year-old sophomore.”

“Stop,” Joe said. 

“Never. You believe Self governs life.” The demon’s face was now as close to Joe’s as any lover. “Go ahead. Say I don’t exist. Look me in the eye. Do it!”

Joe buried his face in his arms, weeping.

“Say I don’t exist and watch me tear at this body of yours until bones reveal hidden ivory to your disbelieving senses. Say I don’t exist as you mop your blood and my piss off your linoleum floor. Say I don’t exist, and explain away a crucifix on your forehead … ”    

“Stop it,” Joe wept. “Please. Just stop.” 

“Make me,” the demon said.

Descent

 

The demon stepped away from the sop of tears that was Joe Muggeridge and searched the living room like a man looking for a lost remote. “It’s here somewhere,” Magari said, flummoxed. The demon tossed a WIRED magazine into the air, a pair of socks. A VR headset was relocated from the couch, and a box of takeout made an unsavory splut when it hit the wall. Joe sat up at the kitchen table to wipe his eyes with a shirt sleeve. 

“What are you looking for?” Joe caught himself. Twenty minutes ago, he had been an average employee for an average tech firm in Seattle. Happily secular. Decidedly agnostic. He didn’t believe a word of the old religions.   

Every one of them had been the worst kind of lie, a myth that rationalized bad behavior: Zealots and Hucksters Anonymous. They were lies that made people abandon reality for a heavenly hoax. They were lies that found meaning in fairies and starlight, plant growth and procreation. Religion was far more egregious than the lies he had told his devout Mother, and Joe was more sympathetic to the Transhumanists who lectured Friday evening than the peddlers who passed the plate Sunday morning. 

So, what now? Now that he was carrying on with this (say it) demon whose conduct was more akin to “abusive uncle” than “deplorable fiction”? The mind fractured. Cerebrum by Escher.  

“Where exactly are you taking me?”

“Nowhere,” the demon said, annoyed. “One plane holds all dimensions. Folds on a map. One need only expose the veil you call reality. You don’t really think Heaven is up and Hell down, do you?” The demon shot Joe a look like a child who can’t believe the younger sibling hasn’t learned his times tables. 

“I don’t know what I think. You’re a myth.” 

“A true myth. A myth independent of your intellectual fashions and faux pas. A myth divorced from your understanding of science.”  

“A supernatural being who happens to be anti-science.” Joe found his courage. “Next you’ll be telling me evolution is a fraud, the laws of physics are a ruse, and the Enlightenment was a bad idea. Go pick on a Christian who believes you exist!” Joe was startled by his sudden resolve. 

“I said no such thing.”

“And I’m supposed to go along with you after you break into my home and cut up my face.”

“By allowing me to mark you with that cross, you resigned yourself to my tutelage.”

“I allowed none of this,” said Joe angrily. “Get out of my apartment!”

“Were I not compelled toward a loftier enterprise I would have dined on your kidneys with a bottle of Pinot Noir and been done with it. For all He stripped from the native psyche, ambition remains.”

“He?” Joe asked. 

“Creator. First cause. Prime mover.” 

“I don’t believe in God.” 

“What do you believe in?”  

“I believe in myself.” 

“And we wonder why celebrities go mad.” The demon’s scoff was followed by a sudden exuberance. “Ah! Here it is.” 

It grasped an invisible handle and proceeded to walk the length of the living room. An opening burgeoned mid-air, six feet or more in length. Reality unzipped, and a hidden passage appeared in Joe Muggeridge’s one-bedroom apartment. The demon’s revelation distorted the couch and coffee table, the bookshelf and posters, casting these objects into waves of liquid, glass, and fog. Atoms shimmered, shook in vain to reassert the three dimensions. One would think the entire room had been plunged underwater save for the distinct contours of this newfound gaping maw. 

“This way.” The demon pulled on the bottom of the entrance until it was wide enough for the two of them to enter. They would have to crawl up into the passage, peas to their pod, the entrance impossibly black. 

“To what end?” Joe asked, astonished.

“To whatever end you choose. It’s preferable to what Job had to endure.” 

“Is that some reference to the Bible?” 

“How illiterate they become,” the demon said, looking up at the ceiling. “Even Your story joins the democratic dead. Goliath goes the way of Gilgamesh. Herod lies down with Hecate. Paul joins Plutarch on the shelf.”

“I hate you.”

“That’s the idea. Now let me take you to someone you don’t hate.” The demon extended a crooked hand in invitation. 

“Nora?” Joe asked.   

It was impossible of course. And yet, Joe’s skepticism was also making itself rather impossible in the present moment. The demon had power beyond the world’s meager aspirations. Even as its victim, Joe admired the demon’s autonomy and lack of inhibition. Standing there, in all its naked revulsion, was an incarnate god. Did not this demon exhibit the very ideals so sought after by Joe’s ape-like race? And was not its recent demonstration, here in Joe’s apartment, more enviable than the fleeting satisfactions of Hedonism Inc.? If there was a beautiful side to evil, it found expression in the demon’s feral aspect and unfettered agency.

The control. 

Joe had never seen anything like it. It eclipsed the lulling fantasies he consumed each night in front of his great glowing screens. It eclipsed the dead weight that was his career, his sense of belonging, his waning self-worth. Could destructive means make for redemptive ends? Shattered glass for a grand mosaic? A eucatastrophe after all? Or would the demon’s offer to see Nora be the final let-down for Joe Muggeridge and his let-down life?

Joe got up from the dining room table, walked into the kitchen, opened the cabinet above the stove where he kept a stash of “prescription” drugs, retrieved a small bottle of oxycodone, and put it in his back pocket.

“Don’t bother,” Magari said.

“Sorry. Mr. Percocet goes where I go.” 

“So human. To relegate euphoria to a regimen of pills.” 

“You finished?” 

“Maybe. Maybe not …” 

“Then get on with it,” Joe interrupted him. “Take me to Nora.” 

And he walked toward the abyss. 

***

The demon crawled up into the portal like the Garden’s limbed serpent. Joe, however, needed assistance as he clumsily tried to hoist himself up into the passage. Grabbing the bottom with both hands, he threw his right leg up over the lip of the yawning cavern and allowed the demon to haul him the rest of the way. 

“Attaboy,” the demon mocked. Flat on his stomach, Joe looked back at his world from the entrance of this floating cave. The apartment was suddenly deficient. Inconsequential. He saw it in the stack of Blu-Rays still encased in their plastic wrap near the HD television, in the odd for odd’s sake jars of ectoplasm he had purchased at last year’s Comi-Con convention. A never-used medieval sword posed awkwardly in the corner as the screensaver on his computer displayed seizure-inducing psychedelia. Even his smartphone assumed an air of obsolescence.

“You won’t miss it,” the demon assured him.      

“But I need my phone,” Joe said anxiously. 

“Not where we’re going.” 

“We’ll see. Now what?” 

“Follow the devil. Follow the light.” 

The demon crawled ten feet or more into the void and stood upright. Against the impenetrable darkness, it glowed like an icon. The eyes — sockets of a blind fish — beckoned persistently.  

With a final glance at his apartment, Joe crawled toward the demon until he too could stand. The black “floor” became indivisible from “sky,” and the demon’s body was now the only source of light.

“That’s it. That’s the way. I am the light of the world,” the demon sang like a mock hymn. “Now do exactly as I say. No questions until we arrive.” 

“Arrive where?” Joe asked, forgetting himself.

“Slow study?”

“Sorry.” 

“Ministers of Hell defend us.”

The two walked into this nowhere. This middle way. No sound, not even the echo of their footfalls. Then how can we speak? Joe thought. Better not to ask. It was impossible to measure the span of their travel with so little provision for the senses. Joe now wished he had brought his smartphone along just to see how the maps app would respond. No doubt the voice activated assistant would have a field day: I’m sorry, Joe, but I can’t help you right now. Joe looked back. The entrance to his apartment was now a speck of white light as big as a toad’s eye.

“Never look back,” the demon hissed. “Always forward or … “ 

“Or what?” 

The demon struck Joe across the face. Hard. Joe’s right hand formed a fist. Hatred rushed to a boil. If left unresolved, it would hollow out Joe’s humanity entirely. Devour marrow. Leave a husk. 

“Now hit me,” the demon said. “Become Judas for once. Betray your Seattleite commitment to merely being nice. It’s the only way to get there. To Nora … “

There was a sudden rush of air. It caught them so off guard that both Joe and the demon struggled to maintain their footing. The space became a silent wind tunnel. A creature struck Joe’s left shoulder, scampered up his neck, across his face, and used the top of his head to launch itself back into the gale. Three more collided into his stomach only to recover and rejoin the flock that glided noiselessly above. 

There were thousands of them: slight bodies, transparent wings, silver feathers that glowed with the same light as the demon. Knife-like wounds ran nape to tail. Harpies. Birds with human faces: women, men, children. Each one carried a photograph (like the Polaroids grandparents keep in desk drawers) between a pair of jagged claws. Joe snatched a photo from one of the creatures as it flew past. It cried in protest, circled back to retrieve the lost photograph, but was easily dissuaded with a swipe from Joe’s hand. The silent bedlam made Joe’s hair and clothing whip every which way. He concentrated on the photograph. The harpies bleated like lambs. With the demon beside him, there was just enough light to make out the image.     

It was Nora. Five years old. Joe beside her. The memory was there, but Joe had never seen this picture before. Summer in Spokane. Two years before the accident. She was eating an apple and holding it up for the photographer (Mother?) to see the teeth marks where she had taken an impressive bite. Joe wore the blank stare he reserved for all photo shoots. Manito Park. He hadn’t been there in years. Spoka-Vegas they called it, with its promise of cheap burgers at Dick’s and rock bottom prices at White Elephant on everything from toys to firearms. 

But there was something else. Something that caused Joe’s heart to pull the blood from his brain fast enough to faint. There, in the top left corner of the photograph, next to the Japanese elm and koi pond, stood the demon. Eyes fixed on Nora. A playground predator, minus the fedora and cheap trench coat. 

 “Like I said,” the demon observed, peering at Joe’s discovery. “I’ve known you your whole life.” 

Joe looked up from the photograph to see one of the harpies now perched on the demon’s shoulder. It raised an index finger, and the harpy began to feed, suck greedily, face of an old man, drawing whatever blood ran through the demon’s body from finger to gullet. Black liquid seeped from the corners of its all too human mouth. The demon smiled.

Dropping the photograph, Joe threw his entire body at the demon, meaning to tackle it, drive it to the earth, bury it. His shoulder made perfect contact with the emaciated chest as he used his right fist to deliver a punch where a belly button should have been but wasn’t. The harpy abandoned its perch as the demon dug its claws into the small of Joe’s back. Joe kept waiting for the two of them to hit the ground, but the impact never came. They were only falling now. Down some serpent’s tunnel that hadn’t been there before. Down some grand hollow. They fell like skydivers — so fast it didn’t feel like falling at all. Lightning from heaven’s Arcadia. 

“Great Gehenna boy,” the demon laughed as they fell. “What have you done?!” 

***

Joe’s Voicemail / You have … ONE … new message:

Hey Joe. It’s Mom. I would have texted, but my phone’s been acting up. Still at work. I’m thinking Wayfarer for dinner tomorrow night. Saturday. Wanna come? It’s trivia night. Something about the history of video games or something. It made me think of you. Could be fun. Love ya. Bye.

WIRED magazine / Open to pg. 46 on Joe’s living room floor:

“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”  — Vernor Vinge 

 

 

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COMMENTS


8 responses to “Follow the Devil / Follow the Light”

  1. Jim Meals says:

    This is an overwhelming start to what, in all likelihood will be an overwhelming novel. Joe’s journey may be terrifying, but I want to join him on it.
    Jim Meals

  2. Jonathan deMacedo says:

    “Let the record show that, though omitted from Milton’s survey of perdition, Lucifer’s minions are never housebroken.”

    Riveting as Joe to the refrigerator’s cold face.

    More.

  3. Libby Germer says:

    Jeremiah Webster, thank you.

  4. I love the banter of Joe and the demon. I am so curious. Morte Magari mentions Dante’s Virgil as reason and declares himself Joe’s vice. How far will vice get him? Can a vice help us bare reality beyond the vail? I wonder if it is similar to the idea in a Wrinkle in Time when she was gifted with her flaws. Perhaps it is an example of turning all things to good by revealing truth through flaws. Or in Morte Magari’s description of himself as a misplaced desire (beauty in evil as Joe muses) It is beauty (however malformed) that points to a God greater than us and thus a judgement, eternal nature, and a hell. I can’t wait to see how this goes and what manner of guide Morte will be.

  5. SCS says:

    Waiting impatiently for more of the story!

  6. […] This is part two of Follow the Devil/Follow the Light. Read part one here. […]

  7. Jennifer Pelissero says:

    Riveting and complex! The theological layers are deeply engaging to the imagination as they also stir the heart and soul. Excited to see what more is in store as we journey through this story.

  8. Mike Dodaro says:

    Pretty damned good! A techie Faust for our abstracted era.

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