Eight-Bit Heaven

Originally published in New Millennium Writings
Winner of the 2011 New Millennium Writings Fiction Award

Kingdom of Heaven, by Robert Dulay

The world is not coming to an end. Not now, not ever. I suck at my job.

It is March 16, 1991. I walk by a Starbuck’s and feel a gnawing twinge in my stomach that reminds me how thoroughly I have become infected by humanity. The impulse moves into my legs, dragging me through the front doors and stopping me at the counter, where I order a mochalatta, light on the whipped cream and with a caramel drizzle.

Ten minutes later, I wonder if I’ve finished drinking yet. Time has so little meaning to someone who lives forever – I get the past and present mixed up constantly. I stand up, lick the caramel off my lips, and leave. I forget to throw the cup away. It’s only half-finished, anyway.

It is 33 AD. Yesterday, someone decided to nail God to a cross. Well, not God, exactly. His son. But that’s basically the same as Him. Now it’s my time to shine. I’ve been smiting sinners since Cain slew Abel. No one has ever had the nerve to actually kill the Lord’s own flesh and blood, though. Humans have thrown down the gauntlet, and now it’s time to finally cleanse the world of their sin. I stroll through the city of Rome, making mental notes to myself as I start planning Armageddon. Plagues, boiling rivers of blood, four riders on pale horses. The Second Coming of God Himself, so He can give these mortals a quick “I told you so” speech and then take the righteous to Heaven with Him. The hosts of Heaven wait at my command, as eager as I am to finally end this charade of Earthly existence.

I pass a marble statue of Jove in a marketplace and temporarily lose my train of thought. I will miss the arts, pagan or not. Humans have such creativity sometimes. As an embodiment of God’s wrath, my creativity is usually limited to various ways of killing people. I turned someone into a pillar of salt once. Good times, good times.

Three days after the death of Christ, I’ve made good progress. My riders are all rounded up and we’re ready to start by slaughtering all of Rome’s first-born. He used to love that stuff. But then the Metatron shows up, all curly blonde hair and white wings. He’s one of the lucky few who get to travel by air instead of relying on slaves or a chariot. He smooths out his flowing robes and tells me that there won’t be a Second Coming quite yet.

“Excuse me?”

“Times have changed, Caspian. He needs to see if they have learned from what they did.”

“What they did was nail Him to a cross! He damns people to Hell for using the wrong kind of incense, but he’s willing to let them run nails through His hands and feet?”

“His time on Earth has changed Him.”

“B-but…sinners! Crucifixion! People eating meat on Friday! Come on, I’ve put a lot of thought into this!”

“Five hundred years.”

“What?”

“The Lord has decreed that you will remain among the mortals for the next five hundred years. He wants you to get to know human nature like He did. In five hundred years’ time, and not before, you will be in charge of the Second Coming. Then you will get to decide how this world ends.”

With that, the Metatron folds his arms over his chest and beats his wings, soaring away and leaving me painfully earthbound. It is 33 AD, and God has just given me a five hundred-year exile.

It’s October 10, 1987. A red-clad plumber jumps on the head of a walking mushroom. I watch the number 100 float into the eight-bit air, adding to my point total. Then I press the A button and hit a hidden block, giving myself an extra life.

Rosemary Fields pats me on the shoulder in congratulations. We are sitting on her couch on a Saturday afternoon. She’s talking about how much she hates her parents for giving her a name that can be shortened to Rosy Fields. This statement causes me to look away from the game, leaving Mario to shrug his shoulders and fall down a pit. Like most humans, she doesn’t seem to understand what hatred or love really is. She says she hates her parents, but she has a picture of them hanging on her living room wall. She says she loves banana splits, but I’ve watched her devour them with ruthless efficiency, not even taking the time to savor the taste.

I meet Rosemary in July 1986. I live in an apartment in Seattle, whiling away my time with mortals while I try to get over my smiter’s block. When I see her, I’m wearing a gray raincoat and a bowler hat. Bowlers are still in fashion, aren’t they?

She has fallen down and won’t get up. She lies face-up in front of apartment 813, talking to herself in gibberish. Her hair is greasy and her skin has an unnatural yellow tone.

“Are you okay?” I detect the stink of gin as I get close enough to touch her on the shoulder.

“Gerroff…get offa me!” she yells, rocking back and forth and flailing wildly with her hands and feet. The worn polyester of her green windbreaker makes fast “vvt, vvt” sounds as it rubs together.

“I’m sorry,” I say, backing off and holding up my hands.

She stops flailing and lies spread-eagle on the hallway’s brown carpet. Her eyes focus on me. She belches and then makes a gagging noise.

“S-sorry,” she mumbles. “Jes…fergot my keys. Dunno how t’get in.”

“Is this your home?” I ask, pointing at the door to 813.

She nods so vigorously that the back of her head thumps against the floor. “Uh-huh.”

“I think the door is unlocked.” I touch my hand to the knob and close my eyes. The lock clicks open at my command, and I turn the handle. “See?”

Her mouth hangs open stupidly as the door swings open.

“I think you’ve just had too much to drink,” I say, extending my hand to her. She takes it, and I help haul her to her feet.

“Th-thank you.”

“Do you need any more help?”

“Nah…I’m…I’m fine…”

She takes a step through the door. Then her eyes roll back in her head and she collapses to the floor, her brain shut down by the alcohol in her system.

At first, I consider leaving her. Unfortunately, she’s in the doorframe, so I can’t just slam the door and forget about her. I finally decide to play the Good Samaritan. Holding my breath in hopes of ignoring the stench of liquor, I lift her and carry her into the apartment like we’re a dysfunctional married couple crossing a low-rent threshold. Her home is dark, with hills of dust lurking in the corners. I bring her to a yellow plaid couch that reeks of dead grandmother. I drop her unceremoniously onto the sofa and leave without putting a blanket on her. When I look at her one last time, I see a glutton and a lush. But then, just before I get out the door, she surprises me with a single half-conscious sentence.

“This is why they took Erik away.”

Once I’m back in my own apartment, I start planning the end of the world. That woman, I think, is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. That drunken fool of a woman reminds me of every shameful vice humanity has to offer. She is a harbinger of doom.

But…who is Erik?

Frowning, I sit down and turn on Jeopardy. Alex Trebek is my case study for the human race. The man promotes such knowledge, but he bought his fame with that stupid mustache of his. He obviously hasn’t read his Leviticus. “Thou shalt not round the corners of thy head, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.” Seventeen years from now, he’ll shave that mustache on national television, just to spite me.

I walk an empty battlefield in 533 A.D., looking at the remnants of the Battle of Ad Decimum, which will go down in history as one of many Battles of Carthage. In the mud and blood, the corpses of Romans and Vandals look the same. The crows certainly don’t care whose flesh they devour. The Metatron stands next to me. His white wings stand as a stark contrast to the black-feathered scavengers around us.

“It’s time, Caspian. Have you thought about how it’s going to happen?”

I nod. “I have some ideas, but my original plans are a bit outdated. Four horsemen wouldn’t do much good against the new swords and armor they’ve come up with.” I glance at a tattered banner in the mud. “And…well, it seems a shame.”

“What does?”

“Rome has fallen, and this whole land has been ruled by barbarians for years. Now we have Emperor Justinian of Byzantine – the new Rome. They’re rebuilding what got destroyed. It seems…well, it seems like we should let them try, you know? Give them a little bit to see if they can get back on their feet.”

“What are you saying?”

“Maybe…maybe we should give them another century or two. Things might get interesting down here.”

The Metatron smiles. “You think they should be spared, then.”

“Absolutely not.” The Metatron’s smile fades. “Look at this,” I continue, waving my hands across the battlefield. “They don’t care about life, and they don’t care about the commandments of God. But…they have certain qualities that are worth observing. I think I need more time to figure things out. I’d like them to die in a way that is fitting with the way they lived. And to get it right, I need to see where they’re going. Once I understand them, then I can finally end it.”

The Metatron nods, but says nothing more. In a flash of divine light, he disappears, leaving me alone on the battlefield and surrounded by decaying humanity.

It’s March 1995. I’m wearing a leather jacket like the Fonz used to wear. Kids today still watch Happy Days, I think. I walk through the halls of the University of Chicago. Someone is blasting Nirvana, celebrating the life of a man who killed himself last year. I wrinkle my nose at the smell of marijuana that drifts through the halls.

I knock on the door of dorm number 319. Inside, someone scrambles to throw a blanket over some beer cans, covering up their underage drinking. I remember these sounds well from the Prohibition days. Then a 20-year old boy with curly brown hair answers the door. He tries to look innocent and easygoing. Inside, his friend is playing Mortal Kombat. He rips someone’s spine out and jumps up in celebration of his victory.

I look at the boy in front of me, and my stomach starts to flutter.

“Are you Erik?”

“Yeah.” His breath smells of mint gum.

“I’m a friend of your mother’s.”

Erik’s pupils dilate and he takes a sharp breath in. Then he slams the door in my face.

***

In the early 1900s, I decide that it’s finally time to end it all. I think I’ve seen all that the world has to offer, and that it will only go downhill from here. I whisper the Theory of Relativity to a patent clerk in Berne, Switzerland. I touch his forehead, tucking the knowledge away. He thinks it is something marvelous, that great things will come of it. He won’t realize for decades that I’m using him. His research becomes integral to the Manhattan Project, and not a moment too soon. By the 1940s, I am convinced that the Antichrist has taken over Europe, and will soon dominate the rest of the world. But human science moves slower than I expect, and the war surprises me. By the time Fat Man and Little Boy are ready, the Austrian house painter that seemed so dangerous a few years ago has died. That won’t stop Doomsday, though. I sit back and wait for the world to be devoured in nuclear fire.

Something strange happens. The bomb gets dropped twice, but no more. For generations to come, men tremble at the knowledge that they can destroy the world. But despite all that power, they don’t use it. Earth remains.

***

Rosemary glares at me in 1986 when I finally ask her about Erik. We haven’t spoken in the week since we met, and she sees me as a nosy stranger. But her glare softens. Then it disappears completely.

“You can come in if you want,” she says, backing away from the door.

I step into the apartment. The curtains are all drawn – only weak brown rays of light manage to push past the grimy windows and into the living room.

“You’re not with the state or anything, are you?” she asks. “I mean, you’re not checking up on me, right?”

“I’m just curious about what you said the other night.”

“Right…the other night. I didn’t thank you for that. Not when I was sober, at least.”

“You don’t have to tell me anything,” I say. “It’s really none of my business.”

“No, no. It might be nice to talk to someone. You know, confession being good for the soul and everything.”

My mouth curls into a half-smile.

“Erik’s my…he’s my son.” She sits down on the couch and doesn’t look at me. “And he’s in foster care right now.”

I shift my weight uncomfortably. Should I sit next to her? Across the room? Stay standing?

“Look,” she says, finally meeting my gaze. “I’m in this program. There are steps I’m trying to follow. I’ve gone through it a hundred times, and I always falter somewhere along the way. And one of those steps is that I’m supposed to admit what I did wrong to someone. I’m going to try that now, if you don’t mind. If I get all weepy or you get bored or something, feel free to just leave and pretend you never saw me.”

I move my feet, bringing myself in front of her. At arm’s reach from her, I kneel, lowering myself until we’re at eye level. “Go ahead.”

“Erik’s father left before he was born. Growing up, I was all he had. But I’m…I’ve got a problem with drinking, as you saw. And a few years ago, I wound up nearly killing my son because of it. I was driving him home from school, but I had gone through half a bottle of vodka just an hour before. And I didn’t…” she closes her eyes, takes a breath, and then continues. “I had driven drunk before, you see, and nothing bad happened. So I figured I could do it whenever I needed. And I went off the road, and we ended up in the emergency room, and Erik had a concussion, and I’m the worst damned mother in the world.”

She breaks off now, looking down at the floor and crying. She sobs loudly, making almost horse-like braying noises when she breathes in. I touch her hand, and she quiets down a little.

“The state took him away from me,” she finally continues. “They said awful things about me – that I was a deadbeat, an abuser. But in the end they were right. I haven’t seen my son in almost three years, and I don’t know if he’ll ever want to see me again. Now all I have left is his old Nintendo.”

I furrow my brows in confusion. “What’s Nintendo?”

In 1987, it’s Rosemary’s turn. She presses the B button and speeds Luigi across a row of narrow pits, allowing the blocky green plumber to run on air. At the left corner of the screen, a monster in the clouds throws spiked balls at the hero. Luigi is safe in Rosemary’s control though, and she guides him through the level with ease. When she reaches the castle, fireworks pop in the background.

“I still don’t understand this game,” I say.

“What don’t you understand?”

“Why are the Mario brothers fighting mushrooms and turtles?”

“Because the Koopa King kidnapped Mario’s girlfriend.”

“Pauline?”

“No. Pauline was his girlfriend in Donkey Kong. Now he’s trying to save Princess Toadstool.”

“What happened to Pauline?”

“I don’t know…she’s probably still around somewhere. Mario’s a player.”

I furrow my brow and stare at the digital sprites on the TV screen. Mario seems like a serial adulterer. Luigi might be homosexual. I imagine the Lord raining wrath upon the Mushroom Kingdom for their hedonistic ways, throwing barrels of hellfire that the plumbers nimbly jump over on their constant quest for more points.

I stalk Erik for two days after our first encounter in 1995. He steps out to cross the street in front of the Sears Tower. I follow, the wind whipping at my legs as I pull my Fonzie jacket tighter around me.

“Leave me alone!” he shouts at me when he notices me. He tries to pick up his pace and outdistance me, but my longer stride catches him with ease.

“You need to talk to your mother,” I tell him.

Realizing that he won’t get away, he turns to face me as we reach the other side of the road. “No, I don’t. My mother had her chance at a relationship with me years ago, and she decided that she cared more about the bottle than her son.”

“She’s been sober for almost five years now.”

“Yeah, well if she’s so keen on seeing me, why are you here instead of her?”

“It’s your duty as a son to at least see her,” I say, dodging his question.

“My duty? Says who?”

I don’t speak for a moment. I thought the answer would be self-evident. “Says God. Honor thy father and thy mother. It’s one of the most basic commandments of human existence.”

“Yeah, well you know what? Fuck God.”

The words send me staggering back a step, as though he had just punched me in the chest. “What did you say?”

“Fuck. God. If He even exists, then He’s the one who gave my mother the alcoholism gene. He’s the one who nearly killed us both in that car crash, and He’s the guy who sent some dork in a leather jacket after me trying to play family counselor. So fuck God and fuck you.”

He turns around and storms away. My limbs shake as I start walking in the opposite direction. On my way back to my hotel room, I pass someone feeding pigeons on the sidewalk. I kick at the birds absent-mindedly. Their kind is meant to be killed in sacrifice to God, not gorged on stale hamburger buns from McDonald’s.

It’s October 1919. Bars across the United States have to shut down because of a bill I suggested to a congressman from Minnesota. Truth be told, the whole prohibition thing is nothing more than an experiment on my part. I’m not doing much else this decade, so I figure, why not see what Americans would do without alcohol? Maybe it would make them better in the long run.

It’s 1931. After ordering the deaths of dozens of people and ruining countless more lives, the notorious bootlegger Al Capone is going to jail. It seems that closing the door to one sin opens it up to a dozen more. Two years from now, Prohibition will be repealed and I will go back to looking for ways to end the world – or at least I’ll try. The innovation of jazz music has me intrigued, and I want to see how it plays out first.

It’s 1995 again, and my flight out of Chicago leaves tomorrow. I sit on the hard bed of a hotel room, looking at the remains of a supreme pizza I ordered yesterday. The black olives remind me of the puss-filled boils I found on the victims of the bubonic plague. In a bygone century, I walk through the streets of London, taking notes. The Black Death is an imperfect, indiscriminate disease. I look at the victims piled in the streets and lift their arms with my cane, for the Lord has decreed that touching the victim of a disease is a sin. I look at the black buboes hidden away in armpits and on the back of necks. Humans will blame God for this plague, when it’s really just some fleas and bacteria. Whatever the source, though, I decide that they deserve better. Mentally, I cross the Black Death off as a possible way to end the world.

My mind resets to 1995 and Erik’s denial of God. Humans are always willing to blame a higher power for the bad things in life. Maybe it’s time to give them that conceit – maybe they should fear the wrath of Heaven. I decide that it’s finally time to resort to my crudest but most effective of Armageddon plans – kill them all and let God sort them out. I hold open my hand and let a small orb of fire blaze on my palm. There are approximately six billion humans on this planet. If I kill one person per second, it will take me over twenty-one years to finish the job, and that’s not accounting for birth rates. Fortunately, I am capable of killing much more than one person a second if I put my mind to it. And guess what Erik…you get to go first. Fuck God, indeed.

My doomsday thoughts are interrupted by a ringing telephone. Aside from the front desk, only one person knows I’m staying in this room. I pick up the phone and immediately decide to put the end of the world on hold for a few more days. A few days is all it will take for Rosemary to die in a Montana hospital.

***

It’s May 30th, 1990 – Rosemary’s last day in Seattle. She’s got a place lined up in Montana, where she grew up. She needs a change of scenery to finally get sober, she says. Almost everything is packed away, except for the Nintendo and her TV. Unfortunately, the Nintendo has broken from overuse. Without the distraction of video games, Rosemary goes off the wagon for the last time. She calls me over from my apartment when she starts drinking. Makes me hide her keys. Then she asks me if I’ll drink with her. Reluctantly, I sit down at her uneven kitchen table and grab a beer. A couple of hours later, we’re both drunk and I’m telling her everything.

“An angel? Come on, we’re not that drunk.”

“I’d show you my flaming sword, but I traded it in 1916 for Babe Ruth’s autograph.”

She gives a high, shrill laugh and nearly falls out of her chair. “Well where are your wings, then?”

“Wings? No, no, no. You don’t get wings unless—”

“Unless a bell rings?”

“No. What? No. Only the big guys have wings. You know, like the Metathong…Megatron…um, the voice of God and stuff.”

“We have to drink together more often. You tell awesome stories.”

“You don’t believe me?”

She laughs again, marveling at how far I’ve dragged the joke out.

“Okay…okay. Let me show you.”

I stand up and stagger into the living room. Rosemary follows me, standing a little straighter than I am. I point to her TV, waving my finger like a wand. “Nintendo’s broken, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Watch.” Taking a few more steps until I’m nearly colliding with the TV set, I place my hand on the plastic box of the NES. I yell, “You’re healed!” for dramatic effect. On command, the red power light of the game system turns on. The TV jumps to life and Mario starts racing across the title screen.

Rosemary squints at the TV and then sits on the couch. She opens her mouth, running her tongue across her upper teeth before she speaks.

“Are you…trying to save my soul or something?”

I sit on the sofa next to her and take a deep breath. “Actually, I’ve been plotting to destroy humanity for hundreds of years.”

***

It’s March 1995, and I’ve left Erik behind in Chicago. Rosemary hasn’t touched alcohol for almost five years now, but the damage has already been done. She’s complained of stomach pains almost since I met her. A battery of medical tests showed a decaying liver, rotted away from years of alcohol abuse. We always knew it was just a matter of time. Now, while I was kicking at pigeons in Chicago, she collapsed in pain at the grocery store. When I arrive at the hospital, the doctors tell me that her life expectancy can probably be measured in days.

My feet feel like lead as I walk toward Rosemary’s room. I should have grabbed Erik by his curly hair and dragged him to the airport with me. I should have made him honor his mother’s last wish. Instead, I’ve failed. Now I know what’s going to happen. Rosemary is going to ask me to save her – to give her a little more time so she can finally see her son in person again. And I’m going to say no.

She doesn’t look like she’s going to die – despite being a little skinny from the hospital food, she still has color in her cheeks and a lively spark in her eyes. Still, whispers of death hang about her, the way she winces when she shifts in bed or how the lines on her face have become more worn over the past few weeks.

“I didn’t really believe you, you know,” she says with a soft smile. “I thought it was some elaborate joke.”

“What do you mean?”

“That night when you told me what you are. I didn’t really think you were actually an angel – of death or of anything else. At first I thought it was all a trick – that you had planned the whole thing out somehow.”

“What convinced you?”

“My hangover in the morning. I think it was the worst one I can remember. I figured you had at least as much as I did, and there was no way you could manage an elaborate trick if you were that drunk.”

“I’m surprised I made it back to my apartment.”

Her smile fades, and the worn lines of her face look like crumpled paper as she grows more serious. “He doesn’t mind the drinking, does He? In the long run, I mean. I got over it, and I’ve lived a good life since.”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know what passes as sin these days. In the old days, you would have been condemned for getting drunk even once. Things have changed, though. I think the Lord is like me – I think He’s been infected.”

“Infected?”

“He only spent a few decades down here, and not entirely in His own form. It used to be that He would order me to smite people on a daily basis for anything from eating pork to having anal sex. But now…now I’ve been allowed to string out Armageddon for almost two thousand years without the slightest objection from Him. The world was supposed to end centuries ago. The closest I ever came to actually doing it was in the 1800s, but then Edgar Allen Poe started writing poems and I forgot what I had planned. There’s so much going on in this world that it gets hard to focus.”

“So you think He’s the same way?”

“I don’t know. I just know that He has changed. And I think I have, too.”

She puts her hand on mine and clenches it tight. “Even if I knew for sure I was going to Heaven, I wouldn’t want to go now. I need to see Erik before it’s all over.”

I pull my hand away from hers. She thought I was going to Chicago to watch the Cubs in spring training. The Cubs don’t even train in Chicago.

“If you had the chance, you might not like the results. People aren’t always very forgiving.”

“I don’t need him to forgive me,” she says, her skin growing pale as she speaks. “I need to look into my son’s eyes and tell him that I’m sorry and that I’ve changed. That’s the only way I’ll forgive myself.”

“I wish I could give you that time,” I say quietly.

“You can heal a Nintendo,” she says. Here it comes. “Could you—?”

I cut her off by shaking my head. “Machinery is easy. People are more complex. I’m good at smiting them, but I can’t heal them,” I lie. “Only the Lord knows how to do that.”

She closes her eyes tightly. Her body shakes slightly as she breathes in. I think she might be crying, but then she looks at me with clear eyes and simply says, “I understand.”

A nurse knocks on the door, letting me know that I have to leave. I stand up. I could heal her now, save her life. But I need to act while Erik’s blasphemy is still fresh in my mind. I know how I’m going to end the world now, and I can’t afford to let that anger fade. If Rosemary Fields is around, I’ll sit down and play Nintendo with her and forget, just like I’ve done so many times before.

May 1990. We play drunken Nintendo, running our eight-bit avatars into turtle shells and pits until our eyes can’t focus on the screen anymore.

August 1945. Two bombs. Why didn’t they go all the way and spare us the pain?

March 1995. Rosemary says she understands. But I’m not sure I do.

Halfway to the door, I turn around and move back to Rosemary. I bend over and give her a kiss on the cheek. Then I offer her the false hope I didn’t want to give.

“I know where Erik is,” I tell her. “Hold on, get better, and you’ll see him again.”

She looks at me with bewilderment spelled out on her face at first. Then her skin becomes more flush, and a spark lights up in her eyes – the type of determination I remember from her first few months in Montana, shaking and sweating without her alcohol but finally determined to change the path of her life. I can already hear myself a week from now, when the doctors marvel at her sudden recovery, when Rosemary smiles at me knowing that she’s beaten the odds, and when I realize that I have to put off Armageddon again.

“Oh, shit. It’s a miracle.”

Two months later, I’m house-sitting for Rosemary while she visits Chicago, determined to see a son that might not want anything to do with her. I have a familiar controller in my hand and a Nintendo held together with duct tape and angel spit. The mail slot on the front door swings opens, and a bundle of letters falls through. I stand up to collect Rosemary’s bills and credit card offers.

The envelope on the top of the pile catches my eye. The postmark is from Chicago. The return address is listed as E. Fields, from the University of Chicago.

I return to the couch, still holding the envelope. I turn it over in my hands, wondering if I should open it. People change. Maybe angels can, too.

The “Game Over” music on the Nintendo starts to play. I forgot to pause the game, and Mario got hit by a fireball. That doesn’t matter, though. The princess is always in another castle.

 

Image: Kingdom of Heaven, by Robert Dulay

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