John Strausbaugh, Stories

ginny280

Illustration by Michael Gentile
(click image to enlarge)

 

 

Many Ranchers

 

 

 



 Note: This one is loosely related to "The Fiery Sward" and "The Big Damn Fish," and a sort of sequel to "We're All George Here, George." But I don't think you need to have read any of those first.






1


Ginny opened her eyes under a blue, blank, midday sky. It had a matte finish. The air was warm, moistureless and odorless. There wasn't a sound.

She sat up in a field of grass that was of uniform length. Nondescript hills and trees all around. No sense of motion anywhere. Not a leaf, not a cloud, not a blade of the perfectly manicured grass, not a puff of breeze. The stillness made her ears feel like popping.

Her heart began to trip. Where the heck was she? Why the heck did she wake up in a field instead of home in bed? Didn't she get home last night? Get home from where?

She stood up too quick. Her head spun. She put both hands on it to keep it from spinning off.

"Clam down," she told herself. It sure wasn't the first time she woke up somewhere strange. She just had to think.

It came back to her slowly. A party. At some kid she didn't know's house. She went with some other kids she didn't know. The house was just a house, like all the houses everyone she knew lived in. In a development she didn't know. Not Two Trees, Shank's Mare, Upward Falls or Sullen Springs. It didn't matter. She must have gotten fucked up, as per usual, blacked out and ended up here.

"Okay," she told herself. She looked around. Not a house or a road in sight. Just the green field and trees and some low green hills meeting the flat blue sky. She got her cell out. It was dead.

She started walking toward the low hills. She hadn't been out in an open field in a long time and it began to give her the creeps. It was all empty. She began to notice the quiet, a kind of itch in her ears like after you take a shower and there's that damp spot in there you can't reach with the towel or even a q-tip.

She got to a low hill and walked up it. When she reached the top she found she was looking down into a bowl-shaped valley. There was a development. She didn't think she'd ever seen it before. It looked brand new. In fact it wasn't finished. Three or four streets in a grid in the middle of the valley but none of them going more than a couple of blocks before they just stopped in the grass with no other streets coming in or going out to connect them to anything. A couple dozen identical ranch houses on identical lawns. No cars. No dogs. No kids on bikes or even bikes with no kids. No nothing.

She walked down into the development. She stepped onto a street and walked one block, came to a no name corner and walked another block. There were drapes in the windows and the lawns were mowed neat but none of it looked lived in. It was some sort of model development. Like they were all show homes.

She walked another block. More the same. The exact same.

At that moment the sky shifted to a slightly darker blue and she noticed for the first time that although it was full daylight the sun was nowhere up there to be seen.

At the next moment a guy came out of a house up the way. He walked to the middle of the lawn and lay down on his face with his arms outstretched and started mumbling something into the grass. It sounded to Ginny like hammy yammy hammy yammy.

Ginny walked up the street to him. She was careful not to step up onto his grass, but to stand in the street.

"You all right mister?"

He lifted his face. It was all stippled from the tips of grass.

"I thought maybe you was havin a heart attack or somethin."

The guy knelt up and frowned a little quizzically. "I was thankin God for my nice green lawn which I never have to cut or water on account a it's made a this really lifelike synthetic stuff that's permanently perfect and never shows wear. We're all just so damn proud a these lawns we thank him all a time. Don't you?"

"Yeah. Sure."

"Sure ya do. Care ta join me?"

"I'll wait till I get home thanks. Point me toward town?"

The guy gave her that look again.

"What town would that be?"

"I guess I'll take any one ya got."

"Oh I get it. A joke. That's okay, I like a little humor."

He oofed as he got to his feet and swiped his palms.

"Yeah no really," Ginny said. "I'm kind a lost."

"Well where'd ya come from?"

"Back that way."

"What's back that way?"

"Nuttin."

"So where ya live?"

"Sunken Hills."

"Oh yeah. Now where's that again?"

"If I knew that I wouldn't be lost would I."

"All right young lady. No need to pour on the sauce. Everything's all right. Yeah, everything's all right all the time now, right?"

"Think I could use your phone?" Ginny said. "Mine died."

He tilted his head. "Phone?"

"Tell-o-phone?"

"I know what a phone is, little sister. Except that we don't use um much around here. There's so few of us it ain't needed. You might say not many are called cuz few were chosen. That's a joke praise God. I do like a little humor. Who you lookin for? We all pretty much know one another."

"I need to call my mom. At my house? In Sunken Hills?"

"Don't think we got a connection there. Only connection we got is." He smiled and spread his palms. "You know."

Ginny told herself to give up. The guy was simple.

"Oh now I remember," she said. "It's that way."

She pointed up the road, to where it just petered out in the grass a block ahead.

He frowned that way.

"I don't think so. I don't think there's nothin up that way but... nothin."

He snapped his fingers.

"Say I know who to call. What a dope I am. Cmon inside young lady and we'll get you straightened out in a jiffy."

It was just like her mom's house and all her friends' parents' houses. You walk through to the kitchen and already forget what the living room was like. He sled her into a paneled den with a sofa, some books on the wall and a big tv.

"Won't be a sec. Make yourself ta home."

He closed the door behind him. Ginny paced. She noticed that the spines of the books on the wall had no names on them. Show books for a show development. She went to the window and looked out the blinds at the back of an identical house across a perfect little backyard, with the low hills beyond and the plain blue sky above. There was a phone on a side table. It had no buttons to push. She lifted the receiver and held her breath.

"Ain't from around here," the guy was saying. "You ask me she snuck out of you know where."

"Nobody sneaks out a there," the other voice said. "I mean they could if they want to but they never want to. It's half the reason they're there."

"Well where did she come from?"

"Beats me. Look you keep her there. I'll stop in after I do a little lookin into this."

Ginny waited for them to hang up before she did.

The guy came through the door, looked at Ginny, looked at the phone and grinned nervously. Two kids who looked like miniatures of him, a pudgy boy and girl, came in. They flopped on the couch. A green parrot walked into the room behind them. It looked at Ginny with one eye and said, "Lord lord. Lord lord." It walked over to the couch and hopped up beside the kids. The girl snapped her fingers and the tv came on with no sound.

The guy said, "I talked to my buddy. He'll be over in a minute." He went out.

Ginny looked at a man and woman on tv. They were sitting at a desk like on the news, and even without sound it was the weirdest news program she ever saw. Behind them bits of video, pictures and graphics were flashing by in a torrent of colors and brightnesses and darkness. They shot by so fast she couldn't see any single image as they all burned after-images onto the backs of her eyeballs, but they made her feel queasy and edgy anyway. The news couple looked perfect in that molded plastic tv way. They were both really hot but there was something really cold about them too, the way they seemed to be coming onto her, just her, really intensely, but at the same time something about their eyes and the way their white teeth flashed said that they wouldn't just mess around with you, they'd mess with your head and your life and your self-esteem and then kick you out the door. As they stared at her and licked their lips their hands on top of the desk were semaphoring crazy gestures. Deal the cards, take a hike, no thanks, live long and prosper, peace, okay, thumbs down, knock wood, come here, lots a luck, go away.

Ginny glanced at the kids on the sofa. They were staring at the tv that way kids do, with their eyes glazed and their mouths slack. Somehow she didn't think kids should be watching this show. The parrot paced the back of the sofa and watched the screen one eye at a time.

The dad stuck his head in the door and said, "Kids what have I told you about watching that stuff?"

Just then the news ended and the station ID appeared. Bellwood Studios.

"What's Bellwood?" Ginny said.

The guy looked surprised. "Lord lord," the parrot said.

The tv switched to a screen of bright but soft blue light that filled the room and kind of pulsated. Ginny rubbed her arms. The pulsing blue light was making her feel exhausted.

"Can I get a drink a water? I don't feel so good."

"Whyn't you come lie down in the guest room?"

He showed her to a little room with no windows and a day bed that looked like it had never been sat on. He closed the door. She gave him a minute to get down the hall before she looked out the door. She walked softly on the carpet and found a powder room. Like the guest room it was too perfect. It looked like no one ever used it. It looked like one of those display powder rooms in the plumbing section of a big hardware store. She looked at herself in the mirror. She looked spooked. She went to splash some water on her face but the faucets wouldn't turn. She lifted the furry toilet seat. There was no water in the bowl. She opened the medicine chest. It was empty and shiny as the day it was made.

She sat down on the toilet and chewed her thumbnail. Okay so this wasn't that weird, she told herself. In her neighborhood everyone lived in identical houses and lots of them acted like they didn't poop. In this one everyone lived in identical houses and they really didn't poop. They didn't even wash their hands. Not so weird. Really.

She opened the door. A real tall guy was standing in the hall glowing like a 75-watt bulb. He was blond and really built, like the ultimate lifeguard, and wearing a tight, gleaming white outfit that looked like he was about to do some calisthenics or something. A lion like out of the movies was standing next to him panting and showing its tongue and looking at her with that brown-eyed, slightly unfocused and basically stupid look that big dogs often have.

"Hi I'm Mike," the glowing guy said. "Let's talk."


2
 



Ginny shaded her eyes.

"Hey mister I didn't do nothin."

"Easy sister. We're just gonna talk. I don't bite."

"What about him?" Ginny gestured at the lion.

"He's even peacabler than me. You look dry."

He reached under the lion's chin. It was wearing a small satchel on a strap around its neck, like a St. Bernard in an old cartoon. He pulled out an ice cold-looking Coke, in the old-fashion green-tinted bottle. He flipped the cap with his thumb, held the bottle out to her.

"Let's us take a little stroll."

The parrot was alone on the couch when they passed the door. The tv was back on the Bellwood channel. The pictures were flashing a little slower. In one glance Ginny saw a rabbi banging his head against a stone wall till it bled, a naked lady whipped with ostrich plumes, a shining city on a hill, race cars, merry-go-round horses, a monkey masturbating, a bowl of peonies, a mushroom cloud, fruit slices in a blender, polka dancers, a fiery oil rig, a twister ripping the roofs off a trailer park, a pope trying on nylons before stacks of starved corpses, a handsome boy fellating a hand gun.

"What have I told you about that stuff?" Mike said, snapping his fingers at the screen, which went pulsing blue again. The parrot gave him a sulky look and said nothing.

"What is it with the animals around here?" Ginny said. “This like one a them circus retirement homes?"

Mike grabbed the lion's hair and shook its head around. The lion made a sort of grinning yawn and licked his thumb.

"All the animals are tame now. They know they don't got anything to fear from people no more."

"His kind never did," Ginny said. She pointed her chin at Mike. She could still barely stand to squint at him. "What's with the glow? Magic act or something?"

"Or something. Come on, I'll explain outside."

Outside the street was still deserted and the sky was going to dusk, which made Ginny feel a little better about there being no sun in it.

"You know you kind a spooked old Herbert."

"He kind a spooked me too," Ginny said. "What's goin on here? Don't these people ever go out for a drive or anything?"

"Nah," Mike said. "Once we got um settled in they just sort a stay put. I bet old Herbert hasn't been down to the end of the block in almost two hundred years."

"What about the rest of um?"

"Herb and his kids are it for this development. The rest a these houses is empty. That's the way he wanted it so we give it to him. See he lived in apartments all his previous life. I guess this is the way he always dreamed it should be."

"What about his wife? Don't it drive her batty?"

"Oh she ain't here. She went... somewhere else."

They got to the end of the street. It just stopped, and then there was a green field with those low hills beyond it. Ginny took a sip of the Coke. It was the tastiest Coke she ever tasted. It was like Supercoke. She could feel her taste buds stand up and do a wave cheer.

A thought hit her.

"Two hundred years?"

He glanced at her.

"Was thinking on the way over how to explain this to ya," he said. "See, now that it's over, time don't move the way it used to for you people. I'm told a decade can feel like an hour. Gabe says it's got something to do with your inner clocks adjusting to the fact that you got all the time in the world now."

"Mister is everyone around here daffy? You're not people?"

"This ain't easy to explain," he said. "You're the first one like you." He gazed thoughtfully at the grass, while distractedly tugging one of the lion's furry ears. It licked his hand.

"What's the last thing you remember?" he asked her.

"Was at a party. Guess I got pretty messed up. Ended up in a field sleeping it off."

"Yeah and you're a heavy sleeper," Mike said. "You slept right through the end."

"End a what?"

"Ever hear of the Rapture? End of Days? Second Coming?"

Ginny dated a boy for a while who listened to bands with names like that, but she didn't think that was what the glowing guy meant.

"From your records we know your mom didn't raise you religious," Mike said.

Ginny didn't ask what records. In her experience when an adult brought up her records in anything the conversation could only go downhill.

"Ever see one of them preachers on tv or a movie hollerin about the end of the world?"

Ginny nodded.

"Well there ya go," Mike said.

Ginny looked at him. Now that the sky was darkening he only glowed brighter, but her eyes were adjusting.

"Yep, we come back to take names and knock heads," Mike said, a little smugly. "Can't say you wasn't warned. And a course reward the good and the just and all that."

"The fuck outta here," Ginny said.

Mike made a really sour face and a retching sound. He turned aside.

"Can't stand blue talk," he said over his glowing, muscular soldier. "We're engineered to abhor it. Be okay in a sec. Just watch your language."

"Sorry." Ginny did feel a little sorry for him. He was obviously a loony. Like those ones in the house. In fact, maybe that's what this whole development was. Some sort of open air free range loony bin. She figured she should kid him along until she could quietly sneak away from him and his lion.

"The end of the world. So what's all this?"

"Figure a speech," Mike said. He turned back to her, rubbing his glowing belly. "End of the old world. This the redesign. Lot a little improvements. Old one was like a prototype. Lot a things we woulda done different. We were rushed. Lot more planning went into this one. Like you might a noticed old Herbert and his kids don't need to wash their hands or go to the toilet. It's just there for show, something familiar from the old world. They go in there to have a little sit down once in a while. Call it the rest room. Not that they need to rest. Don't sleep. Or eat either."

Mike looked around them proudly.

"Yeah we used lots a new materials this time. Real space age stuff. Old one was too much upkeep. This one pretty much upkeeps itself. Grass don't grow, leaves don't fall off every year. Never hear a leaf blower again, thank G-dash-d."

Ginny tilted her head at him. The lion lay down, put its chin on its paws and closed its eyes.

"I know this is hard to swallow," he said. "Mighta helped if you cracked the Book once in a while. Whole chapter on it. Made a bunch a movies from it. Schwarzenegger was in one." He grinned. "Ahnult. Me and Gabe big fans. Glad to see he made it through to this side."

Ginny wondered how this guy and his lion would react if she just ran away. She decided not to chance it. She'd seen too many movies where some dope goes running across a field and the lion just sort of trots up from behind and pounces.

"The end of the world and I slept through it," she said. "Guess I was really out. Musta been pretty terrible."

"Had its moments," Mike said. "Went out with a bang, then a whimper, then a couple more bangs, followed by a whole lot a whining. Then come what they technically call the time a tribulations."

"The who?"

"Skip it. Lasted a while, then we come in and started to clean up the mess." He spread his hands. "Voyla."

Ginny looked around at the dead half-finished development and the hills beyond.

"Sorta had to be there I guess," he said. "Lots a dead folks didn't believe it either when we woke um up. Just lay there refusin to come out a the ground. Had to get their next a kin or someone to talk um out."

"Dead people?"

"Part a the deal. Brang back everybody who ever lived. More or less. Their bodies was made ‘whole and incorruptible’ as the sayin goes. You never heard any a this?"

"Everybody? Who ever lived? Out a their graves? Gross." Ginny thought of Garden City, the giant cemetery where she and the other kids went to hook up, and shivered. "What if you was cremated?"

"Solly cholly. Them we couldn't do nothin with. Not like they wasn't told."

Ginny started taking small sideways steps away from Mike and his lion.

"So why did it end?"

"Fustation mostly," he said. "Big guy give you thousands of years to get it right and you just kept getting it wronger and wronger. Threw in the towel. Shut it down before you could f-dash-c-k the whole thing up so bad we couldn't fix it. Sent us in to reward the good and punish the wicked. Only he didn't really have the heart for the second part, so we just rounded um all up in one spot where they couldn't bother the good anymore."

"We."

"What you call angels."

"You're an angel."

"Technically an archangel. Best and the brightest."

Mike stretched out his arms and lifted his chin. He began to glow fiercely, like a 75 watt bulb turned up to 120. The lion covered its eyes with a paw. Mike dimmed himself back down.

"If I'm still passed out and this is all a dream I don't guess you'd tell me," Ginny said.

"I don't do the appearin in dreams trick. Gabe does. I don't like rummaging around in people's heads."

Ginny took a few more steps away and rubbed her arms. It was getting pretty dark, and Mike was glowing like a plastic Santa with a light inside. His teeth shone the most, like he’d swallowed a flashlight. The lion yawned again.

"You look a little peaked," Mike observed. "Nother Coke?"

He reached under the lion’s jowls. This time he used one of the lion’s big fang teeth as a bottle opener. The lion grinned.

"Ask me some more questions. Maybe it’ll help."

"You brought everybody back, where'd ya put um all?"

"Oh it's a lot more crowded than it looks. It all has to do with how you lay it out. We got all sorts a space to work with too. Parallel universes, perpendicular time, things like that. What you lookin at here is just old Herb’s version. Other folks wanted other kinds a places. You get to live pretty much however you always wanted. For other folks it’s a cabin in the woods, condo on the beach, big city on a hill, space ship. You tell us how you want it, and as long as the big guy approves we build it for ya."

Mike pursed his lips.

"So the question now is what do we do with you."

It was never good when adults said that to Ginny either.

"See, Judgment Day comed and wented. Office closed down, files boxed. We got to crank it all up again to process one single solitary leftover, there gonna be all sorts a questions like how we missed you in the first place. Big guy hears about it he could get cranky, and nobody likes it when he gets cranky. In his mind he's already moved on to new projects. Me and Gabe don't wanna have to bother him with this."

Mike stroked his glowing chin. Above him, Ginny noticed, the sky had turned a velvety evening purple, but with no stars or moon or in it, no jets going by, nothing. Like a big purple artificial dome ceiling. Probably space age materials. And him standing there under it glowing. And the lion laying at his feet. She was beginning to get a really creepy feeling that maybe this guy wasn't totally nuts after all.

"So anyways," he said, "that makes you the one single solitary soul outta the whole history of the human race who gets a bye cuz she slept through the crack a doom."

Well, Ginny thought, it was nice to be special at something.

He turned to her.

"Where you wanna go? Name it, we'll build it."

"I'll take a ride home," Ginny said.

Mike furrowed his glowing brow at her.

"You hear a single thing I said?"

"Mister I don't care where we go," Ginny said. "Just get me outta here."

"What about your family," he said. "Loved ones you wanna spend all eternity with?"

"There's just my mom," Ginny said, "and you gotta be kidding."

"Friends?"

Ginny looked around at the dead development. Only Herbert's house had switched on its lights.

"Not around here," she said. "What about this Bellwood joint?"

"You don't wanna go there," Mike said. "Member me telling you about roundin up all the wicked in one spot?"

Yellow light splashed out of the open front door of Herbert's house. He, his two identical kids and the parrot walked onto the lawn. Herbert and the kids knelt with their faces in the grass and started the hammy yammy chanting. The parrot paced.

"Anywhere but here," Ginny told Mike. "Anywhere fun where there's lots of people."

"Well," Mike said. "I don't know how fun you'll think it is, but we all have a ball. And it's lots a people."

"Let's amscray," Ginny said, eyeing Herbert and the kids. Their hammy yammying really gave her the heebie jeebies.

Just then a golden circular spinning light appeared behind the dark hills and came skipping over the identical rooftops at them, like a police helicopter, and from within it came a deep rolling single tone like a giant gong. It spun straight overhead sounding its tone and shot across the night sky, disappearing behind the hills.

"What the hell was at?"

"You really want to watch your language around here please," Mike said, making a sour face. “Come on, I'll show ya."

He snapped his fingers.


3
 



In a wink Ginny found herself standing next to him and the lion on a wide flat field of grass, gazing up at a gigantic domed stadium. Its lights blazed against the night.    An enormous crowd streamed past them and into it from all directions, hundreds of thousands of them for all Ginny could tell, people of all ages and sizes and types including headhunters and Eskimos and guys wearing berets who looked like the little guy on the jar of French mustard. They were all smiling and chattering happily in low voices.

A big sign over the entrance said APPLE iDOME.

"Lot of us Mac fans," Mike explained. "We're big on underdogs. And the guy was named for Job. You go on in. I'll see ya after."

Ginny let the crowd carry her. Big guys who glowed like Mike stood at the turnstiles just watching the crowd. No one around her was paying her any mind. They were smiling or just looking straight ahead and they made a big hubbub of movement but there was no loud talk or laughing or babies crying. It gave her the willies. She thought maybe she'd just go stand outside but the crowd pushed forward and carried her up a ramp.


Inside the stadium was even more vast than it looked outside, a gigantic oval bowl of seats that went way, way up toward blazing lights. All the lower rows had been filled up and Ginny climbed the steps with the crowd way up to the bleachers. The green oval playing field of unmarked astroturf was so far below it looked like a wintergreen cough lozenge. The bleachers on the opposite side looked at least a mile away. The place was just about full. Ginny had never seen so many people in one spot before. Could be a million or more, all of them taking their seats neat and quiet and looking straight ahead. The row she was in was so long she couldn't see where the aisles were and anyway everyone was squeezed together with their knees almost touching the heads in front of them.

When the entire place was filled the lights way overhead dimmed and the shuffling hubbub died down. In the stillness some more glowing guys appeared at regular intervals around the stands like nightlights.

"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN," a huge voice said. It wasn't loud so much as it was extremely large, and it reverberated through the hard seat and in the joints of her bones to the points of her teeth. "NUMBER 46."

Everyone all around her opened their mouths. Everyone all around the stadium opened their mouths, and there was a sudden drop in air pressure that popped her ears. What sounded like the biggest church organ in the universe blasted a chord that shook her bones and rattled her teeth, and then the entire crowd began to sing. It was some kind of boring hymn. It was so loud Ginny couldn't make out the words, but it sounded like

ALL YOU PEOPLES CLAP YOUR HANDS
SHOUT TO GOD WITH CRIES OF GLADNESS
FOR THE LORD MOST HIGH THE AWESOME
IS GREAT KING OVER ALL THE EARTH

When it ended everyone closed their mouths together and the echoes of the giant organ's last chord rolled around and around the stadium's bowl and died away. There was silence and stillness for a few seconds, then the big voice said, "NUMBER 65," and the droning din started again, making her ears ache. And then they sang Number 80, and Number 115, and another and another. Ginny could only make out bits and pieces, and she was pretty sure she was getting those wrong. Lines that sounded like ALL YOU PEOPLES SPANK YOUR YAMS and METHUSELAH IN ASTOR PLACE HIS YOGURT TO ABHOR. They sang NUMBER 33 and NUMBER 119. They sang one that might have been Latin and one that might have been Hebrew. They sang one that sounded an awful lot like Esperanto backwards. They went on and on until Ginny thought she was going crazy. She was rocking back and forth with pins and needles shooting from her dead rear down her legs and her teeth hurt.

Just when she thought she was going to pass out from it, it ended. She could hear the echoes sinking away into the surrounding hills. A hush filled the stadium that was almost physical. It pressed on her skin and stopped her ears. Everyone shut their mouths and turned their eyes upward. The lights up there faded to black, slowly, theatrically, and the stadium went dark except for the ring of glowing guys suspended in a big oval like a giant necklace of glow in the dark pop beads.

Everybody around her lowered their eyes then and gazed down into the black pit. It was so quiet Ginny's breathing sounded in her ears like a saw biting a plank of wood. Nothing happened for a long while. Her back was stiff. Her dash s-s was literally in pain now. She looked at the guy next to her and the lady next to him, a middle-aged couple. They were staring down toward the dark playing field and grinning.

"Guess they must be havin technical difficulties," she whispered to the guy.

Ginny couldn't sit another second. When she stood up she was the only one out of the million in the stadium who was not seated. She stretched her arms over her head.

"Hisst," a guy behind her said.

"Aw pipe down," Ginny snapped without looking. She was shaking the pins out of her foot.

"Down in front," the guy hissed.

"Mister you ain't missin nothin."

"Whaddya think you're invisible?" the guy griped more loudly.

"Would you people hush," somebody off to one side hissed. "We're tryin to adorate here."

In the corner of her eye, way far away, Ginny saw one of the glowing guys beginning to work his way toward her. She sat back down.

Then everybody in the joint lifted their million chins and two million eyes at once. A big glowing golden ball silently and smoothly descended from the blank night sky. Everyone went "ahhhhh" together. As it entered the stadium the ball cast its golden light on all the faces. It slid down until it hovered a few inches above the astroturf at the center of the playing field.

Everyone stared. The ball glowed. Ginny's butt began to itch.

"NUMBER SEVEN," the big voice said. The organ shattered the air and everyone's chin dropped.

Ginny stood up. As the crowd began to sing something that sounded like OH HIRE ME SELTZER ZORRIES AND ALL she knee-bumped her way to the aisle and climbed the concrete steps to the exit.

Mike was standing at the mouth of the exit tunnel with a big guy who looked almost exactly like him. That one was giving Ginny a dark look despite his glow.

"What's yer hurry toots?"

"Aw take it easy Gabe," Mike said. "She's the new arrival."

"Don't I know it."

Mike took Ginny's elbow and they led her down the tunnel away from the singing. Their glow lit the way out of the stadium. It was surrounded by animals. All manner of beasts, from mice to elephants, just standing there silently, staring at the stadium and listening to the echoes of the singing with the same kind of pie-eyed gaze the people inside had.

"Even the dumb animals enjoy adoratin," Gabriel said. "What's your problem, girly?"

Ginny figured he was the type of guy a girl best play innocent and dumb with.

"Sorry sir," she said. "Never did it before."

"I seen the paperwork," he scowled. "No church. No school when you could help it. No job you ever held more than a few weeks. No good works to speak of. You're a real square peg."

"I guess so sir." Ginny turned to Mike. "Was that golden ball?"

He nodded. "In the flesh. But not really. He still likes to get a thanks."

"Malcontent," Gabe was grumbling. "Misfit. I think she'd be much happier somewhere else, Michael."

"We're supposed to be salvatin um from that place, not shoving um toward it," Mike said. He turned to Ginny. "It's only one night a week. And it ain't mandatory. The folks all come cause they enjoy adoratin. He doesn't force um. You could stay here and never set foot in there again. Free will."

"Not one of his better gizmos," Gabriel grumbled.

The singing ended. The last echoes rolled over the animals and away across the perfect grass. The night got very still and silent. Not a puff of breeze, not a cricket. Just the two glowing guys and some of the animals looking at her. Ginny tried to imagine what this would be like for all eternity. She panicked.

"Your pal's right," she told Mike. "I'd go crazy and fuck up."

"Ow," both angels scowled.

"I should go to that square peg place."

"Wait," Mike said.

But Gabriel, grinning like his teeth were neon, snapped his fingers.

Ginny vanished.

"What?" Gabriel said to Michael.

"Little quick on the trigger there weren't ya?" Michael said.

"Problem solved," Gabriel said, wiping his palms. "She's Whosit's worry now."

 


4
 



"She what?" The demon grinned a superwide mouth full of really bad teeth.

"I'm not kidding. Tell him what you told me," the other demon said to Ginny.

She'd been in Bellwood for what felt like thirty minutes and already it was getting on her nerves.

Now it's three weeks or three months or three years later. She can't tell. Bellwood turns out to be a giant building with no windows and millions of doors but none that leads out. There's no night or day inside, and no clocks. Since no one sleeps or eats anymore time has no rhythm or cycles. It doesn't move at all. It just sits there like a lump. The moment she's in now feels like she's always been in it. When she thinks about it going on like this for all eternity she panics.

"I know the feeling," the old Asian dude who befriended her says. His name is Paul. Paul Pot. "We all do. It's pretty terrifying at first, thinking about how this moment is the same as any other moment a hundred years ago or a hundred years from now and it'll never change and it won't feel any different a billion trillion years from now or a billion trillion years after that and this will never ever ever end. You get used to it."

"How come we're not hangin by our ears or standing on our heads in buckets of ice water and crap?" Ginny once asks him.

He gives her a look.

"What are you from the dark ages? Those stories were just for scaring the peasants. Sure it's no picnic here but it's not a dungeon. That stuff was all on their side. Ever hear of the Inquisition?"

The story of how Ginny slept through the End Times and then voluntarily came to Bellwood has been passed around and around to everyone's amusement. The demons get a big kick out of it no matter how many times they hear it. The people like it too. It's the only entertainment they've had in a couple centuries.

She sits in the Bellwood Studios commissary watching a fly suck on a pool of spilled coffee. The coffee is Nescafe, and like the stale sandwiches and donuts it's just for the flies, since people don't eat or drink anymore. The boss of Bellwood, who goes by so many names and nicknames Ginny gave up trying to learn them, is particularly fond of flies. They infest Bellwood, thousands of them for every person, and you aren't allowed to shoo them or harm them in any way unless you want your eternal damnation to suck even worse than it already does.

There are no animals in Bellwood. They're all over on the other side. In Bellwood there are only insects and bugs, and only the most disgusting and annoying kinds. Flies, mosquitoes, chiggers, ticks, fat and greasy slugs, huge black waterbugs, cockroaches scurrying everywhere.

Bellwood was designed by a committee of famous architects whose specialty in the old world was creating extravagantly ugly and totally nonutilitarian buildings that aggravated and confused the hell out of people. Demons assisted them in designing it, just like they did in the old world. Ginny has wandered a lot of long, twisty hallways that just seem to lead to other hallways or else dead ends. They're often mirrored to make it even more confusing. A lot of doors open to other endless hallways or into empty rooms with other doors leading to other hallways and empty rooms. There are many, many floor, but except for the top two, where the boss has his office and the production facilities are, they all look the same. More than once Ginny has walked out of the commissary, gone up five or six flights of stairs, and opened a door to the commissary.

Ginny looks at the other people lolling around the commissary. Some of  the people in Bellwood have low-rung jobs as gofers or grips or production assistants working on the 25/8 programming Bellwood Studios beams over to the other side. Demons have all the better jobs and push them around all the time. The rest hang around the commissary or wander the twisted halls with nothing to do being bored and cranky.

Like over on the other side, the people in Bellwood are from all times and places in human history, all the square pegs and ass pains and brain aches in one spot. A lot of them are famous. Ginny recognizes some of the movie and tv stars.

Of course she has run into kids she knows from school, but not as many and not always the ones she would have thought. What surprises her more is who she doesn't see. Like her mom. Hard to picture her mom even wanting to be over in the other joint, or how she conned her way in. Then again she was always good at hooching guys into doing what she wanted. Maybe it worked on angels too.

They tell Ginny that before she got there people came up with a lot of ways not to be so bored. Cockroach races, talent shows, endless matchbook football marathons. The boss nixed them one after another until everybody got the message. The only people still trying are a pair of massive tattooed Samoans standing on their heads against a commissary wall. They've been there as far back as anyone can remember. They're trying to set the eternal record. Since there's no clocks or time in Bellwood they're defiantly counting it out. Eight billion three hundred and forty-two million one hundred and fifty-nine thousand six hundred and twenty-two Mississippi, eight billion three hundred and forty-two million one hundred and fifty-nine thousand six hundred and twenty-three Mississippi. The boss hasn't told them to stop it because it cracks his demons up to see them still standing on their heads counting every time they walk into the room.

At one point in the endless present Ginny walks through a door into the production facilities. She doesn't think she climbed enough stairs to get up to the penultimate floor of the building, but here she is. Demons sit at editing consoles chopping images and sound into tiny bits and speeding them up until its impact isn't retinal or aural or even subliminal anymore, it's more on the electrochemical level. It makes the synapses flicker and mitochondria flinch. The demons snap and bark at the people scurrying back and forth. Monitors show what is currently being beamed out to the people on the other side. It's all so jumbled and quick that it looks like a filthy blizzard and sounds like the chatter of a billion flies.

Ginny doesn't get the reason for it.

"It's a phantom limb," Paul explains at some other point in eternity. "There isn't any reason for it. The industry was lousy with demons in the old world and they just keep doing it in this one. They're not creating anything new, just endlessly recombining old material, which is also what they did in the old world. They spent all those years distracting and numbing people and annoying the goody goodies that they don't know how to stop. People over on the other side watch out of habit. Pathetic really. The God squad retaliates with its own programming. Maybe you saw some."

"The blue light station?" Ginny says.

"That's it. They say the blue light calms and soothes. Who knows. Ask me them people over there act any more calm and soothed they might as well climb back into their graves."

Ginny leaves the production studio by the door she came in and finds herself in a conference room. Somehow she's gotten to the top floor. The conference table looks like it's three miles long. It's some kind of shiny black stone like obsidian and wisps of smoke curl up off it and she notices the demons seated all along it avoid touching it with their bare skin. Way down at the far end of the table there's a high-winged executive chair with its back to the room.

She scans the demons. They all stare back at her. They sort of look like people but there's always something a little off with them. One is just a little too skinny and weaselly and cheese-skinned. Another's mouth is kind of slipping sideways up his cheek. One has beady little eyes so close together they squeeze his nose down his face. A female whose cone-shaped breasts are disturbingly high on her chest.

A needling mosquito whine saws the air up near the big chair. The last two demons way up at that end lean toward it and tilt their misshapen heads to listen. Then they turn to the demons next to them and whisper. Those demons turn and whisper to the next ones, and so on, all down the line. Ginny stands there and wonders if a century passes or it just feels like it.

Finally the last two demons at her end of the table turn and look at her.

"He wants to know if you're bad or just simple," one of them asks her.

A lot of people have asked Ginny that before. Her mom, boys, bosses. She shrugs.

The end demons turn and shrug off-kilter shoulders at the next ones in line. The shrug gets passed all the way up the table. There's the insect buzz from the big chair, then the message gets passed all the way back down the line until the last two demons turn to her.

"Got a job for you. Your supervisor will be in touch. Beat it."

Ginny backwalks to the door and out. It closes behind her and she's standing in the commissary.


5
 



A scrawny old lady seated at a nearby table over an ancient cheese sandwich and a cup of congealed Nescafe waves a bony hand with about ten pounds of rings on it.

"Take a load off, sinner. Keep a old lady company."

Ginny looks around for some excuse not to. Eight billion three hundred and forty-two million one hundred and fifty-nine thousand six hundred and twenty-four Mississippi, eight billion three hundred and forty-two million one hundred and fifty-nine thousand six hundred and twenty-five Mississippi.

"Come on, sit with a old broad a minute. Like they say, hell is for zeroes."

Ginny sits across the table from her. Roaches scurry and flies buzz. The old lady smiles at her.

"Funny, ain't it. If you knew the kind a people you was gonna end up with. Well, I been in worse joints an I sure been in worse company. You the volunteer they all laugh about. Don't get the hilarity myself. Didn't give me a choice, but I mighta made the same one."

She holds out a skeletal hand to shake, which Ginny pretends not to notice.

"They call me the Counter-Countess. Don't ask. You been in the conference room."

Ginny gives her a how'd you know look.

"Smell it on you. You stand in a roomful of demons and El Vato Grande himself, you come out with it on your clothes. Smells like bad breath. You rose up quick. Lots a folks here will never get in that room. What you think of Old Morningstar?"

"He give me a job," Ginny said.

"Yuh huh," the old lady said. "When you plan to start?"

"They said my supervisor would talk to me."

"I mean, get started."

Ginny blinks. She should have known the old dame wasn't just taking a personal interest in her.

"What you want me to do?"

"What you always done, sweetums. Foul up. Annoy folks. Revoltin youth. All that."

"Over on the other side?"

"No, sugar. Right here. Messin with them other folks is over."

"I don't get it," Ginny says.

The old broad taps a long fingernail on the table. Roaches scurry.

"He misses the old days, see? Bored stoopit, like everyone else in this crap trap. Thought when the end came he was gonna get a big final battle royale, his gang against them, Andre the Giant vee Hulk Hogan. But the big guy over there just up and ended it. No big scene. Heck, you slept through it. Cooped us all up here, built permanent vacation homes for the rest of um, and he's off thinkin about other things. Hear he's planning a couple whole new universes, big design changes. Upstairs in the big chair was caught totally by surprise. This his final punishment, the real one. At least in the old hell he had a reason to get up every morning. Mess shit up, turn another sinner. What's he got now? Wheats and chaffs all been divided. Dopey tv station all he got to remind him of palmier days, but it's useless. Folks over there too slap happy to agitate. Sees you, figures he might as well have some fun stirring up the brain aches and ass bastards right here at home."

"What's the point?" Ginny asks.

The old gal's nail hangs in mid-tap.

"Cakes, you listenin to a word I'm sayin? Ain't no point except to kill some time. Of which you mighta noticed we got way too much of. Now get goin. Annoy somebody."

"I am," Ginny said.

The old broad grinned and nodded.

For what feels like the next couple of centuries Ginny just sits at the opposite end of the room from the old gal and watches the bugs crawl and fly. She thinks back over all the after school and summer jobs she had in the old world. Bending shells at Teepee Tacos. Running the bru-thru window at Wendy Lube. The night and a half she waitressed at the Char Pit. Posing for the creep who said he was a photographer for Look-See Magazine and disappeared the day they hauled off his hard drive. Pointless as they all seemed, this one seems pointlesser. So she just sits. It's not like they can fire her.

But still she seems to annoy people. Demons with one arm longer than the other or big flappy ears cruise by her table what feels like every few decades and crab.

"What's the game, toots? He ain't payin you a decent wage to sit on your duff."

"He ain't payin me a decent wage."

"What I said. Shake a leg."

Ginny doesn't move. Paul Pot comes to sit at her table and blab for what feels like years about politics, philosophy and history. He took Ginny under his wing when she first showed up and she guesses she owes him, but she can't pretend anymore that he isn't boring her dash-s-s off.

He gets miffed and goes to sit at another table with a gloomy gus who wears a stupid little mustache and glares around the commissary all the time. They talk politics. They both agree that a strong nation is a racially pure one, but then Little Mustache starts needling Paul about how all Asiatics are inferior races anyway so what's the dif. Paul leaps up and starts yelling at him in Asian and Little Mustache fires back in a language that sounds like a dog clearing its throat. A crowd gathers and cheers one or the other one. Demons grin across the room at Ginny.

Things settle down eventually and everybody goes back to watching the flies buzz and roaches scuttle for what feels like a few more centuries. The principal from Ginny's high school comes by, pushing her mop bucket.

"Break time's over, titless."

Ginny ignores her. The principal leans on her mop and squints at her.

"I remember you, and every kid like you. Million of you. Heads like melons, brains like mush. Wasn't the education business. We was in storage. Warehouse you till you dropped out and went off to make more kids just like you. Ast me it's a good thing it all ended when it did."

"Who asked ya?" Ginny said.

A few decades later a demon stands there stroking his chin with a six-fingered hand.

"Meet Sloth yet? Lollin around somewhere. You remindin me of her."

Ginny watches a slug drag itself across her table.

"Aw have a heart wouldja," the demon says. "You don't know what it like for us. First he tosses us down from the topless citadel a heaven into the smoky pit a hell. Least down there we had a job a work to do. Then he ashcans us all and sticks us here and what we got? Nuttin."

He spreads his mismatched hands.

"See, it's the feelin a pointlessness. Same as used to get you people. Yeah, whenever one of you got contemplatin his pointless little existence in the grand scheme a things we be rubbin our hands. We know he was about to fuck some shit up. You used to blame that all on us but a lot a times you was doin it on your own. Shoulda blame the big guy. He built ya smart enough to drive yourselves crazy thinkin about stuff you had no business thinkin about, but not smart enough to think your way outta it."

Ginny doesn't move. He has an idea and snaps three fingers. It sounds like twigs cracking.

"Hows about a little inspirational music."

A Hollywood Strings version of "Michelle" starts oozing out of speakers all over the commissary. It reminds Ginny of Slippery Vole Mall. When it ends there's a pause and then it starts again. The demon gives her a nasty grin and strolls off.

"Michelle" plays over and over. By the fifth or sixth time everyone in the commissary is grimacing and looking around for a demon to rag on, but they have mysteriously all vanished. It plays ten times, fifteen, twenty. The pauses in between are of different lengths, which somehow makes it worse.

By the thirtieth or fiftieth replay everyone in the room is howling with their arms over their heads. They rush the exits, go out one door and come right back in by another. Only the two Samoans standing on their heads seem undistracted by it. Eight billion three hundred and forty-two million one hundred and fifty-nine thousand six hundred and twenty-six Mississippi, eight billion three hundred and forty-two million one hundred and fifty-nine thousand six hundred and twenty-seven Mississippi.

It plays a hundred times, two hundred. Ginny wonders if even demons can keep this up for a billion trillion years and more. People are screaming, banging their heads against tables and walls, stuffing ancient sandwich in their ears.

Ginny gets up and heads for the nearest exit. She figures it's pointless but she has to try.

She's surprised to find herself in a hallway. The door closing behind her muffles the music and howls in the commissary. The hallway doglegs disconcertingly and the walls are mirrored, designed by some starchitect for maximum confusion.

Michael is standing at the farthest bend. The mirrored walls reflect his glow.

"Hey little sister," he calls to her.

Ginny walks up to him. "Ain't you in the wrong place?"

"Oh most def," he replies. "Question is, ain't you?"

Ginny tilts her head.

"See, I always thought Gabe sucker punched ya," he goes on. "You was a problem, and we was both in a rush to make the problem go away, so he just did. I ain't felt right about it all these hundreds a years since."

"It really been hundreds of years? I mean it sure felt like it."

"All that matters, ain't it. Anyways, I come over here to see if you wanted to reconsider."

"Your boss send you?"

He shakes his head.

"We never did tell him about you. Swept ya under the rug. Slip over here on my own."

He looks down at his sandaled feet. He seems almost shy.

"Look I know you thought we was all a bunch a duds and two-shoes over there, but it can't be no worst than this. Besides, you say the word and I can set you up in any kind a place you want. No adoratin if you don't wanna. You won't ever have to see any of them others if you don't want. Like a secret hideaway. No one'll know but me and you."

Ginny eyes him.

"You hittin on me?" she asks.

He turns aside and wretches.

"No offense. It's just that's almost blue talk to us."

"Sorry. Look Mike, even if I did want to get outta here I don't see how. Doors don't open onto nuthin, halls don't go nowhere. Believe me I looked. It's like a big magic act."


Mike nods. "Yeah he always liked doin those. Heard a black magic? Invented it. But every magic act got a secret gimmick. Gimmick here is that anybody can find the exit any time they really wanna. They just gotta believe they can. But they don't. Half the reason they're here."


He tilts his glowing head at her.


"You believe?"


Behind her the strains of the ten thousandth replay of "Michelle" seep down the hall. She thinks about going back to the commissary and sitting there listening to it for the rest of the eternal unchanging and unblinking present. She thinks maybe the idea of putting all the square pegs in one hole isn't such a good one. She thinks maybe Michael is sweet on her in his own dopey archangel way. It's not such a bad feeling. Nobody ever offered her a second chance before. They always just fired her, flunked her, dumped her.

Michael reads her expression and grins. His glow brightens.

"Don't say nuttin. Lemme see if I can do the readin minds trick."

"I thought you didn't like rootin around in people's heads," she says.

He looks down at his toes again. She thinks she sees him blush inside his glow.


6
 


Ginny opened her eyes under a blue midday sky. The air was warm, and smelled of grass and flowers. A little bird sang somewhere.

She sat up in a field. Low hills and trees all around. Where the heck was she? Why the heck did she wake up in a field instead of home in bed? Didn't she get home last night? Get home from where?

She stood up too quick. Her head spun. She put both hands on it to keep it from spinning off.

"Clam down," she told herself. It sure wasn't the first time she woke up somewhere strange. She just had to think.

It came back to her slowly. A party. At some kid she didn't know's house. She went with some other kids she didn't know. She got fucked up, as per usual, blacked out and ended up here somehow.

"Okay," she told herself. She looked around. Not a house or a road in sight. Just the green field and trees and the low green hills meeting the blue sky.

She got her cell out. There was one message.


 


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All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009-2010 John Strausbaugh



 


All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009 John Strausbaugh