Jim stood and stretched. The house was gone and the Paradise around them was flat and gray. Above them the mushroom cloud looked like an inverse tornado. He looked at his penis.
“How many megatons do you think that was?” Jim said.
Cherry lay on her back, nearly comatose.
“A lot,” she said. Her breasts were pink beneath the fallout. If she ever moved again, there would be an imprint of an angel in the ashes.
“Do you ever feel like we’re overdoing it?” Jim said.
Cherry didn’t answer. Jim caught a flake of ash in his palm and watched it dissolve.
Out over the flatness a jagged light broke the sky. It was bright and Jim shielded his eyes. A tremor swam through the ground.
“Are you there?”
“What was that?”
“It wasn’t me.”
Then the air shimmered and warbled and out of the hole walked the devil. Jim thought at first that the face was painted, but it was mascara. She was weeping.
“They are so cruel to me,” she said. “Why are they so cruel? What have I ever done but give them freedom and happiness? By what rights do they accuse me? I work – so – hard – ”
Her voice quivered and her hands shook. There was rage beneath the sadness.
Jim had always been terrified of emotional women, and this one was the devil. He gulped and looked to Cherry for help but she was glazed and dumb.
“What happened?” he said.
Lucy walked at him. Jim thought it was all over, that he’d pissed off the devil and hell had found him at last. Instead, she buried her face in his neck and cried.
“What am I going to do?” she said. “What can I do, Jim? The barrier is broken. There will be war. I hate the wars of men. It’s the blood, I can’t stand it.”
Jim held her and let her cry. “It’s okay,” he said.
“I give and I give and I give and it’s never enough or maybe it’s too much I don’t know I just work so hard and now everybody’s going to hate me. They’re going to hate me and all I ever did was give them everything they ever wanted and they won’t stop until it’s all gone everything I worked for,” she said into his neck.
He patted her back and said shhhh.
Another tremor rolled through and the jagged light flared above the bleakness.
“What did I do?” he said.
Lucy pulled her face from his neck and set her eyes into his. They were beautiful and timeless and bleary. Her hand on his cheek put warmth in his bones.
“Jim,” she said. “So reckless and innocent.”
He kissed her. It was reflex. When it was over Lucy laughed and wiped some of the mascara from her eyes.
“I’m quite the devil, aren’t I?”
“You’re a beautiful devil.”
“And you’re very sweet.”
“Did I really break Paradise?”
“Paradise is yours to break.”
“Ughh,” Cherry said. “Get a fucking room.”
The rebuke stabbed Lucy in the chest. She looked staggered. She closed her eyes, took a breath, and opened different ones. “She’s right,” she said.
Her transformation was swift and Jim stood looking at a professional and determined woman in white heels, skirt, and blazer. And he was covered in a suit and tie. He made a question mark with his face.
“You’re going to help me fix this,” she said.
“I still don’t understand what’s broken.”
“With the barrier down, the Christians can see each other.”
That didn’t make enough sense to Jim. He furrowed the question mark.
“They needed to gloat, so I let them gloat,” she said. “They were all very special until about ten minutes ago, and they will not like this equality.”
Jim looked at his tie. He flopped it around. “I don’t know,” he said. “This sounds like a job for Jesus.”
“You’re about to find out.”
A shimmer and a warble and the air opened up. Lucy checked her complexion in a pocket mirror.
“And Jim, they know me as Gabriella. Say nothing about the devil.”
“Okay. Wait. Which are you?”
Her smile was coy. They went through the hole.
The cloud was furnished with a round table and some chairs and an 18th century neoclassical Venetian chandelier. In the chairs sat Martin Luther, Pope John XX, King Henry VIII, Saint Paul, and Joseph Smith. Gabriella claimed the final chair and Jim stood behind her.
“Thank you for coming,” Gabriella said. Her white blazer glimmered. “You are all aware of this by now, but I will say it plainly so there is no mistake. Everybody goes to heaven, and heaven is uniformly wonderful.”
There was some silence. King Henry coughed but his heart wasn’t in it. Martin Luther stood.
“Let me be the first to welcome this news, and to praise God in His mercy and His wisdom. It brings joy to my heart that the entirety of the human spirit is given this plane to thrive upon. I have ever contended for a democratic eternity, tempered by the dominion of a merciful Master, and all Protestants glory in this new brotherhood.”
Luther retrieved a stack of papers from under his seat and thudded them on the table. They were a foot high.
“And I formally submit this petition, signed by one hundred millions, demanding that the Catholics be evicted immediately.”
“Hurrrrr hurrrrr hurrr,” said Pope John XX. “One hundred millions. Hurrrr hurrr hurrr.”
“They are honest millions!” Luther said. “I would take any individual among them against all of your corrupted legions!”
Gabriella accepted the petition and coaxed Luther back into his seat. She informed him that there would be no evictions.
“Everybody goes to heaven,” she said again. “It was decided a long time ago that Earth is a hard place with an obstructed view, and it’s unfair to expect people to get anything right. If entry were contingent upon rightness, the place would be empty. Every one of you is here because none of you are right.”
“Proverbs thirteen verse three,” Saint Paul said. Arms folded, head bowed. “He that keepeth his mouth keepeth his life; but he that openeth his lips shall have destruction.”
“Very good, Paul,” Gabriella said. She threw him a treat and he ate it. “It may have been a mistake to veil this relativism. It may be that the orders of angels have purchased your happiness with an awful hubris. But the barriers were built and you were given your time to gloat. That time is finished. Now that you see one another you have two options: Join together and celebrate your failures, or fight for nothing.”
“Hubris,” said the Pope. “Hurrr hurrrr hurrrr.”
“This man cannot be retained in heaven! King Henry, surely you have no love for these vicars.”
“Ay, these wonky twats been on the piss for yonks,” King Henry said. “All smart for God but they go arse over tit for an Irish penny. Never been a Pope that didn’t beggar the poor cunts that fagged around for him. Give England a sword if it’s a buggered Pope that stiffs you.”
“It means ay. Fuck Rome.”
“Hurrr hurrr hurrrrrrr.”
It was the first word to come out of Joseph Smith’s mouth. All eyes snapped to him.
“There is no Pope John Twenty,” he said. He stood and brandished a tablet. “It says right here on Wikipedia. There is a Pope John Nineteen, and a Pope John Twenty-one, but due to an accounting error they skipped John Twenty!”
“Ha!” King Henry pounded the table with his fist. “Counting Popes is a mug’s game, any road. Can’t build a cathedral with holy bell-ends. Fuck the Popes, count the shillings! Yaa haa harr!”
Gabriella stood and her beauty and fury diminished everything. Jim stepped back, afraid to be near it.
“Are these trivialities not yet beneath you?” she said. “Even here, in the seats of Paradise, will you squabble over small ideas and circumstantial prejudice? Existence itself stretches out before you in all of its eternal possibility, and this is where you sit, and these are your discussions. The world that sorrowed you is a drop in the ocean. In recompense I give you the ocean, and you fight over the drop.”
She breathed and shook. Jim could not believe this was the same woman that welcomed him to Paradise with a blowjob.
“There is only one question that should concern you,” she said. “Why must angels lie to keep the peace in heaven?”
The air shimmered and warbled and she stepped through the hole and was gone, devil or angel. Jim stood forgotten on the cloud of war that he had nutted.
When Jim looked back to the table, Joseph Smith was crouched like a cat behind the Pope. He pounced and snatched off the vicar’s hat. There was nothing underneath it.
“Pope Fishbowl the First!” King Henry laughed.
Jim gaped. The words that nearly brought him to his knees had no effect on these men. That, and the Pope’s head was hollow.
Joseph Smith had his nose in the papal cap. “There’s something in here!” he said. The cap echoed, something in here, in here, here.
“If you pull another Testament out of there,” Luther said, “I’ll see that you eat every doorbell in Paradise.”
Smith reached into the papal cap. It required the full length of his arm and his face puckered with effort. When he withdrew his hand it held a single sheet of paper. He read,
“By the time you read this, we will have won the war. Hurrr hurrr hurrr.”
“It’s a rouse!” Luther jumped from his seat.
“Sabbing bastards!” King Henry drew his sword and slew the falsely numbered Pope.
Luther whistled and a silver osprey flew forth. “Black smoke!” he said and leapt on the bird. “Black smoke forever more!” He flew.
Joseph Smith unchained his bicycle and pedaled away.
King Henry mounted his steed and approached Jim and towered over him. “That’s a right stonker in those yankee breeches. Wield it for England and I’ll grant you all the fadges north of Leeds.”
“No thanks,” Jim said, and the king insulted him severally and galloped off.
Jim looked around and found the elevator. He held the door for Saint Paul, who entered slowly, arms crossed and head bowed. The glass door closed and soft jazz fueled the descent.
“Corinthians six, verse three,” the saint said. “Know ye not that we shall judge the angels?”
“I don’t have any treats,” Jim said.
The saint let fall a single tear, and the 18th century neoclassical Venetian chandelier rose out of view.