"Nowadays, in these days of fax machines, instant computers, and drive-through sex, we need God now more than ever."
He swung one leg, then the other, over the catwalk, dropping two stories to the dusty stage with a thunk that tickled Meadow's feet. She shifted closer to Bridge, watching the slender man's hands for any sign of a gun or a knife.
"You old bastard," spoke the newcomer, to Bridge. "You, I fault for even being here. But you." Now, the ire in his tight black eyes turned to the piano, where Jonas yet stooped, letting linger the dying nocturne. "You shouldn't even be here at all."
Jonas offered no response.
Here, just outside the edge of the single stage light, Meadow felt herself become a bystander. Only Jonas and the musty old grand now held the spotlight, alone in an island of yellow and drifting dust. Meadow was consigned to the sea of blackness 'round the rest of the great theater, where nothing was serious and nothing existed save the things you could see on that island. She was a void; a spirit; a shadowed anemone in a lightless depths that no one would ever again explore. Jonas, in his glossy black frock and sallow baldness, and the newcomer, in his black button-up shirt, had become the sum of reality.
The slender man marched forward, index finger leading. He stopped just shy of touching Jonas' coat. "You would speak to them of Hell? Oh, how fine the irony, from the kid's menu of this little restaurant of yours!" Laughing, he let his arm fall to his side. "Another few decades, and a touch of madness already returns. And out of nowhere, you're as weak as they are. As trapped in this Misery Machine as any other dutiful citizen." Lonely yellow light clung to his pallid features as he turned. He sighted Chase and Eli, who stood in the darkness at stage-right. "You have your thrills and women, your runes and writing, and Bridge, you've got your pretty innocent, and you, your aging piano." A dismissive hand waved back toward Jonas, where the depressed keys had finally wrung the last aura of reverberation from the hidden strings. "But I don't intend to perpetually belong here."
Stepping abruptly across the stage, the man caught Meadow's arm. He drew her into the light in a breathless sweep, like a dancer choosing a partner from among the audience. "You want to talk about Hell? Let me tell you a secret." A mocking smile came to his face, high cheekbones flashing and black eyebrows arching. "There is no industrial rock in Hell."
Meadow blinked. She furrowed her brow. "What?" For a few steps, she let him draw her through a jagged, sardonic waltz, then pulled free. "Jonas?"
From stage-right, the shadow that was Elijah waved a hand. "It's all right," he intoned.
"They don't play industrial rock in Hell," continued the man in front of Meadow. He still waltzed by himself, in the space between the edges of Meadow's ruffled skirts and the piano's smooth black legs. "That's something you've got to figure out, all of you--there's no hard rock in Hell."
"Dude," said the shadow that was Chase. He approached the light, gun dangling from his red-freckled fingers. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Pausing in his waltz, the man cocked an eyebrow. "I know what you think Hell is, when you think you're being as afraid as you can be." A smirk spread across his face, his eyes becoming loose and faraway. "You think Hell is a hard rock soundtrack. You think there are hours of lone violins, a single finger on a single thread of a sitar, and then, spurts of electric guitars and deep bass. You think it's sweating in a hot cavern, breaking rock with a rusty pickax, while goat-legged red men stab and whip.
"You think it's a surgeon's table without anesthesia, having your fingernails gouged out, and your dick get slowly burned off, and then having them grow back so it can happen all over again. A lake of fire where you watch your 'loved ones,' if you have any, drowned and raped and beaten. And then you starve for a year, and finally get to go to lunch in the cafeteria, where they're playing darkwave too loud, and all the food is rotten and covered in maggots. A horde of hot single mothers and lesbians is bolted to the wall, legs spread, getting their shredded pussies fucked and re-fucked in shifts by a rotating cycle of C-list metal bands while their mothers are forced to watch. There's a rattlesnake in your bed of nails, and you wake up tomorrow to do it all over again."
Smiling aggressively, the slender man took a step at Chase, who was hovering at the very edge of the light. "You think that's the worst you can imagine? That's your fantasy. You people." He waved a bitter hand in a circle. "How quickly do you think you'd get accustomed to it? Your mind would shatter. Your soul would numb. You'd be surrounded by other sinners like you, bonded by your hatred of the demons. Nothing would scare you, because you'd done it all before, and it was a little bit righteous and sexy and tough, and everything you'd ever secretly wanted to prove about yourself, right there.
"No. No, let me tell you about Hell." His black eyes flashed. "Hell is solitary. Hell is believable. Hell is a touch of hope that never quite goes away. Hell doesn't let on that it's Hell, because that's what makes it Hell!" Teeth bared, he resumed his waltz alone. Meadow backed away to Bridge's side, leaving the man alone and insane by the side of the grand piano. "Hell is a quiet Sunday at home, a wonderful chicken dinner, and a comfortable bedtime, knowing that you need to get up early tomorrow to be out of the apartment because you can't make rent. Hell is the uncertainty of a thousand splintered dreams, that you can't even dream unless you have the delusion that it's meant to be anything different. Hell...!" Spinning, he unfurled from his sleeves bunches of white lace, which cloaked his hands to his fingertips. "Hell is a long day in a gray office spent dreaming about something better, and knowing you're too much a coward to just go do something better. It's keeping your mouth shut and turning your head and shutting your eyes and letting it all happen because you know you don't have what it takes. It's hating yourself on your own, without any team of goat-legged flayers to blame for that sickness inside your heart."
His dance changed, becoming something slow and regal that Meadow didn't recognize. When he saw her watching, he jumped his eyebrows, as smug and knowing as if he'd just caught her stealing cookies from someone else's bag lunch. "Hell," he purred, "is being born another time to do it all over again. Born almost, almost all dumb and blind, but knowing deep inside that you've forgotten everything about who are you and where you've been, except for a tiny whisper of murdered hopes that talks to you inside your head, asking if maybe something about all this isn't right. Hell is a pursuit, a sugar cube, a carrot, a promise...it's the thing that keeps you going so that it can all happen forever, without you getting jaded and ruining the show. It's life in the Block with the possibility of getting out to be free again if you make the Warden's List. It's a whisper of doubt that maybe you do deserve that punishment, because society says so, or that maybe you really aren't good enough to be rich, because the world might actually be fair, and you're just a sour-grape loser cursed with dreams bigger than your worthless heart can satisfy."
The slender man's dance came to an abrupt end an inch from Meadow's toes. "Is that what you hoped?" he mocked. "For a cave of fire and torture that you would know was unjust? An eternal present of certitude that you were right all along? That it was because of a force of ultimate evil that you're barely feeding yourself selling groceries in a part of town you can't afford to live in?" His pale smile was the cruelest thing she thought she'd ever seen. Somehow, he'd gotten white lace inside his collar now, too, to match the ruffles at his wrists. "Why don't you pray, then?" he asked. "Pray that the City doesn't condemn the abandoned theater you're squatting in like a bum, because you couldn't even afford the pills at the all-night doctor anymore. Pray that someone important notices you know how to dance, and that it gives your life meaning. So that all you have to put on your tombstone isn't, 'Tended the register faithfully at Nu-Foods.' 'Was occasionally pursued by men for sexual purposes until she reached about 41.' 'Thought someone would care if they just took the time.'"
Jonas raised his head. In a single, fluid motion, he closed the keyboard-lid and stood, straightening the nigh-perpetual curl in his long back. His sunken eyes wobbled in their usual way while he considered the slender man. "There," Jonas spoke, "you've satisfied yourself. Now, if you don't mind, please excuse us--we had someone to kill."
Gaping, Chase said, "Dude, don't just say...!"
The slender man waved him quiet. Going to Jonas, he extended a hand. They shook, briefly. "See you next year," he promised.
Jonas' sallow features stretched wearily. "Next year."
Once the man had departed from the stage-left door, Meadow discreetly wiped her eyes with a handkerchief. Elijah strode around her into the spotlight, politely not noticing anything. "Now then," he said in a loud voice, "the gentleman in question, a Mister..."