In desperate times desperate people head here – an online journal of Apocalyptic-themed fiction and commentary.

Felix Culpa

Copyright © 2007 by Devin Walsh. All rights reserved.

Felix Culpa

     When the invaders came they mostly blacked out the sky, and they pilfered everyone’s watches and clocks and hoarded batteries and surgically canceled electricity throughout the City and took people’s generators, so basically nobody ever knew what time it was. The invaders probably thought this would put a real curb on the ability of the occupied to coordinate a resistance movement, and for the most part they were right. But it would happen sometimes, in the chill of early evening, when the air smelled unmistakably of twilight, when people’s stomachs growled for dinner, that cells would gather in someone’s candlelit living room.

     Felix Culpa was invited to one of these clandestine meetings by his best friend for life Fish, who assured him that there’d be beer and maybe some nachos. Felix might not have gone otherwise, but for beer and nachos he’d cross the desert — two deserts. And walk on hot coals. He had bad dietary habits and a belly that belied them. Also a bit of a double chin somewhat concealed under his scraggly beard. You’d have to say — and many did, later — that of all the people in the City you figured for a hero, Felix Culpa wasn’t close. But he was a hero, as I aim to make clear in the recounting of his story.

On this night in particular, Fish took Felix Culpa to the Pastor’s house. The Pastor was a rotund, devout Methodist with a ruddy complexion and terrible breath. At first he’d thought that the invaders signaled the end times, but then when he and the lot of Good Christians he knew didn’t vanish in Rapture he reckoned they weren’t the end times at all, but just another cataclysmic diversion along the way to the Day of Judgment. This inspired the Pastor to form a resistance movement, which he undertook with the passion that the first apostles must have, clustered in their dusty Israeli hovels surrounded by Pharisees and Romans. Except he also sometimes provided beer and nachos — only not on this particular night of which I speak, to Felix Culpa’s enduring dismay.

“No beer?” he asked the assembled. “No nachos?”

The Pastor laid his heavy hand on Felix Culpa’s shoulder and stared into his soul. “I apologize, my son. Tonight it’s Spam fajitas.”

“But… no beer?” It was almost the worst news Felix Culpa had heard since the invaders came in. The invaders had requisitioned almost the City’s whole stock of beer.

“We have some non-alcoholic –”

“FUCK THIS!” Felix Culpa bellowed, his voice making the others cower: Stedman Hess the concert pianist and Delilah Toulouse the widowed masseuse and Teddy Oval the faggot and the Pastor’s wife Barbara and even The Bible shuddered visibly when Felix Culpa roared. Fish just frowned. He’d thought that maybe there would be beer, maybe not, but that either way Felix Culpa should be there because Fish (and I am he) believed that Felix Culpa was a hero.

He stayed, saints be praised — ate Spam fajitas and downed dewy green longnecks of non-alcoholic beer like there was no tomorrow while paying half-assed attention to the proceedings of the resistance cell as if there were an infinite number of tomorrows, until the subject of the infiltration came around and people started using his name willy-nilly in its implementation.

“Wait…” said Felix Culpa. “Wait a minute… You think I’m going to be your point man?”

You could say that the silence was pregnant, that it was forbidding, that it was astronomically wide, but none of these turns of phrase would do it justice. The silence was all, simply. It was ineffable. I can only imagine — you can only imagine — these faces in the spontaneous flicker of candlelight, open, naked, vulnerable, looking at Felix Culpa. Of course he’d be the infiltrator; it couldn’t have been any other way. But Felix Culpa thought otherwise. He laughed.

He laughed until the ineffable silence and vulnerability of the faces surrounding him sunk in. Then he became, well, sober. “Now wait a minute,” he said, “You can’t be really talking about me walking up that cloudway…”

For we had discovered the cloudway — an awe-inspiring series of steps and foyers into the clouds that the invaders had manifested into the atmosphere, leading to their ships. The earthbound, you know, they get these ideas about transporting and shuttles that are derived from science fiction, and the funny thing is that they seldom live up to the wonder of what is true. The invaders had concocted a sweeping spiral staircase of clouds with which to maneuver the long altitudes of their parking.

But of course it was Felix Culpa’s task, as it had quite likely been preordained Felix Culpa’s task from the very beginning — from the moment his parents conceived him… from the tangle of sperm and egg that designed him…from the very normal upbringing and the usual highs and lows of a young man’s trajectory… from the bitterest disputes of his life to the most unquestioned glorious highs of it. He was supposed to journey up the steps and destroy the invaders. This Fish was sure of, and Fish — you’d better believe — was slightly alarmed to see the others accept the same after only a brief introduction. The Pastor, Delilah, Teddy, The Bible, Stedman — they all seemed to see what Fish had seen from the beginning.

It only occurred to Fish later that they had manipulated their own ambitions onto Felix Culpa… only occurred to Fish later, for that matter, that he had done the same. But by that time it was immaterial: Felix Culpa had saved the city and was warmly martyred. Enshrined, as a matter of fact, in the most elaborate of cemeteries, with the most ostentatious of headstones.

They would come from hemispheres around to see it.

     There have been many lies spoken about Felix Culpa, all of which I hope to dispute in this chronicle. First of all, it is true that he once drank eight bikers — dedicated alcoholics all — under the table, but it is not true that he then slept with their wives and/or special ladies. It is true that he once burped the City’s anthem, but it is not true that he wrote it. It is true that he once had intercourse with the President’s wife (the Actor’s, not the Brain’s) but it is not true that he sired her daughter. I know this because I was Felix Culpa’s best friend for life, and he told me many things during our friendship, during long nights under what used to be the stars and was suddenly the black blanket of the invaders’ ships, on his patio draining scarce wheat beers with lemons and finally drinks mixed with whatever was under the sink and what wasn’t expired in his icebox, guessing at what time of day it was and thinking that it had rained because it smelled like rain, though of course we couldn’t be sure because the invaders’ ships would have sheltered us from rain in much the same way they sheltered us from light and the moon and the stars and great glowing horizons of clouds. Felix Culpa told me during one of these “moonlight” sessions that he was sterile, that his “spermies” were all blind, deaf and dumb and were simply incapable of making pregnancy.

     It is undoubtedly one of the lasting injustices of time and science that such a man as Felix Culpa would be sterile, but there you have it. No one save the Pastor and his ilk ever tried to make moral sense of things. And they, as Felix Culpa strained to make clear to them, were insane.

So when later they tried to claim that Felix Culpa had impregnated the President’s wife (the Actor, not the Brain), I knew that this was merely grandstanding and there was no truth to it whatsoever.

I’d like to think that if Felix Culpa had owned a moral bone in his body, he would’ve snarled at this politically timely concoction. But I know, as so few have the curse of knowing, that Felix Culpa had not a moral bone in his body, and so would’ve been very grateful to any theory — no matter how unfounded — that saw his lifeless sperm inciting the reproduction of eggs.

In fact, Felix Culpa had a roundly immoral bone. Why, just on the cloudway he managed to abscond with the decent God-fearing virginities of two different girls — to say nothing of the countless unsaved lasses he pillaged during the endless night of the invaders’ occupation. And why do I say nothing of these? Well, consider it my nod of the head to gentlemanly history. It’s in no one’s best interests, after all, if the visitors to Felix Culpa’s grandiosely articulate headstone deign to spit on it as well.

So the shrift I give of Delilah Toulouse the widowed masseuse will be short, as will the shrifts of Cynthia and Lauren, whose hymens Felix Culpa blithely busted and whose dreams of white knights he absconded with through the play of his erection and immoral bend of his desires, perhaps there imbued with the majesty of the clouds and mind-blowing size of the sky. But who could possibly ever say for sure…

     Says Felix Culpa: “You really want me to do that?” Spam fajita bits tumbling from his lips.

     “We have discovered the cloudway,” the Pastor repeated. “We want you to go — to climb — to face the invaders and discover what they want.”

And Felix Culpa erupted in mighty, lung-barking laughs that reverberated through the walls of the room and the ears of everyone present. That unplumbable silence, that black audio nothing met them.

Felix Culpa was then quickly, surgically purchased. Let there be no doubt that it was not in the beginning an altruistic crusade. There was never a moment that he gave an inch without receiving in return a mile; but it was made clear to him that essentially he had no choice. Walk the cloudway and repel the invaders or a life of singular deprivation for you, Felix Culpa, who tonight will vouchsafe the continued prosperity and independence of mankind by shaking these offered hands.

The Pastor had many friends, a robust network of agents operating in occupied City, even some who doubled as administrators in the Collaborationist Authority, who could see to the negation of Felix Culpa from the rolls of the protected with the ease and freedom of bureaucrats the world over and from the beginning of time. Still, he exacted a price. It was bank accounts, wine cellars, a microbrewery, a grotesquely obese Sports Utility Vehicle, a virtual harem of white virgins at his beck and call, liveried manservants with culinary degrees. Felix Culpa, you see, had quite reasonably made every effort to negotiate a life of inordinate luxury and pleasure to follow what he was sure — what we were all more or less sure — was a doomed mission.

And after this sweaty night of barter, deep channels of sentient silence flowing between us — articulate, intelligent silences that filled us with sensations of dread and excitement — that mission promptly began. He was assigned the room, save the Pastor, as his retinue. He eyed Delilah Toulouse the widowed masseuse with a certain unguarded, breakneck eroticism — as if since he knew the mission was doomed and his life cut short, the rest of his rewards being therefore moot, he would make of her a trophy to convey his happy soul into the beyond. He looked at her and I, being Fish, understood instantly that he meant to dominate her. Since we’d been dedicated to the work of purchasing people all night, this perhaps didn’t strike me as unusual.

He was a sex maniac, after all, and obsessed with his sperm.

This is the truth, residents of the City, of your great Felix Culpa.

     Now you may rightly question my emphasis on Felix Culpa’s sex life after I’ve gone and said that I would nod to the gentlemanly history, but be assured that I have contained in this record only those scintillating details that Felix Culpa himself would have everyone know. He was a man without secrets, for the most part, and so my candor is only an aspect of our friendship and in no way should be regarded as opportunism on my part.

     The membrane that separated Felix Culpa from the rest of the world was extremely permeable, very porous, he was a man at large, a man of his time and place and had no truck with everyone knowing it. Indeed, he wanted everyone to know. While we made our long and perilous journey up the cloudway he told story after story about his exploits — perhaps thinking to himself that he was spinning his own eulogy there, knowing that death was certain. He made no distinction between ignominious episodes of his life or wonderful ones, repeating all with a smile on his lips, as if to say: this is who I am, what I’ve done, and what I’m all about. You must accept all of me. And we did, each of us.

Even, eventually, the Bible.

Now, the Bible was a fellow who’d found in the very bottom of his soul during the nadir of his life, in prison and vomiting and beaten and strung out, a little glittering salvation named Christ. This salvation gradually consumed him entirely as he converted with the Born Again’s zeal to a life spent in partnership with the Messiah. So total was his conversion that as soon as he could, upon getting out of prison, he endured three or four painful and comprehensive medical procedures that ultimately replaced his upper torso with a giant Bible, King James version. His arms sprouted blindly from the sides, his legs fell from the bottom, but he no longer had any head or chest or shoulders. An unfortunate side effect was that he’d lost most of his memories and much of his higher intellectual functions, becoming really rather dopey.

Also he was blind.

“I don’t understand how you can talk,” Felix Culpa said during our hushed transit out of the City that night, “I mean… not having a mouth… and all that.”

“It’s the… uh… the word of God,” the Bible responded. He was used to this kind of inquisition. “How does God talk? How does the wind?”

“You know, I kind of have to admit,” Felix Culpa went on, “I don’t know why the Pastor thought it’d be a good idea for you to come along. I mean, you’re blind.”

Teddy Oval snickered from behind them. “He needs that Holy See.”

“That’s not funny,” Stedman Hess whispered. “Leave him alone.”

Felix Culpa cleared his throat and looked down at the widow. “Delilah, why do you think King James here is coming along?” This is how he would take her, I realized — one question at a time, until he’d answered her completely.

“Because he’s the word of God,” Delilah, who was holding the Bible’s hand, said. Delilah was a little woman with sad amber eyes and perfectly black hair tortured perpetually in a taut ponytail. She had sharp features and small breasts and carried herself with preternatural grace. “We need God’s help too. That’s why he’s here.” She smiled nervously up at Felix Culpa, who was a titan of a man next to her — six and a half feet tall and burly, bearded, beer-bellied.

He accepted what she had to say with equanimity, and we walked for a while in silence. Then Felix Culpa said, “Teddy, are you a faggot?” For he’d noticed the way Teddy Oval walked and lisped the word see.

“Yes I am.”

“Huh.” Felix Culpa accepted this with equanimity too. He was in a good mood, I supposed.

     The invader’s ships were great big steel discs, the size of nations, but seemingly composed in a latticework, so that here and there during a storm a shaft of rain would make it through. These were generally no wider than eight feet or so, and equally as long. On our first night on the city’s outskirts, making camp in a dell not far from a whispering creek, the fire having died to embers and everyone asleep in various uncomfortable positions on the ground, it began to rain on us. We awoke and rolled just slightly until all that remained to remind us of the rain was the soft wet whimper of its landing. I tried to ignore but couldn’t completely the sotto voce conversation between Delilah and Felix Culpa.

     “Was your husband a great man?”

“Yes.”

“Am I a great man?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you will be. Be quiet, we must sleep.”

“Do you like Mexican food?”

In the morning, in the dim graylight, our world unfolded all around us in rolling pastures and dying trees, and we trekked to the cloudway.

It was spectacular, let me tell you: a tessellated climb of crystallized cloud vapor graduating into the heavens in wide columns. It shimmered as we ascended, as if light itself had been frozen into the molecular structure at the instant of crystallization. We were shocked to find a whole culture of vagabonds and other gypsy-like people that’d assembled around the cloudway. They’d constructed simple dwellings and fallen into a prehistoric pattern of civilization: hunters and gatherers, men with ropy muscles and distant eyes who carried javelins and arrows, women with slumped backs and worn hands, children half-covered in mud and ululating in a tongue unknown to any of us.

“They’ve developed their own language,” one of them, a tribal leader name of Simon, told us as we looked on in wonder. “We don’t know how it happened. It isn’t taught.”

“The word of God,” the Bible said.

“No,” Stedman Hess, the concert pianist, remarked. “It is the sound of madness.”

Felix Culpa was not moved that much by the spectacle. He was eyeing those girls lounging at the bottom of the cloudway steps. “Who are they?”

“The virgins,” Simon said. “Cynthia and Lauren. They’re waiting.”

“For what, exactly?”

“For someone to accompany them up. They wish to conceive with the invaders. They have been expelled from their homes for this desire — but they think it will save them and their progeny.”

For three days we were given a party by the locals. Great big dripping animals were turned on a spit, licked by flames of an enormous bonfire. Mead and wine and other self-fermented alcoholic drinks — some of them half-sediment — made the rounds in milk jugs. “Where did the milk jugs come from?” Someone asked, told that the night the invaders’ ships settled over the City massive convection force winds drove all manner of garbage from the center into the surrounding countryside. Whole forests were strangled in plastic, rivers dammed with the discarded garbage of what had been a thriving civilization, filthy shoes and warped Tupperware and all manner of boxes, mote-riddled newspapers and coverless books, a scatter of coffee grinds and spent diapers and rotten vegetables, plus everything else that anyone ever threw away, creating a compost layer around the City that sunk, in places, yards deep. So these nomads had picked through it, consolidating a gentle village from the expelled trash of the City, anchored on the cloudway.

“Why here?” Teddy Oval asked, swimming tipsy around the fire, batting at flies, addressing the village’s High Priestess, Jenny. “Why around the cloudway? Isn’t it dangerous?”

“It could be dangerous; it could also be a great opportunity. It’s often difficult to tell the difference. Indeed, often there is no difference. We accept the reality of the terrace; we accept its existence. So long as we do, it must also accept us, or else there is a breach in consciousness and a failure of the collective intelligence.”

“See now –” Teddy sloshing a bit of that mead here and there. “– I’m not sure I follow.”

“Yeah,” Stedman Hess chipped in, “just because it acknowledges you doesn’t mean you’re safe from it. We acknowledge a bug before stepping on it.”

“The invaders could have stepped on us a while back, yet they have not,” Jenny the High Priestess came back. “The most important thing is to recognize each other’s presences and to respect each other’s boundaries. If we do not, they will not. If none of us do, all are sure to perish. Trust us, we see the harmony of the terrace. We live under its spiraling shadow. We see it take those who wish to climb it and let them return.”

“Sure,” Teddy coughed, “but look at them.”

Which no one wanted to do. Jenny, though, was more accustomed to them. “You think they’re zombies, but the important thing is that they are not dead. They sought the mystery of the ships, and the mystery touched them, and let them return. Let this be our prayer to you and yours — that you be touched, and recognized, and returned.”

In a position of essentially endless night — or lightless day, anyhow — there’s no reason to ever stop a party. Hangover, as village mythos said, claimed only those who slept and woke up. There was a strong scent and soundtrack of sex in the air, of pungent women and tumid men. I saw, at one point, Teddy Oval, deliriously happy, feeding from the breast of a lactating woman, saw even the exquisite Stedman Hess dousing girls with his cum — they fought over it like birds — taking three of them at once, plugging them all up. Delilah and Felix Culpa disappeared and weren’t seen for a stretch of what was probably twelve, fifteen hours, returning relaxed and touching each other, serene.

A tangle of limbs perpetually writhed in the center, where a man could partake (and I, being Fish, struggled to maintain my dignity in the sight of this horror) the mouths, anuses, vaginas or hands of anyone, any age, any gender, in a heated instant. Smelled fierce. Everyone seemed to be always at least mostly naked — the men with their dangling johns going to and fro, the women with their breasts and sometimes bushes peeking out from under recycled and rigidly dirty denim short skirts. An astounding variety of breasts, anyhow — large pale freckled ones and small smooth ones, nipples and areolas of every shape and color. In the tangle there were girls so young as to have not a single hair on their pubis. I, Fish, almost maintained my dignity, carrying on seventy or eighty disjointed conversations on the periphery of the party with an equal number of people. It was a matter of stealing someone’s attention for a spell, a word, a joke, a memory, before losing them fast to the blizzard of sin.

I could have spoken to the Bible, of course, but the Bible wasn’t so interesting to me. Better to watch him pick his way through the party, seeking to give his witness to these aborigines. “Oh right,” someone might say to him, “Yes, I’ve heard of this Christ fellow. What’s his angle?” And then the Bible gets buoyant, on his toes, happy to talk, mentions something about eternal life, the immaculate conception, the cleansing blood — “Wait, what’s this? Did you just say cleansing blood? Hey, get a load of this guy! Selling me on a death cult!” The Bible stumbling along, muttering about the bread and wine, the last supper — “No seriously, keep talking, this is fascinating. Lemme get something to write with…. Okay, we’ve got cannibalism and death-worship and human-divine procreation. This is classic. Hey Dale, get a load of what this guy’s selling…”

Poor King James, a stranger in a strange land, a wandering minstrel of Christ’s love misplaced in a frightening land of infidels.

I did happen to fall into a particularly interesting discussion with a band – a singing band, a capella, called INDUSTRIAL DESPAIR — who fed me drumsticks and fried bread and overly hopsy ale. I overheard them going on about time and insinuated myself into their circle.

“It’s not really a matter of then and now,” one of them said, a boy about junior high age, I thought, “or of when and when not. What the invaders have shown us that there truly is no time. That it was just a mental construct all the time. That’s why they took away our watches.”

“Right,” another, a girl of similar age, responded, “I mean, what do they care about our measly-ass resistance movement?”

“The invasion is a liberation from time, from the very fists of aging.”

“Wait wait wait,” I said. “You think now that we can’t tell time we won’t age?”

“Well, why not?” the girl said. “What affects you is that which you acknowledge.”

The third here piped up, an enchanting young woman with unrealistically red hair and glittering blue eyes. “The insect that is moved by your foot doesn’t recognize relocation by a higher intelligence, only the awkward and unexplained motion of life.”

“Still moved though,” I said. “I mean, the insect will still move. We’ll still age. Just because we can’t tell time… It’s a biological process.”

The boy laughed at me, pointed his finger. “Your awareness of time is deep, that’s all. You have to abolish it. Once there is no watcher, there is no seen.”

“And what isn’t seen,” the redheaded princess said again, “isn’t there.” She shrugged happily, transfixing me with her smiling eyes.

“What’s your name?” Fish (and I am he, only for a little while to be aided in ditching the first for the third person, to detail my dissent) asked.

“Gisele.”

“Gisele,” he said contentedly, letting the syllables get comfortable on his tongue. “How old are you?”

The little boy got irritated. “Oh c’mon, Danielle. They wanna flirt now; let’s go.”

“Okay, Rafael.” And the two of them skipped off hand in hand, leaving Gisele and me alone, her beauty reflected to me in the flicker of firelight, the warm stretch of her smile and sculpture of her high cheekbones, the dash of freckles as if the pre-invasion night sky — the one studded with stars — had imprinted itself on her at the moment she came screaming out of the womb. This naked, astronomically painted flesh including her shoulders, pale and white, and her inner thighs while she sat Indian-style across from him, that special vertex of her legs and ass shrouded in all too convenient shadow as she blushed at his question and watched her mates leave and then answered, “17.”

“I think,” Fish said, moving closer to her, “I could read the Zodiac in your skin…”

“What?”

“Could even navigate seas, perhaps.”

“Navigate c’s?” she asked, taking Fish’s hand. “What about b’s, and a’s, and h’s?”

Fish spelled it out — “Bah” — and then said it like Ebenezer Scrooge. “Bah! Bah humbug!”

Gisele laughed heartily. “You make no sense to me at all, whatever your name is. You must be a lot older than I am.”

“It’s Fish, and yes I am.”

“What is fish? And what are you?”

“Both. I’m both. That is…” The drink was getting to Fish much more than he’d believed. “I’m Fish. My name. And I’m a lot older, yes.” Fish touched her shoulders and kissed her cheek. “But that isn’t important now. What matters is the map of your body. Consider me an astronomer.” Down with that blouse, youthful tits bouncing in the firelight.

“Don’t you mean a cartographer?”

“The point,” Fish said, laying her down, “is that that which isn’t seen isn’t there, right?”

“Of course.”

“So close your eyes, and make me a fantasy.”

Fish heard giggling and clapping, at some point, at the top of her orgasm, and this made him feel soiled. He jumped from her and chased them off, only to find her laughing too — and at him! — when he got back.

“There are no secrets here at the terrace,” she said. Although of course there were secrets — at least ones Fish would carry to the grave, secrets that revolted him later, that sent him to nightmares and retching. He could never say what he found in that shadow, and what he let her do to him, reminding himself all the while — eyes screwed shut so tightly they may never open all the way again — that what was invisible wasn’t real, no matter how much pain it caused.

The party disintegrated finally with a breakfast of fresh eggs and absurdly strong coffee. Our troop gathered together and fidgeted nervously, everyone with a fresh slate of ignominy to deal with — everyone except Felix Culpa, that is, who never did anything he didn’t want everyone to see. We stood at the bottom of the cloudway, at that bizarre terminus of sky and land, and became filled with nerves.

“Does anyone ever go up?” I asked Simon.

“Oh sure. They just don’t usually come back.”

“Not usually?” Teddy Oval wished to clarify.

“The ones that do come back don’t say much.” There was no pain in Simon’s voice as he told us, and I (Fish) had the feeling he’d become inured to suffering. “Or do much. Or move — really — at all.”

“We don’t need to see that,” Felix Culpa said, scoping out those virgins. “Come, retinue! Follow me!”

And we did.

“You, Cynthia, and Lauren, you will accompany us,” Felix Culpa commanded. They were very young — couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen, with wide clear eyes and tangles of hair, dressed virtually in rags. They obeyed him as we did, as everyone who fell into Felix Culpa’s gravity well naturally did. Because he was taller than everybody else and spoke really loud.

They looked to me like fawns, with knobby knees and unsteady legs, surprised by their own height and reach, and the fawns hungrily attached themselves to Felix Culpa.

“You will take us to the invader’s ships?” Cynthia asked, or Lauren.

“I will.”

“And let us remain there? With their men?” Lauren asked, or Cynthia.

“If you still want to, sure.”

Delilah looked on, I observed, with a nearly imperceptible downward curve at the ends of her lips and an ever so slight tightening of her eyes.

     The cloudway — styled by the locals “the terrace” — would take days to ascend, and the natural impediments were more complicated than the Pastor had anticipated. For starters, it was cold as hell and getting colder all the time. There was the little matter of altitude sickness — of that terrifying glance down as we got higher and higher, our given world cementing into neat squares unnumbered feet beneath us — and also that Stedman Hess, whose ears meant almost as much to him as his fingers, was having difficulty equalizing.

     “Why do you keep opening your mouth like that?” Teddy Oval asked. “And yawning, and chewing on stuff, and crying all the time?”

“He’s having a hard time equalizing,” Delilah said curtly. “It’s the air pressure. Leave him alone.”

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to snap. It’s just so fucking cold.” Teddy hugged his arms.

Occasionally we’d be passed by the automatons descending from the invader ships. They had blacked-out eyes and gave us looks like death itself might cast on the dying, saying nothing, only carrying with them a chilled wind that caught each of us in our hearts. We’ll look like that soon enough, I would think to myself.

And Felix Culpa would read my thoughts and say, “Don’t worry. We’re never going to look like that.” He’d usually follow this up with a brief word of encouragement and then a long story of the hilarious travails of his youth, just to keep our moods light and our feet climbing.

Over time, you could hardly tell you were going upstairs anymore, so distinct was gravity’s winnowing influence. It became possible to believe that we were as light as the clouds themselves, formless and free. In the night, while we clustered together for warmth, we’d all listen and try not to watch as Felix Culpa, Savior of Humanity, took Cynthia and Lauren under his blanket. We listened to their sacred virginity dissolve on the terrace, like so many other dreams must have of those who climbed, returning as automatons to the planet.

     The view must not be shortchanged. After three days we could see the vast spread of our City, and after five we could see the ocean, and after seven days we could discern the planet’s curvature.

     “Imagine a concerto,” said Stedman Hess, his eyes now always watering from his forced yawns, “played from these heights.”

And he did. He pretended a Steinway at his fingertips and tickled the ivory over the latitudes, the single notes and chords diminishing only just barely — as thunder — with their plunge, so that Everyone would be met in some mundane moment with the peals of a musical storm. He said later that this idea, even in its grandiose foolishness, kept him sane.

For the Bible it was the majesty of the climb that preserved his sanity, confirming with every step the ineffable power and design of his Lord. “See the planet?” He would ask, a little lamely, when someone stopped to ask him what he was gaping at. “No physics could… umm… engineer something like that.”

“But Bible,” the questioner might reply, “you can’t see.”

And the Bible would nod, and put his finger to where his head used to be. “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me…” As if faith could imbue someone with sight… going on, sometimes, to recite the prayer of antiphony: “Direct, O Lord, our path in your sight…” and occasionally, if he were in a certain mood, equating the whole ascent to the resurrection itself, with the three day orgy his forty nights in the desert, on Temptation’s fingertips, or the long dark passage in the tomb, Jesus’s own three days dipped into eternity, or — while we’re at it — Jonah in the belly of that whale before being ejected so splendidly into fresh air…

… and there could’ve been no doubt that we were ejected into fresh air. Not a scent of air pollution prevailed, not a lick of haze. “What are those ships powered on?” someone wondered, no one with a ready answer.

Delilah was kept sane with discontent, by centering on it — a smoldering unhappiness that mushroomed with each night Felix Culpa spent ransacking the virgins. She closed in on herself and eventually ceased feigning even the most clearly forced good cheer — became a tiger up there and the self-sworn defender of the Bible and Stedman Hess and anyone else she felt wasn’t getting quite enough sympathy. With the general trend being survival of the fittest and the lead from Felix Culpa being one of adamantine onwardness, forging-ahead and damn him who’s too slow, Delilah extended her umbrella of mercy — as if to counter him, to balance him out, to extend an unvoiced fuck you into his midnight sessions of pedophilia.

It was Teddy Oval who ended up having nothing at all to keep him sane. Loveless and bitter, Teddy had never been all that well to begin with. It had long been a mystery to me why exactly the Pastor, in his wisdom, had selected the faggot for a role in our quest. I’m afraid it will remain a mystery for as long as I live, as Teddy one night flung himself over the edge of the terrace. The winds were strong that night and the clouds — the regular ones — had kept us more or less in their wet, blinding embrace for two days. Only the Bible wasn’t affected. Teddy, his teeth chattering, white knuckles stretched tight around his arms, finally had enough. He yelled “Bonsoir!” and took the leap, never giving anyone the chance to talk him back from the edge.

Thus was the strain of the thing once called a cloudway, more recently a terrace, finally becoming in our vocabularies something unspeakable, something nameless that lay siege to our sanity and would claim our lives if given one mortal inch of surrender.

     Delilah came to me in one of these nights and tried kissing me, tried holding me in her hands, and I deflected her. Then she crumbled there in the night, suspended on the terrace in the middle of the sky, lit only by its unfading glitter of frozen light. Cried and said, “I want to kill him. I want to push him over.”

     “Quiet, quiet,” I said, hushed, feeling terribly uncomfortable.

     And then one day we were upon it, the ship tricking us somehow with its size, always seeming farther away than it actually was. Its belly swallowed the terrace, and into its belly we went with the impenetrable silence of awe about us, stilling our lungs. We entered a deep, chilly darkness, with the sounds of — well, what sounded like human construction all around, the buzz, whir and hammer, their echoes chasing each other into a frenzy of placeless sound.

     It was impossible to judge the ship’s dimensions — everything was black nothing and echo — but a floor of some kind existed beneath our feet. Our footfalls, however, were absorbed, so that we couldn’t tell where each other was or even if anyone was walking, so complete was this alien night.

“I’m going ahead,” Felix Culpa said, his voice startling and crisp, then gone — almost like it had never happened.

     We had only our whispered voices to keep us company while Felix Culpa wandered the ship.

     “Where are the men?” Cynthia asked, or Lauren.

“Doesn’t that sound like a saw?” From Stedman Hess.

“Did Felix Culpa leave?” Lauren wondered, or Cynthia.

“Are you here, Fish?”

“Yes, Delilah. Relax.”

“Relax, hell…”

“What does it look like?”

“Like death, Bible,” I said.

“Heaven-death?”

“No, Bible. Not heaven-death.”

“Where is he?” Delilah asked, a hysterical note in her escalating tone.

We sat and whispered back and forth, nonsensical conversations bubbled up from the race of fear that shivered through each of us, the thrill of the unknown sewing goosebumps on our arms, the depthless and surging feeling of helplessness.

And then, an hour, a day, a week later, we were back on the ground, having lost time, squinting and shielding our eyes from the blast of the sun. The blast of the sun. The golden wash of light. The invader ships gone.

We looked at each other in bewilderment, our eyes the color of our eyes and not the hollowed-out black of those tourists we’d passed on the way up. We were illuminated. We saw each other’s wrinkles, each other’s blemishes, for the first time. We wondered how it had happened. We couldn’t look up. We were frying in the sudden heat. We looked for Felix Culpa.

And then Stedman Hess began talking.

“My friends and faithful followers,” he said, in a trance, “I have accomplished my mission.”

The natives began circling us. Everyone cowering under the sun. Shocked, as if taken in a nuclear flash and understanding nothing.

“The invaders have gone,” Stedman said, “and it is I, Felix Culpa, who have succeeded for all humanity.”

“Felix Culpa,” I said, desperately, “tell us what has happened!”

Stedman smiled faintly. “Fish, they accepted me into their conference room. They fed me nachos. They made me wear the glasses.”

“The glasses?” Delilah said.

“Yes. Those who wish to see them must wear specially constructed glasses that allows them representation in our visible light range. It is why those who came before emerged with blackened eyes.”

“What did they look like?” I asked.

“Bottles of Elmers glue,” Stedman said, perfectly serious, “But with arms and legs and blinking eyes. They manifest as what is in the viewer’s mind. And I had been thinking about… Elmers glue.”

“What were they doing here?” Lauren asked, or Cynthia.

“Blocking out the sun, to make the Earth inhabitable for their kind. They were expanding their ships, you see, to encapsulate the planet. They fed me delicious nachos…”

“Felix Culpa,” I snapped, “pay attention. How have you dispatched them?”

“They were allergic to sunlight, dear Fish. At least, to the light of our sun. I told them that there were numerous suns. That they popped up everywhere, all the time, in singularities just barely over our oceans and tiny in our fireplaces and proliferating in our fields, as cattle, or rabbits. That suns and light and solarity was ever happening, everywhere, all the time, and that one great envelope of alien steel would not do the trick.”

We were speechless.

“And this sufficed?” I asked, incredulous.

“I also told them of Betelgeuse, where the solar condition was much more stable. And I guaranteed our cooperation with them in the subjugation of the Betelgeuse systems.”

“And they believed you?”

“I told them,” Stedman chuckled, “I told them I was Earth Leader. They are really quite dim, you see. Just very industrious. And wonderful with nachos…”

“What has happened to you now, Felix Culpa?” Cynthia asked, or Lauren.

“I have transmogrified, Lauren.” Somehow he could tell them apart. “I am in the atmosphere now. I am of the breeze. They did this for me, the Leader of all Earth, as a means of recompense.”

“Is there to be more compensation?” Delilah asked, no doubt thinking of the littered planet, the timeless and defeated masses huddled in darkness and living with fear.

Stedman said, “The nachos, you know, were really very good. And they had beer, too…”

Everyone began to weep. Currents of joy and sadness wracked us against beaches of the unknown. We mourned for Felix Culpa. We celebrated the liberation of Earth. We wondered, terrified, about our own futures. The lights were back on. The world unveiled at last. The waters would shimmer and the plants would resurrect. The creamy pallor of humankind would again be kissed with sunlight. Power returned to the huddled, the beaten, the fearful. The lights back on.

And Felix Culpa in the breeze. Felix Culpa whispering to us eternally, incomprehensibly, our godfather and guardian. Felix Culpa cooling us on sweltering days, spinning our windmills and knocking off our hats. His grand destiny. To be everywhere and all at once and nowhere at the same time. To take the occasional person as he did Stedman Hess, as he took, in a way, all of us up the terrace, take him and speak through him, this ventriloquist scurrying about town with randomly selected bodies seeking burritos, wings, French fries and ale. Seeking quesadillas and fried chicken and nachos and cheeseburgers. Pancakes slathered in syrup and omelets and buttered biscuits. Ice cream and cheesecake and tiramisu. Anything and everything he could make some poor captive scarf down before the restaurants and grocery stores and fast food joints closed.

Because we could tell time again, and were aging.

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