Michael Boatman spends his days and nights pretending to be other people. For a living.
I should be happy. After two thousand years spent doing the job I was created to do, I deserve a little happiness. If only there was someone I could complain to; a clergyman or union representative. But there isn’t. And even though that’s mostly my fault, it still sucks. See, thirty seconds ago the saleswoman lost twenty pounds and started speaking French. That means a lot of people are about to die: there’s a god waiting outside this jewelry store and he wants to kill me.
“Your fiancée will be so happy, Monsieur Cooper,” the saleswoman says. Then her polite professional demeanor evaporates, replaced by the confusion I’ve come to know all too well. “I’m thin! And I’m speaking French!”
“But I don’t speak French.”
I stuff the little gold-wrapped box into my front pocket. I’ve worked my butt off to be able to buy that ring and, angry god or no angry god, it’s coming with me.
“In another life, your father accepted that job at Banque Populaire and moved your family to Paris. You grew up there.”
“But Daddy didn’t take that job. They were getting a divorce and… Wait… how did you know that?”
Outside, someone calls me by my professional name.
“Yahweh! Come out and face me!”
The voice is loud, supernaturally powerful, and familiar.
“Mon dieu… what’s happening?”
The saleswoman is getting more French by the nanosecond. I can’t help but pity her – she doesn’t know she’s about to die. If she did she wouldn’t have worn that dress.
“I’m French! I love zis life!”
“Don’t get used to it.”
I step into the sunlight basting Michigan Avenue. Chicago is in the last throes of a vicious midsummer heatwave, but my immortal enemy stands just up ahead, all puffed up like he’s still got the whole world in his hands.
“Well, well, well. How far the mighty has fallen.”
Typical. Retired for two thousand years and the thick Greek lummox still hasn’t mastered English.
“Hey, Yahweh! I’m talkin’ to you!”
“We’re too old for this, Zeus.”
I cut a wide swath around the barrel-chested lunatic, focusing on my lime green Sketchers as they slap the pavement.
Just keep walking, Lando. Hey! Check out that pile of dog turds. Much more interesting than the lummox.
“You hear what I say, desert dog? I’m going to keeek your ass! You and your faggoty son!”
Hello. I’m a real boy. This is not my problem.
I’ve struggled with anger issues. I won’t go into detail – just read the Old Testament and you’ll get the picture. But thoughts of the future help to keep me calm. I’ve sacrificed everything to be here. Literally.
I can do this.
I’m five yards from the elevated train entrance; fifteen feet from the comforting embrace of other Chicagoans and their everyday human problems when a thunderclap shatters store windows up and down Michigan Avenue. Then a Voice thunders overhead.
“Face me, Yahweh! Or I’ll burn this city to the ground!”
The howling maniac is six and a half feet tall and built like a man-shaped oak tree. He stands there, flexing his Mediterranean muscles in the middle of Michigan Avenue. Clearly the King of the Greek Gods is determined to make ignoring him difficult. The lightning bolt that blasts the concrete beneath my feet makes it impossible: I jump backward, narrowly avoiding electrocution.
The skies over the Loop go black. The wind off Lake Michigan whips itself into a fury, howling through steel and stone canyons: Zeus must have bullied one of his bastard elemental offspring into harassing me. His third bolt strikes a group of Swedish tourists getting off a double decker tour bus parked in front of the jewelry store. The tour bus explodes. The jewelry store goes up in a tremendous ball of smoke and flame. The shockwave knocks me off my feet as a peal of hypersound like the silent bellow of a newborn sun rings out over the city, the air clanging with the shriek of unauthorized Creation: the birthscreams of diverging realities.
A few yards away, a woman in a tight green dress lying in a shattered Best Buy window display staggers to her feet. Well, part of her staggers to her feet: she’s technically dead but her soul has nowhere to go, not with all this celestial interference clogging the ethers. The woman in the green (and red) dress is staggering around, deceased and utterly confused. Her legs are long and well-formed: a dancer’s legs.
The leggy dead dancer lurches toward a young mother grasping a stroller. The young mother gapes as the dead hottie bumps into the stroller, spilling the toddler inside it out onto the sidewalk. The toddler bounces off the curb and rolls into oncoming traffic. Fortunately, the spectacle Zeus is creating has stalled traffic on both sides of Michigan Avenue.
The dead hottie staggers toward the toddler. The young mother bolts past the burning tour bus, jumps off the curb and onto the dead hottie’s back, the two of them twirling around in the Buses Only lane; a shrieking blonde motherbear driven insane by a rapidfire intrusion of the Weird, catfighting with the hot dead dancer while a thousand terrified onlookers look on.
“Hey, douchebag,” a Voice says from everywhere. “Are you ready to parlay now?”
Parlay. Damn, how I hate the Greeks.
Amid a chorus of screams from the panicking mortals around us, Zeus assumes an Aspect and rises toward the sky. Lightning flashes from his eyes, crackles from the ends of his hair. And he’s naked. Looks like someone has been hoarding his divine energies: His godly member extends the length of a steel girder.
“What do you want, Zeus?”
“I want your head, God of the Hebrews!”
Behind him, the John Hancock Center shudders and bursts into flames. More screams. A taxi driver on the far side of the burning bus tries to move his car and smashes into the Prius in front of him. The Prius’ owner jumps out of his car, swearing in Farsi. He reaches in through the cab’s window, pulls the driver out and begins to pummel him. Fights are breaking out all along Michigan Avenue. Several dozen onlookers attack themselves, punching and tearing their own faces. An attractive African-American female police officer near the epicenter of the disturbance, gets out of her stalled patrol car and stares, openmouthed, at Zeus. Then she breaks into applause.
“It’s the End of Days! Finally!”
The police officer grabs a passing Sikh schoolboy by the straps of his backpack and tries to pull off his turban. The Sikh schoolboy breaks free and sprints away. The policewoman shoots him.
I’m going to have a headache for the next month.
A great rushing wind answers my command: a certain theatricality is called for in every godfight. Fortunately, I come from a family that knows how to stage a confrontation.
“Let me get this straight, Zeus. You would contradict the Eshuum? You would breach the terms of your surrender?”
Back in the Buses Only lane, dead hottie is bouncing blonde mom’s head off a convenient fire hydrant. The toddler laughs and claps his hands to the rhythm of his mother’s bludgeoning: Bonk. Bonk. Bonk. Then he vomits a swarm of locusts.
Zeus raises his right fist, his forearm tendons flexing like angry anacondas, reaches heavenward and clenches lightning from the screaming sky.
“I would dare the Fates themselves to see you dead, usurper! Befouler of the faithful! Comedian!”
“You’re one to talk, Nymph fondler!”
Thunder tears the air like the roar of a thousand badly castrated bull elephants. Behind me, the Sears Tower flickers and vanishes, only to reappear, flicker and vanish again. In its place appears a mammoth golden retriever as big as a cathedral. His name is Cheezy Domino.
Zeus hammers me with lightning, smites me with hailstones and lashes me with hurricane force winds. It hurts, especially the smiting part. But the cost to his divine energy reserves should debilitate even a god of his stature: I can’t help wondering where he’s getting the extra power.
Focus, Cooper. He’s immortal. You’re not.
I reach into the Eshuum and pull out an offensive Aspect of my own: He Who Judges, the stonefaced God who opened up a can of divine whup-ass on Sodom and Gomorrah, shrugs his way out of my mind and into reality, which makes sense, considering that Zeus’ drunken killing binge qualifies as an abomination of post-biblical proportions. Maybe he’ll learn to appreciate prolonged sobriety after a few millennia as a burning pillar of salt.
Zeus either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the damage a godfight can cause to the fabric of human consciousness; what we of the divine orders call the Eshuum. I have to stop this breaching before he plunges the world into Chaos.
“Attend me, Yahweh! Cast off thy mortal seeming and take to the skies! Fly with me into the heat of the sun that we may learn who is the true King of Creation!”
He’s nearly five stories tall by now. His image must be whipping around the planet, recorded by thousands of mobile phones, playing hob around the internet… Oy, the headache…
“Fight me, God of sheep and pestilence! You cower before me because you dare not… burrrrrrroppt…!”
Zeus’s declaration fills the air with the sickly sweet stench of downmarket ambrosia and Schlitz Malt Liquor. The son of Cronus is drunk, (no surprise there really, since he’s Greek too), but how to deal with him? A banishment? A temporary damnation? But to whose Hell?
Cheezy Domino lifts his leg and wees all over downtown Chicago. The warm river of giant dog urine flushes a bus-load of confused retirees down the street, around the corner and out of sight. The stink snaps me back to my senses.
My human perceptions reassert themselves...
I reeled in my psychic extrusions and recalled He Who Judges.
“No!” HWJ howled. “Let me broil the titanspawn in a cataclysm of brimstone! I will baste his heathen flesh in rivers of righteous hellfire!”
But I needed a way to diffuse the situation, not make it worse. I had to divest Zeus of the excess power he was burning and minimize the damage to the Eshuum. I needed a plan; something fast and dirty and cosmically low impact. I shoved He Who Judges back into the holding pen in my brain as Zeus blasted the Merchandise Mart with a volley of thunderbolts. The attack sent hundreds of screaming mortals flooding into the streets: it was only a matter of time before he started ravishing people.
“You were always a showoff, Zeus. Lightning bolts… earthquakes… and for what? Empty gestures. They’re totally passé.”
“Fool! I am Zeus Aegiduchos! Skyfather and Stormlord! Cloud Snorter and Hymen Smasher! The thunder speaks with my voice! The lightning is my spear! My essence mingles with the Four Winds and sows my seed upon the lips of a million whores!”
“Come on, Zee. Even with all this power you’re wasting, you’re still totally assboned.”
Zeus frowned down at me, storms raging in his eyes.
“Hello? Are you deaf and irrelevant?”
All gods hate being talked down to: Zeus once changed an innocent nymph into a swan merely for avoiding his attempts to rape her. Now I hoped to goad him into overreaching again.
“‘The thunder is my voice! The lightning is my spear?’ Zdog… that stuff is older than Methuselah. Literally. Even worse... it’s corny.”
“Like Kansas. Why do you think millions of mortals rejected you?”
Zeus’ eyes dimmed. He shook his head like a wounded bear beset by saltfooted flies. Then he roared, “I AM NOT IRRELEVANT! I AM THE COMING!”
I was trying to make sense of that statement when the street beneath my feet buckled. From somewhere nearby, a thousand mortals screamed as the Butkus Bank Building collapsed. The invisible effluvia of hundreds of prayers rose up around me like a silent symphony of pain only to vanish in a Hellenic heartbeat: Zeus had just extinguished another thousand mortal lives.
Talk faster, Cooper.
“Yo,” I shrugged. “I had my fingers on the pulse, baby, the zeitgeist.”
“Zeitgeist?” Zeus rumbled. “That’s… French?”
The air was filled with screaming. And buoyed upon nearly every scream, a flotilla of prayers, whispering like wind across the sands of a distant desert.
Help me, Lord!
Save me, Allah.
Where are you?
I had to speed things up: any one of these prayers, if answered under these circumstances, would spell cosmic disaster.
“You’ve got plenty of juice, Zeus. But I’ll bet you haven’t read a book in, what? Five thousand years?”
Another lightning bolt, this one close enough to fry my eyebrows. Ozone stung my nostrils. I put myself out.
“I’ll read the tale of your destruction in your sizzling entrails, Dog of the Desert! I’ll thumb through your King James claptrap while I bang your feeble corpse!”
“You were Top Dog, Zeus; Immortal god among gods. But how did you spend your divinity? Turning yourself into showers of golden coins and impregnating cows. Major douche move. That’s why my followers were able to supplant yours: I was dialed in, Zed.”
The winds dwindled as Zeus’ divine focus shifted from smiting to doubting. The lightning storm lost some of its fury: Zeus began to subside.
“What’s this ‘dialed in’? Why do you talk like that?”
He shook his head, sending swarms of motivated electrons swirling skyward. But he had shrunk to the height of a modest bungalow: it was now or never.
“I guess that’s why I still have a few believers, Zeus. Granted… nobody’s sacrificing their children to me anymore, except for two or three churches in West Texas, but at least I’m still connected.”
“Sure. But you and your peeps are all sizzle and no souvlaki; you’re a gyro made from million-day-old toga meat; cosmic hayseeds with baklava where your style sense should be. You’re like the closing credits at the end of the last feature at the Midnight Bargain Matinopolis: ie, nobody ‘grocks’ the Greek Gods anymore.”
“Dialed in?” Zeus repeated, his voice shaky with perfectly mortal confusion. He was nearly human-sized when I met him in the middle of Michigan Avenue. “I don’t understand anything you say.”
I leaned forward to make certain Zeus could hear me. He leaned forward, all traces of his Aspect extinguished, barely a flicker of lightning in his hair; eager to hear the secret wisdom of the God of the Burning Bush.
Then I kicked him in the nuts.
Zeus howled, and fell to the sidewalk, clutching his divine scrotum.
“While you lie there trying to change into something with no testicles, I’m going to draw you down. It’s going to hurt you, Zeus, a lot more than it will me. And it hurts me. A lot.”
I closed my eyes and pinpointed Zeus’ divine lifeforce. To my upgraded perceptions he shone like a man-shaped star; far too much power than even he should have been able to wield under current planetary belief conditions.
What have you been doing, Zeus?
I stretched forth my hand. Lightning burst from Zeus’ body, the shafts crackling from him, dancing along my fingers to fill my senses with their alien tang. No doubt about it: Zeus had been dipping his fingers into some cosmically strange cookie jars.
The Greek alpha god writhed on the ruptured sidewalk, momentarily held captive by my will, his perfect teeth gnashing the air in silent protest of his impending banishment. His storm-gray eyes rolled in their sockets and found mine and his wounded scowl broadened into a grimace of… fear?
“Beware, Yahweh. The Coming stalks us all.”
Then those strange energies flared up from Zeus and blinded my mortal eyes for a moment. Somewhere in the midst of that conflagration, Zeus screamed. The shockwave was subtle as the deathshriek of a burning Babylonian. I staggered backward, half blinded, covering my ears against that awful roar. It was all so distracting that it took me a moment to realise that Zeus was gone.
He should have been under my control, unable to go anyplace to which I hadn’t banished him. But the sidewalk was empty, a vaguely Zeus-shaped scorch mark the only evidence he’d ever been there. But where was his power? Other than those first few wisps I’d absorbed, the Eshuum was pinpricked in several places but essentially undamaged by that bruising of strange force.
Using the wisps of divinity I’d scarfed from Zeus, I quieted the thunder, and shoved the unused lightning into a pocket dimension I kept handy for such occasions. I scanned the ether for some sign of the vanished Skyfather, but he was gone, really gone; erased as if he had never existed. I could still taste the psychic spoor of the Egyptian Pantheon long after Moses took the Hebrews out of Egypt. Zeus’s energies should have flowed into me, but they hadn’t.
And Zeus was… gone.
Everyone was screaming. Humans were fighting in the streets, driven mad by the Chaos energies our godfight had unleashed. Downtown Chicago looked like someone detonated an atom bomb under Oprah’s townhouse. In the Buses Only lane, the dead dancer was trying to stuff the newly orphaned toddler down an open manhole. The toddler was putting up a good fight but losing strength with every shove. Over by the Lake, Cheesy Domino was humping the Art Institute of Chicago: if I was going to prevent a catastrophic rupture I needed to get crackalackin’.
I spoke a Word, a shrieking shard of matter-rearranging verbiage. You might call it the access code to the operating system of the gods.
And Everything changed.
Five minutes later…
The tour bus trundled on its way, filled with laughing, living Swedes. The attractive woman with her great legs and green dress pranced by without even glancing my way. Hmmmph. If she remembered her original timeline she’d have fallen to her knees and kissed my hightops: dead one moment/healthy with both eyes free of footlong glass shards the next.
I’d cleaned up the Mercedes-sized droppings left by Cheezy Domino and sent him back to his home dimension: he was adorable but his presence in my dimension was an abomination. I’d brought back the Sears Tower: no one noticed. The only person who acknowledged my efforts was the orphaned toddler. As I resurrected his mother and placed him back in his stroller, he’d asked if I could sweeten his mommy’s breast milk. According to him it tasted like mucous. I’d granted his wish because… well, who needs snotty breast milk?
With the mortal world turning once more as it should, I boarded the elevated train and headed back to work. Ten minutes later, the headache I’d anticipated was coming on with a vengeance. I leaned my forehead against the cool window next to my seat and watched the blue vastness of Lake Michigan as I turned over the last hour’s events. Something weird was happening, something that had never happened across the long slog of Creation: a major god, the All-Father of one of the world’s last great pantheons, had been erased.
I was haunted by the song of the strange energies as they engulfed Zeus at the end. The taste of their effluence still stung the back of my throat. Suddenly I had a mystery on my hands and I didn’t like it one bit. But I was going to have to investigate. After all, it’s my area.
I’m the last of the old guard, at least as far as I can see, the semi-retired captain of a losing team crewed by humanity’s outgrown gods. Now I had a haunting absence; a hole where a god should have been but wasn’t. Zeus was gone, and if the power that should have been released from his renunciation had not flowed into me… where was it?
Beware. The Coming stalks us all.
And who or what was “the Coming”? I was unfamiliar with such an entity. And I knew everybody.
I grabbed my inhaler and took a quick suck. Then, while my enflamed bronchi settled down, I leaned back against the seat and tried to relax. I needed answers like I needed Tylenol with a whiskey chaser. But Tylenol makes me nauseous, and getting drunk was the most irresponsible thing I could do. I had to keep my wits about me.
Beware. The Coming stalks us all.
I usually ignore prophesy. After all, my former self had initially warned Noah about my plan to punish humankind by turning every firstborn mortal child into a particularly unpleasant specimen of cuttlefish. It was only after Noah reminded me that that many angry aquatic invertebrates would need a lot more water in order to survive long enough to repent of their sins that I came up with the idea for a great flood. By the time I got around to confirming the change with Noah, half the human race had drowned. I knew how unreliable divine warnings can be. But I couldn’t shake the sense of foreboding that Zeus’ warning had cast: trouble was rushing toward me like a plague of blackwinged sorrows.
I had a feeling there was going to be Hell to pay.
(C) Michael Boatman 2014
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.