Steve Waterhouse kept right on walking, up and out of the rings of Hell, but Sara Donlon held her ground.
“What do you mean I ‘passed?'”
“What do you think I mean?” Steve said, turning around and tucking his hands into the pockets of his blazer.
“Don’t get all mysterious on me, buster,” she sneered, “I’ve seen you without pants.”
Steve heaved an exasperated sigh.
“You won’t let this drop, will you?”
“Even though I’m the ruler of Hell?”
“All the powers awarded to Satan?”
“And to think, they told me people would fear me when I took this job,” he said bitterly, “Fine. Let’s get out of here, and then I’ll warp us up to a coffee shop topside and we can talk. Sound good?”
“You try to run away, Waterhouse, and I’ll track you down,” Sara grinned and waggled a finger at him. Despite his frustration, Steve pulled a tight-lipped smile.
“Where would I go, Sara? New Jersey?”
They kept on walking past the rows and rows of doors where people met their celestial punishment. Sara, however, was never one to let anything drop.
“You know, New Jersey’s not all that bad…”
“Oh, hush, would you?”
Steve turned red, but this time it had nothing to do with his occupation.
“I’m supposed to be the devil,” he muttered to himself, “But that does that change anything? No, she’s still just as bossy as ever.”
“What are you muttering up there, Grumpy?”
“I’m just remembering all over again why I never took the initiative in our relationship. No matter what I would have done, you probably would have criticized me for it!”
“I would not!”
“You told me I was spreading butter wrong on my toast!”
“You were sloppy!”
“Oh, bite me,” Sara wrinkled up her nose, and the two finished the walk in silence. They emerged from the door, blinking in the bright flourescent lights of Waterhouse’s business-inspired offices Hell. At a nod from Sara, Steve clasped her shoulder (even though she had offered her hand) and the two were immediately whisked to a bright, Tuscan-styled coffee shop in Heaven. The place was fairly secluded and, apart from a table full of beatniks in the corner, it was silent.
“This place is almost never empty, but it’s quiet enough,” Steve said as he sat down, “Just leave Ginsberg alone over there.”
“That’s really Ginsberg?” Sara asked, “I would love to talk to him.”
“Why? So you can tell him that ‘Howl’ inspired generationd of insipid college students who thought they were deep?”
“You know, you’re an ass sometimes,” Sara said, a little hurt.
“It’s part of the job description, Honey,” Steve smiled back, “what do you want to drink?”
“Erm,” she scanned a menu quick, and then made to say her order, only to find that Steve had said the same thing at the same time.
“Just plain espresso.”
“You’re as predictable as a sundial, Sara,” he said, relishing in her small victory. Sara, while a little perturbed, was secretly impressed at his amount of fiestiness. Maybe it WAS part of the job description. A Throne waiter zoomed by and took their order (everything always seemed so prompt in heaven), which left them alone and left Steve with no more recourse.
“So tell me, Ginger,” Sara said, leaning forward with a wolfish smile, “Why did you tell me I was being tested, or some such nonsense?”
“Standard operating procedure asks that the new recruits are not informed that they are tested, lest it change their attitude toward the test. Every new recruit, Heaven or Hell, has had to sit before Lucifer and deny temptation. It used to be his favorite part of the job, but now he just finds it annoying. Anyway, what happens is that sometime during the basic tour, the recruit is taken down to be tested, and if they can refuse it, like you did, they can get approved to work.”
“But what if they fail?” Sara said almost immediately. Steve gave a little smile and spoke in a low, gentle voice.
“Failure up here isn’t exactly what it is down there, Sara. Think about it: if you fail in your mortal life, what’s the worst that can happen? Eventually, you could fail yourself to death. Not so much a problem up here. As such, failure really isn’t seen as a bad thing, more like a chance for improvement. Those who don’t pass the test, but still want to work, have a little time to prepare themselves and try again. I don’t quite know how to say this, but the Big Guy’s kinda big on failure as a teaching tool.”
“Makes sense to me,” Sara sat back and stretched on the iron cafe chair, “Humans are basically a study to see what they do and don’t screw up.”
“If you only knew,” the red-haired Devil said with a shake of his head. As usual, Sara couldn’t let it drop.
“If I only knew what?”
Steve looked panicked for a moment, then swiftly pulled out a red and black cell phone with two little horns functioning as antennae. Sara snickered at the phone’s design as Steve placed a hurried call.
“Yes, VP of HR, ASAP. Hi, yes, it’s Steve. Little question for you: can I tell my new EA about 666?. I can? You sure? Okay, sounds good.”
He flipped the phone shut with a sharp “clack!” and a small puff of sulphorous smoke.
“I wish you wouldn’t interrupt our dates on the cell, Darling,” Sara said with mock-malaise, “who was it?”
“Vice President in charge of Human Relations.”
“You mean Jesus?”
“Cute name. Was all that your idea?”
“Mostly. It’s also a way to keep the Type A, business personalities busy up here. Some people’s personal heaven involves coming up with acronyms for everything.”
“Yeesh,” Sara pulled a face, but tried to pull it back as the handsome young angelic waiter returned with their drinks. The Throne smiled and was immediately off, half walking, half gliding on his wings.
“What did you get?” she asked, her curiosity getting the best of her embarassment.
“I call it a Goober Mocha,” Steve said proudly, stirring a swizzle stick around a veritable mountain of whipped cream, “It’s your standard chocolate and coffee drink with some peanut butter dropped into it. It’s greasy and gross-looking, but it sure tastes good!”
“Steve, you’d put peanut butter and chocolate on and old boot and say it’d taste good.”
“Because it would,” he responded with a fair bit of petulance, scooping the gob of whipped cream off in deft motion and jamming it into his mouth.
“Crimony, how old are you?” Sara scoffed.
“Sebbeh,” the new Satan gurgled around a moutful of goo.
“Well, swallow that mess and tell me about 666, as if I can’t guess what it already is.”
Steve did as he was told and continued stirring his drink.
“It is Lucifer, you’re right,” he said, still stirring, “But it’s probably not what you think. You see, God is, well… God. We can’t really understand his thought patterns, but basically God has talents. God is an artist. Any talented artist feels one compelling thing: to create. When you have the power God has, you create existence.”
“I knew some artists in college who thought they were God,” Sara said with droll groan.
“So, first things first, he creates something out of nothing. Hard work, right? Takes millions, billions of years. And once he’s got it, he needs someone to live there, right? Now keep in mind that at this point, in a manner of speaking, God is still young, and fairly idealistic. He decides that his creation should be idyllic, perfect, without the ability to do wrong so as better to serve him, the creator. After all, you don’t just create something and let it go, you put your mark on it, you like to still be involved.”
“Do you have to stir that thing constantly?” Sara asked irritatedly, as Steve was still animatedly swishing the swizzle stick back and forth.
“Yeah, actually,” he replied, “Or else the peanut butter will settle out. So anyway,” he took a drink and sighed with the ecstasy one does when one gets what one wants, “God creates the angels. They’re perfect. They do exactly what he wants to do. He’s happy with his creation… but not for long. Just like every artist, God feels the need to evolve his work, and he has the ultimate canvas in front of him…but where to go next? These angels are amazing, spectacular, absolutely flawless…but they don’t have that panache, that chutzpah, you know? Suddenly, around the time he’s got plants and animals on the Earth, it hits him. Brainwave. Something so amazingly creative, something so revolutionary, it’ll be the kind of project one can really hang their hat on. Do you know what he creates?”
“Humans?” Sara said with a shrug.
“Close!” he fired back, now very excited, “He decided that he will create the idea of humanity. Not blind obedience, not clear, unadulterated goodness, but the idea of free will, the idea that people can choose to do right or wrong, even to believe that he, the creator, does not exist. You’ve gotta understand, Sara, this is like showing a TV to Cro-Magnons, it’s something no one has ever done before. He’s breaking the rules, sort of. The idea of creation is to make something that can pay tribute to you. You don’t paint a painting no one will buy, know what I mean? But God, he’s there, he’s totally thinking outside the creationary box. So, he takes what he knows, and he tries to improve upon it: he makes an angel that can THINK. He makes his Most Beautiful Angel: Lucifer.”
At this point, Sara put down her cup and regarded Steve with a mix of disbelief and awe. Steve, in response, slowly nodded and continued.
“This was an angel that could feel things like pride. This was an angel that could see how things were done, and form his own opinions. Most importantly, this was an angel that could speak his mind, and convince other people. Lucifer looks at God, looks at the world he’s created, and thinks he can do better. Through this, we get the Angel Wars, and Lucifer’s first incarceration. At this point, everyone wonders one thing…”
“Why didn’t God just destroy him?” Sara burst out, a little too loudly. The Beatniks over in the corner scoffed as Steve answered.
“Exactly. That question, of course, brings about the issue of fallibility, and whether God can make a mistake. If it makes sense to say so, God’s only mistake is being perfect. He created Lucifer to have the best of both worlds, and it was too much power. God basically did too good of a job, a job he’d later have to make purposefully worse to create some other creatures: muddy, mortal little things who often do horrible things, but can also be redeemed so easily…”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No. Lucifer was God’s overclocking the system, and he had to scale things back to make sure his whole idea didn’t literally go up in smoke. But still…Lucifer was his creation and God, being something we can never understand, loved him in that way God loves everything, and would not destroy him, even rewarded him in a way. Lucifer wasn’t a mistake, in effect he was necessary to create the duality in which we humans live our lives. It’s almost as if God knew what would happen with Lucifer, and planned it all along, sacrificing his most beautiful creation to create the world he so wanted: a world unlike his own, a world where mistakes can be made, a world where people can be good and turn bad, or bad and turn good, unlike his ever-unchanging world. We are God’s masterpiece: we are perfect because we are imperfect. Anyone can put together the pieces and make something that works, but we as humans still can’t create something that works and yet doesn’t…and we never will. Because we are not God, and neither is Lucifer, no matter how much he wants to be. He can’t understand, Sara, he can’t understand why a perfect world would be imperfect, he can’t understand how the human factor, the ability to be wrong, the ability to feel and to think freely works into making the world perfect BECAUSE it is imperfect… which is why he fails.”
“And we know that God likes it when we fail,” Sara finished her espresso with a curious glint in her eye, “because he knows that we can learn from it, and he’s hoping some day Lucifer might come back to the light?”
“Some day,” Steve finished his drink in one chug, “but it won’t be soon. When someone is that perfect, and realizes that they are perfect…it’s a hard road to admit that anyone’s better.”
“Oh,” Sara snorted into her napkin, “Like I’ve never encountered that before, Mr. ‘The Controller must be broken, I never lose at Mortal Kombat!'”
Steve Waterhouse smiled and flicked his swizzle stick at her from across the table.
“I still say you cheated,” he stuck out his tongue, “You simply can’t freeze people while they’re blocking!”
The two went back and forth like that, sniping at each other like they always did, but they found this time they were laughing a lot more as they did so. Of course, this ruined the atmosphere for the Beatniks, who angrily threw down their napkins and left the little coffee shop, in search of more dreary places to decry the state of things. It seemed that, even in Heaven, some people found their bliss in complaining.