Eternal: At Arm's LengthbyFeotakahari©
This part of Eternal owes a lot to Morpheus's The Day the World Changed, which takes the opposite view of some of the same ideas. Apparently, I'm not allowed to write the name of the site it's on, but you can find it by Googling the title and author.
Also, with apologies to Atlus: This story has only one sex scene. Thank you for your understanding. However, it will be one bizarre, creative sex scene! Thank you for your understanding.
Also also, as always, comments and criticism are welcome.
By the fourth time the phone rang, Margaret wanted nothing more than to go to sleep. The invitations were long since sent out, the catering long since arranged, the chapel long since reserved, and the wedding was but a day away. "Mom, please stop calling me," she said into the receiver. "Whatever you're worried about now, I'm certain I've already--"
The voice on the other end wasn't her mother. In fact, she wasn't sure who it was--one of Dan's friends, maybe? "This is Margaret, right? Dan's girl? Are you sitting down?"
"Uh, yes. Why?"
"I dunno. They just always ask that in the movies. Shit, what was I even thinking? I just--it seemed like it would be better if you didn't hear this from the police. Your number was in Dan's phone, and--well--Dan's dead."
"Is this some kind of a joke?" Belatedly, Margaret checked the caller ID--it was indeed Dan's phone.
"I--we--we wanted Dan to have one last good night while he was a free man, you know? He tried to tell us no, but we dragged him down to the Horny Rhino. We were all about to go home, and then those things came through the door--you've seen the news, haven't you? You've seen those things? Like spiders, giant spiders, but covered with knives--"
"Why are you doing this? It isn't funny."
"Screw you, lady. I just watched--I just watched . . ." He trailed off. "You think I'm trying to prank you? The world's falling apart. I don't have time to deal with your crap." She heard the sound of Dan's cell phone hitting a hard surface. Whoever had called her didn't pick it up again.
It couldn't be true. Those things that were killing so many people in countries whose names she could barely pronounce couldn't have reached out their claws and taken Daniel Park. It was like he'd been kidnapped by pirates, or swept away by a monsoon.
It couldn't be true. But if it was . . .
Five minutes' drive brought her to Dan's apartment--her apartment, starting tomorrow. His car was gone, and his door was locked. Her key let her in, but as she entered his bedroom, she knew she wouldn't find him inside.
She flopped down on the bed, incapable of moving further. A still-rational part of her brain rambled about guests to uninvite and cancellation fees to pay. She let it murmur in the background. It slowed the speed at which the room pitched and swayed.
Gone. Gone. Gone . . .
She didn't have the strength to cry, but it was a long, long time before sleep finally claimed her.
Those first few nights alone, Dan never spoke in her dreams--when she saw him at all, he was a shape in the distance, vanishing into thin air as she drew close. But one evening, as a knife-covered spider stalked closer and closer, the sound of his voice interrupted its approach. "I'm sorry. For everything."
"Where do you get off saying you're sorry?" she asked. "You're dead. You can't fix that." She punched the spider in its spiky jaw, and it dissolved into dream-dust. "You left me to pick up the pieces, and to live through the nightmares."
"I've been punished for my sins. I'm visiting you from Hell."
This strange remark jarred her, even in her dream-state. Dan had long ago discovered that when she was deep in slumber, she could sometimes hear what people whispered to her. He'd used this before to tell her things she'd refused to hear when awake. But if Dan was dead, then . . .
No one blinks in dreams, unless they choose to do so. She closed her eyes, and opened them again, this time onto the real world. Someone or something that looked very much like Dan was kneeling over her on the bed.
"You're not really Dan, are you?" she asked. "You're one of those things." She'd read a few accounts of monsters that spoke with the voices of the dead, saying things the dead would have known, as a ruse to gain humans' trust. It was important to not show them any fear. No matter how much she felt like screaming.
The monster didn't seem particularly surprised that she'd woken. "I'm dead, but I'm alive. But I can't choose whether you believe it. And I can't choose whether you tell me to go."
If she said Dan should have stayed dead, would this creature turn violent? It would be better to try another tactic. "Come back in a week," she said. "I need time to think about this."
The monster was as polite and understanding as the real Dan, or at least made a good show of being so. As it vanished out the window, she wondered whether a week was a long enough time to purchase a shotgun.
The first buffer between Margaret and the front door of the Horny Rhino Burlesque Club was also the loudest. The crime scene tape was long since gone (not that anyone had ever figured out who to charge), but a line of sign-wielding protesters made a token effort to prevent crossing anyways. Their rage was impotent, of course--had they really tried to impede the curious crowd, they would have been trampled--but their numbers were greater than Margaret had expected. In the days that had passed, word had clearly gotten around to a great many rival churches that here was an issue they could agree on.
The second buffer was a burly man who sat in a chair with a cane beside him. Or more accurately, the buffer was the enormous quadruped on his other side, baring its teeth at the onlooking crowd. Margaret had read an interview with this man, the first human to ever tame a monster, now crippled from the same attack where Dan had . . . He was busy now, accepting payment in return for entry. It would have been easy for someone to push past him, but not one person tried to do so.
The third buffer was invisible. Intangible. This is where I'll find the things that killed Dan. But there were too many people behind her to allow her any time for hesitation.
Margaret was one of the last people allowed in before the doors closed. As she looked around, the conversing men and women reminded her less of strip club patrons than of a movie audience on opening night. No, it's better than a movie, she thought. There are no screaming infants.
There were surprisingly few people inside the Horny Rhino--not even enough to fill the seats at every table. (She had the horrible suspicion that their numbers were kept low in case they needed to evacuate quickly.) Armed with a microphone, a balding man easily spoke over the crowd. "Quiet down, ladies and gents! The show's about to start. It's a bit different from what I'm used to running, but I don't think you'll find it boring."
There was a dinner theater in the Horny Rhino's distant past, and its stage was curtained as if for one final performance of The Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Now the curtains pulled back, revealing a cage far larger than the ones Margaret had seen in the news photos. She briefly wondered whether it had been custom-made, or whether the design had first seen use to transport some zoo specimen. But its size was necessary.
There were two dancers in it, one male, one female.
The male was a mimic of one of Dan's friends, though his eyes passed over Margaret too quickly for her to know whether he recognized her. The female wasn't anyone she knew, but she looked human enough. Both were dressed as if for a summer picnic, in shirts, jeans, and (in the female's case) a broad-brimmed straw hat--nothing overtly sexual. They smiled charmingly at the audience before they began their duet.
They had no accompaniment, and yet Margaret couldn't help but hear music, slow and gentle. Its pace speeded with their movements, but it never grew rushed or frantic, retaining a cheer and goodwill that surprised her. She somehow knew that these two loved each other very much, and that they took no shame in showing the audience how they felt. When an expert twirl ended in a kiss, she heard the crowd gasp, caught up in the wordless rhythm.
The female motioned as if to pull up her shirt. With exaggerated gestures, the male stopped her, his message for the audience rather than for his partner--we're not doing that kind of show tonight. Instead, the female removed her hat, and the crowd gasped in a different tone as her third eye winked at them.
Margaret tore her gaze away as the dance resumed, unwilling or unable to watch any further. Around her, couples who had come to the show together--"Hey, honey, the freak show's in town!"--now kissed, and other patrons began to partner up with those nearby. Even the loners seemed lost in their own worlds.
Before they'd come to this show, they would have called these things monsters or demons. They might still say it after the show was over. But right now, they were hypnotized. And Margaret couldn't honestly say that didn't hold true of herself.
Across the room, her eyes met another's. A well-dressed man in his early thirties was crowd-watching as well, at least making the effort to resist the dance. He's kind of cute, she thought. A little thin, but that's nothing some good home-cooked meals wouldn't change--damn it, now was not the time for this, no matter what the dance told her!
He smiled, acknowledging her gaze, and when at last the performance was over, he made his way through the crowd to her. "My name is Tim Trenton," he said. "I'm the pastor at Pinehill Church. If you'll meet me there next Sunday, there's something I'd like to talk to you about."
This time, she was awake when the thing that could not be Dan came to her. It appeared in her room with a faint popping noise, dressed in ill-fitting clothes that she suspected were stolen. (She doubted there was a Wal-Mart in Hell, though there might have been a Hell in Wal-Mart.)
"It's good to see you, Margaret," the monster said. "I heard that you were at the performance the other day. What did you think of it?"
"It's good to see you, too," she lied. Her reading had confirmed that no wall could keep a monster out, but if worst came to worst, the shotgun under the bed was loaded. "And I was impressed. Can you do anything like that?"
It wordlessly demonstrated some basic moves--not enough to entrance her, but just enough to give her a funny feeling in the pit of her stomach. "I'm still learning," it admitted. "It's not all instinct, and I don't have much of a knack for it. I've got lots of time to practice in Hell, though."
Margaret had read that there were different kinds of monsters. If this one could dance like that, it was probably a "tempter"--a creature to which sex was as essential as food. But so far, it had made no advances on her . . .
"I've never been to Hell," Margaret said, trying to restore the flow of conversation. Stupid, she thought. She was more nervous than she'd realized. "Uh, I guess you knew that. Anyways, what do you do there? Is it all full of fire?" (In truth, she didn't really believe these doppelgängers were from Hell--God would never have damned Dan, no matter what he'd done on the last night of his life--but there was no point in accusing this one of lying.)
It plopped down on the bed beside her, not touching her, but keeping close. "There are a lot of different Hells," it began, "and all of them are worlds. Some of them have trees and plants. A few have animals. Most are very cold . . ."
She asked it many questions, and it answered almost all of them. Pastor Trenton would probably kill to hear this--these monsters were well aware they were in a position of weakness. "We have to show humans we're not a threat anymore, but we have to convince the other demons we're enough of a threat to take seriously, but we can't be so much of a threat they band together to kill us all. Every single choice we make has to be carefully planned and balanced, and even if we do everything right, we might be doomed anyway."
When it told her of a monster that had made the unwise decision to show up at the original's funeral, she suddenly found herself talking of how Dan's funeral had gone. "The biggest problem was keeping my family from talking to yours. You know how racist my parents are . . ."
No, she'd told Dan Park. This monster wouldn't know about racism--it wasn't Korean like Dan. It was monster-ean. Mimic-ean. Thing-under-the-bed-ean.
"At least they didn't get into a fistfight like on your birthday," she continued. "All they did was glare at each other."
Did monsters have birthdays? Did they even have births?
"How's Park Laundry doing?" the monster asked. "Is anyone still running it?"
"For the moment, it's closed. The lease was running out, anyways."
"Pretty soon, it'll be like I never existed. The world will move on without me. Everyone will forget me, except you."
"Are you sure I won't move on?" Margaret asked.
"I was scared of that at first. Last week, I couldn't feel anything from you. But tonight . . . You still love me. To a demon, that's as real as air and water."
As it said it--as he said it--Margaret knew it was true. He might not be Dan, but he played the part far too well for her not to respond in kind. When he put his arm around her, it was only natural for her to press back against him. When he turned his face towards hers, it was only natural for her to lean into the kiss . . .
"Same time next week?" he asked.
"Looking forward to it," she replied, not sure whether she was lying.
The Pinehill Church was small and unadorned, with a few rows of pews in front of a humble stone altar. Margaret was among the first to arrive, but she took a seat at the back to watch the parishioners filter in. To her eyes, they seemed a varied crowd--largely young, and more female than male, but racially quite mixed, and dressed in widely differing styles of clothing. Clearly, this church was more liberal than the one she normally attended.
Pastor Trenton began by calling for "a moment of prayer", by which he turned out to mean thirty seconds of silence, each parishioner offering up thanks in their own way. When it concluded, he focused his eyes straight on Margaret. "Brothers and sisters, let us all welcome a guest to our church. Would you please tell us your name?"
"Margaret Coleman," she said. "Thank you for inviting me here."
"You may find our way of doing things a little strange, Margaret, but I'm sure you'll get used to it in time." He straightened his back and went from speaking to orating. "Now then. The subject of today's discussion needs little introduction. By now, the whole Earth knows of these strange creatures that call themselves 'demons'. You may have wondered, are these truly demons, or does it somehow serve their purposes to pretend to be such? But as servants of God, I don't think that's the question we should be asking. So tell me, brothers and sisters, what should we ask instead?"
Margaret didn't realize this was an open question until an African-American man in a business suit responded. "Are they fellow servants of God?"
"Good, very good, although not quite what I was thinking of. By their own statements, they have failed to serve God in the past. The question then changes to 'Do they wish to serve God in the future?' Are they like Paul on the road to Damascus, blinded yet finally able to see truly? Or are they like the Pharaoh who stood against the will of God even through plagues of disease and infestation?"
"They work in a whorehouse," a pudgy teen said. "I don't think they're trying to reform."
"Lust is a sin, but it is not beyond the forgiveness of God. You remember, don't you, the story of Christ and the adulteress? If they are truly demons, they may need time to learn how to live in this world."
"Then what do we do?" asked a balding man in casual clothes. "Should we offer them kindness?"
"If they seek repentance, kindness is their due. But even if they do not, kindness is our duty. 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.' And . . . there is one more thing. I have been to see these demons."
Everyone started talking at once.
"Calm yourselves, my brothers and sisters. We cannot understand what we have never seen. I watched them, and I do not believe that they changed my nature. They only showed me the potential for sin that remains within me--as it remains within all of us. But I promise you all, trust in the Lord, and His guidance will keep you safe should they try to tempt you."
They talked for a good while longer, and Margaret listened to everything they said. Pastor Trenton was both charismatic and understanding, and Margaret couldn't help but note that he had the makings of a good televangelist (minus the endless pleas for money, of course.) In the end, he called for one more prayer--"Think on today's discussion"--and then he excused them all.
Margaret waited until she was alone with the pastor. "You called me here for a reason, didn't you?" she asked.
"You've met one of them, haven't you? In person, I mean."
"He looks like my fiancé. Actually, I think he is my fiancé."
"Has he asked anything of you?"
"He says he's still in love with me. Pastor, hypothetically speaking . . ." Should she plunge down this slope? "Hypothetically speaking, could a human marry a demon?"
"There is no account of such in the canonical texts--Asmodeus killed Sarah's husbands, but he never married her himself. But the Book of Enoch says that demons were the children of angels and women, born as giants that feasted on humans. If we take it as truth, then this union could only produce more monsters."
"I see. Then I'll just show myself out, if you don't mind."
"Please, come again next Sunday!" he called out. "It would be good to see you again!"
"Dan, there's something I owe you. Three things, actually."
Dan stayed silent, sitting beside her on the bed, but she knew he'd noticed that this was the first time in two weeks that she'd called him by his name. He seemed only mildly surprised that this time, she kissed him first. With tongue. (Naturally, he reciprocated, and she learned that his tongue was now much longer than hers.)
"Was that one of the things you owed me?" he asked.
"Just part of it," she replied. "This night, we'll go as far as you want. Pregnancy isn't an issue, right?"
"For a demon, any sort of sex might as well just be mutual masturbation. But you always used to say that was a sin, too. Are you sure--"
"I'll make my apologies to God next Sunday, but I think He'll understand. I mean, he didn't strike either of us dead the last time we gave into temptation." Too late, she pondered whether being cut to bits by a giant spider qualified as being "struck dead." "Er, forget I said that. Anyway, I've been reading about demons. You're a tempter, right? Then you must know I want this, too."
"You're . . . appetizing," he admitted. "But still . . ."
By that point, her shirt was already half off, and he simply went with the flow.
Death had done wonders for Dan's abs, but his cock looked much the same as ever--bigger than most white women would expect an Asian to have, but nothing special. She tentatively prodded it, not expecting it to bite her, but not completely ruling out the possibility. Feeling its texture, she pressed at it more firmly, then gave it a gentle tug.