A rosebush bloomed overnight in downtown L. A. Its thorny branches cracked the pavement open like a melon and unfurled flowers as big as a man’s fist, red as a man’s heart. The heavy, subtle, soothing fragrance could be smelled as far as the harbor, beating out even the sewage.
At Ravenscar Hospital, a man leaped from the thirteenth story and walked away without a scratch. Two terminally ill children woke up with brand-new hearts and lungs and without the crude zipper scars that would have marked human intervention.
A lady came forward and showed on national TV how her breadbox was never empty. When a crowd of over ten thousand gathered, she fed them all on slightly dry rye bread.
The churches were overflowing with new converts, hands clasped fervently to their chest and heads swaying in one mass hypnotic wave. It didn’t matter how good the preacher was—they weren’t listening anyway. They were just there, hoping to have some of the blessings land on them.
The half-breed demons hid. At first they took advantage of the opportunity to wreak even more havoc, thinking that all the happenings would cover up some more obvious trickery, but after one was turned to salt before the terrified brothel he’d been running, they stayed indoors and away. They stopped trying to come through—John did his last full exorcism six days ago. There was half of one yesterday, but he’d barely gotten started before something blasted the demon right out of the ten-year-old over which he’d been leaning.
When he stopped in at Midnite’s, they were so desperate to get rid of their drinks that the bouncers were hauling in customers from the street. At six in the morning, all the liquid in the place had turned to wine—sacramental wine. John had never seen so many plain mortals in the bar before.
“Did you do this?” Midnite asked, shoving through a bunch of weeping, ecstatic women who were stroking the beer taps like they were newborns.
The cigarette in John’s mouth smelled of frankincense and tasted like smoked honey. He tossed it disgustedly to the floor and ground it out; when he picked up his foot, only crushed red petals remained. “Do you think I’d do something like this?”
There was nothing to learn here, so he left with Midnite’s baleful eye burning between his shoulderblades. On his way out, he passed the first of the people who would suddenly sprout golden auras, beatific smiles and then float gently off into the sky.
He didn’t go to see Gabriel. He found Balthazar standing in the middle of a slaughterhouse that had been abandoned recently, head stuck in the gutted carcass of a cow. Blood soaked his fine suit and bubbled out of his shoes whenever he moved.
“All the holiness hurting yet?” John asked. Unnecessarily, since he could see the jerky rise and fall of Balthazar’s shoulders.
Balthazar took out his head to look at John. His face was ashy beneath the streaks of gore and the whites of his eyes had turned a nauseated, drained yellow. “Better go to confession, Johnny. You’ll never find a better loophole.”
“Thanks. I think I’ll do that.” John pivoted on his heel and walked out with his head high. He played with his lighter to give his cravings something to do. But then the flame began to smell of gardenias and honeysuckle, and he had to stop.
Cars were abandoned willy-nilly in the streets that were empty as those in post-apocalyptic films. No sound came to John’s ears except the insistent low murmur of a hymn that seemed to echo from every part of the comatose city.
He had to sidestep a tangle of bicycles on his way up the steps of the only empty church in town. When he looked down the center aisle and saw the one responsible for all this, he wasn’t that surprised.
“It’s wonderful, isn’t it? I did it. I’ve stopped poverty, cured all illnesses, healed this city. Can you imagine what it’ll be like when I bring heaven to the rest of the earth?” The man had a wavery, high voice to go with his emaciated form. He had a glow that made everything look ten times better, that offered rest and relief. When he turned around, his eyes were kind, shining stars.
“Yeah. Yeah, I can imagine it,” John said. He kept walking up the aisle, and as he did, he took out his switchknife from his pocket. It had been dropped into the same font of holy water the Pope used, so it was allowed here.
The other man saw it, but showed no signs of fear. “I’ve made miracles the province of all. I’ve shown people that God exists and is the source of all good in the universe.” He smiled like the father John wished he’d had and stretched out his hands in welcome. “I can send you to heaven.”
“Yeah.” John stopped about a foot away from the man, well within the circle of the man’s arms. His chest hurt. The corners of his eyes stung, and his belly felt like it was full of acid trying to eat its way out of him. “I know you can.”
“Have no fear,” the stranger whispered, starting to embrace him.
Midnite had shown John how to cut throats in ways that would make the sacrifice live for hours, and ways that would send them along so fast that sometimes their ghosts lingered around and had to be banished, for they hadn’t even realized they’d died. John made it quick.
The man folded in on him, slumping while the blood spurted thickly against the underside of John’s chin, getting in his eyes and dribbling down his collar. He was so light John only needed one hand to hold him up; with the other one, John threw his knife at the altar with all his strength. The smell of roses withered and rotted.
“Well done, John,” purred Gabriel. “Of course it’s too late for those presumptuous fools who knocked on Heaven’s gates and were sent to Hell for sorcery, but you were reasonably on time. We won’t hold this taking of life against you.”
“Shut the fuck up.” John squeezed his eyes shut and waited till he felt Gabriel leave.
Then he opened them and carefully laid out the man before the altar. He went and got his knife; he would need it since life was going continue as it had. Then he walked outside. He had a cigarette that tasted and smelled like a cigarette. Like decay and destruction, like the real fate of man no matter how pretty it was in the meanwhile.
The newspapers called it the largest case of mass hallucination ever reported, and blamed it on a leak from a nearby chemical plant (spake the mouth of Heaven’s PR). They agreed with Gabriel that John had been fairly in time; people had only begun to get used to the idea of miracles happening everyday and then to exploiting it. Only a few cases where someone had been murdered, then had risen from the dead to be murdered again. Only a few cases of rampant rape and burglary and assault as people began to believe they were free of the pressure to be good till the afterlife. Only a few scattered incidents of bone scraps and cauterized flesh falling from the blue, cloudless sky.
There was a reason why a miracle was defined as an uncommon occurrence. There were reasons why heaven and earth had been separated at Eden.
“I knew you’d miss this too much,” Balthazar murmured the next time John ran into him. The next evening, actually—Balthazar was resplendent once more in clothes that whispered blood money, smile white as lies on his face and eyes black as sin. He put his hand on John’s arm, slid it up to John’s neck and he licked mockingly at the rim of his glass as he rubbed his fingers over where the man’s blood had splashed. “Want to celebrate the restoration, Johnny? I promise it’ll be good—for a little while, anyway.”
“Get the fuck out of my way.” John shouldered past him and aimed for a table far in the back. He ordered a drink, but didn’t touch it. He lit a cigarette, but didn’t smoke it.
Very slowly, he put his head in his hands. The music was loud, the lights were dim, and the smoke of hashish and more dangerous substances hazed out the rest of the bar from him, and him from the rest of the bar. He dug his nails into the skin above his eyebrows and he mourned, briefly, for the one beautiful moment.