My eyelids were heavy, like sandbags. I forced them apart slowly, using all of my strength to pry them loose as dry crust worked to keep them cemented together. The light around me was blinding. I tried to raise my arm to shade my eyes, but both limbs were restrained by my sides. My tongue was pressed against something wet and soft. I tried to scream, but realized my mouth was gagged. Panic shot through my body, my heart pounding deep within my ribcage. Blinking, my irises began to adjust and my blurry surroundings slowly came into focus.
I was in a small room, illuminated by one light fixture above me, the bare bulb visible below a wide cone of forest green plastic. The wooden walls entombed me, pressing in on each side while the low ceiling hovered above my head. The dark wood was faded and old and the room was completely bare of any art or decoration. My first thought was of an old wood cabin, isolated and alone. Or maybe the mostly-finished basement of an older home. I imagined a suburban family, sitting at their dining room table eating dinner, surrounded by the faded yellow and brown colors of the 70s while I sat here, bound and gagged below them. Maybe I was to be their Thanksgiving dinner? Flash-fried and devoured, my grease and gristle flowing down their greedy chins, staining the beige shag carpet under their feet.
In front of me was a high table, the surface covered with green fuzz. It was a poker table, my muddled brain realized. Around the table sat three men. In front of me was a white middle-aged man with sandy brown hair and greying temples. His shirt looked clean, but rumpled. Washed but not ironed. His face was drawn with age and exhaustion, the face of a boring life spent behind the glowing screen of a computer monitor. He gave the impression of being completely unremarkable. If I ran into him at a store or on the sidewalk, I would forget him instantly. He blinked slowly, his mind not yet comprehending the direness of the situation, a red gag tied around his mouth.
Movement from the corner of the small room caught my eye, and I looked to find a short bulky woman with chestnut hair lined with silver leaning against a wall. Her eyes were magnified behind thick rimmed glasses and a dull crooked knife rested lazily in her hand. She was looking at me. As my eyes caught hers, she smiled idly like a cat who’s trapped prey finally noticed the sharp teeth beside its head.
The woman’s brown eyes were oddly warm for the situation. If it weren’t for the cruel looking dagger in her hands, she’d look like a librarian or a teacher. But beneath the warmth was something more sinister. An illness, a hatred, masked by years of obedient feminine hospitality and tenderness. She bowed her head slightly in my direction, and without thought, I returned the gesture.
She pushed herself from her post, and stood beside the table. The woman raised her arm, and with a flick of her wrist, whacked the edge of her knife against the green shade of the lamp above our heads. The thin chain attached swayed with the force, and the light choked and sputtered. The woman grinned, pleased with herself.
For the first time since I awoke, no longer clouded with sheer panic, I heard the voice within my mind speak up, “the fuck?”
“Hello, my darlings!” The woman crooned, raising her arms over her head as if to embrace us in greeting in a caricature of a loving grandmother, the light still swinging above us, shadows growing and shrinking rapidly over our faces.
I looked around at my fellow hostages, searching for answers, but each face I met was filled with the same terrifying confusion that I knew was polluting my own features.
The woman lowered her arms and beamed. “I’m sure you’re all wondering why I’ve gathered you here today. Well, now… that’s an interesting story… An interesting story indeed.” She took her glasses from her nose and rubbed them between two folds of her pale yellow sweater.
I shifted my arms slightly, trying to gauge my range of motion. My father, a very pragmatic sort of fellow, bought me a small swiss army knife for my thirteenth birthday that I always kept attached to my keys. Unless this crazy old woman emptied our pockets, I should’ve still had it. If I could raise my hand just a little bit, I might be able to reach…
“Tsk tsk tsk,” I jumped as the woman’s low tutting sounded directly behind me. I tried to turn, but I was unable to twist my body enough to see her. “Ms. Christine.” She said sternly, still the teacher, the librarian, the grandmother condemning a small child. The “s” sound at the end of Ms exaggerated, the hiss of a snake, the warning of a boiling hot kettle. I stopped, my pulse quickening. I tried to swallow, but the limitations on my tongue from the gag made it difficult. “Trying to leave our little gathering before even hearing why we’re all here?” She lowered to my ear, her warm breath hitting the side of my face as I felt her lips curl into a snarling smile. She whispered, her voice low, the air vibrating like a small drill boring deep into my brain, “how rude.”
My arm slackened. The line of perspiration that had formed on my forehead began to dry as a slight breeze hit me from an unknown source in the otherwise still room. The woman’s face lifted and I exhaled. “There will be none of that. I assume the rest of you understand.” The men around me looked from one another, unsure whether to be afraid of the situation, the woman, or both. “Are we all ready?” She asked expectantly. We looked at her with uncertainty.
“All of you have one thing in common: you must be resolved. Luckily for you, I’m here to help.” She smiled at us warmly.
The forgettable man across the table mumbled something, his voice cut off by the gag. The woman smiled patiently at him, as if she could understand his questions.
“Patience. All will be revealed presently.” She walked towards the man sitting to my left, and placed a small revolver in front of him. The cold metal fell to the felt tabletop with a small thunk. “All of you have committed a great sin, and now all of you must earn your redemption.” She cut the bounds on the man’s right hand with a swish of her dagger, the edge of which now gleamed red where she had grazed skin. She held the dagger to his throat, and explained, “you will all be playing a game of Russian Roulette.”
A commotion erupted as the man to my right, a lean white man with a scruffy face and chin length brown hair, began to yell, the words hindered. I couldn’t help but realize how attractive he was.
The woman smiled at him pleasantly, her eyes betraying only a hint of disgust. “Please Joe, calm down. There is no need for alarm.” The man’s forehead scrunched up as he tried to raise his voice, but only emitted a jumble of noise. The woman straightened, never removing the dagger from the other man’s neck, her face grew stern and a pit formed at the bottom of my stomach, making me feel ill. It was a feeling I remembered, but hadn’t experienced since childhood. That utter fear as a young child when an adult is mad at you. A feeling I hadn’t experienced since High School, when my mother walked in on me fucking my secret boyfriend. Joe seemed to get the feeling too, because he stopped yelling and settled back into stillness.
Satisfied, the woman continued, “there are four of you here tonight, but this gun has only three bullets. Each of you will shoot yourselves, but only three will die. One of you will leave here unharmed, while the others will go to heaven, having repented for their sins.”
I looked at the woman, stunned by the revelation. I tried to speak, growling my question at her. “And who are you to give us redemption?” I tried to say, but all I heard was “mmm mmm, mmm, mmm mmm mmmm mmmmmm?”
The woman rested her free hand on her chest in a mocking gesture of faux-surprise, “Who, me?” She smiled wickedly, “isn’t it obvious? I’m an angel.”
We all stared at her in silence for a moment, stunned by the claim. She continued, “I know you’re all probably wondering, “but wait, isn’t suicide a one way ticket to hell!?!” Very good question my darlings. See, since you do not know whether or not there is a bullet in the chamber when you pull the trigger, that is one sin you will not have committed in God’s eyes. A Schrödinger’s bullet, if you will.” She smiled at us.
I raised an eyebrow at her logic, and then looked to Joe, who continued to stare straight at the self-proclaimed angel, fear and hate mixing on his face.
“Because, Joe” she said sternly, her eyes narrowing in his direction, “your options are to play the game and go to heaven, or don’t play the game and go to hell.” The dagger in her hand pressed against the her present victim’s throat. A smothered cry filled the room and fresh blood beaded against the metal. Whether this woman was actually an angel or not didn’t matter. It was clear we didn’t have a choice. “Now, no more questions. It’s time to play.” She looked down, “ok, Robert. Go ahead and pull down your gag so you may confess.”
Robert, his eyes wide with terror, raised his now free hand and slowly tugged at the gag in his mouth, pulling the taut red cloth with difficulty. He groaned with the strain, careful to avoid pressing further into the dagger at his throat. Finally, the cloth gave as it was pulled past his chin and Robert let go, letting it hang loosely, resting on the now-red fingers of the angel.
“Now grab the gun and point it at your head.” The angel commanded, her voice cold. Robert’s hand trembled as he reached for the gun and brought it to his forehead. The barrel shook against sweaty skin as he stared down at the green felt of the table.
“The rules are simple.” The angel stated, never taking her eyes off of her first victim. “Introduce yourself to the group, tell them your sin, and then pull the trigger. Die or survive, your soul will be redeemed and you can go to heaven.” She smiled sweetly.
The man nodded his head slightly, avoiding too much movement, and began, “My name’s… My name’s Robert.” The angel nodded encouragingly. Robert stared up at us, his throat taut, his eyes pleading. He was a black man in his late thirties with dark hair, the tight curls cut close to his scalp. He was a stout man, not particularly muscular but he didn’t look weak. His skin was rich and smooth, and he had a look of intelligence about him, like he was an engineer or a scientist. His eyes were outlned with stylish black glasses simple and modern. An architect maybe? His arms were thin, but his belly was beginning to protrude in a slight paunch. I noticed his fingers, clutched around the gun, were long. Robert, the piano playing architect? Robert, the sinning piano playing architect.
“And what is your sin, Robert?” the angel cooed.
Robert’s head twitched to the right, a shake of resistance. The dagger bit deeper into his throat. “What is your sin?” The angel growled as a thin stream of blood trickled down his neck. A tear swelled in the corner of Robert’s eye, and his head jerked again. The dagger bit deeper and a grunt of pain left his lips.
Roberts inhaled shakily, and started. “I…” his lips trembled with the effort, eyes upturned towards the ceiling, towards God, tears now flowing freely down his cheeks.
The angel nodded, speaking encouragingly, “you know what you did.”
He sniffled, and continued, “I drink too much.”
“And?” The angel asked.
“And I… I sometimes get… too drunk.”
“Come now, you know that’s not why you’re here.” The angel answered.
“I..” Robert’s eyes filled with tears, the gun quivered against his temple as his voice shook with the effort of confession. “I… I got too drunk one night and… “
The angel nodded, patting the top of his head with her free hand in what might have been a comforting gesture if her other hand wasn’t wet with his blood. “Keep going.” She hissed between her teeth.
Tears fell from his eyes and a thick glob of snot began to slowly drip from one nostril. “I… I killed her…” The force of a choked sob stretched his skin into the blade and he gasped. The snot was now flowing down his face, hovering just at the edge of his top lip. I watched in disgust as the snot inched, ever closer, to his open mouth. The felt in front of him was turning brown with blood.
“Why did you kill her?” The angel asked.
“It was, it was an accident!” Robert yelled, his eyes wide with panic, “I swear, I didn’t mean to! I just pushed her, she was antagonizing me. “ He gulped, and looked up at the angel, “she was taunting me!”
“Why was she taunting you?” She asked, her voice rising with anger.
“Because… She… She caught me…” He paused, looking from me, to Joe, to the dull man, begging for help, but all we could do was sit there and watch, waiting.
“She caught you what?” The angel asked, lowering her face closer to Robert’s, spitting the words at him with disgust.
“She caught me having sex.” Robert said, tears flowing, snot now dripping in front of his mouth, trembling from his shaking breath.
“Having sex with who?” The angel cried.
“Having sex with another man!” Robert screamed. He sobbed, no longer seeming to feel his cut and bleeding throat. His body shook with his pain, “she had caught me having sex with my co-worker, Paul. She caught us because I was drunk and stupid and wasn’t thinking.” He sobbed, “we usually went to Paul’s place, but we got really drunk and the bar was just down the street from my apartment and I thought she wasn’t going to be home till later and she walked in on us and saw us.” His shoulders heaved with his cries, snot dripping onto his lower lip. “She… she fucking laughed at me!” Robert cried, furious with the memory. But the fury was short lived. He immediately sank back into his seat and looked down with shame, “I pushed her, I just wanted to shut her up, but I was drunk and I pushed too hard. She fell and hit her head. She… She bled out. Maybe if I were sober I would’ve called an ambulance in time. Maybe she could’ve made it. But… Paul and I freaked, and we wrapped her body in the bedroom rug and… And…” He choked again, trying to catch his breath so he could continue, “and then we threw her in my building’s incinerator.” He sobbed again, “I… I told the cops she’d run away…”
The angel nodded, satisfied, and squeezed Robert on the shoulder. Sniffling, never taking his eyes from the table in front of him, he pulled the trigger.
The room filled with the explosion, which echoed through my bones, resonating deep inside my gut. Robert was no longer at the table, the force of the shot pushing him from his chair, which fell on top of him, still attached to his left hand with the angel’s rope.
She turned to us, smiling with satisfaction, “good! Very good! One soul down, three more to go!” the anger and disgust that had been in her voice only moments before now gone completely, replaced with a sickly sweet tone. She reached down, picking up the gun from the floor, and placed it in front of the unremarkable man across from me. With her other hand, she dug the dagger between his face and the gag, causing the man to cry out, and pulled it forward roughly, releasing the cry halfway through so it rang clear above the table. The gag fell away. A thin line of red swelled on the man’s cheek where the tip of the knife caught him and my first thought was that his new scar would make him much more memorable. If he survived, that is. The angel sliced the restraints on his arms and placed the dagger to his throat.
He picked up the gun. “My name” he started, hesitantly, “is Marcus.”
“And what is your sin, Marcus?” She lingered over his name, letting each syllable fall onto her tongue and pour from her lips. I could hear the satisfaction in her voice, the greed for more.
Marcus continued, his voice low and static.
“Which one?” He asked, his face blank.
At this, the angel smiled wickedly. “You know which sin upsets God the most.”
He nodded his head slightly, “yes, I do.”
“Confess.” She ordered.
“I murdered my son’s wife.” He said, simply. He didn’t need to be prompted to continue, “she was tempting me, with her flirting, and her…suggestive manner. She wanted me. I knew it. So we consummated our… it wasn’t love. It was pure, animal lust.” The corner of his lip rose in a half-smile. He was reveling in his sin.
“Why did you murder her?” The angel asked.
“Because she was a dirty slut, and I didn’t want her to taint my boy anymore.” He spat at the thought.
“So you raped and murdered your son’s wife?” The angel asked.
The man laughed. It was dark and sharp, more like a bark than an actual human laugh, “you can’t rape a whore.”
The angel shook her head sadly. “Coveting someone else’s wife is a sin, Marcus. You know this.”
Marcus nodded and pulled the trigger.
My ears rang with the second explosion, and I felt wetness on my face. Unlike Robert, Marcus didn’t fall over. His chair swayed with the force, but then slowly righted itself. His body steadied and there he stayed, in front of me, his head dangling loosely to his chest, part of it now missing. I gagged, as a piece of Marcus fell from my cheek onto the table with a damp thud. My body was shaking uncontrollably and I realized I was crying, unable to take my eyes off of his dilapidated skull, my face wet with the warmth of blood and tears.
The angel smiled, and looked at Joe and I. “Well that one was short and sweet, wasn’t it?”
I looked to Joe, who was pale with the shock of watching two men die. The angel bent down and picked up the gun from where it fell. Straightening, she smiled as she walked towards him. She placed the gun down and stepped behind him, facing me, her eyes twinkling. She cut his restraint and raised the dagger to his throat, digging it deep into his skin, red trickling down his throat. Her fingers grabbed the red cloth around his face, and pulled it down sharply. I could see the scratch marks on his cheek from her nails. “Your turn.”
Joe stared at me quizzically, his intense stare burrowing beneath my skin to my core. I shivered, helpless.
“I…I don’t know what my sin is.”
“I’m not surprised.” She said softly. She stroked Joe’s hair with her free hand, “why don’t you tell us about your wife.”
“Mary?” Joe asked, bewildered. “She…she’s dead.”
The angel nodded encouragingly to him, though he couldn’t see her. “And you’re the one who killed her.”
Joe’s mouth opened with astonishment, his lower lip trembling. “What?! No I didn’t. She died from breast cancer!” He yelled defensively.
“Tell us about that.”
Joe stammered, and looked down at the table. “A few years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer. The doctor’s thought it was early enough. That they caught it before it got bad, but… No matter what they did, she kept getting sicker.”
“Mmm.” The angel nodded, “and where were you?”
“I was…” Joe’s forehead scrunched in confusion, “I don’t know… I was working a lot… Trying to make some extra money for her health bills and to keep us afloat… I didn’t cheat on her, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“Oh, I never implied such a dreadful thing!” The angel cried in mocked offense. She lowered her hand to his shoulder, “I’m just curious as to why you spent your wife’s final days at work, instead of at home with her?”
Joe shook his head, “I told you, I had to work extra to make money. Her medical bills were extraordinary! I worked two jobs for years to try and make ends meet.”
The angel lowered her face to his ear, “and was it worth it?”
“What!?” Joe cried, incredulous.
She straightened again. “Was it worth it? I’ve seen your debt. I know, even after years of working overtime, day and night, you owe the hospital thousands of dollars. Debt you most certainly will never pay off. I also know you quit your second job once your wife passed.”
“I had to plan the funeral! I had to grieve!” Joe stammered, defensively.
“So,” the angel lifted her dagger into the air, “you absolutely had to work during your wife’s final days,” she punctuated the sentence with a flail of the knife, “but after she died, you could quit the second job to focus on yourself and getting things done?” The dagger hung loosely above Joe’s head.
“What?” Joe didn’t seem to notice the absence of the metal at his neck. His eyes forward, but unfocused as the angel’s words echoed in his mind. “No. I.. I had to work…”
“You didn’t have to work. You had to get out of the house. You didn’t have to make more money, you were never going to be able to cover those bills, wouldn’t it have been better worth your time to spend every last second with your dying wife?”
Joe didn’t answer, but continued looking straight ahead, eyes glassy.
The angel continued, “admit it Joe, you didn’t want to be with her. You didn’t want to take care of her. You would rather work yourself to the bone than spend one more minute with your pathetic, sick wife. You weren’t a martyr, you were a selfish, scared little man.”
A large tear rolled slowly down his cheek. Joe sniffled. “It was too much. I couldn’t… I couldn’t take it.” A choked sob forced its way up his throat. He coughed it out, losing all self-restraint, and began to sob.
“Were you relieved? Once it happened? When you found her dead? Was your heart lifted?”
Joe nodded, slowly. He looked and sounded like a toddler who had been scorned on the playground. “I just wanted her to go away. I just wanted to not have to watch her wither away anymore. It was too much.”
“You had promised her to be there in sickness and in health, but you didn’t realize she was going to get so sick, so soon. You were young, you were stupid, you were a liar.” The angel hissed.
Joe reached out and picked up the gun. He raised it to his head, closed his eyes, and pulled the trigger. The gun clicked, the hammer hitting nothing but air. He opened his eyes in amazement, stunned for a moment before relief washed over his face.
“Congratulations, Joe!” The Angel cried with genuine enthusiasm. “I’m happy it’s you who survived!”
Joe couldn’t stop the smile from forming on his lips, his face still red from Marcus, wet from the memories of his dead wife. The smile faltered as his eyes caught mine. The angel noticed, and looked to me as well.
“Oh no… Well, I want all of God’s children to be redeemed in his eyes, and so the game must go on. Even if we already have a winner. Because when every soul is washed clean with confession, we’re all winners.” She smiled at me as she walked to my side and undid the gag and restraints. My arm fell limply to my side, I was numb. “Go on Chris. Tell us your sin.” Joe placed the gun in front of me, still sniffling, completely accepting his fate as a pawn in this game.
I blinked at him as the dagger bit into my neck. How could I be here? What on earth had I done that could upset this so-called angel? And then it dawned on me. What all these men had in common. Not that they were disgusting or disrespectful or womanizers. And suddenly, I realized the angel’s morality was obvious all along. And with that, I realized what I didn’t have in common with those men, born the way they are and happy with themselves and the body this angel’s God gave them. “I know what you want me to say. But I won’t say it.”
She tilted her head quizzically, “and why not?”
“Because it’s not a sin.”
“Oh, Chris.” She tutted at me, her voice dripping with mocking sympathy.”But it is a sin.”
My body warmed with anger, my face drying, the tears no longer coming. “Says who?” I spat.
“God.” She responded, her voice low, almost a growl.
“Then he isn’t my God.” I answered, setting my mouth tight with determination.
The cold metal of the dagger, stained with the blood of at least three men, dug deeper into my skin. I inhaled sharply, a hiss emitting from my lips.
“He is your God, Chris.” The angel’s voice was filled with hate and disgust, “whether you like it or not.”
“No.” I answered. “He’s is your God, but he is not mine. My God would not value homosexuality, coveting someone’s wife, lying, and being born in the wrong body as worse sins than murder, rape, and abandonment. My god would not value seven stupid rules over treating other humans with respect and common decency.”
The knife dug deeper, I choked as blood poured onto my chest.
“And,” I added through clenched teeth as I picked up the gun in front of me, anger radiating up through me, “my fucking name is Christine.”
I remembered the angel’s earlier comment, the Schrödinger’s bullet. The location of the bullet is now a certainty, so no matter what, I knew I’d be going to hell. According to the angel’s rules, I’d be screwed either way. I pointed the gun, the weight of the final bullet heavy in my outstretched hand, at Joe and pulled the trigger. He fell backward with the impact as blood exploded onto the wall behind him.
I felt the dagger drop from my neck. I placed the gun down on the felt table and raised my free hand to the wound, pushing against the steady stream of blood. The angel laughed deeply behind me.
“Fucking humans.” She said with disdain as she walked towards the door that was behind Joe and opened it. She paused, her body hovering in the dark nothingness that greeted her outside the door. I couldn’t tell if it was a hallway, or the outside, or… something else entirely. Turning her head slightly, she spoke one final time.
“See you soon, Chris.”