“This is a matchmaking service?” asked the doctor, a concerned look on his face.
“This is the Garden of Eden,” replied his host with a smile.
The doctor looked around the room with a raised eyebrow and growing discomfort. The elaborate advertisement for the service promising to “find your perfect partner” had conjured images of a posh office with cushioned chairs, pictures, profiles, and employees in business casual attire. Instead he found himself in an artist’s studio.
A stained concrete floor spread across the vestibule to whitewashed wooden walls. A variety of paintings, everything from portraits to landscapes, adorned the walls. Some remained half-finished. His eyes lingered on a particularly colorful impressionist piece. Vibrant green and blue sprung from its depiction of a verdant garden or forest encased in ice. Violently sharp icicles hung from blooming flowers. The doctor could almost feel a chill in the air while looking at it. He forced his attention back to the apparent owner of the studio he found himself in.
“Dr. Charles Ellingson,” he said, extending his hand towards the woman in front of him.
“I know,” she said with a sly grin spreading across a broad, thin-lipped mouth. “Nice to meet you in person, Chuck.” He frowned in reply.
“I prefer ‘Charles’,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady.
“I’m sure you do, Chaz,” she said without a shred of remorse. “I’m Vedalya. I answer to Ved, Dalya, Veddy, or any other permutation you can think of while you are my client.” She turned towards the doorway behind her and waved him onwards. “This way, please.”
As he followed her, Ellingson studied the strange woman. Jet black hair fell down her back and almost to her knees. Although not pretty in a traditional manner, there was a certain allure about the tall, pale-skinned woman. It even seemed to transcend the baggy, nondescript clothing she wore, splattered with paint and plaster. He put it into words in his mind, thinking that it was as if someone had used an ancient, Roman statue as a mannequin in a thrift store. Entering the next room, the point was driven home further.
“These are some examples of my work,” said Vedalya, spreading her hands to encompass the large room, filled with at least a dozen statues of men and women. “If you see anything you like, let me know, but I can do better for you!” The doctor couldn’t place the girl’s subtle accent. If put to the test, he would have guessed Russian, but there was just something off about it.
“I was under the impression that I was here for the purposes of finding a girl, not a statue,” he said, growing impatient. His host smirked.
“Many of them are girls,” she said in an enraging, matter-of-fact tone. “I understand your confusion, though. The ones in here are only examples; too many flaws for the liking of their commissioners. Let’s continue.” She headed through the forest of statues to a doorway on their left. As Ellingson followed, he glanced at the stone figures. If she had carved them, the girl did indeed have talent. They were exquisitely detailed, but he found the lack of emotion on their faces off-putting. The dead expressions and closed eyes reminded him too much of the cadavers back in med school. Many had cracks and chips in them. Flawed, indeed. The small room of statues did nothing to prepare him for the next room.
“Welcome to my viewing room!”
Ellingson’s jaw dropped as he entered a long, narrow corridor filled to near capacity with female forms. The statues stood along the sides of a narrow, red carpet like a gauntlet stretching far to his right and around a curve. The varied sizes, shapes, and colors defied belief. A goddess-like figure of crystal rose towards the ceiling ahead of him. Across from her, there was a statue of more normal proportions but formed from pure, black onyx. From monstrous to benign, the statues took on every shape imaginable. Had this woman carved all of these?? As he stepped into the hallway and looked around him, Vedalya stood at his side, a look of pride on her face.
“Impressive, aren’t they?” she asked.
“You made all of these?” he asked, his voice a whisper.
“I did,” she said. “But these are for my personal collection. My workshop is this way.” The doctor followed her down the hallway, his eyes never leaving the army of statues. He found his gaze straying away from their faces, though. The lifelike look in their eyes, some stone, some gems, sent a chill through him. A particularly demonic figure finally struck enough fear in him to turn his attention to his guide.
“Why am I in an art gallery, Miss-“
“Just Vedalya,” she interjected. “No ‘Miss’.”
“Why am I in an art gallery, Vedalya?” he continued. “Your advertisement promised ‘finding my perfect partner’.”
“Because she doesn’t exist, Doctor,” she said, turning her head and giving him a sidelong wink. “But she will. You see, no one’s ‘perfect’ person exists in the real world. People have flaws. People have problems. That girl you see in your mind’s eye, in your dreams, will never be a reality.”
“I seem to notice that people fall in love all the time, though,” said Ellingson as they reached the bend in the corridor. Turning the corner to their right, he noticed that the statues were becoming more normal. None of them towered above them or contained the inhuman traits of the others.
“People will not admit it, of course,” said Vedalya. “Simple infatuation will make them blind to most flaws. But they’ll always see something; always know something they would make different. Whether it’s wishing they could be a better cook, hoping they will stop liking country music, wanting them to have bigger, um, anatomy, or wishing they would stop frowning every time they caught their reflection in a window, everyone has something they would change.”
“I hear quite often from couples that they wouldn’t change a thing about their partners,” said the doctor.
“Lies,” said Vedalya, her voice as cold as ice. “Whether they know it or not.”
“You make people seem shallow,” said Ellingson, apparent skepticism in his voice.
“On the contrary,” she said, stopping and turning to face him. “People may think they know what superficial things they want, but they have to dig deep to find what they really want; what they really need.” She moved closer and put a finger to Ellingson’s chin, drawing his gaze up directly into her eyes. He had not noticed before that she was slightly taller than him. Her eyes shone an icy blue as she studied him. “And I can tell exactly what they need, even if they cannot.” She released his head and moved towards the line of statues to their side.
“And what do I need?” he asked, catching his breath.
“An interesting case, to be sure,” said his host. “A doctor filled with fear and doubt; a man perpetually striving to be better. But you doubt you’ll ever be good enough, right Chuck?”
“Now, wait a minute!” said Ellingson, his voice raising.
Vedalya interrupted before he could continue, “You’ve been betrayed before.” His mouth hung open for a moment and then snapped shut. “You don’t trust anyone, do you? I wonder what a man like that could use in his life.” She ran her hand down the carven hair draped across the shoulder of a statue to their left. She continued on past a few more, running a finger over one’s arm.
“Not the harlot, of course,” she said, moving away from a figure over-sexualized to the point of ridiculousness. “Too many bad memories, I would think.”
“How do you know these things?” he asked, his voice low.
“I try,” said Vedalya. “Perhaps the doting housewife?” She moved towards a matronly figure that was like something out of an old sitcom. “No, too…unimpressive. You want something you can show off.” Ellingson wanted to take offense. He wanted to say she was generalizing him. He couldn’t.
“Not the trophy wife, either,” she said, bypassing a svelte form that would not have looked out of place on a fashion show runway. “A bit one dimensional, wouldn’t you say?”
“I would say, as statues, they are all a bit one dimensional,” he replied. His host ignored him.
“Intellectual, adventurer, submissive,” she said, walking by the next three. “No, no, and no.”
“What does this have to do with what I came here for??” asked Ellingson. “I am not interested in adding to my art collection.” That was not entirely true. Any one of the statues would be the masterwork of most artists. Unlike the earlier statues, the expressions on these were animated and intricate, some joyous, some heartbreaking.
“Perhaps,” said Vedalya, stopping in front of an imposing statue, beautiful and proud, its eyes on some faraway, invisible horizon. “A queen.”
Ellingson could see the royalty in the figure’s bearing. He could barely stand to look up towards the fierce gaze blazing out of stone eyes. He almost knelt.
“A bit too strong for you, Chuck,” said Vedalya. “But close.” She leaned down slightly and looked into his eyes again with a calculating gleam, rubbing her chin lightly. A smile crept over her face. “I think I know.”
“And what do you think I need, Veddy?” he asked, stressing the nickname.
“It’s simpler than I thought,” she said. “And more complicated at the same time. You need someone that can take that doubt and fear that drives you and throw it out the window; someone that can pull you back from the brink when you despair; someone that can make peace with people when you’re too…you; someone that would never in a million years add to your stress. You need an angel.”
“Sounds too good to be true,” said Ellingson.
“Now you’re getting it!” said Vedalya, her eyes flashing as she shot a finger back towards him. “It is too perfect to exist, but I can make it real!” Goosebumps ran over Ellingson’s flesh as he listened to the sculptor in front of him spout madness. Even though he couldn’t believe what she was saying, her eyes remained maddeningly lucid. He had seen people go insane before. She didn’t have that look in her eyes. He decided to humor her a bit longer. It didn’t help that he was afraid to turn his back on her.
She motioned for him to follow again. A moment later, they reached the end of the statue-lined hallway and stood in a huge workshop. The walls appeared to be solid marble. Vines and flowers climbed along every surface and filled planters along the edges. Dozens of huge blocks of stone surrounded them. The perimeter of the room was lined with pristine blocks of every type of stone one could imagine. In the center of the room, frames and ladders surrounded half-revealed, rough-hewn statues. Dust and debris littered the floor.
“Now, Chuck,” she said. “I wonder what type of stone your little angel could possibly be made of.” She moved to the edge of the room and began to study the massive hunks of rock as carefully as she did the statues themselves. She ran a hand over one with a coarse, speckled surface.
“Granite? No, far too rough. Too difficult.” She moved on to a translucent, white block. “What are you feelings on marble?”
“I don’t have any feelings about marble,” he said, getting tired of the act when she almost certainly already knew what she wanted to use.
“No feelings? Well, we can’t do that, then. Too predictable anyways.” A tan, striated stone was next. “Sandstone? Too impermanent.” She bypassed the next two without comment.
“You don’t seem like an obsidian man,” said Vedalya, passing by a shimmering black pillar.
“What do you mean by that?” asked Ellingson.
“Too many sharp edges,” said his guide with a leer. “But this…this is something I can work with.” She stopped in front of a block of snow white stone. Seeing it, something about it intrigued the doctor. Perhaps it was the way the light reflected off of it or the softness it exuded, but he stepped towards it and slowly ran a hand down its surface. If he didn’t know better, he would have thought it felt warm. He thought he felt a dull thud echo from inside it.
“What is it?” asked Ellingson, his voice awed.
“Alabaster,” said Vedalya with suppressed glee.
“I like this one,” he said.
“So, Doctor Chuck,” said Vedalya, moving between him and the stone. “I just need your confirmation and we can continue the process of finding you your perfect woman.”
“Do you put women through this same rigmarole when they call you looking for a man?”
“Well, if you’re into guys, I could take you down the other wing of my gallery. I don’t judge.”
“I’m sure you do,” said Ellingson. He thought about just turning around and leaving, his distrust of his host mounting, but he kept looking behind her at the towering, ivory block of alabaster. He didn’t know what drew him to it, but it was irresistible. He had stopped believing this was anything other than an elaborate con, but, for some reason, he had to see it out to the end.
“Clock’s ticking, Doctor,” she said.
“Fine,” he said. “I have no idea what the hell is going on here, but go ahead with whatever. How much is this going to cost me?” A broad, sadistic grin grew on Vedalya’s face.
“Only a drop of blood, Chuck.”
Without warning, she shot her hand towards him, fingers splayed. For a moment, he was unaware of what had happened, but then felt a sharp pain on his arm. Looking down, he saw that one of her fingernails had cut his arm. Blood was already beginning to flow from the wound. Before he could react, Vedalya had put her finger to his arm and collected a small amount of blood.
“What was that for?!” roared Ellingson, slapping a hand onto his wound. His host merely smiled.
“Witness the wonders of a dead world, Doctor,” she said, lightly touching the crimson droplet to the flawless surface of the alabaster. He was about to yell more, but then something strange begun to happen. From the spot where her finger had touched, veins of crimson began to crawl along the stone, radiating outwards. As he watched in awe, the lines sunk into the surface of the stone. Loud cracks echoed across the room as the veins of blood permeated the stone, leaving a web of fissures across its entirety. Vedalya back away from the block as the sound became a deafening staccato. Then, all at once, the noise stopped.
“What’s happening?” asked Ellingson. The artist remained silent. He was about to ask again when the shattered stone of the block gave way all at once, collapsing to the floor in an ivory landslide. For a moment, the air was thick with dust and he could see nothing. Then, as the air cleared, his jaw dropped as he saw the vision before him.
A perfectly formed statue of a woman stood where a solid block had been not a minute before. He could not believe what he was seeing. Even compared to the masterpieces he had already seen, this sculpture was flawless. She stood in stark, white glory, hands folded over her heart. A light, flowing robe covered her body. Snowy curls surrounded a bowed face that seemed to be asleep with eyes lightly closed and mouth slightly open.
“She’s an angel,” said Ellingson, giving voice to his thoughts without realizing it.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I think he finally gets it!” said Vedalya to an audience of statues.
“What now?” he whispered, still frozen in amazement.
“Now you wake up. Oh, and I really should have mentioned that you only have four days. Sorry.”
Everything around him went black in an instant. Somewhere, in the distance, he heard a loud crack and the sound of his own scream.
Charles Ellingson awoke to the blaring sound of his alarm clock. His eyes shot open and he saw that he was in his own room and it appeared that everything was normal. He slammed a hand onto the sleep button of the alarm clock and rolled over painfully in the bed. He took a few minutes to make sure he was in the real world again. He was never one to have dreams as vivid as the one he had just awoken from, but he supposed the night before must have gotten into his subconscious. Dragging himself out of bed, he felt a dull pain in his arm. He looked at it, almost expecting to see a scar, but he only saw a slight red mark. He must have banged it on something in his sleep.
As he got ready that morning, he thought back to the day before. He had found an odd flyer in the mail from somewhere called the Garden of Eden. It had promised their service would find a person’s perfect mate, much as the girl in the dream had said.
“Vedalya,” he muttered, half-amused and half-regretful.
After another day of work in at the plastic surgery center, he had been drained. Yes, some of his work was important and life-saving, but the majority of it he found…uninspiring. At one time, fresh out of med school, he had had passion. His faith in humanity had faded since then, though.
After a few drinks that night, he had decided to amuse himself by calling the number on the flyer. He thought he would get a laugh out of it at least, although, deep down, he knew he wondered if it might actually result in him meeting someone. He had gotten neither though, as the phone at the other end rang once and then an automated voice informed him that the number had been disconnected. There was no winning. After another drink he had stumbled to bed and passed out. Apparently the combination of the two things had formed the insane dream.
Ellingson was almost ready to head out the door of his spacious, two-story home when the doorbell rang. He sighed, put on his jacket, and went to see who it was. Apparently, he had not moved quickly enough because the doorbell rang three more times in quick succession. He hoped that this was important.
Opening the door, he found a delivery man with an annoyed look on his face standing beside a large crate.
“Do you want the package or not, buddy?” asked the man. Ellingson looked at his shirt, hoping for a name tag, but finding only the name of the company: MPS. Apparently customer service was not their strong point.
“What’s in it?” asked the doctor. The crate was taller than he was.
“Not my job to know,” said the delivery man. “Just my job to get it here fast. I did that and more. The thing weighs a ton.” Ellingson quickly signed for the package and the man wheeled the crate into the center of his round entry hall, dropping it unceremoniously and heading for the door.
“You’re not going to help me open it?”
“Hell, no,” said the most unhelpful delivery man in the world before hurrying out to his truck. Ellingson closed the door as the vehicle sped out of the driveway. He thought about leaving it until that night to open. He was already going to be a few minutes late because of the delivery’s horrible timing. But, looking at the crate in the middle of the floor, curiosity crept into his mind. His only surgery that morning was a facelift. It could wait.
Not having a crowbar, he dug through the mass of tools in his closet before finding a large, heavy screwdriver and a hammer. He figured it would work well enough. Wedging it beneath the top of the crate, he was amazed at how easily the thick plywood came apart. He set the hammer on the floor, finding the screwdriver worked well enough. As soon as he pried the last nail from the top board, the sides of the crate came apart and fell to the floor.
His heart skipped a beat as, before him in his own house, he saw a statue of a woman carved from pure alabaster. The screwdriver slipped from his hand and he was forced to steady himself on a pillar, his hands shaking. There was absolutely no mistaking the form from his dream the night before. The folded hands, flowing hair, and dress blowing in an imaginary breeze were all the same. He didn’t know how long he stood staring before he came to his senses and noticed a small piece of paper among the fallen plywood. He steadied himself, picked it up, and saw one sentence, written in an elaborate script.
“What you put into your work, put into her.” The note was only signed with a large “V”. He thought he knew what that stood for. The word “work” snapped him back into reality for a moment.
His eyes flicked to a clock on the wall next to him and he saw that he would be at least half an hour late for work. He stared at the snow white statue for a moment more and then pulled himself away from her. He had to get away from this and get his head right. He had to focus on work. As he closed the door behind him, he hoped he could.
The first appointment, a forty-something socialite was, as expected, infuriated by his tardiness, but he could not care less. Although Steadville, Tennessee, where he lived, was not a small city, his plastic surgery center was the only one in it. Any others were hours away and he was better than any of them anyways. So he believed, at least. He spent the entire pre-surgery process trying to forget about what was waiting back at his house. He did as best as he could and, eventually, his hands finally calmed.
During the surgery, as usual, his focus was like a laser. Just because he didn’t believe in what he was doing did not mean he was going to do a poor job. The job paid the bills. The surgery was almost completely uneventful until the very end. As he had almost finished putting in the first stitch, his focus on how much smoother his patient’s skin was, when it reminded him of the unnatural smoothness of the angel in his entrance hall. His hand trembled for a moment, just enough to make him uncertain.
“Nurse,” said Ellingson. “Could you finish the stitches for me?” She raised an eyebrow towards him. It was a strange thing for him to not do everything himself. “I just remembered I have something very urgent to do.” The nurse shrugged and took over. It was just as well. The one thing he had never learned how to do well was tie off stitches. He was horrible with knots.
A short while later, he was headed back towards his office when he ran into Kendra Goodson, his assistant.
“Miss Goodson,” he said, stopping her in her tracks. “How many appointments do I have this afternoon?”
“Only three, Mr. Ellingson,” she said with a broad smile. “Do you need me to shuffle them around?”
“Just making sure,” he said. “I may need to leave early today.”
“Anything I can help with?” she asked eagerly. There was a hint of innuendo in her voice. Ellingson sighed internally. Kendra’s propensity for flirting with male coworkers was an ongoing saga that had caused two employees to leave the center. For the last month, he had been the new object of her attention. Trying to persuade her to act professionally had been unsuccessful and there were veiled threats of a wrongful termination lawsuit if she was fired. To be fair, she was a fairly good assistant, so he just dealt with it. Never trust the pretty ones, he thought to himself.
“No, just some personal issues,” he replied. The remaining three appointments were just consultations that went by in a blur. He meant to leave after the last one, but something kept him there. He wanted more time to think about what had happened the night before. Before he knew it, it was actually past when he normally left and went to the gym. He decided to head to the pub a few blocks from the center. Maybe it would calm his nerves at least.
It was almost ten at night when Ellingson returned home and pulled into his driveway. His nerves had not settled as much as he had hoped. As he unlocked the door and pulled it open, the alabaster form greeted him. Walking towards it, he shut his eyes tightly, wondering if it would be gone when he opened them again. It didn’t work. He leaned closer to her, stumbling slightly. He had not been that close to the statue before. It was even more remarkable up close. There was no trace of tool marks on the surface. The perception of softness was uncanny.
A thought occurred to him that he had no reason for. He lowered his head towards her torso and turned an ear towards the hands over her chest. Carefully, he put his ear to the cold surface of the stone. He held it there for several moments, wondering what he was doing. Then, from somewhere deep within the stone, like something out of a dream, he heard it: the beat of a heart. He pulled away slowly, telling himself he had only imagined it. He didn’t dare put his ear back to the stone.
He began to retreat from the statue and head upstairs to his bedroom, but stopped a few steps away. What he did next, Ellingson had no reason for. He turned, timidly approached the statue, and gave it a light kiss on the cheek. Realizing what he had just done, he abashedly hurried upstairs. It did not take him long to fall asleep.
In his dreams, he saw a vision of a face he had not seen for an eternity. He felt the autumn breeze on his face as he walked down a sidewalk at Steadville Community College with a girl. She was quite plain, possibly a bit odd-looking, but he still didn’t care. He still loved that girl. The vision shifted to much later. It was the same girl, but she was now unrecognizable, a vision of artificial beauty. As she walked away from his door, she turned back for a split second to say something. Her lips parted. Ellingson thought he knew what he was about to hear. He was wrong.
“May I presume you got my delivery?” came a voice Ellingson had not expected to hear.
The vision melted around him and he saw Vedalya at the top of a short stepladder painting a mural. He looked around and saw that he was in a far different room than he had been in his previous dream. His first observation was the complete lack of exits. The second was a bizarre structure in the center of the room.
“Do you like it, Chuck?” asked the artist. “It’s my newest project: a Sanctum of the Western Crossroads! Normally old temples are the only place you find them, but I thought I’d make my own; even with a few personal touches.” Ellingson studied the object in the middle of the room. It was a pitch black signpost with arrows spiraling downwards in every direction. His eyes tracked the direction of the arrows and saw that each one pointed to a section of wall that had been sectioned off. All of them were blank except for the one that Vedalya was currently painting.
“What does that mean?” he asked. She hopped nimbly down from the stepladder and landed without a sound on the stone floor.
“The Crossroads are where you go when you die, Chuck,” she said, walking towards the post in the middle. “And then, whatever afterlives you think you’ve earned show up on the arrows.” She grabbed the post below the arrows and swung around it like a gleeful child. “Oh so many possibilities! Nokturne! Vice! The Silver Green!” She pointed towards empty sections of wall as she listed supposed afterlives. “But this one is the most interesting,” she said, moving towards the section she had just finished painting. Ellingson followed her over to it.
He saw an aerial view of a great chasm carved into a gray and darkened wasteland. It ran in a jagged ring around a huge tableland filled with trees and greenery.
“It’s like paradise being kept away from the rest of the world,” said Ellingson, enthralled by the painting. From deep within the chasm, blue and red light emanated.
“That is Perdition,” said Vedalya. “At least one of the perceptions of it. Everyone there sees it differently, but the key is that it’s a ring. It’s infinity.” She hovered a finger over the chasm, indicating the hint of blue light coming from its depths. “You see, for every good thing you did in life, you get a period of your own personal paradise.”
“And the red?”
“Your own personal hell for all the bad things,” she said, grinning. “And then it repeats. So, if you were a good person-“ Vedalya moved her finger along the chasm. The red turned to blue beneath her hand. “-you get a lot of good times. You can guess what happens to the bad guys,” she said, moving her hand back and turning the light a burning crimson. “What would your Perdition be like, I wonder?”
“Alright,” said Ellingson, not wanting to think about the question. “What are you and what am I supposed to do with the statue in my house?”
“I’m an artist, Chuck,” said Vedalya with feigned exasperation. “As for your little angel, I left you a note, didn’t I? Don’t tell me the big, important doctor didn’t figure it out. That means you entirely wasted a day. Now, you’ll have to hurry up.”
“Just tell me!” yelled Ellingson. He grabbed the girl by the arm and spun her towards him. Whether she was just a dream or something else, he was becoming sure she wasn’t quite human.
He immediately regretted his actions as the large woman in front of him shook his hand off and, in an instant, had her hand around his throat. He felt his feet lift off the ground as Vedalya loomed larger in front of him than he would have thought possible. She pressed his back to the wall, dead in the center of her landscape of Perdition. He had heard that you did not feel pain in a dream. If that was true, it was no dream. Her fingers dug into his neck as he gasped for air. His limbs flailed helplessly, finding no respite. The artist holding him leaned closer, the infuriating grin never having left her lips.
“Bad move, Chuck,” said Vedalya. “In my studio, I run the show. Understand?” He nodded as best as he could. “Excellent.” She dropped him to the ground, where he collapsed in a heap, gasping for breath. He had been right. She wasn’t human.
“As for your question,” she said. “I guess I’ll have to tell you. It wouldn’t be sporting of me to leave you clueless. What do you put into work, Chuck?”
“Time,” he muttered, rubbing his neck gingerly. “Effort. Resources.”
“Think more…metaphorically,” she said. “More physically.” She bent down and rubbed one finger over his forehead. He recoiled at her touch. She waved the finger in front of his face. He saw the glint of moisture and he suddenly understood.
“Sweat,” he said.
“And tears,” she said. “I’ll give you the last one as an apology for the…unpleasantness there. I may have been a bit hasty, Chuck. You seem like an alright guy for the most part.” She extended a pale hand down to him. He ignored it and struggled to his feet.
“So, I have to put blood, sweat, and tears onto the statue?” he asked.
“Yep,” she replied. “Put enough into her and she’ll turn human. She’ll be your perfect woman, made especially for you by the greatest artist to ever exist: me. It can’t be from you, of course. And you can’t kill anyone. That would encourage the wrong behavior; people slashing their wrists and all that messiness.”
“And I have four days?”
“What happens after that?” he asked, barely wanting to know.
“Well, then your little angel crumbles to dust and you’ll have nothing left,” she said with a sigh. “Nothing but a mess to clean up and the Mark of Eden on your soul.”
“What the hell is the Mark of Eden?” he asked, a chill running down his spine.
“Maybe I’ll tell you next time,” said Vedalya. “See you soon, Chuck.” She snapped her fingers and the lights went out. Ellingson might have imagined it, but for an instant, he thought he could still see a streak of red emanating from the mural on the wall.
Charles Ellingson woke up the next morning feeling as though he’d been hit by a truck. Like the day before, he told himself it was just a dream, but the tremors in his voice and his hand made it plain that he was beginning to doubt it was just in his head. Shifting to the side of the bed, he felt a sharp pain in his neck. He hurried out of bed and into the bathroom, looking at his neck in the mirror. While there were no obvious wounds, he noticed a few red marks on his throat that had not been there before. They looked like they had come from fingernails.
After getting ready for work, he steadied himself before heading downstairs. He hoped he had just imagined getting the statue the day before. Maybe he would go down and there would only be empty tile in his entrance hall. He knew that would be for the best, but a small voice, deep down, told him that he wanted it all to be true. If it required blood, sweat, and tears, so be it. Ellingson quickly silenced that voice and went downstairs.
There, just as it had been all of yesterday, was an alabaster statue awaiting him. His heart sank in his chest as he tried to avoid looking at it as he moved towards the door. He had almost avoided it, but as he opened the door and went to close it behind him, his gaze landed square on the face of the statue. He froze in place.
For a moment, he saw her as if she really was alive. That snow white hair would be a fiery red. Her skin would be pale, yes, but perhaps not as pale as alabaster. If her eyes opened, they would be a sea green. No, they would be like emeralds. Maybe a light blue?
Ellingson shook himself out of his reverie and slammed the door shut harder than was necessary. He saw his neighbor across the street give him an odd look as he also left for work. Ellingson just smiled, nodded, and waved. Everything was perfectly normal even though it was not.
The day in at the plastic surgery center went by quickly. Most of his cases were purely superficial, but there was one patient that had been there for minor facial reconstruction following a car accident. That was the sort of case that kept Ellingson going. Even if half of his job was giving wealthy clients larger breasts, there were also the people that actually needed help. As he left for the gym, he mused that those people might be the blue in his Perdition. He pushed the thought out of his head immediately. There was no such thing as Perdition.
Normally, Ellingson spent about an hour in at the gym after work, but, that day, he did not particularly want to go home. After two and a half hours, he was sore, exhausted, and about to be kicked out at closing time.
The next to last occupant of the gym was a short girl with a heavy, fake tan. Ellingson had her pegged as some kind of sorority girl. As she was wiping down the equipment she had just gotten off, her cell phone began playing a loud pop song ringtone. Ellingson raised an eyebrow as she answered the phone, grabbed her things, and scurried out of the gym, all while carrying on a loud, animated conversation with whoever was on the phone. As he was getting ready to leave, he noticed that the girl had forgotten her towel and left it draped over the equipment. He deliberated between calling after her to tell her and just leaving it so someone else could deal with it. He settled on the latter and packed up his things.
He was just about to leave when the dream from the night before came back to him. The entire time he had been working out, he had been able to force everything from the previous two days from his mind, but it all came flooding back. What had that tall, creepy woman said, again? Blood, tears…and sweat?
Ellingson looked back at the soiled towel draped over the seat at his side. While two competing trains of thought battled in his head, his eyes scanned the area. There was, for the moment, no one watching. Seeing no one, one side of the argument won out. He quickly grabbed the towel and walked out of the gym. He figured it would only take a small amount of sweat to prove the dreams were a complete fiction. Then, he could safely ignore them, knowing he was safe from any kind of consequence; any kind of…mark.
When he got home that night, he threw his gym bag onto the ground, bypassed the statue in his entryway, and acted as though everything was normal. He made a light dinner, cleaned up, looked over some case notes while watching the evening news, and prepared to head upstairs to bed. At the foot of the stairs, he stalled. He’d test the statue tomorrow, he had decided. Or, maybe, he would do it the next day. He had already put his foot on the first step when he pictured the icy blue eyes, long, black hair, and sadistic grin awaiting him when he closed his eyes. He had to do it now. He had to be able to prove it was all bullshit before he went back to the Garden of Eden.
Ellingson steeled himself and walked over to his gym bag. The scent of sweat hit him as he opened it. For a moment, he thought he might just wash the contents of the bag and be done with it. That moment was very fleeting. He grabbed the damp towel and marched over to the pale sculpture in the center of his entryway. He looked it over again; the flawlessness; the beauty of it. His heart beat loudly in his chest. Finally, with a decisive stroke, he swept the towel over the frozen, snowy hair. He let the cloth hang at his side as he stared. For a moment, nothing happened. He began to shake his head and turn away, knowing it was a farce, when he noticed something impossible.
The pale stone he had touched with the towel slowly turned to off-white. Then, it turned pink. Finally, it turned a vivid crimson. Ellingson’s entire body trembled as he brought the cloth to the statue again. He spread it more widely and touched it to the figure’s hair, as if he was drying it. Removing it, the rest of the stone hair slowly turned red, like a fire spreading through a stone forest.
Looking closely, he could see that the hair still stood rigid like stone, even as the fiery red ran across the hair falling down her back. With his hands shaking almost uncontrollably, he raised the towel above her in two hands and wrung it. A stream of sweat, far more than he would have expected, fell onto the alabaster form. As the liquid struck her, the hair softened and fell like water around her face. Ellingson’s breath caught in his throat as a droplet ran down her forehead and over one eye. It continued down her face like a teardrop. Where it ran, the stone turned from ivory to the color of flesh.
Ellingson’s courage finally broke and he jumped back from the stone form. His back struck a pillar and he began to breathe heavily, his head spinning. He could see the statue’s hair flowing in some impossible breeze, but could not believe it. It couldn’t be real. As he continued to hyperventilate, the world around him grew fuzzy. His eyelids lowered with an angel in front of him. Darkness took him.
Another vision of the past came to him in his dreams: walking into a classroom at Steadville Community College; shaking hands with a man that would quickly become his mentor; thinking that perhaps not being able to afford going to his dream college wouldn’t be so bad after all.
The vision shifted to the future, where he saw the same professor being led away in handcuffs by the police. It was never made public exactly how much he had stolen from the college, but rumors set the number very high. Ellingson made eye contact for a fraction of a second before turning away and storming into the lecture hall. The room he entered was very definitely not one he remembered from school. A now-familiar figure loomed in front of him.
“Who are you?” he asked, his voice revealing that he was ready to believe the answer.
“I’m Vedalya,” she replied. “I didn’t think you’d have forgotten my name already, Chuck.” She smirked and walked away. Ellingson realized he was back in the workshop she had originally taken him to. The artist herself had approached one of the half-finished statues in the center of the room and began to work on it with a chisel.
“You know what I mean,” he said, catching his breath and approaching her. “What are you?”
“I’m glad you at least got her hair done,” said Vedalya, ignoring him. “I mean…that red! It would have been a shame if you’d never seen that! You really have got to see the backside on her, though! Talk about a masterpiece if I don’t say so myself.”
“What are you?!” screamed Ellingson, his voice echoing through the workshop like thunder. “What is this freak show?!” Vedalya’s expression turned dour at the outburst. Fear replaced anger in him immediately. He should not have done that.
“If you’re going to be rude,” said Vedalya. “I’ll have to teach you a thing or two.” With a swift motion from her hand, a vine running along the wall snapped off of the surface and whipped towards him, wrapping around his wrist. With another flick, his other hand was caught in the same manner. Within seconds, his body was entangled in vines and being lifted off the floor. Even through the terror, he couldn’t help but be thankful there was no hand around his throat.
“I am an artist,” said Vedalya, moving towards him. She seemed to grow larger with every word and every step. “I was the greatest shaper of flesh in the entirety of the frozen garden!” Her skin began to grow paler and more like stone. “I am the Hand of Eden.” He couldn’t tell how tall she had become as she stood eye to eye with him dangling in the air of the workshop. “I am the Aspect of Creation!”
At her last word, the flesh that had become so much like stone fractured, cracks spreading like a web, the noise echoing through the workshop. From the crevices across her skin, small vines began to emerge. Her hair, long enough to reach the floor, began to move of its own accord.
Ellingson, usually a bastion of reserve, let loose a scream that could not be contained.
A lock of jet black hair shot upwards and wrapped around him face, suffocating his cries. The aspect put a finger to her cracked lips and quietly shushed him.
“I told you,” she said. “I’m in charge here. Please be quiet.” The lock of hair released from his head and lightly floated back towards the floor. “I understand your surprise, but I’m not going to hurt you. Well, except for the thing last time. And the vines might be a bit tight. Sorry.”
“What the hell does that mean?” whispered Ellingson, careful not to raise his voice. “The Aspect of Creation?” The monstrous woman rubbed her chin for a moment, meandering away from him.
“That,” she said. “Is a long answer. But, I think we have time.” She turned back towards him and crouched down, resting on her haunches. He couldn’t help but notice that her clothes, which had been baggy before, now stretched taught over her entire form.
“You see, Chuck, there used to be cities. And there used to be living gods in those cities. Then the gods died. Very sad.” She got up and circled a statue of an androgynous figure that had to be one of the gods she was talking about. “Then, something brought the gods back; back to a sort of half-life. And to keep this half-life going, they need souls.”
“How do they get souls?” said Ellingson, barely audible.
“That’s where the aspects come in,” she replied. “We go around looking for people who want to play our games. Or, in my case, wait for them to come to us.” He remembered the number he had drunkenly called, hoping for his “perfect partner”. “And once they’ve agreed to the test, they’re pretty much our playthings. Sometimes, people pass the test. They get to keep living their little lives, sometimes with a parting gift.”
“The ones that fail?”
“The mark of a god is stamped onto their souls,” said Vedalya, her voice somber.
“And we die?” he asked. The aspect smirked.
“Eventually yes,” she said. “But, surprisingly, most aspects just let you keep on living. You’ll die one day. And when that happens, the mark makes your soul go right to Eden or Sautoras or Zatan’nataz, whoever. And the shadow gods keep going and going and going.” Vedalya snapped her fingers. The vines around Ellingson let loose all at once. He dropped to the ground, but landed on his feet, barely keeping his balance. Looking up, he found the aspect bent down, huge blue eyes a foot away from his. His breath caught in his throat.
“Any more questions, Chuck?”
“What happens then?” asked Ellingson, forcing the words from his mouth. “What happens without a soul?”
“Oh, Chuck,” she said, shaking her head and bringing a finger up towards his chin. “You don’t really want to know.” The tip of her finger cracked open and a vine extended from it. The winding plant crawled up his jaw line and around his neck like a snake.
His courage, already near its breaking point, finally vanished. He tore the vine from around his neck. He ran. Adrenaline fueled him as he sprinted out of the workshop and into the gauntlet of statues. The eyes of the statues followed him as they flew by, shifting in stone faces and driving him onward. His heart felt like it was about to beat out of his chest as he reached the end of the hallway and raced through the entrance hall filled by statues with dead faces. He saw a wooden door at the other side. Without a second thought, he threw it open and stepped out into a dead world.
Ellingson found himself in a monstrous cavern. The sound of thundering water echoed off of frozen stone walls. High above him, the roof of the space looked like solid ice, allowing cold, blue sunlight though, softly lighting the cavern. Below his feet he could feel half-rotted planks of wood. Looking down, he could see through the holes of an ancient boardwalk and into an infinite abyss below. As a crack appeared in the wood beneath his feet, he jumped backwards and into the doorway of the studio, forgetting the danger and praying for solid footing.
From that relative safety, he gazed out into a dimly lit city. It became apparent that the building he had just vacated sat on a huge, elevated platform hanging above a gaping sinkhole. His eyes followed a great waterfall up the wall of the pit and to an underground river flowing through a crumbling metropolis. Stone towers rose up towards the icy ceiling. Cascading tributaries wove their way through the ruins. And, there, on an island at the very center of it all, a brilliant, emerald garden sprouted in the faint light of the frigid grotto. As he looked more carefully, Ellingson saw that every flower, branch, and blade of grass was coated in a layer of shimmering ice.
“Behold,” said a familiar voice from behind him. “The frozen Garden of Earthly Delights. The ancient city of Eden.” Ellingson knew he should be afraid. He knew he should probably be running out onto that boardwalk and into that dark, frozen city, but he had just noticed shapes moving among the ruins; shapes that shouldn’t be moving. They weren’t all human.
“What are those things?” asked Ellingson, not daring to turn around.
“The wealth of Eden was in magical stones,” said Vedalya. Her voice, tinged with a disturbing unease, came from a lower point than he expected. “They were said to hold the power of one of the makers of the universe: Life itself. When used on flesh and blood, the stones could heal almost any ailment short of death. When used on a statue, it could breathe life into the very stone.”
“Why do they look like that?”
“At first, you see, they were used by great artists,” she said. “They made living art, greater than anything ever seen. Then, as things always do, they were used for darker, stranger things.”
“You’re standing in the red light district of Eden, Chuck,” said Vedalya. “The stone-brothels of Eden could make anyone with money anything they desired and then bring it to life.”
“My God,” said Ellingson, noticing several of the shapes on bridges connecting the solid ground with the floating platform. He could see them much more clearly. He wished he couldn’t. Some he could tell were bizarre works of art. Others, he could see were created as nightmarish sex dolls. A horrifying few could have been either.
“Do you remember how I told you the gods are now dark versions of themselves?” asked Vedalya.
“Yes,” he replied, his voice quaking.
“Most of them cast dark shadows while they were still living.” Ellingson barely heard her. A huge construct had come around the corner of Vedalya’s studio and moved towards them, towering above him. Eyes, mouths, and appendages covered a pillar of living stone. “I think that’s enough, don’t you?” The sun shining through the ice above him went dark. For a moment, he could still hear the thunder of the waterfall and the shuffling of stone that was not quite stone.
Ellingson came to on the floor of his entryway, his entire body aching. He sat in a puddle of sweat on the cold tile. Feeling something digging into his back, he reached beneath him and pulled out the hammer that was still sitting on the floor. He tossed it across the room. It had to stop. Whatever was happening to him had to stop. He wouldn’t survive any more nights like this. He forced his eyes open and he saw the alabaster statue with crimson hair sitting in the center of the floor. There was only one way to stop it. He finally believed.
That day at work was like a blur. He was sure at the end of it that he had done at least two surgeries and had met with several people, but damned if he could remember any of it. Reality was like a blur. It was like the real world was the dream now. Those minutes or hours in the statuary in a dead city beneath the ice felt so much more real. But he still had a job to do; one that had nothing to do with the living. It was the only thing that was important.
As the center closed that night, Ellingson remained behind. He waved the nurses and receptionists goodbye. His assistant, Kendra, gave him an odd look, knowing that it was unlike him to stay late. She stalled as the other employees left and approached him the instant they were alone.
“I know something’s bothering you, Doctor Ellingson,” she said. “Something serious. You know I’m always here if you need to talk to anyone.” She slid closer to him and put a hand to his shoulder. Looking into her dark, blue eyes, the doctor almost gave in and told her everything. Maybe if someone else in the real world told him just how crazy he was, it would break the spell hanging over him. Instead, he brushed her hand off of him and turned to walk back into his office.
“Why are you like this??” Kendra said from behind him, the strain in her voice barely contained. “All I try to do is help you, Charles!” Silence hung in the room for half a minute before he turned back towards her and spoke.
“Do you know why I became a plastic surgeon, Miss Goodson?” he asked. After getting no reply other than a blank stare, he continued. “I had a girlfriend back in school that was quite plain, to say the least. I was happy. She wasn’t. She got a lot of work done one summer; came out looking like a model; someone else altogether, but she was happier. I thought I could do the same thing and make people happy like that.”
“You do that,” said his assistant.
“Come the end of the last semester, right before I started my residency, it all fell apart. Turns out she’d been cheating on me for years. For a while, I blamed the new face.”
“That’s your big revelation?” asked Kendra. “Never trust the pretty ones?”
“No,” said Ellingson. “Because whatever she turned into was there all along, with or without the face. The lesson is not to trust anyone.”
With that, his assistant sneered, spun around, and marched out of the office. As she made her way to the parking lot, Ellingson reflected on the part he hadn’t said; the part that really drove the point home. During that last night, he had told her she was the same as his professor after he stole all of that money. Out on the sidewalk, as she stormed out, she spun around and threw one last dagger.
“Who do you think paid for all this?” she had asked, motioning to her face.
As soon as the taillights of the last car had disappeared down the street, he made his way to their blood storage. As he opened the refrigerator, he eyed the bags of blood hungrily. He felt like some sort of vampire or ghoul, but desperate measures had to be taken. As he felt the cool air strike him, he began to pull out the plastic bags of crimson liquid and place them gently into the gym bag he had brought with him. He knew he couldn’t take too many or someone would quickly notice. But he couldn’t take too few. He had to finish this tonight. He couldn’t take any chances. He couldn’t have to go back to that cursed studio any more than need be.
He stopped after taking three of the bags out. Would it be enough? He wondered how many variables could be in play. What if someone had died and it did nothing? He swallowed hard and grabbed a fourth bag. His eyes flitted over the contents of the refrigerator one last time as he closed it, hoping it was enough. Pulling himself away from the blood storage, he grabbed his gym bag and walked briskly towards the exit of the building.
It wasn’t long before he was back in his home and paranoid took over again. He closed the blinds on every window in the house. He turned on exactly the right number of lights to look as though he was simply having a normal relaxing evening, not wanting to be disturbed. He thought about turning off his phone, but would that seem suspicious if someone called him? He briefly thought about how he would explain how he had met the strange woman who was suddenly living with him. He couldn’t just hide her inside the house. He had to see her in the sunlight.
As a hundred questions swirled inside his head, he finally made his way back to the entrance hall, where, sitting on the tile around his angel were four bags of blood. He gripped a chef’s knife in one hand, deciding that subtlety had gone out the window at this point.
He knelt in front of the statue that would soon not be a statue. This was more than freeing this girl from the stone. It was more than preventing his soul from being consumed by a half-dead god. It felt like his redemption. It felt like what his entire life had been leading to. Slowly, dramatically, like a ritual in a long ruined temple, he lifted the knife, then the first bag of blood, and slashed through the top. He lifted the open bag above the alabaster form and poured.
The blood seeped down through the crimson hair and over the stone face. As it did, Ellingson saw the liquid begin to absorb into the stone, disappearing within seconds. The face that, aside from a thin streak, had just been pure white was now the color of pale skin. Being unable to resist, he put a finger to one cheek. It still felt like stone. He grabbed the next bag.
At the second application of blood, the change in color continued down the torso of the statue. The hands folded over her heart looked almost alive. Half of the thin robe she wore had changed to a light gray. Ellingson had to resist touching her again. There was still too much stone; too much that could be damaged.
“Please,” he whispered softly to the empty room. “Please let this work.”
Again he slashed open a plastic bag and lifted it over the statue. As the crimson droplets ran down stone skin once again, her legs, barely visible beneath the flowing robe, lost their ivory tone. The robe itself brightened into bright silver, shimmering in the light of a chandelier high above the entryway.
Ellingson back away and took in the form in front of him. The snowy white of the alabaster had been completely erased. The only colors remaining were the pale tone of the skin, the silver of her garments, and the brilliant red of her hair. The doctor grabbed the final bag of blood off of the ground and slashed it open, his heart beating like a drum.
As soon as the stream touched the “statue”, a crystal-clear transformation flowed like water from top to bottom. The rigid stone gave way as the flesh softened and the fabric of her robe draped, fluttering to the floor. Ellingson backed away as the stone cheeks flushed with color. He knelt on the floor in front of his angel and watched her eyes, waiting for them to open at last. He waited…and waited…and waited. Nothing was happening.
Ellingson’s entire body quaked, panic inches from setting in. He pulled himself closer and brought his face close to the hands folded across her chest. He slowly turned his head and placed his ear on them, listening closely. He could feel that the outer surface had turned to flesh, but just beneath it, there was still unyielding stone. That was not what he was searching for. From much nearer than before, just beneath the surface, a heart softly beat.
He frantically look around him on the floor, praying that one of the bags still contained even a droplet of blood. He grabbed one after another, gazing into the clear plastic, and grasping them as if trying to squeeze the blood from nothingness. The final bag fell to the floor with a dull plop and panic finally came.
Whatever strength Ellingson had left in his legs left all at once and he fell to the floor, narrowly avoiding hitting the figure standing vigil in the center. A nonsensical babbling left his mouth as he stared up in the shining crystals of the chandelier above. He could feel the last day closing in. Anything could happen that would ruin everything. He might get arrested for stealing blood. He might be in a car accident. Hell, he could even oversleep.
His eyes jumped from the light above to the pale face of the statue hovering over him. The peaceful countenance, even as motionless as stone, brought him back to some semblance of sanity. He did the only thing he thought might help.
“I’m sorry,” muttered Ellingson to the girl beside him. “I’m sorry I didn’t bring you to life. You can forgive me, right?” He almost thought he could see a flicker of motion; of assent. “Of course you can,” he said. “You’re an angel after all.” He took a deep breath and the panic began to subside.
“Story of my life, you know,” said Ellingson. “Nothing’s ever good enough. Always one step away from perfect. I didn’t want to be a plastic surgeon in the beginning. I wanted to be a heart surgeon. I wanted to save thousands of lives and be that guy everyone wants to be their doctor.” He stayed there, lying on the floor and looking up at the closed eyes.
“Top of my class,” he said. “Not that it’s that hard in Steadville, but still. I got accepted to John Barons University. I had everything in the palm of my hand. Everything except money. My parents said it was too expensive and that Steadville Community College would give me a full scholarship. Guess where I ended up. Right back in this pit of a town that I wanted out of.” Ellingson finally picked himself off the floor and sat there beside the statue. The wavering in his hands and voice had almost left entirely.
“And after everything that happened; the scandals, the drama, the bullshit; where do you think was the only place that would hire me? That’s right. The prodigal son returns.” He reached out to touch her again, but thought better of it. “I should give you a name,” said Ellingson. “But not yet. When you open your eyes and see me, the first thing I do will be to give you a name. I promise.” With that, he stumbled upstairs and headed for bed. If he had listened closely, he might have heard the beating heart beneath the alabaster flutter when he mentioned giving her a name.
Ellingson wasn’t afraid when he found himself back in Vedalya’s Sanctum of the Crossroads. He was past fear. He stormed through the room towards where she was putting the finishing touches on the bottom of a mural, back to the form he had originally met her in. He noticed that every other space on the wall was already painted.
“You were really close there,” she said without turning, taunting him half-heartedly.
“Why do I suspect that it’s not a coincidence that I was that close to making her real?”
“Are you accusing me of something?” asked Vedalya.
“Of course not,” said Ellingson, arms crossed and eyes defiant. “So, back to normal? No stone skin? No vines?”
“Would you like that?” asked the girl, turning around and gently putting down her paintbrush. “No, I don’t particularly like doing that. It’s only for effect once in a while.” She walked over to him and turned around, admiring the finished painting.
“And what’s this one?” he asked.
“Glorygon,” she said softly. “The afterlife of heroes, kings, and saints.” The mural depicted a shining, gilded street lined with elaborate palaces and enormous mansions, all pure gold, all sitting beneath a pitch black sky.
“I like it better than Perdition, I’ll give you that,” said Ellingson. “Got a chair? I think I’ll just close my eyes and wait to wake up this time.” Vedalya smirked briefly and then produced a small stepladder.
“Will this work?” she asked. There was something different about her compared to the previous visits. She seemed more human.
“Works for me,” said the doctor. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” said the artist and he took a seat. For a moment, both of them were silent. Ellingson glanced once more at the newest painting. It was gorgeous.
“I wanted to go to Glorygon,” said Vedalya quietly, sitting on the floor and leaning against the signpost in the center of the floor. “That’s why me and my sister came to Eden; to be the greatest artists of all time; to find our glory.”
“You were human?” asked Ellingson, shock in his voice. “In Eden?”
“All of the aspects were human, once,” she said. “And I was an artist, but my sister was always better than me. The critics loved her. They said she was the greatest, and no matter how well I did, I got judged against her. Her paintings were the most insightful. Her statues were the most flawless. So, I made a change.”
“You stopped being an artist?” he asked.
“Not really,” she replied. “I packed up shop in the art district and moved to the center of the platform here. I started the greatest stone-brothel Eden had ever known. I may not have been able to make things as pretty as my sister, but I could make things that people wanted. I could make things that people would pay for. So, while she was busy being a great starving artist, I was over here raking in money for giving people whatever freakish thing they desired.”
“Was it worth it?” asked Ellingson. The girl deliberated for a moment before answering.
“Maybe, I still could have found a way to Glorygon,” she said. “Maybe I could have looked Eden in the eye and told her I wouldn’t help her take souls. Maybe I could have asked for help.” She swallowed hard. “It wasn’t worth it.” As silence hung in the air, Ellingson asked the question she hadn’t answered the last time. He needed to know.
“What happens if I lose my soul?” She closed her eyes, sighed, and smiled darkly.
“When you reach the Western Crossroads, part of your soul is the price you pay to gain entrance to an afterlife; the same part that the gods consume under the mark. And if you can’t pay the price, there’s only one path open.”
“What is that?” asked Ellingson, already knowing full well.
“Perdition,” said Vedalya. “And for people that seek out the aspects, especially those that fail their tests, Perdition is rarely merciful.”
“Gods help me,” he whispered.
“The gods don’t help anyone anymore,” she said. “Those days vanished twelve thousand years ago.”
“And what about you?” asked the doctor.
“I’ve helped too much already,” said Vedalya. “Eden doesn’t like losing souls. Go, Doctor Ellingson. Go back home and get your angel. And maybe look into a new profession. You don’t seem very happy right now.”
That morning, Ellingson woke up feeling more rested than he had in years. He was still nervous, of course. He would be cutting his time close. But, at least, he had hope. He had purpose. Fear was a distant memory as he got ready for work and headed to the door. As he passed the figure in the entryway, he gave it a small kiss on the cheek and whispered farewell. Perhaps, soon, he would get a reply while doing the same thing.
He was cautious entering the center, watching the eyes of the employees. He wanted to make sure no one was watching him out of the corner of their eye. If they had caught him stealing blood the night before, all bets were off. But, making his way to his office, he was greeted normally by everyone. As he sat down at his desk, he was already looking forward to leaving that night with one final prize. Then, there was a brisk knock on his door.
“Come in,” said Ellingson, forcing his voice to be steady. His assistant, Kendra, entered the office and quickly closed the door behind her. Ellingson’s blood went cold.
“One of the nurses noticed that we seemed to be missing a few units of blood this morning, Doctor,” she said. A gleam in her eye told him that this was not going to go well. “So, I thought to myself, ‘who do I know that has been acting oddly all week?’” Rage began to build in Ellingson’s chest. He should have fired this girl a long time ago. “So, I took a peek at the security tapes from last night and guess who I saw going to and from the blood storage with a big bag.”
“There’s an explanation for that, I assure you,” said Ellingson, trying to come up with that explanation. Then, in an instant, a plan came to him. He would have to play it perfectly, but he could salvage the day. He thought.
“I’d love to hear it,” said Kendra. “Or else I might have to turn you in, unless, of course, you could make it worth my while not to.” He suddenly felt no qualms about his new plan.
“If you must know,” he said. “I have been experimenting with a new treatment at home that can almost reverse the effects of aging. I needed blood samples to test my theory on. If it works, I’m going to make millions on it. You can’t tell anyone!” Seeing the look in her eyes, he had no doubts that it was going to work.
“I want in,” she said. “Or else I’m turning you in for stealing medical supplies.”
“If this works, no one will care about a few packs of blood,” he countered. “Get out of my office.”
“I’ll tell them you’re sexually harassing me,” she said. “I’ll say we’re sleeping together!”
“No one here will believe you.”
“It doesn’t matter if they do!” said Kendra. “When the authorities come in it will be my word versus the thief’s!”
“You wouldn’t even be able to stomach what I’m doing,” said Ellingson, his voice like ice.
“Try me!” she said. “Let’s go see it!”
“Yes, now,” she said. “I’ll follow you to your house.”
Ellingson sighed and got up, a metaphorical gun to his head. The two of them exited the office and headed for the exit. As they went by the receptionist’s desk, the doctor briefly told them to cancel his appointments for the next hour. It might be longer than that if things went according to plan. Behind him, Kendra leaned over and whispered into the receptionist’s ear.
“We’ve got some business to attend to,” she said, winking. Ellingson saw her plan. She wanted everyone to know that they had left together in the middle of the day. If he really did have a money-making treatment, it built up her extortion scheme. If she happened to disappear, well, he’d be the only suspect. It was a smart plan. In fact, there was only one flaw in it: she didn’t know he had nothing to lose. Nothing except his soul.
She followed him back to his house in her car. She had apparently had time to plan this out and did not trust them to ride in the same car. Accidents could happen. As they exited their vehicles and headed for the door, she got in a final jab. It would be her last.
“Remember, Charlie,” she said, making his blood simmer. “If anything happens to me, they’ll know it was you. So, just let me see what this million dollar idea is and we can get on with our lives, okay?”
“It should be right inside,” said Ellingson, holding the door open. “Ladies first.” Kendra gave him a doubtful look, but, assured in her plan, she stepped into the entryway. Only a square of light from the door was illuminated, the window blinds all still shut tight. She took a few steps inside.
“You have lights in here, right?” she said impatiently. “Which way is it?”
“Right in front of you,” said Ellingson, flicking on the lights and shutting the door behind them. He silently clicked the lock. The entrance hall was suddenly illuminated. His beauty stood, perfectly still with hands folded, only feet in front of Kendra. Her jaw dropped slightly in disbelief.
“This is your stupid project?!” she yelled. “This is a statue! This is-“
Her voice caught in her throat as she studied it further. She had initially seen it as a normal statue due to its stillness, but as her eyes made their way down her form, Ellingson knew she was seeing the softness of the skin and the silver robe swaying in the air. She was so awestruck by it that she didn’t even hear the faint sound of metal scraping tile.
“What is this, Ellingson?” said Kendra, her voice hushed. “Is this a real girl?? Why is she like that?!” She turned around to find the doctor with a chef’s knife leveled at her throat. The blade was still stained by a few droplets of dried blood. The steel glinted in the light.
“That is my angel,” he said. “And now, you’re going to head into the kitchen and we’re going to talk.” Kendra’s eyes went wide as she saw the intensity in his eyes. She had no idea what was going on any more. Her plan had fallen apart. The doctor led her into his kitchen and made her sit in one of his high-backed chairs. He swiftly opened a drawer and grabbed a roll of twine, the only thing he could think of. As fast as he could, he grabbed her arms, yanked them behind the chair and tied them as thoroughly as he could.
“I apologize for my poor hospitality, but you have really put me in a bind here,” he said, not intending the pun, but snickering nervously anyways. “You see, this is the last day I have to make her real. I’ve done so much already. But I need more.”
“Blood, sweat, or tears,” said Ellingson. “I’ll take what I can get. I don’t suspect I have much time thanks to your little act.” He grabbed the back of the chair and dragged her into the entrance hall, a couple of meters from his angel. “All it would have taken was one more day, but you could not leave well enough alone!” His voice rose to a maniacal pitch.
“You’re insane!” screamed Kendra. “Blood is not going to make that thing come to life!”
“She was stone yesterday morning,” said Ellingson, swinging around the chair and looking her dead in the eyes. “Pure, white stone. And look at her now!” Tears had begun to well up in Kendra’s eyes, fear and inevitability setting in. He spun around towards the motionless form. He could almost hear its heart beating in anticipation. She wasn’t going to judge him for this. She knew it was necessary. She didn’t want to crumble to dust.
“Where did you get that thing??”
“In a dream,” he said, speaking like he was in a trance. “In an artist’s studio, in a far away city, in a dream. I got it from a place where there are half-dead gods and living fetish statues and afterlives with golden streets.” He fell to his knees in front of the figure and looked up at the still-closed eyes. “I really need to think up a name first. I don’t suppose you’d have any suggestions, eh?” He turned around to give Kendra a questioning glance and found the chair empty, the kitchen twine unbound on the floor. He really was horrible with knots.
Before he could act, a massive blow came to the back of his head. Lights exploded in his skull and the world began to blur. He slumped forward, his arms flailing. He barely registered that one of his hands had latched onto the wrist of his frozen angel. Blinding fear filled him as he tumbled backwards onto the floor, dragging her with him. He was almost ecstatic when the heavy weight of stone landed fully on his torso. He could feel at least one broken rib, but there was not a crack on her. The room was beginning to fade as he saw a hammer hit the floor out of the corner of his eye. He saw Kendra hovering over him and his love, hands over her mouth, in a state of shock. As she stood shaking, tears fell from her eyes and landed on silver fabric.
In the final seconds before his vision faded to black, Ellingson felt the weight of stone on him lighten. He heard a breath being taken and a torso swell. He felt the fevered beating of a heart that was not his own. And, at the last instant, before the room dissolved entirely, he saw the flash of bright green eyes opening for the first time. The sorrow in them broke his heart.
He awoke in a familiar studio with marble walls and climbing vines. As he looked around, he was surprised to see that the massive stone blocks and half-finished statues were nowhere to be seen. Looking to the center of the room, he saw Vedalya leaning against a towering statue that he recognized immediately. It was the same one he had seen in his entryway each of the last four days. However, this one was still a snowy white.
“Well,” said Vedalya. “You got your girl, Chuck.” She smirked coldly. “I’m impressed. I’d be more impressed if you hadn’t kidnapped a girl to do it or if you hadn’t gotten your skull broken in the process, but, hey, credit where credit is due.”
“That’s it?” asked Ellingson. “I’m not marked?”
“Nope,” she said, licking a finger and wiping a blemish off the statue. “You: one. Eden: nothing.”
“So why am I back here?” he asked. “Haven’t you taunted me enough?”
“I just feel kind of sorry for you, Chuck,” said Vedalya. “I wanted to offer my condolences.”
“Why?” he asked. “Because I’m probably going to be locked up now? She’ll wait for me. I know she will. Just let me out of this god damn dream world so I can see her!”
“Oh, she’ll wait for you. I have no doubt about that,” said the aspect, looking at the floor, avoiding his gaze. “But this isn’t a dream.”
“What is it?” asked Ellingson, his heart turning as cold as the walls of Eden.
“You took a big shot to the head there,” said Vedalya. “You won’t be waking up from this one.”
“Wait,” he said. “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait!”
“I doubt you’ll survive much longer,” she continued. “So, I thought I’d give you a memorial to your perfect woman.” She backed away and threw both hands at the ivory statue in a dramatic fashion.
“This can’t be happening!” said Ellingson. “I put too much into this! This was going to change everything in my life!”
“It did,” said Vedalya. “Just not how you expected. I’ll leave you two alone.” The Aspect of Creation began to head for the door, leaving the doctor with the image of his love, but stopped just at the threshold. “Charles?”
“What??” he asked, faint hope glimmering.
“If you happen to see a blank sign on the Western Crossroads when you reach it,” she began.
“Wait,” said Vedalya. “Just wait. Eventually, she’ll be along. The Silver Green will call.”
“What does that mean??” said Ellingson, only to find himself alone in the studio with his statue. He stumbled over, feeling his head and ribs throb with pain. He knelt, he leaned his head against the folds of a stone robe, and he screamed. He didn’t stop screaming.
In the hallway of the Steadville Hospital, a police officer walked down the hall and nudged another that was waiting by the door to a patient’s room.
“How’s the scumbag?” he asked.
“Internal bleeding in his head, they think,” replied the second officer. “Broken rib did something in his guts, too. They don’t think he’s going to last too much longer.”
“Serves the bastard right,” said the first officer. “Kidnaps the girl he was having an affair with, ties her up, and threatens to kill her? Yeesh. How’s the girl doing?”
“She gave her statement then went home about half a second later,” said the second. “Looked like she’d seen a ghost the whole time. How does a piece of work like this guy get these girls?”
“Yeah, the guy’s girlfriend came in about an hour ago,” he said. “Poor thing looked like she’d been hit by a train. She’s still in there with him. Really, though, how’s he get a girl like that? She looks like a goddamned angel.”
In the hospital room behind them, a slender figure stood vigil over the motionless form of Charles Ellingson as he lay dying in the bed. The dim light of fluorescent bulbs illuminated hair like fire. The flickering green of the life support monitors shone off of skin like alabaster. Moonlight flowing through the blinds reflected off of eyes that glowed like emeralds.
She didn’t speak. She didn’t touch him. She’d never learned how to mourn or comfort or console. She hadn’t been alive that long. She just did what she had always done. It was the only thing she knew. She waited and watched and wished she had a name.
Credit: Alex Taylor
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