Today marks my fortieth birthday on this Earth, and rather than contemplating how to deal with the typical, mid-life crisis, I’m deciding whether or not my time here has ended.
It’s sort of a family curse; For as long back as my family tree stretches, the men of the family never make it past the age of forty. It even goes as far as saying each of them have died, exactly on their birthday.
At least that was the case for my father. I was in the middle of college when I got the call; They’d found the athlete of a man, lying dead on the front porch from an apparent heart attack.
On his fortieth birthday.
My uncle suffered the same fate a couple of years later, as did my brother, who died about five years ago.
Based on the evidence, I’d say there’s some merit to the supposed curse, but as with every rule, there’s an exception; In this case, it’s my Granddad.
Even as a kid, I always looked up to him, not only vertically, but as a role model. In fact, our birthdays were only a few days apart, so we usually saw each other around that time.
He had this aura surrounding him, like an invisible shield that prevented anything malicious from getting too close. Everything he did, he did with purpose, and with an undying smile on his face. Only once, did he ever break his perfect facade: At my father’s funeral, but even then he seemed more disappointed than he did sad.
‘Year Zero,’ that’s what he called his fortieth birthday. For him, it marked the true beginning of his life, creating jokes about his age, claiming he just turned five years on his forty-fifth birthday, and so on.
Once I reached adulthood, his demeanour changed ever-so-slightly, as he approached me for what he called some ‘manly-advice.’
He sat me down, handed me my first ‘official’ beer, and started talking.
“After what happened to your father last year, I’m sure you’ve been thinking a lot about this so called ‘family curse.’ It’s not false that all men seem to simply die on their fortieth birthday, but it’s wrong to call it a curse. In fact, it’s more of a blessing in disguise.”
He took a deep breath before continuing.
“It’s going to sound a bit crazy, but I’ll tell you anyway. On your birthday, once you turn forty, a man will come knocking on your door at precisely midnight. Despite the odd hour, you’ll feel compelled to let him in. Don’t worry, he won’t come to harm you, he just wants to talk, and once he has said what he wants to say, he’ll offer you a choice.”
“What choice? What’s he going to tell me?” I asked, confused as to how words could have caused all these deaths.
“That, I can’t tell you, it’s something you have to find out for yourself. All I can do, is warn you, and tell you to live your life to the absolute fullest, for as long as you can.”
He never brought it up again, and though it always though it always lingered in the back of my mind, I couldn’t bring myself to actually believe it, but I did as he said, and tried to enjoy each aspect of life, believing that once I turned forty, I’d surely perish like the rest of my family.
Which brings us to today, my fortieth birthday.
At precisely twelve o’clock; Midnight, I awoke to what sounded like three, soft knocks at the front door. My wife, the lightest sleeper on the planet, didn’t even seem to register the intruding noise, while I myself, a usually heavy sleeper, awoke with a startle.
I hadn’t been sleeping well the days prior to my birthday, anticipating the end of my life, yet unable to believe it.
Wearing nothing more than my pajamas, I made my way to the front door. With slight hesitation, I looked through the peephole; On the other side, stood a middle aged man in a suit, with a friendly smile on his face.
“Mr. Shepherd,” he greeted me as he shook my hand. “Mind if I come in?”
Speechless, I could do little more than to gesture for him to enter my home, I’d made up my mind long ago to deny him entrance, yet I felt compelled by his presence.
He walked past me and headed straight for the kitchen, seeming to already know the layout of my home, a house I’d inherited from my father.
I followed him obediently into the kitchen, and we sat down at the table. He just kept staring at me without speaking a word, his smile never leaving his face.
I had a lot of questions, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask a single one, we simply sat in silence, looking across at each other, like an awkward, and equally twisted blind date.
“You seem surprised to see me,” the man finally said after minutes of silence. “I’m assuming you expected my visit?”
I nodded my head, still unable to speak.
“Come on, Mark, you have a perfectly functional tongue, at least your wife seems to think so, don’t be embarrassed to use it.”
“Why are you here?” I eventually asked.
His smile vanished, replaced with an expression of utter confusion.
“Why I’m here? That’s the question you want to start with? Not, who I am, or what I did to your father?”
I didn’t respond, and he stared into my eyes, not moving a muscle.
“As you wish,” he sighed. “I’m here to talk, to tell you the answers to each and every question you’ve ever had. Anything you want to know, I will tell you, no matter how stupid or bizarre of a question it is, I promise you nothing but truth.”
“Did you kill my father?”
“Of course not, that’s entirely against the rules. I simply gave him a choice, and like all the men in your family, save for your brilliant granddad, he chose to leave.”
“Ah, Mr. Shepherd, or Mark, do you mind if I just call you Mark?”
Before I could answer, he just went on talking.
“That’s the beauty of our little meeting. I will tell you the answer, but not until I believe you’re ready.”
He leaned back in his chair and waited for me to keep asking questions, though from the smug look on his face, I could tell he knew exactly what I’d ask.
“Who are you?”
“Come on, Mark, you don’t really have to ask that, you already know, don’t you?”
I had my theories, and as dumb as I felt they were, it couldn’t possibly beat the ridiculousness of the family curse.
“Are you Satan?” I asked nervously.
“Technically, that’s correct, but let’s not resort to name calling; I prefer Lucifer,” he chuckled.
Once again he fell silent, awaiting my next question, but I couldn’t organise the thousands of thoughts flowing through my head.
“You’re really bad at this, you know? Not that it makes a difference, I know exactly what you want to know, you don’t even have to speak. So, how about we start with something innocent, hmm?”
He stared deep into my eyes, digging through my brain looking for questions I didn’t even know I had.
“Ah, you want to know if your ex-girlfriend still thinks about you? Julia, that’s her name, yes?”
I nodded automatically.
“She doesn’t, and you weren’t that special to her, in spite of the pedestal you’ve put her on. You really should appreciate your wife more, she’s far more suited for you.”
My wife, I’d completely forgotten she still lay upstairs sleeping, as easy as she was to wake up, she’d surely be suspicious of what the hell I was doing awake with a strange man, in the middle of the night.
“Could we maybe go somewhere else, my wife is sleeping, and-“ I said before being cut off.
“Mark, don’t be ridiculous, your wife can’t hear us.”
“Actually, she’s a really light sleeper.”
He stood up from his chair before screaming. “Oh Hannah! I’m talking to Mark in the kitchen, I’m just about to tell him all the secrets of the universe, and if you come downstairs I’ll tell you too!”
He then sat back down and listened for any commotion coming from the room, nothing but silence.
“I think we’re good.”
By then, most of the adrenaline had settled in my body, and I started to grasp the more advantageous aspect of our conversation. I could ask literally anything, and he’d answer me, but I still needed more proof he was for real.
“Just before my father died, he told me something I’ve never told anyone else. I didn’t understand it at the time, but when he died the next day I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
He paused for a moment, giving me just enough time to doubt him.
“Be a better man than me, Mark,” he said, but the voice I heard was the one of my father. My heart raced at the familiarity, and Lucifer just smiled in return.
All doubt had been stripped away from my mind, so I decided to ask something more otherworldly.
“If you’re real, then surely God exists as well, heaven and all that?”
He looked truly disappointed in my question.
“Oh, Mark, I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry about what?”
“To answer your question. Of course he’s real, him and heaven and the other truly magnificent creations emerging from his holy powers, but you didn’t think he actually created you, did you?”
“He-he didn’t?” I stuttered.
“No, not at all, you, humanity, you’re nothing more than an unfortunate side effect of God’s actual creations. You really think something so horrific could be created by an all-mighty being. Think about it, Mark. You creatures wage war on anyone even slightly different than yourselves, you hoard all of your ultimately pointless possessions, letting some rot in poverty while some thrive beyond what’s even remotely necessary. You kill for fun, and in the end you’ll destroy the planet, your own home, just because you’re all too selfish to take care of each other. That doesn’t sound like something God would create, does it?”
His words sunk through me, like an anchor had been attached to my soul and tossed into the deepest part of the ocean.
“There are good people here too, it’s not all that bad.” I argued.
“You’re right, there are plenty of good people around here, but none of them are truly great. Not a single one of you is able to see the bigger picture.”
He stood up form his chair and started to pace around, as he lectured me on the futile nature of human beings.
“In the grand scheme of things, nothing you ever do here matters. In the end you’ll all turn to dust floating around in the empty void you’ve so affectionately called ‘space,’” he finished.
I felt crushed. I thought of my wife, the fact that we’d both one day die, and whatever feelings we had would be erased as the meat on our bones rotted away in the ground. Our jobs, working to provide a function for society, all of it was a pointless task, only serving to extend the inevitable end of our world.
“What happens when you die?” he finished my question for me.
“Yeah, do we end up in Hell?”
“No, you just stop existing, the little fragment of divine power within you, the one you think is worth to be called a ‘soul,’ is harvested by my workers. We need the fragments to make more… desirable beings.”
He paused, reverting his attention towards my fridge.
“You’ll probably need a few minutes to process, do you have anything to eat?”
He helped himself to some cold chicken casserole my wife had cooked as a pre-birthday dinner.
“So, what do you do then, since God has left, apparently leaving you behind with the rest of us?”
He laughed with his mouth full of chicken, a few pieces of meat flying across the room.
“I didn’t stay behind, I choose to remain here. Someone has to make sure you guys don’t revolt, you guys keep taking things that don’t belong, it’s only a matter of time before you figure out how to cross over. It’s actually way easier than you might think, and while I’d love nothing more than a revolution, I can’t leave just anyone in charge to lead it.”
He dug through the casserole in a matter of seconds, loudly chewing through the meat, almost moaning in pleasure as he did.
“You’re wife truly is a wonderful cook, Mark. Remember to thank her for me.”
“What do you want from me anyway?” I asked.
“I want to offer you a choice.”
Before I could clarify, the walls around us started to dissolve, the ground cracked beneath our feet, and every piece of furniture not stuck to the wall fell through the ground. I stood up in panic and looked at Lucifer with pleading eyes, but we didn’t fall with the rest, we simply floated.
It wasn’t long until the world around us had been erased from existence, and we stood in a gray, empty void.
“Whe-Where are we?” I stuttered.
“Give it a minute,” he said calmly.
Buildings appeared all around us, tall, modern architectural masterpieces, coloured in bizarre mixtures of silver and blue. All stretching far up into the sky, so uniform, nothing deviating from its neighbouring design.
“This is Utopia!” Lucifer exclaimed as we suddenly found ourselves on top of one of the buildings.
There were no clouds or fog to obscure the view, meaning I could look far into the horizon, seeing that the city truly did stretch on without an end in sight.
“Obviously not, this is my city. I made it some hundred thousand years ago, it’s what you people call ‘purgatory,’ though I prefer to just call it ‘The Place In-Between,” he said.
“You made purgatory?”
“Yep, it’s as close as humans will ever get to heaven. It’s the only place that exists on the same realm at the very least.”
I looked around, the street thousands of feet below seemed so empty, devoid of any people.
“Where is everyone?”
“In a different section, I keep expanding this place as people flow in. You see, Mark, this is what I offer you. Eternal life in this city, or to be erased by time itself, in a few decades, quick to be forgotten by the world you once lived in.”
“What do you mean, why? God might have given up on humanity before you were even created, but I still see your potential. Unfortunately, your belief in him still stop most of you from accepting my offer, but you, you are just in the right state of religious mind to be reasonable. You see, I need you all to believe in the glorious afterlife described in your religious books, just not too much.”
I could sense the malicious intent behind his offer. If he truly offered eternal life, then surely he wanted something in return.
“What is this potential, you talk about?”
“We’re going to take back what’s ours, Mark. God sure as hell isn’t going to give it to you, but I will,” he smiled.
Within the next second, I crashed down in my chair, back in my kitchen. Without warning, we’d returned back home.
“That’s the choice I offer you, a chance to live in the silver city, to have a purpose, all of eternity at the tip of your fingers, but that means you’ll have to die, today, and come with me.”
“What about my family?”
“I’m sorry, Mark, but they’re not ready. Most of them have been poisoned by their upbringing in religious households. Only a few of you are suitable for the job.”
He looked over at a clock on the wall, time had passed faster than anticipated, and morning had just arrived.
“Well, our time is up. You have today to decide. At midnight the deal expires, and you return to your short existence.”
He started walking out the door, but turned around to give me one final goodbye.
“Oh, and happy birthday Mark, make sure you really enjoy this one.”
I felt exhausted after Lucifer left. I’d been given the ultimatum of my life. I grabbed a cooler full of beer from the fridge, at seven in the morning, and sat myself down on the front porch.
An hour later, and two beers down, I saw my grandfather strolling down the street, waving at me. He could see the look of defeat on my face, and sat himself down by my side.
“So, how did the chat go, you did talk to him, right?”
I just nodded my head in defeat.
“Why did you choose to stay?” I asked.
He glanced at the cooler behind me before answering.
“You got another one of those for me, kiddo?” he asked
I handed him a cold one, waiting for an explanation.
“I met your grandmother when we were just eighteen, by then my father, and his father before had both left us, so it’s safe to say I was aware of the family ‘curse,’ but though I didn’t learn exactly what happened until much later, I promised myself I’d live life to the fullest up until my time came. I figured I would just die like all the others, so imagine how relieved I was when I was actually given a choice to stay.”
He took a large sip of his beer, almost finishing it in a single gulp.
“But why would want to stay, if once we die, there’s nothing left on the other side? If nothing here matters, then what’s the point?”
“Who’s to say it doesn’t? Just because time here is limited, does that really mean it’s not important? Besides, if I have to exist in a place without your grandmother, I’d rather just cease to exist. When we got married, I promised to stay by her side forever, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.”
I looked at my granddad in admiration, eighty-three years of age, at the end of his lifespan; Yet completely carefree, in charge of his own destiny.
“What about everything else he said? About God, humanity, the place in-between?”
He looked at me for a moment, pondering his next words.
“You make your own purpose Mark, don’t you ever forget that.”
We talked until my wife woke up. She made my favourite breakfast, invite both myself and my grandad inside. She showed a genuine sense of joy, and I envied her, living life in ignorance of the horrible truth.
I smiled as we ate together, the first time since my meeting with Lucifer.
He gave me until midnight to choose, whether to stay behind, and let history wash me away, or to go with him, and forever live in the place in between, to serve in a war against God himself.
I’ll enjoy this day the best I can, after all, it might be my last.
WRITTEN BY: Richard Saxon
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