“Where do you stand?” The voices echoed in my head, pounding like a jackhammer.
I took a breath and shouted at the top of my lungs, “I stand with my family!” No sound came out. I gasped for air as pain shot through my body. My head, my chest, down to my legs. Every dose of chemo, every spinal tap, every blood draw, and injection; the pain rippled like electricity. I figured this must be what it felt like to be put to death by lethal injection.
I grabbed at my guts as I felt my knees collapse from under me. But as my hands touched my stomach I felt blood, lots of blood. And organs. Oh God. My body was tearing open. My heart was racing, my vision was becoming blurry, but around me, I could hear the sounds of combat. Swords clashed, flames roared, screams and cries could be heard in all directions. “I stand with my family,” the words choked in my throat. I didn’t care if I lived or died but I needed to know my family would survive.
“Azzy… Olivia… Lucas…” I closed my eyes and felt a rush of energy. When my eyes opened, I saw that I, my wife, my sister, and my son were in a different part of the cave. There were small bursts of light coming from cracks in the ceiling, but I was only certain of our situation when a bolt of lightning cut across the sky, raining down a river of glowing crystals.
“Now it’s a fair fight.” My sister landed on two feet, like a superhero, holding her golden arm in front of her face like a Spartan shield. With her dark hair and soft features she looked, for a moment, like Wonder Woman. Then, with a wave of her golden arm, green wings burst from her back: wings made of sugarcane. “Yes, Azzy, these are Remy’s wings. Your bodyguard is gone and soon you will share his fate- demon queen!”
My visions cleared enough to allow me to see Olivia tackle my wife. Azzy brushed her long black hair from her face, revealing her rage. My wife was bleeding from her forehead and lip. “Remy’s gone? You did me a favor.” Both women appeared to be glowing, wings made of branches and raptor-like claws. “He meant nothing to me!”
Their new forms were the physical embodiment of pure rage. It was painfully clear, things were about to get so much worse. I needed to find Lucas. My vision was fading in an out, accompanied by a horrific migraine, but with the light of the crystals, I could see my son cowering in a corner. I quickly limped to his side. “It’s OK, everything is going to be OK.” For once I could hear the sound of my own voice. Not that I believed the words coming out of my mouth. The ceiling was shaking, and the falling chunks of rock and were becoming larger- we were going to be buried alive.
“Papa, I’m scared.”
I held Lucas close, shielding his body from falling debris. I could feel his tears on my skin.
“I’m sorry, Papa.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for.”
“I’m sorry I said Uncle Remy was my real Papa. I don’t love Uncle Remy, I love you.”
“I love you too.” I held Lucas in my arms, as the battle raged on. I knew I was forcing his face into my blood covered chest but I didn’t care. I couldn’t let him see his mother and aunt as monsters. There was light coming from somewhere above. If I could figure out where we were I could make another portal. There had to be someplace safe to escape to.
My hopes were dashed when Olivia slammed Azzy into the ceiling causing a fracture to form. The source of light had been a massive fire from the level above us. Bodies rained down from the opening. Some were charred beyond recognition, others were in pieces.
“Watch out!” Olivia shouted. She had the courtesy to send a bolt of electricity my way so I wouldn’t be crushed by falling body parts.
I ducked as a severed foot narrowly missed my head. The situation was hopeless. The world was going to end, all I could do was try to give Lucas some level of comfort before our eventual deaths.
“Papa,” he said. His sweet little voice muffled under my chest.
“I can feel your heart. It’s so warm.” He moved his head to look up.
Looking into his eyes, I could tell, in that moment he was no longer afraid.
I knew what I had to do. Maybe it was stupid and would make no difference or maybe this was what was meant to happen. “Lucas, I need you to close your eyes and give me big hug.” I placed my hand over my son’s cheek. I could feel the softness of his face next to the bones of my ribs.
Could I even do this? Even with how broken my body was, there was no way I could break my own ribs. Slowly I stood up, making sure to move Lucas’s head a reasonable distance away from my chest.
“Keep your eyes closed.” I could feel him bury his face into my hip. I stroked his hair as I waited for the right moment. When I saw a piece of rock falling I pushed him out of the way and dove under it, allowing the mass to hit me square in the chest.
Lucas screamed, then so did Azzy and Olivia. But I paid them no mind.
With my ribs broken, I reached my hand in my chest. I bypassed my lungs, which were filling with blood, to my heart and I gave it one hard tug. Time stood still, then just as quickly my world went dark. I felt no pain, no joy, no hope- I felt nothing. “Azzy? Are you there?” The words echoed in my head. I had no voice, no throat, no mouth.
“I’m here,” her voice echoed through the void, sounding as beautiful as any angel. “And I always will be.”
“We were never meant to have it all,” I said, either to myself or out loud. I was dead and from where I stood, it seemed that I would be stuck in purgatory for the rest of eternity. “All the way back from Adam and Eve- humans were never meant to surpass God.” And much like Adam and Eve, we appear to have royally pissed off the creator of the universe.
“I know, but I had to try,” her voice was breaking. “I love you so much.”
“I love you too. Until the end of time.” I didn’t know what would happen next. I was expecting to see a bright light, maybe even my parents. Seeing Remy or Jamie would have been preferable to the sudden sensation I felt ripple through my core.
I heard a roar, like an earthquake or a tidal wave. In the darkness I couldn’t feel anything; I had no body, no limbs- nothing to move out of the way, no way to run. The caterpillar, the mass of undead souls- was heading straight at me.
The impact hit like a freight train. I felt hands, nails, cold breath, but no pain. This was what was meant to happen. I needed to control it, to become one- to sacrifice my soul.
“Johnny, Johnny. Yes Papa?” The demonic voice was Azzy’s father, reciting the mocking nursery rhyme. “Eating sugar?”
“No Papa!” He was accompanied by a chorus of other voices; old, young, male, female.
“No Papa!” The voices were laughing.
“Open…” Azzy’s father’s demonic voice felt abnormally close. “Your…” I could feel his pulse, his heartbeat. “Mouth.”
I could feel his breath, searing hot. The heat was growing, like a portal, I felt like I was being pulled into hell. Is this what all of the victims of the caterpillar experienced? This was what I deserved. This would make things right.
“I don’t think so,” Remy’s calm, surfer, voice echoed behind me. “We have places to be and people to see.”
“Remy?” I felt multiple pairs of hands pulling me upward, away from the darkness into a bright heavenly light.
When we were high enough, Remy, who was also being carried by angels, kicked the darkness. “Johnny, tell your sister to give me back my wings.”
“Are you dead?” I asked. I could still see Remy’s body. He looked the same as he always did, with his long hair and paint covered sweatpants.
“I’m a demon. I can’t exactly cross over.”
“Why do you think Azzy was so pissed about losing you?”
“Oh.” Would I truly never see my family again? I looked down at my body. Slowly I was materializing back into my familiar skin. “What am I?”
“Whatever they need you to be.” Remy landed on a cloud surface and knelt before a glowing light. “Whatever we were meant to be.”
‘What am I meant for? What is my purpose?’
“Jonathan Villanueva or Johnny V,” chuckled the voice in the light. “You’ve always held a special place in my collection, for a human.”
“Um, thanks?” I had just watched him speak to Remy, my wife’s half-demon bodyguard and childhood friend, who died alongside me. For Remy, the light flickered, transforming him from a muscular surfer to a small reptile. It might have been a large insect, I only saw the silhouette for less than a second before he was dropped through the floor, back to earth (presumably…)
I could only wonder what this entity had in store for me.
“So, do you want to go back?”
“Go back as what?” I was curious if I would get to select my fate.
The voice laughed. “Oh? Johnny V has conditions? Are you saying you wouldn’t be willing to return as a spider or a cockroach if it meant watching over your wife and child? I thought your family was everything to you?”
His mocking tone was a little annoying but I knew better than to piss him off. “It is. I apologize for my disrespect. If you are offering, I would very much like to return to earth. I wish to know the fate of my family.” I also wanted to know the fate of Azzy’s army and the caterpillar.
“It is done.”
The floor opened and I fell through at light speed. When I awoke I felt normal, human. I had a body, my body. And I was wearing hospital scrubs? Looking around I was in a locker room with cots.
“You’re finally here!” Remy sat up from a cot brushing his long hair from his face. “The big guy has one twisted sense of humor.”
“I figured as much, how you do explain the platypus?” I said with a smile. I was just happy to be alive. This really didn’t seem like such a bad fate.
“You won’t be laughing when you learn the full extent of how the Lord All Mighty screwed us over.”
“It can’t be that bad. God is love, God works in mysterious ways.”
“Rainbow!” cried Lucas’s little voice from the hallway directly outside the open door. “Mommy, I found Rainbow!”
My heart warmed at the sight of my son. He was taller, with a slimmer face, but still adorably innocent. I was left to wonder, How much time had passed- and who or what was Rainbow?
“Get a load of this,” Remy muttered. As Remy stepped into the hallway to meet Lucas, his body transformed into that of a pink lizard with chubby cheeks. He looked like an axolotl but not like any axolotl I’d ever seen. He had rainbow-colored gills and a rainbow-striped tail. The only reason I knew it was Remy was it’s green, sugarcane-like wings.
“Oh my God.” I covered my mouth to keep from laughing.
“F**k off,” Remy (or Rainbow) muttered. Its voice sounded like an adorable little hiss.
Lucas picked up the creature and bopped it on the nose. “No, Rainbow! No bad words!”
Azzy rolled her eyes as she appeared in a red suit dress. “So, now Rainbow is cursing?” Suddenly, her eyes locked with mine. “Johnny?”
“You see Papa?” Lucas asked, his eyes darted around as he squeezed Rainbow.
“You don’t see him?”
“Well, you don’t see Rainbow! Maybe Papa is YOUR imaginary friend!” Lucas said in a mocking tone.
“You really don’t see him?” Azzy’s voice was laced with sadness.
I smiled. “And you don’t see a pink lizard with rainbow fins and a miniature version of Remy’s wings?” Before she could answer I cupped her face and kissed her beautiful lips.
Tears flowed down her cheeks. “Are you here to stay?”
“Honestly, I don’t know what the plan is, but I promise I will do all that I can to stay with you.”
Azzy nodded, wiping tears from her eyes. “So Remy got turned in to a pink lizard?”
“With rainbow fins. I wish you could see.”
“So, what are you doing here? This is Beloit Hospital, right?” I recognized the pale yellow color the of hallways.
Azzy pursed her lips. “I’m on a tour. I’m actually-” she motioned at the badge on her lanyard.
“You’re the new hospital administrator?”
“Let’s just say I won the title in a game of chance.”
“What do you do here?”
“Admin stuff; payroll, legal. I-I wondered why I was put here, now I know.”
She was put here? What did that mean? Olivia appeared from around the opposite corner wearing a white business suit. “Azzy, what’s the holdup? Everyone’s waiting.”
“Auntie Livy!” Lucas shouted. “I found Rainbow!” He lifted the axolotl’s adorable face.
My sister burst into laughter. “Um. Hello, um. ”Rainbow”,” it was clear she knew it was Remy, “So nice to meet you.”
If she could see Remy, maybe she could see me as well. “Hey, Sis.”
“Hey,” she replied with an emotional whisper. “You look good.” She turned back to Azzy. “I’ll tell the rest of the group to go on without you. Take as much time as you need.” Olivia gave me one last smile as she took Lucas’s hand leading him and Rainbow away down the hall.
“You have questions,” Azzy said as soon as we were alone.
“You can have three.”
“So you can focus on what’s most important. And because I don’t know how long we have together.”
“Fair enough. My first question: are you and Olivia friends now?”
Azzy answered with an irritated sigh. “Olivia is my Intergalactic Heavenly Parole Officer.”
“She’s been assigned by the man in the glowing light to keep me on the path of righteousness.”
“And what about the caterpillar?”
Azzy simply shrugged.
“You draw power from it. Or at least you did. Either it’s been destroyed or…”
Azzy grabbed me by the neck, shoving me into the locker room. “It’s mine: I may have lost the battle but I will not surrender my sword. The caterpillar, in all its glory, is safely hidden- but as far as you, Lucas, and especially Olivia are concerned- it’s been destroyed.”
My blood ran cold. “Ok… but I get one more question.”
Azzy released my neck. “Yes, you do.”
“Do you still love me?”
Azzy took a step back, possibly realizing her aggression. She reached out a hand to touch my face. “Always. In fact, I’ll even give you another question.”
I pulled my wife close. As I kissed her cheek, I could smell the sweet vanilla of her shampoo. “Do I look like myself?”
“You’re not a pink lizard, as far as I can see.” Azzy traced her ring finger down my jawline, to my collar.” I might need a more thorough examination.” She locked the door and kissed me with a raw passion I had not been expecting.
But once I found my footing, we made love against the lockers, our energies merging into one. She wrapped her legs around me and I felt human; I had a body, a mind, a soul. And I had Azzy, I had my family.
Azzy and I slept in a cot. The next morning we awoke to someone putting a key int he door. Azzy quickly adjusted her shirt and skirt, as she stood up. “Hello?”
“Mommy?” Lucas answered. “Aunt Livy said you slept at the hospital by yourself?”
“I’m so sorry, sweetie. I was just a little lonely. Where is Olivia?”
“She’s outside talking to Rainbow.”
The pink lizard entered the room followed by Olivia. “Good morning Azzy. Why don’t you take Lucas to the cafeteria to get some breakfast while I have a hold a very special meeting with our invisible friends?”
“Sure,” Azzy muttered, knowing she had no choice in the matter, “Come on Lucas, let’s get something to eat.”
As soon as they were gone Remy transformed back into his human form. “I can’t believe I’m going to be stuck as an axolotl for all of eternity!” He ran his fingers through his long hair as he took a seat on a bench.
“At least you have your wings back,” I chuckled.
“Funny,” Remy said as he laid his exhausted body down. “I’m a f*****g pet! I don’t even have a- screw it!- I need some sleep.”
Olivia started to giggle. “Rainbow is a female axolotl. Anyway, I need to explain to both of you how this is going to work.”
“How what is going to work?” I asked.
“Your assignment, you don’t think the big guy sent you back because he likes you.”
“I kind of thought he did. He said I was special.”
“All of God’s creations are special. Even Remy,” she said, poking him in the side.
Remy flipped his middle finger. “Your boss can shove his assignment up his holy-”
“My orders come directly from God but my direct supervisor is Jamie.”
Her words caused Remy to sit up. He pulled his knees to his chest. “Fine- speak.”
“Your assignment is simple. Working as a team you two will make sure that neither Azzy nor Lucas turn evil- for lack of a better term.”
“What do you mean Lucas?” I asked. “He’s just a kid.”
“So was Michael Myers.”
“You’re comparing my son to the killer in the Halloween movies?”
“That’s the issue; he’s not your son, he’s Remy and Azzy’s son. Lucas is a good kid, he’s creative, smart- but he also carries not one but two royal demon bloodlines.”
I sighed. “So what’s the plan?”
“You have probably noticed where you are; Beloit Memorial. This was Jamie’s hospital; he was a nurse here, but he was also a guardian. You live here now, you can never leave this hospital.”
“What?” My hands were trembling as I spoke. “Jamie lived in his mother’s house, he was able to leave! He was able to have a life!”
“He earned it. And you can too. When you exit this room you will exist as an actual doctor. No one will know who you are or where you live- only that you are one of the best doctors in the country. Your job is to bring hope to the hopeless.”
“Ok, I understand.”
“Remy will be your eyes on the outside. He is allowed to leave the hospital but only in the form of Rainbow, Lucas’s imaginary friend.”
Remy groaned as he made his way to a cot to officially fall asleep.
“I think I can handle that,” I said with a smile. “There are worse ways to spend eternity.” I guess this is the end of my story- for now.