Her name was Cara and I got to her first, was there to see the first drop of blood spill onto the pavement. I cradled her head and ripped off my sweater to press against her temple when I saw the deep gash left by her seatbelt. I listened to her moan about her children in the backseat; apparently, their names were Harmony and Caden. Her greatest concern seemed to be for their safety, even though she was the one lying in the heap of heavy metal that used to be her car. Her children weren’t there, of course. Her anxiety for them was futile. When I glanced at the shredded fabric that used to be the backseat, all I saw were some trace scraps of clothing and a pink portable music player.
I put my arms around her and murmured a few generic words of comfort, but what Cara really needed in that moment was medical attention. Well, medical attention and a person to administer it.
Adrian came to us under the pretense of bringing relief. I saw a dark shadow looming overhead and glanced up, hoping to see a paramedic but thankful at least that I wasn’t alone anymore. He knelt next to me and opened a backpack.
“What happened to her? Where’s the worst of it?” he asked calmly.
I gestured to her forehead. “That cut is the deepest. It needs to be covered.”
His steady hands moved Cara’s hair aside so he could examine the wound. He winced. “Ouch, poor thing,” he murmured sympathetically. He pulled out a bottle of antiseptic fluid and a white bandage and handed both to me.
“Can you…?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
I took the supplies from him and started to clean the cut.
He leaned in close to her and spoke softly. “Can you remember what happened?”
Cara blinked back tears and yelped when the astringent touched a particularly sensitive area. “There was a car crash,” she said. “All of a sudden, my car… it was up in the air. And my children…” She put a hand to her mouth and her shoulders shook. “I looked in the backseat and they weren’t there.” She grabbed his shoulders. “Where are they?” she cried. “Where could they have gone?”
He just shook his head, and his expression was as mournful as they come. He looked around at the mess of ruined cars surrounding us. “Doesn’t look like you’re the only one asking that.”
Cara’s eyes scanned the area, and it was true that dozens of people were wandering around aimlessly, calling the names of loved ones.
“What happened?” When she spoke this time, she sounded less frantic and more suspicious.
I continued to dress her wound. There would be time to explain later. I would help Cara back to her home, ensure she had a hot meal to eat, assist her in contacting relatives that may still be here, and tell her that her children were in a better place. A place filled with brilliant light and endless hope.
This teenage boy—though obviously helpful in times of crisis—couldn’t possibly have an explanation for what happened. He’d probably seen enough movies to have a guess as to why half the world’s population was now missing, but neither alien invasions nor solar flares was the answer. I was shocked, then, to see him smile confidently at Cara and reply:
“Are you a religious person?”
She frowned. “What? You mean, like, do I believe in God?”
My hand paused in wrapping the gauze around her head as I waited to see where he’d go with this.
He nodded amicably and took out a soda. Popping the top for her, he handed it over. “Yeah.”
Cara took a long swallow from the can. “Thank you,” she said appreciatively. She furrowed her eyebrows. “I mean, yeah, I guess so. I don’t know. What does that have to do with my kids?”
“Actually, everything.” His voice grew marginally more bitter, but his eyes stayed friendly.
Cara glanced at me skeptically. I wanted to say something, but couldn’t tear my focus away from the boy. His expression told me that—somehow—he knew exactly what had happened on earth this morning and he couldn’t wait to share his knowledge.
“You’ve heard of the second coming of Christ, right?” he asked her.
Cara paused, then rolled her eyes. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.” She started to adjust herself, and pulled in her knees in preparation to stand up. “Listen, kid, I don’t have time for this. I need to find my babies.”
I put my hand over hers. “I want to help you,” I said. “Please let me help you find them.” The last thing Cara needed to hear right now was that she could search to the ends of the earth for her children, but would never see them again as long as she was alive.
The boy gave me an odd look. “You won’t find them.” He placed a hand on Cara’s thigh and squeezed lightly. The intimate gesture made her freeze.
“What are you doing?”
If he was offended by the curt question, he didn’t show it. He just smiled gently and kept his hand on her leg.
“Cara, I want to help you.” He tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and leaned in so their faces were only inches apart. “I mean, really help you… not just give you false hope.” He spared me a brief look, and it was full of loathing. I swallowed and felt a chill run down my spine.
Cara’s eyes were locked on his. “What do you mean?” Her voice was faint.
“Listen, there have been wackjobs preaching for decades that God would come back to take his chosen ones to heaven. End-of-the-world-type stuff. Armageddon, yada yada.” He gave her an impish smile and rolled his eyes.
She nodded. “Okay… yeah. I’ve seen the billboards. Preachers make these crazy predictions on when the world will end, but it never happens.”
He winked at her. “Well, eventually, one of them has to be right.”
She sighed. “What are you saying?”
“Look around you,” he said. “Turn on a radio and listen. Go on Facebook. The world is in chaos. This isn’t just happening here, and it’s not just your children that are missing. People everywhere have disappeared.”
My jaw dropped open. He knew everything.
“And you’re saying God took them?” Cara looked at him in disbelief, but the question was serious.
He cocked his head and stroked her cheek once, affectionately. “I’m saying the bastard has made it pretty clear that he would do exactly this one day, and I think that it makes a good explanation for what’s happened.”
She flinched at the derogatory word. “Why are you telling me this?”
He looked like he was confused by the question. “Didn’t you want to know what happened to your kids?” he asked.
Cara shook her head. “I don’t take my children to church… they’ve never even been baptized. If what you’re saying is true, they wouldn’t be his ‘chosen ones’.”
A huge part of me couldn’t believe she was taking him seriously. Another part of me was crestfallen that she was, and that I hadn’t been the one to share this information with her. This boy was ruining everything.
“Ah, but there’s an interesting little loophole. All children go to heaven.” He rested his hand on her leg and stared into her eyes, his expression earnest. “It’s disgusting, isn’t it?—stealing kids for your own sick pleasure.”
My eyes widened. “That’s not it at all,” I finally said. “All children are precious to the Lord. He would never punish someone who is too young to make an informed choice.”
He gave me a sharp look, and I noticed for the first time that his eyes were black as pitch. “It takes a pretty sadistic son-of-a-bitch to punish parents, then, by taking their kids.”
Cara was crying now, and her shoulders hunched. “Please stop,” she whimpered. “I just want to find my kids. I have to. My babies need me.”
She was almost off the ground before he tugged her down again.
“You’re not listening,” he said, his voice fighting to stay neutral.
“And you’re not making sense,” she shot back. “You’re sitting here spouting stuff about God and then cutting him down in the same breath. You obviously don’t believe in him, either.”
His look was patronizing. “Only an idiot wouldn’t believe in God,” he said seriously. “I can tell you with all the authority in the world that he does exist.” He dragged in a slow breath. “And this type of shit is what he’s known for: grandiose ‘miracles’ meant to shock and awe, but that serve no one but himself.” He turned to look at me. “Know thy enemy,” he said in a soft voice.
“God is not your enemy,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “People are suffering right now, yes, but because of the choices they’ve made.”
Cara jerked her head toward me, her eyes lighting with fury. “You’re saying my babies chose to be taken from me?”
The boy stared at me with blatant disapproval and put his arm around Cara’s shoulders.
“Of course not,” I sputtered, trying to find the words. “Cara, this is much bigger than some deity making the random decision to kidnap a bunch of people.” I looked at the boy. “You don’t understand what you’re talking about. You’re angry—I understand that—but this isn’t God’s fault.”
“I’m angry because people like you are intent on brainwashing the rest of us,” he spat out. “People are suffering and there is a clear explanation of what’s causing their grief, but you can’t accept it.”
“Those who are suffering can ease their pain by aligning themselves with God. He brings comfort to those who are hurting,” I said feebly.
He clicked his tongue and made a show of looking all around us at the mass destruction. “Right. I can see that,” he said sarcastically.
“It’s not like I’m a bad person,” Cara protested. “If any of this is true, why would God punish people like me? Shouldn’t he be more concerned with murderers and rapists?” She frowned at us and bit her lower lip. “I mean, why do you think you’re still here?”
I couldn’t tell her that my reason for being here was to save people just like her. I knew that every person I met from here on out would present an uphill battle; they were all nonbelievers and would need the right mixture of truth and love to be persuaded that my Father’s path was the one to follow.
Of course, he had a snarky response ready. “Got me. I’ve only killed a few people—nothing major.” His boyish grin was charming, and Cara actually laughed.
She looked at me. “Do you buy any of this?”
I took a deep breath. “Not the way he’s selling it,” I said honestly.
“Adrian,” he interjected. “I have a name.”
I refused to look at him. “Cara, God doesn’t pick and choose who spends eternity with Him based on how good of a person one is. Everyone has fallen short in His eyes, but those who have chosen to follow Him were taken home to be with Him. That much is true.”
Her face went pale. “And what? The rest of us are just left here to suffer?”
Adrian snickered. “Isn’t your god supposed to be loving and kind?”
“And just,” I reminded him.
“How is that just?” Cara burst out. “I’m only thirty-two years old! How could I possibly have all the answers right now? I know my children are supposed to believe in something; I want them to have a strong faith someday, but I don’t even know which religion is right for me, let alone them.” She started to talk faster, her hands gesturing angrily. “That’s what the rest of my life is for—figuring stuff like that out!”
“Absolutely,” Adrian agreed. “No one should be punished for continuing to search for answers. If God expects you to follow him blindly, then he’s just looking for mindless droids.” He shuddered.
Cara nodded fervently. “Exactly! That’s what I always tell my in-laws. I might get there someday, but right now there are too many things that can’t be explained when it comes to God.” She threw up her hands. “I mean, if this is all true and there is a God somewhere just snatching people away, then he’s really a jerk to do it without any warning. At least give people a chance to choose either way.”
My heart hurt when I thought about how long my Father had been warning people of this day, and how Cara herself had already had thirty-two years to make her choice.
Adrian smiled. “Believe it or not, Cara, you already have made a choice.”
My eyes narrowed suspiciously at the words that were eerily similar to what I’d just been thinking.
“That you’re still here is proof of the choice you made,” he continued.
“But that can be changed,” I said quickly. “Cara, you have a chance to follow God now. You can make this right.”
“But why would you do that?” he countered. “So you can just disappear, too? How do you even know for sure where all these people ended up, Cara? Where your children ended up? How do you know they won’t come back? And if you’re gone…”
Five minutes ago, he’d been the one to plant the idea in her mind that people were taken to heaven, and now he sounded completely doubtful.
Cara’s discomfort showed on her face. “I need to go home,” she said quietly. “Thank you for helping me, but I need to call my husband. I need to make sure he’s okay.”
I heard the wail of sirens as a barrage of policemen and paramedics arrived on the scene.
Adrian put his hand on the back of her neck and massaged the area lightly. “You should also go to the hospital and get checked out,” he suggested.
She stretched her arms out in front of her. “I actually feel pretty okay,” she said. “Surprisingly.” She looked at her car and gave a short laugh. “I feel like I should be dead right now.”
Adrian grinned. “I’d be happy to make that happen for you.”
My throat went dry and I stared at him in shock. Cara’s expression was just mildly amused; it was as if she knew the words he’d said were all wrong but she didn’t believe him, anyway.
“You’ve already made the most important decision you’ll ever have to make,” he reasoned. “And there’s nothing you can do to change it at this point. Your children are gone, any faith you might have had is shaken, and the world is in an uproar.” His eyes were wide and gentle, his voice soft and soothing. “Is there really a reason to go on living?” He ran his fingers through her hair and curled his hand around the back of her head. The gesture was warm, but it was also a way to lock her eyes on his.
I expected Cara to come up with a colorful and slightly obscene response to that, but she seemed utterly fixated by his words. “I… don’t know…” she faltered.
“Cara, don’t listen to him,” I urged. “You can figure this out. I can help you. Together we can make sense of this—we can make it right.”
She didn’t even glance in my direction.
“Tell you what,” he said, playing with a few strands of her hair. “You’ve been through so much today—let me help make the decision easier for you.” He used his other hand to hold hers. “Can I do that for you, Cara? Can I ease the burden for you?”
She just stared at him, melting into his gaze. “Okay,” she whispered. “Thank you.”
He kissed her softly on the cheek. “My pleasure.”
Overwhelming dread welled up in me like a rush of water against a dam. Suddenly I wanted to be anywhere but here. My breath came in fast pants and I felt like I was on the verge of a panic attack.
Adrian’s hands came to settle on her throat, and he caressed the skin there gently.
With as much force as one might use to crack an egg, Adrian flashed me a smile brimming with contempt, then jerked Cara’s head to the left in one quick motion, effectively snapping her neck.
“No!” I screamed. “What did you do?!”
Cara’s body went limp in his arms. Now that he no longer required her attention, Adrian made a disgusted expression and tossed her off of him. Her head smacked the pavement without any awareness on her part.
He wiped his hands on his jeans and grabbed his backpack. “I think you know,” he said, his lips curling into a small smile.
My eyes wheeled wildly; my mouth refused to close. “You—you just—you killed her.”
He held up his hands in innocence. “It’s how I roll.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cara’s spirit lift from her physical form. I glanced over at her and we only made eye contact for a moment before she was engulfed by flames. I started to dry heave.
“Hell. You can say it.” His eyes pierced mine.
“No, I can’t,” I murmured, miserable. “I can’t believe this is happening.” I buried my head in my hands. “I can’t believe you did that.”
“Well, I can’t take all the credit,” he said pleasantly. “You made that entirely too easy for me, though I do appreciate it. You’re a real angel,” he smirked.
The tips of my fingers began to tremble. I despised feeling so ignorant, but it was proving impossible to feel any other way around Adrian. Everything he said seemed to carry a double meaning.
“Interesting word choice,” I said evenly.
His sneer stayed firmly in place. “Well, you’re an interesting creature,” he remarked. He managed to make the phrase sound both complimentary and critical. “I thought you all were supposed to have a bit more fight in you.” He shrugged. “But you pretty much fed that one right into my hands.”
“Who all?” I snapped.
“Uh… angels?” He raised an eyebrow, as if I were the one being unclear right now.
I blinked rapidly several times and tried to get my bearings. There was no reason for him to know as much as he did. I was made of flesh and bone now, just like him. There was no visible halo, no wings, no white satin gown that most people seemed to incorrectly associate with angels. Still, he knew.
“How do you know?” I asked, not even trying to cover up my identity.
Adrian tilted his head. “Are you serious?”
I waited for an answer.
He paused, considering. “I don’t know, exactly—but it’s pretty obvious. I could tell as soon as I saw you.” He scrutinized me for a second. “But I think it’s the light.” He nodded. “Yeah, definitely the light.”
“What are you talking about?”
He used his hands to demonstrate, making a vague oval shape in the air. “There’s just this light around you, I don’t know. It kind of burned my eyes at first, but it’s not that bright anymore.”
I sat up straighter, alarmed. “It burned your eyes?” I glanced at Cara’s lifeless body. “It didn’t seem to bother her.”
“Oh, come on!” he guffawed. “Are you serious?”
I blushed. “Why do you keep asking that?”
He shook his head in mock solemnity. “Devastatingly beautiful, yet not so bright—a winning combination.” He sighed. “I have to keep asking because I can’t figure out if you’re screwing with me or not, Angela.”
My brows furrowed. “Katherine.”
He stuck his hand out. “Nice to meet you, Kat.”
I ignored it. “Katherine.”
He snorted. “That’s just long for Kat.” He kept his hand in front of me. “Take it. Let understanding dawn on thee.”
I tentatively reached for his hand. When our skin touched, my fingers burst into flames—not literally, but the influx of heat was instant. I looked up at him, and immediately jumped back half a foot. Adrian no longer had eyes. Instead, there were empty black pits where his sockets were. His face peeled away to reveal a half-rotted structure of muscle and bone. I shrieked and pulled my hand free.
“Get it now?” he asked quietly.
It took me a minute before I could look at him again. When I did, he had returned to the likeness of an attractive young man, though the ashen skin and dark eyes remained. “You’re an agent of Lucifer,” I said once I could speak in a steady voice.
“Ding ding ding! We have a winner!” he sang triumphantly. He folded his arms. “I could tell who you were right away. I’m surprised you didn’t know. Although it makes more sense now why you just let that bitch go so easily.”
My face flushed in anger. “Don’t call her that!” I leaned toward him, my fists balled. “She had a family, a husband, a life, and you just ripped everything away from her!”
Adrian gripped my shoulder and pushed me away from him. “Your father took it all away from her!” he shouted. “I just put an end to her suffering.”
“You exiled her to an eternity of suffering, is more like it,” I snarled.
He rolled his eyes. “Oh, boo hoo, princess. Welcome to Earth 2.0. That’s what this is now. Your precious daddy had to start this; we’re just here to finish it.”
I felt like a cinderblock had been placed on my chest. Breathing was supposed to be an autonomic response here, but it appeared to be a near-impossible task at the moment. I knew going into this that our mission would go down in history as one of the most difficult my kind has ever had to face. I knew that all bets were off now. The same rules that previously restricted angels and demons from interfering too heavily in humans’ lives didn’t apply anymore. We were permitted to come down to save as many lives as we could; it only made sense that Adrian—and others like him—were given free reign to come up and thwart our goal.
I fixed him with a glare meant to melt the flesh off his repulsive bones. “We all know how this ends.”
“Maybe,” he replied, sounding bored, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun in the meantime. There are over three billion people left. Might as well take some of them off your hands for you.”
“Don’t start celebrating yet,” I said frostily. “That was the first—and last—person you will ever get from me.”
He rubbed his hands together in excitement. “There you go—there’s some of that fighting spirit I was talking about.” He grinned. “May the best team win.”
“You’re sick,” I said, disgusted. “This isn’t a game. Lives hang in the balance.”
“One less life now, thanks to you.” He sounded calm and collected, as if pacifying an impatient child. “Word of advice for the future: you might want to work on your closing argument. Blaming the victim for her current circumstance doesn’t usually go over well.”
Tears pooled in my eyes when he said that. I immediately resented allowing him to make me feel so weak, but that comment stung. To him, Cara was just a trophy. To me, her death signaled the loss of a life my Father had meticulously created and unconditionally loved.
When I said that Adrian and I met while fighting over the same woman, I should have been clearer. It was her soul we both craved.
He won; I lost. She would spend the rest of time in eternal torment and fire because of my ignorance.
Hell 1, Heaven 0.