aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 37: Love That Never Told Can Be

May 13, 2017
Las Vegas

“Sinner” in Biblical Hebrew is “aval”, no doubt kabbalistically connected to our English word “evil”. The gematria value of “aval” is 106. Bishop Ussher, the Biblical chronologist who fixed Creation at 4004 BC, tells us that 106 years passed between Noah’s flood and the Tower of Babel. This is unsurprising; the decision to build a tower to Heaven out of vanity is a sinful act; thus instances of 106, the number of sinners, will appear around it.

Jane and I were eating breakfast in the Top Of The World observation deck/restaurant on the 106th floor of the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas. All around us, floor-to-ceiling glass windows presented a view of Las Vegas that would normally require a flying kayak. I wondered if Jane had contacts in Los Angeles who would retrieve her boat for her. It seemed like too wonderful an artifact to just abandon.

“So the plan,” said Jane, in between bites of crepe, “is to take the bus to Rogue Toys on the strip, which everyone says has pretty much every Beanie Baby ever made. We’ll get the purple dragon, then get out.”

She was serious. She had her luggage with her and she’d bought me a backpack. We weren’t even coming back to the hotel afterwards. We were getting that dragon and then getting the hell out of Vegas.

“Get out where?” I asked. Colorado was besieged; getting through enemy lines would be almost impossible. Were we going straight back to Los Angeles?

Jane smiled. “You’ll see,” she said. At least now her obstinate denial of information was pleasant instead of confrontational. She’d still made me sleep gagged and handcuffed to the bed last night, but she’d sounded a little apologetic about it. I was starting to hope she’d just been in a temper after the debacle at the Angel Reserve, and that she could be nice enough when she wanted to be.

Should I tell her about the Beanie Baby hidden in my Apple-Ade? Part of me wanted to abandon my suspicions and commit to working with Jane. Part of me even wanted to walk back on the the plea for help I’d given Ana, tell her that things seemed sort of under control, that I was with a genuine Coloradan who was showing me the world, luxurious hotel by luxurious hotel. But – I thought – Jane would replace her Beanie Baby at the store today anyway, and all I’d do by telling her was lose her trust. Better to let her buy a replacement, then trash the Apple-Ade bottle with her never the wiser.

A reluctance to meet Jane’s eyes drew my attention to the great glass windows. The Las Vegas Strip shone in a thousand gaudy colors. Everyone had expected that being taken over by an evil necromancer would be bad for business, but the opposite had been true. The Other King saw Las Vegas as a giant piggy bank for his arcane endeavours. He’d met with the city’s business leaders and given them a solemn promise to leave its industries entirely alone. Entirely alone, they had asked him? Entirely alone, he had answered. Since then, no building ideas had been too colossal, no form of gambling or prostitution or “adult” “entertainment” too salacious. People from all over the Untied States had been invited to come and depart unmolested, none the worse for their stay in the city of the dead save lighter pockets and a lot of explaining to do to their spouses. And if any of those visitors tried to take advantage of their gracious hosts, whether by counting cards at a blackjack table or by copping a feel of a stripper who wasn’t interested, skeletal faces in black robes would come have a talk with them, and they would never be seen in the city again. All in all a beautiful well-functioning machine, with the Other King asking nothing in exchange for such endless prosperity save a tax of twenty percent on all commerce, non-negotiable.

But the city’s seeming normality didn’t fool Jane, and it certainly didn’t fool me. I read the Strip like a kabbalistic text, symbols of evil lined up in array to those who could decipher them. There was Luxor – Egypt, Biblical Mizraim, the land of bondage. There was Caesar’s Palace – Titus Caesar who had destroyed Jerusalem, Nero Caesar of the persecutions so dire that the Book of Revelations had warned against him obliquely through the gematria value of his name, an even 666. There was MGM, the three-letter Hebrew root for “magim”, the magicians, the wielders of occult curses. There was Trump Hotel, whose etymology traced back to triumph and thence to thriambos, the orgiastic rites of the pagan gods of chaos. And there behind them all loomed Red Rock Mountain. “There is shadow under this red rock,” Eliot had written in The Waste Land. And then:

“Come in under the shadow of this red rock,
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

“Aaron Smith-Teller?” someone asked, and I turned around to see a horrible old man holding out a handful of dust.

I hadn’t seen him come in, even though he must not have been there very long. He was the opposite of all the fashionable tourists and gamblers who made up the restaurant’s other patrons; unkempt, unwashed, looking like a homeless man straight off the streets. When he spoke he almost spat. But he knew my true name. I hadn’t even told Jane my true name.

“Who are you?” I asked. Jane was watching quietly, with the intensity of something waiting to pounce.

“I’m the Drug Lord,” said the old man. When he said it I noticed the dilated pupils, the far-off look. “I have your friend, Ana Thurmond. You have a Name I want, the both of you, and since your minds are linked I can’t take it from either one alone. Come meet me as I really am, and I’ll take the Name and let both of you go unharmed. Refuse and I will kill your friend.” He poured the dust into my hand, and I realized it was ground peyote.

“How do I know you really have Ana?” I asked, before Jane could interrupt. “Ask her for some sign, something only she would know.”

The old man closed his eyes, paused for a few seconds.

“Orca the covenant.”

“DAMMIT!” I said so loud that people at neighboring tables turned to look at us.

“Okay!” said Jane. “I’ve heard enough of this!” She grabbed the old man by the wrist. “How did you find – ”

“Huh?” said the old man, his pupils snapping into focus. “What? Who are you? Where am I?” He started drooling. Jane dropped him in disgust, and he made a hasty escape. The waiter walked over to our table, started to ask if there was a problem, met Jane’s eyes, and then retreated somewhere safer.

Now Jane looked at me, all of the old mistrust back in an instant. “Explain.”

My body was ice all over. The Drug Lord had Ana Thurmond. She was going to die.

“Um,” I said, making up the fastest lie I could, “she’s a good friend and colleague of mine. She helped discover the Name that turns people invisible. I guess she must have fallen in with a bad crowd and taken peyote.”

“No,” said Jane icily. “I don’t think that’s all. He said your minds were linked. How are your minds linked, Aaron Smith-Teller?”

Frick. She knew my true name now. I knew it was silly, but kabbalists have a thing about true names.

And the stupid thing was, there was no reason not to tell her about the kabbalistic marriage. Ana had just discovered that one time, by looking at a part of the Bible nobody else was clever enough to look at. But Jane would never believe it. Nobody had two secret Names, just by coincidence. I could already see her paranoia grinding away, and if I told her there was a Sacred Kabbalistic Marriage of Minds and I knew about it, I would be done for.

“Love,” I said. “Our minds are linked by love. It’s the strongest force in the universe.”

“What?! No, that’s stupid!” Her eyes flicked to the peyote powder in my right hand. “Give me that.”

She reached for the powder. I dumped it into my pocket, stood up, took a step away from her.

“Aaron,” she said. She was trying to be quiet, not to make a scene, but there was ferocity in her voice. “Don’t be an idiot. The Drug Lord is everyone’s enemy. He can’t use Names, but he has friends who can. If he gets the Spectral Name, things get a lot worse.”

“My friend is going to die!”

“People die all the time!”

“Not Ana! She’s never died at all!”

“Aaron, you are being foolish. Give me the peyote.”

So I ran.

Jane ran after me, and I knew I couldn’t beat her. I spoke the Avalanche Name, shattering a window, creating a portal to the open air. Then I jumped off the one hundred and sixth floor of the Stratosphere Tower.

For a second, I just hung there, stupidly, feeling the air rush around me and seeing the skyscrapers of Las Vegas grow closer and closer below. Then I spoke the Ascending Name and slowed my descent. I watched Jane jump from the same window, a black dot above me, growing closer and closer.

If this had all happened two days ago, it would have ended there. Instead, I spoke the Airwalker Name and started walking away.

Jane spoke the Ascending Name and hovered, her mouth open with disbelief as she watched me walk off. “How are you doing that?” I didn’t answer.

She hung there, helplessly, almost pitifully at first, and then all at once her rage came back to her. “You idiot! What are you doing? You can’t give the Drug Lord what he wants! I’m sorry about your girlfriend, Aaron! Really! I am! But he’s a monster, Aaron! You don’t know what he is! He’ll kill us all! Whatever he wants from you, he can’t have it! Aaron! Stop!”

I didn’t even look back at her, just kept walking through the air. I muttered the Spectral Name and went invisible, then walked a mile or so down the strip. A big gold monolith gleamed in front of me. Trump Tower. When I came to it, I lowered myself down until my feet touched the roof.

There I was. Finally free.

Sort of. I scooped up the peyote from my pocket. There was no better place to take it. Erica had taken peyote once, and she told me the only safe way was to do it on top of a skyscraper. You’d use the Ascending Name to go up, then again to go down when you were finished. But while you were drugged, you were trapped. The Drug Lord couldn’t speak the Names; not himself, not through the humans he was possessing. If you took peyote on the ground, as likely as not you’d make a beeline to the nearest drug dealer, get more peyote, redose before you started coming off it, and never be free again. If you took it atop a skyscraper, you could experiment, feel what it was like to be occupied by something infinitely larger than yourself, but not give your possessor any opportunity to extend his claim. The Drug Lord, for his part, seemed to go along with the plan; there was no point in making people jump off skyscrapers when they might become useful later. Yes, Erica had told me, taking peyote on a skyscraper was totally safe.

Except that in my case none of it mattered. It had taken me a moment, but when Jane had talked about how the Drug Lord couldn’t use Names, I’d figured out his angle. He couldn’t use Names because he didn’t have a human soul. If he could get a human soul, he could use Names. He wouldn’t just be a single consciousness occupying millions of supernaturally determined bodies. He would be a single consciousness occupying millions of supernaturally determined bodies, every one of which could recite the Names of God and call flame and terror down from the heavens on demand. The whole War on Drugs had been built on our only advantage: we could use Names and he couldn’t. He was stuck using obsolete technology subject to the vagaries of Uriel’s machinery; we could field whole legions of kabbalists.

Unless I let him have the Vital Name. Then his teeming multiplicity would overpower our helpless armies. He would overrun Royal Colorado, Texas, the California Republic, and the rest of the Untied States.

I’ve always thought of myself as a pragmatic person. When Caiaphas says in John 11 that “better one man should die for the good of the people than let the whole nation be destroyed,” I always nodded along. However tragic a single death, surely a million deaths are a million times worse. And sacrificing a person to save an entire continent should have been the easiest decision I’d ever made.

The problem was, things that make perfect sense when you’re talking about people you don’t know who have been dead for two thousand years become a lot harder when you’re talking about people you love.

I thought of my last conversation with Ana. “Do you need rescuing?” she’d asked me. “I think I might,” I’d answered, even though my situation was far less dire than hers was now. And she hadn’t dithered, or complained, or told me that she had problems of her own. Just said she would get off at the next port. She would risk her life for me willingly, happily. I had dragged her into this mess, screwed up everything, and she’d stuck by me. I pulled at the telepathic link. Nothing. She was somewhere far away.

I started crying. I loved Ana. I knew she knew it, but I’d never told her. And I wouldn’t, even if everything worked out well, even if we spent a thousand years together. Everything came rushing back to me. Her in her white dress, telling us about the Book of Job, always doubting, always wondering. Why evil? Why the Drug Lord? Why a universe at all? Why am I in this position? I screamed at her, across the dinner table in Ithaca. What am I supposed to do? What is God’s plan? Does He even have one? If there is providence in the fall of a sparrow, how come we, who are more valuable than many sparrows, get flung around in darkness, with no hint of a way out anywhere? I wished Ana were here, so I could ask her. That just made it worse.

I saw her, sitting next to me as Erica stood behind the podium in our basement. “Once to every man and nation,” Erica was reciting, “comes the moment to decide, in the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side.” Fuck you! I shouted at imaginary Erica. Sure, that’s easy for you to say, just do GOOD and avoid EVIL. That works really well in the real world, doesn’t it? What are you even at? Imaginary Erica just answered “They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.”

We like to think of ourselves as weighing various causes and considerations upon the scale of philosophy, then choosing whichever side carries the most weight. Maybe we even do, sometimes, for the little things. That moment, atop Trump Tower, I threw everything I had onto the scale, saw it land again and again in favor of hurling the peyote into the street and walking away, and again and again I knew I wouldn’t.

I looked down. Las Vegas hummed beneath me. There on the side of the building was a giant golden ‘T’. T for tav. The last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The letter of apocalypse. Jesus was crucified by being nailed to a lowercase T; there beneath me was an uppercase one, ready to finish what he started. Fitting, just like everything else.

I threw out the whole scale, weights and all, and I focused on that one sentence. They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin. Well, of course they do. And dooming the world for the sake of a friend – even a friend who was my weird Platonic sort-of-girlfriend except we were just friends and I wasn’t supposed to call her that, a bond stronger than death – wasn’t just making compromise with sin, it was forfeiting the whole game to Sin, handing over everything, giving up. But agreeing to let Ana die, and running away from this place, getting the Vital Name back, building an empire, and living happily ever after in exchange for nothing but the one insignificant little life of my best friend – that seemed like a compromise with sin. Which was of course the total opposite of how I was supposed to interpret the passage. But then, it is not in Heaven.

I remembered something abominably stupid I had said just a day before. “My dream is to become the new Comet King”. God Most High! Had I forgotten what happened to the last Comet King? I realized then that of course this was how all of this ended, that by that phrase alone I had set this kabbalistically in motion and now I had nothing to do but to play it out to the bitter end.

I thought of all the things I could say to excuse my decision. My father had abandoned my mother and me; now I was horrified at the thought of abandoning others. My telepathic bond to Ana made me especially sensitive to her suffering. The Talmud said that to save one life was equivalent to saving the world, and to end one life was equivalent to ending the world, so really it was evenly balanced either way and I might as well do what I felt like.

None of them rang true. The truth was, I wasn’t the Comet King. I was a scared twenty-two year old boy. I knew everything about everything in the Bible, and in the end it all paled before the weight of Romans 7:19 – “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.”

I swallowed the peyote before my better side could talk me out of it.

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