Puke in the urinal.

What unfolded as minutes was actually probably an hour. Ian blinked hard, pushing his eyelids together with all the strength he could muster to try and wedge the nascent headache back into the corners of his skull. He was hovering in front of the urinal, all of his weight supported by the elbow on its dirty rim. The stall had been occupied when he had rushed in, his stomach giving forth its contents after a shot of what was listed as “absinthe” but tasted like hooch. It was empty now. All the blood had fled his lower half, or so it felt. Standing up was going to be a challenge, but one he had to tackle, if only to escape the ugliness of being eye-to-eye with a piss receptacle. He rose slowly and checked his balance by touching the pipe at the top of the urinal. He checked his lower back for the weight he carried and swiveled towards the door.

The crowd outside the bathroom had morphed into something else, only bits remaining from what it was before. The blonde was still bartending and her arms still bent too much when she poured the draughts. The lighting was still too low for anyone to be honest, but that was everywhere. Ian felt a burning shame as eyes must have been on him; patrons must have been wondering why this barely-held together gentleman, with his denim jacket and dark jeans wearing the faint tracks of asphalt, his hair matted with grease and his face pocked with either listlessness or anxious traveling, had been in the bathroom for such a very long time. But nobody was paying him any mind whatsoever. The border regions were in such a flux constantly that change barely registered a glancing eye or a lifted eyebrow. Nobody lived in this area, not even the folks in the ramshackle trailer parks that fell labyrinthine around the alcohol outpost, for living implied something beyond what was capable here.

The building had probably once been a VFW hall or a Knights of Columbus; somewhere older men fled from wives to try and recreate and rekindle the masculine bonding that had been so strictly regulated, neutered, and pathologized in their wider world.  Such institutions were like catching water with a sieve. The virile energies that once overthrew states and conquered matter were left to bounce around the stratosphere like fireflies; some of it could be captured and bottled by the men’s clubs with poker nights and fish fries, their bioluminescence rendered into a memento mori or an antique. Those lampyridae that evaded capture would be left to beat their brains against the borders of the sky until the concussions convinced them to pick up a rifle and walk into a church or cluster themselves amongst flesh deviants. There was still the shoddily-cleaned outline of where the club’s logo had been peeled off the back wall, gleaming out over the ramshackle tables with mismatched chairs and stools. Grease and condensation on the tabletops took what they could of the weak generator lighting and shone it back onto the walls, making one’s eyes feel like they were competing for perspective, making the bar look larger than it was.

Ian realized he had stood too long in front of the bathroom doors, recollecting the contents of the building and the changing makeup of customers. His hand hovered to his back again, out of habit or neuroses. No one yet seemed to notice or care about his being there. He considered another drink half-earnestly and chuckled to himself over exactly how terrible of an idea that would be for him at this juncture. There was still another seventy-some miles to go after this and he was, as of this afternoon, past the operating area of the ZoneZip transport buses. Any drinking should be done under the pretext of finding someone with transport who’d be willing to take him the rest of the way.

Vehicles were thankfully more ubiquitous out here, if only because the closer to the center one got in this country, the more self-reliant and distrusting the population was. A century and a half of shuttling between convenient political tool, anti-social pariah, and don’t-know-any-better yokels had evolved their suspicions of the federal government, inherent in the States’ very makeup and genesis, into a full-fledged insurrectionary joie de vivre, even before everything began to whither. When reunification was still a realistic civic talking point, it seemed as if every other day there was a sob story about some children in the mountains unable to gain access to diabetes medicine because of their village’s wariness towards the coastal medical relief teams. Other times, fear was the pernicious take-away from a given story, as reports were circulated of Christian militias shooting down drones or piking soldier heads. It wasn’t long before the Southern swamps and Midwestern plains were simply dubbed “Afghanistan” by anyone with a sardonic sense of historical literacy. That many of those doing the beheadings probably spent their formative years in that same graveyard of empires, just like their fathers and grandfathers before them, was an irony that escaped no one. Unlike the coasts, there were no internment centers here for returning soldiers to relearn their passivity and function in the social order.

“You thirsty?” a man in his forties snapped his fingers at Ian in a convivial manner. His jeans were dirtier than Ian’s and his stocky frame and leathered skin gave him the impression of someone who probably had a truck. While the sudden jovial attitude of someone in this bar, in this part of the country, felt out of place, Ian decided he may as well trust coincidence. Nodding and walking towards the man, he saw affirmation and confidence mold his eyes into something rounder than before, but instead of signaling to the bar, he swept his hand towards a door near the back where a few other people were filtering inside. Ian hesitated but remembered his prior conviction and entire reason for leaving the relative stability of the Community. Maybe it was simply a more private setting behind this inconspicuous door. Yet as he approached, he heard one speaker’s voice, and its lonely existence allowed his brain to hear the rapt attention paid to it. He entered the room, the man who extended the invitation behind him, shutting the door.

The room was small and made smaller by the 20 or so men crowded inside, even smaller by the wide-ring that was given to the speaker as he languidly paced and spoke, his hands full of expression. Short but incredibly large in his voice and movements, he was dressed cheaply, but in a dark grey suit that he wore elegantly, despite the age it showed on its elbows and collar. His skin was white but tinged tackily with melanin. Balding with a scar running behind his left ear, he appeared a newly-promoted general amongst men ready to charge. Happy to charge, even. Ian crossed his hands behind his back, not entirely without a sense of paranoia. He felt his pulse quicken.

“…and brothers, that’s what we need to remember: Lucifer might have been an ominous name ‘round your grandparents’ house but let’s take a look at it…look…Lucifer was the Morning Star. A star. Does that sound frightening? Not really, naw…stars used to be a big comfort back when I was a boy…but he wasn’t just the Morning Star…we’re smart people, we know how God likes those metaphors…what could the celestial, bright burnin’ flame actually be, pray tell? What’d he really mean?” He took what had to be his first breath free of the yolk.

“Angels!” from someone confident in their answer.

“Angels! Angels! Ang-els!! Lucifer was an angel of the highest order…God’s point man…the dude who could get it done.” His eyes swept behind the tail end of his words. He allowed them to dissipate for a moment before starting again. “And then the day come where God, his Master, his Beloved Father, created man…us…the ugly stepchild that cursed and fought…risen from mud and apes and prone to sickness, sloth, poetry, and perversion…and then says to the angels: bow.

“And they do, of course…God doesn’t command so much as He speaks and it is, y’know? So bow they do…but Lucifer…he can’t conceive of the concept…the concept of bowing…like, that’s the Beloved…to bow in front of anything other was something that simply wasn’t…the Lord had made him of and for self-adoration…he was an instrument for the veneration of the Ineffable…the Divine emanations from the Creation were in flux…often decline…but the flow of adoration to God? That’s constant…that don’t change.” The men were breathing in time with the preacher’s cadence and it caused the dense sweat of the room to ebb.

“So the angels gotta shoulder that remainder…that deficit of praise…and then to be asked to kneel down before the guy you’re doing all the heavy lifting for…that you’re born for? That’s discomforting…surely…and unfathomable…unfathomable to an angel like the Morning Star…he would only bow to the Holy of Holies…the One True God.” Someone clapped twice and then realized the mood wasn’t right.

“And then we all know what happens next…thus is Hell born and Lucifer resides over it…cast away from the Light and reigning in blood and rage…how ‘bout that…

“Y’know, a Turkish brother I knew back in my twenties…yeah, yeah…waaaay back in the day…back then…” he chuckled something laced with the macabre, “…back before it all happened…but I knew this Turkish fellow from the theology academy that told me of a Bible story his grandma told him…she had an old Bible that had been put together by hand…she grew up poor…you remember how it was out there from the TV and Internet…those of you old enough,” wagging his finger at a short fellow in the front, his patchy facial hair making a half-assed attempt at shielding a boy’s face.

“But Grandma had this ‘Bible’ of sorts that Yusef…the Turkish brother…said that this book had bits of the Qur’an and folktales and probably plain ol’ village lore with a few ‘Noahs’ and ‘Marys’ scattered in, all mixed in with the Gospels we know…but he said there was a story in there about Lucifer and Moses on Mount Sinai…‘cause everything happenin’ on Sinai for some reason…and Moses ask Lucifer why he did it…why disobey the Lord? And what does Lucifer…what does the Morning Star say to this?” No answer from the peanut gallery this time.

“‘It was a test!’…that’s right! A test, my friends…God had enacted a test to determine the loyalty of his subjects…and of coursem Moses…of course he says, ‘Hey…that deal seems like it didn’t work out too well, bud…seems like you failed that test!’…but Lucifer says, ‘No no, not at all, because the test isn’t over yet’…God doesn’t just demand somethin’…He creates rather than demanding…I suppose that’s a better word for it…and Creation is a pipe through which the Divine moves in self-adoration…so Creation is an act that goes both ways…so to speak…and to turn in the current of that adoration rising to the Heavens is the human equivalent to murder…to abortion…to fratricide…to suicide…impeding the Holy cycle…a cog in the machine of All That Is…” He finally fully sat back on the stool that had been merely existing as a forgetful prop behind him. Sliding his glasses off his face to give them a seemingly ineffective rub against his shirt, his next words came with an exhausted sense of wonder.

“It was ‘No.’ The first to ever be…such as one can exist in the face of the Will…Lucifer both obeyed and disobeyed God…obeyed his ‘prime directive’ so to speak…to love only the Lord…and disobeyed the Word of that exact same Lord…the closest thing to a ‘No’ possible in Creation.” The glasses back on his face, he glanced around, completely assured of the attention wrapped around him. “Brothers, how can an act be so impure and pure at once? How does a crime committed in the pursuit of purity…against purity…retain its purity?” Ian felt the remainder of absinthe in his stomach churn, its pernicious warmth causing him to shift on his heels. He hoped a conclusion to the sermon was near and a recess would be taken for the room.

“Brothers, let us pray.”

“You know, I probably spent most of my summers as a boy starin’ at stars. You’re too young for this, surely, but I grew up in the old Ohio region, ‘bout seventy miles northwest of here. Mom wasn’t crazy about phones or the satellite, so she’d put books on us or push us outdoors. Shit, I hated it at first…didn’t ever know exactly what the other kids were talking about at lunch ‘cause of it…but then Dad came back from a deployment in the Levantine Republic and he and Mom couldn’t keep their hands off each other…every kid knows if their parents are addicts, it just sometimes takes thirty years before you have the language and experience to look at that full picture and look at your dead friends and go ‘Oh, I see it now…’ So that made going outside easier, even with the heat and the ugly stillness. It was somewhere besides the hurricane indoors.

“And Dad used to say that he loved hearing the war stories from the older generations…gripping tales of courage and last resorts and teeth-grittin’, you know…and so part of me looked forward to that same thing, but Dad’s stories were…how do I put this…managerial in nature. I wasn’t enthralled by a story about a checkpoint or food lines. Sounded to me like he was a glorified cafeteria lady!” A hoarse cough ripped the end of the sentence up and Joseph sucked hard on his cigarette, the gap in his lips emitting a barely audible whistle. “There wasn’t nothin’ in that house for me. So I went and looked at the stars, my sister and I, until the house got quiet…Hell, sometimes we’d drag a sleeping bag out and pass out on the lawn, like drunks or dogs…it was like a part of me knew it was terribly, terribly finite…” He trailed off as he screwed his eyes upwards towards the smog, its belly a sickening yellow as it rejected whatever weak light the bar cast off. Ian stamped out his own cigarette and put the butt in his jacket pocket. He shifted the weight from his lower back closer to his hip and waited for Joseph to continue, but he seemed lost in a memory as he gazed upwards. Thinking of the sermon he had just heard this man deliver, Ian’s mind grazed upon the idea of impurity for the pursuit and sake of purity. He thought of the rapturous way in which Joseph had preached and he thought of the dismal prospects for easy sleep that would come after this.

The east side of the bar’s lot was empty, save for the hulking mass of a burned-out jeep and a dumpster that looked like it may have been a lean-to at one point, or simply cover. The pavement was a jigsaw of dereliction. An overgrown train track lay beyond the edge of the parking lot, up a slight, weedy embankment, only recognizable by a yellow sign, suffocating under dark green plant matter that Ian didn’t recognize. It was among the last vestiges of an era when this wasn’t a border but a middle ground. Just another place in the America. Another graveyard.

“If you wanna make this right again…or at least try…well, that’s what the goal is.” Ian twitched slightly when Joseph suddenly spoke and he chided himself silently for such. He had been carefully combing his surroundings and performing something akin to prayer, whatever that was, in hopes he remembered his path away from the bar and to the national highway road. Praying the alcohol didn’t cause him to trip and bring further ruin to his knees. Joseph’s gravel-laden voice was lonesome as it reached out to the heavens above, its destination blurred by the heavy cloud cover. He wasn’t looking in Ian’s direction; his back was almost completely turned to Ian as he continued to drink in the sky, his cigarette long gone out. “But y’all don’t wanna make it right. You just wanna stay in this nightmare of history…just so long as you’re on the right side of it…but that ain’t real. At least not for God.” He raised a finger to the sky. Ian thought surely he’d steal a glance behind him for a chance at eye contact, but his eyes were for the sky alone. “Anything on this side of Heaven is the wrong side. Why don’t—“

The report of the pistol ate at the edges of Ian’s eardrums, so overwhelmingly loud that it was as if it danced across one’s vision. Joseph took two stumbling steps forward, propelled by the force of the bullet in the back of his skull, and collapsed onto the concrete, his forehead and the ground producing the tenor of fruit dropped from a high place. A twitch of his left leg and the nothing. The dimensions of sound came rushing back to Ian as the gunshot moved further into the recent past. He heard a shout from the south end of the bar. Gunshots weren’t an odd thing to hear, but this close to the bar warranted curiosity, not to mention the fact that the parson of the New Reformation was out of sight of his flock.

Bracing his knees for the long night of running ahead, Ian glanced once more at Joseph’s corpse, its blood slowly pouring into the breaks in the concrete, mixing with the inert, brown weeds and cigarette butts. A man who once pointed out constellations to a little sister in an infinite sky, his voice constant so as to cover the sounds of a marriage gnashing its teeth, deep in the throes of death; the child of a veteran grown angry at the imposed strangeness of the world around him. A child destined to raise the hearts of men and then die alone in a dirty bar parking lot because he troubled the pacific schedules of the Community men and women who paid Ian handsomely.

“Brothers, how can an act be so impure and pure at once? How does a crime committed in the pursuit of purity…against purity…retain its purity?”

Ian thought of Lucifer standing on the mountain Sinai, his back turned to Moses as he gazed out towards Mount Catherine, his eyes piercing through the rock and into the very foundations of matter itself. “It’s a test,” he would have mumbled in reply to Moses’s incredulity.

Disappearing over the train tracks, Ian didn’t allow himself to look back again.