I shielded my eyes from the blinding sun. The heat radiated from the cobblestones. We were in a market square, surrounded by buildings with balconies enclosed in looping black wires that formed elegant patterns. The architecture looked vaguely European, but only through the influence of imitation; I could tell that we were not in Europe. There were no signs or advertisements to give me any kind of clue. In fact, there was no one to ask either; the street was deserted.
“Where are we?” I asked Haley.
“Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem,” Haley answered flatly. “Come. Let’s walk.”
Haley started off down the paved road. I followed, my mind working at a feverish pace. Jerusalem. That explained why I recognized it. My parents had taken me there once when I was a child, but my specific memories of the place had long since faded―the one thing I did remember was the constant movement and hurried chaos, a stark contrast to this place, which was so empty and devoid of life, as if it had been abandoned for centuries. I turned to Haley to ask why Spirit had brought us here, but the expression on her face stopped me. Her eyes were cold, and her mouth had twisted into a thin line.
“We have been sent here,” she said, “because it is claimed to be the heart of the world: the city where the world’s three radical religions collide and argue over whose ‘holy city’ it is. It’s remarkable how a single city can turn Christianity, Islam, and Judaism into little children fighting over a coveted toy.” She wrinkled her nose in disgust.
We walked on in silence. I was tired of arguing with her, and she seemed to have had enough of me as well. On either side, the buildings seemed to replicate themselves, sending us down an endless maze of cobbled streets and alleyways. The sun was at full mast, practically erasing our shadows as we moved together through the stone structures, like ghosts haunting a graveyard. The silence had become a vacuum on my ears, and I could hear the rushing of blood through my eardrums as my heart strained against the heat.
Suddenly, the faint sound of human laughter broke the haunting silence. I nearly jumped. Just ahead of us, coming down the avenue, four people walked together in a group. Their laughter rang and echoed off the walls. As they approached, I saw that they were two men and two women, all in their thirties. A sense of relief flooded me; I wanted to greet them, even if only to talk to another person in this godforsaken place. Haley quickened her pace. As she passed them, one of the men winked at her, then turned his head to catch a view from behind. He whistled once, trying to get her attention.
Haley stopped. She stood there for a moment, as if deciding what to do next. Slowly and carefully, she turned around, and what I saw sent a chill down my spine. Her face was flushed red, which contrasted the icy blueness of her eyes. Any trace of her usual flirtation was gone; all that remained was murderous intent. In her right hand, she held the pistol that James had murdered his parents with in the Children’s room.
“Hey, asshole!” she shouted. The two couples stopped and turned around. She advanced, her strides taking on a power I had never seen before, wielding the gun like a sceptre. With her red curls flying around her head in the wind, she looked like an angel of death. Whatever was coming, I knew it was not going to end well.
“Haley,” I said, trying to calm her down.
She pointed the gun at me. “Shut the fuck up. I’m done with you and the sickening pageantry of this whole tour. Now I get to have some fun.” Advancing on the group, she looked them over one by one. Then, she cocked the pistol and aimed it at the skull of the man who had whistled at her. Realizing now what was actually happening, his survival instinct began to kick in. His attention darted in all directions as he looked for an escape.
“Take one step and you’re dead,” said Haley. He narrowed his eyes at her, trying to discern if she was bluffing. She wasn’t. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you, and I’ll spare that meaningless, vapid existence of yours.”
He saw his chance. “Killing is a sin against God,” he said. “If you kill me, you will suffer an eternity in the torturous fires of hell.”
“Awwwww,” said Haley, mockingly touching her heart with her free hand. “Aren’t you sweet? You care so much about your murderer that you want to save me from eternal suffering. You are so precious, I could eat you up. Isn’t that what you do to Jesus every time you take communion?” She laughed hysterically. “Tell me, poor sacrificial lamb, if your God and shepherd cares so deeply for you, then he will punish me for wanting to kill you, right? He would smite me with his almighty power, would he not?” She looked to the sky and shouted, “Hello, God! Where are you hiding? I’m about to kill one of your drooling, unthinking, hopeless admirers! Yoo-hoo! Anybody out there?”
Her voice echoed off the buildings. As she kept her eyes to the sky, the man saw his brief opportunity and reached for the gun, but Haley pulled it away and trained it back on his forehead. He stared at her, saying nothing.
“Tsk tsk. Someone’s been a naughty little lamb. Tell me, if there is a hell for me to burn in, there must be a heaven as well, no?”
“There is,” said the man.
Haley clapped her hands together. “Oh goody! If I shoot you now, you will go there, will you not?”
The man started crying. “Please,” he sobbed. “I don’t want to die.”
“Why not? You should be thanking me. I’m about to send you to a glorious afterlife free of all suffering! Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted since the moment you accepted Jesus into your heart?”
He fell to his knees and started praying. I could tell that Haley was growing bored of the game. Any second now, I thought. I covered my ears.
To my surprise, she crouched before him and caressed his face with extreme tenderness. “I didn’t mean to make you cry, lamb. That was never my intent. I’m only enlightening you, that’s all. It’s a shame it’s too late. Look at me, darling,”
He looked up at her, the terror freezing his body into a petrified state. I was both sickened and fascinated by the animalistic nature of his fear; it seemed that his humanity had left him at the final moment.
Haley smiled sweetly and said, “Lamb, if you say a few words to me, I’ll let you go. I want you to mean them, too. Can you do that for me?”
His catatonic state was momentarily broken. “Yes, yes, I’ll say anything. Please, for the love of God, just don’t kill me.”
“Good lamb. It’s very simple. Say, ‘Thank you, Haley.’ That’s it.”
“Thank you, Haley.”
“Once more, with feeling,” she implored.
“Thank you, Haley.”
She raised the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. The explosion was so deafening that it ripped through the air. Blood and brains spattered through the now-open concavity in the back of the man’s skull; his forehead now had a clean hole through it. His eyes were empty.
In a horrifying trick of gravity, he remained there, suspended on his knees, as if he were a marionette held up by strings. Finally, his lifeless body crumpled to the ground with a sickening thud. A fine blood mist had sprayed onto Haley’s skin, dotting it delicately―it almost made her more beautiful.
The two women started screaming and covering their mouths. One of them fell to her knees and tried helplessly to revive the man lying on the ground.
“What the fuck are you crying for, you selfish bitch?” Haley got up and aimed the gun at her. “This is all he wanted, isn’t it? To go to heaven? I did this man a favor by sending him there. If you actually loved him, you would be rejoicing.”
The young woman took a long moment to respond. “That would be so comforting, so easy. I wish my mind were capable of believing in such bullshit,” she said angrily. Then she gazed at the young man’s face and stroked the hair out of his eyes as she cried. “For me, heaven and hell are logical impossibilities. I’ve been an atheist for as long as I was able to ask questions. God never answered any of them for me. But it made no difference―I loved him anyway.”
“Oh, quit your self-righteous crying. It’s arrogant and self-indulgent. So you don’t believe in God? Then what do you believe in that is so superior?”
“I’m a scientist, so I acknowledge the theory of evolution. I believe in empirical evidence, and there is no evidence for God.”
“Ah! You trust your senses then. How informative.” Haley began to circle the girl and wave the gun around as she gestured. “And what absolute truth have you arrived at with this method? Something better than heaven, I presume?”
“Yes! We have scientific knowledge of universal patterns! We have compounded the hypotheses and formulated predictions about the world around us!” Her eyes stayed on the gun, tracking its every movement.
“Hmmm.” Haley licked her lips. Her eyes glinted, as if she were laying a trap. “Evolutionist, you say?”
“Yes.” The girl raised her chin defiantly.
“So, believer in natural selection, survival of the fittest. My darling homo sapien, I have a tool to kill you in my hand. Give me a good reason why I should not use it on you.”
“That’s not what it means!” cried the girl. “Survival of the fittest only means that the environment selects those who survive and pass on their genes to their offspring. What you’re doing is artificial selection!”
Haley laughed. “Oh? Are you saying that humans are outside of nature? I thought that went against your empiricism. I’m going to make something perfectly clear for you: This little piece of metal in my hand means that I am your environment now. And an environment feels no guilt for what it does. It simply eliminates those who cannot fit. Here. I’ll demonstrate.”
Bang. The woman’s body crumpled on top of her boyfriend’s. Haley straightened up and moved onto the next woman, who was now crouched, sobbing and covering her head with her arms in a protective position.
“Don’t,” said Haley. The man standing beside her froze, apparently in the middle of an escape attempt. “You’re a sly one, trying to abandon us just as things are getting interesting. Move again and I’ll give you a torture so agonizing that you will beg for death. Understand?”
The man returned to his position and raised his hands. Haley crouched and caressed the girl’s long black hair.
“It’s all right, love,” Haley crooned venomously.
“You monster,” the woman whispered. “Where’s your humanity?” Haley began to stroke her tear-stained cheek, then raised her chin to face her.
“I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with it. Hey, Architect!” she called out. I took a few steps closer.
“Haley, just leave her alone. There’s no reason to do this. Just let her go.” The sight of the couple’s exploded skulls was beginning to turn my stomach.
“I didn’t ask for your preaching. I wanted to know if you are familiar with the ‘humanity’ this little saint is talking about. Is it another God? Or a type of drink? Or maybe a sex position? What do you think?”
“You’re disgusting,” the woman spat. “Why did you kill them? They did nothing to you! They were real humans with hopes and dreams of their own. They weren’t perfect, but I believe that deep down, all people are inherently good and responsible. Can you find it in your heart to embrace that?” She looked up pleadingly at Haley, who laughed.
“Hey, Architect, do you think you can translate? All I hear are meaningless buzzwords in succession, like some kind of gibberish. It’s kind of adorable.”
Horrified, the woman spoke up. “But it’s the truth! Humanism states that the true purpose of the human is to strive for social justice and respect. To give cultures the freedom to express themselves uniquely and creatively.”
“What? I apologize, it’s difficult to understand you with all that bullshit spewing from your mouth. Here, maybe I can create another opening to drain it.”
Another shot. This time, Haley had aimed for the throat, which burst open. Blood flowed freely from the woman’s neck onto the street. Three dead in a matter of minutes. Haley stood and pointed the gun at the man who had tried to escape earlier.
“Hold on! Hold on! Don’t shoot!” he fumbled in his pockets and pulled out a wad of bills. US dollars, from the look of them. “Here,” he said, extending them toward Haley. “Take it. That’s five hundred in cash. It’s all I have on me, but say any number and I’ll have it transferred to your account. I run a successful company, so it’s no trouble. I’ll give you whatever amount you want.”
Haley took the money out of his hand and examined it, as if she didn’t recognize what it was. She sniffed it, then looked at the man with mock puzzlement. “What idiocy made you believe that I would want this?”
“I don’t understand,” said the man.
“This has no practical purpose. I can’t eat this paper, or wear it. I’d even be hesitant to wipe my ass with it. This is what you give me to try to save your life? I’m almost insulted,” said Haley, laughing in her maniacal way.
“It’s money! That’s the point―you have to exchange it for something. You hand it to someone, and they give you something that is worth its value―food, clothes, weapons, whatever you want. How are you not understanding this? It’s the basis of all society!” the man shouted.
“Are they stupid?” said Haley.
“What?” he said, confused.
“Stupid. Moronic. Vapid. Why would someone work so hard to create something of true value and exchange it for something essentially useless?” asked Haley. “Look around. Do you see anyone else? Ah,” she motioned toward the corpses. “It’s a shame I killed your friends. Perhaps I could have tricked them with your magic paper.” She laughed, then beckoned the man with her index finger. “Come.”
Seeing the gun still aimed at his head, the young man obeyed, tentatively walking forward. “Bow to me,” commanded Haley. As his head came forward, Haley forcefully opened his mouth and shoved the bills in one by one. The man coughed and spluttered. “Eat, cow, eat!” Haley bellowed. “Eat the poisoned cud regurgitated from the stomachs of those who suffered from your consumptive beliefs. Chew it, swallow it. Taste every hand it has ever been in, every back pocket, leather wallet, junkie’s stash, hooker’s bra, businessman’s greasy fist. Consume them all!”
A retching sound ejaculated from the man’s throat. He gagged over and over in succession. Before long, he was vomiting bile onto the ground next to the corpse of the woman with the black hair. “Eat!” shrieked Haley. She raised the gun and brought it down onto the man’s skull. He fell to the ground and made horrible gurgling sounds. Another wave of vomit poured from his nose and mouth. “That’s it, keep it coming. Turn the lever on that toxic waste pipe. You see it, Architect? The society you live in now is in the middle of throwing up all the beliefs that have poisoned the system for so long: all these chunks of religion, humanism, evolution, capitalism, genderism, socialism, feminism, racism, sexism, nihilism. It’s utterly putrid.”
She turned the revolver over in her delicate hands, then spoke almost to herself. “Technology makes you gods and destroys you in the same moment. How simply and cleanly it dismantles, burns the curtain to see who pulls the strings. After all, it’s inherent, the desire of creation to usurp its creator.” She sighed and aimed the gun. The man opened his mouth to protest.
Bang. I averted my eyes. I was growing sick of witnessing so much death. After a moment, I felt Haley’s fingers around my jaw. Turning my head, she forced me to look upon the victims of her rage, with their empty eyes and blood-soaked skin. “Look!” she giggled. “All four of them spent a lifetime crafting a story in their delicate minds, and I destroyed it in a second. I’m a tsunami on a beach filled with sand castles.” She gazed at her handiwork with something that resembled fondness. I started to walk away, but she pointed the gun at me.
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” I shouted. I didn’t care anymore; I was certain to die anyway. “You think holding that thing makes you some kind of god? A bringer of death?”
“But I am. I am the god of your life, Architect. I am the wielder of technology, and therefore, I decide whether you live or die. It’s a simple little truth, yet so few of you incorporate technology into your beliefs. It’s astounding to me. Because it is technology that ultimately defines us, as usurpers, creators, or both.” As she spoke, Haley took the pistol tenderly in both hands and caressed it affectionately, as if it were the hand of a lover, or a toy from infancy. She held it so capably, so effortlessly, that it was almost as if it was an extension of her, a part of her body with ligaments and tendons and blood vessels of its own. “Any belief that ignores technology is incomplete. It is the evidence for the Christians’ version of Jesus. It is the missing link in the evolutionary chain. It is the protector of humanism. It is the true essential value of money. Think about it, Architect. Would the Bible have existed without the printing press? There is a reason that the world’s most prominent religions all have the same textbook; word of mouth doesn’t get you the same kind of publicity. But I digress. After all, Elyon will explain all that to you better than I ever could. At this moment, I want this pathetic journey of yours to come to a close.”
She pushed the gun into my temple and pulled the trigger. I didn’t hear the gunshot.
>>> This is a chapter from the book: THE MANUAL: FOR A LIFE THAT CAN STAND THE TEST OF TIME