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Ethan Universe

Ethan sighed deeply and wriggled a little lower into his bath so as to gain a better purchase on the hot tap with his toes, slowly reducing the flow from a torrent to a trickle before finally, grunting at the effort, managing to shut it off completely. Pink, frothy water slopped around the rim of his bath and threatened to spill over in a foaming slick onto the blue and white tiled floor at any moment. Gracefully raising his leg from the tap, toes pointed elegantly toward the window opposite, he smiled blissfully as herb scented suds slid lazily down his calf and around the pit of his knee, before cautiously lowering it into the scaldingly hot water with a tiny gasp of pleasure. Water slopped over the edge and trickled down white porcelain, dripping from the underside of the tub to gather in a small rose coloured pool beneath him.

He closed his eyes, listening to the soft drip, drip, drip, and allowed the sensation of falling into the welcoming heat to overtake him for a few seconds before, light headed and in need of balance, he half opened heavy lids and squinted up at the sunlight streaming through green stained glass. It flickered playfully around the bathroom as the beech tree outside the window swayed gently in a cool, springtime breeze.

On a bentwood dining room chair by his head lay today's newspaper, folded to reveal the crossword, on top of which sat a carved resin ashtray in the shape of a reclining naked woman which held the smouldering butt of a hand rolled cigarette. Having reluctantly given up smoking three years ago, Ethan now felt the languorous weight of nicotine in his bloodstream pressing firmly downwards against the buoyancy of his limbs in the water, surprised both at how immediately familiar he found it and how reminiscent of his youth. By the time he'd quit in his early thirties, the sensations had become jaded and stale. Now, however, the rush preceding the leadening of his extremities had hit home with the freshness of his teenage years. He gave an involuntary cough, and chuckled as bubbles scudded away from him across the cherry blossom water covering his chest.

Rolling his eyes sideways he contemplated the tumbler of vodka leaving a damp ring on his crossword next to the ashtray, waiting enticingly for him. Poured straight from the freezer, a frosting had spread deliciously around the top of the glass. Twisting his arm carefully so as not to drip on the newspaper, Ethan reached across himself to retrieve his drink. He paused briefly to inhale the fumes wafting from its surface then carefully placed the chilled glass of syrupy fluid on his chest and, sliding his arm delicately back below the surface of the water, pondered its contents. His abstinence from alcohol had a been a relatively recent change of lifestyle, a matter of weeks previously, but even though eager to feel the glassy warmth flowing through him once more he was cagey about rushing into the experience too hastily.

For more than half Ethan's thirty six years, alcohol had been the biggest thing in his life, dominating his daily routine and constantly - it seemed - gently nudging his life goals ever so slightly beyond his reach. In an effort to realise these he had - following one last festive binge - hung up his cups on the second day of the New Year. New Year's Day itself had been spent in a poisoned, alcoholic haze; unwashed, unshaven, in dressing gown and hiking socks, he had sat in dreary wintry gloom nursing a hangover and a bottle of cheap brandy. Aware of what a depressingly sleazy image this presented, he had finally gathered the the moral impetus required to turn over a new leaf and face the blunt, brightly lit world of sobriety head on.

It came as something of a shock, however, to find that - once sober - his life had not become the roller coaster of challenges, thrills and heroic achievement he had hoped. Rather, after the first two weeks he had merely gained sufficient perspective to see that, far from having prevented him achieving his life's ambitions, alcohol had simply shielded him from the realisation that in fact he lacked any distinct purpose in life and had simply been drifting rudderless for years. Alcohol had been a convenient scapegoat for his spectacular lack of achievement, but it had become clear of late that responsibility for his failings lay squarely on his own shoulders.

Eyes closed, Ethan swirled the warmer water toward his groin with his feet and pondered these conclusions. Careful not to topple the glass in the process, he raised a hot, dripping arm to take a long frosty drag of vodka. Wincing at the ice cream headache that stabbed at his sinus, he paused for a moment then drained the glass and, rather more recklessly than when he had picked it up, replaced it on his newspaper, leaving a steaming, damp trail across the crossword as he did so.

A chill fire swept through him from chest to groin, loosening the already weak control he exerted on his bladder. A thin stream of straw coloured urine broke the surface of the water and fell with a trickle and splash against his thigh, cutting a swathe through collapsing bubbles before merging with the steamy, maroon water. Lying in the heat of his bath, his fluids felt cool against his skin and Ethan shuddered as his flesh bristled with goose pimples.

A cloud passed in front of the sun and the room fell into shadow. The playfulness of the sunlight was abruptly gone and replaced by a uniform grey veil across the room.

Was this how life was supposed to turn out? His own expectations having been coloured by a childhood diet of World War II movies and Star Trek, this wasn't really how he expected things to go, but maybe he just couldn't tell as his own viewpoint was too subjective to get a real sense of -

Ethan cut this train of thought short. No point fretting about it now, he reasoned, what's done is - very nearly - done. Now, if he could just wrap a toe about the plug chain and lift it a tad, not quite all the way, let some water flow out for a few seconds then allow the pressure to force it back in and top up with a little more hot. As he grappled feebly with the plug he visualised his own waste particles escaping down the drain, into the sewers and eventually the sea. Would any fraction of it still be alive by the time it reached the sea? A few cells, perhaps? Would some parasite or bacterium he had been host to suddenly find itself in a colder but inifinitely larger home? Eventually giving up hope of accomplishing the task by virtue of his pedal dexterity alone, Ethan dug deep and found sufficient strength to lean forward and let some water out. He listened to the gurgling of the overflow pipe for a count of ten before replacing the plug and slumping back with a splash that sent water slopping over the edge of the tub.

Blackness crept in from his peripheral vision and threatened to engulf him causing him to panic which in turn sent his heart racing, weakening him further. Struggling against the tidal currents dragging him down he forced himself to breath normally and eventually felt the waves of nausea and darkness subside. He raised a pale foot to the hot tap and on the third attempt managed to flick it on. The flood of hot water seemed to restore a little of his strength and he felt his mood lighten. As if to reflect this change, the sun reappeared and dappled green shade flickered across the room to the accompaniment of running water and the rustle of wind gusting through the trees. Closing his eyes, Ethan fumbled the hot tap closed and imagined himself in the forests of Lynn Valley Canyon, British Columbia, where he had holidayed with his partner Kathy a few years previously. The stream running through the bottom of the canyon had been the cleanest - and coldest - he had ever seen and standing with Kathy barefoot on a rock, midstream in the glorious afternoon sun, he had felt a lightness of spirit that had eluded him since.

Listening to the wind singing through the beech trees as the sun flickered against closed lids, the idyllic image began to dissolve in Ethan's mind's eye and realising this he struggled against the warm darkness weighing down on him to open his eyes once more. He fixed his gaze on the window opposite but the dancing patterns of light flicked cold ripples of nausea through him; instead, he let his line of sight fall to the basin below the window, the brass taps he had been so proud of having chosen to match the radiators, the toothpaste and brushes standing next to each other.

At the sight of Kathy's brush a hammer blow of regret mixed with grief forced a single aching sob from the pit of his stomach. Tears began to stream down his cheeks as he saw that her watch sat forgotten on the edge of the basin from that morning's ablutions.

With a barely whispered: “ …'m sorry… “, Ethan slid his gaze sideways and up to the electrical socket below the mirrored cabinet by the window. The amiable, half whiskered face looked impassively back at him. Unable to bring any other comforting image to his mind's eye, he settled on the face and waited.

How long would it take, he wondered?

He had lost almost all sensation throughout his body, now. He wanted to lift his arms to see if any blood was still trickling from the gashes along the length of his wrists but couldn't feel them, let alone move them. The only feeling he was aware of was that of an icy breeze from the open doorway making his face freeze. His body below the water didn't feel numb; it didn't feel at all. He struggled fruitlessly to turn his head toward his hands to will them to move but could not drag his gaze away from the face on the wall. He was dimly aware his mouth was hanging open, that water was lapping at his airway, that he was no longer breathing. A tiny voice deep inside him sobbed and pleaded in vain but it too was fading, diminishing as his own awareness shrank to the image before him until even that failed to register and he existed solely as a dim spark of consciousness alone in the void.

When the end finally came, there was no one left to see it.

His first thought upon opening his eyes was that the room was smaller than he had expected. Stumbling to catch up with himself, a cacophony of thoughts clamoured for his attention.

What had he been expecting? Why smaller? Was he dreaming? He didn't remember waking and yet he didn't remember anything before opening his eyes either, except being in the bath and -

Ethan shot forward in his seat as bile rose in his throat. He sat with his head hung, elbows on knees, eyes closed, until the retching convulsions subsided, then sat drooling from between parted lips and began counting in a broken whisper, “One hippopotamus, two hippopotamus, three hipp - oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck!”.

Heart pounding, he turned his palms upwards and cautiously examined his wrists. The wounds were fresh but unbloody, as though sliced into a piece of butchered meat from which the blood had been drained. He shivered and let his hands fall limply toward the floor.

The floor.

The floor was white and, apart from the small pool of vomitus between his bare feet, featureless. It stretched to the walls surrounding him which were also white and of such a brilliant hue as to make it impossible to tell where floor ended and wall began. Trying to focus on the limits of the space he found himself in was like trying to follow the geometry of an Escher drawing. There was no obvious light source yet the glare was such that he was barely able to make out anything beyond his immediate self. Even so, the overall impression was somehow of an intimate space rather than a limitless void.

Ethan brought his attention back to the floor beneath him. Bare feet and ankles protruded from the legs of spotlessly white pants in a soft cotton-like material with no discernible weave or seams. He sat back in his seat to examine his attire. White pants, plain; white, short sleeved shirt of the same material, similarly unmarked.

“Ethan.”

He was seated in a large, white, wing backed armchair of a different but equally spotless material with a texture akin to that of suede. Seamless, supportive but not too firm. Comfortable.

“Ethan…”

He turned his wrists upward and let his hands flop backward to inspect his handiwork once more, curiosity overcoming any squeamishness he might have felt. The skin gaped as he flexed his wrists and he when he prodded within the opening with an index finger he could feel the tendons and severed arteries through which until recently his lifeblood had flowed, and yet there was no pain.

“Ethan!”

This time the voice caught his attention. His head snapped up and he gripped the arms of the chair, ready to fling himself to the fray or the floor as the situation demanded. Before him stood a figure clothed in the same immaculately white garb as his own, arms wrapped in a relaxed manner around a white clipboard, smiling benignly, head cocked to one side as though waiting for an acknowledgement from a shy child.

“How are we feeling?”

Ethan stared open mouthed and struggled to find an answer that could adequately express how he was feeling in light of recent events whilst simultaneously attempting to come to terms with the figure which had appeared quite without warning before him.

The person in question was of what might be considered average height for a man, of average build and standing in a pose conveying both strength and authority without hostility. The features were apparently male, of a non-specific, Indo-European caste. Amiable and honest, it was the kind of face you would be relieved to see looking down at you, confidently reassuring you that everything would soon be alright, were you to find yourself unexpectedly lying in a major road at the scene of a recent traffic accident.

There were, however, two aspects of the face which would have marked it out as somewhat unusual had it appeared in a busy thoroughfare.

The first was the fact it was blue; the inky, pre-dawn blue of the summer sky against which the morning star shines so brilliantly.

The second were the pair of thumb sized, pointed protuberances which sat just below what would have been the hairline had the head not been completely devoid of hair. These were of the same colour as the rest of the face and as rigid as horn, although as Ethan stared they seemed for a moment to give a tiny self conscious twitch. A wave of magenta flushed in the blink of an eye from neckline to horn tip and the figure continued.

“Take your time. I have a few questions for you as I'm sure you have for me but if you need a moment to gather yourself, that's fine.

You may call me Lucy, by the way.”

Lucy sat down opposite Ethan, revealing the presence of a second gleaming white chair, seemingly identical in design to Ethan's. He crossed his legs at the knee and occupied himself politely leafing through pages on the clipboard as Ethan breathed deeply, composing himself and resisting the urge to hyperventilate. Reeling from the shock of his own continued existence, coupled with the equally unexpected appearance of his host, he floundered helplessly for an opening gambit.

“Um…ok…,” he began, avoiding eye contact by staring at the two elegantly pedicured blue feet before him, studying their sporty looking white sandals and wondering whether it would be inappropriate to ask for a pair.

“…Am I… alive…?”

Lucy lay the clipboard in his lap and uncrossed his legs to lean forward, gently taking Ethan's right hand in his left. His skin was warm, dry and ever so slightly scaled. Ethan gave a tiny involuntary shudder but did not resist.

“I would say probably not,” Lucy replied softly, “wouldn’t you?” He didn't need to turn the hand over to make his point but Ethan still felt as though a bucket of iced water had been dumped over him. He took another deeper, shuddering breath and pressed on.

“So, this is…. what?”

To Ethan's relief, Lucy released his hand and leant back in his seat. Crossing his legs, Lucy steepled his fingers and pondered Ethan's expression before responding slowly, like a parent tip-toeing around the outskirts of a long overdue “birds and bees” discussion.

“Well, after life, one might expect there to be an….”

He let his hands fall open in an expansive gesture and left the sentence hanging between them for Ethan to complete.

“Afterlife?” ventured Ethan haltingly.

“Exactly! However,” continued Lucy, as Ethan rolled his eyes forlornly like a toddler lost in a supermarket, ”from your expression I should imagine this isn't quite what you've been led to expect, if indeed you were expecting anything.”

“I don't know what I was expecting,” conceded Ethan, biting his thumb nervously. “I suppose I thought it would all just… end,”

“Really,” Lucy feigned surprise. “This must come as a bit of a shock then.”

There was an uncomfortable silence as Ethan steeled himself to ask his next question, during which Lucy flicked at an imaginary speck of dust on his knee, picked an invisible thread from his sleeve then looked up with a quizzically raised eyebrow as Ethan spoke, his voice barely audible.

“Are you…. God?” he whispered hoarsely. Lucy laughed freely and his manner loosened visibly.

“Oh goodness me, no! No, I should expect that by now, but it still makes me laugh when I hear that one. No, I'm not God.”

“So is this hell, then? Are you… The Devil?” quavered Ethan.

Lucy's laughter stopped abruptly and he throbbed a deep crimson from head to toe, glowing through his clothing. His horns doubled in size and the points gleamed menacingly.

“That depends,” he sneered caustically, “Are you the stiff?!”

Lucy scowled, uncrossing and recrossing his legs irritably. ”The Devil!” he fumed, audibly italicising the moniker to show his contempt. ”What, is that like, The City? Really! You know, he never gets asked, 'Are you The God?' Honestly, it burns me up!”

Lucy reached over his shoulder and seized a voluminous cloak of the same brilliant white as the rest of his garb which had been draped casually over the wing of his chair. Wrapping it defensively around himself and flicking the high collar up, he folded his arms tightly, evidently in a king sized snit. Ethan stared open mouthed as Lucy sat scowling into the middle distance, the ankle of his crossed leg twitching his foot irritably until gradually he returned to his original blue and his horns assumed less threatening proportions.

“Well, I'm sorry,” he finally added testily, glaring over Ethan's left shoulder, “but it gets my goat, it really does. I suppose it's just one of those things I have to live with but it's like, The Maid, or The Cook, and I'm not just the hired help around here, I can assure you! I am every bit as -”

“Is this hell?”, blurted Ethan again, interrupting. “Sorry, but is it? It's just… I have to know.”

“Come over all religious, have we?” Lucy sniffed. “No it's not hell, though it might as well be for all the credit I get. Some of us work here too, you know!”

This shouted last confused Ethan until he realised it wasn't addressed to him and, even more flummoxed, turned to look over his shoulder, following Lucy's line of sight.

He was just leaning around the wing of the chair when a stocky, bearded, balding figure in beige cargo shorts, frayed hawaiian shirt and dusty sports utility sandals bustled past his chair and snatched the clipboard imperiously from Lucy's lap. Lucy unfolded his arms and glared frostily up at the new arrival, drumming his fingers slowly on the arm of his chair, lips pursed.

The figure stood with his back to Ethan, right hand resting on his hip, flipping the pages on the clipboard back and forth with his left while murmuring beneath his breath, straggly grey pony tail twitching with displeasure as he scanned the sheets before him. The hand resting on hip was broad, strong and obviously no stranger to hard work. Ethan spied a selection of charms hung from a brightly coloured woven thread around the thick, hair covered wrist and recognised a yin-yang and a swastika before, having satisfied himself with its contents, the figure dropped the clipboard back into Lucy's lap muttering,

“No good to me.”

Not waiting for a response, he stepped through a doorway which opened silently before him in the blank whiteness beyond Lucy's chair and disappeared without another word. Ethan peered after him but saw little more than a few points of light in the darkness before the doorway sealed itself again moments later.

“Alan,” volunteered Lucy before Ethan could ask.

“He looked vaguely familiar, from what I could see…” Ethan frowned uncertainly.

“He should do; he made you in his image, after all.”

“So that was - “, gape Ethan.

“The God, yes,” smirked Lucy. “Don't mind him, he's like that with all of you. Takes it personally if anyone drops out.”

Ethan was reminded with a jolt of his recent bath time antics and felt the bile begin to rise in his throat again. He swallowed hard and trying to keep the hurt from his voice.

“Doesn't he want to speak to me?”, he enquired meekly.

“Nope,“ shrugged Lucy. “Anyone who dies before their time is no good to him. He blames me, but all I do is supply the raw material. It's his baby.”

“Excuse me?”

“I can put as many souls as he wants into the mix but ultimately he's the architect. It all runs to his design. If it doesn't turn out the way he wants, that's his problem.”

Grappling gamely - if a little late in the day - with concepts he was being forced to consider seriously for the first time since his childhood, Ethan pressed for Lucy to elaborate. “I don't understand. If it's all his design, how can it be a surprise when someone dies? How can I be here now if it wasn't what he had planned for me?”

Lucy smiled and furrowed his brow while he considered his response. As he did so, the brilliant white of their surroundings faded to be replaced by a night sky filled with more stars than Ethan had ever imagined could lie beyond the murky, sodium lit gloom of his own suburban existence. The floor beneath his bare feet grew cold and looking down he squealed in fright as he saw the puddle of his vomit begin to spiral gracefully down toward a glowing nebula in the star spangled chasm below. Reflexively, he snatched both feet onto the cushion of his seat, then hesitantly extended a foot to prod the space where the floor had been. Probing it gingerly with his big toe he found it as hard and unyielding as before but faded to become so transparent as to be invisible.

“Alan has a gift for the dramatic and a creative flair which everyone envies, but he doesn't think his projects through. He creates these elaborate systems with their physical laws and sets them going but they all run down eventually. They may all look very pretty while they're still running under their own steam but they're just not as reliable as they should be, and sooner or later they all collapse.”

As Lucy spoke Ethan became aware of their viewpoint slowly changing. The stars surrounding them began to swing gracefully down and sideways as a half shadowed sphere hove into view. As Ethan followed its progress the heavens slowed and finally slid to a halt with the globe resting motionless between the seats, starkly floodlit by the closest of the stars. Despite never having seen it quite from this angle before, Ethan recognised the blue sphere immediately.

“Radiant, isn't it?” beamed Lucy admiringly from across the polar ice cap. “Whatever my personal feelings may be towards Alan I have to give it to him, his presentation is second to none.”

Ethan gawped as mighty weather systems swept across the face of the globe in silent majesty.

“Fabulous!”, enthused Lucy. Ethan nodded, dumbstruck. “Shame it's on the way out. This was definitely one of Alan's better pieces. Still, can't be helped.”

Still transfixed by the view before him Ethan repeated his question. “But why doesn't he want to see me?” He pleaded. “Aren't I part of his great plan?”

“Ah, not exactly, no, but don’t be offended. He never speaks to anyone and anyone who’s told you different is either mad or a liar. Or both. His son’s a different story, of course. He’s a lovely fellow, great with children.”

Lucy shrugged his cloak back over the wings of his chair and leant back in his seat. Ethan, still unable quite to grasp the enormity of what was happening to him, felt a single cogent thought pop unbidden into his head, demanding his attention. He gripped the arms of his chair and, struggling to tear his gaze away from the planet before him, asked tentatively:

“So where exactly does Jesus fit into this?”

“Mr Cohen, smiled Lucy, “has been working in Marketing & Sales since his arrival and he's doing very well indeed. We get a lot of people asking after him and he's generally happy to stop by if he's not too busy. You know, shake hands, answer a few questions. You'd like him,” he assured Ethan. “He's a fun guy.”

A fun guy wasn't the answer Ethan had been expecting but then again, he asked himself, what had he been expecting - really? He'd been brought up by strict Catholic parents who had tried their best to indoctrinate him with their beliefs and asides from a brief flirtation with Buddhism in his early teens he had, for the sake of a quiet life, gone along with it, even as far as being a regular altar boy until the age of sixteen and serving at mass most Sundays. It hadn't required a great deal of effort to be a Catholic, just faith. Faith that everyone else had got it right.

Faith in your elders to know what they were doing and not to lie to you. Faith in the herd. That's why they were so insistent on the sanctity of marriage. Marry within your own kind to make sure the kids get full exposure from the get go and you ensure the continuation of the tribe. Once you started getting all wishy washy and liberal and “free love” you opened yourself up to all sorts of diluting and contaminating influences, weakening the bloodline of Mother Church.

No, being a Catholic was easy.

It was not being one was which was hard.

But an afterlife? He hadn't really given it much thought since his childhood but was pretty sure it was supposed to involve angels and saints and clouds and cute little fat kids with wings.

Lucy's voice broke his reverie.

“We could see if he's free,” he suggested, standing. Carrying himself erect and with the grace of a dancer, Lucy strolled toward Ethan through the darkness, gesturing with his clipboard that he too should stand. Unsteadily, Ethan did so, trying to ignore the wave of vertigo threatening to engulf him by looking Lucy directly in the eyes which were, he noticed for the first time, of a hollow blackness filled with the same tiny pinpricks of stars that populated the deepest reaches of space surrounding them.

“Now, this may feel a little strange,” Lucy began, approaching Ethan, arms spread wide as though to embrace him. Ethan skittered away from him behind his chair, panting with fear. Trembling and gripping its wings for protection, he fought the cold waves of panic and nausea that washed over him.

”Come now, it won't hurt,” cajoled Lucy, flipping the chair aside carelessly. Ethan’s gaze followed its descent, open mouthed. Frozen in vertiginous horror he watched the chair tumble silently towards the blue planet, shrinking to a dot before disappearing in a tiny puff of orange flame.

Taking advantage of his distracted state, Lucy flung his arms about Ethan, hugged him tightly and took a step in a direction at right angles to the space surrounding them. Ethan screamed helplessly as stars spun chaotically about him, before screwing his eyes as tightly shut as possible as the bottom fell out of his universe.

Fiction


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