Number Four


by Gene-Michael Higney

The last thing Richard remembered before blacking out was the searing, blinding white light of the sun bleaching out his vision. Instead of going dark, everything went white; he flew weightlessly through white, flailed his arms as if drowning in a sea of white, then, after his panic subsided and he had submitted to the sensation, he floated, without will, in a bath of warm, motionless white.

He only knew he'd regained consciousness because his world suddenly went dark. No longer did the sun scald his eyes and skin, or cause his hair to feel like threads of flame.

He awakened in a cool dark room and gazed upward, through shimmering levels of dark, at two black glistening eyes set in a dark face, hovering over him, suspended in shifting, rippling, blurry but blessed darkness.

His unsteady visual sense told him the room was rocking slightly, and the face above him swayed in time with it, verifying the lie. Tinkling wind-chimes somewhere far off spattered the cool dark with their distant music, and, as if in accompaniment, the low, stuttering bleat of sheep lulled him into a state of near timeless peace.

A voice murmured around him like cool water lapping on stones, but his Spanish wasn't coming back fast enough for him to understand what the voice said. Even his own name was not quick in returning. He shook his head to clear it, but only succeeded in creating a lightning bolt of pain that flared its way from one side of his forehead to the other.

He groaned, and immediately afterward felt the rough edge of a clay cup pressed against his lips.


Before considering the possible bad effects of drinking it, he was swallowing, and the cold liquid, safe or not, was flowing down and into him, becoming a part of him, cooling the heat which he now began again to feel burning him from within.

The someone whose face floated on the surface of the pond of darkness was saying something about the sun. Richard recognized the word sol. He'd always thought it sounded so much like soul, and that was why, he now recalled that it was because of his soul he'd wandered out, shedding his clothes and his life, wandered into the scorching desert to let himself be bathed one final time by the ultra-white Mexican desert sun. He'd wanted his soul to be burnt clean by its purifying rays, his guilt to be purged away in the inferno of El Ojo de Dios, the Eye of God.

He was not worried that he couldn't recall his name; it did not feel important for him to know so precisely who he was. He was now only someone with a throat caked with dust, being given a long drink of cool, cool water, and that was enough. To think about himself more deeply might be dangerous.

But even as he decided not to remember, he remembered. And as he remembered, he wished he could smile at the irony. He was to be spared nothing. Fair enough. He deserved to be spared nothing. To have ended his life in forgetfulness would be too merciful. He accepted that he must remember.

His name was Richard Mander. And he had come here to present himself before... to stare into... the Eye of God.

Theologians used to say that one was purged by a 'dark night of the soul', but Richard had come to the conclusion that there was only one chance for him to be cleansed, and it was not by the night's covering velvet darkness of forgetting. No, he could only be cleansed, if at all, by total exposure to the scalding, bright white heat, the merciless scrutiny of the blistering desert daylight.

He had to be baptized by its fire. Then... possibly...

It came back to him now, first a trickle, then a flood. Why he had come on this journey, the very last one of his life, to lose himself in the furnace of the desert, to engulf his guilt in a ritual atoning bath of flame, reduce himself to insignificant cinders, smelted of his impurity at last in its crucible of fire.

How had he failed in this? Had he not gone far enough away from what little civilization there was in this isolated land of dust and oven hot wind?

Someone had found him. Saved his body somehow.

And in doing so, lost him his soul.

A hand made of soft snow, soft and dark snow, touched his forehead, his face, his neck. He wondered why the delicately formed snow hand did not melt the instant it made contact with his burning body. Instead, its soothing, frost-born fingers smoothed away the scalding fever, spread a gentle, cooling, invisible balm everywhere it made contact with his flesh, overcoming the very sun itself, which had stamped its fiery mark on Richard's skin, and into his heart.

This was all wrong, he thought, all wrong. I am supposed to be burned up; a burnt offering; I am supposed to be nothing now except ash and memory.

The hand of snow withdrew, and he mourned its departure from him. I don't deserve the comfort, he said, possibly aloud, possibly not, I deserve only to die.

Again the rough edged cup was held to his lips, again he drank. The water must be magic, he murmured, perhaps aloud, perhaps not; I think it's changing me. With each swallow of the magic fluid more pieces of himself returned, pieces fit into place and held together by guilt, and the thirst to die. His name, his loss, the terrible and final sentence of death he had passed on himself for his crime.

Again the hand, the tender, deliberate hand, moved across his face, now using some sort of a cloth dipped in the magic water of remembrance. Droplets of moisture like tears trickled across the seared desert that was his face; everywhere they touched came alive with a sensation which was mingled pain and pleasure.

Under the miraculous water, his face suddenly recalled other gentle strokes, his lips felt again, his skin remembered the touches of a hundred lovers.

And one lover.

The water brought it all back to him, and the healing hand softened the pains of remembrance.

He did not dare to move again, partly because he feared the lightning in his head, partly because he did not want the hand of mercy to leave him. Though he did not deserve it, he still did not wish it gone.

Again the dark and gentle-eyed face emerged from the protective impenetrable dark to float above him. It might have belonged to a child, or to an old person; a face young as the dawn or old as the desert sand. It searched his eyes, patient, waiting, perhaps awaiting a sign that Richard was not delirious, or perhaps giving him a chance to tell the truth, to confess his unforgivable sin. The night-colored onyx eyes peered deep, deeper into Richard's own eyes, seeking something there, as well as imparting something to him.

Something like strength.

Like life.

Richard could now see the face belonged to a young boy, as did the cool hand. And this boy was gazing into Richard intensely, as one might gaze into a well, to judge the depths of the waters within.

Richard tried to speak, but only a sigh emerged. It seemed that words were not yet to be restored to him.

Apparently sensing this, the boy resumed his application of the magic water; Richard's cheeks, his neck, his forehead again, his hair, until Richard closed his eyes. Guided by the boy's hand, he let his sun-seared soul dream outward, and away, into the chime-spangled darkness, where nothing could reach him, not even the harshness of heat set afire with the flame of guilt.

* * *

Richard drove too fast so he could arrive home early, nearly causing three separate accidents. All the way he lectured himself on how it would do no good to get killed at this crucial point in his life. Today would mark the turning point, the axis on the basis of which everything else that would ever happen to him, and Joel, would revolve.

He somehow felt that if he could just get home before Joel did, just be there and waiting, drink in hand, soft music playing, candles lit, dinner warming, all the earmarks of normalcy, then the full weight of their charmed life together would come to bear against the terror which had stalked them and staked them out as its own new prey. How can anything that horrible happen to us when our lives are so happy, balanced, so plain and unremarkable? he demanded from - whomever... God, the Universe, or no one.

He pulled into their driveway, slammed the ignition switch off, and nearly broke it in his rush to yank the key out and escape the car.

Joel was not home yet. A good omen, Richard thought.

Richard did not allow himself to question why it was a good omen, or so crucial for him to be there before Joel. It just was, because he'd decided so. Such decisions gave him much needed control, or at least the illusion of control. An illusion badly shaken when Joel had first become ill. A lingering flu, a persistent hacking cough, aches and pains in a body totally unaccustomed to them.

Joel had played nearly every sport available in high school, and now, in his last year of college, he worked a part time job, did volunteer work, ran, swam, and worked out. Richard did not even try to keep up with him. But he delighted in attending Joel's swim meets, watching him win awards, grinned with pleasure at the applause and appreciation for his agility and beauty.

Joel, his unexpected angel, who'd come to him three years ago to be tutored in Spanish, had fallen in love with him, and joined his innocent, just-beginning life with Richard's.

Making Richard his first lover.

When Joel first confessed this fact, Richard disbelieved him. "Not someone like you. No way. You're too gorgeous. There's no way you could have made it through high school much less college without SOMEbody getting you into -"

Joel actually blushed. Deeply. And deeply became fiercely when Richard asked, "Are you SERIOUS? Oh, my lord you ARE serious! You've never...?"

"I always wanted to, but... only with the right person," was Joel's only and shyly given explanation. Coming from him, simple straightforward Joel, Richard realized it was true.

But Joel had certainly not been Richard's first lover.

Richard, older by ten years, experienced in matters of the heart and body since he was twelve, had long since become a stranger to such innocence as he'd once possessed. Long since become as proficient at the games of love and sex as Joel was at the games of sport and competition.

The house Richard inherited from his mother at her passing surrounded him with its security and understanding. It had known him since childhood. And it somehow forgave him his many lapses and misbehaviors. Maybe because it reflected his mother so much. And she was understanding. And forgiving. She'd opened her heart to so many of Richard's lovers, and those were only the ones he felt were worthy of meeting her, of becoming that much a part of his life that they could count her as family, and she them.

But she'd loved Joel above all the others who'd passed through her son's life.

Richard agreed with her. There'd been no one like Joel.

And for that reason, he now trembled at the bar in the den while he poured out a glass of Glenlivet, then set it down. He held onto the bar as if by doing so he could anchor himself to his life, his reality, steady himself against any wind of change which might gust toward him and Joel.

Because whatever happened to Joel would happen to Richard also.

Joel was bringing home the diagnosis for them both.

If Joel was HIV positive, that meant that Richard was also. And it meant that Joel, the buoyant, child-like, wide-eyed angel, had been infected by Richard, the only other person with whom the young man had ever made love.

Richard badly wanted the drink he'd poured, but he was afraid to pick up the glass; afraid of seeing his hands shake, of spilling the liquor, which would only confirm his ever heightening fears, his overpowering guilt.

He badly wanted to pray, but he doubted there was anyone to receive his prayer, so he clenched his jaws instead and stared at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar.

He hated his face. His eyes. His blood. He hated every set of arms which had ever embraced him, every mouth which had ever covered his own, searched his body, received his life force, every body which had given him its own. And something else. He hated them all now because it could have been any one of them that infected him and caused him, in turn, to unknowingly assassinate an angel.

If he was marked for death, he could accept it. But the knowledge that he'd inadvertently caused the infection of his unexpected angel...

If indeed he was infected.

There was always the chance that neither he nor Joel were HIV positive, he told himself. Always the chance that Joel's illness had been a fluke, a token fright in an otherwise charmed life.

If he could pray, that would be what he would pray for. If there was a God, that would be the only favor Richard would ever ask Him.

Only let Joel be negative.

Only let the angel escape unharmed, and it would not matter what happened to Richard.

But the angel did not escape.

* * *

The angel did not escape, he whispered, maybe loud enough to be heard, maybe not; sometimes even angels do not escape.

A sensation he thought he'd abandoned forever, returned.

He felt a chill. Involuntarily he shuddered as the scalding of the sun peeled away from him like charred skin, left him limp, a desiccated husk, baked dry.

In place of the heat had come the chill of night, the chill of emptiness, perhaps the chill of death.

Was he dying? Was he really, truly dying? After all, that was the only thing he could think of on this earth that he wanted.

He opened his eyes, slowly, because they felt encased in a tightly clinging paste which crinkled like the dried mud he'd worn as a child at the beach. He and his friend Carl had basted each other with sunscreen, packed each other head to food in mud, and let it dry. Every move they made tickled them, every time they tried to speak renewed their hilarity as the dried mud caked and split and peeled off them in clumps.

Richard's eyes and face felt like that now. His face creased and crumpled like that of a mummy in an old horror film as he tried to turn and peer into the darkness around him.

He sensed the night outside seeping like some liquid velvet fog into and all around the room in which he lay. His dried and mummified skin felt the night air press against it like a cool but scratchy sheet.

"Holá?" he heard himself say, though from far away. How could his voice be so far and the curtain of night feel so close?

Where was the face which floated overhead earlier? Had the boy left him to the dread mercy of the darkness?

Could he have read the guilt on his deathmask of a face? Could the boy somehow have discovered that Richard had murdered an angel and thought he was now fleeing from the sun, trying to escape the inescapable Eye of God?

Richard had to explain to him. Had to tell him he was not trying to flee from justice, not running away from the Eye of God, but was trying to run into it.

The God he doubted before he now knew had to be real. He had to be. Because who but God could punish him as he truly deserved? No other righteous wrath could provide the justice required by Richard's crime against heaven.

Perhaps the boy would help him.

Perhaps, like the shipmates of Jonah of old, when he told the boy of his sin, he would cast Richard out from this cool dark place and leave him to the whim of the God to whom Joel, his angel, belonged.

The boy might take pity on him. Or better, might hate him for his offense, and so drive him back under the Eye of God from which he'd unwittingly snatched him, just as Richard's atonement was about to be accomplished.

The boy had meant well, Richard was certain. But he did not realize what he'd done.

Maybe after Richard explained the nature of his crime, the boy would let him leave, show him the way back out into the white hot light of justice, the blazing fire of judgment, and to find afterward, dare he hope it? Some kind of peace. Or at least, forgetfulness.

Oblivion: now the only gift he would ask of God, because the other request had been denied him.

He tried to sit up but got no further than an initial thrust of his left arm into the soft straw mat upon which the boy had placed him. The lightning bolt of pain in his head did not strike this time, but it was replaced by a line of dull throbbing blows to his temples, and a powerful wave of nausea.

He slid back to his previous position. And shivered.

How strange to be chilled in a desert.

To be cold, in the center of the molten white hot Eye of God.

Richard wondered, has anyone ever frozen to death in hell?

* * *

The hospital room thrummed with dull, regular beeps, machines which hummed, and a faraway electrical buzz that could hypnotize you if you let it. Hour after hour, as Richard sat in the blue/green glow from the bewildering stacks of machines and multi-wired equipment surrounding Joel's bed, the mesmerizing blanket of mixed sounds and aquarium colors lulled him into a brain numbing state resembling sleep. Nothing so restful as real sleep, however, nothing like an escape from the catastrophe which had befallen his lover.

The doctor had used that word. Catastrophe. One that occurred in Joel's brain. An invisible, microscopic 'catastrophe', an implosion, a collapse, a flood which inexorably swept away in its path everything that made Joel who he was.

The catastrophe struck Joel a week after they'd received the lecture by Joel's doctor that a diagnosis was not the same as a death sentence, and Joel could easily have many years of good health before him.

The type of disease which ambushed Joel, betrayed him from within his own body, proved to be as individual an attack as the individual being attacked.

It was the kind which devastated the core of the mind, the very essence of the being who had become the center and anchor of Richard's own existence.

Richard's unexpected, undeserved angel.

Richard was now anchored and centered in... nothing. No one.

Lying still as a sculpted marble figure, Joel did not know Richard. Did not answer when he spoke to him. Did not follow him with his eyes when Richard paced the room.

Richard was certain the horror could get no worse than it did the times he looked into Joel's eyes for any trace of the young man... any inkling that Joel remained present in his own body.

There was no one there. Not Joel. Not anyone. No amount of denial could deceive Richard into thinking otherwise.

Machines moved his lover's chest in a parody of breathing, a false promise of some remaining life. If a doctor or nurse opened one of Joel's eyes with their gloved fingers, the eyelid remained raised, the eye staring at nothing, from nothing. His eyes had to be cleaned, moistened, his lips daubed with glycerin to prevent their cracking and peeling, as though all the intravenous drips to which Joel was attached were injecting dust into his veins rather than liquids.

He was drying out before their eyes, transforming into a husk, a shell, a terrible, unconvincing imitation of life.

One night, long after visiting hours were over, Richard stood gazing down at Joel, or rather, the body in which Joel had lived for his too brief span of years, and he said, "You're already gone, aren't you? You left me so quietly, my love. You left me... by myself. Even after we promised... But it wasn't your fault." He bit into his lower lip to give himself pain as an excuse to feel something other than his unfathomable loss. And his awful guilt. "I know that I did this to you, Joel. But I swear I didn't mean to. I swear If I had known I never would have... touched you... Can you... can you hear me? My angel?"

But his angel had departed. As unexpectedly as he'd arrived.

Richard knew better even as he spoke. He did not allow himself the illusion that Joel might be hearing him. The young man's sallow skin, immobile, waxen face, crabbed fingers, and dwindling form told Richard that the soul, or spirit, or whatever it was that made Joel who he was, had abandoned the physical dwelling place.

The only physical medium through which Richard could reach the heart of the person he loved more than his own life now reclined under worn sheets, like a piece of furniture left behind by its owners.

Joel's body was an abandoned house, whose tenant had left it to move on to another home.

Richard stood his bedside vigil for three days and nights. He did not phone Joel's estranged parents, who lived in the mid-West, until the doctor invited him into his office for the conversation Richard had known was inevitable. The one in which the doctor confirmed the irreversible nature of Joel's condition, the damage done to him, and the fact that his body was now showing the unmistakable symptoms of what the doctor called 'brain death'.

He told Richard what Richard had known for three days. Joel was gone. It was time to detach him from the life supports which were supporting no real life at all.

Richard stood by as the procedures were duly carried out, and the physical place in which Joel once resided was officially closed down.

Only then did he phone the young man's parents, who received the news of their son's death with detached sorrow. Yes, wasn't it a shame, but then they'd always known he'd end up like that, being a pervert and all. It was God's way of dealing with such evil. Oh, they'd tried to tell him over and over, from the first day he'd confessed his homosexuality to them. For all intents and purposes, explained Joel's father, Joel had been dead to them from that day on. It wasn't their fault, he wanted to make that perfectly clear. They had not raised him to be so immoral and unclean.

It was only at the very end of the conversation that Joel's father thought to ask who Richard was. "Are you his doctor?"

"No. I am... I was... his lover."

"His WHAT?"

Richard hung up then, and immediately lifted the receiver to phone the mortuary where both he and Joel had attended the funeral services of several of their friends.

The service would be simple, as Joel wished, with just his request that instead of anyone spending money for gifts of flowers, that they would instead make donations to the local rescue mission at which Joel had volunteered as a food server. Joel wanted the memorial service to be just an informal gathering where their friends could sit for a while and reminisce together. Comfort each other. Especially Richard.

Joel's main concern had been for Richard.

Joel had asked Richard to have him cremated.

And the moment that was accomplished, Richard turned his attention to what he'd promised himself, and the unconscious Joel: that what happened to Joel would happen to him. Richard would not go back on his word to an angel.

* * *

Hot tears coursed down now cold cheeks as Richard squinted his eyes against the memory of Joel's emotionless, strangely unaccusing face. At no time did Joel blame Richard, or show any bitterness toward him. Bitterness was not in Joel's nature.

Richard tried to cling to the time when Joel insisted that he would not have traded their time together for anything; health, a longer life, anything.

Richard could only clasp his lover to him and choke back his millionth unspoken plea for forgiveness. He wanted to beg for it a thousand thousand times and yet he forbade himself every single time. How could Joel forgive him? How dare Richard even think to ask him?

So he did not.

Instead, he assured himself that with Joel being as healthy as he was, they would have enough time for it to become simpler, more possible, for Richard to beg the forgiveness he desperately needed.

"Tomorrow," he would tell himself. "Tomorrow I'll ask him to forgive me."

But he discovered that tomorrow was guaranteed to no one, and all Joel's tomorrows were stolen from him in one swift, cruel "catastrophe." Stolen from them both.

Forgiveness? Richard could never ask.

And now Joel could never answer.

As Richard lay on the straw mat, in the chill of an unfamiliar, indistinct room, on a tiny raft of darkness in a vast ocean of light, Richard spoke aloud the words he'd forbidden himself all this time.

"Forgive me, Joel. Forgive me, angel. I don't deserve it, but... can you forgive me?"

Somewhere in the blanket of velvet black that draped the room, filled the room, there was movement. Someone approached, softly.

The young angelic face loomed over Richard, and he could barely make out the child-features of the boy who soothed away the burning heat which had enveloped him. The boy gazed down at Richard, his eyes alive in the dark.

"Señor?" he whispered. "Que necesita? Agua?"

Richard moved his head slowly side to side. "No, gracias. No necesito agua. Necesito..." "No thank you, I don't need water. I need..." But what did he need? Did he dare speak it?

"I need... to see... the Eye of God."

A long silence followed, and then the boy spoke again. "The Eye of God is always over us, señor."

"No, no. I mean... I need to see INTO the Eye of God."

"But señor, to do that... is to die."


"You want to die?"

Richard sighed out, yearned out the word into the cool waiting air. "Yes."

"May I ask you why?"

"I have done... a terrible thing, my young friend. And now God must... He must... punish me."

"Could you not ask God to forgive you instead? It is said that God is more willing to forgive us than we are to be forgiven."

Richard swallowed dryly. "I hope with all my heart that you are right. But I... just can't believe it. It can't be so easy. Not for me. Do you understand?"

"I do, señor."

"Will you help me?"

The ageless face drew closer. "Señor, it is easy to find the Eye of God. But maybe... maybe it would be better to look for his Heart?"

Richard blinked in surprise, ignoring the uncomfortable sensation this caused in his eyes. "His... heart?"

The boy nodded silently, eyes glistening, waiting, somehow, for something.

"His... heart," Richard repeated softly.

"I think, señor, that you will find what you are looking for there."

"What I am looking for, my young friend, is to be forgiven. And the only one who can forgive me... is... dead."

The boy's face drew yet closer. "No one is dead, in the heart of God."

Maybe it was the boy's open, innocent expression, or the simple but solid conviction in his soft, musical voice, but as soon as he'd spoken those words, Richard believed them. Believed him.

And the instant he did so, the boy seemed to know it. A sweet smile began to play across his lips, and he suddenly leaned forward through the remaining short distance from Richard, and he touched those lips, cool as mountain snow water, gentle as mist, touched them to Richard's forehead.

Which suddenly began to burn again.

Stunned by the tenderness of the boy's gesture, Richard began to cry, though he felt no tears actually flow.

The boy withdrew his smiling face up, away, and the dark into which he faded started to transfigure it, remold its beautiful young features into those of another.

Someone Richard never thought he would see again.

The shadow-washed face above him continued to smile, bright, brighter, the smile started to glow as though lit from within.

The darkness surrounding them both began to yield to the light of that smile, and the light radiated amber then silver then gold then diamond white and more brilliant than any light Richard had ever seen.

Richard's eyes drank in the light, without pain, even as the chill in his body departed from him and was replaced by warmth, then increasing heat, but heat which did not burn. He was afraid to blink for fear of missing a moment of the light, a single second of the transformation occurring before and around him.

The boy's smile became the sun, at the instant his face became that of Joel, glowing, radiant with affection, and, Richard saw unmistakably... forgiveness. And both face and room disappeared, were swallowed up, engulfed in the bursting, blazing brilliance of the Eye of God overhead.

Richard's final gasps carried upon them recognition, joy, and gratitude.

Naked, he reached out.

Up. His sunburst eyes flooded with light.

Alone in the desert, yet not alone, under the flashing conflagration of the molten desert sun, encircled in its fiery light, swathed in its purifying soul-penetrating rays, Richard knew he had found the Eye of God.

And the Heart of God.

And he found that they were one.

Copyright ã 1999 by Gene-Michael Higney


Gene-Michael Higney is a California writer of plays, short stories, humor and children's books. His most recent book is The Wacks Museum; Bios And Loonies And Fables (Oh, my!) (Crystal Dreams Publications) Some of his other recent work can be found online at www.anotherealm.com/aarealm/999/aar92299.html, www.advsys.co.uk/homepages/Chris/shortstr/higney.html and www.song-of-the-siren.net/zine/2003_04_01/licorice.html

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