"I often ponder how it feels to be burnt alive."
The nun eyed the ragtag man sitting beside her. The fluorescent lights of the soup kitchen glowed far from the seclusion of the alleyway, away from the solitude beside a garbage can. "You're suicidal?" She asked, as if she didn't already figure it out. She didn't. She hadn't figured out a lot of things.
The man nodded, a faded air of old glory in his movement. His eyes were charred black, and his fingers were red and purple, white scars like cracks in oceanic lava. "That's what the doctors say. Among other things, at least," he said. "When I had a doctor."
The nun smirked. "Count your blessings, my mother used to say," she jested, "Most of the people I've fed don't even have that."
His name was Elijah. She's fed a lot of people, a number without any names, but he's come to the soup kitchen and the church often enough for her to know. Sister Olivia, she told him her name was--but he never calls her Olivia. "Jezebel," he'd say, instead, whenever he came with his empty bowl. "It's nice to meet you again."
The other nuns thought him insolent. Olivia, she didn't know what to think. Off of her shifts, she'd see Elijah sit in the bench across the road, staring at her church. His ember skin glowed under the shade of a maple tree, and without fail, she’d find his eyes and he’d find hers.
Sometimes, she'd sit by him. "Would you like to come inside?" She asked, whenever she did, "You look like you could use a prayer."
He’d eye her, then, as if he was eyeing someone else. "Ain’t like you, Jezzie," he said, "to suggest prayer to a lunatic like me.”
Senility. Thats what it was, she realized. Either that or madness, which is just as plausible. But something in his eyes reminded her of the Man of God that came to her in her youth, breathing whiskey and Bible verses and stories of war. It was the first time she ever met with soldiers of faraway lands, the red bleeding from their foreheads and the absence of their graves.
There was war in Elijah's eyes. An undying flame, begging to be quenched.
"Are you afraid of me, Jezebel?" He once asked her in the same alleyway as before, with the same fluorescent lights glowing their way.
"No," she replied, without any correction. "Should I be?"
And he went silent for a moment, his hands in his pockets, clutching something. For the first time since the short week she met him, he pulled out a lighter. "Most people are."
Olivia only watched as the old man flicked it, hanging his fingers over the coming flame. He didn’t smell of nicotine or any other vice that would require a flame. She didn’t like pondering how else he could hurt himself with the thing. "Was I ever afraid of you?" She found herself asking, suddenly.
He was quiet. "Well, I remember," he chuckled. "You once told me: 'Why would I be afraid of a dog?'"
That was their relationship as a whole--slowly, Olivia adopted whatever Eli thought Jezebel would do, whatever Eli said she might do. She spoke with a higher, more elegant tone, as he said she was always a "harpy queen". She used more advanced words, because he once said she went to Harvard. She studied psychiatric phrases besides contemplating God, because he once said, "what did you say I suffered from? Sk--shi--schizopernia?" She even spoke more atheistically (God forgive her begotten soul), and slowly but surely, she became Ms. Dr. PhD. Jezebel Nolastname, a puppet of Elijah's memories.
And maybe she liked it. Maybe she liked being Jezebel, if only as an escape from the seminary. Elijah would always stare up at her church, but as long as her voice was high and her mind sharp, Jezebel bowed to no man's god. And just for a moment, Olivia didn't, either.
"I often ponder how it feels to be burnt alive."
The last time she heard Elijah say that, she had forgotten who she was. She had forgotten the Sister Olivia who was bound to a seat in heaven, a place beyond the pearly gates, and for a moment she pictured herself in the depths of hell. Olivia knew that there was more to hell than eternal flames, but Jezebel was clueless. All she had to console herself was the ineptitude of Eli’s mind: "Have you taken your medication yet?" She asked, "Your delusions might be returning. And you’ve only broken from yesterday’s catatonia now. Elijah?"
But his eyes were glassy, eternally staring up at the church Olivia once belonged to. Will belong to, as soon as she leaves his side. Once she woke from her short break of madness, she'd embrace another insanity entirely--something with cassocks, clutching at rosary beads.
But she wouldn't come back to that.
Because she was Jezebel, woken from a dream, while another sister shook her from her sleep. She was Jezebel in the uncharacteristic habits, running out of her room, finding herself in the midst of a burning worship. She was Jezebel, seeing hell, where Olivia only breathed at the back of her mind:
"As theLordapproached, a very powerful wind tore the mountains apart. It broke up the rocks. But theLordwasn’t in the wind--”
“Olivia,” a nun screamed at her from the front of the entrance, as Jezebel stood near the pews of the collapsing church. “Olivia! Get back here!”
“--After the wind there was an earthquake. But theLordwasn’t in the earthquake--”
“Elijah,” Jezebel cried out, then. There was bits of ash in her eyes, heat radiating from the burning benches in her left and right, as she ran through the aisle. She knew he was there. He had to be there. “Elijah!”
“--After the earthquake a fire came. But theLordwasn’t in the fire--”
This was all her fault. This was all her fault. She should’ve known better. She’d known him for all her career, she was trying to help him, and this was all her fault—
“I take it back,” she screamed, “I take it all back. I shouldn’t have brought you here. We can talk about this, Eli,” she looked to her side, up and down the aisle, meeting the eyes of Olivia’s sisters as she stared out the entrance. “Your god wouldn’t have wanted this. This isn’t you. This isn’t--”
“--and after the fire there was only a gentle whisper--”
"Jezebel," she heard someone say, "What are you doing here?"
And she saw him. She saw him, whilst all the sisters ran out screaming, she saw him standing where the altar used to be. "Elijah?" She whispered, "Elijah, why--"
“--and she said, 'I have been very zealous for the Lord, God of hosts. The Israelites have turned their backs on your covenant--'"
He was disappointed. She could see it from his eyes, but she didn't know if he was disappointed in her or himself. He looked up at the flames. "Don't you see Him, Jezebel?" He said. "Don't you feel His presence?"
She followed his gaze, and for the last time, she was Olivia again, closing her eyes. "But the Lord was not in the fire," she spoke. She turned to him. "You know that. Don't you?"
Elijah seemed entranced. Olivia balled her hands into fists. They have torn down your altars. She ran past fire and ash, up the altar and to his face. They’ve put your prophets to death with their swords. "Elijah," she hissed, grabbing him by the shoulders, "What are you doing here?"
But his eyes were hollow and charcoal, tears evaporating from the wells of his eyes. "You've said that already," he spoke, his voice a shudder, "She's said that already--"
She heard her sisters call to her from the door, and Elijah took her turn to grab her shoulders, his eyes filled with revelation. "Who are you?" He asked, "Why did you come here?"
"I'm Jezebel," she said, though she really wasn't, "Elijah, don't you--"
"Jezebel is dead." I’m the only one left.
Elijah glared at her. “But you knew that,” he said, “Didn’t you?”
And they are trying to kill me.
And that was his last words to her. Because before she could say another word, the pillars fell, fire raging down from the ceiling. And in the faintness of black, she thought she heard a whisper.