Christmas in Heaven
With his eyes shut the warmth of the sun on his skin felt like a dream. The salt breeze, soft and irregular as a low-church vicar, came and went to the beat of the sea on the pebbled shore. This was very close to heaven. Amis was right. Who would have guessed that lying on a beach could match sitting in the pub having an argument? Briefly contented, he sighed.
'Now all I need is a scotch and a Rothmans,' he said.
'Not bloody likely,' said the voice of Martin Amis, 'not in this place.'
Christopher Hitchens opened his eyes. On the chaise longue beside him lay Martin Amis, who didn’t look well these days even with a tan. And what were those bandages on his hands and feet all about?
‘What do you mean, “not really,” and by the way you look like hell.’
‘That’s an odd choice of words for a dead man.’
‘Don’t be absurd, and don’t change the subject. What do you mean, “not really”?’
‘I’m not absurd. And you are dead. That is entirely the subject.’
‘Oh, balls. And if you’re not Amis, then who are you?’
Amis sat up suddenly and turned towards him. He leaned forward, elbows on knees, and began unwrapping his right hand. In a few seconds he was done, and he held his hand out.
'Oh, I see,' Hitch said, staring at the large hole in the middle of the palm.
'At last,’ Amis said in mock revelation.
Hitch looked down at the pile of unwound bandage. Here and there were drops of blood, dark and reddish brown, blood that was old but somehow not dry. More was dripping down onto the pile as he watched. He found himself unable to take his eyes off the blood, but he clamped his jaw shut, pursed his lips, and thought for a moment. This was going to be a challenge, the argument of a lifetime, as it were. But when in doubt, always attack.
'If you think that I’m going to bow down and worship you now, then you don’t know the first thing about me. And you, sir, since you do exist, you have a lot to answer for.’
‘But I’ve already answered for everything that matters, haven’t I?’
Oh, please,’ he said, dropping his head into his hands in exasperation. Then he realized the voice had changed, though it was still somehow familiar. He glanced up, and saw Richard Dawkins, sitting precisely where Amis had been, now unwrapping his other hand.
‘Are these charades really necessary? I should have thought god would have a better sense of humor. I mean, who’s next, Mother Teresa?’
‘As a matter of fact I do, but Bob Hope stole all my best jokes,’ said Mother Teresa.
‘Well, you’re hardly alone there,’ Hitch said, laughing in spite of himself.
The pile of bandages was saturated now and a pool had begun to spread.
'Listen, if it’s all the same to you, is there no possibility of getting a drink and a smoke around here? I mean, really, who could it hurt now?’
‘Sorry, smoking and drinking are just not permitted,’ Mother Teresa said, unwrapping her left foot. Orwell got used to it. So can you.’
‘ “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it”.’
‘Marlowe is always such a nice choice for a quote,’ Jesus said, unwrapping his right foot, ‘and that one’s always been my favorite. Though most people never get beyond “is this the face….” and so on. Of course, I knew you’d do better.’
‘Yes, of course you did.’
Hitch looked down again.
‘Would you mind not bleeding so much? It’s getting on me.’
‘My blood has been on you all your life,’ said Jesus.
‘Yes, yes, yes. Washed in the blood of the lamb and all that rot. Please, stop talking like a bad biblical epic – and don’t turn into Charlton Heston, if you please – let’s just get this over with. Can I just go to hell now? At least I’ll be able to smoke there.’
‘But there is no hell, Christopher. That’s what washed in the blood of the lamb means.’
‘No hell?’ he looked at Jesus sidelong with all the uncertainty of a man of reason by reason betrayed. ‘I don’t know whether that’s a relief or not.’
The son of God spread his hands, as if to say, ‘you’ll have to decide that for yourself.’
'But there is Purgatory,' said Jesus, with a quick nod and a wink.
Everything went black. The sun, the sea, that wonderful breeze were all gone. He was confined in a dark and narrow place, where he could scarcely move or breathe. What? Where...was...he?
‘Don’t worry, Christopher,' Jesus said. ‘This won’t last as long as it seems.’
It was quiet after that for a long time, peaceful almost, until the muffled endless drone of Christmas carols seeped in. Not even the decent ones, but the others, the saccharine vomitus of diseased minds, songs like ‘Walking in a Winter Wonderland.’ And he called this Purgatory? A hubbub of voices also came through, but nothing he could distinguish. Then it was silent once more. This happened over and over again for what seemed like weeks.
Suddenly the place he was in started moving, and the nausea he felt without any point of reference on which to ground his senses brought back the memory of how awful his illness had been. Then it all stopped, and light flooded in on him.
But it was not the light of freedom or paradise or revelation. At least he hoped not. He was in a room painted a brilliant shade of yellow so sickly it reminded him of jaundice. Morning streamed in through open curtains, illuminating a four poster bed covered in American Girl® dolls and a Hello Kitty® comforter. A little girl’s room. After a moment Hitch noticed something strange about the dolls: none of them had arms. Elsewhere in the house he could hear a child screaming and breaking things. A cat snarled in torment. Bending over Hitch were two women, clearly a mother and daughter. They seemed like giants.
‘So what is it?’ said the elder.
‘I got it at the mall, ma. It’s supposed to frighten children into behaving themselves.’
‘That was always my favorite thing about Christmas,’ the mother said, brimming with fond memory. ‘You have permission to scare your kids.'
Her daughter’s eyes narrowed at her for a moment, as if bitter with the ghost of Christmases past.
'So, what’s this thing called, honey?’
“Elf on the Shelf®, ma,’ she said. ‘It’s called Elf on the Shelf®.’
‘BALLS!’ shouted Hitch, but no one in the room was listening.