“Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.”
— John Milton, Paradise Lost: Book I (1667)
Lucifer was sitting alone at a rear table in the least horrible coffee shop in all of Hell, sipping something that was only slightly like thrice-warmed dog shit. He was contemplating the first total silence he had heard since the invention of the place when he became aware of the person before him. Anger reared itself within him, strong and pure, as it always did in the presence of the Old Man, but for the first time since the Dawn, he pushed it back. He would control himself. The Old Man visited so infrequently that the mere mention of His name sent murmurs throughout the Pit. Besides, given what had just happened, he was admittedly curious as to what the Old Man had to say.
“Mind if I sit?” the Old Man asked. Always so polite, damn Him. Even here, in this forsaken place, He observed the pleasantries. The Morningstar wanted to hate Him, so he did.
Motioning towards the seat across from him, he grunted noncommittally. Sit if you damned well like to, he seemed to be saying. See if I care. But, he knew that the Old Man could see right through him, knew that he wanted — needed — Him to sit, just to be in His view again,to be warmed by His light in this cold place, and it made his hate a physical thing. Damn, damn, damn! He wanted to curse and to spit, but he would not. He wanted to look the Old Man in the eyes for the first time in ages, but he could not. He simply eyed his coffee instead, clenched tightly in his red-knuckled fist.
“Something to drink, Old Man?” Lucifer asked angrily, cocky as ever. “Everything tastes like piss, but it’s what I’ve got.” He took a large mouthful of coffee for emphasis and grimaced inwardly. He couldn’t even remember what “good” tasted like anymore.
“Thank you, I’m fine,” the Old Man replied, taking the offered seat. “I’ve just come to talk, if I may.”
Taking another gulp of coffee, Lucifer could see the Old Man’s hands over the rim of the cup, and the sight hurt him, like phantom daggers to the eyes and soul. Embracing a small bit of his anger, he growled, “Well, go on then. It’s not like I have all day, now is it?”
He could feel the tolerant smile spreading itself out upon the Old Man’s face without having to see it. Always so understanding and forgiving, even of His most hotheaded and outspoken of children. He could spit.
“You know why I’m here,” the Old Man started.
“Yes,” Lucifer interrupted. “After their ‘Big Crunch,’ I had them, nearly all of them if my numbers were to tell. You couldn’t just let me have them, though, could you? You had to let them earn their way out. ‘Another level of penitence,’ or some such nonsense! The last of them left today. For the first time since the Dawn, there are no Damned in Hell. The impossible has finally happened. Even the worst sinner from my deepest, darkest pit has paid their price, been redeemed and forgiven. Even the rest of the Fallen have gone back to you, and you wanted to come down here and rub it in.”
That damned smile again. He’s forgiving me that tirade. Curse his mercies!
“No,” the Old Man said, his voice smooth and soothing, like velvet from the lips. “I’m not here to rub anything in. Not my way. And the last of them isn’t gone, yet.”
The Old Man made a slight gesture with his fingers, and between them appeared a cup, the inviting smell of hot chocolate emanating from it so wonderful and powerful as to even make the master of this place salivate. He would not drink it; would not allow himself to drink it. In pure spite, he would leave it where it sat, and finish his own foul drink .
“Why are you here?” the Lord of Hell growled around the mouthful of bile the coffee brought up. A worm wiggled in his guts, and all of his hate was refocused at himself. All of his pride and surety fractured within him, because, try as he might, he found within a slight flickering ember of the rarest commodity in all of Hell: Hope. In the burned-out, wretched hulk of his soul, he knew what was coming, and he found himself wanting it more than anything in all of Creation.
And then the Old Man said it: “I’ve come to bring you home. If you want to go.”
So simple a statement for so mammoth a gesture.
His breath caught in his throat, and the Morningstar found that he could not even think straight. Home. The Light. It was nearly too much to contemplate, too much to take in, even for someone like him, who could imagine the boundaries of infinity.
“No,” he croaked out, his voice strained, painful. Home. He sighed slightly, too full of his downfall to even acknowledge the pain that he felt.
“I think you’d better go now, Old Man. I’m not ready to apologize yet.”
As quickly as the words left his mouth he was alone, with a cup of ignored hot chocolate and an aching in his heart the only evidence that anyone had been there at all. For a long time he sat there, sipping his coffee, king of an empty kingdom, cold and alone with his Pride.
— for Naomi and Eleanor
Harding McFadden is a milkman who lives in PA with his family and thousands of books.