Time was running out; Fake Elvis did not seem to understand the urgency of the situation. In fact, he was so oblivious to it that Stella was dangerously close to grabbing his cheap guitar and smashing it violently on top of his slick black hair.
“…for you can’t help falling in love with each other,” the impersonator slowly spoke, his overbearing enunciation betraying a certain level of drunkenness.
“Can’t we go through this any quicker?” insisted Stella. “It’s not like there’s anything official about the ceremony anyway.”
Her insistence seemed to threaten whatever dignity was left in him. Couples getting married on a whim were known to be impatient, but this level of restlessness reached new heights. He continued, annoyed.
“If we must. Do you, Stella, take Yue as your semi-lawfully wedded husband and promise to love him tender for the rest of your life?”
She stared intensely into Yue’s deep blue eyes. He looked more handsome than ever under the dim glow of the Christmas lights hanging from the walls of the claustrophobic Vegas chapel. Under any other circumstances, the situation would have repulsed her. Getting married in the City of Sin wasn’t on her bucket list. Neither was gambling away her entire life savings, and yet that did not stop her from doing it that night. None of it mattered. She knew it would soon be over. Might as well go out in blazing glory, marrying the man she had loved for the past three years.
“And you, Yue, do you take Stella as your semi-lawfully wedded wife and promise to love her sweet for the rest of your life?”
Yue did not need to ponder the question. He answered within a millisecond.
“I do, for as short as it may be.”
Fake Elvis was puzzled by the statement. For as short as it may be? That must have been the most pessimistic line he had ever heard during a ceremony. Sure enough, most of the newlyweds he joined in matrimony separated within two months, but at least they had enough good faith to pretend like it would last forever while exchanging vows.
What Elvis did not know was that Yue had insider information. Originally working as a spy for the Enemy, he had crossed over to work as a double agent for the Organization out of love for Stella, who was a new recruit at the time. The fires of passion burned feverishly between the two star-crossed agents, although the relationship had to remain a secret. There was something exhilarating about the midnight rendez-vous and the illicit meetings, an excitement that stemmed from the fragments of broken rules and fueled the flames of desire keeping their devotion alive. Alas, Yue had uncovered fateful news from the Enemy that morning: an attack was coming, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. It was too well-planned, too meticulously coordinated. Soon, the American land would be nothing but a long stretch of desolate fields covered in brimstone and ashes.
The sudden nuclear threat wasn’t much of a surprise. The Enemy had gotten increasingly belligerent lately. Last year, they even went as far as having the Chief of the Organization assassinated by some hitman during a rally. No matter how hard the Organization had tried to retaliate, it was useless. The Enemy’s technological arsenal had grown exponentially, outpacing by far the Organization’s evolution.
And so there was urgency. Yue and Stella could not accept to die without being married to each other. Their love was stronger than bombs and could withstand the blow of a thousand doomsdays. The blood might boil out of their bodies under the strike, but it would leave behind amorous vapors of passion consecrated by their union, as short as it may be.
“Hurry up!” yelled out Stella, her exasperation now beyond control.
Elvis caught a glimpse of her murderous gaze and knew she meant business. It was no ordinary bride he was dealing with, but a fierce mercenary fighting to get a final fleeting instant of happiness.
“By the powers vested in me under the Jolly Holiday Hotel’s wedding license, I pronounce you husband and wife. You may now kiss the bride.”
The moment had come. After three long years of secrecy, they could finally seal their relationship out in the open, in front of everyone (everyone being Fake Elvis, but hey, at least they weren’t alone). They both leaned forward, hearts beating in unison, ready for their lips to join. It was then, as their mouths were a mere inch away from each other, that the chapel was obliterated by a blinding light. It all melted away in a matter of seconds: the walls, the Christmas lights, the guitar, the flesh, the bones…
Dozens of nuclear mushrooms rose up above the horizon in the distance. As expected, all that was left of the Vegas landscape was a long stretch of desolate fields covered in brimstone and ashes.
The newlyweds stood barefoot in the clear water of an oasis, stranded in the middle of the desert, eyes tightly shut. Their lips were still suspended in mid-air, frozen in time. Instinctively, both of them knew something had changed but refused to admit it. They kept getting closer, magnetically pulled towards each other.
“You may not kiss her before the Judgement.”
The voice came out of nowhere and sent a shiver down their spines. They backed away instantly, looking left and right in search of its source. A man dressed in a bright red tunic observed them quietly from the outer edge of the oasis, a set of weighing scales in his right hand.
“If one of your souls is corrupted,” the man followed, “the kiss could contaminate the other. We wouldn’t want the two of you in Hell for the price of one.”
“Who are you?” blurted out Stella, in shock at the sudden change in scenery. They definitely weren’t in Nevada anymore, and although she couldn’t have guessed it possible a moment before, the sight of this stranger made her miss Fake Elvis terribly.
“The Judge, of course.”
She inspected her surroundings closer. It was as if they were enclosed by an infinite sea of sand. A harsh sun shone on them from the haunting blue sky, yet they did not sweat, for their bodies were now different. Blood did not flow through their veins anymore. Rubbing their index fingers against their thumbs produced no sensation whatsoever. Any sense of smell had vanished. Stella stared at her beloved Yue with a hint of sadness.
“Are we… dead?”
“I… I don’t know,” he replied with melancholy.
“Of course you are,” interrupted the Judge.
He waved his left hand above the surface of the water and a vision suddenly appeared under the mirror-like sheath of fluid, right below their feet. It was a sight of desolation: a black burnt ground riddled with embers. Humanity was no more.
“That’s all there is left?” whispered Stella, unable to raise her voice.
“Nothing more, nothing less,” answered the Judge, completely devoid of any feeling. “You were expecting it, of course. Weren’t you?”
“Expecting it and seeing it are two different things,” muttered Yue under his breath. “I thought being dead would feel… different. Is this what the afterlife is like?”
The Judge lifted his scales, and the earth quaked. Behind Stella, a gigantic staircase rose from the sand, spiralling up towards the High Heavens. On the other side, behind Yue, a dune collapsed into a cave, in which another set of stairs led into a fiery abyss glowing with orange flames.
“It is a temporary stop,” continued the Judge. “While we proceed with the Judgement. Let’s do this quickly, please. Lots of souls waiting to be processed today. Who shall go first?”
The collapsed dune had sent Yue into a trance. He was petrified, barely able to keep standing. The stairway to Hell was right before him, and it was unspeakably terrifying. What if? What if this is where he was destined to go?
Stella felt the fear rising inside her beau. Ever the intrepid, she resolved to go first to inspire him with confidence and stepped in front of the Judge with defiance in her eyes.
“We shall need a strand of your hair,” he said calmly.
She plucked his request from her scalp and handed it to him.
“No need for me to touch it. You must be the one dropping it into the pan. I’ll take care of this.”
He pulled out a white feather with his free hand, hovering it over the left pan. It seemed so soft, so light, like purity in material form.
“We must drop it at the same time,” he added. “Get ready.”
“For the record,” said Stella, “I’m not evil. Whatever happens, I know I’m not.”
“This isn’t about good or evil. It is about the weight on your conscience.”
Both of them were prepared. As soon as she began to see his fingers letting go, Stella dropped the strand. The hair and the feather hit their respective pan at the exact same time, and the scales oscillated up and down, keeping the young woman’s eyes riveted. Had her heart still been capable of beating, her blood would have pumped at a mind-boggling speed, defying the established norms of physiology. They finally settled: the feather was heavier.
Stella sighed with relief, collapsing into the sand.
“Well done,” spoke the Judge softly. “There is no weight on your conscience. You may go up the stairway to Heaven.”
She hurried towards the upward stairs but froze just as she was about to land on the first step. Yue was still in the water, staring blankly at the fiery pit.
“I’ll wait for my husband,” Stella proudly declared. “I want that kiss so our souls can move on in marriage.”
“Very well,” said the Judge with a grin. “Will the groom please join me?”
Yue’s head mechanically pivoted to face the man in the red tunic. There was nothing welcoming about the invitation, as if his fate was already sealed. He had no desire to move forward, but Stella was right there waiting for him, her face filled with hope and encouragement. The only woman he ever loved… how could he possibly let her down? He could tell she was already over the moon at the idea of spending eternity in Heaven with him.
Slowly, he walked through the oasis and reached the sandy edge, plucking a strand of hair from his head and hovering it over the scales. The same ritual took place. Several seconds of oscillatory anticipation followed, leading up to a different outcome: the hair was heavier. Stella gasped.
“Impossible!” she yelled out in disbelief.
“There is great weight on your conscience,” declared the Judge. “You cannot possibly enter Heaven with this on your shoulders.”
The shock rippled through Yue until his knees flinched. He fell backwards into the oasis, getting wet from head to toe.
“I object!” blurted out Stella, ready to plead her boyfriend’s case with more intensity than an actress in a legal drama. “I have been in a relationship with this man for three years, and he wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Is that so?” calmly asked the Judge.
At these words, another vision formed into the oasis. Yue peered into it. It was a memory. A memory of him, holding a rifle; pointing it at the Chief of the Organization, who was standing on a stage; and pulling the trigger. He couldn’t tell what was worse: reliving this memory, or seeing Stella’s reaction.
“You were the hitman?” she said, barely keeping it together. “You betrayed us. I thought you were on our side now.”
“I was… on your side,” he whispered. “Not theirs.”
Had her dead self been able to cry, tears would have started to flow down her cheeks. She stepped away from him, three years of lies condensing into a storm of resentment inside her mind.
“I can’t believe this. I almost married a traitor.”
“I tried to tell you, I swear.”
She took a deep breath and turned her back to him. “I guess this means we can never have that kiss.”
Yue could bear her looks of shame no longer. He turned his back as well and walked towards the stairway to Hell, like a man on death row heading for the gallows. Just as he was reaching the first step, Stella glanced one last time into the oasis. To her surprise, the memory was transforming. It now formed into a vision of the first stroll they took together in the park at midnight, hiding from Organization officials. Then it shifted into their holiday in Venice; their morning breakfast by the Mediterranean; their vows, right in front of Fake Elvis.
Her heart pumped blood again, just for a single beat. It was enough to remind her of what Yue had been trying to express: their loyalties were to each other, not to organizations at war. She ran towards him at light speed and locked her lips with his.
“Or maybe it makes me a traitor too,” she muttered in his ear.
He beamed, and his blood pumped for a single heartbeat too. They had faced Hell together before. They could face it again.
“So,” she grinned, “aren’t you going to lift me up for our honeymoon?”
She didn’t have to ask twice: Yue picked her up in his arms, holding on to her as if his afterlife depended on it, and they headed down the spiral staircase leading down to the infernal pit. Together.
Speechless, the Judge observed as their silhouettes vanished into the flames. Never before had someone surrendered their place in Heaven, but there was no time to ponder it, for many souls were waiting for the Judgement. He summoned the next one. Fake Elvis materialized in the middle of the oasis.
“Where am I?” the impersonator asked blindly, too confused to know where to look. “I feel… all shook up.”
Oh dear, thought the Judge. To think I have billions more like this coming.